Underwater visual census of reef fish by scuba divers is a widely used and useful technique for assessing the composition and abundance of reef fish assemblages, but suffers from several biases and errors. We compare the accuracy of underwater visual estimates of distance made by novice and experienced scientific divers and an underwater stereo-video system. We demonstrate the potential implications that distance errors may have on underwater visual census assessments of reef fish abundance. We also investigate how the accuracy and precision of scuba diver length estimates of fish is affected as distance increases. Distance was underestimated by both experienced ( mean relative error = -11.7%, s.d. = 21.4%) and novice scientific divers (mean relative error = -5.0%, s. d. =17.9%). For experienced scientific divers this error may potentially result in an 82% underestimate or 194% overestimate of the actual area censused, which will affect estimates of fish density. The stereo-video system also underestimated distance but to a much lesser degree (mean relative error = -0.9%, s.d. = 2.6%) and with less variability than the divers. There was no correlation between the relative error of length estimates and the distance of the fish away from the observer.