Death of Paul Humann: The go-to ID diver

Paul Humann with a young Goliath grouper
Paul Humann with a young Goliath grouper

Few scuba divers who have dived tropical reefs, especially in the Caribbean or Coral Triangle, can fail to have come across the work of Paul Humann – most will at some point have used his marine-life reference books to identify a fish or nudibranch, and many will have at least one of his works on their shelves.

The marine biologist, author, photographer and publisher died peacefully at the age of 86 on 5 February at his home in Davie, Florida. He was co-founder with Ned deLoach of both New World Publications and the influential REEF Reef Environmental Education Foundation. 

Humann was born in 1937 and grew up in Wichita, Kansas. He graduated in biology at Wichita State University and went on to study law at Washburn Law School in 1964. After seven years working for a large law firm, he was made a partner.

He had learnt to dive and take underwater photographs in the early 1960s while still at law school, as well as becoming a pilot. Some of his photos had been published in diving magazines by the late ‘60s, leading him to join the Underwater Society of America and, as its vice-president of photography,  to organise the first national underwater photo competition for members. 

Move to the Caribbean

Paul Humann
Paul Humann

In 1971 Humann abandoned law to become owner and captain of Cayman Diver, described as the Caribbean’s first liveaboard dive-cruiser. He would use his aviation skills to scout potential reef-sites, and in this way is said to have established Little Cayman’s western drop-offs and reefs as major Caribbean dive destinations.  

Diving daily with guests over the next eight years, he had the opportunity to photograph, record and study Caribbean marine life. 

In 1980, with his images now appearing in many magazines, he moved to South Florida to pursue a new career, and independently published four marine-life books, described as the first comprehensive set of ID guides for divers.

Then in 1988 he linked up with DeLoach, founder of New World Publications, to become co-editor of Ocean Realm magazine. This was the beginning of a long business partnership, as they self-published a series of books for divers and marine scientists, starting with the user-friendly trio Reef Fish Identification, Reef Creature Identification and Reef Coral IdentificationFlorida, Caribbean, Bahamas

Together the two divers wrote, photographed and published 14 such books, establishing visual ID criteria for numerous species.

Humann would collaborate closely with marine taxonomists, with many of his photographs the first ever published of living species in their natural habitat. In such cases he would also have to collect specimens for the scientists to study, and these remain in the Smithsonian’s National History Museum collections.

New species named in his honour include the ornate cup coral Coenocyathus humanni,  the Pacific eel Ophichthus humanni and the Indonesian fairy wrasse Cirrhilabrus humanni.

The founding of REEF

During the 1980s Humann led many diving tours as See & Sea Travel, the most popular being to Galapagos, where he pioneered diving at Darwin and Wolf Islands. Later he led private annual tropical fish-watching expeditions.

He and deLoach went on to start the Florida-based REEF Reef Environmental Education Foundation in 1990, its aim to help protect ocean biodiversity through citizen-science, education and partnership with the scientific community. REEF’s volunteer divers and snorkellers have compiled what, with 300,000 surveys, is claimed to be the world’s biggest fish-sighting database.

REEF has carried out the long-running Grouper Moon Project in the Cayman Islands to monitor and safeguard the last remaining annual spawning aggregations of Nassau grouper, as well as monitoring the impact on local reef-0fish populations of invasive lionfish.

Humann was chairman of the body’s board of trustees until 2021, when he became its first Trustee Emeritus. In recognition of their authoritative guidebooks and the founding of REEF, he and deLoach received the US Coral Reef Task Force’s Outstanding Public Awareness & Education Award in 2006.

Humann was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2007 and received the NOGI award from the Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences three years later, for his efforts to preserve the underwater world.

Also on Divernet: Reads of the year, Finding the best fish ID app, Sumbawa

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