Reefing in Heels
02 Aug, 2021
There’s a new challenge taking over Instagram this week called #reefinginheels in support of #womeninreefing. Inspired by Scooby Tu’s post about #sneakersandreefs (a hashtag started by @reefer_nyc), influencer Kat Dhawan (@MetroKat) posted a photo of herself lounging in front of her reef tank and famously wearing her legendary high heels.
Kat says, “When I started in the hobby my avatar on forums was high heels. I was reminded of that when I saw the sneaker posts. They were by no means prolific or anything, but I reached out to my women reefers on IG chat with a picture of my heels. They all said YES! So we planned on taking pictures and posting them. It went viral of course. It was a subtle reminder of women reefkeepers in a male-dominated hobby. There was just no competition, you know. Haha. Subtle but strong, the community was reminded that women reefkeepers rock. Also, it was just a fun couple of days where the community came together to do something cool, there has been so much negativity lately, some positive fun vibes were needed.”
As a woman working in the male-dominated aquarium industry for around 20 years, I’ve had my share of both negative and positive experiences. I’ve had customers assume I wasn’t knowledgeable and been ignored when shopping at fish stores. At worst, I’ve been touched inappropriately at work by male coworkers and customers. I even had a scary close call with a customer who was angry that I turned down his advances too many times. Some women who have left the hobby cite incidences like these as the reason.
I’ve also had some great experiences, especially in recent years connecting with other women in the reefing world. The #womeninreefing culture is so positive; we know that by lifting each other up, we lift ourselves up at the same time. I constantly see women on social media stand up for and support other women reefers, helping them build confidence and to be the best reefers they can be.
Women in Reefing (WIR) is an official group and MACNA event that began in 2018. A large group of women decided it was time for a meeting, and MASNA offered them a scheduled meetup opportunity in order to attract new members. The group’s primary mission is to celebrate and acknowledge the successes of women in the reefing industry and hobby.
MASNA public relations spokesperson Joanne Vegas says, “WIR is one of a couple of special interest groups who have come together through the advent of social media to give underrepresented groups within the hobby a place to join with like-minded individuals and create community. At MACNA 2018 in Las Vegas, Women In Reefing held its first in-person meeting in which dozens of women joined the get-together, we shared stories, introduced ourselves to each other, and held raffles sponsored by supporting organizations. Since that MACNA, WIR has held a meetup; either virtually or in-person at every MACNA event. WIR continues to live and breathe through an online Facebook Group, giving women in the community, and their supporters, and opportunity to connect, build, and share in their reefing journey year-round, regardless of physical location.”
There are so many women who have supported or inspired me personally. Kat referred me to work for Marine Depot, a job I loved and will always cherish. My friend Kelly Delevergne works hard on the Women in Reefing event at MACNA on top of a full-time job and twin girls. Some other women aquarists I’ve admired are Saltwater Aquarium and Reefkeepers admin Lori Johnson, marine biologists Hilary Jaffe and Paula Carlson, aquarium biologist Laura Canella, reef muse Caitlin Lee, Marine Breeding Initiative’s Kathy Leahy, aquaculturist/marine scientist Karen Brittain, entrepreneur Joy Meadows, GARF’s Sally Jo Headlee, entrepreneur Linda Close, SCUBA shop owner Jessica Pickering, artists Rachel Fogle and Michelle Renee Allbright, influencer Cyndi Reyes Taylor, seahorse breeders Alyssa Gabriel and Tami Weiss, PADI dive instructor Nicole Helgason, veterinarian Alyssa DeLucci, and so many more. Obviously, there are many other women in the aquarium trade and hobby who are not mentioned here…
I can’t forget the men in the industry who have been especially supportive of my career and reefkeeping endeavors – Kevin Kohen, Bob Fenner, Matthew Pedersen, Richard Ross, Ben Johnson, and Kevin Erickson. Without you as advocates, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Women In Reefing Share Their Experiences
I decided to ask some other women who posted a photo for the #reefinginheels challenge about their aquariums as well as their personal experiences as women in the hobby. I asked them, “Would you mind telling me a bit about your tank? How long have you been in the hobby? What have your experiences been like as a woman in reefing? Have any particular women or men supported your journey? Do you feel like the hobby is welcoming to women? Is it more or less welcoming now than it was when you started your tank?”
“My name is Leianne aka @c0ralista_ on Instagram. I am a novice reefer with a passion for responsible fish keeping, social media transparency, and empowering females in the hobby. I have a mixed reef residing in a 40-gallon, 23 x 23 x 19, Eshopps Aqualine cube, a 10-g Lifegard Aquatics AIO softie tank, and a 75-gallon planted cichlid tank. I got my first freshwater tank at 8 years old and but only have been in reefing for 3 years. My experience being a woman in reefing has been mostly positive but there are occasional moments where I am not taken seriously or have been mansplained to like any woman in a male-dominated environment, but thankfully most of my interactions with others have been an absolute pleasure.
Kat (metrokat) in particular has always been in my corner and encourages and drives me to be the best I can be… but honestly, I am inspired by the whole reefing community and their love for the hobby and their willingness to help each other. We all want each other to succeed and I think that is such a beautiful thing. I think the hobby is in general welcoming to women but definitely has grown to be more so since I started.
While I have always loved aquariums and the ocean, reefing has become a huge part of who I am and gave me the opportunity to grow and experience life in ways that I may not have explored otherwise. It is so fulfilling and humbling to watch my little piece of the ocean grow and thrive but what I didn’t expect to find was the camaraderie and support the reefing community has for each other and the hobby. This love is what inspires me to help others in whatever way I can.”
Natisha Hall, @xtishtishx
“My tank is 9ft long, 3ft wide, 2ft tall, and its total volume is 20,000 litres [528 US gallons]. It will be a mixed coral reef eventually with a few oddballs. I plan on having a stingray and a ribbon eel along with all the beautiful fishies. I have been in the fish hobby for three years and doing saltwater tanks for one year. I did not want to start a salty project without doing ample research, so I spent a year on that before I set up this tank. Marines are a big jump up I have found—in patience, money, and time. It’s a lot more difficult to recreate a sea environment than it is a freshwater environment, so I wanted to be absolutely sure I know what am I doing before I even started.
“I have been quite lucky in this hobby as a whole, I know there is a lot of sexism surrounding women in this hobby, but I have never had any bad experiences with it personally; no bad comments on insta or anything, but I see a lot of girls’ accounts that get rude comments if they post pics of themselves alongside their tanks. A lot of men in the hobby assume the tanks are their boyfriends’ and things like that, or say, ‘You wouldn’t have this following if you didn’t have boobs.’
“So it is an issue for girls in this hobby I know, but personally, I just get a lot of surprised males. I keep some predator fish as well, and this especially is a man’s world. Girls are few and far between, but I think we are getting more women lately. I have found that women care more for the animals and men care more for ‘the setup.’ I have worked in an aquarium shop where the customers were 90 percent male, I was the only female staff member as well.”
“My current setup is a 4-year-old, 65-gallon mixed reef aquarium. It houses many different types of corals, several inverts, 4 starfish, and 15 fish including my original pair of clownfish from when I started the hobby 6 years ago. Throughout my reefing journey I have asked myself, ‘Am I in the right hobby?’ many times. Because some men can be really nasty towards a woman, especially if she’s doing something better than them. Aside from that, I do believe that a lot of the exposure I got, in the beginning, was because I am a woman and that helped me grow in the hobby in many ways. I’ve had a lot of support from both men and women through my reefing journey and made many friends. I am proud to be part of the ‘women in reefing’ community because it’s full of support and positivity. I believe the hobby is much more welcoming towards women now than it was years ago when I joined, and that makes me happy. I can now answer my own question, I definitely am in the right hobby!”
Michelle Renee Allbright, @bombchellecreations
“I’ve been a saltwater hobbyist for about 10 years now and an overall hobbyist for about 14 years. I started with freshwater, and then moved to saltwater.
“At the start, being a woman in reefing presented a lot more challenges. 10 years ago it was a lot more male-dominated than it is now. I didn’t really discover Facebook groups until about a couple of years after I started in saltwater, but I definitely had my fair share of struggles. I’ve been harassed, dismissed, laughed at, bullied, etc. But over the years many people learned to respect me. People’s words or actions never interfered with my passion for the hobby. It never made me afraid to continue to be involved. It’s funny, since I was a little girl I’ve been a huge Disney fan. One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Mulan, when the emperor says, ‘no matter how the wind howls, the mountain will not bow to it.’ I always remembered that and that’s how I carry myself today. How ironic that it’s a movie about a woman who can fight right along with the men!
“Not to say I didn’t have my moments of weakness but that’s where friends came in. I made many along the way. I used to help manage a small Facebook group with my friend Page Foster, and that was always my safe space where my gender was never a factor. Lori Johnson was another who immediately became protective over me in the page she used to manage. She was an immovable force of a woman and I loved her. Her passing was incredibly difficult.
Metrokat too has continually been a huge advocate for women in the hobby and has spent a great deal of effort helping others be recognized for their talents.
“In 2018, I became involved in Aquashella and greatly supported and respected by Shawn Hale and George Mavrakis both as a hobbyist and a UV aquatic artist. Obviously, my biggest supporter throughout the years has been my husband, Jimmy. He’s loved watching me grow within the hobby and has carried an infinite amount of water buckets for me.
“Personally speaking, I feel like today women don’t face nearly as much resistance in the hobby compared to when I started. We still face our challenges but we face those no matter where we go. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this community and all the growth it has gained. No matter the gender, it makes me so happy when more and more people fall in love with the hobby and I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
“I’ve been in the reefing hobby for about 6 years now. My partner, Andrew with Sin City Corals, and I jumped into the hobby together with our first tank being a 20-gallon. We now together have a main display of 60-gallons, an anemone tank of 120-gallons, and a 170-gallon frag tank.
“We have supported each other, but he’s always teaching me the most with all the new corals he brings home because, you know, it was a good deal! Being a woman in reefing has definitely been different than some other hobbies. It has been welcoming, but other women that also enjoy the hobby can sometimes be hard to find and we’re always shocking the male community. This hashtag, #reefinginheels, has opened my and others’ eyes to the many women that are out there and killing it! I say hats off and keep it up.”
Monique Heyward, @my_saltwater_chronicles
“I have a Red Sea Reefer 750 XXL, 200-gallon mixed reef tank that I started in August 2020 as a gift to myself after graduating from UCF in Fall, 2020. I transferred over all livestock and live rock from my previous Reefer 350.
“My parents have always had freshwater and saltwater tanks in the house when I was growing up, so in March of 2019, we broke down our 55-gallon cichlid freshwater tank and started with a Marineland 60-gallon reef tank using a canister filter.
“If it was not for the huge saltwater hobby community on Instagram, I personally do not believe I would have been where I am right now with the tank. There is so much to learn, the hobby is consistently evolving! When my father and I first started the reef tank, we were using the knowledge and expertise he had from the late 80’s early 90’s. We did not know of the vast amount of stores in the Orlando area dedicated to the hobby; there is Top Shelf Aquatics, World Wide Corals, Living Reef Orlando, etc. So the Instagram community has definitely pointed me in the right direction.
“As a woman, I have found other women in the hobby who have tons more experience in the hobby than I do and felt very comfortable reaching out to them in times of need, and just for pure understanding of how this hobby works.
“I would definitely say that this is a welcoming hobby for all genders and all races. In the beginning, I learned a lot from two particular hobbyists I met on Instagram, a woman out of Massachusetts and a guy from California, I am forever grateful to them! I learned all about skimmers, proper lighting, the benefits of live rock, creating and maintaining a refugium. They truly helped me get to where I am today. All across the world, I have met tons of people who are happy to share with me, answer any questions I may have, and even ask me for my advice on their builds/projects. The men in the community are very respectful of the Women In Reefing footprint and it is always exciting to have friendly competition like the most recent #SneakersAndReefs vs #ReefingInHeels, the guys support us just as much as we support them, it is a beautiful thing.
“When I first walked into a local fish store as a new member of the hobby, it was a very overwhelming experience. Between the price tags and fancy equipment, it was a lot to comprehend. About a year later I tried again after having more conversations with fellow hobbyists and gaining personal experience in the hobby. I felt more confident to go into an LFS with a plan and allow them to execute my goals within my budget. Here I am a little over two years later and filled with much more expertise, experience, and knowledge to walk into any LFS. This hobby is always changing and always growing.
“Attending the reef shows, watching YouTube videos, and having conversations with multiple people in the hobby I am certain I learn something new every day and I owe it all to everyone I follow and those that follow me on Instagram. We are a community and I could not be more appreciative of everyone I have crossed paths with. This hobby will take you on a wild ride but I do not regret any of the twists, turns, or loops it has sent me through, I am looking forward to the next 50 years.”
“I’ve been in the hobby for eight years now. My experience about being a woman in the hobby has always been nice. Men were surprised that I was the one knowing a lot about corals and fish whenever I walked in a shop, but I’ve always had nice talks and have made some friendships with men and women thanks to this hobby. And I’m lucky to have made friends all around the world via Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. I don’t have any particular person who supported me; I get so much support, I love every encouraging word that’s been sent to me. And I read every message. I try to respond to them all. The hobby is welcoming to women more and more, we just have to work a little bit harder to make sure we get heard. It’s becoming more and more accepted that women can be coral and fish nerds just as much as some men in the reefing hobby.”
Andrea Christine, @caffeinated_reefer
“The tank pictured is a RedSea 750xxl. It’s been running since April and was an upgrade from a custom 90-gallon I’d had running for three years. I also have a 32-gallon bio cube, a 40-gallon cube in the kitchen, and a 13.5-gallon softie tank. All were set up within my first year of the hobby, and I’ve been in it for 3 ½ years. My husband jumped from years of freshwater to saltwater. I figured I should jump on the train with him or risk getting run over. Before long, it became more my thing than his. In the beginning, it was obvious it was a male-dominated hobby but it didn’t deter me from asking questions or keep me hiding behind my husband at the LFS. No matter how embarrassing, I asked all the noob questions and asked them again when I was confused.
“I’ve always been more comfortable around men than women, so I’m sure that colors my experiences differently. I have encountered men with a snobby attitude. Some I walk away from. Some I stand my ground and prove I know what I’m talking about. I think it has more to do with their prowess as a reefkeeper than it does with me being a woman. I’ve found myself more comfortable as time has passed, but again, that’s just time spent learning, growing, sharing, and communicating unrelated to sex.
“I do feel the hobby is open and welcoming to women. Social media seems even more accepting of women than men but I think that’s a whole other monster.
“I’ve been blessed by falling into the right path with the right people. Marc Levenson, Hilary Jaffe, Kat Dhawan, and Travis Wilkinson (Fish of Hex) are some of the more recognizable names who were mentors in the beginning and have blossomed into true friends. Countless others, men and women alike, have become friends and a brain trust when something needs discussion.”
Brooke Hering, wife of @jaegers_reef
“Not gonna lie, I used to hate the tank,” said Brooke Hering, wife of @jaegers_reef. But over the years I’ve grown to (secretly) like it. Our kids love to watch the fish and crabs. They get so much joy out of it, so seeing it through their eyes has really made me appreciate it.”
Other Noteworthy #reefinginheels Contributions
Even some of the men reefers participated in #reefinginheels. Some posted photos or videos of themselves in their wives’ heels, and some chose to pose in other types of footwear. David posted his flippers in front of his reef tanks with the hashtag #reefinginheels.
Greg Trax, the art director for SaltwaterAquarium.com, posted this hilarious picture of the famous leg lamp from the 1983 holiday classic movie “A Christmas Story” next to his tank at home to show support for women in reefing.