Reef Life Survey Training Review

Indoctrination came early. It was the first meal of the first night on my first URG trip (Narooma). “RLS this… RLS that”. It was only when I enquired about the meaning of the acronym that my new dive buddies realised they had been speaking in a foreign (to me) language. Such is the way with RLS. See, it shares more than just capital letters and Google search results with the much more common phenomenon “Restless Leg Syndrome”.

As Restless Leg Syndrome induces in sufferers the irresistible need to move the body, Reef Life Survey stimulates the need to dive, count fish, talk about fish, dive, count fish, talk about fish, and repeat ad infinitum. Given that my identification skills were hitherto limited to describing “smallish silver fish and bigish silver fish”, I had reservations. No lacking in confidence is match for John Turnbull’s contagious enthusiasm, however, and I soon found myself teaming up with Rianti to try my first RLS (Reef Life Survey, not Restless Leg Syndrome) dive at Fairy Bower. It only took one dive and I was hooked. My scientist-self (aka nerd) got a kick out of the challenge to match the creatures I saw to the ID slate I carried, while the animal-lover in me enjoyed spending the time to really search and SEE everything there was to see in just a 50m span of reef. I was thrilled by the diversity of creatures to be spotted if I really took the time to look.

As for the species identification, that was a fun afterthought on account of John’s patient step-by-step approach, and some really great resources. We started doing more and more RLS dives, at more and more sites. Often we’d throw in a recreational dive on either side of a “working” dive, but I found that my brain was increasingly effortlessly naming species as I just cruised around underwater. I found that every dive was more fun once I knew what I was looking at, and had a better idea where to look for them. Once I knew some of the more common fish and invertebrates, I enjoyed learning a few more upon exiting the water and attempting to describe any new finds: “like, sort of, a medium-sized silver fish”.

Who knew that blue-lined goat fish could change colour from sandy to red, but not really have very impressive blue lines in either manifestation? Who knew there were SO MANY different wrasse? I have to say that I have met few people who can explain these details time and time again, but continue to do so in a way that shares their love of the ocean quite like John Turnbull. This is corny, but I learned a lot from him about being a teacher, as well as a lot about fish.


Reef Life Survey certification weekend with Rick Stuart-Smith at Bare Island.

Certification day came around awfully quickly, but was very low-key and actually pretty fun. It was great to get some feedback from Rick, and find out that it really is OK, albeit not overly stimulating, to count 800 Hula fish and 300 black urchins.

Reef Life Survey at Jervis Bay

Reef Life Survey at Jervis Bay. Photo by John Turnbull –

Certification complete, it was time to put my skills and John and Rick’s training to the test. Enter: Jervis Bay. Wow. There were a lot of fish. I was overwhelmed at first, both by the diversity and the abundance. A lot of time was spent poring over the fish bibles on my first night. Fortunately I was in good company, and a beer made the task seem a little more achievable (thanks, Yanir). Teamwork was key over the weekend, and with our powers combined we were greater than the sum of our parts. When a camera malfunctioned, or an ‘O’ ring burst, it was no trouble for another diver to take over a job or run an extra transcript. Over the ensuing few days the identifications became a little easier, but it would be a lie to say that I returned to Sydney feeling refreshed after my little beach getaway. It’s true that did feel a sense of accomplishment.

In summary, RLS (Reef Life Survey, I can’t speak for Restless Leg Sydnrome, but I suspect it stinks) is fun. It’s probably not for people who like to cover a lot of ground on every dive, or who are bored by repetition. But for me, RLS training gave me a new way to enjoy old dives, and a new way to read the ocean’s stories.