December 17, 2020

Reflections from a Volunteer Coordinator: My First Field Season with Reef Check

By Dillon Dolinar, Reef Check California’s Southern California Volunteer Coordinator

Dillon Dolinar

As I think back on my first year as the Southern California Volunteer Coordinator, it is safe to say that this field season didn’t start how I envisioned it. My first weeks with Reef Check were spent adapting to a rapidly changing world brought on by the threat of the novel Coronavirus. Instead of spending spring at the annual Instructors’ retreat and training our newest batch of eager divers, we were forced to spend the time creating new safety protocols in an unsteady world and catching up on three years of data entry.

This ultimately proved extremely valuable for me as a newbie to Reef Check. Entering data from sites across the state made me become intimately familiar with not only the structure of datasheets, but also the quality of data as well. As someone who had never personally sized a fish before, it proved remarkably helpful to get to know the common size ranges of the different fish species before I was tasked with sizing them myself. I was also able to familiarize myself with the ecology of each site and see which sites had the greatest biodiversity and number of indicator species. This time also served as a helpful reminder that more of a marine ecologist’s time is spent in front of their computer than actually in the water!

Dillon Dolinar

Thankfully, the Southern California region was able to resume surveying in mid-July, due to the tireless efforts of all of the Reef Check staff members who created protocols to allow us to survey safely. We began by surveying reefs in San Diego, which was a great way for me to get comfortable with Reef Check diving because I am from San Diego and have dived many of the sites before. These sites were followed by surveys in Orange County, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite some serious hiking in our gear at Little Corona Del Mar. The reefs had beautiful pinnacles that shot upwards next to towering Giant Kelp plants. 

After one more weekend of surveying in San Diego, it came time to venture to the Northern Channel Islands to survey Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. I had never visited these islands, so I was ecstatic to begin surveying. During the first two days of the trip, Mother Nature did not cooperate, and we were only able to survey two sites. Thankfully, on our third and final day, the weather cleared up for us, and we were able to successfully survey four sites in one day! This really speaks volumes about our Reef Check volunteers. They were willing to battle through two days of rough seas in order to help us collect valuable data. 

Dillon Dolinar

Anacapa Island is the smallest island that we monitor within the Northern Channel Islands, but what I saw there had the biggest impact on me of any area that we surveyed all year. The front side of Anacapa is a marine protected area (MPA) while the backside is open to fishing, and I immediately noticed the difference. Just along this five-mile long island, we saw two completely different reefs. The reefs within the MPA had a pristine kelp forest full of biodiversity and an abundance of organisms, but the reef on the other, unprotected, side of the island (just a mile boat ride away) had areas that were being transformed into urchin barrens. We even had a fish transect where we did not record any fish. It was profound how noticeably healthier the ecosystem was within the protected area. This was my first time seeing such a drastic difference firsthand, and the images from that dive will continue to stay with me and motivate me to advocate for sustainable fishery management. 

Following the Channel Islands trip, we had a successful weekend of surveying in Palos Verdes aboard the Bottom Scratcher. This led straight into a massive push to survey 17 sites in six days throughout Malibu and around Catalina Island. Although I had witnessed the incredible work ethic, grit, and determination of our volunteers at many other points throughout the field season, it was during this six-day period where they shined the brightest. As someone who has worked with a good number of marine ecologists, I can say with confidence that not all of them would have been able to keep up with our incredible volunteers during that trip! I was inspired by their willingness to tackle any task that needed to be done, and I was immensely proud of each and every one of them. 

Now that I have completed my first field season with Reef Check California, I can’t help but think about how thankful I am to be working with one of the global leaders in citizen science. During this trying year, it has been rejuvenating to see people with no formal scientific background be so passionate and play such an important and active role in scientific research. I am eager to see what next year has in store and can’t wait to dive with our Reef Check family again soon.