You too can become a marine citizen scientist


From left to right: Antonia Cooper (RLS Australia), Ramadian Bachtiar, Molly Crowe, Nicole Miller, Yaroslav Panfylov, Cathryn Quick

By Nicole Miller

Scuba divers, spearfishers and snorkelers often develop a great eye for, and knowledge about their local marine life. Many divers have favourite marine species, or sometimes try to photograph and identify as many species as they can. A successful critter hunt creates a real buzz.

From left to right: Yaroslav Panfylov, Molly Crowe, Nicole Miller

Wellington divers are particularly lucky having easy access to a fully protected marine reserve and a good seafood hunting ground right on the city’s doorstep. Wellington’s South Coast is home to many weird and wonderful inhabitants, and divers and snorkelers are often interested in exactly those colourful, sometimes concealed and hard to find (cryptic) species that so easily go unnoticed.

Sharing your observations of them with friends and family is a great way to share your passion, and marine enthusiasts can also become citizen scientists simply by submitting these observations to science projects. The data provided, combined with other similar observations, becomes a valuable asset as it provides a snapshot of our marine biodiversity, documents change along our coasts over time, and helps experts develop recommendations for marine management.


For instance, observations recorded on the online platform iNaturalistNZ reveal that Wellington’s Taputeranga Marine Reserve is one of the country’s top marine biodiversity hotspots.

Visitors there have recorded about 2,000 observations with more than 350 species noted to date. And it’s easy. Everyone can just sign up and submit their photos of animals and plants, and even suggest a species name, or get help with identifying their finds.

Box jellyfish (carybdea sivickisi)

It might take just one small inspiration to head off on a search. A National Geographic article on the diversity and taxonomy of highly elusive sea slugs, which mimic their food, inspired me to take a closer look at the Caulerpa seaweed in the Taputeranga Marine Reserve. Ten minutes into my snorkel and still close to shore I had found two Sacoproteus spp. sea slugs, and a few minutes later my buddy had the photos on her camera.

Reef Life Survey

Scuba divers with some knowledge of their local marine life can also get involved in more specific projects. Reef Life Survey (RLS) trains volunteer scuba divers to undertake standardised surveys and collect fish and invertebrates from rocky and coral reefs around the world. The data obtained is hosted by the University of Tasmania and used in many scientific papers, management reports and for setting up conservation projects, including one looking for the super rare Tasmanian Handfish.

Recently Wellington Underwater Club divers participated in a successful four-day RLS training course and are now qualified to submit surveys to the RLS database. Divers were taught to search thoroughly for mobile invertebrates and cryptic species, and to look for distinctive identification characteristics. The efforts by trainer and trainees paid off. We spotted exciting marine life during the course and on our subsequent survey and practice dives. The crested weedfish (cristiceps aurantiacus) was my favourite – what a pose! I uploaded the photo to iNaturalistNZ where experts noted that Wellington could be a considerable range extension for this species; it was previously known only in northern New Zealand. My buddy Cathryn also got a particularly nice head shot of a rarely seen thripenny (gilloblennius tripennis).

Cristiceps aurantiacus or crested weedfish

More Unusual Finds

The incredible ability of some cryptic fish species to change colour patterns to match their habitat was one of the big surprises for me. I spotted two different coloured banded weedfish (ericentrus rubrus) and two topknots (notoclinus fenestratus), one blending into brown seaweed while the other hid perfectly in red seaweed.

Another unusual find was a box jellyfish (carybdea sivickisi) with folded up tentacles. During daylight box jellyfish hide under rocks or seaweed by attaching themselves to the substrate using adhesive pads on the top of their bell. Box jellyfish are known to congregate for mating in Australia and now the observations of marine citizen scientists suggest they also congregate in Taputeranga Marine Reserve in early summer!

Examples like these show there are many enormously important discoveries to be made, and that recreational divers and snorkelers can make them.

Mollie Crowe

Getting Started

If you are a diver or snorkeler with an underwater camera and want to get involved, check out iNaturalistNZ. It’s easy, and greatly rewarding to know your observations build scientific knowledge, provide resources for other marine enthusiasts to learn about the marine life they interact with, and can add directly to science, conservation and management efforts.

Cristiceps aurantiacus or crested weedfish

There are a lot more marine and coastal citizen science projects around the country. Check them out at the Mountains to Sea Trust, Project Baseline groups, and Curious Minds. You can download marine guides and other online resources too, from Marine Meter Square, NIWA and the environment section on the NZUA website. Another project to follow is What’s That Fish?.

Sacoproteus spp. Sea Slugs in Taputeranga Marine Reserve

If you are in Wellington and interested in Reef Life Survey get in touch with the Wellington Underwater Club:


RLS training for them was made possible with support from Reef Life Survey Australia, Friends of Taputeranga Marine Reserve and Dive Wellington.

Visit: Taputeranga Marine Reserve on iNaturalistNZ:

Reef Life Survey online:

scroll to top