International nonprofit observes world’s reefs, promotes conservation of vital ecosystems

A juvenile garibaldi is observed on a Reef Check dive against the backdrop of an anemone below the waters of the Dana Point State Marine Conservation Area, near Salt Creek Beach, on Sunday, June 1. The nonprofit Reef Check records data on underwater ecosystems around the globe. Photo: Michelle Hoalton
A juvenile garibaldi is observed on a Reef Check dive against the backdrop of an anemone below the waters of the Dana Point State Marine Conservation Area, near Salt Creek Beach, on Sunday, June 1. The nonprofit Reef Check records data on underwater ecosystems around the globe. Photo: Michelle Hoalton

By Sean Robb

On the sunny first day of June, volunteers from the nonprofit organization Reef Check surveyed kelp forests and rocky reefs off the coast of Salt Creek Beach.

Reef Check is an international nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of two of the ocean’s vital ecosystems—the tropical coral and rocky reefs of the world.

Through global surveys of coral reefs, the organization aims to educate the public on the value of and crisis affecting reefs and marine life. With teams of volunteer surveyors, Reef Check has created an international network of supporters that collaborate to produce sound and sustainable solutions all while inspiring local community action to protect and rehabilitate reefs worldwide.

Founded in 1996 by ecologist Gregor Hodgson, the Los Angeles-based not-for-profit organization has grown to include reef-surveying volunteers in more than 90 countries and territories across the globe.

Ten such volunteers were on hand on Sunday, all of whom were highly experienced scuba divers who have participated in numerous Reef Check dives. But before they took to the waters off Dana Point, volunteers were given detailed instructions from Colleen Wisniewski, regional manager for Reef Check California, on what to look for among the reef and what record on their underwater slates.

“Simply put we could not do this project without volunteers,” Wisniewski said.

Volunteer divers from the international nonprofit Reef Check, which monitors the health of reefs worldwide, get ready for a day surveying rocky reefs and kelp forests off Dana Point’s coast. Photo: Sean Robb
Volunteer divers from the international nonprofit Reef Check, which monitors the health of reefs worldwide, get ready for a day surveying rocky reefs and kelp forests off Dana Point’s coast. Photo: Sean Robb

Reef Check conducted the first-ever health survey of coral reefs on a global scale in 1997. Findings were published in a scientific journal two years later, highlighting the impact humans have on coral reefs. In 2002, the organization released its first five-year report which compiled data collected by thousands of volunteers in more than 80 countries that showed a decline in coral reef health worldwide.

While the report showed most reefs in the world were impacted negatively by humans due to overfishing, pollution and climate change, it highlighted that through monitoring, management and protection the world’s reefs could recover.

Reef Check’s reach has grown ever since, including the expansion of research right in its own backyard. The organization launched a California-specific reef program in 2005, tasked with monitoring the state’s more than 1,000-miles of coast.

In California, there are just six staff members and more than 250 active Reef Check volunteers. One hundred of those volunteers work to survey sites in Southern California. All volunteer divers are required to go through a strenuous set of courses that involve memorizing a large number of different marine species and how to survey various types of reefs.

Once in the Dana Point State Marine Conservation Area waters Sunday, divers dispersed into pairs to survey 30 meters of reef. Looking at different marine species living in the reef, they identified and measured each fish and invertebrate to the nearest centimeter. They also examined the rocky coral, logged observations of the kelp-filed forests below the surface and documented the substrate, or ocean floor, where plants and marine animals live.

These reefs off the shore of Salt Creek are the only ones the organization monitors in the Dana Point area—in part, because these reefs differ from all others along the Orange County coastline.

“The kelp here is more stable than any other kelp in Orange County and it’s actually probably the healthiest too,” Wisniewski said.

Reef Check volunteer scuba diver Maria Joaquin gives an animated description of the marine life she witnessed Sunday when she dipped below the waters near Salt Creek Beach. Photo: Sean Robb
Reef Check volunteer scuba diver Maria Joaquin gives an animated description of the marine life she witnessed Sunday when she dipped below the waters near Salt Creek Beach. Photo: Sean Robb

Reef Check monitors more than 50 sites in California, including reefs near San Diego, Catalina Island, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Los Angeles. But through a partnership with area resorts, Reef Check is able to monitor Dana Point’s near shore reefs twice a year, as opposed to once a year as is the case for other locations.

Two years ago, the Dana Point Tourism Business Improvement District signed on to help Reef Check research the local underwater ecosystem. Much of Reef Check’s funding is provided through donations and, most recently, a program called Adopt-a-Reef. TBID was a founding partner for the Adopt-a-Reef program back in 2012 and since corporations like Quicksilver and Patagonia have also signed on.

The TBID is comprised of Dana Point’s four major resorts: The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, St. Regis Monarch Beach, Laguna Cliffs Marriott and Doubletree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach.

It was formed in partnership with the city of Dana Point in 2009 to market the city as an overnight tourism destination. Through a $3 a night self-assessed bed-tax, TBID embarks on campaigns for the city and helps sponsor attractions like last year’s Elephant Parade, which brought more than 30 colorfully painted elephant statues to Dana Point to raise awareness and funds for the endangered Asian elephant.

This partnership, however, will help provide Reef Check the needed funding so staff and volunteers can continue their research, which is shared with policy makers, academics and the general public to help educate and influence decisions regarding underwater ecosystems.

“The biggest thing for us is that if it wasn’t for our ocean then we wouldn’t be a destination for visitors so we feel the need to protect it,” said Matt McNally, director of destination services for the resorts.

Through the Reef Check partnership, the improvement district hopes to further protect local reefs and educate the city, and its visitors, on its unique environment. Dana Point’s resorts hope this relationship will help spread Reef Check’s message and attract more partners to the cause, McNally said.

Lyn Evins has been working closely with Reef Check. Evins, the outdoor events coordinator at The Ritz-Carlton, observed Sunday’s dive from the boat and spoke on the partnership’s meaning.

“I think it’s very important to the community that we protect these reefs and show the city and tourists how special these reefs are,” Evins said.

Reef Check will hold an event Sunday, August 10 at Salt Creek Beach to teach visitors, especially children, about the nearby tide pools, all while spreading Reef Check’s mission. To learn more about Reef Check’s international, national and regional work, and to see data collected log on to www.reefcheck.org.

Purple sea urchins and a kelp forest are seen on a Reef Check dive below the waters of the Dana Point State Marine Conservation Area, near Salt Creek Beach. Photo: Michelle Hoalton
Purple sea urchins and a kelp forest are seen on a Reef Check dive below the waters of the Dana Point State Marine Conservation Area, near Salt Creek Beach. Photo: Michelle Hoalton

What’s Below?

On Sunday, June 1, volunteer divers from the nonprofit Reef Check took to waters of Dana Point’s coastline in a state-protected marine conservation area to survey reefs and kelp forests. Through a partnership through area resorts, the organization is able to conduct two dives a year, monitoring the impacts humans can have on marine ecosystems. Findings from each dive volunteers make worldwide is compiled into an online database, www.data.reefcheck.us, and is available for public review.

Here are a few findings from Reef Check dives near Salt Creek Beach over the last two years:

Average diving depth: 7 meters

Top five fish recorded: Barred sand bass, opaleye, pile perch, rock wrasse and rainbow perch

Top five invertebrates seen: Red Urchin, kellet’s whelk, bat star, pink abalone and purple urchin

Top five seaweeds documented: Giant kelp, sea palm, laminaria, pterygophora and bull kelp

Substrate make-up: 55.6 percent bedrock, 25 percent sand, 12.8 percent boulder and 6.7 percent cobble

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