A Kelp Forest Homecoming at Channel Islands National Park

The sun hasn’t risen yet, but the sky is no longer completely dark. I’m debating whether it’s more blue or more orange after only getting 4 hours of sleep last night. I came in from St. John, US Virgin Islands to my home in Southern California last night at 1 AM, and now I’m driving highway 101 down to Channel Islands National Park (CHIS) headquarters.

Feather boa kelp adds style to any underwater outfit. Here I am in my natural habitat. Photo by Kenan Chan / NPS.

I know where park headquarters is because I began working with CHIS this past spring. In fact, they blue carded me (gave me National Park Service diving credentials). I’m excited for this week and working with the park on their long-term kelp forest monitoring project (KFM). Not only I am familiar with the marine environment I’ll be diving in this week, I know many of the people that will be on the boat.

Cullen Molitor may have been born in the Midwest, but we’ll claim him for California!

“Cullen! Come here man! How’ve you been?!” The first person I see when I get to the park is Cullen Molitor and I give him a big bear hug. Cullen and I worked together on Catalina for two years. He’s a Midwesterner who has whole-heartedly embraced the laid-back west coast and is known to mumble hilarious dead-pan wise cracks. Cullen is one of the most talented divers I’ve had the privilege of diving with and I can’t wait to jump in with him this week.

We begin loading up the Sea Ranger II, our boat that we will be living on for the next five days. As I begin putting giant coolers of food into the fridge, Kelly Moore pops up from the births below. “Ahhh!! Shaun!! So good to see you!” For me, “so good to see you” is perhaps an understatement of how I feel seeing Kelly. Kelly is the Park Dive Officer (PDO) at CHIS, my diving officer as a CHIS diver, and the reason why I am the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society ® National Park Service Intern. She is the one who told me to apply in the first place, and I would never have done so without her encouragement. Kelly screams California all around, is bubbly ball of positivity, and is always excited to go in the ocean, no matter how many dives she’s had that day.

Kelly Moore is THEE woman! I owe quite a bit to this gal and was so excited to see her at CHIS.

Once the boat is loaded, we are underway in route to Santa Cruz Island. My plan was to sleep the entire way there, but I’m having so much fun talking with everyone on the boat and hearing about the dive plan that sleep isn’t an option. After being called out all too often in the Caribbean for my California flavor, I feel amongst my people at CHIS.

Josh Sprague, marine ecologist at CHIS, teaches me the monitoring protocol on the way out to the islands. The protocols are for the KFM program, a long-term ecological monitoring program that began in 1982 in the park. The operation on the Sea Ranger II is the most complex and impressive monitoring operation I’ve ever seen. This is the first park I’ve been to that uses a full-face mask surface-supply system. It is a boon to the team’s productivity. The diver using the full-face mask has a communication device in the mask so that he/she can talk to the surface support person. In turn, the surface support person is writing down all of the data that the diver is giving them. Using this system, the team is able to collect approximately 6 hours of underwater data in just one hour since the diver doesn’t have to stop every few seconds and write something down.

Josh Sprague working on a full-face mask survey.

The full-face mask diver and several other divers on open circuit scuba gear (“normal” gear) conduct benthic (seafloor) surveys, taking data on sea urchins, algae, and anything else that composes the bottom using several different methods at each site. Urchins are particularly important in the Channel Islands. Over the past 50+ years, we have overfished many urchin predators. In turn, urchin populations have exploded. Urchins eat the kelp that are the foundation of kelp forest ecosystems and provide habitat and food for every other organism in the system. Too many urchins can spell bad news for a kelp forest.

Kelly Moore staying warm as the surface support data-taker for the full-face mask diver below. She can communicate with the diver via the machine in front of her.

There are also at least four divers that are completing a fish survey. These surveys are challenging and what I have been tasked with. They are timed at 30 minutes and taken along 10m on each side of a 100m transect tape (underwater measuring tape). This means fish divers are surveying 2000 square meters and to the surface in just 30 minutes while writing everything they see down! It can be particularly hard when there are 500+ blacksmith above you. How sure can you be that your estimate was good? What does 500 fish really look like?

Anacapa Island from a distance.

All of these measurements give a complete picture of how healthy an ecosystem is, what processes are occurring in that system, and why it might be that way. Over long periods of time, the CHIS team can develop performance metrics for the submerged portion of the park and identify patterns in ecosystem deterioration and recovery. Because they have data from a few decades now in what is the largest marine dataset in the National Park Service, they can quickly determine whether something is an anomaly (a big deal, if you will) or just part of the natural cycle of that site. If there is an anomaly, CHIS can look at old data to figure out why and what can be done about it. Ultimately, this project informs management decisions made by the park and helps the park reassess old decisions to create the healthiest park possible.

One garibaldi! Fish surveys are never this easy…

As we are going over fish surveys, David Kushner, Regional Diving Officer and head of the KFM project, interjects, “how confident are you on fish ID?” “I’m pretty good on my pacific fish,” I tell him. “I need you to be 100% confident or I can’t have you taking data.” David is serious about his data, as any good scientist is. Though he can be frank and serious at times, he is also one of the biggest jokesters on board. He has the energy of someone half his age and anytime he has the chance to dive or snorkel, he’s like a kid waking up on his birthday. As the rest of the crew is catching up with each other after the weekend, David says half jokingly, “you guys have 5 whole days to talk about your weekend!”


Ron Hill of NOAA Galveston fame once asked me, “is diving in the kelp forests as spooky as it looks?” I have never thought of it that way, but I can see why he does.

As the Sea Ranger pulls into Little Scorpion cove on Santa Cruz Island, we prepare to dive. The first person in the water is Kenan Chan. “Yewwwweeeee Ahhhhh AH AH AH AAAHAHAHA!” Kenan screams through his full-face mask rig as he enters the cold water.. After 6 weeks in Florida and the Caribbean, I have fully forgotten what it’s like to put on 12mm of neoprene. Admittedly, this is the one part of California diving that I did not miss.

It’s always strange to hop in the water and get pelted by hundreds of these floating pyrosomes (tunicates) on Anacapa island.

My first dive was with Josh and David to conduct Roving Diver Fish Counts. I am supposed to stay with them. I see 5 kelp bass, 100 blacksmith, and a kelp rockfish. I start writing the data down on my slate (underwater paper, more or less) and when I look up, David and Josh are gone. I decide to keep taking data while swimming quickly and looking for them since there were other divers counting fish next to me. I continue my survey, looking down under overhangs and up towards the surface and pair back up with Josh and David.

A man and his honey. Josh Sprague forgoes the chips and dried fruit after a dive and heads straight for the honey.

I surface and David looks at my data, comparing it to his and Josh’s. “Not bad for your first time!” After our dive, it’s time to take part in a longstanding CHIS tradition- snacks. The CHIS team takes their snacks seriously, so much so that the entirety of Trader Joes is stocked in the cabinets. As I’m digging into some dried tangerines, Kelly says, “I did my best to pick up hummus, tofu, and all sorts of vegan goodies for you! They have your initials on them!” She went out of her way to accommodate my diet. The biggest downside to eating a (mostly) vegan is feeling burdensome to others. Kelly assures me that it was no burden. Admittedly, I really appreciated the effort. It is awesome to have some delicious snacks after a dive.


The view of Santa Cruz Island from our anchorage.

The sun is setting over the front side of Santa Cruz Island as we prepare to anchor in a protected bay on the backside. Cullen and I are waiting for Captain Keith Duran’s order to throw the stern anchor in. “Keith is pretty chilled out, huh?” I mention to Cullen. Cullen responds, “oh Keith? He’s super chill.” This really means something since Cullen is one of the most laid back people I’ve ever met.

Broken wetsuit- no worries! That’s Captain Keith for you.

A bit later, Kelly starts making dinner. I start talking to Keith about surfing, where we have quite a bit of crossover in our interests. Keith is a long, lanky, extremely tan guy who is usually sports some board shorts and a plaid flannel. Keith and David make the perfect team, because Keith is the ying to David’s yang- David is more excitable and Keith is as cool as a cucumber. “I mean, west coast, you know? Got to be mellow,” he says with a laugh.

Katie takes a plankton sample.

Right on cue, David comes into the galley, still halfway in his wetsuit and announces to us (all in dry clothing), “who wants to go snorkeling?!” After a day of cold, wet diving and an evening of warm, dry relaxing, David doesn’t find any takers. “Cullen! Come on, you know you want to go!” He might have convinced Cullen if dinner wasn’t ready. After a massive, delicious dinner, we all knock out for the night.


I hear the engine start and wake up. It’s 7:30 AM. All the other births are empty, I’m the last one up and semi-caught up on sleep now. When I walk upstairs into the galley, I see Kenan and Cullen along with two of our other crew mates, Katie and Connor, doing squats on the back deck. “We’re doing the squat challenge! Want to join us for some morning squats?” Katie asks me. Usually, I would accept. However, I’m still mostly asleep and Kelly cut and beautifully plated a pineapple.

“Title this one, ‘there’s a lot of love aboard the Sea Ranger II'” – Kelly Moore. David and Kenan keep us all laughing.

Once we get diving, I’m diving with Kenan and Connor. Kenan and I met during my blue card training, though this is his second year working on the KFM project. He and I get along quite well. He is a photographer that loves shooting surfers and went to school with one of my housemates. Kenan and David are certainly the two most charismatic people on board. As such, they like to give each other a hard time occasionally and have a brotherly sort of relationship over the last two years.

 

Kenan and Connor prepare to open up an ARM.

We descend and look for several ARM’s (artificial recruitment modules) on the seafloor. The ARM’s consist of a log cabin-like cylinder block structure contained inside a metal cage. Once we find our first one, we take all of the cylinder blocks out of the cage, record and measure every animal that is living in the structure, and then put all of the blocks back inside the cage how they were. The purpose of this is to get a snapshot of the diversity, abundance, demographics and distribution of organisms that are settling in crevice habitats on the reefs that we don’t sample using the other protocol.

After all the blocks are put back into the ARM, the creatures go back in!


We have just finished dinner and Kelly is keen to play some games. I’m easily rallied and Katie and Kenan are as well. This is also Katie’s second year with the KFM program. She is incredibly patient, self-motivated, amiable, and academic minded.

Kenan Chan checks out a pyrosome on the surface.

Kelly then pulls out a game called “Utter Nonsense,” where each player has to say a phrase with a specific accent like “Irish” or “giving birth.” It’s my turn to draw an accent card for the group, and I pick “New Yorker.” Everyone does a decent New Yorker accent- especially Keith who has a secret talent for accents. Katie is last to give it a shot.

She speaks at a blinding pace with some sort of far eastern accent and says, “IT’S A GOOD THING YOU ARE JUST A METER MAID–” before she is interrupted by all of us bursting into laughter. Kenan, Kelly, and I are crying and everyone is doubled over with stomach pain- including Katie. At a certain point, we were all ready to stop laughing until Kenan says, “what was that accent?! It was Chinese!” and eeks out one of his signature high pitch laughs, which then spread to the entire group.

One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. Kelly clips her nails underwater after finding some new nail clippers!

This is really indicative of the closeness of the CHIS crew. They live together in small quarters, sharing meals and personal space several months a year. It’s trips like this that have been my favorite this summer- where I am living with the crew in cramped quarters. This sort of camaraderie can’t be replicated in an office and it’s the sort of thing that I love.

The big family-style dinners aboard the Sea Ranger II help bring the KFM family closer.


It’s a warm day out in the Channel Islands. Cullen and I are swatting kelp flies off of us while David pitches a pilot study to us under his wide-brimmed hat. The crew has been seeing brittle star barrens on the backside of Anacapa island. Brittle star barrens are what happens after urchin populations increases rapidly, eat all of the giant kelp (the foundation of a kelp forest ecosystem), and die off or leave. This barren, uninhabited landscape is prime for the taking, and brittle stars capitalize, disabling anything else (including kelp) from growing.

David teaches us how to make the fake algae.

David has noticed that there is a type of algae that the brittle stars don’t like. When the algae touches them, they leave. He has recreated the algae before using a variety of natural materials, all of which ultimately degraded or broke off, damaging other marine life. Plastic is his last resort, which he wanted to avoid, but he believes that it will work and the team can easily retrieve it when the study is done so no trace will be left.

The fake algae also makes a nice neck tie for the Captain.

The team starts assembling the plastic fake algae on a long weighted line, which will be laid on the bottom of a brittle star barren in an effort to displace the brittle stars. Though we are all focused on the task at hand, we can’t help but notice Connor’s sunburn. Connor is the only one aboard who spent some of his formative years on the east coast and this is his first KFM trip. Needless to say, his skin is not used to the sun on the Sea Ranger II. He’s a tall strapping lad who is wholesome in every way. He is just a likeable guy, so agreeable, polite, and hard working. He also has a super power of generating warmth underwater that isn’t shared by anyone else on board.

Connor’s advice on prepping dinner for a crew of 9? “Make way more than you think you need.”

As we set down our coconut La Croix’s (the KFM drink of choice) and dive in, the pilot study dive turns into a real treat for the crew. Captain Keith comes along as well in a 3 piece wetsuit (it was a two piece farmer john, but then one of the arms tore off). This is the first time in a long time that the crew gets to work all together on one task. I have my camera in the water documenting both the crew and what the site looks like at the start of the project. At the end of the project, they will compare the photos to mine and see if this management tactic worked.

I am blown away by the brittle star barren. It’s an incredibly boring landscape to look at, but one that I’ve never seen. It’s impressive- millions of brittle stars just carpeting the bottom. The real highlight of the dive for everyone though was the giant sea bass that cruised by us a few times. Giant sea bass are the largest fin fish around the Channel Islands, growing to 500+ lbs and 8 feet in length. Though they are more common now than when I was younger, they nearly went extinct in the 1970’s due to commercial and recreational overfishing.

Katie Grady checks out our giant friend.

I have dove with giant sea bass before and it’s hit or miss in terms of approaching them. Some are much more skiddish than others. This one was medium-skiddish. I ended up not getting the exact shot that I wanted, but I was just happy to see the big fella.


“You, making me happier

Now I am snappier, while I’m with you”           

I’m feeling great today and feel the need to sing this morning. “Anyone like Shuggie Otis?” I ask the crew. After getting a bunch of shoulder shrugs, Katie asks me, “who’s that?” “He is a musician! I’d say he’s like…one step below Zappa in terms of notarity.” Kelly spits out her coconut La Croix, “HA! Is Frank Zappa now a unit of measurement?!”

Eat, Drink La Croix, Be Merry. David sporting the KFM drink of choice.

Soon enough, we are all descending onto Admiral’s reef- a site known for it’s ripping current. Today is more mild than usual, but the current is still very strong. I get to step away from survey work again today and take some photos. My goal is to get photos of everyone, but the depth we are working in makes it difficult to spread myself out- particularly with the current. I start with Kelly, migrate over to Connor and David, and then spend some time with Katie and Kenan.

When you see the kelp starting to go horizontal, you know the current is ripping. It makes avoiding entanglement impossible.

While I am setting up a shot of Kenan, I notice an octopus on the backside of a rock. I get Kenan’s attention and we try to get a good shot of the octopus. I’m always mesmerized by good octopus shots, and after trying to take one myself, I respect those shots even more. Octopuses have an incredible ability to camouflage themselves instantly…which is exactly what this octopus did. How do photographers get an octopus to not do that so that it can easily be seen? After a few attempts, I had to race over to Josh before surfacing.

Find the octopus! Hint, it’s on the right side in the center of this photo.

I only get to spend maybe 3 minutes with Josh before I have to surface, but overall it was a productive dive. On the surface, David yells, “Cullen! We are going to get schooled!!” I already know he is talking about yellowtail, the fish of choice for seafood eaters in California. David convinces Cullen to hop in with him and look for yellowtail on our surface interval. David’s enthusiasm for getting in the water at any time of day is incredible and really sets the tone for his team.

Katie measures an urchin.


Today is the last day of my KFM tour. David feels good about what the team has accomplished this week and decides to let us do a fun dive. He chooses a spot where we might some giant sea bass. Josh and Keith stay behind on the first dive to keep an eye on the boat while the rest of us descend. After 30 minutes, we don’t see a giant sea bass, but we do get a visit from a curious sea lion. Cullen also takes it upon himself to prank David by putting a lobster carapace on his tank band.

A big group dive is the perfect way for me to close out my time at CHIS. CHIS really was a homecoming for me. It’s where everything started, from my Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society application to my blue card certification. I felt at home in the kelp forest seascape, surrounded by familiar faces that speak my California slang.

Something that Channel Islands does very well is outreach. Part of that is creating some of their own media. Here, Kenan is getting footage for an underwater video.

The CHIS team is one of the most tight-knit I’ve worked with in my entire life. They know how to perfectly walk the line of having fun and remaining productive. It was an honor to work with this crew under the California sun, but I can’t lie- I’m excited to head to my next stop in Hawai’i and lose 9mm of neoprene!

I’ll miss the Channel Islands, but I’ll be back before I know it! Here is the full KFM crew on the Sea Ranger II. Back (top-bottom): Kenan, Josh. Middle (L-R): Connor, David, Keith. Bottom (L-R) Myself, Kelly, Katie, Cullen.

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One Team, One Dream: A Story of Science and Teamwork at Virgin Islands National Park

“That’s the last flight of the day, your luggage will probably come in tomorrow. What hotel are you staying at?” a sea plane employee tells me on St. Thomas. “I’m not staying in a hotel. I’m supposed to be in St. John right now,” I respond. I have been waiting in the sea plane terminal in downtown Charlotte Amalie for 3 hours for my camera gear that won’t be coming in today. I’m more than a little bit concerned. The camera gear is incredibly valuable and it’s not mine. Furthermore, I’m supposed to start work on a boat tomorrow morning on St. John.

The sea plane ride was beautiful, but proved costly.

Phone service is spotty at best in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I try calling a few people that I know on St. John, and get finally get ahold of someone. “Good grief, well, welcome to the Virgin Islands!” Jeff says after hearing my story. “No worries, do what you need to do, get your luggage, and we’ll see you tomorrow evening back at the dock.”Luckily for me, I know some people on St. Thomas as well. I meet my friend Lora, who grew up with me on Catalina Island, for some dinner downtown and she takes me across the island to the Red Hook area.

Life in the Caribbean, particularly St. Thomas, is a paradox. It is very laid back and incredibly frantic all at the same time. Music blares out of cars weaving in and out of traffic on busted roads while the weather switches constantly between brutal heat and pouring rain, but no one really has an issues with it. As we approach where I’ll be staying for the night, I get a text from Andy Davis. “Hey brother, I won’t be back at the condo when you arrive. Joey Contillo is there.” I worked with Andy at Dry Tortugas National Park. He is a member of the South Florida Caribbean Network (SFCN) monitoring team and offered me a couch to crash on for the night.

Lora and I in my St. Thomas residence for the evening.

Lora and I pull up to the condo and see a shoeless man outside. He is extremely tan, has a long blonde ponytail, and looks like he’s been on the water everyday for the past 20 years. “Is that your guy?” Lora asks me. I tell her that I don’t think it is. We spend a few minutes grabbing my gear and head to the front door. I knock three times. “Delivery?” someone inside says. I respond, “no?” The blonde tan man that we saw earlier walks casually toward us from the other side of the screen door. “Sorry man, I’ve been waiting on a food deliver. I’m starving!” he says. “No worries, I’m Shaun. Did Andy get a chance to tell you about me yet?” I ask. “No, I don’t think so,” he ponders. “Well, umm, I’m staying with you guys tonight,” I inform him. “Right on! Come on in!” Turns out, this is Joey Contillo. One of the most senior members of NOAA’s dive team, with personality as laid back as he looks. Also turns out that Lora knows him and my other housemate for the night, Laughlin Siceloff. They all worked together on the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) on St. Thomas last year and Joey and Laughlin are working on NCRMP right now on St. Thomas.

As Joey chows down on his delivery food and Laughlin fires up Game of Thrones on the TV, we all chat and get to know each other. As Andy arrives, Lora leaves. I say my goodbye to my old island friend and greet Andy as we get ready for bed. I am incredibly thankful for Andy, Laughlin, and Joey taking me in, being stranded on St. Thomas for the night, and Lora for driving me an hour over to the east side of the island.


I’m at the Red Hook ferry terminal slapping mosquitos in the heat and talking to local cab drivers about how they never make money driving people all the way to the airport. I can barely understand some of them through their thick Caribbean accents. A cab driver pulls in and walks around looking for someone. I think it’s me, so I go up and ask. “Can I see your ID please?” he asks in return. I show him and he says, “follow me.” He has my camera gear. I had debated calling my supervisor (Brett Seymour) to let him know that I didn’t have my camera gear and didn’t know exactly where it was. I didn’t, figuring it’d be best not to get him involved unless it didn’t come in today. Glad I didn’t call him!

Kelly O’Connell, subsurface.

Upon arriving at the terminal on St. John, Kelly O’Connell (SFCN intern from the Dry Tortugas blog) picks me up. After grabbing groceries, she takes me up to the “Biosphere,” the name of U.S. Virgin Islands National Park headquarters.

The view of Cruz Bay from my window at the biosphere.

As soon as we pull in, I hear someone shout “Shaun!” like they are about to get crushed by a heavy object and need my help moving it. Then I hear someone else shout it the same way. It’s Lee Richter and Mike Feeley (SFCN team members) saying my “nickname” from my time at Dry Tortugas National Park. “Come here divers!!” I say as I give them both a big hug and help unload their dive gear for the day. Hugging Mike is always a challenge, since he’s about 6’4” and I’m a meager 5’9”. I’m extremely excited to see these guys and be able to work with them. I really bonded with the SFCN team at Dry Tortugas and this feels like a homecoming of sorts.

I’m here in St. John to help with NCRMP. NCRMP takes place on all of the Virgin Islands every year. It is a big multi-year multi-agency project between the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Atmosphere (NOAA), and several universities. The NCRMP teams take data on the health of the reef systems around the islands, including reef fish populations, coral growth and abundance, and water quality. By taking this data year after year, they can see whether the coral reefs and fish populations are growing or shrinking and whether water quality is improving or not. When compared with weather and temperature records along with policy and management decisions, the NCRMP study can inform managers and law enforcement of how their decisions are impacting the health of the parks’ natural resources (which in turn affects the entire region’s natural resources).

NPS, NOAA, and EPA are represented on every boat. Here we have (L-R) Lee Richter (NPS), Myself, Jeff “J Mills” Miller (NPS), Debbie Santavy (EPA), Caitlin “T Dubs” Langwiser (NOAA), and Shay Neve (NOAA). Photo Credit: Jay Grove / NOAA.

Once we get all the gear rinsed and put away, we head out to meet some of the rest of the team for dinner. “Shaun!” Rob Waara shouts, in only the way that an SFCN team member can. We hug it out while I meet Jay Grove and Caitlin Langwiser from NOAA. Caitlyn was an intern for SFCN a few years prior and now works for NOAA. Like many others in the Caribbean, Caitlin is a “Nutmegger,” or someone from Connecticut. She is quick-witted, always positive, and has the most unbelievable air consumption underwater that you will ever witness.

Rob Waara at an SCR site…my favorite kind.

Rob takes out a bunch of genips, a small tropical fruit that I love, while Jay tells us how allergic she is to tropical fruit- especially mangos. Not a minute after, a mango drink that is on the table tips over and spills all over Jay. Jay laughs and is a good sport about it. “Secretly, I can feel the hives breaking out,” she says half-jokingly. “Jay, you’re not going to be able to dive with us tomorrow! You won’t be able to get into your wetsuit once you’re all swelled up!” Rob chimes in as we all laugh. This is a such a classic SFCN moment. I missed these guys.

Jay Grove underwater, once the mango hives wore off.


“Always Alert, Never Hurt…sounds like a Thomas Kelly catch phrase,” Caitlyn says. The phrase is displayed on the Acropora, the boat I am on today with Caitlyn, Jeff, Lee, Debbie Harris (EPA), and Shay Neve (NOAA). We get to the boat after Randy gives the entire team our morning brief and introduces me to everyone. It is a pretty awe-inspiring operation. NCRMP is happening on St. Thomas and St. John concurrently, involves three different organizations (NPS, EPA, and NOAA), and draws on staff that live as far as New Orleans and Maryland. Since the surveys require an intimate knowledge of both Caribbean fish and coral species (which I do not have), I have been assigned to take photos for the team. I will be hopping boat to boat during my time in St. John to try to get as many photos of as many different teams as possible.

Me living up to the motto, “always alert, never hurt.” Photo credit: Jay Grove / NOAA

One of the biggest issues that the science community faces, and the one that I am most interested in, is how can we effectively communicate with the general public? While I have many thoughts on this broadly, specifically, the first step for this team in communication is simply to let the public know what they are doing. A photo can tell that story more quickly and effectively than a press release. It’s easier (and let’s admit it, more fun) to consume. Needless to say, I’m excited to get going on my photo tasks.

The NCRMP team. Front (L-R): Myself and Caitlin Langwiser. Middle (L-R): Debbie Santavy, Cheryl Hankins, Peggy Harris, Shay Neve, Jay Grove, Kelly O’Connell, Mark Monaco. Rear (L-R): Matt Johnson, Justine Kimball, Lee Richter, Adam Glahn, Thomas Kelly, Randy Clark, Jeff Miller, Mike Feeley.

As I grab the last cylinder to load onto the boat, I’m followed by Jay Grove, or as I’ve begun to call her “J-groove.” “I’m coming with you for moral support!” she says, as I huck the cylinder on my shoulder.

Because the sites were so uninteresting, I tried to use the sun for a bit of fun. Here’s Shay Neve with her data sheet.

The first two sites that we go to are classified as “SCR,” or scattered coral rock. SCR sites are unanimously the least liked sites. It’s not hard to see why- the sites are essentially rubble formed from dead and broken coral on a homogenous, flat bottom.

These sorts of soft corals are non-existent at SCR sites.

Shooting in this kind of environment is a challenge for me. It’s hard for me to make a photo visually interesting when there is so little that is inherently visually interesting in the environment. The third site that we go to is extremely shallow. “What’s the depth on this one?” Lee asks as wind-driven little waves lap past the hull. “3 feet, you guys are going to have to swim in a bit from the drop off point,” Jeff responds, fearing the possibility of running the boat aground.

Turns out, the site really is 3 feet deep. It’s a challenge for the whole team to try to stay down while minding hard corals in the area. That being said, it’s the most dynamic environment we have seen all day and I’m pretty happy to be there.


“When it comes to us that live here in the VI, we are all out here, but we aren’t all here,” Thomas Kelly tells me during a surface interval. Thomas is the Chief of Natural Resources at Virgin Islands National Park. Sporting a serious mustache, Thomas is a well-liked leader within NPS. He leads by example, working long hours and always staying level-headed. He is also quite the history buff when it comes to St. John in particular.

Kelly O’Connell runs a benthic survey.

Also on the boat with us is Kelly, Mike, Cheryl Hankins (EPA), and Matt Johnson (NOAA). Cheryl is responsible for taking water samples at many of the sites we visit. While the rest of the team largely focuses on the health of fish stocks and corals over time, Cheryl’s water quality data can help answer the question of why. For example, why have corals recovered in these two bays but not the third? Though water quality cannot be ordained as the single reason why, Cheryl hopes to find out how big of a role it plays in the health of the ecosystems around St. John.

Kelly O’Connell and Cheryl taking water quality samples.

After struggling with a few sites that had strong current, big waves, and whipping wind, we head to a more protected spot behind the shelter of some magnificent jagged rocks offshore a bit. This is a bedrock site, so it should have more interesting structure. Once underwater, I take some photos of Kelly and Cheryl while they run benthic (sea floor) surveys. I’m not allowed to go near the fish survey team until they finish their survey. I can skew their data by scaring fish into or out of their survey area.

Kelly and Cheryl tag team a benthic survey.

I get a few shots of Cheryl and Kelly that I like, so I begin exploring the site. I swim to the backside of the site where there are three distinct and fairly dramatic underwater slot canyons. I signal to Mike that I want him to come over when he can. I try to explain, using hand signals, the shot that I have envisioned in my head. Admittedly, I’m still learning how best to communicate staged photo ideas underwater with my hands, which Mike found out quickly.

The underwater structure at this site was incredible.

“I can’t believe I messed up the tunnel shot!” Mike exclaims back on the boat. Mike not-so-secretly really enjoys photography. He isn’t explicit about it, but he lights up when he sees a good image or takes a nice shot himself. Hence, he is always up for helping me out as a photographer. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what you wanted. Man, that tunnel was so cool, I can’t believe I messed up the tunnel shot!” I assure him that we’ll find something else equally as cool to photograph later on.

The shallow part of “the tunnel.”


On our next dive, it’s more of the same on my end. I take photos of the team performing different surveys, trying to show the methods they are using in a way that someone looking at the picture can understand. After the fish survey team is done, Mike signals to me to come over. He points out some fish that caught his eye- dog snapper, giant porcupine, and a few indigo hamlets. I think that Mike figured it out pretty quickly at Dry Tortugas. I am a fish guy. Corals are wonderful creatures and the backbone of tropical ecosystems, but from childhood, I’ve always been a fish guy. My earliest memories of wanting to go into marine science came from looking at fish in buckets that fishermen on local piers would catch. Mike is also a fish guy, so anytime that either of us see an interesting fish, we point it out to one another. Of course, he has a much better idea of what makes a fish interesting in the Caribbean than I do.

Mike Feeley- a fishy guy completing a fishy survey.

Thomas also pointed out a fish to me- a juvenile spotted drum. It is truly an incredible fish. The size of a thumbnail, with huge ribbon-like streamers coming off the top and bottom of its body. Watching the fish swim is like watching a talented gymnast perform a flag floor routine. Because of its small size, I can’t get a photo of it, but it will forever stick in my memory.

Even the smallest corals get measured!

Back on board, we secure the deck and head to St. Thomas to get our nitrox cylinders filled. There is only one dive shop on St. John and they don’t have the ability to fill nitrox. We arrive to be greeted by Andy Davis who out of his way to say hi and help us unload after diving the full day himself, pretty telling of his character.

“That’s an aggressive stance!” Thomas Kelly tells me in regard to this iguana charging me while I take this photo.

We are waiting for the cylinders to finish filling and Thomas is taking a phone call. Kelly is cracking up, “Tom’s getting charged by that iguana!” I see an iguana racing towards Thomas. He stamps his foot and hollers at it to scare it off as we are all laughing at this point.

Being the one with the camera, I have very few shots of myself at work underwater. Here’s one Mike Feeley snagged!


It’s 7 PM in St. John’s Cruz Bay. It’s really the only “town” on the island and it’s center is small, but full of life. Myself and many members of the NCRMP team are out to dinner. Justine Kimball (NOAA) is there as well. I’ve been crossing paths with Justine for the entire week but haven’t actually been able to talk to her. She is in charge of this NCRMP mission.

“Half Moon Bay?! Home of the famous Mavericks?!” I exclaim upon finding out that Justine is a Californian as well. It’s fairly uncommon to meet Californians in the Caribbean, so I relish in meeting my fellow west coast friends when it happens. Not only is she from California, but she went to school at UC Santa Barbara, where I am currently enrolled. Justine is particularly interested in my photos, since she wants to make NCRMP more visible and get the mission a little more publicity. It’s fulfilling to come to a park where the park (and in this case EPA and NOAA) are interested in using the photos that I’m taking. It certainly makes me feel like I’m contributing something unique.


“You’re going to get some great photos here in Coral Bay today. You’re going to love it, great vis, 5 feet at least,” Rob tells me. Today I’m diving the south side of the island (a departure from the other days I’ve been here) with Jay, Rob, Mark Monaco (NOAA), Adam Glahn (NPS), and Peggy Harris (EPA). As Rob predicted, the water is extremely green and murky. Once we drop down, the fish survey team aborts the dive. The poor visibility inhibits them from taking a proper fish survey. The surveys are done by a diver who records all fish within an imaginary 7m radius cylinder around them. If they can’t see the fish in that 7m, than the survey method doesn’t work.

Jay Grove drops into Coral Bay, while the color-coordinated Peggy Harris waits her turn.

While we wait we wait on the surface for the benthic survey team, we find a way to pass time. “It’s a cool one, it’s French I think,” Jay says in deep thought, “Des Moines!” We all groan and can’t believe we forgot the capital of Iowa. “Ok, Kentucky,” Mark announces. As we try to guess more state capitals, the benthic team surfaces. “Frankfurt!” Jay exclaims. “As you can tell, you guys really missed out on some exciting times topside,” Mark tells the benthic team. Peggy hops back on board and I take a minute to admire her color-coordinated dive gear. Her fins, mask, snorkel, wetsuit, BCD, and head band are all pink. Quite the fashionable feat really.

Peggy preps for a benthic survey.

We finish one more murky site and then meet with Mike Feeley to give him our used cylinders that his boat will then take into St. Thomas. Our next site is much more clear and provides me with the first useable photos of the day. “Nice work down there guys!” Rob says to Jay and I. “Well, us Scorpios are known for our high quality work,” Jay responds. Jay and I have been joking all week about being a Scorpio. Our astrological sign seemingly gets the short end of the stick when it comes to redeeming qualities. We try to prop up our sign at every possible turn when someone compliments us. Besides being a Scorpio, Jay is quite the jokester and speaks as quickly as her New England roots would dictate. She can find the comedy in anything, which keeps her smiling all the time.

Strangely, this was the first sting ray I saw all summer.

Our last dive of the day signals the end of diving for NCRMP and my last dive in the Caribbean. I’m going to miss diving in a rash guard and board shorts at my next stop in California.


“Shaun!” Lee shouts in the way the SFCN guys say my name, “there may be an opportunity to get on a surfboard before dinner if you’re interested.” “Done, when are we leaving?” I reply. We are waiting on Lee’s car to arrive. After about 30 minutes, Lee gets a little pessimistic. “I may have gotten a little ambitious, we certainly aren’t going to have much time,” he voices his concern to me. I encourage Lee, who doesn’t need much encouragement, and say, “it’s always worth it!” Lee is a lot like myself in many ways, and doesn’t need much convincing when it comes to doing something outside.

Colorful tunicates and sponges are common underneath rocky overhangs.

After a catching some really fun, tiny waves that we had all to ourselves, we head to the first of two final dinners. At the table, I ask Caitlyn about her nickname. SFCN loves to give nicknames to their interns. They say my name in the funny way they do, Kelly is known as “R. Kelly” (after the rapper), and Caitlyn was lovingly given the nickname “trainwreck,” or “T Dubs” for short. She was given this name not because of her work or tendencies in the field, but because of the oddly comedic and slightly tragic events that happen to her (and could only happen to her) in her daily life. “When I was about 12, I was doing a long road trip with my dad and the back windows of the car were rolled down a little less than halfway. We are driving along, enjoying the scenery when a bird flies in through the window, slams straight into my head, and dies immediately in my lap. I’m scared, confused, and a little emotionally scarred with a dead bird in my lap. I am balling, crying, and telling my dad that there is a dead bird in my lap. He’s convinced that there isn’t, so we just keep driving,” she tells us while we erupt into laughter.


It’s the last day that the NCRMP team is in St. John. I decide to go on a hike with Lee, who knows the trails in the park better than most island residents. He picks me up and we make a stop at the pharmacy for me. I need to pick up thank you cards and Jeff told me my best bet is the pharmacy. After strolling through the card section, I ask an employee if they sell thank you cards in packs of 10 or so. They usually do, but don’t right now. They only have one pack of any kind of card right now, and it is a religious card that has a cross on the front and the words “In Celebration” beneath it. I debate whether I should buy them. Deciding they are likely blank inside, I buy them thinking I can work with that.

Lee Richter capturing my best Tarzan impression on our way up Fish Bay Gut.

20 minutes later, Lee and I are hiking up Fish Bay Gut- a boulder ravine full of mild rock scrambles. Lee points out edible and harmful plants along the way and I’m very entertained by the creative nature of the islander naming convention. “This one looks like a pineapple plant, but isn’t. The fruits are small and taste fairly similar to pineapples. It’s called ‘false pineapple.’” Further along, my hat gets caught on a sharp vine and stays there as I walk past. “This one is called grab and keep, you can see why.”

Taino petroglyphs.

On our ascent, we talk sports, relationships, careers, and everything in between. Lee is an amazing guy who, at this point, I see as a friend first and a colleague second. The rest of the hike is filled with Danish roads, sugar mill ruins, Taino petroglyphs, and dry waterfalls. “This is some heart of St. John stuff right here, few visitors do this kind of stuff,” Lee remarks.

Back at Lee’s place, we get ready for our last night out with the NCRMP team. I take out my religious “In Celebration” cards to start writing thank you notes for the NCRMP team that brought me out to the island. “Oh boy. These are actually event invitation cards and they are pretty religious. Wow. I’m not sure I can use these,” I say to Lee. The cards are not blank like I thought they would be. They have lines for date, time, occasion, place, and RSVP. At the bottom it says “Praise the Lord! Psalms 52:1.” “I think you could, you just have to play it up right,” Lee convinces me. “Well, they will certainly remember me and it’s all I have, so I’m going with it!”

The dramatic landscape of St. John.


“This is ‘B-‘ material,” Caitlyn criticizes my card jokingly, “an invitation card with no invitation!” she says jokingly. The cards end up going over quite well with the team. Our final night is lots of fun and a great opportunity to chat with everyone that I may not have seen as much throughout NCRMP. There are challenges of bringing three agencies together to work on a project. Each agency has their own protocols, schedule, and have staff that are based in different and distant locations. However, the NCRMP team seemed to work seamlessly throughout the week. I believe it’s because this group of people enjoys each other on and off the water. Everyone gets together almost every night to tell stories and share laughs. The synergy goes past the point of functionality and is really something for any other inter-agency project to aspire to.

 

As I prepped to head out in the morning, Mike Feeley gave me his hooded vest so I could stay a bit warmer back west. I thanked him in particular for having me out a second time. I already felt strongly about my connection with the SFCN team after Dry Tortugas, and that has only grown stronger here in St. John.

I’m going to miss all of the NCRMP team and SFCN in particular as I head west. I will certainly miss warm waters and the ease of diving without a wetsuit when I’m covered in 12mm of neoprene at my next stop. Though admittedly, I’m excited to head back to Channel Islands. It’s the National Park that started it all for me. So until next time, this is “Shaun!” signing off from the Caribbean.

Kelly O’Connell peaces out after a week of NCRMP!

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Marine Monitoring at the Beautiful and Haunting Kalaupapa National Historic Park

It’s two o’clock in the morning at my house in Santa Barbara, CA. All of my housemates are asleep as I milk the last bit of internet I will have for the next week while I’m on the R/V Sea Ranger with Channel Islands National Park (CHIS). I’m trying to book my flight into Kalaupapa National Historic Park (KALA) on the island of Molokai after having no internet at back to back to back stops.

Seems simple enough, there is only one airport listed on the island. I book a flight to O’ahu and then a second over to Molokai and a sense of relief kicks in. I can now peacefully catch 4 hours of sleep and drive to CHIS headquarters.


One of the first sites you see at Kalaupapa is this art piece done by a patient that has since passed.

6 days later and I’m at my mom’s house in Los Angeles checking my email. I see an email from Eric Brown, the Marine Biologist at KALA.

Shaun, you will want to book your flight to KALA (LUP airport code) rather than topside Molokai (MKK) also known as Hoolehua. Otherwise you will have to hike the trail with your dive gear. Not an easy task.

Apparently there is more than one airport on Molokai after all. Several phone calls later, I get on the line with Makani Kai airlines. “You know not just anyone can fly to Kalaupapa. What are you doing there? Who is your sponsor?” the airline representative asks me. I give him the information he needs and 12 hours later, I’m on an 8 passenger plane flying over the highest sea cliffs in the world on the north shore of Molokai.

The view from the plane coming into KALA is the stuff dreams are made of.


One of the airline employees based at KALA comes to open the side door, “Ooooh! Looks like we’ve got all the kids on the school bus today!” He proceeds to say hi to almost everyone on the plane. I didn’t have a chance to thoroughly research KALA before I came due to lack of internet. I can tell it is smaller than I thought it was.

Taken from the front row, the planes going into KALA are small-9 people including the pilot!

“You must be Shaun!” Eric picks me out of a very small “crowd” coming off of the plane. I can tell Eric has been in Hawai’i for a long time. His grey hair contrasts with his dark tan and his mismatched flip-flops scream, or rather mumble, that he is an easy going guy.

We hop in his truck and he shows me around “the settlement,” or Kalaupapa. KALA is located on a small northern peninsula of Molokai. The history behind its current form is that it was founded as a place to send people that had contracted Hansen’s disease. Hansen’s disease is more commonly referred to as leprosy, but as this name brings many negative connotations for the remaining patients at KALA, I will refrain from using it in the blog.

No one really knows why these holes are in the floor inside of the original Catholic church at KALA. Many believe it was for the afflicted to drain fluid from open wounds that they often had.

When Hansen’s disease hit Hawai’i in the 19th century, King Kamehameha V exiled all afflicted to KALA. More often than not these were children, younger than 12 years old. Children are the most susceptible to contracting the disease. They would be ripped from their families and sent to die at KALA since there was no cure. Their families would frequently disown them as well. Hansen’s disease was thought to be genetic and it was taboo to associate with someone who had the disease.

If families wanted to visit their children, it would happen here. Families would be with armed guards on the left and children would be on the right. There was a chain link fence that ran down the middle of this table before Hansen’s disease was cured.

If the families did want to visit, they would do so accompanied by armed guards and speak to their children through a chainlink fence in a small room. Remnants of this intense segregation between patients and everyone else is all over KALA. KALA staff had their own seating sections in any shared space, all staff housing units were fenced in and patients could not enter. During this time, over 8,000 people died at KALA. Many graves are marked, but many more are not. In the 1940’s, a cure was discovered. The remaining patients at KALA were given a choice: stay at KALA and have all of your living and health costs covered forever, or leave and be on your own. Most decided to stay. Not only was the price right, but the community at KALA was the only family they’d known. As a society, we came to find out that Hansen’s disease is one of the least communicable diseases in the world and only 4-5% of the human population is even susceptible.

Here in the social hall, the kokua (helpers of patients) sat in the back section, separate from the patients in the from.

Today, KALA is very small. There are about 10 patients and 80 NPS or state employees that live in the settlement. You must be sponsored by a settlement resident to enter. Though small, it is semi-self sufficient by necessity as the settlement isn’t connected to the rest of the island by road. There is a small store (emphasis on small), gas station, hospital/care center, and garden.

Over 8,000 people have died at Kalaupapa, most of which have been buried in unmarked fields.

As I am getting settled into my new abode, Eric invites me over for dinner, “I’m vegan, special needs child if you will, so there won’t be any meat. Hope you don’t mind!” This is actually music to my ears. My diet is mostly vegan as well and it’s nice to not be a burden on the person cooking for you sometimes.

Eric at dinner with his cat that doubles as a neck pillow.

After consuming a massive stir fry, Eric takes me to the backyard. “You like apple bananas? These are ready to go and I can’t eat them all,” he says pointing up to a banana tree. I tell him that bananas would be great, especially since I don’t have food in the settlement yet.

Banana trees only fruit once and grow incredibly quickly. To get the bananas off a tree, you simply cut down the tree. Some equate banana trees to weeds that produce delicious fruit. However, I’ve never actually seen one being cut down. Eric uses what is essentially a butter knife. “You can use anything really, the trunks are real soft, it doesn’t take much!”

I am still surprised that these big trees come down so easily.

After we mind the banana resin (a stain nightmare for clothing) and grab the bananas, we game plan for the next day. “You need to go get food tomorrow. You’ll have to hike up the trail topside. It takes about an hour each way and you gain a little more than 2000 ft in elevation. Do you have a good backpack?” Eric asks me. “Yeah, I’m all set on a backpack. I just need to know where the trail is,” I tell him. “Ok, that won’t be too hard. Once you’re up there though, you’ll need to get into town. Do you know how to drive stick?” Ahhh, manual transmissions come back to bite me again. This is probably the one skill that I’ve gone the longest without learning when it comes to useful travel skills. “Regrettably, no” I respond. “That’s ok, I believe there is a bus that goes into town now too!”


The hunt for groceries starts at 5:30 AM. After choosing the wrong trail twice, I’m on the right one and half way through my switchbacks up the sea cliffs. “Hey bruddah, howsit?” a local says as he passes me. I haven’t heard “howsit” in a while, I must be back in Hawai’i!

Morning light hits the KALA cliffs.

I get to the top of the trail, hop on the bus, and get into town. Kaunakakai is a funny town. There aren’t many people, but there is always traffic because every car stops in the middle of the road to talk to their friends on the street. It feels like a glimpse into what the rest of Hawai’i was 70 years ago.

Downtown Kaunakakai feels like my grandfather’s Hawai’i.

After I buy what I need, wait for a few hours, and hop on the bus back to the trailhead, I’m on my way back down. There is an abundance of strawberry guava on the trail and I pick as much of it as I can without slowing down. I’ve never even seen it until now and it is so much better than normal guava.


We have a transect laid out on the ground and I am taking photos with a camera on the side of the transect. “This is exactly it! Keep you’re a constant distance from the ground using your monopod. We will analyze all the photos post-hoc (later) to figure out bottom composition and coral cover,” Eric informs me.

What we are doing is part of a long-term inventory and monitoring project in the park. Eric has a few sites that he goes back to year after year and a few others that are randomly chosen every year. We will be doing benthic surveys using the camera at each of these sites. This portion is my responsibility, while Eric does fish surveys. Once those tasks are complete, we will measure rugosity of our site (how complex the sea floor structure is). Topside, we will be taking water samples and using mechanical equipment to measure specific water quality parameters.

What Kalaupapa lacks in phone service, it makes up for in views.

All of these measurements give a complete picture of how healthy a site is and why it might be that way. More rugose sites (more complex structure) tend to have more fish. Sites with worse water quality will have less coral. These types can only come through long-term projects. One observation could be an anomaly. If the data is the same year after year, we know that it isn’t an anomaly. Furthermore, if the data is changing, we need to look at why and what can be done about it. Why is there better coral growth at this site this year? Is it because of a management practice put in place by the park?

Eric Brown takes a water quality sample with a niskin bottle.

Eric, more than anyone, understands the importance of this. He is a true scientist, whose mantra is “data or die!” He has the motivation of someone half his age. His determination to get the data is exactly what is needed at KALA, where he is on his own and doesn’t really have a “staff” underneath him. He’s a data cowboy of sorts, on a wild frontier where he works with whatever equipment he can get. He is the marine team here and it’s because of him this study has been happening.


“Our truck has good drainage, eh?” a park employee says as he points to the eroded truck bed. The constant exposure to salt at KALA is brutal for the vehicles. Eric washes the truck with freshwater after every dive day, but the space between the bottom of the tuck bed and the side walls is completely gone.

Laurene filtering sea water for a sample.

We load up the truck with all of our gear for the day and head out. Laurene, a park intern from France, is coming out with us today since her focus is mostly on water quality. This is her second tour in Hawai’i after working in O’ahu last summer. She is entering the natural science field after a stint in business management and is pretty giddy about it. Though she gets sea sick, she has an infectious laugh that keeps the crew in good spirits.


“This is going to a beautiful site baby! I can just tell!” Eric exclaims as we pull up to our dive site. We grab our gear and descend on a very boulder-y site with sporadic coral and excellent visibility. Things go smoothly underwater and we work through small kinks here and there. I see a couple umilo (blue fin trevalley), which I immediately anoint as my second favorite fish (the first being the Hawai’ian state marine fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’a).

One of the only boats we saw all week. There isn’t much traffic at our survey sites.

Back on the boat, we take several water quality samples to send to USGS, who partners with NPS and analyze the samples in a lab. We also use a sonde to measure local water quality. This machine has three probes that measure temperature, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and many other water quality indicators.

Though visibility is incredible around KALA, the ocean is generally not calm. As we begin to take big swells, it becomes harder and harder to take water quality samples and filter our samples into small bottles. Especially since we are working from the bow- the place on the boat that experiences the most movement.

The sea cliffs around KALA are majestic and top 3,000 feet.

Eric then drops an empty sample bottle with a big swell. As we hear the bottle hit the deck, he shouts, “just how I planned it! Constant supervision!” We quickly finish our sampling after that and one more survey dive to call it a day.


After two more days of diving, today we may have time for one fun dive. We have spent the last two days diving on the far side of the peninsula around a few small off shore islands. One of the islands has a crack in it that starts at the surface and goes all the way to the bottom of the ocean at 80 ft. “The crack is huge, it’s like a giant swim-thru arch that you could drive a double decker bus through,” Eric tells me. He lets me bring my camera on board today as well, knowing we might squeeze a dive in at that site.

I was hoping to dive the arch all week. I’m so grateful that Eric allowed it!

After two survey dives, we eat lunch and decide that we have enough time to do the arch. When I get in the water, I almost have to put a hand over my regulator to keep it from falling out of my mouth. My jaw drops at the majesty of this arch. It is massive and so unique. I have never seen anything like it. I feel like I’m entering an underwater holy palace in a fantasy world.

Perhaps the craziest thing about the arch is the air pocket inside. Here you can see the entrance to the arch and above it, the air pocket.

After swimming as fast as possible to get in front of the other diver with me, I take some shots to try to use him as a way to scale the arch. It’s tough since he doesn’t really know this is my plan and I’m quite a distance from him. We then decide to surface in the airpocket at the top of the arch. The air pocket is inside the island and does not connect to the ambient air outside. This is my first experience surfacing inside of a giant rock before. It’s so bizarre. I take my regulator out and try to take a breath. Bad move. Let’s just say the air in there is not the best.

Best to keep your regulator in- the air in here isn’t fun to breathe.

We then swim back down and out the other side of the arch where Eric picks us up. I am elated. I have done a lot of incredible diving this summer, but this dive is on a very short list of dives that have blown my mind.


It’s the famous Friday night movie night at KALA tonight. I accompany Eric and his wife to see Gaurdians of the Galaxy 2 at Tim’s place. Tim is the chef for the remaining Hansen’s disease patients. A bunch of people from the community come and bring a plethora of delicious food- mostly vegan to include Eric in the festivities. Tim is the ideal host. He goes above and beyond for his guests and never stresses out about it. I have spent most of my days on the boat, so I haven’t gotten to experience much before now. However, this is a glimpse of the community at KALA. It is a tight-knit group where everyone knows everyone and everyone contributes. I can see why Eric has stayed here so long.


It’s my last night in the settlement before Eric, Laurene, and I go into the backcountry to do stream surveys next week. I can hear a large and blissful crowd inside a large well-lit historical hall. It’s the banquet for the annual KALA fishing tournament.

Not a bad venue to kick off the fishing tournament.

There is a NOAA team at KALA as well that helped put on the fishing tournament. I was lucky enough to see their speech at the start of the tournament, in which they tried to get the fishermen to use barbless hooks. I was really impressed at the stance that the team took and the rhetoric they were using with the locals.

“These hooks, they still catch fish. Hooking a turtle is illegal. We aren’t going to report you guys, that isn’t our goal. Please tell us though, it is important that we know when a turtle is hooked. If you use the barbless hooks, it’s so much easier to unhook a turtle or a seal. I use these hooks, all these guys (points behind to photos of fishermen with 100 lbs + fish) used these hooks. You’ll still catch fish and the marine life will be happier.”  

– NOAA Representative from the Barbless Hook team

They offered free barbless hooks and a special prize to the fishermen who caught the biggest fish on a barbless hook. Ultimately they got a couple fishermen to switch over to barbless. While their method isn’t inspiring rapid change, it is inspiring change and they have an extremely good relationship with the locals. In my mind, they are doing outstanding work and maximizing their effectiveness in their situation.

Eric Brown with the biggest catch of the tournament, a 35 lbs ulua.

The banquet concludes with a massive meal of all the fish from the tournament and local Hawai’ian food like poi (mashed taro to the point of liquid). As I chat with some KALA residents and take in the Hawai’ian music played with a ukulele, spoons, and a traditional instrument, I reflect on an incredible week of diving and a big week of backcountry hiking and surveying awaiting me next week.

At the banquet, special prizes were given out to fishermen using the barbless hooks.

To be continued…

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The Finale

The following day (9/19/17), Marybeth and I drove to the office. First, I dropped my stuff off at the house I had been staying in prior to the hurricane evacuation. It was a Tuesday so we had our usual weekly staff meeting. However, today also happened to be my birthday. The office very generously had surprised me by getting a cake and singing happy birthday. I am thankful to have been taken in by such a welcoming group of people for the majority of my internship. After the staff meeting and the birthday celebration, I took a trip to the grocery store since I had lost all of my food due to the power outages during Hurricane Irma. After I had gotten myself resettled in at Skidaway, I returned to the office and began working on my GIS maps again!

The remainder of my week was spent working on different GIS maps. My major project for the week was creating visitor use and lionfish sightings maps to be used in presentations for the Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) meeting. I created multiple different versions of each map in order to determine the best way to represent the data.

The SAC is “a community-based advisory group consisting of representatives from various user groups, government agencies, and the public at large” (Gray’s Reef). They have periodic meetings, some of which are in person and others through conference calls. Members of the SAC are spread around throughout the country. The purpose of these meetings is to update the group about the current state and conditions at Gray’s Reef, as well as bring up any concerns that may affect the sanctuary. The SAC meeting was held on Friday (9/22) at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography campus. I was able to attend the meeting, which let me see firsthand the different user groups interact with each other. It was interesting to see what issues/concerns people brought to the table.

After the SAC meeting, the “A Fishy Affair: Malicious…but Delicious” event was held the same night. A Fishy Affair is an annual fundraiser that is organized by Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (GRMSF). The mission of GRMSF is “to support and strengthen Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary as a unique and vital landmark for the community and nation through charitable and educational purposes” (GRMSF). This is the biggest event GRMSF’s puts on all year with tickets purchased ahead of time. On the night of the event, everybody arrives at The Landings Clubhouse where there are raffle tickets and lionfish cookbooks for sale. I volunteered to help sell raffle tickets during the event, which also came with the duty of wearing the lionfish mask. There were four chefs competing against each other to see who prepared the best lionfish. All attendees were allowed to try the different lionfish appetizers prepared by the chefs.

Lionfish is an invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific. It is believed that lionfish were first introduced to the Florida Keys and the Caribbean by the release of a broken beachside aquarium during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Since the initial release, lionfish have spread north and have been spotted in Georgia waters and at Gray’s Reef. For more information on lionfish please click the link here.

Next, we had a full dinner that consisted of prime rib, chicken, scalloped potatoes, green beans, etc. Also there were a variety of dessert options, but the best one had to be the cookies decorated to look like lionfish.

The night ended with an auction of 10-15 different items. The auctioneer was extremely entertaining and people ended up bidding more than the listed value of the auction items! Some of the items included a weeklong trip for a cabin in Utah, a week in a beach house on Tybee Island, a trip on a shark research vessel (only available at the auction, otherwise cannot be purchased), a Savannah porch swing, etc.

Throughout the summer, I was lucky to have a bunch of different visitors while in Georgia. My last weekend in Savannah a friend of mine that I had not seen in three years was able to visit. He is stationed at King’s Bay Naval Base, in Kingsland, Georgia. It was really nice to see so many familiar faces this summer.

My last week at Gray’s Reef started off with AIS vessel tracking. I found an interesting track of a ship entering/exiting Gray’s Reef multiple times, so we did some research to find out the purpose of this vessel and if further action needed to take place.

On Tuesday, I attended my final weekly staff meeting and we went out for my farewell lunch.

After lunch, I helped Captain Todd begin to put the GROUPER back together after the hurricane. The GROUPER holds all of the gear for dive operations and is located on the dock near our boats. Therefore, when there is a hurricane all of the equipment is moved into a more protected warehouse. We also took this opportunity to clean the GROUPER and reorganize the dive gear. This ended up taking two days in order to get everything back together.

On Wednesday, I worked on fixing my GIS maps so they can be used in the future. I took the suggestions from the SAC meeting and made appropriate edits. I also taught Marybeth how to create these maps so this resource and knowledge is not lost once my internship has ended.

This week, I also learned how to create a dive plan. A dive plan is exactly what it sounds likes; a plan for your dives, how many dives are to be completed that day, departure and arrival times at the dock, etc. This information needs to be recorded prior to leaving for dive operations so that everybody is informed. In the case that an emergency occurs or the boat has not returned according to plan, the on land person responsible for monitoring the dive plan can take the appropriate actions in these events.

My last day at Gray’s Reef ended on a perfect note; I got to spend my last day diving! We had been watching the weather since our return from Hurricane Irma and the conditions were finally optimal for dive operations. Our normal routine began at 6:30am with Marybeth picking me up and loading the dive gear. The dive plan for Thursday was to reassess and retrieve hydrophones. We needed to determine if there was any damage from the hurricane in addition to continuing our previous hydrophone assessment. Luckily we did not find any damage from the hurricane, but we did find a variety of different hurricane debris. We found a trashcan lid, window blinds, a large piece of plastic, etc.

The visibility was still greatly decreased from the hurricane stirring up the water. Even with this added challenge, we were able to find each of the intended hydrophones! However, the dives did take a little longer than at the beginning of the summer.

With my last four dives in the books, we headed back to shore. I spent the rest of the evening packing my suitcases for the last time for a little while.

One of the most helpful parts of being at Gray’s Reef was being able to talk with different staff members about future career plans. Specifically, Marybeth Head and Kimberly Roberson were extremely helpful. With their support, I have officially accepted a position as a Hydrologic Technician with the United States Geological Survey in Honolulu, Hawaii!

On Friday morning, I headed to the office to say my final goodbyes then Marybeth and I headed to the airport. Until my next adventure (Hawaii) in January, I will be headed home to Massachusetts. This summer has been quite the adventure, especially with having so many unknowns thrown at me. Even with all the curve balls, I would not trade this experience for anything in the world. It has definitely been helpful getting me to where I want to go. I cannot thank everyone enough for their continued support for making this internship possible! Until next time…

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From here to there to Everywhere

The past two weeks (9/5/17-9/18/17) have definitely been one for the books; it has undeniably been eventful to say the least! This week started by being given the opportunity to write the weekly WOW. Each week, a weekly WOW is written to inform others about what each sanctuary has accomplished. They are distributed by email throughout NOAA. The main focus of the weekly WOW was the VIP dives with Aria and the continued receiver work. Each weekly WOW is accompanied with a couple pictures showing us in action.

The following day, I was off on my first of a string of adventures. I had the opportunity to visit and tour two of the NOAA ships; the Nancy Foster and the Thomas Jefferson. Both of these ships were in port in Charleston, South Carolina and I was able to drive up from Savannah before they left. LGJT Marybeth Head set up a tour with a NOAA Corp officer prior to my arrival. Once I arrived (about a two hour drive), I met the NOAA Corp officer and was shown around both ships, from the engine rooms all the way to the bridge and everything in-between! Many of the NOAA Corp officers were bustling around the ship during the tour, preparing to head out of port.

I learned that NOAA ships often have a previous purpose, such as use in the Navy. Once a NOAA ship, each usually has a specialty or is geared towards a specific task. The Thomas Jefferson works on mapping of the ocean floor, while the Nancy Foster is a little different than most NOAA ships. The Nancy Foster is a more general ship that can accomplish many different tasks. This ship travels around to different areas throughout the year, with scheduled stops such as Gray’s Reef. The Nancy Foster usually spends about two weeks in the summer working within Gray’s Reef to help gather a bunch of different data. They have smaller boats on board that are launched each day from which the diving effort takes place. Members of the Gray’s Reef team go out on the Nancy Foster and help accomplish these diving efforts; NOAA volunteer divers have also helped. Within the NOAA Corp, each officer is assigned to a ship for a period of two years. After this, they then have a land assignment for three years. This rotation continues while in the NOAA Corp. These NOAA Corp officers aboard the Nancy Foster help according to their training.

You may be thinking right now, how exciting! However, the excitement was just beginning. After the interesting turn in events at the beginning of my internship, the first half of my summer has followed suit.

As we intently watched the weather each day, the forecast seemed clear. Hurricane Irma had other plans and we were about to make an unplanned journey from Savannah, Georgia. We hurricane prepared the office, which consisted of packaging all the valuable/important items and electronics in plastic and bags, moving the dive gear out of the GROUPER, boarding up the windows and doors, and moving the vehicle’s to a safer location. Overall, it took about a day and a half to fully prepare. Once the office was prepped, I began preparing myself. Since we did not know the extent of the storm, we decided that I should bring all of my belongings with me in case I had to fly home from a different location.

The next morning, September 8th, Marybeth and Erin picked me up at 5am and we began the drive to Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia. We decided it was better to leave early so we would miss the traffic. Marybeth’s lifelong friend is currently at Fort Benning and we stayed with them while we outwaited the hurricane. To make things a little more interesting, we had eight chickens, a cat, and boat in tow. Upon arrival at Fort Benning, we unloaded and made the chickens a makeshift pen out of a kiddie swimming pool and netting.

  

We then took a nap before the “circus” began. Including us, the house we were staying at had a total of five adults, a five-year-old boy, two 16-month-old twin girls, a dog, three cats, and eight chickens.

For the next few days, we hung out and explored the area. We visited the National Infantry Museum and Solider Center as well as a Wild Animal Safari. A Wild Animal Safari is a drive thru animal park. I had never heard of such a thing and did not really know what to expect. You are able to buy bags of food before you enter the park. The animals, such as bison, elk, deer, zebras, and cows, will literally stick their heads inside the windows of your car. It is definitely fun to see the reactions of people when there is a large bison head basically in their lap, drooling waiting for you to feed them.

The National Infantry Museum and solider center had different sections for each war. It was neat to see the different artifacts from varying time periods. My grandfather was part of the 10th Mountain Division and they had an entire section about them.

To make things a little more interesting, while evacuating for the hurricane I received an email about interviewing for a job that I had submitted an application. I responded, stating I would love to interview however, I am currently evacuating for Hurricane Irma and think I will be available at these times, but I am not really too sure.

Monday was the day the storm hit. We hung out at the house all day and thankfully did not lose power. On Tuesday afternoon, September 12th, we were able to return to Savannah, Georgia. This also happened to be the same day that my phone interview was scheduled. On our drive back, we stopped at a gas station with a dirt parking lot. Here, I completed my phone interview with the eight chickens in a dog crate in the back seat.

While driving back, we noticed damage fairly close to Fort Benning and all the way to Savannah. Thankfully, the damage mostly consisted of down trees and no major damage. Marybeth even had power by the time we returned. I was not able to return to Skidaway Institute of Oceanography where I had been staying prior to the hurricane (due to power outages), so I stayed at Marybeth’s house until I left for the AAUS symposium. Luckily, we were able to return to Savannah before my flight departed for the conference on Thursday morning.

I spent Wednesday preparing for the conference and re-packing my suitcase once again. I also explored the area surrounding the office to see if there was any damage. Everything looked all right however, we still did not have power at my previous housing or the office. I am not sure how, but a dishwasher ended up in the front lawn of the house I was staying at prior to the hurricane.

I received the Kevin Flanagan Travel Award, which allowed me to attend the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) symposium as well as present the story of my internship at the conference. Therefore, I traded in my bathing suit and shorts for dress pants for the next four days.

Pictured here is the other recipient of the Kevin Flanagan Travel Award, Elisabeth Maxwell.

Early Thursday morning, I was up and en route to the airport once again. This year the AAUS symposium was held at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. I was excited since this would be my first time visiting Michigan. I arrived in Michigan around 2 pm and entered the smallest airport I have ever seen. Only one plane (with 11 rows of seats) comes in and out each day! They did not even have gates; the plane landed on the tarmac and the steps were let down. We then walked on the tarmac, grabbed our carry on bag, and walked inside. The inside of the airport consisted of 4 rows of seats to wait for the plane and one security line. There TSA security has a total of four full time employees. To top it off, the check in line was the same as the baggage claim!

Luckily, I came in on the same flight as John S. Pearse, who received the Scientific Diving Lifetime Achievement Award and was being honored at the AAUS Symposium. I hopped a ride with him to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where I would be staying in their bunkhouse for the duration of the symposium. I found out quickly that the town of Alpena is the appropriate size for its airport.

The conference officially started on Tuesday with different workshops throughout the first couple days. The first event I attended at the conference was on Thursday night, which was called ‘the bubble breaker.’ It was essentially a meet and greet of a bunch of people attending the conference as well as a raffle and auction to raise money for AAUS internships and scholarships. I was extremely thankful to meet some of the people that have helped support my internship/travel award this summer. It was a fun filled night, where I was able to catch up with a bunch of people I had previously met during the OWUSS annual weekend in New York City, in addition to meeting a lot of new faces. I was able to catch up with Jenna Walker, the OWUSS Internship Coordinator, George Wozencraft (previous Vice President- OWUSS Internships), Heather Albright (AAUS), Vin Malkoski (OWUSS/MA Division of Marine Fisheries), and Christopher Rigaud (AAUS/University of Maine). I was also excited to see one of my mentors and the Assistant Director of Marine Sciences from my college (University of New England), Addie Waters, at the conference.

Over the duration of the conference, I had a lot of opportunities to speak with multiple Dive Safety Officers from potential graduate school options in the future. In addition to graduate school options, it was helpful to speak to people currently in this field about job opportunities and other helpful tips and suggestions.

Friday and Saturday consisted of presentations in the morning and afternoon. Friday morning, I was scheduled to present about my internship.

Other talks included scientific diving class programs and scientific research such as the use of underwater scooters effects on surveying, use of rebreathers, free diving in Japanese culture, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, etc. I was most interested in the talk about the use of scuba diving within the United States Geological Survey and the National Park Service.

On Friday evening, I went out to dinner with a group of people from the conference in downtown Alpena. Alpena is a very small town with not much around the area, except a strip of restaurants right near Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The conference ended on Saturday evening with a banquet dinner where awards were presented, such as the Diving Lifetime Achievement Award given to John S. Pearse, best student presentation, Kevin Flanagan Travel Award recipients, etc. The diving community definitely fits the definition of “It’s a small world.” At the banquet dinner, I met a fellow former employee of where my diving career began, The Florida Seabase.

The majority of people returned home on Sunday morning, however some stayed for the dive field trips the next few days. I was unable to leave on Sunday since the only plane that left sold out. Therefore, on Sunday I had an additional day to explore the area. The glass bottom boat captain from Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary showed me the surrounding area of Alpena. We saw a small fishing town, the large mine, and a state park that used to be an old mine. The mines are enormous and you definitely feel very small when a dump truck looks like the size of an ant.

I spent the afternoon walking through downtown Alpena and visiting the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary visitor center. TBNMS visitor center contains many different artifacts recovered from shipwrecks. They even have a replica of a ship that you can walk through inside the visitor center! It is filled with history of the Great Lakes.

On Monday, I had a long day of flying ahead of me. I left Alpena early afternoon to fly back to Savannah. Ironically, Reed Bohne the Regional Director for National Marine Sanctuaries at NOAA was arriving in Alpena the same time I was departing. Reed’s office is at Gray’s Reef and he is also a colleague of my advisor Susan Farady from the University of New England. Susan had introduced us when she learned that I was heading to Gray’s Reef. There was also a group of people from the conference at the airport that were taking the same flight out.

My flights went smoothly, and my final flight had a large group of young men and women that were heading to basic training for the Marines. After two connecting flights, I arrived in Savannah at 10:30pm and made my way to Marybeth’s house to crash for the night. After all my adventures these past two weeks, I was ready to stay in Savannah for the remainder of my internship!

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To Eclipse and Beyond

Excitement was in the air. All the news channels were focused on the same upcoming event; “The Great American Eclipse!” This Eclipse was a special event because it spanned across the contiguous United States, with totality passing over 14 states. The eclipse started in Oregon and ended in Charleston, South Carolina. We were planning on heading back to Gray’s Reef on Monday, however, due to technical difficulties we were on unable to go out. Our plan was to film underwater while the eclipse was happening since there is very little research on the effects on animals during an eclipse. We wanted to see if our observations were consistent with the previous studies on animal’s behavior.

Since we were unable to do this, after a quick nap I spent the day in the office. I worked on my presentation for the AAUS symposium that I would be attending in September (More details to follow on this adventure!). The whole office kept up to date on the eclipse through the NASA online media.

The eclipse ended up following the same path as the beginning of my summer. About an hour before the eclipse was supposed to pass over Savannah with 97% totality, the clouds began rolling in. At about a half hour prior to the eclipse, it began raining.

Thankfully, it slowed to a very minimal sprinkle right as totality was passing over Savannah. The clouds cleared the slightest bit and we were able to see the light at the end of the tunnel! We were able to see the moon crossing paths with the sun, however we did not experience darkness. We believe this is due to the clouds reflecting back the light.

The rest of my week was spent in the office due to boat malfunctions. I attended the weekly staff meeting as well as updated the diving effort excel spreadsheet. I worked on my Presentation on both Tuesday and Wednesday to finish it up for the conference!

On Wednesday, I created a shopping list for a new Divemaster kit for the R/V Sam Gray. The Divemaster kit contains an array of different scuba and dive gear that could potentially end a dive if it breaks or is forgotten. Each boat has their own Divemaster kit and it is part of the essential equipment that has to be taken on the boat each time. In addition this week, I was able to finish assembling the R/V Joe Ferguson First Aid kit since we were waiting on supplies that needed to be ordered. I have learned that each of these little pieces, that although tedious, are essential to dive operations. It is especially important to think ahead at Gray’s Reef since it is such a long boat ride to the sanctuary!

For the remainder of the week, my time was split between many different tasks. I learned about AIS vessel tracking as well as began using this tool. AIS vessel tracking helps Gray’s Reef know when a boat enters/exits the sanctuary and when a boat enters/exits the closed (science only) section of the sanctuary. AIS vessel tracking also gives details about the boat such as where they left from, the type of boat, where they are headed, etc. This data is useful to help understand how the public is using the sanctuary in addition to any potential red flags that the sanctuary is not being used properly.

I was also able to organize the receiver data and photos that we had collected from last week. Kim, Marybeth, and myself met to review the receiver data and ensure that everybody understood and was on the same page. It is helpful to meet and ask any questions about data collected when it is fresh in your mind. This way notes can be taken for future reference. We were also able to assess which array needed the most immediate attention and rank them accordingly. Once the receivers are back in the office, Kim has been working on downloading the data and contacting each scientist. The hydrophone picks up signals of animals that have been tagged and are within range of the array. Therefore, each scientist that has a tagged animal that has been recorded needs to be able to have access to this data. In addition, I also continued my work with GIS. Marybeth and I have been working on learning how to add xy coordinates onto a map of Gray’s Reef. We seem to be really close, but have not been able to figure out the final steps!

I have been very fortunate this summer to have so many familiar faces pass through Savannah, Georgia. This weekend once again my friends Taron and Charis came and we spent the day in downtown Savannah.

We were able to walk through all the little shops as well as tour Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of America’s, house. We got to walk through the house where Juliette grew up and learn about the history of Girl Scouts. One of the most interesting and entertaining facts that I learned was that Juliette was deaf by the time she started the Girl Scouts. In order to stop people from telling her “no,” she would tell people what she was going to do and then turn and walk away because she would not be able to hear them object!

After an eventful weekend, I began the week by continuing my GIS mapping and AIS vessel tracking projects. I receive an email from AIS vessel tracking each time that a boat enters/exits Gray’s Reef. I have been compiling this data into an excel spreadsheet to be used for future studies. It is important to log this data each day because the vessel’s track line is only available for 24 hours after it passes through the sanctuary.

This Tuesday began a little different than most. Instead of beginning the day by attending the weekly staff meeting, Marybeth, Aria, and myself woke up early and headed to Hunter Army Airfield Base at 6 am. Aria needed to complete her checkout dives in order for us to bring her on VIP dives. The checkout dives consist of preforming different skills to ensure that the diver is capable of diving the conditions at Gray’s Reef.

Photos by NOAA, Erika Sawicki

Aria is the acting superintendent at Gray’s Reef and is on assignment from NOAA headquarters in Silverspring, Maryland. In addition to completing the checkout dives while at the pool, I was able to have a little fun and try something new! We were able to test out one of our pieces of dive equipment, an underwater scooter. Underwater scooters are helpful in scientific diving by minimizing a diver’s effort as well as are helpful with getting places quicker. It has been suggested that Gray’s Reef should use underwater scooters to get from drop to drop instead of being picked up on the boat each time. This would reduce the amount of times ascending and descending as well as overall time getting on and off the boat. This would streamline the diving procedures and hopefully more data could be collected each day.

Photos by NOAA, Erika Sawicki

Once we were done at the pool, we headed back to the office for the weekly staff meeting. This week was special since we were celebrating ENS Marybeth Head’s accomplishment of becoming LTJG Marybeth Head. After our celebration, I set back to work on GIS. I have been working diligently to learn about ARCGIS with my time at Gray’s Reef. Before this summer, I had no prior experience with GIS. But since arriving in Georgia, it has been my goal to learn as much as possible with my time here. And today, I have finally accomplished one of my goals!!

I have successfully created a GIS map with xy coordinates of Gray’s Reef. I created a map that shows the sighting locations of lionfish throughout the sanctuary. I found different YouTube videos very helpful to learn the different features of ARCGIS. I also learned that sometimes it is better to start with a clean slate then keep working on the same project that has not been successful. As well, sometimes it is helpful to spend time clicking around the program, familiarizing yourself with the different features even if they are not particularly useful to your specific project.

The following day was mostly spent preparing for dive operations. I created the Float Plan for the day and helped launch and prepare the R/V Sam Gray. We cleaned up the boat and did an inventory check before we used the crane to launch the boat back in the water. It had been taken out for repairs (a reoccurring story this summer). Besides preparing for dive operations, I continued updating the diving effort and AIS vessel tracking data.

Thursday’s dive operations were slightly different than the usual dive operations. We were conducting VIP dives with Aria. Since Aria is not a certified NOAA diver, there are different rules that apply for the amount of dive buddies in the water. Therefore, instead of the usual two-three people in the water, on this day we had five divers in the water. Chris Hines and myself were conducting assessment, inventory, and retrieval of the hydrophones, while Aria and her two buddies were able to observe the work we were completing. As well, on this day we did not use bounce dives, instead after our work was completed we continued the dive. All five divers swam together around the reef, exploring the area and showing Aria different creatures. We completed two VIP dives and one additional scientific dive for a total of three dives for the day. On the scientific dive, Kim and myself were the only two divers in the water.

Photos by NOAA, Erika Sawicki

The conditions were not the best we have seen at Gray’s Reef, but it was still a successful day diving! We accomplished our goals and were able to get Aria diving at Gray’s Reef before she left to return to Maryland. That evening, we had a going away party for Aria at a local restaurant. It was nice to be able to talk to different members of the Gray’s Reef team outside of the office.

This week ended in the office where I completed multiple different tasks. I began by organizing the remaining receiver data and photos that we have been collecting this summer and continued working on my AIS vessel tracking data. Similar to the First Aid kit inventory, I was also tasked with organizing the new Divemaster repair kit that had been ordered.

I had a relaxing weekend, catching up on laundry and other things that I had not finished during the week. I took a bike ride down to the grocery store, which is the closest thing to Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Although it is the closest thing, it is still 5 miles each way.

On Labor Day, Marybeth and I went out on her boat, launching on the boat ramp off Skidaway Island. It was a bit comical because once we got down the river/marsh, the boat would not accelerate. We spent the rest of the day, idling down the river/ocean. Even just idling down the river/ocean was still a lot of fun — listening to music and looking at all the houses. I have learned to make the best out of unexpected changes in plans this summer. We ended the day by getting pizza and getting ready for the week ahead. Who knows what is to come next!

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Atlanta, here I come!

This week started off with a slow start. I completed some office work for the first two days of the week; along with attending the staff meeting and helping Marybeth bring the used tanks to the dive shop to be refilled.

Throughout the summer, Gray’s Reef holds “Gray’s Reef Tuesdays” where a ocean related media production is shown. I was able to attend the final Tuesday showing with Marybeth.

On Wednesday, I began off on a new adventure. I was headed to Atlanta on the bus to visit the Georgia Aquarium.

My friend Zach’s family was visiting Atlanta, so it worked out well that I would be able to stay with them. Thursday we spent the entire day at the aquarium. The Georgia Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in the world. It has over 10 million gallons of water within its tanks. The aquarium is split up into different sections according to climate such as the cold water quest, tropical diver, river scout, etc. We also saw the different shows such as the the seals and sea lions that had been rescued. My favorite part of the aquarium was the touch tanks. You were able to pet the sting rays in one of the exhibits!

Besides the aquarium we also were able to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which is run by the U.S. National Park Service. They have a museum of different artifacts, along with a memorial site outside.

 

Saturday, August 12th was the day we finally got to dive the Georgia Aquarium. We woke up and arrived at the aquarium in the morning. First, we were brought back stage to the top of the aquarium tank that holds the whale sharks.

There were four divers in our group since we signed up for the Rebreather dive. We were given the chance to ask the Divemaster’s any questions that we had about the aquarium before we were brought into the classroom. This classroom session is used to explain how a Rebreather works since it is different than scuba gear. Rebreather’s recycle the oxygen, instead of being released into the water. This is a more efficient use of air, and therefore you are able to stay underwater longer. In addition, when you are using a Rebreather your buoyancy control is affected. With a Rebreather you essentially have an extra pair of lungs on your BC that you are breathing the recycled air from. Therefore, you are unable to control your buoyancy by using your lungs and breath. When using a Rebreather you also have to remember that you cannot take the mouthpiece out of your mouth because of the closed circuit. This will allow water to enter the system and it will keep recycling through when you breathe. If you need to take the mouthpiece out underwater, you just have to remember to change it to open circuit.

After we learned about the Rebreathers in the classroom, we were brought back out to the deck of the aquarium tank where our equipment was waiting for us. We were shown the different parts of the Rebreather on the actual system we would be using and then were shown how to complete the safety test. This is a test done by the Rebreathers computer that checks to see if all the equipment is working properly; the test has about 35 different steps. The final step is breathing off your unit for 5-minutes on dry land. This is done because if any problems were to occur, the greatest possibility is within this time frame. After this exercise was completed, we went to the locker rooms and got our wet suits on. Finally, we were ready to get in the water!

Besides buoyancy control, the biggest difference about the Rebreather is when trying to descend. You essential have to suck all the air of your secondary lungs that are attached to your BC. When you get to the last bit of air left, you have to take a deep breath to overcome the pressure difference. Once on the bottom, you adjust your BC to compensate for your buoyancy and then it does not have to be adjusted for the rest of your dive.

We swam around the tank surrounded by many different sharks, rays, fish, turtle, and the most popular species in the tank, the whale sharks! There are four whale sharks in the tank. When they swim over your head, it looks like a giant cloud is blocking out the light. We swam throughout the entire tank, lead by our three Divemasters. One of my favorite parts was swimming over the tunnel and in front of the large window. When we swam over the tunnel, the fish were literally hitting us in the face because there were so many of them. The rays would also swim very close to you.

 

Another one of my favorite parts of the experience was waving back at and interacting with other people visiting the aquarium. This little boy in particular, maybe about two years old, became very excited that I was interacting with him. He was even blowing kisses back and jumping around extremely excited!

Altogether, we spent a total of 73 minutes underwater. Once our dive had ended we got out of the tank, took a shower, and changed in the locker rooms. We spent a little more time in the aquarium and then went back to the house for the night.

On Sunday, I made my way back to Savannah; it was a fairly easy bus ride and Marybeth picked me up from the bus station.

Monday, I was back to work in the office. I worked on the diving effort and sea turtle sighting excel spreadsheets. Diving effort data is collected to help explain different data results. For example, if there is an increase in sightings of lionfish one year it may be due to a higher diving effort that particular year instead of an actual increase in sightings. This is important to take into consideration when looking at data. In addition, I continued working on my GIS training and mapping.

I attended the weekly staff meeting on Tuesday as well as worked on organizing and inventorying the first aid kits. The first aid kits need to be inventoried periodically to make sure nothing has expired or has been used. Each boat (Sam Gray and Joe Ferguson) has their own first aid kit. As well, the office has their own additional first aid kit. This job ended up taking two days to complete because we had to go purchase some new items that had expired. This is a tedious task, but one that needs to be completed so we are prepared in the case of an emergency.

I continued the week with updating more safety protocol. I updated the office layout map with additional labeling for fire, first aid, and AED locations. In addition, I also created an Acoustic Telemetry Array Data sheet that we would be using on our dives the following day.

Thursday, we headed back out to Gray’s Reef. Marybeth picked me up early in the morning and we began loading tanks and our gear. We were headed out on the R/V Sam Gray. Our goal for the day was to assess and retrieve hydrophones. We completed a total of 6 dives and found each hydrophone we were looking for! The dives were not very long, especially if we had a good drop location, ranging from a total of about 12-15 minutes total time from descent to being back on the surface. Each dive consists of one person taking notes on the data sheet (my job) while the other person takes pictures of each piece of the array. These pictures are helpful resources to look back at when we are in the office. We also headed back to Gray’s Reef on Friday to continue assessing and retrieving hydrophones. We finished the remaining four dives that we had planned for the week.

Photo by NOAA, Erika Sawicki

One of the best parts of the long ride to Gray’s Reef (approximately 2 hours), is that there is always time for a nap on the way out and back! Each day, I found myself a spot in a beanbag.

         

Over the weekend, I was lucky to have another friend, Taron, passing through the area. He is a fellow scuba diver who I had met while working in the Florida Keys last summer. We met up and headed down towards Brunswick, Georgia. We explored the area, visiting Saint Simon and Jekyll Island. On Saint Simon Island we explored all the different little shops. They were also having a craft fair with different handmade jewelry, signs, decorations, etc. It is a very quaint little beach town.

We then headed to Jekyll Island, where we visited driftwood beach. This beach has large driftwood trees that have fallen over into the ocean. It is one of those places that you cannot really picture until you have visited. It is like nothing you have ever seen!

I have had a very eventful last two weeks and am excited to see what is on the horizon!

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Welcome to Georgia

July turned out to be a crazy month, even though my internship was on a brief pause. Throughout July, I spent each week in a different state from Massachusetts to Oklahoma to Rhode Island and finally arriving here in Georgia to resume my internship duties!

I was not the only one exhausted after my trip in California. My suitcase went on its last journey and only made it home with some help from the tape holding it together.

          

My first order of business once arriving home from California was to get fingerprints. In order to get computer access and an email address, I had to go to the police station to get my fingerprints and mail them to Gray’s Reef.

                              

Nonetheless my internship was back on track and rolling me the punches, just like before. I booked my flight to Georgia exactly two weeks before it left. About 9 days before departure day, the paperwork requests started rolling in. NOAA loves their forms and paperwork and I spent a plane ride completing the paperwork. There is never a dull moment and my flight seemed to want to remind me once again. Upon landing, we were told to stay seated and then three police officers got on the plane and arrested one of the passengers. Everything seemed good to go and I was getting excited to start diving again! Then the email came on Thursday evening about additional medical tests that I needed completed in order to be cleared for diving.

With some panic I started sending out emails about how to get this resolved since I was leaving on Tuesday morning and doctor appointments are not always easy to schedule, especially on such short notice. Friday morning, I woke up to a text “Hello!!! Can I give you a quick phone call to discuss medical? I promise it’s good news.” A feeling of relief was sent through my body, probably the easiest fix so far. I would be able to get all the medical tests done once I arrived in Georgia, however if I could get a CBC blood test done before I left since those results take a couple of days.

Saturday morning my mom and I drove home from the beach in Rhode Island and headed home to Massachusetts. Well, actually right to the doctor’s office. I got my CBC blood test done and we were on our way. I had two and a half days at home before I was headed to Georgia. Those two days were spent repacking my suitcase for this new adventure, attending the annual Polish picnic at my church, and visiting my friends Bill and Ethel. Each time I come home I update them on my travels and share all my new stories.

Quickly, departure day approached and I was still headed to Gray’s Reef. Thankfully, my site had not changed again! The suitcases were packed once again, not without a struggle to meet weight requirements. On July 25th, my Dad, or rather my personal taxi diver, and I are were heading back to the airport in Hartford, Connecticut. Lucky for him, the flight did not leaving until 10:25 am, which meant we did not have to leave our house at a ridiculous time in the morning.

This time, the whole airport trip went a little smoother; the airport was not busy at all, I did not have to wait in a single line, and nobody was arrested off the plane! However to my wonderful surprise, the overhead bins did not fit carry on suitcases. They checked my carry on suitcase at the gate and we were off. I arrived in Washington Dulles for a quick layover and boarded another plane that arrived in Savannah, Georgia. ENS Marybeth Head, the Vessel Operations Coordinator, met me at the airport.

The first place I got to see in Savannah was the Doctor’s office. We headed from the airport right to the doctor’s to finish the remaining tests for my medical paperwork. After what seemed like forever we left the doctor’s, made a quick pit stop at the grocery store to pick up some food for dinner, and then headed to Skidaway Institute of Oceanography located on Skidaway Island. This is where my housing is located for the remainder of my internship. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s office is located right next to Skidaway Institute and only a 10 minute walk from the house I am staying. For the first three days I was in Georgia, I had one housemate. Now, I have the whole house to myself!

After a long day, I ate dinner and crashed. The next morning Marybeth graciously let me borrow her car so I could do a more thorough grocery shopping trip, then I met her in the office that afternoon where I was introduced to the whole team. Lots of names were thrown at me at once. I met and talk with Kimberly Roberson, the Unit Diving Supervisor. I will be working closely with Kim and the diving operations while at Gray’s Reef.

The following day, I was shown the boat, R/V Joe Ferguson, and we completed a gear check on all my equipment. This is done to make sure there are no problems with my gear and that they meet the NOAA standards. Once this was done, we loaded up the gear in the truck and gathered everything we needed for the pool session so it would be ready once my paperwork came through. That afternoon Kim, Marybeth, and I discussed my interests to find some projects that I can work on when we do not go out on the boat. We decided that I would focus on Geographic Information System (GIS) training and then use these skills to map invasive species. We also set up my computer access and email on my computer in the office. I had to complete a thrilling security training to gain access to my NOAA email.

On Thursday evenings, the graduate students at Skidaway Institute show a documentary. This week Chasing Coral was shown, which many people from the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society helped to create, such as Danny Copeland and Stephanie Roach.

We were going to go to the pool on Friday, however all of my medical paperwork had not yet been approved, so I spent the day reviewing PowerPoint presentations about NOAA diving and their practices. I also started some of the GIS online training courses. Friday afternoon I received the email that I was officially cleared to go diving!

I had a pretty quiet weekend, relaxing and settling in. On Saturday evening, my best friend and roommate from school was passing through Savannah on their way to drop her sister off at college in Florida. They stopped by for dinner and we also got to explore downtown Savannah. Downtown Savannah has a lot of history and is bustling with lots of people. The roads by the river are either brick or cobblestone.

               

Monday morning, we loaded the truck and headed to Hunter Army Airfield to use their pool and completed my swim test and confined water check out dives. On our way back to the office, we stopped for a quick snow cone (Because even NOAA divers have to eat lunch). Then Marybeth and I met Todd, the Marine Operations Coordinator, at the dock to clean the hull of the boat. We jumped in the water with snorkel gear and began scrapping off the barnacles.

        

Tuesday morning we went back to Hunter Army Airfield where I finished the last component of my swim test, a 500 meter snorkel in under 12 minutes. After this was completed, we arrived back in the office for the staff meeting. I met the rest of the staff members and became up to date with everything happening at Gray’s Reef. For the remainder of the day, I worked on GIS training and we prepared for dive operations for Wednesday.

Wednesday was our first day out on the boat and my first time at Gray’s Reef! Gray’s Reef is approximately 20 miles off shore, which amounts to about a 2.5 hour boat ride, meaning an early start to the day. I arrived at the dock at 7:30 AM, helped load the remaining gear and then we were on our way. My NOAA diver paperwork had not been signed off on yet, so I had to remain top side on the boat for the day. Top side I helped with getting the divers in and out of the water, logged dives, and experienced their dive procedures.

Gray’s Reef has multiple partnerships and one of these is with Dr. Danny Gleason from Georgia Southern University. Danny is conducting research on long-term monitoring plots in Gray’s Reef to study benthic invertebrates. There are a total 52 plates and every third one gets cleaned in late July/early August each year. Their were two components to their dives; one, is getting pictures of each plate and two, is scrapping every third plate clear and collecting the invertebrate samples into a bag for further sampling back in the lab. This data educates us about invertebrate recruitment over over different time scales. As well it informs us how the invertebrate benthic community changes over time. This was completed in three dives and were accompanied by Dr. Danny Gleason’s graduate student.

Before heading back, we stopped at the NOAA buoy to take pictures and try to figure out why none of the carbon dioxide sensors were working. The NOAA buoy transmits a bunch of different information about the weather and conditions in Gray’s Reef. You can find this information here.

My final clearance and paperwork came through on Wednesday and I am officially a NOAA diver! We planned to go back to Gray’s Reef on Thursday, however we got the call at 6 AM that weather was not good and we would try again tomorrow.

I went back to bed for a little while and then headed into the office. Thursday I continued my GIS training and completed my first course, “Getting Started with GIS”.

Friday was the day I finally got to dive Gray’s Reef. I woke up at 5:55 AM and Marybeth picked me up at 6:30 AM to get our gear and tanks for the day. We loaded everything up on the boat and everybody else arrived. The goal for today was to complete Gabe Matthias, a University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography diver, and my checkout dives and to retrieve two hydrophones, or underwater microphones. The data collected from the hydrophones is used for studies on ocean soundscapes. I completed two of the three dives on Friday. On the second dive, we saw a bunch of sea life from nurse sharks, turtles, flounder, eels, barracuda, etc. The third dive, Kim and Marybeth completed to find the hydrophone that we could not find on the previous dive.

      

Once we got back, cleaned, and put everything away it was already 6:30 PM. I ate dinner and did not make it past 10 PM. Saturday I caught up on things from the week and did some laundry. I met a few other students at Skidaway; we went out for dinner and walked around downtown Savannah. I had a lazy Sunday and prepared for the week ahead!

I cannot wait to get back out to Gray’s Reef and do some more diving. Some exciting things are coming, stay tuned for more adventures!

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Searching for Conch and Finding Passion

 

It’s 10 AM on St. Croix and I’m about halfway through husking a coconut in the morning breeze when I get a call from Zandy Hillis-Starr (Resource Manager for the National Park Service in St. Croix). “Hi Shaun, where are you?” I know this doesn’t bode well for me. “I have Jen and the NOAA team here waiting on you for a checkout dive.” Yikes! Due to some miscommunication, I had been given the wrong time the night before. Luckily my dive gear is ready to go. “I’ll be there in 15,” I say.

15 minutes later, Jennifer Doerr and Ron Hill from NOAA’s Galveston, Texas office greet me at the boat. With them is Hannah, an intern grad student from Nova Southeastern University. Thankfully for me, they aren’t upset that I set them back this morning. Clayton Pollock (Park Diving Officer) is also there and begins to review boat safety with us. “The fuel gauge is precise, but not always accurate,” he warns. We all laugh and thank him for allowing us to use the well-maintained park boats for the week.

Iguanas make the best dive buddies! Though this one might need a smaller BCD…

Our mission for the week is to tag and measure conch. Conch are a prized snail to eat throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Their beautiful shells are commonly sold in shops. Unfortunately for them, they are snails. Therefore, it is easy for both humans and marine organisms alike to capture them due to their slow moving nature. “I feel bad for the conch, everything eats these guys, especially octopus. Juvenile conch are too easy for them. They really don’t stand a chance,” Jen remarks. On the human side of things, regulations have been put in place on St. Croix, but enforcement has been proven difficult. Jen and Ron have dedicated themselves to tracking these conch for years in hopes of understanding their life cycle and aggregation patterns better. This information can be eventually applied to a management decision, which could bolster the future of conchs in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Conchs are the cows of the sea. They move slow, generally live in herds, and graze in underwater pastures” -Jen Doerr

Ron begins explaining the circular search pattern we will use to find conch underwater. As we get talking, it is apparent Ron has been at this for many, many years. Ron is a jolly guy with a slight southern twang in his voice, though he has lived all over the world- from Indonesia to Puerto Rico. His laugh is contagious and famous throughout NOAA’s dive team. “We are only tagging a couple conch and then measuring the rest. Jen will be topside support and putting the actual acoustic tags on the conch,” Ron tells me. NOAA has put in acoustic receivers all over the seafloor around St. Croix’s north shore. Anytime a tagged conch comes within a given distance of the receivers, the receiver logs the time that the conch passed by.

The black canister is a hydrophone. This is what allows all involved parties to track conch, among other things.

The checkout dive involves a couple of skills and then practicing the conch tagging protocol. We don’t find any conch, but I do find Ron’s fins peculiar. I’ve never seen anything like them. They are called Force Fins. Your foot sits on top of a thin plastic/rubber sheet that is forked at the end and there is a little foot box on top of that. “The military used to use these things, you can really move with them!” Ron says. They make my Jet Fins look like 18-wheelers. I watched Ron get good speed with them, but I still can’t believe that they work.

I didn’t get a great shot of Ron’s fins, but you can kind of see them here as he runs a search pattern with Hannah.

Back at the dock, Hannah is rinsing gear. “Wow, this water really has a nice spread to it,” she says. “It is pretty light and fluffy, isn’t it,” I respond. “Light and fluffy?! I’ve never heard anyone describe water as light and fluffy, but that’s pretty accurate,” Jen laughs.

Inside the small but mighty Fort Christiansted.

Since we finished early today, I decide to check out Fort Christiansted- a historical fort that Danes built when Denmark ruled the islands. Though small, the fort has excellent informational displays throughout its halls and helped inform my understanding of the island’s history. Before the U.S. Virgin Islands, the islands were known as the Danish West Indies. Denmark took control of the islands in the early 1700’s. Slave labor powered lucrative sugar cane and rum industries on St. Croix, which helped Denmark out financial slump in the mid 1700’s. The fort provided two services. First, it provided some security in case of a slave-led rebellion. Second, it protected the island/Denmark’s financial assets from sea-faring attacks. As time progressed and Denmark outlawed slavery, the island was less productive financially. In 1916, the U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark for $25 million, which coincidentally coincided with the establishment of the National Park Service… (more on this next blog)


For the first time in 3 days, the wind is low and the swell is down. These conditions give us the opportunity to dive around Buck Island Reef National Monument. “This must be a very romantic area,” Ron remarks. We see mating turtles for the fourth time in three days leaving the marina. Turtle mating season is in full effect and the National Park Service turtle team has been seeing nesting turtles every night on Buck Island.

Maintaining proper buoyancy while taking data and measuring conchs can be a challenge!

As we pull into the scuba shop to pick up more scuba cylinders, I see Laura Palma, an intern that I worked with on a turtle grazing project last week. When we get to Buck Island, I see a guy named Mike that I’d met a few nights back in town. In the water, I see my new housemate Brennan. “How do you know everyone?!” Jen asks me. “I guess this island is smaller than I thought!” I reply. After a mere week and a half on St. Croix, I can’t go anywhere without running into people I know. I’m certainly not an introvert, but the small, friendly community Clayton told me about has proven very true.

The diving at Buck Island is spectacular as it gets for sea grass diving. “Conch are the cows of the sea. They move slow, generally live in herds, and graze in underwater pastures,” Jen tells me. More often than not, sea grass diving can be fairly murky. However, Buck Island’s sea grass beds have clear, warm, bright blue water and more importantly, lots of conch. Up until this point, we’d been diving at Salt River and seeing only queen conch- the most colorful and prized conch (for their shells). At Buck Island, we finally started to see milk conch (more prized for eating). Ron hands me the first milk conch we see and signals for me to bring it back up to the boat.

Ron and Hannah measure a conch near Buck Island.

“Ohh!! A milky!” Jen lights up when she sees our new friend. Jen is an impressive person. Growing up in the mountains of Idaho, she is a strong female mountain woman that muscled her way through the male-dominated fisheries industry to get to where she is now. Her work ethic is an inspiration to the NOAA team and myself.

As Jen measures the conch and preps a tag to secure to the spires on the shell, it hits me. The dedication and passion of this team in unbelievable. They travel over 2000 miles each way every year (for decades in Ron’s case) to protect snails that they otherwise have no relationship to. These are not conch near their home in Texas that mainland fishermen are taking. Rarely have I seen a team so passionate about marine organisms that are so far away from their home base.


“Carrots and peanut butter again?!” Jen asks. “It may not be light and fluffy, but it is a backpacker’s delight!” I say, as the joke of light and fluffy has carried on through the week. I’ve had carrots and peanut butter everyday as part of my snack for the entire summer due to the transport-friendly nature of both foods.

Hannah “pulls a Seth.” Seth Kendall, a former Pennington Marine Science Center Intern that I worked with on Catalina Island, used to put his face in the water off the side of the boat to check the dive site location. His legacy lives on in St. Croix after I showed the NOAA crew how to do it.

Lunchtime on the water at Buck Island is incredible. The water is still and crystal clear. You can see every fish and coral head from the boat. Luckily, we get some time to jump in and snorkel for conch. “I think this might be a dive. It’s definitely looking like a dive to me!” Ron says. Ron has the enthusiasm of someone half his age when it comes to diving and is always pushing to dive, even if the water is only 10 feet deep. “Pretty sure you can do this on snorkel guys,” Jen laughs, as conditions couldn’t be better for snorkeling.

Buck Island speaks for itself.

“Anyone want some elixir?” Hannah asks, referring to her homemade baby shampoo-based anti-fog for scuba masks. “You mean Hannah’s Spit®?” I quip as she laughs. The running joke of the week is that Hannah’s anti-fog is really just her spit (divers most commonly use spit for anti-fog) that she has bottled up and brought on board to try to sell us on. Hannah is a warm, wholesome, hard-working Minnesotan who is as good of a team mate as you could ever ask for. Though when I say she is warm, I mean that both figuratively and literally- she lives in a perpetual state of sunburn in the Virgin Islands thanks to her fair Scandinavian complexion.

Hannah puts a conch back after measuring.

As soon as I hit the water, a small bar jack swims right underneath my stomach. I swim out a little further, and the bar jack keeps with me. When I dive down, the bar jack dives down with me and grabs a snack off the reef. This little fish stays with me for over an hour in the water and swims what was likely about one mile underneath my stomach. I feel ownership over this little fish. I make sure to never leave the fish behind and chase off potential predators like barracuda to protect my bar jack. After I see a school of cuttlefish, a giant bar jack leading two nurse sharks through the reef system, and lots of parrotfish, I drop the bar jack off with its school under the boat and get on board.

Not having my camera this time was a tough pill to swallow for me. I am a fish person. I love fish and care about them as much as I do mammals. It is incredibly difficult to get people to have this type of relationship with fish. Having an image to capture this experience would really help bring these little fish to life and get people to care about fish not just for the purpose of eating, but for the purpose of having more fish in a healthier ocean.


It’s my last day to dive in St. Croix since I’m flying out in two days. Everyone that I have ever met that has been to St. Croix has told me to dive the famous dive site called “The Wall” at Cane Bay. I have texted everyone I know on the island (which is a surprisingly large rolodex at this stage) nearly every afternoon of my stay trying to find a dive buddy for The Wall. Unfortunately, it seems that diving after a long day of work can be a hard sell. Today is no different.

The flare of the conch, which is what Ron is measuring here, is how we can estimate the age of a conch.

“I think I’m just going to go and hopefully someone needs a dive buddy there,” I tell my housemate as I hop in the car and head for Cane Bay. I decide not to bring my camera. Some friends of mine have told me that it is not safe to leave things in your car at Cane Bay. Since I’m unsure of the area and whom I’ll be diving with, I decide it will be safer to not bring the camera. I don’t want to be marked as a target and I want to be able to respond to an emergency if I end up diving with a freshly-certified diver.

Sure enough, Eric from Pittsburgh is trying to dive The Wall when I pull in. Luckily for me, he’s logged a few dives at the wall and knows the site well. Unluckily for me, the area is much safer than I thought it would be, Eric is a rescue diver, and I don’t have my camera.

The Wall is breathtaking. It lives up to all it is billed to be. You descend onto a horse from a merry-go-round that is planted on the sea floor. 20 meters further is a wall- a seemingly infinite drop off, where the sea floor goes from 60 feet to several thousand. We see turtles, sharks, the healthiest coral I’ve seen all summer, and an incredible diversity of fish.

I may not have gotten any photos at the wall, but I did find these sea stars in a flying-v pattern at Buck Island!

When we come in, I say bye to Eric from Pittsburgh and say hi to Madelyn Roycroft (California Polytechnic San Luis Obisbo grad student from last blog) and her team. Cane Bay is about a 45 minute drive from Christiansted, where I am based. This is truly a small island. “I think I’m going to try to get out to Point Udall (the most eastern point in the United States) this weekend for sunrise if you guys would be interested!” I tell them. Hannah Rempel, a member of Madelyn’s research team jumps at the opportunity, “I’m a morning person- absolutely!”

I leave after making tentative plans with them and get a message from Clayton. “Hey Shaun, just wanted to check in. I think we got to hang out a bit when you first got here but I haven’t seen you much since. What are your plans before you leave? Let’s hang out.” I am genuinely happy to hear from Clayton. I had heard so much about Clayton and the entire NPS team on St. Croix before the summer from previous Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® National Park Service Interns. In the little time that I have spent with them, they made quite the impression on me. They are one of the hardest working, most professional, and most fun units I’ve met this summer. However, they are in turtle season. Therefore, I haven’t seen them much since they are in full-noctural mode, on a 6 PM to 6 AM schedule.


Music plays loudly inside of a beautiful courtyard laced with the smell of Mexican food from the restaurant inside. It is my last night in St. Croix and I decided to watch my friend Jeff Jung (mentioned last blog, St. Croix resident and former high school classmate of mine) and his girlfriend fire dance. The heat from the torches is sweltering, but I decide to get as close as possible to get some photos. I’m sweating uncontrollably for the entire performance, but looking at the photos as they are shot keeps me motivated. A woman then comes out with a single fireball and spins it wildly, creating a trail of fire across the deep blue sky. It’s a mesmerizing effect, but I remain focused on getting the shots I want. The creative process of finding the right settings, angles, and light to create the vision in my head is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and rewarding experiences I have ever had. It’s what keeps me going as a photographer.

After the performance, I say my goodbyes to Jeff, his girlfriend, and all of their friends that I have come to know over the past two weeks. I don’t stay too late though, because I have one more goodbye to say. I hop in the car and drive over to Jen’s hotel. I thank Jen for giving me the opportunity to dive with her and the team for the week. The conversation turns, as we discuss the rollercoaster of life and the wild places that call each of us. As passionate as Jen is about the conch in the Caribbean, nothing makes her feel more at home than the snowy mountains around Idaho and Wyoming. She has lived quite a few places and loves Galveston, but the mountains hold a special spot in her heart. I really connected with her on this, as Catalina Island feels that way to me. In my internship summer, it has proven true time and time again- as incredible as the work is and as passionate as I am about photography and marine conservation, establishing a relationship with the people I work with is equally as rewarding.

Jeff and I, reunited 3,500 miles away after 10 years. Contrary to popular belief, those are raindrops, not tears on my shirt.


It’s what I like to call “dark o’clock” in Christiansted. I am never up at this hour, but I’m meeting with a research team from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at 5AM to go to Point Udall for sunrise. Hannah’s excitement was contagious enough to convince the rest of the team to come too. “I’ve done this for three years in a row on St. Croix, so I had to come!” Madelyn states.

Sunrise over the most eastern point in the United States.

Upon arrival at Point Udall, I’m still half asleep and the sun is still below the horizon. We all hop out and take photos of the beautiful landscape capped off by Buck Island sitting in the background. Just as a beautiful pink cloud rises above the island behind us, the sun starts to rise from the ocean and shoot out beautiful orange rays in the sky. I am not a “morning person” and 4 hours of sleep certainly doesn’t help, but watching the sunrise at Point Udall reminded me that getting up early for the outdoors is always worth it.

The beach near Point Udall was fun to explore and full of ideal turtle nesting grounds.


“I love these passion fruits! Thank you so much Clayton!” a local woman says as she takes a bag of passion fruit from Clayton. Clayton and I are having lunch right before I catch a flight to St. Thomas as customers in the restaurant say hi to him intermittently. After living on the island for nearly a decade, Clayton seems to know everyone. We chat for a while over a few arepas and I thank him for everything he did for me on St. Croix. I would have been in serious trouble without him. “You know you have a place to stay out west with a STOCKED fridge, if you are ever insane enough to go to colder waters,” I say as my parting message to Clayton. “Be careful of what you wish for, we just might take you up on that!” he responds. I sincerely hope he does.

The scene in the restaurant is representative of both the St. Croix and National Park Service communities- tight-knit and friendly. I came to St. Croix as unprepared as I could be, and ended up having a wonderful experience working with some amazing people. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, and the flexibility required of me during my first week is a skill I’d need to utilize at my next stop in St. John.

The seaplane I’ll be taking to St. John!

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St. Croix: Going with Plan “B” and Laying Down My Roots

After a few sites, Alex and Laura hop in to move some cinder blocks that mark sites. They do this with their fins off and run on the bottom of the ocean with the blocks in hand. It is quite a site and Laura is particularly excited to get some photos of herself running the blocks around. I descend with them. I set up my strobes and turn my camera on. I set my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, then go to press the trigger. Nothing happens. I check to make sure I have everything set properly and try again. Nothing. I check the battery, which was at ¾ to start the day. It’s dead! I’m shocked, these batteries usually last 3-4 days and this is the second day I’ve used this battery. I’m disappointed that I can’t get any shots of Alex and Laura running with the cinder blocks on the ocean floor and feel like I let them down. I take some GoPro video instead, but it’s certainly not as good.At the St. Croix airport, the baggage claim clicks and clacks while tour companies try to sell tourists on overpriced day trips and Jeep rentals. I’m awaiting my bags and finally starting to adjust to the humidity in the Caribbean. “Shaun?” someone says behind me. I turn around and see a short-haired, scruffy guy, average build. “That’s me! You must be Clayton.” Sure enough, it is Clayton Pollock, Park Dive Officer in St. Croix. “Mikey Kent [Park Diving Officer at Dry Tortugas National Park] told me not to say hi to you and instead to grab you by the neck and give you a kiss, I think we skip that and just tell him I did,” I say to Clayton. He laughs and says, “ahhh, Mikey, got to love him! Yeah, thanks for not doing that ha ha ha.”

NBA legend Tim Duncan is perhaps the most famous Crucian of all time. Needless to say, Crucians are very proud of him. He's the first thing you see upon landing in the airport and tributes like this are found throughout the island.

NBA legend Tim Duncan is perhaps the most famous Crucian of all time. Needless to say, Crucians are very proud of him. He’s the first thing you see upon landing in the airport and tributes like this are found throughout the island.

We toss my gear into an old Chevy Blazer. “So where to? Are we going to the Tamarind Reef Hotel?” Clayton asks me. “Actually, I need internet,” I tell him. I knew my connectivity in the Dry Tortugas was going to be limited, but I didn’t realize that meant no connectivity at all. I thought I would be able to work my accommodation out for St. Croix at Dry Tortugas, but that (obviously) did not happen. “Ok, we can do that. Also did you get my email? The lionfish project you were supposed to work on this week cancelled,” Clayton says. This is where Jeff Miller, Virgin Islands resident and National Park Service legend would tell me, “welcome to the Virgin Islands!”

Clayton gives me a tour of St. Croix as we navigate around the island’s abundant pot holes. He points to some housing projects, “So use common sense, but this place is definitely not somewhere you want to be at night.” He also gives me some advice on the local culture, “everyone says good morning/afternoon/evening when they see each other. It’s not uncommon for someone to stop into a store with no plans of purchasing goods just to say hi.”

Denmark owned the US Virgin Islands until 1916 and much of that colonial architecture still exists in varying conditions. Here is a beautiful colonial building in downtown Christiansted.

Denmark owned the US Virgin Islands until 1916 and much of that colonial architecture still exists in varying conditions. Here is a beautiful colonial building in downtown Christiansted.

After a few phone calls and looking on the internet at the park headquarters in downtown Christiansted, we find a hotel since there are no hostels on St. Croix. It’s the cheapest spot in town- $125 per night for a single without a kitchen. Not my definition of pocket change to be sure.

Clayton takes me over to the hotel and hangs out with me in the air conditioned room while I get settled in. “So…tomorrow?” I ask him. Throughout my internship so far, I generally don’t get briefed on what I’m doing until the night before or day of. I like to think of myself as a free spirit, so this works well for me. “I’d like to get you out with some researchers from the University of Florida that are working on a seagrass project. Let’s give them a call.” Clayton dials Alex Gulick, a Ph.D. student at UF. “Good afternoon!” Clayton says. Clayton is very laid back and is one of the funnier people I’ve met this summer, but right now he is in professional mode. Alex seems caught off guard, “ummmm, hi?” she responds. Clayton informs her that I can either be an extra set of hands for the project or be the photographer for the day. Alex waits to make a decision. “No worries, I’ll be ready either way,” I say, “but if you see Alex tonight, just let me know.” Clayton responds, “full disclosure- I’m seeing Alex, so I will be seeing her tonight.”

Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix in 1986 and devastated the island. Many buildings and places never recovered and can be seedy places to hang around.

Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix in 1986 and devastated the island. Many buildings and places never recovered and can be seedy places to hang around.

Once Clayton leaves, it’s time for me to get my bearings on St. Croix. The cost of the hotel meant I couldn’t rent a car. The nearest grocery store is many miles away and the cost of eating out in St. Croix is really high. My options are limited. In fact, I only have one option for groceries- the local liquor store.

The walk to the store is short, but I am definitely getting the proverbial “mad dog” from some of the locals. The Crucians (local islanders) in front of the store make a concerted effort to stare me down as I walked in. The air in the store is stagnant. I get the feeling that neither the man behind the counter nor the food on the shelves have moved positions in 25 years. “Good evening!” I say. Without moving his head, he gives me the smallest eyebrow nod…so maybe this isn’t exactly the friendly culture that Clayton told me about. Regardless, they have food. The plan was to get bread for sandwiches, but the few loaves they have are really moldy. So I grab 3 cans of beans, hot sauce, all spice, oatmeal, peanut butter, and a few mangos- ingredients to make a surprisingly delicious backpacker feast without a kitchen.


Alex arrives at my hotel with her two interns, Ashley and Laura, to pick me up in a champagne colored pick-up truck. I hop in the front with Ashley and Alex. “Put in me in gear Ash!” Alex exclaims as rain begins to tap dance on the roof. Ash’s responsibility in the truck is to shift the gears for Alex. The truck is a tight squeeze with all of our gear and 4 people, so the gear shifter is right between Ash’s legs.

Later on, the tables turned. Here's Alex ready to shift gears for Ash.

Later on, the tables turned. Here’s Alex ready to shift gears for Ash.

We get to the boat and begin to load up alongside many iguanas. Alex’s dissertation research is focused on the effects that turtle grazing has on seagrass communities. To study this, she is monitoring both grazed and ungrazed seagrass sites, as well as creating grazed sites by cutting seagrass to mimic turtle grazing. To account for variation between sites, Alex constantly records temperature data and takes sediment cores, both of which may affect seagrass growth. In order to monitor grazing sites, she sets up underwater cameras intermittently. “I was wondering why we weren’t seeing turtles at some of the sites until last week. We saw a big 10-foot tiger shark cruise our camera, that freaked everyone out a bit. Looks like I know what’s happening to the turtles!” Laura lights up, “I’m hoping we see it out there one of these days!” Alex puts things into perspective, “We have a bet going. I owe these guys dinner if we see it, but we won’t. Clayton has logged over a thousand dives in that area and has never seen a tiger there.”

I start up some small talk getting to know everyone. Ash and Laura are both from Florida. “I’m from Oregon,” Alex states. Hearing this, I can think of only one response, “west coast, best coast!” Alex laughs, “Yes! You must be from California.” I chuckle and ask, “is it really that obvious?” Over the course of my time in the Caribbean, I find that it is that obvious from my demeanor, style, and speech. I get called out for using words such as “burly” and “rad” that aren’t used nearly as much elsewhere apparently. The west coast is a small community when it comes to marine science, and it turns out that Alex and I have many mutual friends, including OWUSS’s own Jenna Walker. Alex is really laid back, almost a bit happy-go-lucky, and admits that she’s “the biggest wimp ever” when it comes to cold water after leaving Oregon many years ago.

Alex (left) and Laura use scissors to artificially recreate turtle grazing on a study plot.

Excuse me ladies, can you please keep the sand on the seafloor? Sand in the water column was a challenge on this day for me. Meanwhile, Alex (left) and Laura use scissors to artificially recreate turtle grazing on a study plot.

Once we are at the research site, my job is to take photos documenting the process and to sediment cores back to the boat. Photographing work in seagrass beds is difficult. The sediment composition ranges from sand to silt and gets stirred up really easily. With lots of sediment in the water, a good photo can turn into a bad photo within seconds. Between dives, everyone tells me really funny stories about Clayton and Alex recalls the phone conversation she had with him about me yesterday. “He called and said, ‘good afternoon!’ and I was so confused! I was thinking, hi…honey… He gets really awkward sometimes when he puts on his professional face,” she says as we all laugh.

After a few sites, Alex and Laura hop in to move some cinder blocks that mark sites. They do this with their fins off and run on the bottom of the ocean with the blocks in hand. It is quite a site and Laura is particularly excited to get some photos of herself running the blocks around. I descend with them. I set up my strobes and turn my camera on. I set my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, then go to press the trigger. Nothing happens. I check to make sure I have everything set properly and try again. Nothing. I check the battery, which was at ¾ to start the day. It’s dead! I’m shocked, these batteries usually last 3-4 days and this is the second day I’ve used this battery. I’m disappointed that I can’t get any shots of Alex and Laura running with the cinder blocks on the ocean floor and feel like I let them down. I take some GoPro video instead, but it’s certainly not as good.

Back at the dock, a friend of the crew meets us as we pull in. He says hi to everyone as we tie up and asks about our day. Then he looks at me. “You look familiar,” he says. In my head, I’m thinking that he really doesn’t look familiar, but Alex looks at me and says, “well, he is from LA!” After some talking, we realize that we were in the same class at a high school in LA for 2 years before I transferred out. “Jeff Jung! Yeah, of course I remember you! That is wild!” I haven’t seen Jeff in 10 years, we haven’t even keep up on social media. He’s been living out on St. Croix for a few years working for a sailing-based tourism company after feeling burned out on the rat race of the biotech world. “So…Taco Tuesday?!” Jeff asks the group. Everyone is up for it, and we take off for Maria’s, the only taco place on the north side (or perhaps all) of St. Croix.

I ride with Jeff to Maria’s and catch up. Jeff has established quite the life for himself on St. Croix and found a nice community. He’s a really warm person that makes you feel like he’s been your friend forever, which is impossible to not appreciate. He’s an incredibly positive and upbeat person as well, and has an open mind when it comes to trying new things, like fire dancing and couples yoga.

Spoiler alert! Lots more fire dancing photos to come, but here is Jeff and his lovely girlfriend, Kristen, combine two of their favorite activities- yoga and fire dancing.

Spoiler alert! Lots more fire dancing photos to come, but here is Jeff and his lovely girlfriend, Kristen, combine two of their favorite activities- yoga and fire dancing.

After a delicious meal at the restaurant, I get a call from Clayton. “Hey buddy, I think we have found a spot for you in park housing, but it’s far from where you’re working and you’ll need a rental car.” This is welcome news. Park housing is about $70 per night cheaper, including my rental car cost. The rest of the night I do the less glamorous responsibilities of this internship- turning in expense reports, blogging, editing photos, prepping camera gear, and working out logistics for the next two parks I’m visiting- while enjoying a surprisingly delicious bowl of all spice-hot sauce-black beans. St. Croix has been pretty slow for me so far. At my first two stops, the stream of work has been constant. The slower pace of St. Croix is strangely uncomfortable. I feel like I’m being irresponsible almost- like I should be doing work in the field, but I’m not. Furthermore, because I’m not working with a team this week in St. Croix, it feels a little bit isolated. I’m not surrounded by people all the time and the park staff is gearing up for turtle season, so they haven’t been able to hang out with me. It’s not a bad thing, but I would like to find a bit of a community on St. Croix.


It’s 7:00 AM and it’s pouring rain. St. Croix is quite a rainy place. It rains about 8 times everyday for about 20 minutes each time. However, today and tomorrow are supposed to be particularly stormy. Today I’m supposed to be diving with a professor from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) named Bernard to do some lionfish tagging. Bernard told me that the captain will decide by 8 whether we will be going out and we will leave by 8:30. Timing is everything this morning, because I’m moving into park housing today. Clayton is coming to pick up my gear that I’m not using today and storing it at park housing. I’m checking out of my hotel, taking a taxi to meet Bernard, and then picking up a rental car after the day of diving.

At 8:15 AM, I still haven’t heard anything from Bernard. I check in with him and he says that the captain hasn’t decided, but if we go, we are still leaving at 8:30. I hold off a little longer, and then check out. I begin unloading my camera and dive gear at the dock at 8:40, still unsure of whether we are leaving. Just as I close the trunk of the taxi, my phone whistles at me. “Sorry Shaun, but we are cancelling today. Weather is too rough, don’t want to risk it.”

I get right back in the cab and head to the rental car storefront. “What’s the cheapest car you have?” I ask. After a few touches of the keyboard, the man behind the counter says to me with a thick islander accent, “right now, I can’t get you a car mon.” Luckily, there is another rental car place nearby. I throw all my camera and dive gear over my shoulder and go to the next rental car place where I get a tiny, but ideal Toyota Yaris. My first stop before heading to my new abode is park headquarters to pick up my things. Driving in downtown Christiansted can be challenging. Almost all of the streets are one-way, many intersections have no stoplights or stop signs, and everyone drives on the left-hand side of the road even though the driver’s side of the cars is on the left.

Keep Left! The rental cars come with a surprisingly useful sticker on the window as a reminder.

Keep Left! The rental cars come with a surprisingly useful sticker on the window as a reminder.

“What are you up to the rest of the day? Nothing?” Zandy Hillis-Starr asks me at park headquarters. I was going to get some computer work done, but I didn’t have hard and fast plans. “We can’t have you resting on your laurels! Let me make some calls.” The first time I met Zandy, she looks at me and says unexcitedly, “you do the blog thing, don’t you. You better not put me in it!” Zandy, I tried, but you wrote yourself into the blog today. Zandy is well-organized in an old school way as she shows me her rolodex and paper calendar. If anyone has seen it all, it’s her. She grew up on St. Croix and has worked for the park for over 30 years.

One thing that Zandy asked me to do was get a photo of "the bulletin board." USPS used to be downstairs at park headquarters and had a bulletin board on the wall. When they left, the inside of the wall was exposed. Turns out many colonial buildings in St. Croix are built using coral.

One thing that Zandy asked me to do was get a photo of “the bulletin board.” USPS used to be downstairs at park headquarters and had a bulletin board on the wall. When they left, the inside of the wall was exposed. Turns out many colonial buildings in St. Croix are built using coral.

After a few phone calls, Zandy sets up a two-tank recreational dive the next day for me. She’s sending me out to get photos of divers at Salt River, which is an area under park jurisdiction. She also tells me, “You should dive the pier at Frederiksted tonight, you might see frog fish and seahorses, plus the pilings are covered in colorful organisms.” I thank Zandy for her help and advice, and take off for the grocery store.

Park headquarters is situated across the street from Fort Christiansted. The fort was built primarily to smother slave rebellions and secondarily to protect the cash cow (in the form of sugar and rum production) that was St. Croix for the Danish government.

Park headquarters is situated across the street from Fort Christiansted. The fort was built primarily to smother slave rebellions and secondarily to protect the cash cow (in the form of sugar and rum production) that was St. Croix for the Danish government.

Clayton told me the best grocery store on the island is Plaza Extra. Fortunately, it’s right next to park housing. Entering Plaza Extra is a fairly overwhelming experience. It is a massive store, slightly smaller than Costco, with much less open space and far fewer visual references. There are at least two, often three places in the store for the same item. If you see an item you want, you may want to hold off because there may be a larger selection on several other isles. The store is really a microcosm of life on the island; it’s inconvenient, poorly organized, and fairly hectic, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone and most everyone is happy to be there.

Once I get to park housing, I look at the paper that has my house assignment on it, “house 2, room 2.” None of the houses are numbered, so I take a guess that the second house in is mine. My key works to unlock the door, and I look for my room. None of the rooms are numbered either. I leave my things in a room that looks mostly unoccupied. Eventually, my housemate Devon comes in.

Devon is a tall, blonde woman who is as quirky as her collection of tattoos. She is an intern for the carpentry team, which is park of the National Park Service’s Historical Preservation team. I’m impressed with Devon’s attitude and mental fortitude. She works 5 AM to 5 PM on top of a scorching hot roof as the only woman on a team of salty carpenters. She enjoys a bag of popcorn and a La Croix everyday after work and loves dogs and goats. We chat for a bit before I have to pack up and head to Frederiksted for my night dive at the pier. Since I do not have phone service (meaning no GPS) on St. Croix, I have leave particularly early in case I get lost.

It's alive!!! The pilings at the Frederiksted pier are teeming with life and color.

It’s alive!!! The pilings at the Frederiksted pier are teeming with life and color.

Frederiksted is a curious place. As I walk around, young crucian men blast hip hop and burn out their tires on their lowered Honda Civics. The buildings in Frederiksted are either immaculate or derelict, there are very few that don’t fit into this category. Hurricane Hugo devastated St. Croix in 1986 and much of the island never recovered.

I was shooting this structure near the pier when this spotted moray eel wanted some face time with the camera. Truth be told, I never saw the aspiring model until I uploaded my photos to my computer.

I was shooting this structure near the pier when this spotted moray eel wanted some face time with the camera. Truth be told, I never saw the aspiring model until I uploaded my photos to my computer.

After a lengthy dive brief at the dive shop, we hop off the pier and turn on our lights. The pilings are beautiful. Bright yellows, blues, reds, and oranges. Almost everything we see would require using a macro lens, which I do not have. I’ve learned to just enjoy things underwater even if I can’t get the shot. About halfway through the dive, we see a frogfish. I nearly screamed in my regulator. I’ve always wanted to see a frogfish. Their pectoral fins are reminiscent of a frog’s front arms, equipped with tiny hands and all. They can use these fins to “walk” on the seafloor or down a piling, which is exactly what this fish does while I’m watching it. It is unbelievable and rare to see. It’s like seeing evolution right before your eyes. The fish literally just walks right down a piling in front of me. The rest of the dive is filled with octopus, fish, and more bright colors, but I will always remember the frogfish.

Without a macro lens (used for close up shots), getting this photo in-camera is impossible. This is a heavily cropped version of a photo that included nearly the entire piling. Even though I was about 8 inches from the fish, a wide angle lens has a giant field of view.

Frogfish! Notice the little hand-like pectoral fins this fish has. Without a macro lens (used for close up shots), getting this photo in-camera is impossible. This is a heavily cropped version of a photo that included nearly the entire piling. Even though I was about 8 inches from the fish, a wide angle lens has a giant field of view.


“We’re going to try to get to Salt River! Weather is a bit rough out there.” The scuba shop manager says to me. I’ve heard this story on St. Croix before. Another day of rough weather means there is no guarantee I’ll go to the wall at Salt River, which is what Zandy sent me out to do.

Less than ideal conditions at Salt River translated to mostly black and white photos to help cover up turbidity in the water.

Less than ideal conditions at Salt River translated to mostly black and white photos to help cover up turbidity in the water.

There are only two other divers going out today, so I don’t have a lot of divers to shoot. We decide to give Salt River a shot. We keel pretty hard on the water, taking the 7-foot swells directly off of our starboard side. Once we are at Salt River, the visibility isn’t ideal, as the big swell stirs up sand and the rain pushes sediment from the land into the ocean.

Capturing the grandiosity of the wall was an impossible and frustrating aspiration for me. This is as close as I came.

Capturing the grandiosity of the wall was an impossible and frustrating aspiration for me. This is as close as I came.

Reduced visibility makes photographing the wall that we are diving particularly challenging. It’s impossible to show the wall’s grandiosity since I can’t see it, with or without my camera. Furthermore, since this is a guided dive and we are not going to come close to our no-decompression limit, we are constantly on the move. It was difficult to get in front of the group. To get a good photograph of divers, you generally want to be in front of them; shooting them head on and from slightly below. I can’t swim fast enough with the camera to get in front of the divers and set my shot up. This dive was a frustrating photographic experience for me. I’m still coming off the high of Dry Tortugas National Park, where I was really happy with some of the photos I got. I feel like I let Zandy and the dive shop down by not getting any shots I was particularly proud of.

The barge is home to many vertebrates as well as colorful invertebrates, seen here.

The barge is home to many vertebrates as well as colorful invertebrates, seen here.

Our next dive is at a wrecked barge close to Christiansted. The owners of the barge asked the government of the Virgin Islands if they could sink the barge and turn it into an artificial reef. The government was going to charge them a lot of money to do so and told them to leave St. Croix if they weren’t going to pay the fine. Coincidentally, on their way out of St. Croix the barge “accidentally” sunk.

This turtle flew by us so fast as we descended. Swimming towards it was ambitious at best. I was lucky to get any shots off.

This turtle flew by us so fast as we descended. Swimming towards it was ambitious at best. I was lucky to get any shots off.

We descend onto the barge and I immediately see stingray, a green turtle, two reef sharks, and a school of fish. What do I shoot first?! I whip the strobes into position and do my best to set my exposure while swimming as fast as possible towards the speedy turtle. After shooting the stingray, we swim down to the barge, which is covered in reef sharks that aren’t too nervous about crusing divers.

Because many dive shops cull lionfish in the area and leave them for the reef sharks, the sharks started to display semi-aggressive behavior when I sat around them for the while, expecting food from me. They were flexing the pectoral fins downward as I was trying to get as many pictures as possible. Because they were swimmingly quickly so close to the bottom and I was slightly nervous (for the first time after diving with many, many sharks), it was difficult to shoot them.

Night falls. The air is heavy with humidity and drink glasses are clinking as tiny ripples lap against the boardwalk of Christiansted. I’m out with Devon and the construction crew when I see Jeff and his girlfriend, “Shaun!! Get over here!” he calls out to me. We catch up and I meet his crew of St. Croix friends. It’s the first time on the island I’ve seen and felt a sense of community. A small group of friends from all over the US that seemingly all work in tourism or yoga. They are genuinely happy to have me around as much as I’m genuinely happy to be there, and waste no time integrating me right into the group.


“So if we see a turtle, we make the decision whether to relocate the nest or not. I generally error on the side of not relocating them. Turtles have been turtles for thousands of years and know way more about nesting than I do” Clayton tells the group. If turtle nests (which contain turtle eggs) are in a spot prone to erosion and can be swept out to sea, the turtle team will encourage the turtle to move spots or carefully relocate the eggs. It’s not an easy decision, because relocating a nest lowers the hatch success rate considerably. “It’s the first night of turtle season, we aren’t going see a turtle, no way! I will buy you all ice cream if we do,” Tessa Code chimes in (more on her next blog). I jokingly fire back, “not with that attitude!” Nathaniel Holloway then speaks up, “do we have all of our packs? Everyone has a red light? We have all the radios?” The turtle interns all assure him we have the gear we need as the sun goes down and our vessel casts off for Buck Island.

The NPS team gets ready for a opening night of the turtle season on Buck Island. From left to right: Clayton Pollock, Alex Gulick, Nate Halloway, Tessa Code.

The NPS team gets ready for a opening night of the turtle season on Buck Island. From left to right: Clayton Pollock, Alex Gulick, Nate Holloway, Tessa Code.

On the island, I notice Clayton is wearing a different pair of Crocs than he normally wears. They are dark and lined with some suede-like material on the outside. “These are my suit and tie crocs, I keep it classy on Buck Island!” The NPS team then splits into teams and begins walking the beach. We drag our feet into the sand to create a visual reference line. If a turtle comes onto the beach, there will be a break in the line. Places in which we cannot put a line, we put up “knock downs,” or sticks that a turtle would have to knock down to nest in that location. I’m walking around with Clayton and Nathaniel’s team.

The team draws out a line in the sand to help create a visual reference for a potential turtle nest.

The team draws out a line in the sand to help create a visual reference for a potential turtle nest.

Nathaniel is a big, tanned man who sports a man bun. I get the feeling it would take quite a bit to irk him. He speaks with a low, calm voice and never hesitates to interject his quick-witted sense of humor into conversation. Nathaniel and Clayton have a hilarious relationship. It’s a “bromance,” in the most classical sense. They constantly compliment each other on their clothing, jokingly wink or blow kisses at each other when they pass by in hallways, and finish each other’s sentences. On the beach, they stop the interns and me periodically to offer some turtle wisdom. “Sometimes they get way back into this vegetation and are almost impossible to see,” Nathaniel starts. “Stop and smell around, turtles stink,” Clayton says. “Exactly! Great point Clay!” Nathaniel responds as they both chuckle.

Once the lines are drawn and knock downs are put up, it’s time to monitor the beach for turtles. Teams monitor the beach so that every stretch of the beach is covered every 45 minutes (if not a shorter period). We walk the beach under millions of stars and the milky way band just starting to show. All the while, I’m nearly falling asleep. The turtle team is on a 6PM to 6AM work schedule. I have been on the exact opposite schedule the entire summer. Luckily, this is only a half night of turtling for me. When we are not walking the beach, we are waiting on the dock for a radio call about a turtle sighting. Since it’s the first night of turtle season, we all get to go to a turtle if we see one.

Being on Buck Island at night was a special experience, but I got my tail handed to me on the late night shift. Transitioning from a day-time work schedule to a night-time work schedule in one day was tough.

Being on Buck Island at night was a special experience, but I got my tail handed to me on the late night shift. Transitioning from a day-time work schedule to a night-time work schedule in one day was tough.

The night ends with Tessa not owning us ice cream. We didn’t see a turtle, but it was a great experience to see how turtling is done. I came away from the experience with a much higher respect for “turtlers.” The job is as mentally demanding as it is physically with a brutal work schedule. My work schedule doesn’t get any easier tomorrow.


“Are those tanks full? The caps are off and the feel a little light to me,” I ask Sarah Heidmann as I analyze nitrox cylinders for our day of diving. “I hope so, I dropped them off early yesterday and they knew we needed fills,” she states nervously. I connect a pressure gauge to the cylinders. Sure enough, they are empty.

“Hi Nicky, we are going to be running late. Sorry for that, we are just getting the cylinders filled right now,” Sarah is on the phone with our boat captain for the day- a local fisherman named Nicky. As we are waiting for the cylinders to fill, Sarah and I get talking. She is finishing up her master’s degree at UVI and has been put in charge of the project we are working on. We are picking up acoustic receivers that track mutton snapper. The university catches mutton snapper, inserts an acoustic tag into their stomach, and that tag then sends a signal to these receivers every time a tagged fish is near. This data will inform the research team about where the fish spawn and aggregate, highlighting important geographic regions to protect.

Sarah is from the San Francisco Bay area, so of course we know some of the same people, being that the west coast marine science community is apparently bite-sized. “Brynn Fredrickson?! Yes! We were dive buddies under Jenna Walker at the Oregon Coast Aquarium!” Turns out Sarah knows Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society’s own Jenna Walker and Brynn, my friend and colleague at my Catalina Island home.

This is certainly a nervous smile from me around Molasses Pier. Also pictured (L-R): Nicky, Sarah Heidmann, Kristen Ewen, Elizabeth Smith.

This is certainly a nervous smile from me around Molasses Pier. Also pictured (L-R): Nicky, Sarah Heidmann, Kristen Ewen, Elizabeth Smith.

We pull into an open-air market that smells strongly of both fish and mango, where we meet two other UVI students helping out for the day. Their names are Liz and Kristen. Both are originally from the states but seem very at home on the islands. Between the three UVI ladies, there is a strong synergy, a wealth of dive knowledge, and a lot of blonde hair.

“Where is our fisherman…” Sarah ponders for a minute as we pass by a pile of dead fish on ice staring us down. We see a truck with a trailered boat behind it. There’s Nicky. He is a Puerto Rican by birth but has been living on St. Croix for many decades. “Just go straight up this hill,” as he points in many vague directions, “I’ll meet you at Molasses Pier!” Needless to say, those directions weren’t the best. Fortunately, Sarah has data service on her phone and brings up Google Maps. “Well, Molasses Pier doesn’t exist on here,” she tells me as I’m driving up one of several straight hills in the area.

We end up taking the “scenic route” and arrive at Molasses Pier. It’s in a highly industrial area on the south side of the island. There is no actual pier. It looks more like some cinder blocks fell into the bay and the local fishermen said, “great! We’ve always needed a boat ramp here!” Molasses Pier is the sketchiest place I’ve been all summer. It’s desolate and industrial. I equate it to Tattoine in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. You can’t see them, but you know the Tuscan Raiders are in caves watching you, ready to rob you. All the while, you are hoping a big local fisherman chases them off for you, Obi-Wan Kenobi style.

We could use the protection of Fort Christiansted at the pier.

We could use the protection of Fort Christiansted (pictured) at the pier.

“You launch from here often?” I ask Nicky. “No, never, I hate launching from here. They like to vandalize your things here. Leave your car doors unlocked and take everything out. They are going to break into your car and you don’t want a broken window.” Comforting, especially since I have a rental car with a stereo in it.

On the water, the diving is unlike any I’ve ever done. We are doing deep “bounce dives,” where we will descend to 80-120 feet to retrieve an acoustic receiver. The dives are no longer than about 7 minutes. Conditions vary constantly throughout the day. One minute it’s calm and sunny and the next we are taking on 6 foot swells and the rain is pouring down.

The real highlight though is Nicky. He is quite the character and I’m never really sure if he knows what he’s doing or not. His behavior indicates that he has things really under control and knows his boat well. His stories, and there are an infinite number of them, tell a different tale. “Last time I saw the [the local hyperbaric chamber operator], they said, ‘you?! Again?!’” Not exactly what you want to hear as a diver. However, his stories definitely made the day fly by during my surface intervals. From getting cruised by a cargo ship while he was underwater on a dive, to being left behind by a dive boat and swimming 5 miles back to shore, to taking his 25-foot 180-horsepower boat to Puerto Rico to handline for wahoo and tuna, there is never a dull moment with Nicky. “My sons and I wear this bike tube on our fingers, otherwise the fishing line can take off a finger!” he says as he shows me how he brings in 150-pound fish by handlining. Most of his stories involved his family members, and he took us on as if we were one of them.

Since I couldn't take my camera on Nicky's boat, here's another shot of the Fort. The Fort isn't mentioned much in my blog, but it is quite the site. I didn't know about the Danish rule over the islands until I got there, and the fort was a huge part of that learning experience.

Since I couldn’t take my camera on Nicky’s boat, here’s another shot of the Fort. The Fort isn’t mentioned much in my blog, but it is quite the site. I didn’t know about the Danish rule over the islands until I got there, and the fort was a huge part of that learning experience.

After we pick up 16 receivers, we are done for the day and head back to Molasses Pier. “Woah! Speed bump!” Nicky brings the boat to a quick stop. “The fishermen call turtles speed bumps because you have to slow down when you see one!” We see a few more “speed bumps” and arrive back at the Molasses Pier to be greeted by Nicky’s family. To no one’s surprise, they have all come down to help trailer the boat and offer a little bit more protection from potential criminals in the area. They are as warm as Nicky and help us load our cars as well (luckily, mine still had the stereo in it).

That evening, I decide to meet up with Sarah, Liz, and Kristen. They are with Madeline Roycroft, a Ph.D. student at California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo (SLO), and her undergraduate assistants Ali and Maurice. Madeline is a southerner at heart but looks like she has integrated into the California lifestyle well, sporting Chaco sandals and Patagonia clothing. Her outspoken and extroverted undergraduates provide a ying to her more reserved yang. The UVI ladies and Madeline’s group have found a community on the island amongst themselves and get along fabulously.


Between my old friend Jeff, Clayton and NPS, the UVI ladies, and the SLO team, I am beginning to start to feel at home at St. Croix. It feels much less isolated than it did earlier in the week. The more people I meet around the island, the smaller it begins to feel, and I enjoy that. I’m also learning to enjoy my off time. I get so eager to cram in as much NPS work as possible during my short summer that I can forget to enjoy the wild places I get to travel to. St. Croix has taught me how to slow down and given me the most independence of any stop this summer. Week one could best be summed up as “unexpected,” but as I continue to settle into life in the Virgin Islands, I’m looking forward to working with the NOAA conch tagging team next week and continuing to lay down roots here.

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