Melanie Moreno: Reef Foundation

  • Melanie Moreno

By Alan Throop & Melanie Moreno (graphics & photos from program as noted)

Photo by Linda Phillips

Photo by Linda Phillips

At our February General Meeting, Melanie Moreno presented a fun and interactive program on REEF (Reef Environmental Educational Foundation)… similar to – but not to be confused with – “Reef Check” that also performs reef surveys.  Melanie  wanted to give back to the marine life that she had enjoyed for many years.  She also often wanted to “have a purpose” for a dive, so found that the simple process that REEF uses was easy to incorporate into her regular dives.

Both REEF and Reef Check are great organizations and are focused on “Citizen Science” to provide high quality marine survey data on the quantity and distributions of marine populations, which can then be used by scientists for their research and publications. Both support surveys done around the world. Both upload their data to the internet for public access, but they differ in their methodology and level of training, with Reef Check requiring a higher level of training and diving proficiency.

REEF surveys utilize a simpler survey method and a different methodology to assure that the data is accurate and useful to science. It does this by assuring that the confidence in each observation is high (instead of rigorous training), reviewing the data before acceptance, and cross-checking the data against many, similar observations to assure the accuracy of the observation. The methodology of the program to collect and analyze the data was designed in conjunction with marine scientists form NOAA, the University of Miami, and the Nature Conservancy. Melanie pointed out that over 50 published scientific papers have used the REEF data.

One does not have to be an expert to get started, however, so the training is minimal. A diver simply reports only those observations and counts that are made with (essentially) 100% confidence. Thus, one can start with only 1-2 species that you can recognize for sure, and then built up your repertoire as you gain more experience and knowledge. The observations include species of fish, invertebrate, and algae.  One also does not have to lay a transect line with a tape and count the species in a volume of space. Instead, one simply estimates (by “abundance”) the number of species that you observe as you meander on your dive.  So since you can just make this part of your usual dive, you can do this anywhere, anytime, at any site, and even on snorkel.

Instead of counting exact numbers, you record only an “abundance” value:  “Single”, “Few” (2-10), “Many” (11-100), or “Abundant” (>100). Thus, it’s easy to incorporate into a regular dive; the only additional hardware needed is a slate/paper that you carry with you to record your observations. These photos show an example survey sheet for California, which lists about 101 species for which you simply mark the abundance. California is diverse enough that some species you will not see on your dive … e.g., Garibaldis or Bluebanded Gobys in Monterey. The survey sheets can be made yourself on a slate or you can purchase erasable waterproof paper sheets at REEF.

Registering is easy at ; only a username and email address is needed to open your own REEF account. Submitting your data is also easy; you simply  transfer the information from your sheet into the similar-looking on-line data sheet. You have your own account so that you can easily review your dives and data. You can also look at the accumulated REEF data in many ways to, for example, know what you might expect to see in a new dive area.

Melanie noted that after you upload your data, it is reviewed for quality by a local REEF manager for that region, to be sure that there are no suspicious outliers in your data – either from mistaken identifications or in transcribing the data. The REEF manager sees a lot of data and becomes familiar with what you should be seeing. They will contact you with any questions (and HAS called Melanie) … it’s just part of the educational process and experience.

As you grow in your knowledge of marine life, you simply increase the quantity of your data by marking more species that you now recognize with high confidence.  While REEF gets survey data from all over the world, it has a separate survey group for California.  The survey sheets are region-specific; for example, in the California Region (“Region 4”), the survey sheets contain species specific to our region, while that in Cozumel would have different species listed.  So you can simply learn to recognize an extra specie or two each dive to expand your knowledge. Melanie suggested some books shown here for our area (she particularly likes “Beneath Pacific Tides”) and there are books for other regions that REEF suggests on their website as well.

A fun part of doing REEF surveys is that your growth in knowledge and experience is formally recognized by your “experience level”. While Reef Check has a very intense and thorough certification (and annual re-certification) process after which you can immediately perform a survey, REEF allows you to more slowly build up your certification level, which is reflected in the data analysis as improved confidence in your data.

Melanie showed some of the resources that are provided by REEF to become a better surveyor such as books, on-line training, identification charts, practice recognition quizzes, etc.  REEF also sponsors trips to do surveys around the world.   They have an “Invasive Species Program”, to address the Atlantic Lionfish, for example, and an exotic/non-native sighting program. They have “Fishinars” for on-line education, as well as a monthly seminar series.   As you can see, you can involve yourself to whatever level you have time and interest.

Melanie took some fun time at the close of her talk to hand out some survey sheets and do a pretend-survey by showing slides of some local species, to gain some experience about how a survey is so-easily done and recorded. The slides were of well-known species and a lot of members seemed to do pretty well. Even tracking these well-known species is useful to record, as tracking their abundance over time reflects things like changing ocean conditions (climate change), recovery from an acute event (kelp recovery from purple urchin explosion, rapid change in a specie’s population), etc.

We thank  Melanie for educating us about REEF and for sharing her experiences with us.

She offered to let us know of future special REEF dives in our area, but she is also happy to take anyone out on a practice REEF dive anytime they wish, so just contact her at She also dives with the Monterey Sea Otters,  who have “adopted” San Carlos beach and do an underwater and topside cleanup dive several times a year (see the January Tooter for a dive report), so you can see her there as well!