Citizen Scientist

For my first dive, I decide to follow my roommate Lillian. Half my size and twice my age, she has more than 4,000 dives under her belt, plus hundreds of fish surveys.

One by one, we roll backward off the stern, into clear 82-degree water, then we let the air out of our vests and sink gently downward to the reef. We’re both equipped with pencils and waterproof paper imprinted with a long list of Caribbean fish species. I also have a waterproof booklet with me, the miniature companion to Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach’s mighty, non-waterproof Reef Fish Identification. Lillian doesn’t need that kind of assistance.

By the time I join her near the bottom, I see that she has ticked off dozens of species, all without fumbling her heavy video camera. I just see lots of fish, some bright-colored and others silvery, and I’m still sorting out ways (mainly involving rubber bands) to keep my slate, booklet, pencil, and camera securely attached to my person. In one direction the reef trails away into a sandy bottom, and in the other it becomes a vertical wall and the sea a deeper blue.

I’m supposed to be learning about fish this week. So far, though, the most unusual species I’ve discovered is the fish watcher. Fish watchers erupt into cocktail-hour debates over whether one of them really could have spotted a slender filefish. Fish watchers know what kinds of gobies have what colored dots on them and discuss this subject endlessly between dives. Fish watchers say things to me like, “There are glassy sweepers over there in the shallows. That’d be a good get for you.” Fish watchers keep life lists.

I’ve joined the fish watchers, and hope to learn from them, on a scuba-diving trip to the island of St. Vincent organized by REEF, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. A few years back, the Key Largo, Fla.-based conservation group, inspired by the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, got the idea of using enthusiastic amateurs to gather scientific data. For the purposes of this trip, that means identifying different species and counting them. Some call this sort of project “citizen science.” Blue and Warren, a Los Angeles couple on the trip, call it “fish-nerd camp.” Blue sometimes pumps her fist in the air and shouts, “Yiii-ess!” when she has confirmed a new sighting.

With the exception of me and one other diver, an Englishman named Steve, everyone here knows their fish facts already. For an extra bit of fun, trip leader Lad has us bet on how many fish species, total, our group of 12 will spot this week. I bet 299, a number I come up with by averaging the guesses of those who have bet before me.

I learned to scuba dive more than a decade ago, but most of my marine-life observations to date have been along the lines of “ooh, big” or “how pretty.” I came on this trip, in part, to do something about the dazed cognitive dissonance I experience whenever I read about various ecological calamities. One part of my brain tries to accept the news, but the other part believes in the fixity of the natural world. After all, the forest behind my childhood home never went anywhere, even if it did recede by a couple of suburban blocks. Forests and mountains and, in particular, oceans are so big that it’s hard to believe in their radical change. So, when I read that 10 percent of the world’s coral reefs are already degraded beyond recovery, or that fish species are disappearing, or that there’s a blob of plastic garbage in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas, my mental calculator breaks down. “Threat to biodiversity” is one of those phrases so vague, so unquantifiably alarming, that I tune out. But if I can connect with one tiny little piece of the natural world—say, a longlure frogfish—I might be able to gain some mental traction.

I also thought maybe I could feel—perhaps even be—useful. These days, lots of organizations send travelers on “voluntours,” wherein you pay for the privilege of doing a short stint of conservation work—on turtle hatcheries in Central America, bear-tracking missions in the high Andes, or wildlife parks in East Africa, to name a few projects. What do-gooderism I possess is tied to Jacques Cousteau fantasies. Maybe, just maybe, I can contribute a tiny little bit to marine biology. The REEF Web site, I was pleased to see, lists actual papers and research projects that use the group’s data.

REEF’s Lad encourages these notions of usefulness, telling us that even data from beginner volunteers is helpful. He also mentions, excitingly, that REEF volunteers have discovered new species. It’s unlikely, of course, that I’ll be one of those volunteers, seeing as how I can still barely distinguish a blenny from a barracuda. But one has to start somewhere.

As Lillian and I swim slowly along the wall, I see something I recognize. A trumpetfish! It’s almost impossible to misidentify, since it has a snout shaped like a trumpet, but nevertheless, I open my booklet to confirm. Flipping through pages underwater makes me feel foolish for some reason, but when I look over my shoulder, I see that the fish don’t seem to care. Yes, it’s a single trumpetfish, meaning I can make a check mark on my form. Only several thousand more fish in my immediate vicinity to identify. Before I can contribute to science, I have a lot to learn.