As a millennial-age young professional who’s passionate about making epic achievements, 24-year-old Kansas native Keri Kenning sets the bar high. As well as a dizzying array of outdoor interests such as snorkeling, diving, kayaking, fly-fishing, biking and photography, she also pursues underwater objectives driven by mathematical models — counting fish and surveying coral heads.
“Diving is great, but volunteering underwater is better,” said Keri, a resident of Key Largo since 2012. “Whether it’s for pleasure or for volunteer work, the majority of my dive log is some kind of research, including lionfish monitoring, lionfish capturing and tagging, or fish counting.
“It’s definitely more exciting than normal diving — always fun to have an objective,” she added.
Keri’s father, a diving enthusiast and underwater photographer, introduced her to the water at an early age. At age 10, during a fun-fish identification class with her parents and siblings on a family trip to Bonaire, her fiery passion for fish, invertebrates and corals was ignited. A few short years later, Keri pursued her dive certification.
“I really enjoy seeing the underwater habitats and learning how these animals all live and interact together,” she explained.
While a biology undergrad at the University of Kansas in 2011, Keri experienced a semester-long program at the School for Field Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands that fortified her love of marine science and conservation. There she learned about human impacts on marine resources as well as conservation, environmental policy, socioeconomic values and the impacts of lionfish on the reefs through density surveys, habitat assessments and dissections.
But it wasn’t until a post-grad dive trip to Belize that Keri met Lad Akins, director of the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, along with other leading lionfish researchers. Keri applied for and was granted a REEF internship and has served as the nonprofit organization’s communications manager — teaching fish identification classes and the how-tos of lionfish collecting, conducting U.S.-based workshops and planning lionfish derbies.
In addition, Keri is an elite member of REEF’s Advanced Assessment Team of divers who have achieved expert status at fish identification. She recently completed fish count dives in Little Cayman as well as on the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg off Key West, where REEF has monitored recruitment of fish to the artificial reef since its sinking in May 2009.
Her rewarding adventures continued at Key Largo’s MarineLab, where she taught marine science to grade school-age through college-age students — both in the classroom and in the field. She refers to herself as a human sponge, “squeezing out” everything she takes in to pass along for others to enjoy.
“I really want to stay involved and volunteer as much as I can,” Keri said. “Divers my age and all ages can volunteer with fish counts, lionfish removals, the Coral Restoration Foundation and cleanup dives.”
Keri emphasized that high school students often are required to earn community service hours for activities such as picking up trash or fundraising at a carwash. Many are excited, however, to learn they can earn a semester’s worth of community service hours for snorkeling — doing REEF fish surveys, collecting data and even submitting their captured data online.
“I encourage divers, both young and old, to take up fish watching because it will transform the way you dive,” she said. “By learning the names, behaviors, and hiding holes of fish and invertebrates, you personify them. By giving a personality to sea creatures, you’re more likely to value and respect them, to conserve and protect them. You can’t love what you don’t know, and you won’t protect what you don’t know.”
Keri’s approach to life in the Keys is equally enthusiastic.
“There’s a lot to love about the Keys … so many outdoor activities,” she said. “I’ve never been healthier because I’m always on the go adventuring somewhere.”