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Reef Encounters: Pawel Achtel

As part of International Year of the Reef, we're speaking to people who work with coral reefs, from filmmakers to fish taxonomists. In this post, we hear from Pawel Achtel, who is drawn to the "immense beauty, unusual behaviour, and diversity of marine life."

What is your typical day?

Most of the time there is no typical day. My focus changes depending on what I’m working on at the time. When I’m in the field filming, the morning starts with an equipment check followed by breakfast and then we head out to sea for filming.

The evening is filled with footage offloading before checking and setting up the cameras for the following day. I like to have my equipment all set up a day earlier to avoid last-minute surprises.

  • Day Pawel action shot close with 3Deep and lights, Pawel taking to the water with his equipment, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel taking to the water with his equipment, Pawel Achtel

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

When I first visited the Great Barrier Reef about 30 years ago and put my head down I realised this was something I wanted to pursue. After returning from my holidays, I completed a scuba diving course. I bought a broadcast-quality camera and housing, and since then almost never dived without one in my hands.

What inspires you in your work?

The immense beauty, unusual behaviour, and diversity of marine life motivate me to try to capture some of those moments. A well shot 3D spectacle is the ultimate reward. I want to share these experiences with others.

  • DSC00232.small, Pawel getting up close to a school of fish, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel getting up close to a school of fish, Pawel Achtel

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

When we watch pristine marine habitats we often take these environments for granted, but from the perspective of my 30 years of diving, I can tell you that the reefs are dying.

It’s hard to watch. Every year we are losing marine habitats one after another and they take many years to recover. Some of them never do.

I try not to think what the future is going to be like. I try to focus on how to preserve as much as we can and educate others about the importance of these marine ecosystems.

  • Day Pawel filming bommie, Pawel filming an offshore reef or 'bommie', Pawel Achtel
    Pawel filming an offshore reef or 'bommie', Pawel Achtel

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

I love marine mammals. A humpback whale would be my number one. They are so powerful, yet so gentle. So different, yet so intelligent. Every time I look into a whale’s eye I see a warm, intelligent being.

  • Pawel Whale, Pawel filming a humpback whale, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel filming a humpback whale, Pawel Achtel

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

Sydney’s pygmy pipehorse (Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri).

  • Sydney pygmy pipehorse, Sydney pygmy pipehorse,  John Turnbull
    Sydney pygmy pipehorse,  John Turnbull

What kit do you use?

I film almost exclusively in 3D. My setup is two RED Epic Dragon cameras, 3Deep titanium housing, Denecke Genlock, Nikonos 15mm submersible lenses, Keldan 24X lights with custom reflectors, custom TrueBlue OLPF filters.

  • DSC02397 fixed, Pawel making use of this equipment, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel making use of this equipment, Pawel Achtel

What’s the next big thing for your work?

I’m currently filming an IMAX film called Sea of Love 3D about reproduction and relationships in the ocean.

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

Dr John (Charlie) Veron.

  • IMG_1795, Pawel taking a moment to catch his breath, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel taking a moment to catch his breath, Pawel Achtel

Reef Encounters: Yi-Kai Tea

As part of International Year of the Reef, we're speaking to people who work with coral reefs, from filmmakers to fish taxonomists. In this post, we hear from Yi-Kai Tea, a fish taxonomist at the University of Sydney, currently studying under Dr. Anthony Gill as a graduate student in taxonomy and systematics.

  • Yi-Kai Tea at work, Yi-Kai Tea photographing specimens in a tank on the shore, Yi-Kai Tea
    Yi-Kai Tea photographing specimens in a tank on the shore, Yi-Kai Tea

What is your typical day?

I'm always working on something. If I’m not doing research, I’m writing articles or researching up on future things to tackle.

If I’m at the lab, I mostly do counts and take measurements of various fish specimens. Otherwise I’m at the museum looking through the literature.

There's always something to do.

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

I spent many years in high school and college writing for various fish magazines and blogs. I was offered a little writing gig after being picked out from a local forum. In the years of writing about reef-fish I’ve noticed so many undescribed species go by without a name for years, often wondering why scientists didn't want to do anything about it.

Years later I decided to become a fish taxonomist myself, and the first species I ever named was the very fish I wrote about on a blog years ago, the same species that made me ponder about the short comings of taxonomy!

I now realize that there aren't many taxonomists around these days, certainly not enough to keep up with the rate at which we're discovering new species.

The first step to conserving anything is to first give something a name. Without a valid scientific name, you technically cannot put a species on a conservation list, even if its habitat is threatened. That is why, to me, taxonomy and systematics is so important.

  • Cirrhilabrus isosceles fish, The Cirrhilabrus isosceles fish, Yi-Kai Tea
    The Cirrhilabrus isosceles fish, Yi-Kai Tea

What inspires you in your work?

This is going to sound really cliché but I am inspired by so many things. I often have periods where I’m totally obsessed with something, and I’ll think to myself, that would make a great name for a fish someday.

I had a moment where I was very into Doctor Who, and I named my second new species of fish after the Sycorax Warriors from the show! A group of lesser known warriors that wore red capes and robes. I've also named a species of anthias after the alcoholic beverage tequila sunrise.

  • Synchiropus sycorax , Synchiropus sycorax, named after Doctor Who creatures the Sycorax Warriors , Yi-Kai Tea
    Synchiropus sycorax, named after Doctor Who creatures the Sycorax Warriors , Yi-Kai Tea

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

Coral reefs are such incredibly wonderful, diverse, awe inspiring ecosystems. I simply cannot think of anything else comparable.

To lose something as precious and valuable as this would certainly be a tragedy. They are resilient but they cannot do it without our help, and everyone has to do their part. Be mindful of the little things you do every day.

You may not think that you alone cannot make a difference, but if everyone thought like that, there would be no future for the reefs. It is a collective effort, and everyone should do their part. 

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

My favourite creature on the reef would most certainly have to be the clownfish. There is nothing more picturesque than a perfect little orange clownfish bobbing in her anemone home.

There is something so simplistic yet instantly iconic about this relationship, and I find the relationship so interesting and complex.

It really is the emblem of the reef I think.

  • Clown fish, A clown fish in the Horniman Aquarium, Connie Churcher
    A clown fish in the Horniman Aquarium, Connie Churcher

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

I once saw a decapitated Barbie doll floating out in the middle of nowhere whilst on a boat in Hawaii.

Odd, but a grim reminder not to litter!

What kit do you use?

I use a Nikon D7200 with a 150 mm Nikon macro lens. The camera body is equipped with a Nikon SB 900 fill flash.

I keep my photography set up very simple, but it gets the job done! I wouldn't consider myself a professional photographer by any means, but the photos I take do help a lot with my work and hobby.

  • Navigobius kaguya fish, Navigobius kaguya, Yi-Kai Tea
    Navigobius kaguya, Yi-Kai Tea

What’s the next big thing for your work?

I'm currently working on revising a group of wrasses with anti-tropical distributions.

It's an unusual distribution, from a biogeographic stand point. Interestingly, there are multiple groups of fish, all apparently unrelated and from different families and orders that share the same pattern.

I'm interested in seeing how this all fits in a broader context, perhaps temporally and spatially through biogeographic and evolutionary changes.

  • Pseudanthias bartlettorum fish, Pseudanthias bartlettorum, Yi-Kai Tea
    Pseudanthias bartlettorum, Yi-Kai Tea

Who is your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

David Attenborough.

I don't think I have anything to say about him that hasn't been echoed by the millions of hearts and minds that he has touched in his career. I just love him.

International Year of the Reef

We are celebrating International Year of the Reef at the Horniman, with a programme of activities throughout 2018.

As the Horniman is home to an acclaimed Aquarium and our Project Coral research, we want to celebrate the beauty and diversity of coral reefs. The programme includes a blog series, displays, talks and special events. We want to highlight the value of these reefs to marine life and to humans, the threats to these fragile ecosystems and the vital work done to preserve them.

What is International Year of the Reef?

2018 is the third International Year of the Reef. Did you know that coral reefs are one the most biological diverse habitats on earth? They take up less than 0.1% of the oceans floor they are home to 25% of all marine life.

But 60% of the world’s coral reefs may die within the next 20 years.

The International Year of the Reef seeks to change that by:

  • Raising awareness about the value of, and threats to, coral reefs and their ecosystems;
  • Sharing information on how to sustain coral reefs;
  • Managing conservation, increase resiliency and the sustainability of these ecosystems; and
  • Promoting partnerships on the management of coral reefs.

What can you expect?

Visit the live corals in the Aquarium

Most of our visitors will know we have an Aquarium at the Horniman. You can visit several different reef tanks to explore the corals themselves and the creatures who live in and among them.

See Karen Dodd’s Fabric of the Reef display

Inspired by the Horniman's Aquarium and Natural History collection, artist Karen Dodd uses woollen fabric – dyed and sculpted, and intricately bound and stitched – to draw attention to coral and coral reefs. Her work celebrates their beauty and raises awareness of coral vulnerability in the face of increasing environmental change.

Have a Reef Encounter

Meet some of the people who live or work with coral reefs around the world. Learn who they are, and find out why these Reef Encounters are so vital to the future survival of coral reefs, in this blog series running throughout 2018.

Yi-Kai Tea - Taxonimist at the University of Sydney

Join in with our family events

Come to our Late event

  • 17 May – Museums at Night
    Immerse yourself in all things under the sea as our Aquarium takes centre stage for this special evening event. Part of Museums at Night.

Read the research

Our Aquarium Team have also published their research about inducing coral spawing. Read the research online.

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