Tips and Techniques for Fish Surveying

Gear & Gadgets

Your survey slate can really affect your ability to identify as many fish as possible. It is your record to help fill in the gaps of your memory when your mind is occupied with the many other tasks of diving. It is also an additional piece of gear on top of your gauges, safety equipment (i.e., safety sausages, mirrors, etc.), and light. For these reasons, we felt that experience from our members in surveying would help the beginner in getting accustomed to the surveyor setup.

-Use a retractable clip to attach your slate to an outside ring on your gear. With the slate on the outside of your gear, you don't have to dig in your BC pocket, possibly losing everything else in the pocket. Also, at any time you can let go of your slate and feel secure that your invaluable data is still kept to your side. In the event that you need you hands immediately at any time, you'll realize that value of this small, but significant investment. I'm not sure how many gear lines carry these clips, but mine is from Cetacea. --(Tip from Founder/Member Danielle)

-Use underwater paper on your slate**. You can't leave your surveys on your slate no matter how small you write, so you eventually have to pull out the toothpaste and clean off all your sketches and writing. However, if you write on paper, then you can keep the sketches and you don't have to worry about cleaning your slate on a multiple dive trip. Also, you could keep all your surveys in a logbook. REEF makes a printed underwater paper that fits over their student kit slates, which has two preprinted sides, the same layout as the slate with general fish shapes for sketching, a ruler for measurement, and the names of many common species for quick reference. This two-dive, hole-punched paper fits into their 3 ring binder, and is available from the Field Station at cost for $0.65 each, plus shipping. --(Tip from Founder/Member Danielle)
****REEF U/W PAPER ON SALE ONLY AT THE FIELD STATION! 4/$1.00!**** gotta have them. On the REEF slates, a wooden pencil with hook and loop tape is provided to keep it on your slate; however, if you drop it while writing or break the tip, there goes your survey dive. Co-founder, member, and long-time REEF surveyor Greg Bunch suggests to take down multiple pencils and secure them by putting a sunglasses rubber tubing end over the non-writing end of the pencil, while the other end of the tubing is tied to your slate. Your wooden pencils will be wet from your dive, so Greg also brings plastic mechanical pencils on board for filling out his survey form after his dive.

**-If you have a slate other than the REEF slate, then you may want to use DuraCopy, a popular choice among marine scientists. DuraCopy comes in 8.5" x 11" sheets and can be cut to size. You may find, however, that you run out of room on any slate you find in a dive shop. When starting out in fish surveying, you may have more fish sketches than positive IDs, which can really take up your slate room quickly. Also, carrying multiple pencils and securing your paper to a regular slate can seem to be more work than the actual dive. A recent slate development has been presented by gb undersea called the DataSafe. Many serious scientists and hobbyist surveyors have found this two-sided, multiple pencil, shatterproof, positively buoyant slate a wonderful alternative to the small slates that have to be cleaned and the clipboard and duct tape method. Considering how much you spent to go on the survey dive, this one-time investment allows you to be confident that in high current or high seas, one thing you can be sure of is that your survey is DataSafe! Both Greg and Danielle dive the DataSafe, as they learned their lesson on a dive trip where they didn't recover all their gear, but the data, by luck, was saved! (That story to come!)


-Study the fish on the boat ride out to the dive site and, if applicable, on the road trip to the boat. No matter how long we've been doing this, seasoned and beginner surveyors alike should and usually have to study each time they go. It's a skill you learn through repetition, and to think you shouldn't have to study is an unreasonable standard for anyone, professional or hobbyist. --(Tip from Greg and Danielle)

-Make a cheat sheet. Yes, it is okay in this situation to bring notes with you on your slate. If you have particular trouble with groupers, for example, write in small print in a corner of your slate the markings distinguishing species (i.e., black saddle-Nassau, rounded tail-graysby, etc.) --(Tip from Danielle)

-As surveying is a mental task in addition to your other diving skills, it can be easy to forget your abundance codes, so take the time you are hanging on your safety stop to fill them in. --(Tip from Greg)

-Study the fish found in that area before you go diving. If you are planning to hit the Pensacola area, we have a page of local species with pictures. You may also want to check the data itself on the REEF website. After all, we are building this database with our surveys for use by all, including the surveyors. --(Tip from Greg and Danielle)

-Fill in your survey forms on the boat. The longer you wait on this, the harder it becomes, and because you are less sure about an ID after an hour, you may lose some species ID's. --(Tip from Greg and Danielle)

-Don't try to cover a lot of area underwater. As it is, surveying is consuming when trying to really get in close on those obscure blennies. Losing your navigation bearings is very easy when you are chasing down fish and not looking up enough to keep orientated to your bottom markers. --(Tip from Greg and Danielle)

If you have any suggestions to add to this list, please email them to us.