The faces of REEF: Itziar Aretxaga

Also available in: Español (Spanish) Euskara (Basque)

Author: Amy Lee, REEF Engagement and Communications Manager

Originally published in REEF website  (Reef Environmental Educational Foundation)

Itziar Aretxaga. Submarinismo. Roca Partida, Revillagigedo, Mexico.
Itziar Aretxaga. Roca Partida, Revillagigedo, Mexico.

REEF members are the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. A diverse community of divers, snorkelers, and ocean enthusiasts support our mission to conserve marine environments worldwide.

This month we highlight REEF member Itziar Aretxaga Méndez, who lives in Puebla, Mexico. She has been a REEF member since 2003. An avid REEF surveyor, she has conducted 523 surveys, making her a member of the Juvenile Hamlet Club. Itziar is an Expert level surveyor in the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA) region and has also conducted surveys in the Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP) and Hawaii (HAW). We’re thankful that she’s a part of REEF, and we are thrilled to spotlight her enthusiasm for learning about fish.

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member? How did you first hear about REEF?

Shortly after I started diving, I bought the book Reef Fish Identification – Florida Caribbean Bahamas. I was eager to learn about my newly discovered universe of underwater creatures. In their introductory remarks, Ned DeLoach and Paul Humann described the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project, and I looked up the REEF webpage and signed up immediately. I was hooked!

If you have been on a REEF Field Survey Trip, where and what was your trip highlight?

I attended an Advanced Assessment Team trip to Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. It was a superb experience of finding like-minded people and a great exchange of ID tips and clues on how to look for new species. I very fondly remember one of the veterans, Pat Ayers, and her advice and critical eye to pay attention to minute details. She was crucial in finding many new species for me.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys? What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned doing a REEF fish survey?

I am a professional scientist, and I have a trained mind to look for patterns and use statistics in a very intuitive way. I often look into my own records and into the REEF database and I love spotting the unexpected, like a rare species seen during a different season or a new species appearing suddenly in a well-known area. Collectively, we volunteers contribute to that experience, and I am very motivated to report what I see and to learn from the biologists and educators of REEF, who are eager to share their own findings and methods.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

I love the sense of community and the passion to share and grow together that I have found in REEF. I always take my survey slate when I go diving and without exception, there is somebody who asks about what I am doing underwater scribbling every few steps along the dive. Everyone loves to look at the book and share their own findings. I love the opportunity to share and guide in fish watching in the same way others have done with me.

If you had to explain REEF to a friend in a couple of sentences, what would you tell them?

Recreational divers with a purpose, having fun diving and contributing to marine conservation at the same time!

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?

REEF has a tremendous educational mission. I am engaged in only a few of its programs, but I have only praise for what I see being done in the other programs. Keep those annual reports coming!

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there?

I mostly dive in the Veracruz Marine Park. I love recognizing and anticipating what species I will see in different spots, and the rare new or odd species that every now and then pop up. I often wonder if they had always been there, and I just learned how to spot them.

Do you have a favorite REEF Conservation Partner or dive shop?

I do not have local REEF shops nearby, so my growth has been mainly supported by REEF staff and volunteers. I took my very first REEF survey tests at the Baltimore Aquarium in 2004! Luckily REEF has always had an amazing network of generous volunteers helping each other.

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced?

I have so many anecdotes of unexpected fish underwater that it is difficult to choose! One of my most memorable encounters even got featured in a REEF newsletter! The story is, I was participating underwater photography contest and as I was descending on a dive, I spotted a jawfish that I was not familiar with. I spent 90 minutes taking pictures of it, to the point that I almost went into deco. After digging into ReefNet, Fishbase and other resources, I learned that it was the Swordtail Jawfish, which has been very rarely documented in the wild.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate? Why is it your favorite?

Frogfishes are my most sought-after fish family. They blend in so perfectly with their environment! A few years into diving I had yet to see one and I was frustrated I could not spot any in my usual diving sites. My partner at the time booked a dive trip with an environmentally-geared company for me to observe one on my 40th birthday. I was moved to tears. I did not want to leave that rock where I saw my first frogfish!

Do you have any surveying, fish watching, or identification tips for REEF members?

Whenever you plan a trip to a different location, look at the REEF database and see what others have reported there. You might find species you never have seen before, and you have to learn about their environments to maximize your chances to see them. Never underestimate somebody else´s experience. They might look in different environments that you rarely explor. Even if you have 500 surveys somewhere, different eyes mean different exploring patterns.

What is your most memorable fish find and why? Is there a fish (or marine invertebrate) you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?

After watching Mickey Charteris’ REEF Fishinar on invertebrates, I realized I have to pay attention to those. I am so focused on fish, that I am missing all that other fun. I would love to survey invertebrates too! But my to-see list of fish still has me plenty busy! From my adored frogfish family, the only species I have seen is the Longlure Frogfish in Tropical Western Atlantic.

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