February 25, 2022

Remembering Dirk Burcham, Reef Check California Diver and 2013 Citizen Scientist of the Year

By Colleen Wisniewski, Former Reef Check Southern California Regional Manager

Dirk Burcham between dives, 2012

The Southern California diving world recently lost an invaluable member with the passing of Dirk Burcham. Dirk’s passion for citizen science was an integral part of the first 10 years of the Reef Check California program. I was lucky to work closely with Dirk over my 9 years at Reef Check and for a few years prior during a kelp restoration project at the California Coastkeeper Alliance.  Dirk and I spent a lot of time together on multi-day boat trips, training new Reef Check divers, discussing logistics and of course, underwater. Dirk is who I spent the majority of my time with at work during many diving seasons. As a matter of fact, when I was interviewing for my job at Reef Check back in 2007, I joined a weekend-long trip to Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands during rough conditions with a seasoned group of veteran Reef Check divers. Thankfully, Dirk was there with his frequent dive buddy, Ted Sharshan, and they welcomed me with big smiles and made sure I felt part of the team. 

Gearing up for a day of diving on the DFW boat in 2008

I’ll never forget my very first multi-day trip on the small Department of Fish and Wildlife boat in fall of 2008. These trips were typically a team of 4 or 5 divers, plus one boat captain on a small boat. On the first day, after a somewhat rough crossing to Santa Rosa Island, we completed our first survey site by doing a few dives as a team of 4 divers. We were feeling pretty accomplished, had anchored up for the night and were getting ready to cook up a delicious dinner when our UCSB dive buddy told me he felt like he was coming down with the flu – and we had three more days of diving planned on this small boat. After a quick chat with the captain, we quickly decided to skip dinner, pull anchor and drive all the way back to Ventura in the dark to drop off our sick diver. After a quick trip to the grocery store in the middle of the night for supplies, we thoroughly sanitized the boat, spent a few hours sleeping in the harbor and then drove back to the islands at sunrise. Our mighty team of three divers (me, Dirk and Bill Golden) and Captain Ray spent 3 long, but successful, days surveying the islands. I have fond memories of our final day where I was met with amazing conditions and a friendly harbor seal for some unforgettable dives on the backside of Anacapa Island with my trusty team of buddies. 

Dirk was always up for a challenge or to try something new. He participated in the first Reef Check expedition to Isla Natividad. Reef Check teamed up with two other organizations, the fishing Cooperativa Buzos y Pescadores and the Mexico based environmental group Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), to run the first recreational dive trip to Isla Natividad in the fall of 2009. This small Pacific island located on the west coast of northern Baja California Sur, Mexico, is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. The trip was part of a project to use non-fishing activities to earn income for the fishing Cooperativa and pay part of the cost of operating the two marine reserves. While this island is beautiful with amazing diving in thick kelp forests, the area was not really set up for typical dive expeditions for tourists, but Dirk was up for the adventure.

Training Police Divers at Catalina Island

In 2009, I had the unique opportunity to work with the Port of Los Angeles Police Dive team to train them to perform Reef Check surveys. I needed someone with a flexible schedule to assist me and Dirk jumped at the opportunity. After a few weeks of training the team, we finally got to perform our first survey in Los Angeles harbor at a site surrounded by cranes and trucks and lined by giant chunks of quarry rock. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of clear water or marine life – honestly, I was preparing for some very unpleasant diving conditions, but I knew that Dirk was my trusty dive buddy and that we could handle it. We were met with 25-foot visibility (if you didn’t stir up the very fine sediment on the bottom) and loads of invertebrates and fish. Of course, it was a bit different from our usual sites in that there was a fair bit of noise underwater any time a tugboat or a container ship passed by. But it was very interesting to get a glimpse at what goes on underwater in the port and to experience it with Dirk.

Dirk, with Reef Check Board Member Mike Schechter and Reef Check Executive Director Jan Freiwald, receives the 2013 Citizen Scientist of the Year Award

Dirk and I probably did hundreds of dives together. Sometimes in great conditions (like at Casino Point or Anacapa Island) and sometimes in challenging and surgy conditions (on a boat off La Jolla, Laguna or on the annual Mega Malibu trips). I could always count on Dirk to be reliable, prepared and pragmatic. He was always up for a new challenge. Dirk was solid in so many ways – impeccable with datasheets, helpful in being a data captain, assisting in planning logistics for how to tackle a site, giving input on new methods and willing to do whatever it took underwater (with safety always being first!) to get it done and always with a practical and matter of fact demeanor. I knew I could always count on Dirk and I often felt like we could read each other’s minds underwater. Dirk was one of my all-time favorite dive buddies and I always knew what to expect with him.

Dirk, Golden Slate winner for 2008 season with Colleen Wisniewski

Dirk also loved the non-diving/academic part of our work. He was a member of the Scientific Advisory Team that assisted in the development of the Reef Check California survey protocol in the early days. He worked with the Aquarium of the Pacific to bring the Reef Check methods to their diving program. And he reached out to me about working together to submit an abstract and presentation for the inaugural conference of the Citizen Science Association, which took place in San Jose in early 2015.

Dirk didn’t look for recognition for his efforts – he was a humble guy who just liked to get the work done well. And wow, did he get the work done! For several years in a row, Dirk completed the most survey dives of all the volunteers. He received not only the coveted golden slate award, but also the golden transect, golden calipers, golden fin and golden abalone. I ran out of things to spray paint gold! He wasn’t in it for the awards, but I wanted to be able to show my appreciation for all his hard work and dedication and he was always a good sport by accepting another homemade award. Finally, in 2013, Dirk was named the Citizen Scientist of the Year at the Reef Check Gala, where he got a proper award and I finally got a chance to meet his family and thank them for sharing Dirk with all of us. 

I left Reef Check in fall 2016 and had planned to assist with trainings in 2017, but an injury kept me out of the water that year. Since then, I’ve missed visiting my favorite dive sites and seeing the dedication and enthusiasm from all the Reef Check volunteers. Dirk Burcham was the ultimate citizen science diver during my time with Reef Check and I’m so incredibly thankful and lucky to have been his dive buddy and friend all those years. And I know there are several long-term Reef Check divers that feel the same way. We’ll miss you, Dirk.

Mega Malibu team 2007
Dirk at the annual instructor-partner retreat at Catalina Island 2012
Celebrating 4 days of successful surveys on the DFW boat in 2008
Getting ready for shore diving in OC 2007
Dirk – all star dive volunteer and celebrity 2007
Golden transect and silver slate winners for 2011 season – Dirk and Ted Sharshan
Diving on the DFG boat at the Channel Islands
Sunrise departure in LA Harbor