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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First Days and Fish Surveys

A month after I sat sleepily on a plane bound for NYC, I enter REEF’s Headquarters in Key Largo, Florida. REEF HQ is an adorable yellow house in the median of the Overseas Highway and the oldest house in the Upper Keys. Nearby stands a restored wooden cistern, which was used in the early 20th century – back before freshwater was transported to the Keys from the mainland – to collect rainwater for use by the house’s residents. The white picket fence ornamented with brightly colored fish and corals adds to the charm of the place.

I arrive at REEF HQ with 2 of my 3 wonderful new roommates and fellow interns, Lawrie (no, that is not a typo) and Ashley. At 9 AM, the office is already bustling, and the six full-time staff members and two leadership interns gather in the main room of the house/office to introduce themselves. I am excited to be working with such a small team, and looking back, I think this made learning the ropes in the office easier. Still, I am surprised at how much there is to learn and remember, even for such an intimate office space. There is certainly plenty to keep us busy!

Me, Lawrie, and Ashley on our first day in Key Largo

Me, Lawrie, and Ashley on our first day in Key Largo

Before I talk any more about my experiences here, I want to go big picture for a moment. REEF’s overarching mission is to conserve marine environments through citizen science and education, and they have three major projects that serve this goal. One project, the Grouper Moon Project, aims to monitor, study, and protect one of the still-thriving Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations off the coast of Little Cayman. Because many spawning sites such as this one have been overfished, protection of remaining spawning sites is important. Unfortunately, not much happens with this project during the summer months, so it’s not a part of my internship. But I do have the privilege of being able to get involved with REEF’s two other projects: the Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP) and the Invasive Lionfish Project.

The VFSP was developed in 1990 as the foundation of REEF. The goal? To enlist volunteer divers and snorkelers to collect fish species richness and abundance data by identifying and counting the fish they observe. These data are collected using the Roving Diver Survey Method, which allows divers to swim freely while surveying. Divers then enter their data into REEF’s online database, which is now the largest marine sightings database in the world.

And last but not least: The Invasive Lionfish Project. I am sure most (Many? Some? Not totally sure who my audience is here) of you know that lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, are invasive in the Atlantic; they were first spotted off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s, and aquarium releases are theorized to be the cause of their arrival. Their lack of predators and rapid rate of reproduction (they spawn about every four days after they reach sexual maturity at one year old) enabled lionfish to rapidly populate the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and East Coast of the United States, where their numbers are now far higher than in their native range. Their overabundance, along with their voracious appetites and ability to eat as much food as they can swallow, means that they cause damage to coral reefs by consuming copious amounts of local reef fish. REEF works to control the lionfish population by hosting events such as Lionfish Derbies, Lionfish Collecting and Handling Workshops, and Lionfish Jewelry Workshops. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself – more on those later.

Working at REEF is refreshingly different from my previous jobs and internships, which have always required that I focus all of my energy on one project. As a Peer Writing Tutor at Indiana University, my only job for any given hour was the student and the paper in front of me. On various independent research projects, I would chip away at the project for twelve weeks or a semester or a year. Things might go wrong, new pieces might be added, but I was still working towards one goal. My goals at REEF are less linear. Occasionally I’ll begin chatting with an eager high school student or a friendly vacationing family on a dive boat, and they’ll ask me, “So, what is it that you do, exactly?” This question always makes me pause for a moment while I gather my thoughts; I still have not come up with a sound bite to concisely describe my mixed bag of intern duties. Many days are spent working in the office, but even those aren’t uniform. Usually, tasks stack up in every shape and size – sometimes I’m doing computer research, sometimes I’m helping out with an education program, and sometimes you can find me rinsing out coolers or weed whacking in the yard. By helping me learn how to prioritize and efficiently complete many different projects, working on such varied jobs is filling holes in my skillset that I did not even know existed. I am happy to take on this challenge; I would be naïve to think that every position in my future will involve a goal that is neatly packaged into one large, digestible task. In fact, most of them probably won’t.

When I’m not in the office, you can probably find me underwater.

A perk of being an intern at REEF is being able to dive for free with an assortment of dive shops on Key Largo to conduct fish surveys for the VFSP. Somehow, this piece of information slipped by me when I was preparing for my internship in the spring, so I was stunned to be met with this news during my first day at work. We are allowed to take half of a workday to do a two-tank dive and a couple fish surveys, and we can dive outside of work whenever we want. Most weeks, we try to do at least one night dive and a half-day of diving on the weekend in addition to a couple weekday dives.

Because I studied abroad in Bonaire my junior year, I was already familiar with the most common Caribbean reef fish, but I was excited to brush up on my fish ID skills and start learning some new species. On our first Wednesday in the Keys, we go on our first dive as REEF interns with Ellie, REEF’s Education Program Manager (and former OWUSS REEF intern!). I immediately start noticing some differences between the fish life on Bonaire’s reefs and the fish life here. Fewer smallmouth grunts, but more white grunts; many more large, boldly-colored parrotfish; far fewer goofy-looking porcupine fishes and stoic trumpetfishes.

[Unfortunately, I am having some technical difficulties with my SeaLife and cannot pull photos off of it onto my computer. But hopefully I will be able to post some fish pictures soon!]

Hm. Me, REEF, first days, fish…I think that’s about all. But I want to end this post the same way my time with OWUSS began: with a collision of worlds. IU does a week-long field school in the Florida Keys, and during my second week here, I once again found myself hugging Charlie and Mylana hello. Armed with a laptop, pole spear, and Zookeeper, Lawrie, Ashley, Marie (one of the two leadership interns, Roommate Number 4, and marvelous human being) and I climb the stairs to the living quarters above Quiescence Diving Services. There, we take a deep breath and do our first presentation for REEF while the IU students eat Key lime pie.

The Saturday before the IU crew heads back to the Midwest, all the IU alums in the Keys gather for a Saturday night barbeque. These faces, which I had seen often in IU’s classrooms, my lab meetings, and the familiar 1920s-era pool in the Wildermuth Intramural Center, color a new landscape with familiarity.

It is a warm and lovely way to begin the summer.

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Getting settled

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What an exhausting week this was.

But first, over the weekend, I got to stay a night at my co-worker’s condo on Lake Maitland, which was really nice. It had a pool, too, which I was more than happy to check out.

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On Saturday, I had the pleasure of having dinner with the editor-in-chief of Scuba Diving and Sport Diver, Patricia Wuest, and her husband. They were very helpful, and shared some good local spots and restaurants for me to check out during my stay. Patricia also shared some alternative bike routes I can take to work to avoid the busy streets, which proved handy.

On Sunday morning I went to check out a farmer’s market Patricia and her husband told me about at a lakeside park nearby. However, as I arrived, police were sectioning the place off. I later learned that they were closing the place down after someone found a body in the water! An interesting first weekend, without a doubt.

I found another place to have breakfast, and that afternoon I took a dip in the pool, which was nice.

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After the weekend, week two started off a little more slowly than the first. Which is not to say that I didn’t have plenty to do- I’ve just started to settle in more at the office.

On Monday, I learned how to post content from the print magazine onto the Scuba Diving website, and published a story on the website about turtle conservation & marine pollution. I also began research for a new story about Goliath groupers in Florida.

Homesickness started to kick in this week, which made it a little hard to focus at the office the first few days. After struggling a bit Monday and Tuesday, I took a mental health day on Wednesday to catch up on sleep. Nonetheless, I worked a bit from home, where I watched the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, and wrote a review of it the next day.

Some minor medical issues on Thursday put me behind on my work, so the Goliath Grouper story I was supposed to finish on Friday ended up carrying over to the next week, as did the Chasing Coral review.

I wanted to get caught up over the weekend, but in my tiny Airbnb room, it just wasn’t happening. I decided weekends are for resting and having fun, so I went out and saw the new Spider-man movie.

After a weekend of rest, I’m looking forward to starting next week fresh. I’m a little disappointed that I’m starting the week behind on my work-especially since I have a fairly large story due on Friday that I haven’t started. But I’ll make do. The editors here seem to be pretty understanding, as long as I keep them posted.

One last thing- I also got to see one of my pieces published in the magazine, which was really cool. It was only a tiny summary I wrote, but still. Here’s a picture.

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Dry Tortugas National Park: Hitting My Stride with SFCN

“Goooooooood morning divers!! Great day for a day man!” Mikey Kent, Park Diving Officer for Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) greets us. Perhaps no one in the National Park Service experience has a more pervasive reputation than Mikey Kent. He has medium length salty blonde hair, is covered in nautical tattoos, and probably has never had a bad day in his life. He is always doing something- playing, working, or both. And as someone once told me, “Mikey has never met anyone he didn’t already know for 30 years.”

"I've been told I need to work on my professionalism." No Mikey, never change. Photo credit: Mike Feeley

“I’ve been told I need to work on my professionalism.” No Mikey, never change. Photo credit: Mike Feeley

I am prepping dive gear, snacks, and underwater clipboards for the dive team I’m with for the day. Mikey meanders his was through the Fort Jeff greeting each person he sees (Fort Jefferson is the full name of the boat, but it is known as Fort Jeff to distinguish the boat from the actual fort with the same name). “J Mills, you are looking extra sharp today my man!” J Mills is Mikey’s nickname for Jeff Miller. Jeff is a coral biology and disease specialist on the South Florida Caribbean Network (SFCN) monitoring team that I am with at DRTO. He is quick witted, sports board shorts covered in sumo wrestlers, and states, “it goes without saying, so I’ll say it again, my unpredictability is my predictability.”

Jeff puts 110% effort into his sun protection.

Jeff “J Mills” Miller puts 110% effort into his sun protection.

I’ve been diving with Jeff for two days finding metal rods that mark coral survey sites underwater. The goal is to find all of the pins, layout a transect tape (underwater measuring tape) connecting the pins, and survey coral species and disease that are within a meter of the tape on each side. Once SFCN has the data, they inform the park’s decisions on how to properly manage their natural resources (in this case, marine environment/life). The trick is that the pins can be difficult to find. The tops of the pins- about the size and shape of a half dollar- protrude from the coral reef by as little as 3 centimeters and are often overgrown with coral and algae. Looking for these pins with “J Mills” (who has over 7,000 dives to his name) may be the most humbling experience I’ve ever had underwater. Jeff finds pins without a compass that take me and the other divers 20 minutes to find.

During the surveys, we are looking for coral diseases such as this.

During the surveys, we are looking for coral diseases such as this.

“You coming sailing tonight?!” Mikey asks me. “Wouldn’t miss it, I”ll be there!” I respond as I am passing the day’s lunch cooler, cylinders (SCUBA tanks), and cameras down to my team’s boat, which is side-tied to the Fort Jeff. One final gear check and we cast off to conduct coral surveys at “Santa’s Village”- a reef site in the far north of the park.


It all started 2 days ago when Mike Feeley, Andy Davis, Kelly O’Connell, and Jeff picked me up from a rented Submerged Resources Center (SRC) house near Biscayne National Park. I was told about the SFCN team from many people before I actually met them. I think the best summary came from Bert Ho of the SRC, “they’re a great team of guys who know their stuff, you’ll love ‘em.”

Mike Feeley is the team lead at SFCN and greets me in the truck. Mike is a tall, barrel-chested man with a deep voice. He has a Michigan heart but a Miami aesthetic. He’s also perhaps the most even-keeled person I’ve ever met and keeps his team steady. We meet Lee Richter and Rob Waara in Key Largo and I get in their truck.

“Are those guys going to lunch at Subway?! Wow! I can’t believe they are doing that, Subway is god-awful. We are going to Chad’s Deli, their portabello sandwich is out of this world! You definitely lucked out in the lunch department,” Rob tells me. “We need to stop at Office Depot first to get some Cheese Balls.” Lee interjects, “most important item in the truck! Though it is a little concerning you can’t get them at a grocery store.” Lee and Rob are a funny duo that work very well together. Rob is the Dive Officer for SFCN. He commutes about an hour and a half to work so that he can live on an island, speaks very quickly, and has a soft spot for Recess Peanut Butter Cups. Lee is in his late 20’s. Him and Rob love to kiteboard. Lee is kind of guy you’d like your daughter to date. He is always smiling, loves The Life Aquatic, and is exceedingly patient as I come to find out.

"To my surprise, they actually do have cheese in them!" Lee indulges in some Cheese Balls.

“To my surprise, they actually do have cheese in them!” Lee indulges in some Cheese Balls.

“If we are doing portabellos, we need to call them in, they take 20 minutes to cook,” Rob warns us. Lee tries to call the deli, but can’t get through. While Rob parks the truck with the trailer, Lee and I put in the food order. “If it looks like it’s going to take a while, forget the portabello,” Rob tells us. Lee decides Rob is probably exaggerating and orders the portabello sandwich for Rob. We wait…and wait…and wait. All the while, Rob is both very bored in the car and increasingly worried that we are running later and later with each passing moment. So he calls Lee after about 5 minutes. “Hey Rob, yeah we put in the order. It’s coming, we’ll be out there soon buddy.” He calls again. He texts. He calls again. “I love Rob, he’s a brother to me. But it’s exactly that- he’s a brother to me,” Lee laughs without expressing even the faintest frustration.

“I wasn’t exaggerating! I don’t know how they cook those portabellos, they take forever but man are they delicious!” Rob says back on the road. We get down to Key West where the Fort Jeff is docked on a Coast Guard/Navy base. After unloading food, gear, and smaller boats onto a bigger boat, we go to dinner in Key West.

Loading smaller boats onto bigger boats.

Loading smaller boats onto bigger boats.

Key West is a funny place. It reminds me a bit of the port town of Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean. It is a small salty community where most residents’ skin looks like leather from decades of saltwater and sun and you can’t go down a grocery aisle without hearing about so-and-so’s kid who is off sailing to Grenada. We’re going to dinner that night in a “kind of sketchy” place near Key West, according to Mike.

The restaurant is on Stock Island, a “kind of sketchy” place according to Mike Feeley. It’s right on the water and hosts a strange mix of salty leather-skins and tourists inside. Before we enter, we see the most intricate and impressive truck I’ve ever seen (albeit in the trashiest way). It is covered in plastic sea creatures and seascapes have been painted all over the exterior.

The trashiest, but most impressive truck I've ever seen.

The trashiest, but most impressive truck I’ve ever seen.

In the restaurant, we meet Benjamin “Ben Jammin’” D’Avanzo. Benjamin is a “buoy boy,” he installs and maintains buoys for NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. He sports a blonde Mohawk, dives in tights with rainbow unicorns on them, and enjoys fine vegan cheeses. I share some jokes and get to know the SFCN team over dinner. We call it a night fairly early to get ready for the next day’s voyage, though it’s not exactly an early start.

Benjammin' in his rainbow unicorn dive tights.

Ben Jammin’ in his rainbow unicorn dive tights.


9:00 AM casually rolls around and we cast off for DRTO. I’ve never seen so many islands in my life. Coming out of Key West, there are endless sandy islands skirted with green mangroves.

Looking through a cannon opening at Fort Jefferson. The moat below used to be home to a crocodile.

Looking through a cannon opening at Fort Jefferson. The moat below used to be home to a crocodile.

After a 5 hour tour, we arrive to the real Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. The fort is a massive work of masonry. Constructed in around the time of the Civil War, it is a large brick hexagon surrounded by a moat that used to have a crocodile in it. We tie up and I head out for a check out dive with Rob and Kelly O’Connell. Kelly is SFCN’s intern and a master’s student at the University of Miami. She loves coral biology, packs lunches for everyone on the boat, and gets sunburnt easily.


“Well, it’s day 3 of the hostage crisis,” Mike says as the Caribbean sunrise shines through the tinted windows of the Fort Jeff. I’ve been working with Elissa Connolly-Randazzo quite a bit so far. I also worked with Elissa at Biscayne National Park. Elissa is a spunky Jersey girl who has a personality that enabled her to thrive as the only female volunteer with the SFCN crew for years. She previously lived at DRTO as an intern and has a more intimate knowledge of the park than Ben, Kelly, or myself.

The M/V Fort Jefferson (Fort Jeff) in front of the Fort Jefferson. This is a toughie!

The M/V Fort Jefferson (Fort Jeff) in front of the Fort Jefferson. This is a toughie!

Underwater, I am starting finding my groove searching for survey pins. Elissa and I are mostly meeting our goal of setting up all transect tapes at each site we go to for Rob, Jeff, and Ben to survey. After setting our personal record of finding all pins and setting up a site in 35 minutes (including a safety stop!), we get back to the Fort Jeff at Fort Jefferson (getting it yet? Neither am I, don’t worry).

“The groupers are under the boat! I see 3 of them! No, 4! I mean 5!” Elissa says excitedly. I stop putting away gear and go look. 5 goliath groupers are under the Fort Jeff. I’ve only seen 1 or 2 at a time under the dock and the boat. Growing up to 8’ long and weighing up to 600 pounds, they are the biggest finfish in the region. I’ve been wanting to jump in the water with them and take some photos since I arrived.

The goliath groupers were a welcome sight for me. Here's one going in for a light snack under the Fort Jeff.

The goliath groupers were a welcome sight for me. Here’s one going in for a light snack under the Fort Jeff.

“Mike, can I jump in and take some shots of the groupers?” I ask, with nothing to lose. “If the ship’s crew is ok with it, sure!” Mike responds. I run to find the crew, get cleared to free dive, and grab my camera.

Elissa and I plan our entrance strategy, and enter the water under the pier. We talk at the surface near the groupers. “I not going to lie, I’m a little nervous. These fish are way bigger than me,” Elissa tells me. “We’ll see how they react, but try to get face to face with one if you can and I’ll do what I can to get the shot,” I tell her. I take a big breath in and dive down. Elissa gets pretty close to a grouper, but I have to get even closer since I have a wide-angle lens on my camera. I exhale quickly at the surface and look at the shots that I just took. They are awful. I set my exposure for the sunny spot between the pier and the boat. Elissa and the fish are in the shadow of the boat. The photos are completely black. “Did you get it?!” Elissa asks anxiously. “…We are going to have to do that one again,” I tell her.

Elissa was really patient with me as I tried to get the right shot. Even though we weren't limited on how long we could be in the water, we were limited on how long we could stay under since we were free diving.

Elissa was really patient with me as I tried to get the right shot. Even though we weren’t limited on how long we could be in the water, we were limited on how long we could stay under since we were free diving.

What follows is a religious experience. The sunlight gleams through the pier onto Elissa and the groupers as we become completely calm with the giants below the surface. Everything is quiet except for the swooshing of the groupers’ cadual fins (tails), the shutter of my camera, and the boat rocking in the wind chop at the surface.

These photos are important to me. The goliath grouper has been protected for quite some time in Florida, but there is pressure now from the fishing industry to remove protection. Though populations have recovered wonderfully in certain areas, the population as a whole has not. Goliath’s are slow growing fish that are extremely susceptible to overfishing. Photos that humanize the fish and bring a living, breathing, beautiful animal to people that may not otherwise see them can sometimes turn the tide in a debate like this. While I don’t have any expectation that my photos will be the catalyst, I hope that they can play a part.

After swimming underneath the Fort Jeff, I came upon this giant.

Sometimes your best shots are unplanned. After swimming underneath the Fort Jeff, I came upon this giant, pointed the camera up, and just reacted.

After shooting the goliath’s for a while, we go towards the stearn of the ship. There is a big school of silversides (small baitfish) under the pier. I imagine a shot in my head and dive down. I use my strobes (flash) for the shot. They create an extreme reflection off of the fish and it looks like thousands of small strobes flashing back into my camera. The photos are horrible. I dive down again and turn off the strobes. That looks bad too and I can’t get close enough to the school with the wide angle lens to capture them. I try again, strobes on but placed differently. No dice. After about my 20th dive, I get pretty frustrated. I can’t create the shot I am imagining. I decide to try something new. I turn the strobes to flash at my own ears, behind the camera, to diffuse the light more. I dive down to the seafloor and shoot the school from the bottom up. The school moves closer to me when I’m at the bottom. My strobes fire and I swim to the surface. Finally, I get the shots I was thinking of.

This baitball of silversides was frustrating and, eventually, rewarding to shoot. I was really happy with this shot.

This baitball of silversides was frustrating and, eventually, rewarding to shoot. I was really happy with this shot.

“Hey, how’d the photos turn out?!” Curtis Hall, Park Ranger at DRTO, asks me. “You have some time right now? I can show you!” I say. He invites me up to his place. It is a beautiful apartment inside of the fort that is marked by a giant arch over the living room/kitchen. As we go through the photos, Curtis seems pretty happy with my work. “It’s a learning process for me. It’s all still really new and it’s a lot of guess work, but I’m pretty happy with some of these,” I tell him. As we get talking about my internship, he asks me what I’d like to do after I graduate. I tell him I’d like to work in media and/or scientific diving. I express my concern to him about the former, “I don’t know that I could make any money in media.” He replies, “With these photos, I think you could!” Hearing that sort of encouragement from an NPS employee was pretty special and gave me a little bit of validation to the thought that I am progressing behind the camera. I may be far from becoming an expert, but at least I’m better than I was last week, and that is exciting for me.

Knowing that the park valued my photos and could use them made me feel pretty fantastic.

Knowing that the park valued my photos and could use them made me feel pretty fantastic.


“Day 5 of the hostage crisis.” Today is different. We are diving a site called “LH-4,” meaning it is near Loggerhead Key- a small sand island near the Fort Jefferson that is home to a large lighthouse, many nesting turtles, and not much else. LH-4 is special because there is a photogrammetry site there. Jeff asks me to bring my camera on the boat today. “You know, you don’t have to twist my arm about it Jeff,” I respond jokingly.

Jeff and Rob brief me on the photogrammetry project. There is a rectangular plot we will set up underwater. Then, in a lawnmower-like fashion, we will swim up and down the plot, taking as many overlapping photos as possible from both birds-eye and side profile views. Once we have the images, they will go into a software program that will stitch them together and build a 3D model of the reef. Rebuilding the model each time they visit the site and comparing it with previous models will enable SFCN determine the health and growth of the reef over time.

Rob photographing the photogrammetry site.

Rob photographing the photogrammetry site.

I start the lawnmower up and about 600 photos later, I’ve completely covered the reef. Since I completed my task, I start taking photos of corals and everyone else working. Once we get topside, Jeff states, “that was a tough dive for me, I was really having a hard time with my buoyancy down there.” He then jokingly gleams at me, “you need to delete those photos of me, I looked like crap down there!”

I'm a man of my word Jeff! Here's a different shot of J Mills- the man, the myth, the legend.

I’m a man of my word Jeff! Here’s a different shot of J Mills- the man, the myth, the legend.

We return to the Fort Jeff, put away our gear, and none other than Mikey Kent strolls through the main cabin, “ anyone trying to float tonight?” It took me a second to realize what he was saying. “Are you sailing tonight?” I ask. “It’s Dry Tortugas National Park man! Of course we are going sailing!” Mikey responds.

Mikey, Ben, and I head out to Mikey’s small catamaran that he brought over on the Fort Jeff from Key West. “You learn the basics of sailing and then it’s kind of like, you see whatever makes the boat move and go with that,” Mikey tells me. We push off and head away from the island. The wind is calm and it is nearing sunset. The boat is so light that even the slightest bit of wind gets the boat moving pretty quickly. We cruise over the shallow waters upshore of the Fort Jefferson and see nurse sharks chasing each other (it is mating season!). “Time to get into sunset position boys,” Mikey states as he maneuvers the rudder with his foot. We sail around the fort while Mikey tells us about the time he sailed to Cuba from Key West in this boat. “I was trying to grow out a mustache for Cuba for 5 weeks. My mom called me home and I had to shave it. Momma’s house, momma’s rules…5 weeks though! It killed me!” Mikey’s story soundtracks a beautiful sunset. Pinks and oranges light up the water and sky just beyond the brick walls of the fort. “I messed up! I should have brought my camera, it’s calm enough that it would have been safe on deck in a dry bag,” I tell Mikey and Ben. “You didn’t mess up man, you’re on a sailboat!” Mikey states. I agree and remember a quote from one of my favorite photographers, “some of my best photos are the ones I never took with a camera.”

I may not have got the shot from the sailboat, but sunsets at Dry Tortugas can be pretty special.

I may not have got the shot from the sailboat, but sunsets at Dry Tortugas can be pretty special.


“Day 6 of the hostage crisis,” Mike states in his morning brief. Today I’m switching boats with Kelly. My new dive buddy is Andy Davis, a Brazilian with the faintest accent I’ve ever heard an English-speaking Brazilian have. Mike and Lee are also on my new boat, the “mini v,” which is the smaller of the two SFCN boats.“We have strong knees and shoulders on the mini v,” Mike warns. It’s a 19-foot catamaran and much less spacious and stable than the boat I was on for the first five days. “Have fun trying to get ready on that little boat with all those big guys!” Kelly teases me.

After spending quite a bit of time topside on the mini v, I find that it is a little slower and a lot wetter than the big boat. While I am on the surface, so is Andy. It’s the first time I’ve spoken with him at length. He has lived in the US Virgin Islands or Florida for the past 10 years or so, but still has a strong connection back home in Brazil. His sense of humor is subtle, and he should pride himself on his carefully crafted one-liners.

Resting my knees and shoulders on the "mini v." Photo credit: Andy Davis.

Resting my knees and shoulders on the “mini v.” Photo credit: Andy Davis.

It takes one dive for Andy and I to get dialed in to how each work underwater. Things run smoothly and we are finding pins really quickly. We also begin downloading information underwater from “hobos”- a device that stays submerged at a survey site permanently and measures water temperature over many years.

Andy measures rugosity- a measure of how complex the reef structure is.

Andy measures rugosity- a measure of how complex the reef structure is.

After I cook a stir-fry dinner for the SFCN team, I go with Kelly to a potluck hosted by the DRTO staff and interns. It’s at a picnic table situated in front of a large opening in the fort’s second story looking over the sunset. I meet 4 humans, 2 birds, and 1 dog. The humans are Megan, Tracey, and Yung, three of the interns at DRTO, and Kayla, a DRTO biologist. “This bird is awesome, and this one will bite your face off,” Kayla warns me as she dawns a parrot on her shoulder and one on her fingers. As Kayla intermittently flips the bird on her fingers upside down, I ask Tracey where he’s from. He tells me rural Pennsylvania, “we had days off of school for the beginning of deer season.” We laugh and try to guess what Mikey is saying as we see his boat flying on the water in front of a gorgeous sunset. I look towards the fort’s lighthouse and see incredible colors on the horizon. “Thank you guys for having me and I’d love to stay longer, but I need to go shoot the lighthouse!” I run out of the potluck through the archways of the fort, grab my camera, run up the spiral staircase, and then down the sandy path the lines the roof of the fort. The colors are fading fast. I mostly missed it. I’m kicking myself for not getting there earlier.

Wandering through the arches within the walls of Fort Jefferson.

Wandering through the arches within the walls of Fort Jefferson.

I’ve been weathering strong winds for four straight nights on top of the fort trying to get the perfect shot of the lighthouse. There are incredible lightning storms that form every night on the horizon behind the lighthouse. They are so far in the distance and happen at such irregular intervals that I haven’t been able to capture that moment yet. The lighthouse is my Moby Dick at the fort so far. It’s the most obvious thing to shoot, and perhaps the easiest, which makes it the hardest thing to make interesting.


“Day 7 of the hostage crisis.” The crew is noticeably more tired at this point in the trip. Spirits are still high, but the mood is slightly heavier. I step outside the Fort Jeff to start getting my gear ready. It’s pouring rain. Mike and Rob are outside as well getting their rebreather gear together while having a spirited debate about diving operations. I decide to go back into the ship as Lee is looking outside. “They’re like two parents sometimes, they’ll be laughing about this in 10 minutes,” he says.

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, Rob and Mike come in with smiles on their face. “We’re going to try to do a shorter day today,” Mike tells the SFCN crew. “…And, it’s grill night! I’m grilling fish, steaks, chicken, portabello mushrooms, vegetables, corn, you name it, I’m grilling it!” Rob announces. Though this is welcome news to the crew, though the reaction is a little muffled by the lethargy in the room.

I didn't write about it, but this jelly was incredibly hard to photograph for me. I took about 30 photos before it ascended further than I wanted to go. This was the only useable shot.

I didn’t write about it, but this jelly was incredibly hard to photograph for me. I was so excited to see one and took about 30 photos before it ascended further than I wanted to go. This was the only useable shot.

The mini v takes off for a shorter, but challenging diving day. We dive a site that hasn’t been visited in many years. Some of the survey pins are missing and it takes a lot longer to do out work. But as Andy and I reach our safety stop, we see a silky shark.

Andy hammers in new survey pins to replace the missing ones.

Andy hammers in new survey pins to replace the missing ones.

Two hours later, Mike and Lee ascend from their dive absolutely elated. “That was incredible,” Mike starts telling us. “I heard you screaming at me through your rebreather and I couldn’t figure out what you wanted! And then I saw it, a manta doing summersaults only a meter away from us!” Lee continues. “Did you get the shot?! I saw you with the iPad” Mike asks. “I tried, but it asked me for the password to sign in and I didn’t want to mess with it, so I just enjoyed the experience,” Lee says. We all let out a collective sigh, but are really excited. As Mike sums it up, “it’s one of those ocean moments you’ll never forget.” However, as it always is with the SFCN team, Lee doesn’t get off the hook so easily. Once the rest of the team hears the story, it becomes a running joke. “I saw a [insert animal name here]! Shaun, you should totally put that in your blog! Oh…except Lee didn’t get a picture of it…”

Since I don't have a photo of a manta to put here, I'll just put a picture of Lee!

Since I don’t have a photo of a manta to put here, I’ll just put a picture of Lee!

We return to the Fort Jeff and are greeted by Chef Rob. He’s laid out quite the feast to grill. While he’s grilling, Mike and Mikey take off for a sail. As team lead, Mike takes the brunt of the work for SFCN, so the crew is really supportive of him going out and having some fun. Everyone digs into the mahi mahi and mashed potatoes to the sound of 1970’s era pop music- Steely Dan, America, and Carroll King. Smiles and laughter fill the room when Jeff loudly states, “can’t have potatoes without BBQ sauce!” All the while, Lee is doing his best Rob impression by saying Rob’s favorite exclamation, “whoa!”

J Mills, Mikey, and Benjammin' hang out after Chef Rob's feast.

J Mills, Mikey, and Ben Jammin’ hang out after Chef Rob’s feast.

As the sun goes down, we all talk about how happy Mike is going to be when he gets back from sailing. Not only is he sailing rather than working, but he’s with Mikey. You’d have to be in a pretty sour mood to not have fun with Mikey.

About 10 minutes later, a soaking wet Mike Feeley comes into the Fort Jeff, grinning from ear to ear. “We were flying out there, a lot of good runs!” Mike recalls. “Man, we almost lost me! I was holding onto the rudder while my body was skipping like a pebble and DMF (Mikey’s name for Mike) uses some big man strength and pulls me on board! It was awesome!” Mikey says as we all crack up at the story. Mike and Mikey dig in to the food as well and we all enjoy a wonderful night together.

The grounds of Fort Jefferson used to bustling with 400 some soldiers and held many more buildings that have since fallen or burned down.

The grounds of Fort Jefferson used to bustling with 400 some soldiers and held many more buildings that have since fallen or burned down.


Some incredible diving and Mike’s sailing adventure breathe new life into the crew. After two more days of coral surveys, we have finished everything that SFCN set out to do. On this morning, Mike tells us “the goal is to be back by about 2:30, so we can pack up and help load the back deck.” We are going to Tortugas Bank, a reef just past the park boundary that starts in 90 feet of water and goes down to 130 feet. Mikey Kent yells out as we start loading the boat, “what are we doing today boys? Banging tanks and blowing bubbles?!”

Ben doing a backflip in front of Loggerhead Key.

Ben doing a backflip in front of Loggerhead Key.

Jeff, Ben, Mike, and Andy drop in first. Rob is at the helm while we live boat from the surface. “Dolphins!” someone shouts. “I really wish someone had a nice camera so we could capture this magical moment at sea,” Rob says as he looks at me sarcastically. As I am scrambling to get my snorkel gear on and camera ready, the pod leaves as quickly as they came. A similar moment happened earlier in the trip when Elissa and I saw a sailfish that came right up to the boat. It hung around for no more than 2 seconds. Earlier in the trip I would have been pretty hard on myself for not getting the shot, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t get every photo and am (mostly) at peace with that.

The reefs around Dry Tortugas can be covered in macroalgae or be partially diseased. This was a nice patch to find!

The reefs around Dry Tortugas can be covered in macroalgae or be partially diseased. This was a nice patch to find!

The divers surface and Jeff says “the structure is beautiful, but that was a pristine reef 20 years ago and very little of it is left.” Since the reef wasn’t as Jeff remembered it and the visibility wasn’t as good as we were hoping for, we decide to do our second dive at a survey site that Andy and I dove on. The structure around the site looked really cool but we didn’t have time to explore it before. Once we arrive, I buddy up with Lee.

Lee having some fun during a safety stop.

Lee having some fun during a safety stop.

We descend onto swim-through arches and caves all around us. Visibility isn’t excellent, but the topography and fish are amazing. I find myself scrambling on dives like this to get the photos I want while keeping up with the other divers. I feel like I am winging it with the photos in order to not hold up the group, but I really don’t have the time I need to set up the shots. That being said, I don’t let it stop me from enjoying the dive.

Lee explores the caves of our dive site.

Lee explores the caves of our dive site in his dive tights.

Our next stop is Loggerhead Key. It’s a bigger island than Garden Key, where the fort is, and is home to a big historic lighthouse. “Wow, we haven’t had visibility like this all week!” Mike says as we get to dock. I dry the big glass dome that holds my camera lens to try my hand at the ever-famous “over-under” shot, where half the photo is underwater and half is above water. I walk in the ocean from the beach carefully, remembering the warning Chris Milbern (2016 OWUSS Rolex Scholar) gave me, “if your dome is wet, your over-unders will be covered in water droplets.”

Trying my hand at an over-under at Loggerhead Key.

Trying my hand at an over-under at Loggerhead Key.

After a few over-unders, I go below the pier to take some photos of the schools of fish there and then hop out. Mike told us we had enough time to walk the island end to end, so I decide to do exactly that. I start at the lighthouse, take some photos, and then walk up the beach. “Loggerhead Key is the best thing this park has to offer on land.” Mikey has been saying this since we got to DRTO. As amazing as the fort is, Loggerhead is truly special. It’s exactly what you imagine when you imagine paradise- a small sand island with a few coconut trees and skirted by bright blue, crystal clear water.

As I walk around the island, I notice two other things. The first is the amount of turtle nests. The DRTO natural resource team marks current nests on the island and there are hundreds. The second is the amount of trash washed up on the beach. Loggerhead key isn’t close to anything. It may not be as remote as some islands in the pacific or near the poles, but you certainly aren’t going to get on your kayak and paddle over there on a Sunday afternoon. Most of the trash is plastic, which looks exactly like the jellyfish that many turtles eat. The juxtaposition of the plastic near the turtle nests was heart breaking. I put as much trash in my bag as I could going back to the boat.

Trash washes ashore at Loggerhead Key. Pesticide like Raid and plastic are incredibly harmful to turtles and other marine life that surrounds the island.

Trash washes ashore at Loggerhead Key. Pesticide like Raid and plastic are incredibly harmful to turtles and other marine life that surrounds the island.

Back on the boat, Lee, Ben, and I revel in the 1990’s music channel on our boat’s satellite radio. We sing along to 90’s classics while the rest of the team comes back to the boat. “I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend!” we sing along to Third Eye Blind’s hit as we go back to the fort.

Soon after, dinnertime rolls around on the boat. “Whoa! Mustache! You know what? I am going to join you, I like this idea,” Lee states after seeing my newly-shaved mustache. “Last night on the boat is a special occasion that calls for some facial hair festivities,” I tell him. We all begin recalling funny jokes from the trip and bring up memories. Before I go to bed, Mikey tells me, “you have to leave that mustache for when you go to St. Croix!”


It’s 9 PM in Miami’s Wynnwood art’s district. The walls are covered in street art, traffic moves slowly while cars stop to talk to friends on the street, and loud music plays from every corner. “You know, they were never worried about you once,” Kelly tells me. “Plus, they gave you a nickname. I think they liked you,” she continues. Mike started saying my name in a peculiar (and hilarious) way early in the week. It was like he was lifting really heavy weight that he needed my help with before he got crushed. It caught on, and the whole crew began saying my name like that. “It’s from a movie, about some guys from the IRA I think,” Mike told me.

The SFCN crew really made me feel like part of their team. They didn’t lower their expectations for me or constantly check in to make sure I was doing ok. They just expected I would carry my weight from day one like everyone else. They teased me just as they did everyone. Maybe it was because I spent so much time with them in close quarters, but I really bonded with this group of people. I had stumbled at Biscayne- struggling a bit with new gear and a fast-paced schedule. At DRTO, I felt like I hit my stride. I was a little sad to leave, but I knew I was going to work with SFCN again in two weeks on St. John.

The next morning, Kelly graciously took me to the airport after housing me for the night. We said our goodbyes, or “see you in two weeks,” and I left for the next adventure- St. Croix.

SFCN and the crew of the Fort Jeff. Front (L-R): Andy Davis, Me. Back (L-R): Kelly O'Connell, Brian LaVerne, Lee Richter, Rob Waara, Mikey Kent, Benjamin D'Avanzo, Mike Feeley, Jeff Miller, and Captain Tim.

SFCN and the crew of the Fort Jeff. Front (L-R): Andy Davis, Me with a mustache. Back (L-R): Kelly O’Connell, Brian LaVerne, Lee Richter, Rob Waara, Mikey Kent, Benjamin D’Avanzo, Mike Feeley, Jeff Miller, and Captain Tim.

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Far away from home

Preface: My name is Chase. I’m the 2017 recipient of the Bonnier publishing group internship. I graduated from the University of Maine in 2016, and it’s my goal to write about marine science for a living. This internship is a sweet opportunity for someone like me.

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Well, my first week in Florida has come to an end, and I’m tired. It’s been a full one.

I landed in Orlando Sunday morning at 2 AM, feeling tired and a little disoriented. I took an Uber to the place I would be staying in Winter Park and crashed.

On Sunday, after sleeping most of the day away, I received a warm welcome from the Bonnier Dive Group. I was invited to a cocktail party at a Condo overlooking a lake, where I met most of the people I’d be working with, and got to know everybody a little bit. There were a lot of new faces at once, and many of the names I would mix up for at least a little while after. After lots of chatting and a few drinks, I went home feeling excited and nervous for my first day.

I woke up Monday morning, after fitful sleep. There are lots of strange sounds to get used to here- mostly the highway located right next to the house I’m staying in. Still, I got up early and got to work well before 9 AM. A good start to my first day.

Except when I got there, I couldn’t find the entrance to the building. Google maps lead me to the employee entrance, which was locked. After searching around for another entrance, I called the Bonnier secretary, and just then some men came by, headed for the door. I awkwardly explained that I was there for an internship, and they let me follow them in. One of the men was kind enough to lead me to where Bonnier Dive Group works. Before long, I ran into one of the editors I met the night before, and he showed me where I needed to be.

I get a quick tour of the building, and get to see some of the different magazines that publish here. I’m shown the desk I’ll be working at, and get settled in for a brief time. During the day, I tag along for a few meetings, where the magazines discuss production details. It’s a nice, slow first day, and when I’m not attending meetings, I spend most of my time reading the magazines and getting a feel for the kinds of things they write here.

On Tuesday, I get my first assignment, which is to write some short blurbs for the next issue of sport diver. I also get to fact-check a few of the longer articles.

By Wednesday, the assignments start to pile on, and by Thursday I’ve got enough work to keep me occupied for a while. I also get a bike, borrowed from one of my editors, which means I can stop paying for Uber and start biking around the city. After work, I explore the area on my bike.

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Friday I publish a full-length news piece on the Scuba Diving website about the marine conservation documentary Chasing Coral. I love writing about films, so this is an enjoyable first longer-piece for me. I go to more meetings. Attending the meetings is interesting, because I get to see how ideas get thrown around and get to learn the dynamics of how the team works. It’s a diverse team; some of the members are very vocal, while others are more reserved. It shows me how different personalities can work with each other. At this point I’m more of a fly on the wall during the meetings, but as time goes on I can see myself contributing more.

Then it’s the weekend, which goes by quickly but mostly consists of me riding my bike around a lot, exploring the area around Winter Park.

It’s taken me a little while to get settled in, but now that my first week is over, I’m starting to feel more comfortable here. Nearly every day I am learning something new, either about working here or about the local area. I’m excited for what the rest of my time here will hold. I miss Maine just a little, but I am starting to warm up (literally- it’s pretty hot here) to this place.

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Prologue: 48 Hours in New York City

Hi everyone! If you’ve already read my bio on the internship page, then I suppose you can just skip this next paragraph – but for fear of catapulting everyone else into a detailed account of my life without a little background, I want to introduce myself.

I’m Claire Mullaney, the 2017 Dr. Jamie L. King Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) Marine Conservation Intern through the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri and a former student at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana, I am a Midwesterner through and through. I just graduated from IU in May with a B.S. in Biology along with certificates in Animal Behavior and Underwater Resource Management. I am 22 now, but I began diving and taking classes through IU’s academic diving program when I was 18. In addition to diving, I focused my undergraduate years and summers on different areas of biological research, from molecular genetics to marine ecology to human dimensions. While I loved my semesters and summers in the lab, I realized quite suddenly a year ago that my true focus – in my day-to-day thoughts, if not yet in my career plans – was not research for its own sake, but rather marine conservation, marine resource management, and education. My love for literature and writing (my heart still hurts for the dual degree in English Literature that I was not able to complete) also feeds an interest in using writing to evoke compassion for the environment and to communicate marine conservation issues.

My internship at REEF officially began on Monday, May 22. But exactly a month before that, I went to the OWUSS banquet in New York City. And that’s where I want to begin. The weekend of April 22 introduced me to the OWUSS family, brought new friends, and fueled my drive to throw myself into a future focused on marine conservation; it seems like the perfect place to start this blog.

When I leave for NYC at 6 AM on Friday, April 21st, I am 1) still wondering if I really should be missing my dives to get my Full Face Mask Specialty Certification, which are happening today, and 2) happy to be getting out of town for the weekend; finals and my thesis defense still loom between me and graduation, and I am content to put them off for as long as I can.

That afternoon and evening, the names I have been reading over email become faces: Jenna. Erika. Shaun. Roberta. The 2016 and 2017 interns, along with the OWUSS team, gather in the lobby of our hotel before heading to the Terrace Club – which is across from Rockefeller Center – for a casual dinner. There are more new faces to meet here, and the atmosphere is cheery; people are catching up with old friends, making acquaintances, sharing stories. The faces aren’t all new to me, though. Charlie Beeker, the Director of IU’s Center of Underwater Science, was the first professor with whom I ever had a college class. Now, days before I graduate, we meet again in NYC. I spend most of the evening getting to know the other interns, and I chat with some people Charlie has pointed out to me. Standing on the balcony and looking at the New York skyline, surrounded by divers and ocean enthusiasts from around the country and world, I have a “I can’t believe I get to be in this place and do this thing” moment.

There will be many more in the coming days and months.

The next morning, we head to the Explorer’s Club for refreshments and to learn about the summers and years of the 2016 Interns and Scholars. The Explorer’s Club is the perfect backdrop for this event. I don’t really remember what I was expecting the Explorer’s Club Headquarters to be, but definitely not the museum/gathering space hybrid that it is. The halls and rooms hold relics of famous explorations: rocks from the moon, old game trophies (hunting trophies would never be taken on any current expeditions, of course), and the whip of Roy Chapman Andrews, who inspired the character of Indiana Jones (much to my dismay, the whip was absent for restoration purposes…I’m already counting down the days until next April). I was too busy gazing wide-eyed at all the artifacts and daydreaming to take many photos, but I do quickly snap these two as I am heading down the stairs.

A signed photo of Buzz Aldrin is one of many snapshots hanging on the staircase walls at the Explorer's Club

A signed photo of Buzz Aldrin is one of many snapshots hanging on the staircase walls at the Explorer’s Club

A photo of Bob Ballard, Ralph White, and crew holding the Explorer's Club flag on the Titanic Discovery Expedition

A photo of Bob Ballard, Ralph White, and crew holding the Explorer’s Club flag on the Titanic Discovery Expedition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought the only thing that Bob Ballard, Buzz Aldrin, and I would have in common was that we were all from the same planet – certainly not members of the same club.

2017 Interns and Scholars getting inducted into the Explorer's Club

2017 Interns and Scholars getting inducted into the Explorer’s Club

The fanciest, and my most favorite, part of the weekend is the Saturday dinner at the New York Yacht Club. Spirits are high, and it is another wonderful evening of talking to old friends – including Mylana Haydu, the DSO at IU and my instructor for the better part of the last three years – and making new ones. I come away from the evening, and from the weekend as a whole, marveling at both the friendliness and experience of everyone I have met. Despite my youth and relative inexperience, I feel included, welcomed, and – please know that I never use this word lightly – inspired.

It may have taken a few tries…

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…but eventually, I managed to get a photo with Mylana Haydu, IU’s DSO and my instructor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posing for photos is complicated!

Posing for photos is complicated!

2017 OWUSS Interns, finally photo-ready

2017 OWUSS Interns, finally photo-ready. From L-R: Erika Sawicki, me, Shaun Wolfe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interns, past and present. From L-R: Patrick Peck, Garrett Fundakowski, Melissa Smith, Allie Sifrit (2016); Erika Sawicki, Shaun Wolfe, me (2017).

Interns, past and present. From L-R: Patrick Peck, Garrett Fundakowski, Melissa Smith, Allie Sifrit (2016); Erika Sawicki, Shaun Wolfe, me (2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still here? Thanks for sticking with me. More soon.

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