Stewards of the Deep: Citizen Divers are Sharing Valuable Data

By Colleen Armstrong
The Islands’ Sounder 

Ever wondered about the creatures living beneath the surface of the sea?

Now you can find out what aquatic wildlife is residing in just about every nook and cranny of the San Juan Islands – all with the click of a mouse. REEF, a nonprofit based out of Florida, has been connecting divers across the globe through its online database of marine sightings.

“They are our eyes underwater,” said Joe Gaydos, chief scientist for the SeaDoc Society, which is part of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and has been partnering with REEF’s diving program since 2002.

With varying levels of training, the divers are able to record the fish and invertebrates they encounter. The data are organized by region and sighting frequency. While some of the local data are collected by islanders, many of the surveys are completed by visiting divers. Gaydos says the database is a great tool for gathering information as well as creating stewards of the environment within the diving community. SeaDoc intends to use the data to publish papers, report to the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee and foster community awareness.

“It is really cool that average citizens can participate, but there is also so much scientific and outreach potential,” he said.

Anyone can view the data on www.reef.org. You pick the region and there are detailed findings – including color photos – of species spotted in the San Juans. Whether it’s near Bell Island or Doe Bay or Lime Kiln, you are likely to find what is living under the water right outside your door.

It is really cool that average citizens can participate but there is also so much scientific and outreach potential.
— Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc Society chief scientist

Janna Nichols, based in Vancouver, Wash., is the northwest coordinator for REEF. She runs a website and teaches classes to Washington divers who are interested in being part of the program.

“The biggest stumbling block for divers is knowing how to identify species – so REEF also offers what they call ‘fishinars’ online for people to learn what to look for,” Gaydos said.

The data that divers collect are categorized by their education – level one is considered “novice” and level five is “expert.” Both deep-sea divers and snorkelers can contribute to the findings. As Gaydos says, there is marine life at all levels of the ocean. Since the program started in 1993, divers have logged 1,500 dives and 1,100 hours of survey time in the San Juans. Some of the most commonly seen fish are kelp greenlings, copper rockfish and lingcod. In the invertegrate catergory, California sea cucumbers, sunflower stars and the orange sea cucumber are the most common.

For the second year in a row, SeaDoc has invited expert-level divers to spend time in the San Juans and work with its monitoring program. Gaydos chooses 10 divers who perform 100 surveys in one week around the islands. SeaDoc pays for the boat time and housing and the divers bring their own equipment. This year, people from Canada, Oregon and California participated.

“Underwater is the hardest place to see change, but through REEF we are already seeing differences – like a decrease in the sea star population,” Gaydos said. “We used to not see black rockfish or yellowtail rockfish and now they are coming back.”