Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Monte Costa
What’s the difference between a surgeonfish and a unicorn fish? A few first-time snorkelers at Kapalua Bay on Maui are about to find out. Liz Foote, a youthful marine biologist, zips up her shorty wetsuit and wades into the water with the snorkelers. She’s their teacher—and one of several ichthyologists in the Islands who offer fish identification workshops on behalf of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF).
One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish: The REEF program enlists Hawai'i's recreational snorkelers and divers in its efforts to keep track of life in local waters.
Straight away her group spots a brilliant yellow tang darting above the cauliflower-shaped coral. This tang belongs to the surgeonfish family—a fact that’s made apparent by the single white scalpel, or spine, near the tang’s tail. Unicorn fish have two spines; before long the group sees an orange-spined unicorn fish paddling past. It’s pewter gray and sports baboon lips and a telltale pair of tangerine scalpels. Forty-five minutes and a few hundred fish later, the snorkelers emerge jubilant. Rattling off species names, they mark on waterproof slates how many of each they saw. Back home they’ll upload the data to the REEF website.
“You don’t need a PhD to make important observations and contribute relevant data,” says Foote. REEF’s international grassroots campaign enlists recreational snorkelers and divers as citizen scientists, teaching them to identify common fish species, then engaging them to follow up with data collection.
Foote helped launch REEF in Hawai‘i, adapting the protocols for local waters. Fewer species are found here than in the Caribbean, but a number of Hawaiian fish are endemic, meaning they exist nowhere else on Earth. This uniqueness underscores the significance of accurate identification. Since February 2001, volunteers have uploaded nearly ten thousand surveys documenting life on Hawaiian reefs, useful statistics referenced by resource managers and researchers. Ambitious volunteers can complete proficiency quizzes to ascend in ranking from novice to expert. “When you reach the expert level, you can join special scientific expeditions,” says Foote. With 233 surveys under her weight-belt, she trails top-ranked surveyors who’ve logged six hundred-plus. What motivates them? According to scuba diver Mike Elam, “It allows you to participate, to become a scientist and an explorer.”