Designing a fish identification survey app for use underwater in the Caribbean

Lionfish in the Caribbean.

Lionfish in the Caribbean. Copyright Duane J Sanabria

My fellow PhD candidates over in Puerto Rico, Chelsea & Evan Tuohy are undertaking a lot of interesting marine research. One of their current projects they are working on is developing a fish identification and surveying app for Caribbean reef fish ID and underwater surveys. Chelsea explains in more depth in her guest blog below.

I first started diving in 2008, and it was an undergraduate field course hosted at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez’ Isla Magueyes field station that introduced me to the work of a field scientist. I lived in un-airconditioned dorms, woke up early to dive every morning, and spent the afternoons pouring over fish identification books. This was my first time trying to identify Caribbean reef fish, and I had zero background on this subject.

“This one kinda looks like that purple one I saw in the book, a damselfish? I’ll just scribble those details here on my sheet and check when I get back” This was my internal monologue, as I quickly tried to document everything I saw, eyes glued to my paper, totally missing the school of bar jacks crossing over my transect line in front of me.

Years later, I’m now a Ph.D. Candidate at the same university I had visited back in 2008. I can identify fish much better now, working on projects like the NOAA National Coral Reef Monitoring Plan to census the fish in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

I started a company with my husband and fellow fish biologist/Ph.D. Candidate, Evan Tuohy. Isla Mar Research Expeditions is our dream of educating the next generation of eager scientists – because after all, the future of the oceans is dependent on who comes after us and how prepared they are to tackle the big issues like overfishing, coral diseases and climate change.

We have hosted and assisted several other field courses of new fish biologists. The story is always the same as mine back in 2008. We watch them struggle to identify what they see in the water compared to the books. Two weeks of diving is not enough to become an expert in this technique – and you definitely need that experience before moving on to bigger and more important projects. There has to be an easier and faster way to teach these new field researchers about underwater visual census of reef fish.

And there is.

Well, we are paving that way.

Our application will put the references and the surveys in one. Students will be able to quickly identify fish from a series of the most common, and record the number easily and quickly. That means they spend more time associating the image with the actual fish, less time scribbling descriptions Fish IDof what they don’t know, and more time observing what is moving in and out of their survey area. There is no substitution for real life experience in fish survey – and our app will reduce the time it takes for fish biologists to become adept, and therefore improving the quality of their data for use in their own projects.

It’s incredible what technology can help us with these days; now let’s take underwater field research to that level.

Take a look at our campaign on (link to to get a better feel for what we are developing – perhaps this app will be useful to you? Perhaps you have feedback or suggestions of things you’d like to see? Let us know!

Our campaign ends on July 23 – and we are trying to raise $2835 by that deadline. If you find this interesting, feel free to share it with others or perhaps contribute. We would sincerely appreciate your support – thank you for helping us make science free and available to all!

Chelsea Tuohy

And our social media–

Twitter & Instagram : @islamarexp


2 thoughts on “Designing a fish identification survey app for use underwater in the Caribbean

  1. joshojensen

    Hi Lachlan,

    Interesting article although I still prefer our methods – arm the would-be scientist with a camera and let them figure out the species on dry land with the benefit of action replays. Apps are certainly useful for training though.

    I hope things are going well in your neck of the woods. I had a look around your recent posts and noticed you have conference in October on the same topic I just spoke about at a recent TEDx event.

    Hard to get people to sit through 16 minutes of anything these days, but I hope you find it worthy of sharing and it might help people understand the value of your session at the conference. You can find it here :

    Some pretty gross generalisations and sweeping statements I hope you’ll overlook. 16 minutes isn’t long to give your life story, the guts of your work, and why it matters – corners had to be cut 🙂

    Cheers, Josh

    Josh Jensen, underwater cameraman *web*: | *phone*: +61 7 54490971 (Brisbane time zone) | *skype*: underseaproductions *connect with us*: blog | twitter | facebook | youtube | google+ | amazon | instagram

    > fish thinkers > 20 July 2015 12:55 pm > Lachlan Fetterplace posted: ” My fellow PhD candidates over in Puerto > Rico, Chelsea & Evan Tuohy are undertaking a lot of interesting marine > research. One of their current projects they are working on > is developing a fish identification and surveying app for Caribbean > reef fis” >


    1. Lachlan Fetterplace Post author

      Thanks for the comment Josh
      I guess you could potentially do both methods with something like this or various other versions. Might be a nice little methodology study in that using some sort of DOV comparisons to standard dive transects.
      I guess as someone that mainly uses remotely operated video I dont get a say haha.

      Thanks for passing that video on it was really interesting. Really nice job! Its good to come across other fish obsessed people who won’t think Im a nut for sticking a camera in every puddle I come across. Did you do all the nice google earth graphics/videos or the TEDx people? You should swing by the conference if you get a chance, that session will be super interesting (ill be talking on acoustic tracking in another but ill be in the underwater one a lot and Matt from fish thinkers is co-convening the session).

      Also if you’d like to post a guest blog about your talk shoot me an email, it would be great!

      Lac (



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