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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" as a filmmaker.

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.

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.

Part of

The Coral Sea tank redisplay

Our Aquarium team are currently hard at work transforming our British Coastal tanks into a new display focused on the biodiversity of the Coral Sea. The Coral Sea is located in the South Pacific, off the northeast coast of Australia. It takes its name from its numerous coral reefs and islands. Rich in bird and aquatic life it is home to many different species of anemones, sponges, worms, lobsters, crayfish, fish and crabs. The world’s most famous coral reefs, The Great Barrier Reef, is found in this sea. It is the largest living thing on Earth and visible from outer space. Find out what amazing creatures you will be introduced to the tanks this week.

Orange clownfish

The Orange clownfish makes its home in different kinds of anemones, it is immune to their sting tentacles. In return for protection, the clownfish keeps its anemone clean and chases off intruders. This relationship is an example of symbiosis where both partners benefit.

Copperband butterfly 

  • Copperband butterflyfish Chelmon rostratus, Yi-Kai Tea
    Yi-Kai Tea

This butterflyfish has a long, narrow nose and mouth used for hunting in crevices for food, such as worms, clams, and molluscs. It has a false eyespot on the rear of the dorsal fin to scare away predators. 

Bridled monocle bream


  • Scolopsis_bilineata, Jens Petersen
    Jens Petersen

This fish exhibits bio fluorescence this is where an organism absorbs blue light and emits it as a different colour, usually red, orange or green. This may assist in camouflage and communication. 

Pearl scale angelfish 


  • Pearl scale angelfish, Centropyge vroliki Copyright Yi-Kai Tea, Yi-Kai Te
    Yi-Kai Te

These fish start their adult lives as females and are able to change to males for breeding.

Branching coral

These branching hard corals are found in the shallow waters of the reef. Their hard skeletons can survive waves crashing over them.

Finger coral

Finger corals are soft corals, which do not build stony reefs. Substances made by finger corals deter the growth of bacteria and may lead to new antibiotics.

Hump coral 

These hard corals build huge boulder shaped reefs in shallow waters. They can grow to a few square meters in width.

Ritteri anemone

  • Ritteri anenome Heteractis magnifica , N Hobgood
    N Hobgood

This anemone feeds through the photosynthesis of the symbiotic algae living in its tissues. It also captures small invertebrates, fry or juvenile fish with its tentacles. 


We'll be doing everything we can to ensure every new inhabitant of the Coral Sea tank feels right at home.

A Calm Visit to the Horniman

Want to find a quite and peaceful spot in our Museum? Engage Volunteer, Anahita Harding, has just the ticket. Here, she tells us her favourite calm spots and the best times to visit them. 

'Sometimes the Museum can feel quite busy and hectic but for those in the know, there are some places that are a bit quieter where you can get find some peace.

The Gardens are a lovely place to go when a quiet spot is needed but on a rainy day this isn’t always ideal. If you ever need a quiet spot to think and be calm, here are some indoor spaces I like to go to during my breaks.

Nature Base

If you want to see the harvest mice, come to the Nature Base in the morning, as this is the best time to see them running and climbing! The harvest mice are crepuscular, which means that they are most active in the mornings and in the evenings.

The quietest time tends to be in the morning when the Museum has just opened but the Nature Base can get busy during other times of the day.

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, The harvest mice in the Nature Base are best seen in the morning.
    The harvest mice in the Nature Base are best seen in the morning.

The Natural History Gallery balcony

The Natural History Gallery balcony has a variety of cases with interesting specimens in them. There is also a nice space here to read stories and books. A grand clock is near the staircase, and it gently chimes every fifteen minutes. It is called the Apostle Clock and was made during the 19th century in Germany.

Usually, the balcony is very quiet and is a nice space to learn while watching everyone in the gallery below. There is also a good view of the walrus!

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, The apostle clock is on the Natural History Gallery balcony
    The apostle clock is on the Natural History Gallery balcony

The Aquarium

Have you seen the jellyfish in the Aquarium? As you enter the Aquarium you will see a space lit up with a calming blue light, and jellyfish gently moving through their tank. It is lovely to watch them move. Above, you will see a large turtle hanging from the ceiling, can you find it? This is one of my favourite spots, and I hope you enjoy it too.'

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, Watching the jellyfish can be very calming
    Watching the jellyfish can be very calming

The Museum is at it's quietest after 2.30pm on weekdays during term time. 

Share your favourite peaceful spots from the Museum and Gardens with us using #horniman.

Find out more about volunteering at the Horniman

Saving Coral Reefs

Did you know we are doing ground-breaking coral research behind-the-scenes? Our Aquarium Curator, Jamie Craggs, tells us about the threat to coral reefs around the world and how we are working to solve it.

‘Coral reefs are incredibly diverse habitats. One square metre of coral reef contains as many different types of animals (genera) as a whole hectare of Amazon rainforest.

They also support millions of people through food security, coastal protection and income through tourism.

But coral reefs are under threat. Human activities like pollution, overfishing and climate change mean we are losing coral reefs at an alarming rate.

How do we stop this?

The only way to understand how to recover the coral reefs is to understand coral reproduction. We need to look at the way reefs naturally rebuild themselves, so that we can help the process.

In their natural habitat, most corals reproduce over one or two nights a year during a mass spawning event. All coral in one area spawn at once and the event is dependent on the right climatic conditions, temperature and phases of the moon. 

But once or twice a year is a very short time to study coral reproduction!

That’s where Project Coral comes in.

What is Project Coral?

Project Coral is a research project looking at coral reproduction led by the Horniman Museum and Gardens along with international partners. The main aims of Project Coral are:

1. To understand reproduction.
Coral have occasionally spawned in aquariums, but it has always been accidental. By understanding what makes coral tick in the wild, we have created a research system which mimics their natural environment. This allowed us to produce the first planned spawning event in an aquarium in 2013. We are now developing protocols so that corals can be spawned at different times of the year.

2. To share our knowledge.
If the research community has access to the same set up as ours then we could potentially be looking at far more spawning events every year then we currently have. This would give us more chance to study how coral reproduction will be affected by future ocean conditions as a result of climate change.

3. To help restore the coral reefs.
Once we have more opportunity to study coral we, along with the international scientific community, will have more of a chance to produce baby coral which can be used to reseed dying reefs.

4. To supplement the hobby trade.
If we get to a point where we can produce baby coral, we might also be able to produce them for the aquarium trade, a practise that will provide alternative sustainable income for people that rely on coral reefs.’

Read more about Project Coral.

You can help save the coral reefs by supporting Project Coral research.

Finding the real Dory

The latest Pixar movie, Finding Dory, is now showing in cinemas. We visited our Aquarium to find out more about the real fish that inspired the character Dory.

Dory may be her name in the film, but the actual scientific name for this fish is Paracanthurus hepatus. It has various different common names around the world, but here at the Horniman we call it the regal tang.

Regal tangs are a species of Indo-Pacific surgeonfish and our fish were given to us by one of the UKs leading sustainable-caught livestock suppliers. This species lives in our Fijian reef display and we also have some behind-the-scenes where our Aquarium keepers do their research.

Here are three facts you might not know about the regal tang fish:

They are not forgetful:
It is unlikely that the regal tang has a bad short-term memory, like Dory does in the film. There are no studies which prove fish have a ‘three-second memory’ – that is just a popular myth.

They can be cutting:
The regal tang are a type of ‘surgeonfish’. All surgeonfish, as their name suggests, possess razor-sharp retractable blades near their tail. These are sometimes used during territorial disputes in the wild.

They are really useful:
The regal tang feed on algae. This is very helpful in the wild and in our Aquarium because the algae could otherwise overgrow and smother the corals it grows on. The algae can also look unsightly in our Aquarium, so the regal tang helps keep this at bay.

  • Finding the real Dory, Coral reefs are the most diverse communities in our oceans
    Coral reefs are the most diverse communities in our oceans

Regal tang help keep coral reefs healthy, but these magnificent places are under threat from more than just algae.

One square meter of coral reef contains the same number of species as a hectare of amazon rainforest. Coral is a vital part of this habitat because it provides food and shelter for many species.

However, climate change and warming sea levels are causing a process called ‘coral bleaching’ where the algae (which give the coral its colour) die. This is affecting all biodiversity from tiny fish through to sharks.

Find out more about how you can be like a regal tang and help the coral by supporting the vital Project Coral research in our Aquarium.

Share your pictures of our Regal tang and other Aquarium creatures using the hashtag #LivingHorniman.

Summer Raffle

Win some fantastic prizes in our Summer Raffle. 

Tickets are just £1, or 6 for £5, and are available at the Horniman until 4 September 2016. Look out for ticket sellers at all Festival of Brasil events or visit the Ticket Desk.

The draw will take place on Friday 9 September.

All proceeds help support the work of the Horniman Museum and Gardens (Charity Registration Number 802725).

The prizes are:

Aquarium Tour

Join a curator for a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of our much-loved aquarium.

The tour is for up to 5 visitors and available Monday – Friday. Prize must be taken up by 31 December 2016, dates subject to availability.
Find out more about the Aquarium.

Meet the Animals

An exclusive opportunity to meet the residents of our Animal Walk, including alpacas, goats, guinea pigs and chickens.

The tour is for up to 5 visitors and available Monday – Friday. Prize must be taken up by 31 December 2016, dates subject to availability.
Find out more about the Animal Walk.

Meal in the Café

Treat yourself with our delicious selection of hot and cold meals, amazing cakes and locally-sourced drinks.

Voucher for all food and drink up to £50. The voucher can be used any time during usual Café opening hours. Valid until 31 December 2016.
Find out more about the Café.

Tickets to Dinosaurs: Monster Families

Discover the world of dinosaurs and their young in our family-focused interactive exhibition. The winner will receive a free family ticket for two adults and two children, valid until 30 October 2016.
Find out more about Dinosaurs: Monster Families.

Horniman Family Membership

Enjoy a year of fantastic benefits including free and unlimited entry to the Aquarium and our temporary exhibitions, and a 10% discount in our Shop.
Find out more about Membership.

Plus, five more winners will receive one of our famous cuddly walrus toys!

Terms and Conditions

1. Closing date 04/09/2016.
2. Entry is via tickets purchased at the Horniman Museum and Gardens only. Entrants must provide details of their chosen contact method. Please keep the ticket as proof of purchase.
3. The prize winners will be chosen at random from all valid entries received by the closing date. The decision is final and non-negotiable.
4. The winner of each prize will be notified by their chosen contact method by 12/09/2016. The winners must claim the prize within two weeks or they will be considered forfeited and another draw will take place.
5. Winners may be asked to provide a photograph or to be photographed and interviewed to provide a quote about winning in order to help promote future fundraising.
6. Entrants must be over 16 and resident in UK.
7. No cash alternative.
8. Prizes are non-transferable.
9. The Horniman Museum and Gardens reserves the right to substitute the prizes with a prize of similar value at its own discretion.
10. The Horniman Museum & Gardens reserves the right to withdraw or amend the raffle as necessary due to circumstances outside its control.
11. By entering the raffle, all entrants will be deemed to have accepted and agreed to be bound by these rules.
12. Employees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, their agencies and other companies directly involved in the running of the raffle are not permitted to enter.
13. The competition is run by the Horniman Museum and Gardens, 100 London Road, London SE23 3PQ

We are committed to protecting your privacy in line with the Data Protection Act. The data you have supplied will be held securely. We will not share this information with any third party without your consent.

Thank you for supporting the Horniman.

Project Coral at Charterhouse Aquatics

On Saturday 14 November, Charterhouse Aquatics hosted a fundraising event at their showroom in Haggerston to raise awareness and support for the ground-breaking Project Coral.

A couple of years ago, the Horniman Aquarium became the first institution globally to purposefully reproduce broadcast coral in captivity. This significant achievement led to Project Coral, an innovative coral sexual reproductive research project, run by the Horniman Aquarium with international partners.

The current phase of the project is mirroring in the Horniman laboratory the conditions of the wild reefs, to predictably spawn broadcast coral. We do this using microprocessor technologies to explore the influences of the lunar cycle, diurnal changes, seasonal temperature changes, solar irradiation patterns and nutritional input on gamete (egg and sperm) production and release.

In time, the aim is to push the laboratory reef into a future environmental state. This will allow the team to investigate the effects of climate change on coral reproduction before it happens in the wild; and to understand what is needed to preserve this vital element of the world’s ecology and economy.

The Charterhouse Aquatics event was a great success in generating public awareness for Project Coral and raising vital funds. Customers, hobbyists and the general public met with Jamie and there were three fascinating presentations throughout the day and evening, a DJ spinning tunes, a raffle and a chance to see a stunning Project Coral tank display now on show at Charterhouse Aquatics.


An evening of coral

This week we hosted our exclusive Members’ Coral Reefs: Talk and Tour. A special event in partnership with the Natural History Museum which explored our recent collaboration on their exhibition, Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea.

Ken kicking the event off to a full house in Gallery Square

With half the Members from the NHM and half from the Horniman, Gallery Square buzzed with excitement about our mutual coral interest.

Our Members enjoying a private view of our popular aquarium

The evening gave Members a fascinating insight into coral reefs and the threats that face our marine life with interesting talks by NHM’s coral reefs expert, Ken Johnson, and Horniman Aquarium Curator Jamie Craggs.  

Ken gave a fascinating introduction to corals, which are in fact an animal, made up of thousands of tiny polyps. It was shocking to see the serious effect of coral bleaching and how that has completely changed the history of coral reefs.

Members also enjoyed one to one chats with curator Jamie and Ken from the Natural History Museum

Jamie complimented this talk well by reflecting on the exhibition collaboration, the amazing installation of the tank at the Natural History Museum and introduced Project Coral; an innovative coral sexual reproductive research project.

A behind the scenes look at our Mangrove display

After the talks, the Members had an exclusive behind the scenes tour of the Aquarium, an opportunity to look closer at the ground-breaking work of Horniman Project Coral.

You can find out more about Horniman Project Coral here 



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