“Don’t mind the lizards, watch out for mean dogs, and don’t drink the water. Those are my three biggest island tips,” Tori tells me as we are preparing to go to the grocery store. “I wasn’t sweating it about the lizards, but good to know about the dogs!” I respond. Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa has a rash of stray dogs. As cute as they may look (they generally do not look cute), they are wild animals and fairly ferocious.
Tori picked me up from the airport last night, and I was instructed in an email to look for a “blonde woman that is extremely tall, she will stand out.” Sure enough, in a sea of Samoans, Tori stands out. She has adjusted to the island after 7 months of working at NPSA and embraced many of the traditions here. As a native Ohioan, she has a wholesome flavor to her and is probably the most hard science/technically focused of the team.
After a short drive, we enter a chaotically arranged grocery store and Tori excitedly exclaims, “Zucchinis! I haven’t seen zucchinis since I’ve been here!” As beautiful as American Samoa is, it’s geographically closer to New Zealand than the mainland US. Being that far away creates challenges for trade, and particularly for produce since very little is grown in Polynesia.
We are shopping for our upcoming trip to Ofu Island in the Manua islands. Ofu is about 75 miles away from Tutuila, where the National Park Service (NPS) is based out of. We will be flying out tomorrow on a small 12-passenger plane. There are about 150 people that live on Ofu and about 200 that live on Olesega, which is connected to Ofu via a narrow, 100m long bridge. Needless to say, provisions are hard to come by on the island. Once we pack up the car, we head to park headquarters to ready our coolers for the morning.
After Tori introduces me to some of the park staff, I meet Bert Fuiava, Park Diving Officer and acting Marine Ecologist at the National Park of American Samoa (NPSA). Bert is a massive man. In the words of the acting NPSA superintendent, Daniel George, “Bert’s arm is the size of my leg!” Bert’s muscular exterior belies his fun-loving personality. Though he works extremely hard, he is the biggest prankster on the NPSA team and embodies the “no worries” island attitude.
After I meet Bert, I meet Ian Moffitt. Ian and I connected virtually many years ago. Truth be told, I have applied to work at NPSA multiple times over the years. Being from Los Angeles himself, Ian and I have a mutual contact that connected me with him years back. After occasional internet chats, it is great to actually meet him in person. “Want to come help me out with some boat stuff real quick?” he asks me.
Soon enough, we are at the NPSA boat yard. Ian shows me around and I get to work gathering equipment for Ofu and doing a bit of housekeeping. Unfortunately, Ian isn’t coming with us to Ofu, so this may be one of my only opportunities to talk with him. Ian’s been in American Samoa for almost 3 years- the longest of any of the pelongis (non-Samoans) on the NPSA team. He tells me about the benefits and challenges of his stay on the island and how his career has progressed at NPSA. Without Ian, NPSA would have trouble continuing their dive program. His mechanical knowledge is a precious resource, as he keeps all the park boats up and running. We also talk about our hometown of Los Angeles a bit as well. I don’t always have a hunger to be around people that grew up in the environment I did, but it is really nice every now and then. Ian is such a solid guy. He is constantly working and hyper focused, but knows how to have fun and isn’t so serious that he can’t crack a joke every now and then.
Tori, a few of her friends, and I are lathering up in bug spray at Tisa’s. Tisa and her husband, who oddly goes by the name of “Candyman” run Tisa’s Barefoot Bar. It’s a bar/restaurant that makes from scratch or catches nearly everything they serve- including fresh fish and piña coladas. While Tisa’s food and drink was the draw for us, I was more interested in their Marine Protected Area (MPA). Tisa and Candyman manage the MPA that lies directly in front of their business. “Their giant clams are the biggest I’ve seen on the island,” Tori tells me.
I ask Candyman how they deal with poachers. He tells me that it’s usually easy because they can see them walking on the beach or snorkeling on the surface, but lately it’s been tough. “There are no scuba shops on the island, but people are still getting scuba gear here. They go out at night for the clams and they are hard to see underwater. I’ve been kayaking out though and dropping some rocks in the water when I see lights!” Though this sort of management would never be considered acceptable in the developed world, it is working here and quite an inspiration to me.
“So apparently there’s a matai on our plane,” Tori tells us as we are loading up the van in the morning. Matai’s are high-ranking Samoan chiefs. Having a matai on your plane means that you and your luggage will not get priority and may or may not make it to your destination. Normally, this isn’t a huge deal. However, there is only one flight a week to Ofu. Even though we sent most of our heaviest equipment via boat last night, not having our gear (or even worse, crew) for the week would be devastating.
Once we get driving, Daniel lightens the mood. He says, “someone described these planes to me the other day as a ‘flying busses,’ which is comforting…how high do these planes go?” Bert responds, “4000 feet I think.” “Ok, good. If it was 5000, it might be a problem, but I feel totally fine hoping out of the plane at 4000 feet if it comes down to it.”
This is the essence of Daniel. Daniel has spent most of his life on the Pacific coast of the lower 48 and currently heads an Inventory and Monitoring team based out of Pinnacles National Park in California. He perfectly walks the line between being professional and having fun. As such, he is quite popular with his team. Daniel is also one of those people that is probably the smartest person in any given room that he walks into. He is an avid birder that leads his team by example with a strong work ethic and is probably the funniest person I’ve met all summer.
Once we get to the airport and grab a quick breakfast, we board the plane with the matai without a hitch. After unsuccessfully looking for whales outside my window for 30 minutes, we arrive on Ofu and head to “the lodge.”
The lodge is a 1-minute walk from the airport (note that the airport is just an airstrip and an open structure). It’s odd to not have to find transportation to my destination from an airport, but really convenient. The lodge sits right by the coast and next door to the NPS visitor’s center on Ofu. A married island couple named Ben and Deb run the lodge. They each spent significant amounts of time stateside and can communicate and connect well with their guests.
We quickly put away our food in the breezy kitchen of the lodge to a reggae soundtrack and start putting together gear for the day. While we are gathering up the equipment we need, I hear 3 year old Elsa Bordelon exclaim, “best day ever!” as she looks out on the ocean. Elsa is the really the star of the trip. She is the daughter of Jason Bordelon, Chief of Interpretation. Jason and I bond quickly as he also spent several years on the west end of Catalina Island and likes to surf. Between Elsa and work, Jason is staying pretty busy on Ofu. Elsa is a free spirit if there ever was one and makes the whole crew laugh throughout the week.
Once we are ready to go into the field, Bert, Tori, and I hop in the truck with the Ofu NPS team- Brian and Boy. Ofu is of particular interest to the scientific community because of what happens in its nearshore “pools,” where seawater gets held up at low tide and the interaction with the open ocean is limited. These pools heat up to above 90 F, which is much hotter than corals should be able to withstand. Yet, the corals in the pools are thriving. Why is this? What makes these corals different? Does this provide us hope in the face of a warming ocean?
NPS is continually working with Stanford and Old Dominion University to answer these questions. This week, we are taking water quality samples (just like I did at KALA) as part of the Inventory and Monitoring process that goes on in the Pacific, as well as looking at coral reef plots that partnering universities are researching. The latter exercise involves us finding corals that the university has tagged in the warm pools, retagging them (the tags get covered in encrusting algae very quickly), and taking photos so that all involved parties can analyze how quickly the coral is growing, bleaching, or receding. The idea is to find which corals are growing well in the warm pools and why that is.
As we are taking our water quality samples, Bert is teaching Boy and Brian how to do it so that they can help with the study when the Tutuila-based team isn’t on Ofu. After we go to several sites and finish all of the water quality samples we need to take on Ofu, we call it a day and head back to the lodge.
It’s a warm afternoon on Ofu and Tori and I are swatting mosquitos off ourselves. We are on day 3 of our Ofu mission. I’m getting the hang of searching for tagged corals. It’s been very challenging because the tags are small to begin with and are often completely fouled or missing. We are struggling with certain tags more than others and start to see a pattern of which ones are missing. This helps us determine where we need to make new sites versus where we should actually spend effort looking for tags.
After our second site of the day, Bert shouts out, “Sione!” Sione is my name in Samoan and has become my nickname on Ofu. “Let me see how you husk a coconut!” I told Bert that I can husk coconuts- which is true. There is a perfect husking stick at this site. The thing is, I haven’t had a perfect husking stick to husk a coconut on in 4 years. It should be easier, but because I’m out of practice and have been husking coconuts with a pocket knife all summer, I struggle a little. About 8 minutes later, I’ve husked my coconut. “I’ll show you the Samoan way!” Bert says, as he proceeds to husk a coconut in about 20 seconds and we all laugh.
As day turns into night, we are all cooking dinner. I look at the food Daniel brought, which is only rice, beans, and quinoa. I have to ask him. I turn to Daniel and say, “are you vegetarian?” I am hoping for a fellow vegetarian in American Samoa. Despite how every single person I’ve met who has been to American Samoa has told me how difficult it is to be vegetarian here, it’s actually not too hard. However Daniel is not a vegetarian, “I’m mostly vegetarian, but I’ll slam an animal every now and then if I need to.” I can’t help but crack up at that statement. Slam an animal?! That has to be one of the funniest ways he could have put it.
Though Daniel is hilarious, what I admire about him most is his commitment to his values. The reason he brought so little food with packaging to Ofu was because knows that what is brought to Ofu gets put into a “dump” (a hole in the ground) on Ofu and often will end up in the ocean or burned. In order to reduce his footprint on the island, he brought food that has the least amount of packaging possible. This is what a leader should be doing.
My scuba boot tan is pretty spectacular right now. After 5 days of surveying, the back of my legs are extremely tan and the skin under my boot line is not. Today, we are also doing some video surveys along our transect lines. The way it works in-water is Bert and I set up the transect tape at each site, then Tori swims along the tape taking video. The video is analyzed later and compared to past videos. NPS is specifically looking at coral cover and coral health from previous survey to this survey.
Additionally, we are taking a cow bile mixture with us today in case we see any crown of thorns sea stars (COTS). COTS are native to Samoan waters, but they are what I like to call “coral reef lawnmowers.” They are ravenous coral eaters and don’t really have natural predators. It’s difficult for humans to remove them as well since their bodies are covered in venomous spines. As such, having multiple COTS in a small area can spell death for that entire section of reef. NPS uses cow bile to kill COTS. It is inserted into the COTS through a syringe and will disintegrate the COTS within 24 hours without harming any other marine life.
After our first site, we head to a site where we’ve been seeing COTS throughout the week. I take my camera in the water. Tori, Brian, Boy, and I look for COTS while Bert holds the cow bile mixture. After about an hour of work, we inject 10 COTS. American Samoa experienced a massive COTS outbreak many years ago and it has been the primary objective of NPSA to manage the outbreak until this year when it was deemed managed. All in all, they killed over 26,000 COTS.
This is even more impressive when considering the logistical challenges of American Samoa. There are no dive shops nor places to get boat parts in American Samoa, and shipping to and from the territory is unreliable at best. That being said, the fact that Brian and Boy can accomplish the things they accomplish is even more impressive. They are the only two NPS employees on Ofu.
Throughout the week, I’ve gotten to know Brian and Boy pretty well. Brian is a clear communicator who has infinite curiosity and an open mind about his new island home (he’s been on Ofu for about 3 months). He is supported by his wonderful bohemian wife, Rebecca- a California surfer with the most caring heart. Boy is a local. Born and raised in Manua, his local knowledge helps fill in the culture and local ecology knowledge gaps for Brian. Boy is also one of the hardest workers I’ve met this summer.
After a long day of surveying and COTS management, we head back to the lodge. Jason and his family have ordered dinner tonight as a special treat and the dinner is a locally speared fish. Daniel and I start to talk about the experience of a speared fish and Daniel says, “yeah, I imagine that the fish probably tells his friends ‘hard pass’ in regard to being speared.”
Later on, Daniel and I team up again. This time, it’s to take down some of the locals in a game of billiards, and by take down I mean that our goal is solely to keep our dignity in tact after we leave the pool table. We proclaim ourselves “Team Pelongi.” As Team Pelongi gets the game started, I miss an easy shot. Daniel jokes, “oh nooo! Your whole family is embarrassed and they’re not even here!” I end up laughing so hard, it’s difficult to finish the game. I never get tired of Daniel’s humor.
Today is our last day in Ofu. The mission for today is removing some marine debris that we spotted a few days ago at one of our sites. There is a huge fishing net wrapped around a dead coral head. It likely killed that coral head along with countless others. It’s hard to say if it also killed other, larger animals in the ocean, but marine debris does that more often than not.
Once we are at the site, we find the debris and begin moving it. Boy brings a machete, which makes the process surprisingly quick. Within 2 minutes, the net is ready to be removed. My job is to document the whole thing, but by the time I’m ready to shoot, they have almost removed the net! Once the net is removed, the team drags it onto shore and into the truck.
After the removal and some fun snorkeling, we go over to Boy’s family’s land to harvest some young coconuts. Brian picked some would-be trash and turned it into a pole to knock coconuts off of trees. Once we have 7 or 8, Boy starts giving us a lesson. “You see? Like this,” as Boy flicks a coconut to show us how to tell if it’s good or not. Then he starts flaking off the top of the coconut with his machete. I ask him I can do my own, because I’ve always wanted to try. He agrees and I start hacking away to get the perfect drinking hole in the top. The process is really fun for a beginner but also a little more difficult than it looks. How do the locals have such pinpoint accuracy with their machetes?
I leave American Samoa tomorrow, so I need to finish editing all of my photos and get my last good byes in. My first stop is the NPSA office. After many hours of editing, I say my goodbyes to Jason and Bert. “Sione! This is for you,” Bert says giving me a NPSA shirt. I thank Bert for hosting me, all of his hospitality, and showing me the ropes on Ofu. I also tell him to come visit me in California when he and his family go to their second home on the west coast.
Later that evening, Ian and Paolo (another NPSA employee) come over to hang out with Tori and I. Ian brings up something I said after meeting him last week, “We’d been talking for no longer than 5 minutes, and then I’m walking out the door to help someone and I hear you say ‘thanks Ian, you’re so cool and thoughtful!’” Paolo lets out a laugh, “cool and thoughtful! HA! That is classic!” Ian puts things into context, “I was kind of stressed and didn’t even notice when you said it. Then I was like, wait, did he just say that?! Was that a joke?! Ha ha ha.” For the rest of the night, “cool and thoughtful” becomes our phrase of choice. “I hope that ‘cool and thoughtful’ becomes my legacy at NPSA,” I laugh.
I had a blast with Paolo and Ian. It’s really fun to be around two California guys so far from home. Unfortunately, I say my goodbyes to them and Tori when Daniel picks me up for my flight. Daniel is my last goodbye. I tell him that I am going to contact him when I get up to Pinnacles one of these days and that I think he makes an excellent Superintendent.
American Samoa is one of the most remote and unique places in the National Park Service. It was such a privilege to be able to go to NPSA, and particularly Ofu. It was the perfect end to my summer tour- a beautiful landscape and equally beautiful seascapes with the best crew I could ever ask for. I was also happy with my own effort and work at NPSA, which is a great feeling to have. I would say that I feel like I finished on a very high note, but truth be told, I’m not finished. In 36 hours, I’ll be in Washington D.C…
I’ve been on O’ahu for a few days. I arrived over the weekend and yesterday was a holiday, so I haven’t gotten in touch with the National Park Service team here yet. I’m strangely thankful for the break. It’s provided me much needed time for photo editing, blogging, and getting in expense reports. O’ahu has also felt like a second homecoming of sorts. I have many friends on the island, some of which I’ve been able to visit and some of which I’ve been staying with. By the time 11AM rolls around on Tuesday, my park work starts to begin. My phone whistles at me through the heat of the Hawai’ian fall.
Hi Shaun, can you get to the park by 2 PM?
It’s Scott Pawlowski, Park Diving Officer at Valor in the Pacific National Historic Monument (VALR). VALR is most well-known for being the home of the USS Arizona, a US Navy battleship that was bombed and consequently sunk by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It is also home to the USS Utah and Oklahoma Memorials, both of which suffered similar fates on that day. The significance of the attack is that it signaled the entrance of the US into World War II. The USS Arizona is the most symbolic physical entity our country has to pay homage to victims of that attack, but it also represents the soldiers lost throughout the war. Needless to say, this park experience is much different than going into the grandiose valley of Yosemite.
I’m meeting Scott to go over my schedule for the week and get oriented to the resources and operations in the park. Pearl Harbor is still an active military base. The park is just on the outskirts of the base, so security at the front gate is tight. The guard sees me decked out in National Park Service (NPS) gear and asks, “Shaun Wolfe?” I tell him, “that’s me!” He lets me through and directs me over to Scott who is mid-conversation with a ticket booth employee. “Shaun, Shaun, good to see you finally! Sorry we couldn’t get you over here earlier. We’ll have to make some stops along the way, but let’s head up to the conference room.” Sure enough, Scott is either stopped by park staff or has to poke his head in a door almost every 10 steps. He is a busy man. VALR is one of the smallest parks I’ve ever seen but they have an exceedingly high visitation rate – approaching 2 million visitors a year – and co-manage the park with the military. This puts quite a bit on everyone’s plate.
Up in the conference room, Scott gives me the lay of the land and starts letting me know what my opportunities will be. The dive program is getting audited on Thursday under the jurisdiction of Steve Sellers. Steve is a diving legend. He is a past president of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (the authority for all scientific diving) and the Diving Safety Officer at East Carolina University for nearly 20 years. He is now the Diving Safety Officer for NPS and is based out of Denver along side the Submerged Resources Center in Colorado. I missed him while I was there and jump at the opportunity to join the audit on Thursday. Saturday we are diving the USS Utah for sure, and possibly the USS Arizona as well. Sunday I will tour the park and the USS Missouri outside of the park (a WWII era ship which is still seaworthy and docked on the base).
Scott is a solid guy. He has a very endearing goofiness to him but can flip over to military-like seriousness when needed (this happens often given the park he works in). He is from coastal Washington (but don’t ask him to jump in cold water!), doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and is pretty intent on giving me as many opportunities as possible in the park, which I genuinely appreciate.
While we are waiting to hop on board the Navy boat that ferrys guests out to the Arizona Memorial, I notice that the diving here will be very different to the other diving I’ve done in Hawai’i. First and foremost, I haven’t dove a wreck all summer. Moreover, the visibility is much worse and the bottom will be silty in the harbor. Another thing that comes from being in a harbor is protection. “I haven’t had to worry about ocean conditions in 12 years,” Scott tells me.
We motor out to the memorial and I put my phone on silent and remove my hat. The USS Arizona is parallel to and just underneath the memorial. The memorial is a white rectangular structure that has a concave roof with lots of cut outs in it. Stepping into the memorial, the crowd goes silent. It’s quite the juxtaposition to the boisterous nature of the large crowds onshore. The USS Arizona is not only a shipwreck and a memorial to the dead soldiers, but it is a grave site. 1,177 men died on board when the ship was attacked and remain within the Arizona’s submerged hull. The memorial is a place of quite reflection, learning, and mourning.
As we pass through the main hall, visitors gaze upon the deck of the USS Arizona. The ship itself is oriented exactly how it would have been above water. The hull sits perfectly on the seafloor and the deck is parallel to the surface. The deck is very shallow. Though it is hard to make out exactly what you are looking at because of the cloudy water. One salvaged gun turret stands above the water and provides a more visually relatable image for guests and interpretive displays give the visitors a better sense of the ship’s structure. There is a sheen on the water caused by oil that is still leaking for different compartments on the ship.
Heading to the back of the memorial is a separate room with all of the names of those who died on the ship engraved into a marble wall. Two things strike me in this room. One is the sheer amount of soldiers that died that day. Two is the list of veterans that survived the attack from the USS Arizona that have chosen to be buried on the ship. Scott and the dive team help run a program in conjunction with the military to put the remains of USS Arizona survivors in the hull of the ship to rest with their fallen comrades.
On our way back to the boat, we come across a cut out in the floor of the memorial, directly above the deck of the USS Arizona. “This was put in for the survivors that come back. It is a place where they can spend a more intimate moment with their crew members on the ship,” Scott tells me in a low voice. While the memorial is certainly set up to teach and cater to visitors, it was made for the survivors.
Once we are back on shore, Scott shows me around the onshore grounds of the park. The interpretive work the park is doing in the way of signage, image displays, and exhibits is some of the best I’ve seen anywhere. “We want people to understand what happened and be able to put themselves in the shoes of the soldiers that day,” he says. As we move closer to a 3D map of O’ahu showing all the places on the island that were attacked, he tells me, “we also want them to understand that this really wasn’t an attack on Pearl Harbor, it was an attack on Hawai’i.” The Japanese sought to knock out as many of our naval and aerial resources as possible on the island, which are spread out between the coastline and the island’s interior.
After a few more displays, Scott stops and looks up. Pointing to the horizon, he articulates that the horizon and the landscape around the memorial is a park resource as well. “Outside of a few piers, one low-lying bridge, and some houses, this landscape hasn’t changed much since 1944. Between our displays of where the planes came from and the view of the landscape here, we hope our visitors can imagine what happened on December 7th.”
As I say my goodbye to Scott, I comment on the uniqueness of VALR, “this is one of the only National Parks that I have ever been to where visitors come almost exclusively for the cultural resources of the park.” When most of us think National Parks, we think of massive mountains and big valleys filled with streams and wild animals. VALR is on a military base near a big city. It has murky water and no wildlife that visitors can see. People come here to learn about World War II in the Pacific and to pay their respects to the dead.
“Don’t be afraid of the red,” Steve Sellers says as he goes over the audit of the VALR dive program with Scott. “It’s all minor paperwork and data entry, easy fix,” he assures. Steve conducts audits of all 25(ish) park diving programs every three years to ensure that all national standards are met. Scott has brought me to the park to see the audit so that I can understand the nuts and bolts of running a dive program. The majority of the audit comes in the way of paperwork and making sure the information in the computerized diving management system is up to date. The Park Diving Officer, the Regional Diving Officer, Diving Control Board, and the park divers themselves all play a role in updating the system and keeping the program safe. I think the most interesting part of the dive program that I learn about during the audit is how these stakeholders form a check and balance system. Steve interacts with divers on the park dive team individually as well to get their take on the program and make recommendations about the program at a park, regional, or national level.
“I haven’t seen anything that makes me question the safety of your program,” Steve concludes. Scott knew almost everything that needed to get done before Steve came in thanks to the self-audit all Park Diving Officers are required to do in advance of Steve’s arrival. Even so, he is relieved to hear the news. The audit is really less of an intimidating, harsh consequential meeting. It’s more of a conversation about making the program safer and being in full compliance with national standards. This atmosphere, in my estimation, makes for a much more productive audit, stronger working relationships, and safer diving within NPS.
I’m eating a larger bowl of oatmeal than normal this morning. I also woke up earlier to make sure all my gear is ready to go. Today is my day in the field, the day I get to dive the USS Utah and the USS Arizona. It is a privilege to dive each. Only the National Park Service and military divers are allowed to dive the ships. My dive buddy is Dan Brown. Dan works in concessions for the park, working out partnerships between groups that want to work with or in the park. He is also a member of the park dive team.
After a dive safety briefing and orientation, we drive over to the USS Utah. The Utah is laying on it’s side and the deck partially breaches the surface. Our plan is to swim along the deck at different depths to see as much as we can. We scale down the slippery algae covered rocks of the shoreline and descend upon the bow. The water is murky (about 10-12 feet of visibility) and the bottom is fine silt, which is easily disturbed and can make visibility much worse.
The ship itself is quite the site. There are so many open hatches on the deck. Some of them have ladders that run down below and others are so dark I can’t light them up enough to see what’s there. We continue swimming along and see gun turrets and some sort of crane on deck. Everything on the ship is covered in impressive sessile life, mostly tunicates and sponges.
Due to the orientation of the ship, it’s size (200 feet + smaller than the USS Arizona), and the damage it sustained during the attack, it can be hard at times to remember I am looking at a ship. Parts of the ship are so mangled that they look more like an indiscernible metal heap. As we make the swim back to the bow, we cruise the shallowest part of the deck. This is the part of the ship with the most in-tact features and best lighting. I can start creating an image in my head of what the ship really looked like and what life may have been like on board.
Our next dive is on the USS Arizona. I once asked Susanna Pershern, photographer at the Submerged Resources Center, what her favorite wreck was to dive. She told me, “the HMS Fowey at Biscayne [National Park], it’s in-tact, historic…it’s beautiful.” Puzzled by this, I inquired, “what about the Arizona?” She smiled and said, “the Arizona is in a class of its own, you can’t compare other wrecks to it!”
Needless to say, I was excited. If Susanna, who has logged hundreds (if not thousands) of wreck dives says this is thee wreck, it must be pretty special. Of course it feels strange to say that I’m excited or that the diving the wreck is cool. In reality, the wreck is anything but “cool.” It represents one of the greatest tragedies in US history and is symbolic of World War II- the deadliest event in the history of the world.
“You’re going to be the brightest, shiniest thing around when we get out there. The key is to maintain a low profile without ignoring the guests. We don’t want the focus to be on us, we want it to be on the soldiers that are on the Arizona,” Scott briefs me as we prepare to board the Navy passenger ferry that takes guests out to the Arizona Memorial.
Once we arrive to the memorial, we wait for all the other guests to get off the ferry and we stage our gear in our own gated corner of the floating dock. Dan and I stealthily swim under the memorial and descend onto one of the Arizona’s four gun turrets near its stern.
Because the USS Arizona sits perfectly centered on it’s hull in a harbor with little ocean movement, the deck is flat and holds many historical items (in addition to pennies, cell phones, and other items visitors drop that the park divers clean up). We find some of these items right away. An old shoe, a mason jar, a hair tonic bottle, old broken bowls. These items humanize the wreck. I’m looking at items that likely belonged to or were used by soldiers on the ship. What if a lieutenant used that bottle of hair tonic on December 7th thinking it was going to be another mundane day in the harbor?
We then descend on the starboard side of the ship and find a few portholes in the hull. Some of the portholes still have their glass windows. I can’t see through these portholes as they are significantly fouled. The glass got blown out of other portholes, which are about 8” in diameter. I can look into these and my powerful camera lights reveal surprisingly in-tact rooms. In the first room we look into, there is a table and an a sink, perfectly in place. In the next room, there is a clothing hanger, likely undisturbed since December 7th. It is both chilling and spectacular. I imagine how normal that day was until it wasn’t. They must have been so unprepared and unsuspecting, just going about their morning routine as usual. Seeing these rooms is one of the most powerful experiences I have had all summer.
Swimming further towards the bow, we pass the most in-tact gun turret on the ship, holding three giant 14″ guns. I swim along the guns to see get an idea of how long they are. I swim, and swim, and swim. The guns are nearly 20ft long, much longer than the water allows me to see all at once.
Finally at the bow, we pass by the most damaged parts of the ship. Where the aerial bomb exploded in a gun powder magazine and ultimately sunk the ship. I begin to think about what my grandfather must have felt like on that day. Did he know that the attack meant that he would be serving on a Navy ship at the battle of Okinawa and change his life forever? How did my grandmother feel knowing his fate might be the same as the men that went down with the USS Arizona?
This is all a tip of the hat to the National Park Service staff. Their mission here is to maintain these “resources” (ie. the ship and it’s contents) in context. In doing that, they have allowed me to see a story from the past. Though truthfully, seeing the ship from underwater something very few people will ever get to do. Most people have to access the story through the videos and exhibits that the park has put up. While these are excellent interpretation displays, there is no substitute for seeing the ship underwater.
Back on the dock, we are putting our gear away and appease many guests by answering “what are you guys looking for down there?” many times over. We take the Navy ferry back to shore where I say mahalo and goodbye to Dan for coming in on a Saturday to dive with me.
I also say goodbye to Scott. I thank him for allowing me to dive at both sites. I wouldn’t have been able to dive without him and his team did not need to dive otherwise today. Furthermore, I sincerely enjoyed my time with Scott. He’s a great person to work with. He keeps his crew loose and laughing, yet also efficient and professional. “I’ll make sure I get you tickets to the USS Missouri for tomorrow plus anything else you’d want to do around here,” Scott says to me as I hop in my red Smartcar.
It’s my last day in O’ahu and I’m going to be a full blow tourist at Valor in the Pacific National Monument and the USS Missouri. I arrive at the park to grab my comp tickets thanks to Scott. After seeing the film about the USS Arizona and touring the memorial another time, I hop on the bus to go to the Missouri.
On June 22, 1998, I was 7 and ½ years old on a surfboard in Waikiki, O’ahu and the USS Missouri was being towed into Pearl Harbor. The USS Missouri is one of the most decorated battleships in American history and its main deck is where the Japanese surrendered at the end of WWII. As such, my parents remember this as a special moment and my mom brought it up on the phone with me many times this last month, knowing I’d be going to O’ahu. Of course, I didn’t understand any of the historical significance at that age. I only remember thinking the accompanying fire department boats that were spraying water high in the air were awesome. Now at 26 years old, I know that my relationship to the Missouri is about to change dramatically.
The first thing that stikes me about the Missouri is its size. It’s extremely tall and almost 900 feet long. Dan Brown advised me to block off 6-8 hours to tour the ship. Once I get on board, it’s easy to see why. Several decks of the ship have been turned into a museum, jam packed with displays and information. Every single room is an exhibit- officers’ quarters, kitchens, lounges, etc. Though the USS Missouri isn’t managed by the National Park Service, it compliments the USS Arizona, as the ships represent the beginning and end of WWII in the Pacific. Furthermore, after diving on the USS Arizona, the USS Missouri shows me what the Arizona was like in its heyday.
The guns and teak decking I saw on the Arizona come alive for me on the Missouri. The rooms I saw through the portholes in the Arizona’s hull are perfectly on display in the Missouri. With the entirety of the USS Missouri decorated as if it were underway with Navy soldiers on board (including sounds like thousands of people eating in the dining hall), I really begin to absorb the life that the young men on WWII battleships had.
Two things left a lasting impression on me after my visit to the USS Missouri. The first is the realities of war and how we talk about it as a country. Often times WWII is looked back on via triumphant and exuberant vignettes, like tanks rolling down the streets of a freshly-liberated Paris while young women are screaming praises at our soldiers. In reality, the war was the peak of human brutality. My grandfathers never spoke about the war. After going through some exhibits on the Missouri, it was easy to understand why. Soldiers were in constant and oppressive fear about being attacked. In battle, they often saw their best friends blown up. If they got to say goodbye, it was often to disfigured body parts.
The second takeaway for me was the kamikaze exhibits. The exhibit have photos of Japanese kamikazes and letters from each back to their loved ones sent before their kamikaze mission. Some of their personal belongings were on display as well, mostly those recovered after their terminal mission. They were all so young. I tried to put myself in their shoes, being 18 years old knowing I was going to die on my next mission. I tried to put myself in the shoes of their loved ones, knowing they were going to lose their son, husband, or sibling. Many of these kamikaze pilots carried a Japanese flag with them on their mission that was covered in written good luck phrases. My jaw dropped when I saw this. My grandfather had a Japanese flag that was badly damaged and looked just like this. What exactly did he see in battle? What experiences did he have that he was so unwilling to speak about? I couldn’t help but imagine the horrors he saw when I saw that flag in the exhibit.
As I am scarfing down some pad thai at my final O’ahu dinner with 3 friends from Catalina Island that live on the island, I begin to reflect on my time here. Valor in the Pacific is an incredibly unique National Park Service unit. From the way visitation works, to the responsibilities of the staff, to the globally historic importance of the park, to collaborating with the military and others, I have never visited a place like it. I came to the park mostly excited to dive the USS Arizona and the USS Utah. It is a privilege to be able to do so and one that very few people will ever have. However, my experience was shaped by the introspective moments I had reflecting on our country’s past. This is the goal of the team at VALR. This is how they want their visitors to feel after they come to the park. It was an honor to work with the team here and if my experience is any indication, they are accomplishing exactly what they set out to do.
“Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be”
We hear the 1972 single by Looking Glass in the distance. “That song is in the new one!” I exclaim referring to our conversation about the movie Gaurdians of the Galaxy II. “Who does that song?” Kaile’a asks us. Sallie quips, “I don’t know, I was too busy listening to rock n’ roll when that song came out. ‘What a good wife you would be?’ Gimme a break!” We all enjoy a laugh together and continue to load the boat for our day of diving.
After we idle through the harbor, the breakwater gives way to a extraordinarily calm ocean. “Welcome to Lake Kona,” Kaile’a remarks. I am on the island of Hawai’i helping the team at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park (KAHO) with benthic (seafloor) surveys. We are surveying sections of coral reef within the park that Sallie Beavers (Natural Resource Chief and Marine Ecologist) and Kaile’a Carlson (Biotech) have been monitoring for an extended period.
The benefits to their long-term study are numerous. Seeing current functionality trends and finding drivers of the ecosystem allow the park to adjust their management strategy and protect their resources in the short-term. With long-term data, they can also look at historical responses to ecosystem disturbances (think giant storms, extreme warm/cool periods, and outbreaks of disease, invasive species, or predators). Thus, they can predict the way the ecosystem will change and how to best manage that in the long-term as well. In short, these studies help keep the park up to date (and potentially a step ahead) with what is happening to their resources.
Sallie and I are diving together today and Kaile’a is wo-manning the boat. Sallie is force. She is an incredibly self-motivated person and manages many people at the park. For this reason, and her “rock n’ roll” attitude, I am really excited to dive with her. We drop in to the warm and crystal clear waters of Kona coast and search for our starting point (marked by a metal bar and zip tie) for our survey. There is supposed to be one zip tie on the starting point and two zip ties on the ending point. The first metal bar we find only has one zip tie on it. I set my compass bearing to find the terminal point and begin to roll the transect tape (underwater measuring tape) out in that direction. Meanwhile, Sallie is looking at me like I’m crazy. Of course, we can’t speak to each other underwater on open-circuit SCUBA equipment, so she tries to communicate via hand signals. I’m not understanding some of her signals. I thought I was doing this right. It seemed simple enough. Then she points down at the metal bar we found and puts up two fingers. I get it.
We found the terminal pin but one of the zip ties had fallen off of the metal bar. Ahhh, the benefit of experience. Sallie knew this was the terminal pin after diving this site for years. Meanwhile, I was swimming the wrong direction, clueless.
The rest of our survey day goes smoothly. Sallie and Kaile’a both keep insisting that the coral reefs around the park are extremely degraded after a few serious bleaching events in the last couple years. They could have fooled me. The reefs in the park contain the healthiest and greatest abundance of hard corals I have seen this summer and I’m pretty excited about it. “Wow! That reef must be eating its kale. I haven’t seen anything that healthy all summer!” Sallie was kind enough to give me a courtesy laugh.
It’s 7:30 AM inside the air-conditioned NPS office at KAHO. I’m half-zoning out, looking at a poster showing the sizes of various fish when they reach sexual maturity when I hear Kaile’a shout, “Do they have red butts?!” Some anonymous voice from the other room replys, “Yeah, I think so.” “Those are ok, the ones with the red butts aren’t the invasive ones!” Kaile’a informs the anonymous voice that is looking at ants under the microscope.
The dive team at KAHO doesn’t only work on the water. Sallie and Kaile’a maintain and protect park resources on land as well. One pesky creature they have been dealing with lately is a tiny invasive fire ant. Not only can you hardly see these ants with a naked eye, but you can imagine working with “fire” ants has obvious downsides. These ants pack a punch in their bite. The worst part is, you literally can’t see it coming.
Sallie sent out an NPS team yesterday to set fire ant traps (popsicle sticks glazed with peanut butter). The teams then collected the traps and are now looking for fire ants on said traps. This will give them a spatial idea of where the fire ants are. Once they know where they are, they can try to manage them.
Of course, we aren’t working with fire ants today (though I did get to check out some red butted ants under the microscope). We are on our third day of benthic work. Today I get to get my camera in the water.
After loading the boat in the Kona heat, we arrive at our dive site and Kaile’a and I hop in. Kaile’a is a string bean of a woman. She is as calm as the water of the Kona coast and has a very palatable sense of humor. We have a shared interest in photography, though Kaile’a is more science-based in her approach. Today, she is taking photos of a rectangular plot of reef. After we are done for the day, she will upload those photos to a computer software. The software will stitch them together to create a high-resolution 3D model of the reef. Kaile’a is pushing for this sort of monitoring in the park, because these 3D models enable NPS to see exactly how much the reef is growing/degrading each survey period and which corals are healthy or struggling. It’s a much more robust way to monitor and survey coral reef.
After the photogrammetry site is set up, I don’t have much responsibility. This means I get to take some photos of my own. While I’m taking a few photos of Kaile’a, we both notice a large patch of murky water behind us. We go to investigate and see that a semi-solid mostly-fluid solution is being puffed out (think the way an older man would smoke a pipe) of mostly dead coral heads. It’s clearly a spawning event, where some organism is broadcast spawning (releasing their eggs and sperm into the water column where they will eventually meet and fertilize). After several minutes of staring into a dead coral head, I find it. Scallops! I’ve never witnessed a spawning event like this on a dive. Once one scallop started the event, hundreds of scallops immediately followed. It’s an incredible site to see.
We are both pretty giddy about it. After a little bit more exploration, we head back to the boat and begin our drive into the harbor. On our way back in, we see a giant streaky yellow line on the ocean surface. “What is that?!” Sallie says as she slows the boat and turns around. “Might be coral spawning! We should go pick some up and take it back to the lab!” Kaile’a grabs a ziplock back, reaches over the gunnel of the boat, and fills the bag with the yellow-y water. “Two spawning events in one day?! Apparently the park service surveys are very romantic events,” I remark.
Back at the harbor, we pull the boat out of the water and give the hull a deep clean. The boat will be on a trailer all night, so we need to clean off all the algae that has grown on it. Sallie starts cleaning the bow, while Kaile’a and I start at the stern. Eventually, I come up the bow and find some really hidden algae spots. Sallie sees me cleaning a section she already did, “did I miss a spot?” I respond jokingly while laying in a pool of water on the ground, “it’s no big deal! It’s impossible to expect everyone has these kind of eyes. They don’t call me ‘resident legend’ for nothing!” Sallie and Kaile’a crack up. “What we would we do without you ‘R.L.’?” Sallie says.
It’s 6:30AM. The light is just peering through my window and I can see my backyard. “MANGOS!” I shout. There is a mango tree in the backyard full of ripe mangos (one of my favorite foods). Today is going to be a good day.
Today is also going to be a unique day for me. No diving today. Instead, NPS, the US Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Reserves, and the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation are having a training on how to deploy an oil boom. The park is involved in case they need to protect the park in the event of an oil spill.
After we unravel the giant boom, we put it in the water and our first team goes out on the boat to try and properly deploy it. The boom has anchors that attach to each end and then the boom itself sits on the surface as a physical barrier to oil spreading out of the containment area. The training turns out to be really valuable to all involved, as properly setting the anchors turned out to be more difficult than we thought.
Back at the office, I say my goodbyes to Sallie and the team. “Thank you so much for coming out R.L. We really would have been in a tough place without you,” Sallie tells me, continuing our joke from yesterday. I thank Sallie and Kaile’a abundantly for having me out. They were such a joy to work with and KAHO was undoubtedly one of my most enjoyable stops.
“I might head to Puako this afternoon to shoot some turtles,” I text Kaile’a. She responds, “you don’t have to go all the way to Puako! Go to the aiopio (traditional fish pond) in the park, you’ll see a ton of them!” I was sold. The park is much closer than Puako and getting photos of turtles in the park is a service to the park itself.
Two hours later, I’m walking on the dirt path down to the aiopio in my dive boots with my 30 pound camera rig slung over my shoulder. After getting some intriguing looks from other park visitors, I “hop” in the water near the hale (traditional Hawai’ian house). I hesitate to say hop. It was really more of a crawl as the water is less than 2 feet deep. Visibility isn’t good, but Kaile’a was right- there are turtles everywhere. I would have to close my eyes to not see them. The best part is, they are incredibly friendly. The turtles I encountered in the Caribbean were giant (much bigger than the Hawai’ian turtles) but impossible to approach. The smaller Hawai’ian turtles would surely say yes to a dinner date with a friendly snorkeler.
I crawl along with one turtle for quite a while. This guy/gal really doesn’t mind me. In fact, he/she swam right over my camera dome at one point on the way to more delicious sea grass.
Turtles are really charismatic animals. The general public loves turtles and it’s easy to get people to care about them. Bringing these turtles to life in my photos may help push public support to protect the parks, other places, and (indirectly) other species along the Hawai’ian coastline. At the end of the day, that is the best feeling I can go home with.
8 AM and I’m ready for some lava! Anne Farahi (whom I worked with at Kalaupapa National Historic Park) is based out of Volcanoes National Park and mentioned that I may be able to go out with a US Geological Survey (USGS) crew and sample some live lava. Needless to say, I was extremely excited about this possibility.
Anne hadn’t heard back from the USGS crew by noon, so I decided to head over to the Hilo side of the island in case the opportunity would present itself. The shift starts at two, so I have plenty of time. My first stop in Hilo is an important one. My sunglasses fell out of my tent when it got blown over in Molokai. Luckily, Anne and Amanda McCutcheon (another woman I worked with there) recovered them the following week in the backcountry.
“You are a saint!” I tell Amanda as she steps out of her ultimate Frisbee tournament to give me my shades. Life on the road just doesn’t feel right without some quality sunglasses!
Now that my eyes are adequately shaded, I drive to the far northern portion of Volcanoes National Park. Anne lets me know that she hasn’t heard from the USGS team and that going out with them is likely not going to happen. I quickly make a back up plan. $15 later, I’m on a mountain bike surrounded by lava fields. At the end of the road, the chase for live lava begins.
The guy running the bike rentals told me to go right and look for smoke, so that’s exactly what I do. I charge through the endless black, dystopian landscape until I hit the first patch of smoke I see. I look around for orange glow and hope to feel intense heat, but there’s nothing. It’s just a sulfur vent. I jog over to the next steam plume. Again, just a sulfur vent. I do this for the next 3 hours and find many sulfur vents and no live lava. As the sun starts to fall, I come across a small family, “I think some people were headed up that way. Said there’s live lava!” I thank them for the tip and jog off towards the mountains.
One hour later, I can feel the heat. I’m close. I stop and listen and can hear the crackling. I look that way and see an orange glow. Lava! I found it! It is incredibly hot. I can feel the soles of my shoes starting to melt and I am sweating profusely. I take a few photos and poke the lava with a stick (a Hawai’ian tip).
As night falls, I want to high-tail it out of there. One small predicament though- everywhere I turn, I am semi-surrounded by at least a little live lava. I channel my inner hummingbird and lightly run across the searing surface until I’m under the moonlight hiking back to the road. At the road, I’m captivated once more by the big lava flow going directly into the ocean. During the day, this flow is just a giant steam plume. At night, it is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
It’s my last night in Kona. I’ve been in Kona once before this week and I really wanted to do the famous “manta dive.” The dive consists of divers sitting on the seafloor with dive lights pointing toward the surface at night. All the while, manta rays are cruising your head and chest bumping you. The last time I was in Kona, my dive got cancelled due to swell.
Tonight is my chance. By 2PM I haven’t heard anything about adverse conditions, so I assume the dive is a go. Sure enough, by 5 PM I’m descending for my first dive. The first dive is full of wonderful tropical fish and my favorite Pacific jack, the omilu (blue fin trevally). In reality, the first dive is like buying an extra bag of popcorn when you arrive at a movie too early. The main show is the manta dive.
The manta dive is probably the most touristy thing I’ve ever done underwater. That being said, it lives up to its billing. There were 10 or more mantas gracefully gliding over our heads and petting us from time to time. They would dance beautifully in front of our lights, somersaulting to catch more plankton. Mantas are truly gentle giants. They dwarf any diver and have no interest or ability to hurt humans. If I could take someone who knows nothing about the ocean on a dive with any animal, the manta ray would be my pick.
Kaloko-Honokohau energized me in a way few places have. After constant travel and field work for several months, I became a little worn down mentally. This internship is such an immense blessing and one that I could never complain about. However, I needed this recharge. Maybe it was Sallie and Kaile’a. Maybe it was the Big Island of Hawai’i. Whatever it was, I am extremely grateful for it. I leave the island with two new friends and feeling like I contributed to the park service. As much as I’ll miss KAHO and my backyard mangos (I think I ate about 30 in 5 days), I’m looking forward to my next stop in O’ahu where I will dive some historic shipwrecks and connect with old faces at Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
I can’t see anything. I’m just pushing brush away from my face and blindly taking the next step, hoping it’s not a deep hole. “The trail sure got grown over from last year!” I hear Eric Brown, Marine Ecologist at Kalaupapa National Historic Park (KALA), shout over his shoulder. We are hiking deep into the backcountry of the Waikolu Valley. At the valley’s floor lies Waikolu Stream, the natural feature that brings us here.
Further up the trail, the brush gives way to infinite guava trees. I can see at least 25 guava trees at any given time without turning my head. As I pull a ripe one off a tree, Anne Farahi mentions, “make sure you don’t have any cuts on parts of your body that will be going in the water. That’s how you get lepto. Senifa (previous biotech at KALA) got it last year and it was not a fun experience for him.” Good to know. I crunch into my guava and keep walking to checkpoint- the mango tree.
“The mango tree” is the largest I’ve ever seen. It is close to our first survey site of the day. At the mango tree, we check our GPS and make our way down to the stream. Our surveys at the stream are similar to the surveys I was doing last week with Eric in the ocean in that they are both long-term monitoring projects. Eric has been monitoring this stream for many years. We are conducting fish and snail surveys, measuring water quality (in the same way that we did in the ocean), collecting data on bottom composition/boulder size, and tracking stream flow. Since Eric and the KALA team already have past data from the stream, they can quickly see if something is out of the norm and strategize how best to combat any issues that may arise.
The difference between this study and many others is the remoteness of Waikolu Stream. KALA itself is fairly remote already and far out of cellular service. Waikolu is a 30 minute drive and then another 45 minute hike to base camp. The other big difference is that most monitoring projects monitor things that humans use. Waikolu Stream used to be KALA’s main water source, but it hasn’t been for a few decades.
I ask Eric about this, why does the KALA team monitor this stream? “We don’t want this stream to change. So many streams have been dammed up in Hawai’i, this one actually was as well at the bottom and Native Ancient Hawai’ians diverted the stream to put water into taro fields. This stream is still in very good condition though, and we want to keep it that way.”
This resonated with me. Eric and I see eye to eye when it comes to keeping wild places wild for the sake of keeping them wild. Very few people take this approach to conservationism, which is really more of a preservationist view. I’m glad Eric (or as his friends call him, “the good Dr. Brown”) is doing it, and I’m glad to be apart of it.
When we get to the first site, Anne is putting on a 5mm farmer john wetsuit. Seems a bit like overkill to me until I see Anne literally lay down in the stream and start counting fish. She is the perfect person to have in the backcountry. She has the most generous heart, quietly has a bit of wanderlust in her, and never complains. Furthermore, she’s been working with the Pacific Parks NPS Inventory and Monitoring team for many, many years. Even salty veterans admit that Anne knows her stuff.
While Anne begins counting fish, I work with Eric measuring stream flow. “Always start at the point furthest down stream on your survey line. You don’t want to go upstream and alter the data down stream,” he tells me. This is also why we are starting with the site closest to our basecamp (which is where the stream meets the ocean) first.
We use a piece of equipment called the stream tracker to measure flow. It can be difficult when the stream gets deep in some spots and really shallow in others. This is because the computer reads the flow as an error when it moves slowly over a deep spot after rushing through a shallow passage. After we get the data and I start to get the hang of things, we take water quality samples just as we did last week in the ocean and move to our next site.
Completing a survey is quite the process and takes about 2 hours at each site with a team of 5 people working. Luckily, we only do two today since it is our first real day in the backcountry after unloading, setting up camp, and doing one survey yesterday.
“Found it!” Eric says as he puts secures the stern anchor behind a big rock. “Toss the line in!” he shouts. I give him the long bow line to swim to shore. He hands it to Anne and Amanda McCutcheon on shore to tie around a giant boulder. “Ok, I’m ready!” Eric tells Laurene and me. We start handing him coolers and dry bags. One at a time, he swims them to shore and unloads them to Anne and Amanda who carry them up the rocks. This is controlled chaos at its finest.
Somehow, nothing gets wet and the process takes less than 20 minutes. “I think that’s a new record!” a sopping wet Eric Brown exuberantly proclaims. Laurene hops in the water and swims to shore while Eric and I make the return mission on the boat through the rough backside of the KALA peninsula back to the harbor. Once there, we will drive to the trailhead and hike back into Waikolu Valley to meet the rest of the team, help set up camp, and conduct our first survey.
Once we are back in camp after our first survey day, it’s time to eat. Eric prepares some delicious vegan chili for us, which is a perfect hardy backcountry meal. There’s only one issue. Everyone is having trouble pouring water out of the giant 10 gallon water filter bag. I tell the group, “I think I can make something to help us. Does anyone have some rope or parachute cord?” Luckily Eric has some, and I get to work.
Growing up in the Boy Scouts, working at a Boy Scout camp, and eventually reaching the rank of Eagle Scout, I never thought I would use lashings much. I’ve been surprised how much I’ve used them through the years. Once I find three tall pieces of drift wood, I use diagonal lashings to create a tripod that elevates the water bag and makes it easy to pour. “This is quite the invention! It’s really useful! I definitely had no idea what you were doing over there with some sticks,” Anne says with a laugh. I respond, “that’s my one contribution this trip! Had to get it out of my system early ha ha.”
After a rainy night and early start getting onto the trail, we are already far past where we surveyed yesterday. Today is our most challenging day where we are going deep into the valley. We have been squashing guavas and wading through brush in intermittent drizzle for about an hour and a half. All of a sudden, we see a cute but terrible scene- a den of tiny kittens. These kittens are unbelievably adorable. Tiny little fluff balls.
“Ohhhh no. Not good. We’ve never seen cats this far back into the valley. This means there is a mother and father as well. We are going to have to kill them,” Eric states, very matter of fact-ly. Eventually Anne and Amanda’s pleading works and Eric doesn’t kill the kittens. Though, I would not be surprised if he went back and did it.
We arrive at the site soon thereafter and complete our first survey. On the way to our next survey, we see remnants of a housing structure. “This is where the workers would stay overnight when they were putting in and working on the water lines,” Eric tells us. “They would clear brush all the way back to here and use Jeeps to drive up as much equipment as they could.” I’m amazed. We are deep into this valley. Installing a pipe and building structures back here must have been so difficult logistically. It was certainly a feat of engineering.
At our second site, I work with Amanda counting and measuring snails. Once we are ready, Amanda lays in the stream and sticks her face in the water. Without looking up, she hands me 3 snails. I measure them, record that data, and place the snails in a calm pool of water beside me. We do this until all the snails in our survey area have been counted and measured. Amanda pops up from the water, “30 spat, 60 eggs.” She gives me the count of spat (juvenile snails) and snail eggs.
Amanda is a seasoned Pacific Island scientist. She completed her graduate school at the University of Guam and has been working with the Pacific Parks NPS Inventory and Monitoring team since. She is based out of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, my next stop. I appreciate Amanda’s understanding of the importance of communicating science and her efficient, workman-like mindset in the field.
After our second site, we make our way back down to basecamp. We experienced a little bit of wind and rain up in the valley, but apparently it was much windier at camp. 3 of our tents have blown up into the valley, including mine. I head out to grab it through some razor sharp brush. The tent is too heavy to pick up, so I have to empty some items into my backpack and then try to move the tent. This works, and then Eric helps me look for my missing stakes. I’ve done quite a bit of camping and backpacking in my life, but I have never had a tent blow away on me.
After the tent fiasco, it’s for me to start cooking dinner. I put some rice on to cook and debate whether I’d like to take a “shower” tonight or not. Usually, I go pretty light on showers in the field. It’s hard for me to justify getting salt/dirt off myself when I know I’m going to throw it right back on in a few hours. However, tonight, I decide to bathe. Before I head over to the stream, I let the crew know, “if you hear someone screaming, it’s me being a wimp in the cold water.” Even though I spend a lot of time in cold water back home, it never really helps me deal with cold water. The stream certainly isn’t freezing, but it’s quite a bit colder than the ocean.
However, the real reason I’m bathing tonight is that I want to try a traditional native Hawai’ian shampoo/soap that grows all over the trail. It is a type of ginger with a large red bulb that grows above ground. Squeezing the bulb releases a soap-like substance that the ancient Hawai’ians used as shampoo. Turns out, it works really well. Combined with the cool stream, the bath was energizing and invigorating.
The dinner I’m cooking is a peanut sauce stir fry that has few ingredients and is easy to whip up on a camp stove. It’s still a little challenging to cook for 5 people on a single burner with small pots. Once the food is done, everyone piles on the rice, veggies, tofu, and sauce and we feast. The first person to go for seconds is Laurene (she took one of the smallest portions). “Laurene! Going for more?!” Eric asks. Laurene states, “yes! I’m hungry after all that hiking!” To which Eric responds, “Laurene! The bottomless pit!!” We all crack up and hang out around the dining area for a while before cleaning our dishes.
Around 9 PM, everyone is starting to think about bed and I’m starting to think about getting my camera out. The stars are out in force tonight. It is a new moon with spotty cloud cover, and the Milky Way is coming out. I decide to take my camera out and get a few shots. Unfortunately, I have no way to take my camera out of its underwater housing. I vacuum sealed the housing and don’t have the equipment with me to release the vacuum. It’s still shoots fine, it just weighs about 25 pounds more.
I’m getting some good shots of the stars and Laurene’s tent, but the tent-night sky shot is overdone. I come back to the crew, now completely ready to go to bed and ask, “anyone want to do a stream crossing?!” I mostly get groans and a chorus of “no thank you,” except for Anne. “Sure! Why not? I’m not doing anything else.”
We head to the stream and I have Anne step into the water and stay still. “Ok! I’m ready, stay steady…headlamp on! Headlamp off!” I get the shot I was hoping for, but some clouds block the Milky Way in the photo. “That was so close to perfect! Let’s do a few more, we need these clouds to cooperate,” I let Anne know. She seems pretty excited as well. We take a dozen more shots (they take 30 seconds each to take, so this isn’t a super fast process) and then try something new.
“Susanna from the SRC (Submerged Resources Center) challenged me to try to get an over/under shot of the Milky Way on top and coral reef on the bottom at the beginning of this summer. We can’t get that here, but I want to try an over/under with the stream and the Milky Way,” I say.
The shot proves to be a tough one to take. We give it about 20 tries using my camera strobes and then our headlamps, in and out of the water. Eventually, we find something that works. “Ok, this is it! Ready…headlamps on…headlamps off!” I tell Anne. We only use our headlamps to illuminate the stream for about 3 seconds or they are way to bright in the photo. “That was it!! Susanna is going to be excited to see this!” (See photo at top of blog!)
It’s our last morning at Waikolu. I want to give Anne and Amanda something to use for the Pacific Parks Inventory and Monitoring team, so we head over to the stream for some photos.
We go to a part of the stream that I find particularly photogenic- the old dam. It’s created a mini double waterfall. I want to try to get an over/under there, to showcase both the stream work and the beauty of the valley. Unfortunately, it’s raining. After a few dozen attempts at an over under, I hop in the neck-deep water for some underwater photos to document what we’ve been doing with the snails and fish all week. I wish that I could have had a little bit more time to figure out the best way to get a photo there, but Eric and I need to hike out today to get the boat ready to go tomorrow.
As a rainbow greets us on our way out of Waikolu, I reflect on my time at Kalaupapa. It’s truly one of the most beautiful and haunting places I’ve ever been. If not for this internship, I would probably never get to go to Kalaupapa. This is truly a unique place within the NPS system. With that, comes unique challenges. Eric is the man that makes it all happen. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and the team that he brings in. He finds a way to get it done under less-than-ideal circumstances and difficult logistical challenges.
As wonderful as my stay at Kalaupapa was, this marks a personal challenge during my internship summer. I am incredibly grateful for all the opportunities and experiences the internship has and will continue to provide. It feels very uncomfortable to admit personal challenges during my internship, in fear of being considered unappreciative. However, I can also feel the past 8 weeks of constant field and computer work wearing on me mentally. Furthermore, logistic challenges with my equipment along lack of internet and phone service can provide further stress.
I know that I’ll find a second wind and I think it will come at my at my next stop on the big island of Hawai’i at Kaloko-Honokohau. I’m a little disappointed to be leaving KALA. I wish I could absorb everything that is here for a bit longer, but I’m so excited to be going to the big island. It’s my absolute favorite place I’ve been in the Hawai’ian island chain.
With that, I say my goodbyes to Eric, Anne, Amanda, and Laurene at the airport and say thank you for all that they’ve done for me. I get on my 8 passenger plane to the topside airport of Molokai, and in true KALA style, I have to take 2 more flights to get to the big island!
The sun hasn’t risen yet, but the sky is no longer completely dark. I’m debating whether it’s more blue or more orange after only getting 4 hours of sleep last night. I came in from St. John, US Virgin Islands to my home in Southern California last night at 1 AM, and now I’m driving highway 101 down to Channel Islands National Park (CHIS) headquarters.
I know where park headquarters is because I began working with CHIS this past spring. In fact, they blue carded me (gave me National Park Service diving credentials). I’m excited for this week and working with the park on their long-term kelp forest monitoring project (KFM). Not only I am familiar with the marine environment I’ll be diving in this week, I know many of the people that will be on the boat.
“Cullen! Come here man! How’ve you been?!” The first person I see when I get to the park is Cullen Molitor and I give him a big bear hug. Cullen and I worked together on Catalina for two years. He’s a Midwesterner who has whole-heartedly embraced the laid-back west coast and is known to mumble hilarious dead-pan wise cracks. Cullen is one of the most talented divers I’ve had the privilege of diving with and I can’t wait to jump in with him this week.
We begin loading up the Sea Ranger II, our boat that we will be living on for the next five days. As I begin putting giant coolers of food into the fridge, Kelly Moore pops up from the births below. “Ahhh!! Shaun!! So good to see you!” For me, “so good to see you” is perhaps an understatement of how I feel seeing Kelly. Kelly is the Park Dive Officer (PDO) at CHIS, my diving officer as a CHIS diver, and the reason why I am the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society ® National Park Service Intern. She is the one who told me to apply in the first place, and I would never have done so without her encouragement. Kelly screams California all around, is bubbly ball of positivity, and is always excited to go in the ocean, no matter how many dives she’s had that day.
Once the boat is loaded, we are underway in route to Santa Cruz Island. My plan was to sleep the entire way there, but I’m having so much fun talking with everyone on the boat and hearing about the dive plan that sleep isn’t an option. After being called out all too often in the Caribbean for my California flavor, I feel amongst my people at CHIS.
Josh Sprague, marine ecologist at CHIS, teaches me the monitoring protocol on the way out to the islands. The protocols are for the KFM program, a long-term ecological monitoring program that began in 1982 in the park. The operation on the Sea Ranger II is the most complex and impressive monitoring operation I’ve ever seen. This is the first park I’ve been to that uses a full-face mask surface-supply system. It is a boon to the team’s productivity. The diver using the full-face mask has a communication device in the mask so that he/she can talk to the surface support person. In turn, the surface support person is writing down all of the data that the diver is giving them. Using this system, the team is able to collect approximately 6 hours of underwater data in just one hour since the diver doesn’t have to stop every few seconds and write something down.
The full-face mask diver and several other divers on open circuit scuba gear (“normal” gear) conduct benthic (seafloor) surveys, taking data on sea urchins, algae, and anything else that composes the bottom using several different methods at each site. Urchins are particularly important in the Channel Islands. Over the past 50+ years, we have overfished many urchin predators. In turn, urchin populations have exploded. Urchins eat the kelp that are the foundation of kelp forest ecosystems and provide habitat and food for every other organism in the system. Too many urchins can spell bad news for a kelp forest.
There are also at least four divers that are completing a fish survey. These surveys are challenging and what I have been tasked with. They are timed at 30 minutes and taken along 10m on each side of a 100m transect tape (underwater measuring tape). This means fish divers are surveying 2000 square meters and to the surface in just 30 minutes while writing everything they see down! It can be particularly hard when there are 500+ blacksmith above you. How sure can you be that your estimate was good? What does 500 fish really look like?
All of these measurements give a complete picture of how healthy an ecosystem is, what processes are occurring in that system, and why it might be that way. Over long periods of time, the CHIS team can develop performance metrics for the submerged portion of the park and identify patterns in ecosystem deterioration and recovery. Because they have data from a few decades now in what is the largest marine dataset in the National Park Service, they can quickly determine whether something is an anomaly (a big deal, if you will) or just part of the natural cycle of that site. If there is an anomaly, CHIS can look at old data to figure out why and what can be done about it. Ultimately, this project informs management decisions made by the park and helps the park reassess old decisions to create the healthiest park possible.
As we are going over fish surveys, David Kushner, Regional Diving Officer and head of the KFM project, interjects, “how confident are you on fish ID?” “I’m pretty good on my pacific fish,” I tell him. “I need you to be 100% confident or I can’t have you taking data.” David is serious about his data, as any good scientist is. Though he can be frank and serious at times, he is also one of the biggest jokesters on board. He has the energy of someone half his age and anytime he has the chance to dive or snorkel, he’s like a kid waking up on his birthday. As the rest of the crew is catching up with each other after the weekend, David says half jokingly, “you guys have 5 whole days to talk about your weekend!”
As the Sea Ranger pulls into Little Scorpion cove on Santa Cruz Island, we prepare to dive. The first person in the water is Kenan Chan. “Yewwwweeeee Ahhhhh AH AH AH AAAHAHAHA!” Kenan screams through his full-face mask rig as he enters the cold water.. After 6 weeks in Florida and the Caribbean, I have fully forgotten what it’s like to put on 12mm of neoprene. Admittedly, this is the one part of California diving that I did not miss.
My first dive was with Josh and David to conduct Roving Diver Fish Counts. I am supposed to stay with them. I see 5 kelp bass, 100 blacksmith, and a kelp rockfish. I start writing the data down on my slate (underwater paper, more or less) and when I look up, David and Josh are gone. I decide to keep taking data while swimming quickly and looking for them since there were other divers counting fish next to me. I continue my survey, looking down under overhangs and up towards the surface and pair back up with Josh and David.
I surface and David looks at my data, comparing it to his and Josh’s. “Not bad for your first time!” After our dive, it’s time to take part in a longstanding CHIS tradition- snacks. The CHIS team takes their snacks seriously, so much so that the entirety of Trader Joes is stocked in the cabinets. As I’m digging into some dried tangerines, Kelly says, “I did my best to pick up hummus, tofu, and all sorts of vegan goodies for you! They have your initials on them!” She went out of her way to accommodate my diet. The biggest downside to eating a (mostly) vegan is feeling burdensome to others. Kelly assures me that it was no burden. Admittedly, I really appreciated the effort. It is awesome to have some delicious snacks after a dive.
The sun is setting over the front side of Santa Cruz Island as we prepare to anchor in a protected bay on the backside. Cullen and I are waiting for Captain Keith Duran’s order to throw the stern anchor in. “Keith is pretty chilled out, huh?” I mention to Cullen. Cullen responds, “oh Keith? He’s super chill.” This really means something since Cullen is one of the most laid back people I’ve ever met.
A bit later, Kelly starts making dinner. I start talking to Keith about surfing, where we have quite a bit of crossover in our interests. Keith is a long, lanky, extremely tan guy who is usually sports some board shorts and a plaid flannel. Keith and David make the perfect team, because Keith is the ying to David’s yang- David is more excitable and Keith is as cool as a cucumber. “I mean, west coast, you know? Got to be mellow,” he says with a laugh.
Right on cue, David comes into the galley, still halfway in his wetsuit and announces to us (all in dry clothing), “who wants to go snorkeling?!” After a day of cold, wet diving and an evening of warm, dry relaxing, David doesn’t find any takers. “Cullen! Come on, you know you want to go!” He might have convinced Cullen if dinner wasn’t ready. After a massive, delicious dinner, we all knock out for the night.
I hear the engine start and wake up. It’s 7:30 AM. All the other births are empty, I’m the last one up and semi-caught up on sleep now. When I walk upstairs into the galley, I see Kenan and Cullen along with two of our other crew mates, Katie and Connor, doing squats on the back deck. “We’re doing the squat challenge! Want to join us for some morning squats?” Katie asks me. Usually, I would accept. However, I’m still mostly asleep and Kelly cut and beautifully plated a pineapple.
Once we get diving, I’m diving with Kenan and Connor. Kenan and I met during my blue card training, though this is his second year working on the KFM project. He and I get along quite well. He is a photographer that loves shooting surfers and went to school with one of my housemates. Kenan and David are certainly the two most charismatic people on board. As such, they like to give each other a hard time occasionally and have a brotherly sort of relationship over the last two years.
We descend and look for several ARM’s (artificial recruitment modules) on the seafloor. The ARM’s consist of a log cabin-like cylinder block structure contained inside a metal cage. Once we find our first one, we take all of the cylinder blocks out of the cage, record and measure every animal that is living in the structure, and then put all of the blocks back inside the cage how they were. The purpose of this is to get a snapshot of the diversity, abundance, demographics and distribution of organisms that are settling in crevice habitats on the reefs that we don’t sample using the other protocol.
We have just finished dinner and Kelly is keen to play some games. I’m easily rallied and Katie and Kenan are as well. This is also Katie’s second year with the KFM program. She is incredibly patient, self-motivated, amiable, and academic minded.
Kelly then pulls out a game called “Utter Nonsense,” where each player has to say a phrase with a specific accent like “Irish” or “giving birth.” It’s my turn to draw an accent card for the group, and I pick “New Yorker.” Everyone does a decent New Yorker accent- especially Keith who has a secret talent for accents. Katie is last to give it a shot.
She speaks at a blinding pace with some sort of far eastern accent and says, “IT’S A GOOD THING YOU ARE JUST A METER MAID–” before she is interrupted by all of us bursting into laughter. Kenan, Kelly, and I are crying and everyone is doubled over with stomach pain- including Katie. At a certain point, we were all ready to stop laughing until Kenan says, “what was that accent?! It was Chinese!” and eeks out one of his signature high pitch laughs, which then spread to the entire group.
This is really indicative of the closeness of the CHIS crew. They live together in small quarters, sharing meals and personal space several months a year. It’s trips like this that have been my favorite this summer- where I am living with the crew in cramped quarters. This sort of camaraderie can’t be replicated in an office and it’s the sort of thing that I love.
It’s a warm day out in the Channel Islands. Cullen and I are swatting kelp flies off of us while David pitches a pilot study to us under his wide-brimmed hat. The crew has been seeing brittle star barrens on the backside of Anacapa island. Brittle star barrens are what happens after urchin populations increases rapidly, eat all of the giant kelp (the foundation of a kelp forest ecosystem), and die off or leave. This barren, uninhabited landscape is prime for the taking, and brittle stars capitalize, disabling anything else (including kelp) from growing.
David has noticed that there is a type of algae that the brittle stars don’t like. When the algae touches them, they leave. He has recreated the algae before using a variety of natural materials, all of which ultimately degraded or broke off, damaging other marine life. Plastic is his last resort, which he wanted to avoid, but he believes that it will work and the team can easily retrieve it when the study is done so no trace will be left.
The team starts assembling the plastic fake algae on a long weighted line, which will be laid on the bottom of a brittle star barren in an effort to displace the brittle stars. Though we are all focused on the task at hand, we can’t help but notice Connor’s sunburn. Connor is the only one aboard who spent some of his formative years on the east coast and this is his first KFM trip. Needless to say, his skin is not used to the sun on the Sea Ranger II. He’s a tall strapping lad who is wholesome in every way. He is just a likeable guy, so agreeable, polite, and hard working. He also has a super power of generating warmth underwater that isn’t shared by anyone else on board.
As we set down our coconut La Croix’s (the KFM drink of choice) and dive in, the pilot study dive turns into a real treat for the crew. Captain Keith comes along as well in a 3 piece wetsuit (it was a two piece farmer john, but then one of the arms tore off). This is the first time in a long time that the crew gets to work all together on one task. I have my camera in the water documenting both the crew and what the site looks like at the start of the project. At the end of the project, they will compare the photos to mine and see if this management tactic worked.
I am blown away by the brittle star barren. It’s an incredibly boring landscape to look at, but one that I’ve never seen. It’s impressive- millions of brittle stars just carpeting the bottom. The real highlight of the dive for everyone though was the giant sea bass that cruised by us a few times. Giant sea bass are the largest fin fish around the Channel Islands, growing to 500+ lbs and 8 feet in length. Though they are more common now than when I was younger, they nearly went extinct in the 1970’s due to commercial and recreational overfishing.
I have dove with giant sea bass before and it’s hit or miss in terms of approaching them. Some are much more skiddish than others. This one was medium-skiddish. I ended up not getting the exact shot that I wanted, but I was just happy to see the big fella.
“You, making me happier
Now I am snappier, while I’m with you”
I’m feeling great today and feel the need to sing this morning. “Anyone like Shuggie Otis?” I ask the crew. After getting a bunch of shoulder shrugs, Katie asks me, “who’s that?” “He is a musician! I’d say he’s like…one step below Zappa in terms of notarity.” Kelly spits out her coconut La Croix, “HA! Is Frank Zappa now a unit of measurement?!”
Soon enough, we are all descending onto Admiral’s reef- a site known for it’s ripping current. Today is more mild than usual, but the current is still very strong. I get to step away from survey work again today and take some photos. My goal is to get photos of everyone, but the depth we are working in makes it difficult to spread myself out- particularly with the current. I start with Kelly, migrate over to Connor and David, and then spend some time with Katie and Kenan.
While I am setting up a shot of Kenan, I notice an octopus on the backside of a rock. I get Kenan’s attention and we try to get a good shot of the octopus. I’m always mesmerized by good octopus shots, and after trying to take one myself, I respect those shots even more. Octopuses have an incredible ability to camouflage themselves instantly…which is exactly what this octopus did. How do photographers get an octopus to not do that so that it can easily be seen? After a few attempts, I had to race over to Josh before surfacing.
I only get to spend maybe 3 minutes with Josh before I have to surface, but overall it was a productive dive. On the surface, David yells, “Cullen! We are going to get schooled!!” I already know he is talking about yellowtail, the fish of choice for seafood eaters in California. David convinces Cullen to hop in with him and look for yellowtail on our surface interval. David’s enthusiasm for getting in the water at any time of day is incredible and really sets the tone for his team.
Today is the last day of my KFM tour. David feels good about what the team has accomplished this week and decides to let us do a fun dive. He chooses a spot where we might some giant sea bass. Josh and Keith stay behind on the first dive to keep an eye on the boat while the rest of us descend. After 30 minutes, we don’t see a giant sea bass, but we do get a visit from a curious sea lion. Cullen also takes it upon himself to prank David by putting a lobster carapace on his tank band.
A big group dive is the perfect way for me to close out my time at CHIS. CHIS really was a homecoming for me. It’s where everything started, from my Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society application to my blue card certification. I felt at home in the kelp forest seascape, surrounded by familiar faces that speak my California slang.
The CHIS team is one of the most tight-knit I’ve worked with in my entire life. They know how to perfectly walk the line of having fun and remaining productive. It was an honor to work with this crew under the California sun, but I can’t lie- I’m excited to head to my next stop in Hawai’i and lose 9mm of neoprene!
“That’s the last flight of the day, your luggage will probably come in tomorrow. What hotel are you staying at?” a sea plane employee tells me on St. Thomas. “I’m not staying in a hotel. I’m supposed to be in St. John right now,” I respond. I have been waiting in the sea plane terminal in downtown Charlotte Amalie for 3 hours for my camera gear that won’t be coming in today. I’m more than a little bit concerned. The camera gear is incredibly valuable and it’s not mine. Furthermore, I’m supposed to start work on a boat tomorrow morning on St. John.
Phone service is spotty at best in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I try calling a few people that I know on St. John, and get finally get ahold of someone. “Good grief, well, welcome to the Virgin Islands!” Jeff says after hearing my story. “No worries, do what you need to do, get your luggage, and we’ll see you tomorrow evening back at the dock.”Luckily for me, I know some people on St. Thomas as well. I meet my friend Lora, who grew up with me on Catalina Island, for some dinner downtown and she takes me across the island to the Red Hook area.
Life in the Caribbean, particularly St. Thomas, is a paradox. It is very laid back and incredibly frantic all at the same time. Music blares out of cars weaving in and out of traffic on busted roads while the weather switches constantly between brutal heat and pouring rain, but no one really has an issues with it. As we approach where I’ll be staying for the night, I get a text from Andy Davis. “Hey brother, I won’t be back at the condo when you arrive. Joey Contillo is there.” I worked with Andy at Dry Tortugas National Park. He is a member of the South Florida Caribbean Network (SFCN) monitoring team and offered me a couch to crash on for the night.
Lora and I pull up to the condo and see a shoeless man outside. He is extremely tan, has a long blonde ponytail, and looks like he’s been on the water everyday for the past 20 years. “Is that your guy?” Lora asks me. I tell her that I don’t think it is. We spend a few minutes grabbing my gear and head to the front door. I knock three times. “Delivery?” someone inside says. I respond, “no?” The blonde tan man that we saw earlier walks casually toward us from the other side of the screen door. “Sorry man, I’ve been waiting on a food deliver. I’m starving!” he says. “No worries, I’m Shaun. Did Andy get a chance to tell you about me yet?” I ask. “No, I don’t think so,” he ponders. “Well, umm, I’m staying with you guys tonight,” I inform him. “Right on! Come on in!” Turns out, this is Joey Contillo. One of the most senior members of NOAA’s dive team, with personality as laid back as he looks. Also turns out that Lora knows him and my other housemate for the night, Laughlin Siceloff. They all worked together on the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) on St. Thomas last year and Joey and Laughlin are working on NCRMP right now on St. Thomas.
As Joey chows down on his delivery food and Laughlin fires up Game of Thrones on the TV, we all chat and get to know each other. As Andy arrives, Lora leaves. I say my goodbye to my old island friend and greet Andy as we get ready for bed. I am incredibly thankful for Andy, Laughlin, and Joey taking me in, being stranded on St. Thomas for the night, and Lora for driving me an hour over to the east side of the island.
I’m at the Red Hook ferry terminal slapping mosquitos in the heat and talking to local cab drivers about how they never make money driving people all the way to the airport. I can barely understand some of them through their thick Caribbean accents. A cab driver pulls in and walks around looking for someone. I think it’s me, so I go up and ask. “Can I see your ID please?” he asks in return. I show him and he says, “follow me.” He has my camera gear. I had debated calling my supervisor (Brett Seymour) to let him know that I didn’t have my camera gear and didn’t know exactly where it was. I didn’t, figuring it’d be best not to get him involved unless it didn’t come in today. Glad I didn’t call him!
Upon arriving at the terminal on St. John, Kelly O’Connell (SFCN intern from the Dry Tortugas blog) picks me up. After grabbing groceries, she takes me up to the “Biosphere,” the name of U.S. Virgin Islands National Park headquarters.
As soon as we pull in, I hear someone shout “Shaun!” like they are about to get crushed by a heavy object and need my help moving it. Then I hear someone else shout it the same way. It’s Lee Richter and Mike Feeley (SFCN team members) saying my “nickname” from my time at Dry Tortugas National Park. “Come here divers!!” I say as I give them both a big hug and help unload their dive gear for the day. Hugging Mike is always a challenge, since he’s about 6’4” and I’m a meager 5’9”. I’m extremely excited to see these guys and be able to work with them. I really bonded with the SFCN team at Dry Tortugas and this feels like a homecoming of sorts.
I’m here in St. John to help with NCRMP. NCRMP takes place on all of the Virgin Islands every year. It is a big multi-year multi-agency project between the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Atmosphere (NOAA), and several universities. The NCRMP teams take data on the health of the reef systems around the islands, including reef fish populations, coral growth and abundance, and water quality. By taking this data year after year, they can see whether the coral reefs and fish populations are growing or shrinking and whether water quality is improving or not. When compared with weather and temperature records along with policy and management decisions, the NCRMP study can inform managers and law enforcement of how their decisions are impacting the health of the parks’ natural resources (which in turn affects the entire region’s natural resources).
Once we get all the gear rinsed and put away, we head out to meet some of the rest of the team for dinner. “Shaun!” Rob Waara shouts, in only the way that an SFCN team member can. We hug it out while I meet Jay Grove and Caitlin Langwiser from NOAA. Caitlyn was an intern for SFCN a few years prior and now works for NOAA. Like many others in the Caribbean, Caitlin is a “Nutmegger,” or someone from Connecticut. She is quick-witted, always positive, and has the most unbelievable air consumption underwater that you will ever witness.
Rob takes out a bunch of genips, a small tropical fruit that I love, while Jay tells us how allergic she is to tropical fruit- especially mangos. Not a minute after, a mango drink that is on the table tips over and spills all over Jay. Jay laughs and is a good sport about it. “Secretly, I can feel the hives breaking out,” she says half-jokingly. “Jay, you’re not going to be able to dive with us tomorrow! You won’t be able to get into your wetsuit once you’re all swelled up!” Rob chimes in as we all laugh. This is a such a classic SFCN moment. I missed these guys.
“Always Alert, Never Hurt…sounds like a Thomas Kelly catch phrase,” Caitlyn says. The phrase is displayed on the Acropora, the boat I am on today with Caitlyn, Jeff, Lee, Debbie Harris (EPA), and Shay Neve (NOAA). We get to the boat after Randy gives the entire team our morning brief and introduces me to everyone. It is a pretty awe-inspiring operation. NCRMP is happening on St. Thomas and St. John concurrently, involves three different organizations (NPS, EPA, and NOAA), and draws on staff that live as far as New Orleans and Maryland. Since the surveys require an intimate knowledge of both Caribbean fish and coral species (which I do not have), I have been assigned to take photos for the team. I will be hopping boat to boat during my time in St. John to try to get as many photos of as many different teams as possible.
One of the biggest issues that the science community faces, and the one that I am most interested in, is how can we effectively communicate with the general public? While I have many thoughts on this broadly, specifically, the first step for this team in communication is simply to let the public know what they are doing. A photo can tell that story more quickly and effectively than a press release. It’s easier (and let’s admit it, more fun) to consume. Needless to say, I’m excited to get going on my photo tasks.
As I grab the last cylinder to load onto the boat, I’m followed by Jay Grove, or as I’ve begun to call her “J-groove.” “I’m coming with you for moral support!” she says, as I huck the cylinder on my shoulder.
The first two sites that we go to are classified as “SCR,” or scattered coral rock. SCR sites are unanimously the least liked sites. It’s not hard to see why- the sites are essentially rubble formed from dead and broken coral on a homogenous, flat bottom.
Shooting in this kind of environment is a challenge for me. It’s hard for me to make a photo visually interesting when there is so little that is inherently visually interesting in the environment. The third site that we go to is extremely shallow. “What’s the depth on this one?” Lee asks as wind-driven little waves lap past the hull. “3 feet, you guys are going to have to swim in a bit from the drop off point,” Jeff responds, fearing the possibility of running the boat aground.
Turns out, the site really is 3 feet deep. It’s a challenge for the whole team to try to stay down while minding hard corals in the area. That being said, it’s the most dynamic environment we have seen all day and I’m pretty happy to be there.
“When it comes to us that live here in the VI, we are all out here, but we aren’t all here,” Thomas Kelly tells me during a surface interval. Thomas is the Chief of Natural Resources at Virgin Islands National Park. Sporting a serious mustache, Thomas is a well-liked leader within NPS. He leads by example, working long hours and always staying level-headed. He is also quite the history buff when it comes to St. John in particular.
Also on the boat with us is Kelly, Mike, Cheryl Hankins (EPA), and Matt Johnson (NOAA). Cheryl is responsible for taking water samples at many of the sites we visit. While the rest of the team largely focuses on the health of fish stocks and corals over time, Cheryl’s water quality data can help answer the question of why. For example, why have corals recovered in these two bays but not the third? Though water quality cannot be ordained as the single reason why, Cheryl hopes to find out how big of a role it plays in the health of the ecosystems around St. John.
After struggling with a few sites that had strong current, big waves, and whipping wind, we head to a more protected spot behind the shelter of some magnificent jagged rocks offshore a bit. This is a bedrock site, so it should have more interesting structure. Once underwater, I take some photos of Kelly and Cheryl while they run benthic (sea floor) surveys. I’m not allowed to go near the fish survey team until they finish their survey. I can skew their data by scaring fish into or out of their survey area.
I get a few shots of Cheryl and Kelly that I like, so I begin exploring the site. I swim to the backside of the site where there are three distinct and fairly dramatic underwater slot canyons. I signal to Mike that I want him to come over when he can. I try to explain, using hand signals, the shot that I have envisioned in my head. Admittedly, I’m still learning how best to communicate staged photo ideas underwater with my hands, which Mike found out quickly.
“I can’t believe I messed up the tunnel shot!” Mike exclaims back on the boat. Mike not-so-secretly really enjoys photography. He isn’t explicit about it, but he lights up when he sees a good image or takes a nice shot himself. Hence, he is always up for helping me out as a photographer. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what you wanted. Man, that tunnel was so cool, I can’t believe I messed up the tunnel shot!” I assure him that we’ll find something else equally as cool to photograph later on.
On our next dive, it’s more of the same on my end. I take photos of the team performing different surveys, trying to show the methods they are using in a way that someone looking at the picture can understand. After the fish survey team is done, Mike signals to me to come over. He points out some fish that caught his eye- dog snapper, giant porcupine, and a few indigo hamlets. I think that Mike figured it out pretty quickly at Dry Tortugas. I am a fish guy. Corals are wonderful creatures and the backbone of tropical ecosystems, but from childhood, I’ve always been a fish guy. My earliest memories of wanting to go into marine science came from looking at fish in buckets that fishermen on local piers would catch. Mike is also a fish guy, so anytime that either of us see an interesting fish, we point it out to one another. Of course, he has a much better idea of what makes a fish interesting in the Caribbean than I do.
Thomas also pointed out a fish to me- a juvenile spotted drum. It is truly an incredible fish. The size of a thumbnail, with huge ribbon-like streamers coming off the top and bottom of its body. Watching the fish swim is like watching a talented gymnast perform a flag floor routine. Because of its small size, I can’t get a photo of it, but it will forever stick in my memory.
Back on board, we secure the deck and head to St. Thomas to get our nitrox cylinders filled. There is only one dive shop on St. John and they don’t have the ability to fill nitrox. We arrive to be greeted by Andy Davis who out of his way to say hi and help us unload after diving the full day himself, pretty telling of his character.
We are waiting for the cylinders to finish filling and Thomas is taking a phone call. Kelly is cracking up, “Tom’s getting charged by that iguana!” I see an iguana racing towards Thomas. He stamps his foot and hollers at it to scare it off as we are all laughing at this point.
It’s 7 PM in St. John’s Cruz Bay. It’s really the only “town” on the island and it’s center is small, but full of life. Myself and many members of the NCRMP team are out to dinner. Justine Kimball (NOAA) is there as well. I’ve been crossing paths with Justine for the entire week but haven’t actually been able to talk to her. She is in charge of this NCRMP mission.
“Half Moon Bay?! Home of the famous Mavericks?!” I exclaim upon finding out that Justine is a Californian as well. It’s fairly uncommon to meet Californians in the Caribbean, so I relish in meeting my fellow west coast friends when it happens. Not only is she from California, but she went to school at UC Santa Barbara, where I am currently enrolled. Justine is particularly interested in my photos, since she wants to make NCRMP more visible and get the mission a little more publicity. It’s fulfilling to come to a park where the park (and in this case EPA and NOAA) are interested in using the photos that I’m taking. It certainly makes me feel like I’m contributing something unique.
“You’re going to get some great photos here in Coral Bay today. You’re going to love it, great vis, 5 feet at least,” Rob tells me. Today I’m diving the south side of the island (a departure from the other days I’ve been here) with Jay, Rob, Mark Monaco (NOAA), Adam Glahn (NPS), and Peggy Harris (EPA). As Rob predicted, the water is extremely green and murky. Once we drop down, the fish survey team aborts the dive. The poor visibility inhibits them from taking a proper fish survey. The surveys are done by a diver who records all fish within an imaginary 7m radius cylinder around them. If they can’t see the fish in that 7m, than the survey method doesn’t work.
While we wait we wait on the surface for the benthic survey team, we find a way to pass time. “It’s a cool one, it’s French I think,” Jay says in deep thought, “Des Moines!” We all groan and can’t believe we forgot the capital of Iowa. “Ok, Kentucky,” Mark announces. As we try to guess more state capitals, the benthic team surfaces. “Frankfurt!” Jay exclaims. “As you can tell, you guys really missed out on some exciting times topside,” Mark tells the benthic team. Peggy hops back on board and I take a minute to admire her color-coordinated dive gear. Her fins, mask, snorkel, wetsuit, BCD, and head band are all pink. Quite the fashionable feat really.
We finish one more murky site and then meet with Mike Feeley to give him our used cylinders that his boat will then take into St. Thomas. Our next site is much more clear and provides me with the first useable photos of the day. “Nice work down there guys!” Rob says to Jay and I. “Well, us Scorpios are known for our high quality work,” Jay responds. Jay and I have been joking all week about being a Scorpio. Our astrological sign seemingly gets the short end of the stick when it comes to redeeming qualities. We try to prop up our sign at every possible turn when someone compliments us. Besides being a Scorpio, Jay is quite the jokester and speaks as quickly as her New England roots would dictate. She can find the comedy in anything, which keeps her smiling all the time.
Our last dive of the day signals the end of diving for NCRMP and my last dive in the Caribbean. I’m going to miss diving in a rash guard and board shorts at my next stop in California.
“Shaun!” Lee shouts in the way the SFCN guys say my name, “there may be an opportunity to get on a surfboard before dinner if you’re interested.” “Done, when are we leaving?” I reply. We are waiting on Lee’s car to arrive. After about 30 minutes, Lee gets a little pessimistic. “I may have gotten a little ambitious, we certainly aren’t going to have much time,” he voices his concern to me. I encourage Lee, who doesn’t need much encouragement, and say, “it’s always worth it!” Lee is a lot like myself in many ways, and doesn’t need much convincing when it comes to doing something outside.
After a catching some really fun, tiny waves that we had all to ourselves, we head to the first of two final dinners. At the table, I ask Caitlyn about her nickname. SFCN loves to give nicknames to their interns. They say my name in the funny way they do, Kelly is known as “R. Kelly” (after the rapper), and Caitlyn was lovingly given the nickname “trainwreck,” or “T Dubs” for short. She was given this name not because of her work or tendencies in the field, but because of the oddly comedic and slightly tragic events that happen to her (and could only happen to her) in her daily life. “When I was about 12, I was doing a long road trip with my dad and the back windows of the car were rolled down a little less than halfway. We are driving along, enjoying the scenery when a bird flies in through the window, slams straight into my head, and dies immediately in my lap. I’m scared, confused, and a little emotionally scarred with a dead bird in my lap. I am balling, crying, and telling my dad that there is a dead bird in my lap. He’s convinced that there isn’t, so we just keep driving,” she tells us while we erupt into laughter.
It’s the last day that the NCRMP team is in St. John. I decide to go on a hike with Lee, who knows the trails in the park better than most island residents. He picks me up and we make a stop at the pharmacy for me. I need to pick up thank you cards and Jeff told me my best bet is the pharmacy. After strolling through the card section, I ask an employee if they sell thank you cards in packs of 10 or so. They usually do, but don’t right now. They only have one pack of any kind of card right now, and it is a religious card that has a cross on the front and the words “In Celebration” beneath it. I debate whether I should buy them. Deciding they are likely blank inside, I buy them thinking I can work with that.
20 minutes later, Lee and I are hiking up Fish Bay Gut- a boulder ravine full of mild rock scrambles. Lee points out edible and harmful plants along the way and I’m very entertained by the creative nature of the islander naming convention. “This one looks like a pineapple plant, but isn’t. The fruits are small and taste fairly similar to pineapples. It’s called ‘false pineapple.’” Further along, my hat gets caught on a sharp vine and stays there as I walk past. “This one is called grab and keep, you can see why.”
On our ascent, we talk sports, relationships, careers, and everything in between. Lee is an amazing guy who, at this point, I see as a friend first and a colleague second. The rest of the hike is filled with Danish roads, sugar mill ruins, Taino petroglyphs, and dry waterfalls. “This is some heart of St. John stuff right here, few visitors do this kind of stuff,” Lee remarks.
Back at Lee’s place, we get ready for our last night out with the NCRMP team. I take out my religious “In Celebration” cards to start writing thank you notes for the NCRMP team that brought me out to the island. “Oh boy. These are actually event invitation cards and they are pretty religious. Wow. I’m not sure I can use these,” I say to Lee. The cards are not blank like I thought they would be. They have lines for date, time, occasion, place, and RSVP. At the bottom it says “Praise the Lord! Psalms 52:1.” “I think you could, you just have to play it up right,” Lee convinces me. “Well, they will certainly remember me and it’s all I have, so I’m going with it!”
“This is ‘B-‘ material,” Caitlyn criticizes my card jokingly, “an invitation card with no invitation!” she says jokingly. The cards end up going over quite well with the team. Our final night is lots of fun and a great opportunity to chat with everyone that I may not have seen as much throughout NCRMP. There are challenges of bringing three agencies together to work on a project. Each agency has their own protocols, schedule, and have staff that are based in different and distant locations. However, the NCRMP team seemed to work seamlessly throughout the week. I believe it’s because this group of people enjoys each other on and off the water. Everyone gets together almost every night to tell stories and share laughs. The synergy goes past the point of functionality and is really something for any other inter-agency project to aspire to.
As I prepped to head out in the morning, Mike Feeley gave me his hooded vest so I could stay a bit warmer back west. I thanked him in particular for having me out a second time. I already felt strongly about my connection with the SFCN team after Dry Tortugas, and that has only grown stronger here in St. John.
I’m going to miss all of the NCRMP team and SFCN in particular as I head west. I will certainly miss warm waters and the ease of diving without a wetsuit when I’m covered in 12mm of neoprene at my next stop. Though admittedly, I’m excited to head back to Channel Islands. It’s the National Park that started it all for me. So until next time, this is “Shaun!” signing off from the Caribbean.
It’s two o’clock in the morning at my house in Santa Barbara, CA. All of my housemates are asleep as I milk the last bit of internet I will have for the next week while I’m on the R/V Sea Ranger with Channel Islands National Park (CHIS). I’m trying to book my flight into Kalaupapa National Historic Park (KALA) on the island of Molokai after having no internet at back to back to back stops.
Seems simple enough, there is only one airport listed on the island. I book a flight to O’ahu and then a second over to Molokai and a sense of relief kicks in. I can now peacefully catch 4 hours of sleep and drive to CHIS headquarters.
6 days later and I’m at my mom’s house in Los Angeles checking my email. I see an email from Eric Brown, the Marine Biologist at KALA.
Shaun, you will want to book your flight to KALA (LUP airport code) rather than topside Molokai (MKK) also known as Hoolehua. Otherwise you will have to hike the trail with your dive gear. Not an easy task.
Apparently there is more than one airport on Molokai after all. Several phone calls later, I get on the line with Makani Kai airlines. “You know not just anyone can fly to Kalaupapa. What are you doing there? Who is your sponsor?” the airline representative asks me. I give him the information he needs and 12 hours later, I’m on an 8 passenger plane flying over the highest sea cliffs in the world on the north shore of Molokai.
One of the airline employees based at KALA comes to open the side door, “Ooooh! Looks like we’ve got all the kids on the school bus today!” He proceeds to say hi to almost everyone on the plane. I didn’t have a chance to thoroughly research KALA before I came due to lack of internet. I can tell it is smaller than I thought it was.
“You must be Shaun!” Eric picks me out of a very small “crowd” coming off of the plane. I can tell Eric has been in Hawai’i for a long time. His grey hair contrasts with his dark tan and his mismatched flip-flops scream, or rather mumble, that he is an easy going guy.
We hop in his truck and he shows me around “the settlement,” or Kalaupapa. KALA is located on a small northern peninsula of Molokai. The history behind its current form is that it was founded as a place to send people that had contracted Hansen’s disease. Hansen’s disease is more commonly referred to as leprosy, but as this name brings many negative connotations for the remaining patients at KALA, I will refrain from using it in the blog.
When Hansen’s disease hit Hawai’i in the 19th century, King Kamehameha V exiled all afflicted to KALA. More often than not these were children, younger than 12 years old. Children are the most susceptible to contracting the disease. They would be ripped from their families and sent to die at KALA since there was no cure. Their families would frequently disown them as well. Hansen’s disease was thought to be genetic and it was taboo to associate with someone who had the disease.
If the families did want to visit, they would do so accompanied by armed guards and speak to their children through a chainlink fence in a small room. Remnants of this intense segregation between patients and everyone else is all over KALA. KALA staff had their own seating sections in any shared space, all staff housing units were fenced in and patients could not enter. During this time, over 8,000 people died at KALA. Many graves are marked, but many more are not. In the 1940’s, a cure was discovered. The remaining patients at KALA were given a choice: stay at KALA and have all of your living and health costs covered forever, or leave and be on your own. Most decided to stay. Not only was the price right, but the community at KALA was the only family they’d known. As a society, we came to find out that Hansen’s disease is one of the least communicable diseases in the world and only 4-5% of the human population is even susceptible.
Today, KALA is very small. There are about 10 patients and 80 NPS or state employees that live in the settlement. You must be sponsored by a settlement resident to enter. Though small, it is semi-self sufficient by necessity as the settlement isn’t connected to the rest of the island by road. There is a small store (emphasis on small), gas station, hospital/care center, and garden.
As I am getting settled into my new abode, Eric invites me over for dinner, “I’m vegan, special needs child if you will, so there won’t be any meat. Hope you don’t mind!” This is actually music to my ears. My diet is mostly vegan as well and it’s nice to not be a burden on the person cooking for you sometimes.
After consuming a massive stir fry, Eric takes me to the backyard. “You like apple bananas? These are ready to go and I can’t eat them all,” he says pointing up to a banana tree. I tell him that bananas would be great, especially since I don’t have food in the settlement yet.
Banana trees only fruit once and grow incredibly quickly. To get the bananas off a tree, you simply cut down the tree. Some equate banana trees to weeds that produce delicious fruit. However, I’ve never actually seen one being cut down. Eric uses what is essentially a butter knife. “You can use anything really, the trunks are real soft, it doesn’t take much!”
After we mind the banana resin (a stain nightmare for clothing) and grab the bananas, we game plan for the next day. “You need to go get food tomorrow. You’ll have to hike up the trail topside. It takes about an hour each way and you gain a little more than 2000 ft in elevation. Do you have a good backpack?” Eric asks me. “Yeah, I’m all set on a backpack. I just need to know where the trail is,” I tell him. “Ok, that won’t be too hard. Once you’re up there though, you’ll need to get into town. Do you know how to drive stick?” Ahhh, manual transmissions come back to bite me again. This is probably the one skill that I’ve gone the longest without learning when it comes to useful travel skills. “Regrettably, no” I respond. “That’s ok, I believe there is a bus that goes into town now too!”
The hunt for groceries starts at 5:30 AM. After choosing the wrong trail twice, I’m on the right one and half way through my switchbacks up the sea cliffs. “Hey bruddah, howsit?” a local says as he passes me. I haven’t heard “howsit” in a while, I must be back in Hawai’i!
I get to the top of the trail, hop on the bus, and get into town. Kaunakakai is a funny town. There aren’t many people, but there is always traffic because every car stops in the middle of the road to talk to their friends on the street. It feels like a glimpse into what the rest of Hawai’i was 70 years ago.
After I buy what I need, wait for a few hours, and hop on the bus back to the trailhead, I’m on my way back down. There is an abundance of strawberry guava on the trail and I pick as much of it as I can without slowing down. I’ve never even seen it until now and it is so much better than normal guava.
We have a transect laid out on the ground and I am taking photos with a camera on the side of the transect. “This is exactly it! Keep you’re a constant distance from the ground using your monopod. We will analyze all the photos post-hoc (later) to figure out bottom composition and coral cover,” Eric informs me.
What we are doing is part of a long-term inventory and monitoring project in the park. Eric has a few sites that he goes back to year after year and a few others that are randomly chosen every year. We will be doing benthic surveys using the camera at each of these sites. This portion is my responsibility, while Eric does fish surveys. Once those tasks are complete, we will measure rugosity of our site (how complex the sea floor structure is). Topside, we will be taking water samples and using mechanical equipment to measure specific water quality parameters.
All of these measurements give a complete picture of how healthy a site is and why it might be that way. More rugose sites (more complex structure) tend to have more fish. Sites with worse water quality will have less coral. These types can only come through long-term projects. One observation could be an anomaly. If the data is the same year after year, we know that it isn’t an anomaly. Furthermore, if the data is changing, we need to look at why and what can be done about it. Why is there better coral growth at this site this year? Is it because of a management practice put in place by the park?
Eric, more than anyone, understands the importance of this. He is a true scientist, whose mantra is “data or die!” He has the motivation of someone half his age. His determination to get the data is exactly what is needed at KALA, where he is on his own and doesn’t really have a “staff” underneath him. He’s a data cowboy of sorts, on a wild frontier where he works with whatever equipment he can get. He is the marine team here and it’s because of him this study has been happening.
“Our truck has good drainage, eh?” a park employee says as he points to the eroded truck bed. The constant exposure to salt at KALA is brutal for the vehicles. Eric washes the truck with freshwater after every dive day, but the space between the bottom of the tuck bed and the side walls is completely gone.
We load up the truck with all of our gear for the day and head out. Laurene, a park intern from France, is coming out with us today since her focus is mostly on water quality. This is her second tour in Hawai’i after working in O’ahu last summer. She is entering the natural science field after a stint in business management and is pretty giddy about it. Though she gets sea sick, she has an infectious laugh that keeps the crew in good spirits.
“This is going to a beautiful site baby! I can just tell!” Eric exclaims as we pull up to our dive site. We grab our gear and descend on a very boulder-y site with sporadic coral and excellent visibility. Things go smoothly underwater and we work through small kinks here and there. I see a couple umilo (blue fin trevalley), which I immediately anoint as my second favorite fish (the first being the Hawai’ian state marine fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’a).
Back on the boat, we take several water quality samples to send to USGS, who partners with NPS and analyze the samples in a lab. We also use a sonde to measure local water quality. This machine has three probes that measure temperature, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and many other water quality indicators.
Though visibility is incredible around KALA, the ocean is generally not calm. As we begin to take big swells, it becomes harder and harder to take water quality samples and filter our samples into small bottles. Especially since we are working from the bow- the place on the boat that experiences the most movement.
Eric then drops an empty sample bottle with a big swell. As we hear the bottle hit the deck, he shouts, “just how I planned it! Constant supervision!” We quickly finish our sampling after that and one more survey dive to call it a day.
After two more days of diving, today we may have time for one fun dive. We have spent the last two days diving on the far side of the peninsula around a few small off shore islands. One of the islands has a crack in it that starts at the surface and goes all the way to the bottom of the ocean at 80 ft. “The crack is huge, it’s like a giant swim-thru arch that you could drive a double decker bus through,” Eric tells me. He lets me bring my camera on board today as well, knowing we might squeeze a dive in at that site.
After two survey dives, we eat lunch and decide that we have enough time to do the arch. When I get in the water, I almost have to put a hand over my regulator to keep it from falling out of my mouth. My jaw drops at the majesty of this arch. It is massive and so unique. I have never seen anything like it. I feel like I’m entering an underwater holy palace in a fantasy world.
After swimming as fast as possible to get in front of the other diver with me, I take some shots to try to use him as a way to scale the arch. It’s tough since he doesn’t really know this is my plan and I’m quite a distance from him. We then decide to surface in the airpocket at the top of the arch. The air pocket is inside the island and does not connect to the ambient air outside. This is my first experience surfacing inside of a giant rock before. It’s so bizarre. I take my regulator out and try to take a breath. Bad move. Let’s just say the air in there is not the best.
We then swim back down and out the other side of the arch where Eric picks us up. I am elated. I have done a lot of incredible diving this summer, but this dive is on a very short list of dives that have blown my mind.
It’s the famous Friday night movie night at KALA tonight. I accompany Eric and his wife to see Gaurdians of the Galaxy 2 at Tim’s place. Tim is the chef for the remaining Hansen’s disease patients. A bunch of people from the community come and bring a plethora of delicious food- mostly vegan to include Eric in the festivities. Tim is the ideal host. He goes above and beyond for his guests and never stresses out about it. I have spent most of my days on the boat, so I haven’t gotten to experience much before now. However, this is a glimpse of the community at KALA. It is a tight-knit group where everyone knows everyone and everyone contributes. I can see why Eric has stayed here so long.
It’s my last night in the settlement before Eric, Laurene, and I go into the backcountry to do stream surveys next week. I can hear a large and blissful crowd inside a large well-lit historical hall. It’s the banquet for the annual KALA fishing tournament.
There is a NOAA team at KALA as well that helped put on the fishing tournament. I was lucky enough to see their speech at the start of the tournament, in which they tried to get the fishermen to use barbless hooks. I was really impressed at the stance that the team took and the rhetoric they were using with the locals.
“These hooks, they still catch fish. Hooking a turtle is illegal. We aren’t going to report you guys, that isn’t our goal. Please tell us though, it is important that we know when a turtle is hooked. If you use the barbless hooks, it’s so much easier to unhook a turtle or a seal. I use these hooks, all these guys (points behind to photos of fishermen with 100 lbs + fish) used these hooks. You’ll still catch fish and the marine life will be happier.”
– NOAA Representative from the Barbless Hook team
They offered free barbless hooks and a special prize to the fishermen who caught the biggest fish on a barbless hook. Ultimately they got a couple fishermen to switch over to barbless. While their method isn’t inspiring rapid change, it is inspiring change and they have an extremely good relationship with the locals. In my mind, they are doing outstanding work and maximizing their effectiveness in their situation.
The banquet concludes with a massive meal of all the fish from the tournament and local Hawai’ian food like poi (mashed taro to the point of liquid). As I chat with some KALA residents and take in the Hawai’ian music played with a ukulele, spoons, and a traditional instrument, I reflect on an incredible week of diving and a big week of backcountry hiking and surveying awaiting me next week.
To be continued…
The following day (9/19/17), Marybeth and I drove to the office. First, I dropped my stuff off at the house I had been staying in prior to the hurricane evacuation. It was a Tuesday so we had our usual weekly staff meeting. However, today also happened to be my birthday. The office very generously had surprised me by getting a cake and singing happy birthday. I am thankful to have been taken in by such a welcoming group of people for the majority of my internship. After the staff meeting and the birthday celebration, I took a trip to the grocery store since I had lost all of my food due to the power outages during Hurricane Irma. After I had gotten myself resettled in at Skidaway, I returned to the office and began working on my GIS maps again!
The remainder of my week was spent working on different GIS maps. My major project for the week was creating visitor use and lionfish sightings maps to be used in presentations for the Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) meeting. I created multiple different versions of each map in order to determine the best way to represent the data.
The SAC is “a community-based advisory group consisting of representatives from various user groups, government agencies, and the public at large” (Gray’s Reef). They have periodic meetings, some of which are in person and others through conference calls. Members of the SAC are spread around throughout the country. The purpose of these meetings is to update the group about the current state and conditions at Gray’s Reef, as well as bring up any concerns that may affect the sanctuary. The SAC meeting was held on Friday (9/22) at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography campus. I was able to attend the meeting, which let me see firsthand the different user groups interact with each other. It was interesting to see what issues/concerns people brought to the table.
After the SAC meeting, the “A Fishy Affair: Malicious…but Delicious” event was held the same night. A Fishy Affair is an annual fundraiser that is organized by Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (GRMSF). The mission of GRMSF is “to support and strengthen Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary as a unique and vital landmark for the community and nation through charitable and educational purposes” (GRMSF). This is the biggest event GRMSF’s puts on all year with tickets purchased ahead of time. On the night of the event, everybody arrives at The Landings Clubhouse where there are raffle tickets and lionfish cookbooks for sale. I volunteered to help sell raffle tickets during the event, which also came with the duty of wearing the lionfish mask. There were four chefs competing against each other to see who prepared the best lionfish. All attendees were allowed to try the different lionfish appetizers prepared by the chefs.
Lionfish is an invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific. It is believed that lionfish were first introduced to the Florida Keys and the Caribbean by the release of a broken beachside aquarium during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Since the initial release, lionfish have spread north and have been spotted in Georgia waters and at Gray’s Reef. For more information on lionfish please click the link here.
Next, we had a full dinner that consisted of prime rib, chicken, scalloped potatoes, green beans, etc. Also there were a variety of dessert options, but the best one had to be the cookies decorated to look like lionfish.
The night ended with an auction of 10-15 different items. The auctioneer was extremely entertaining and people ended up bidding more than the listed value of the auction items! Some of the items included a weeklong trip for a cabin in Utah, a week in a beach house on Tybee Island, a trip on a shark research vessel (only available at the auction, otherwise cannot be purchased), a Savannah porch swing, etc.
Throughout the summer, I was lucky to have a bunch of different visitors while in Georgia. My last weekend in Savannah a friend of mine that I had not seen in three years was able to visit. He is stationed at King’s Bay Naval Base, in Kingsland, Georgia. It was really nice to see so many familiar faces this summer.
My last week at Gray’s Reef started off with AIS vessel tracking. I found an interesting track of a ship entering/exiting Gray’s Reef multiple times, so we did some research to find out the purpose of this vessel and if further action needed to take place.
On Tuesday, I attended my final weekly staff meeting and we went out for my farewell lunch.
After lunch, I helped Captain Todd begin to put the GROUPER back together after the hurricane. The GROUPER holds all of the gear for dive operations and is located on the dock near our boats. Therefore, when there is a hurricane all of the equipment is moved into a more protected warehouse. We also took this opportunity to clean the GROUPER and reorganize the dive gear. This ended up taking two days in order to get everything back together.
On Wednesday, I worked on fixing my GIS maps so they can be used in the future. I took the suggestions from the SAC meeting and made appropriate edits. I also taught Marybeth how to create these maps so this resource and knowledge is not lost once my internship has ended.
This week, I also learned how to create a dive plan. A dive plan is exactly what it sounds likes; a plan for your dives, how many dives are to be completed that day, departure and arrival times at the dock, etc. This information needs to be recorded prior to leaving for dive operations so that everybody is informed. In the case that an emergency occurs or the boat has not returned according to plan, the on land person responsible for monitoring the dive plan can take the appropriate actions in these events.
My last day at Gray’s Reef ended on a perfect note; I got to spend my last day diving! We had been watching the weather since our return from Hurricane Irma and the conditions were finally optimal for dive operations. Our normal routine began at 6:30am with Marybeth picking me up and loading the dive gear. The dive plan for Thursday was to reassess and retrieve hydrophones. We needed to determine if there was any damage from the hurricane in addition to continuing our previous hydrophone assessment. Luckily we did not find any damage from the hurricane, but we did find a variety of different hurricane debris. We found a trashcan lid, window blinds, a large piece of plastic, etc.
The visibility was still greatly decreased from the hurricane stirring up the water. Even with this added challenge, we were able to find each of the intended hydrophones! However, the dives did take a little longer than at the beginning of the summer.
With my last four dives in the books, we headed back to shore. I spent the rest of the evening packing my suitcases for the last time for a little while.
One of the most helpful parts of being at Gray’s Reef was being able to talk with different staff members about future career plans. Specifically, Marybeth Head and Kimberly Roberson were extremely helpful. With their support, I have officially accepted a position as a Hydrologic Technician with the United States Geological Survey in Honolulu, Hawaii!
On Friday morning, I headed to the office to say my final goodbyes then Marybeth and I headed to the airport. Until my next adventure (Hawaii) in January, I will be headed home to Massachusetts. This summer has been quite the adventure, especially with having so many unknowns thrown at me. Even with all the curve balls, I would not trade this experience for anything in the world. It has definitely been helpful getting me to where I want to go. I cannot thank everyone enough for their continued support for making this internship possible! Until next time…
The past two weeks (9/5/17-9/18/17) have definitely been one for the books; it has undeniably been eventful to say the least! This week started by being given the opportunity to write the weekly WOW. Each week, a weekly WOW is written to inform others about what each sanctuary has accomplished. They are distributed by email throughout NOAA. The main focus of the weekly WOW was the VIP dives with Aria and the continued receiver work. Each weekly WOW is accompanied with a couple pictures showing us in action.
The following day, I was off on my first of a string of adventures. I had the opportunity to visit and tour two of the NOAA ships; the Nancy Foster and the Thomas Jefferson. Both of these ships were in port in Charleston, South Carolina and I was able to drive up from Savannah before they left. LGJT Marybeth Head set up a tour with a NOAA Corp officer prior to my arrival. Once I arrived (about a two hour drive), I met the NOAA Corp officer and was shown around both ships, from the engine rooms all the way to the bridge and everything in-between! Many of the NOAA Corp officers were bustling around the ship during the tour, preparing to head out of port.
I learned that NOAA ships often have a previous purpose, such as use in the Navy. Once a NOAA ship, each usually has a specialty or is geared towards a specific task. The Thomas Jefferson works on mapping of the ocean floor, while the Nancy Foster is a little different than most NOAA ships. The Nancy Foster is a more general ship that can accomplish many different tasks. This ship travels around to different areas throughout the year, with scheduled stops such as Gray’s Reef. The Nancy Foster usually spends about two weeks in the summer working within Gray’s Reef to help gather a bunch of different data. They have smaller boats on board that are launched each day from which the diving effort takes place. Members of the Gray’s Reef team go out on the Nancy Foster and help accomplish these diving efforts; NOAA volunteer divers have also helped. Within the NOAA Corp, each officer is assigned to a ship for a period of two years. After this, they then have a land assignment for three years. This rotation continues while in the NOAA Corp. These NOAA Corp officers aboard the Nancy Foster help according to their training.
You may be thinking right now, how exciting! However, the excitement was just beginning. After the interesting turn in events at the beginning of my internship, the first half of my summer has followed suit.
As we intently watched the weather each day, the forecast seemed clear. Hurricane Irma had other plans and we were about to make an unplanned journey from Savannah, Georgia. We hurricane prepared the office, which consisted of packaging all the valuable/important items and electronics in plastic and bags, moving the dive gear out of the GROUPER, boarding up the windows and doors, and moving the vehicle’s to a safer location. Overall, it took about a day and a half to fully prepare. Once the office was prepped, I began preparing myself. Since we did not know the extent of the storm, we decided that I should bring all of my belongings with me in case I had to fly home from a different location.
The next morning, September 8th, Marybeth and Erin picked me up at 5am and we began the drive to Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia. We decided it was better to leave early so we would miss the traffic. Marybeth’s lifelong friend is currently at Fort Benning and we stayed with them while we outwaited the hurricane. To make things a little more interesting, we had eight chickens, a cat, and boat in tow. Upon arrival at Fort Benning, we unloaded and made the chickens a makeshift pen out of a kiddie swimming pool and netting.
We then took a nap before the “circus” began. Including us, the house we were staying at had a total of five adults, a five-year-old boy, two 16-month-old twin girls, a dog, three cats, and eight chickens.
For the next few days, we hung out and explored the area. We visited the National Infantry Museum and Solider Center as well as a Wild Animal Safari. A Wild Animal Safari is a drive thru animal park. I had never heard of such a thing and did not really know what to expect. You are able to buy bags of food before you enter the park. The animals, such as bison, elk, deer, zebras, and cows, will literally stick their heads inside the windows of your car. It is definitely fun to see the reactions of people when there is a large bison head basically in their lap, drooling waiting for you to feed them.
The National Infantry Museum and solider center had different sections for each war. It was neat to see the different artifacts from varying time periods. My grandfather was part of the 10th Mountain Division and they had an entire section about them.
To make things a little more interesting, while evacuating for the hurricane I received an email about interviewing for a job that I had submitted an application. I responded, stating I would love to interview however, I am currently evacuating for Hurricane Irma and think I will be available at these times, but I am not really too sure.
Monday was the day the storm hit. We hung out at the house all day and thankfully did not lose power. On Tuesday afternoon, September 12th, we were able to return to Savannah, Georgia. This also happened to be the same day that my phone interview was scheduled. On our drive back, we stopped at a gas station with a dirt parking lot. Here, I completed my phone interview with the eight chickens in a dog crate in the back seat.
While driving back, we noticed damage fairly close to Fort Benning and all the way to Savannah. Thankfully, the damage mostly consisted of down trees and no major damage. Marybeth even had power by the time we returned. I was not able to return to Skidaway Institute of Oceanography where I had been staying prior to the hurricane (due to power outages), so I stayed at Marybeth’s house until I left for the AAUS symposium. Luckily, we were able to return to Savannah before my flight departed for the conference on Thursday morning.
I spent Wednesday preparing for the conference and re-packing my suitcase once again. I also explored the area surrounding the office to see if there was any damage. Everything looked all right however, we still did not have power at my previous housing or the office. I am not sure how, but a dishwasher ended up in the front lawn of the house I was staying at prior to the hurricane.
I received the Kevin Flanagan Travel Award, which allowed me to attend the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) symposium as well as present the story of my internship at the conference. Therefore, I traded in my bathing suit and shorts for dress pants for the next four days.
Pictured here is the other recipient of the Kevin Flanagan Travel Award, Elisabeth Maxwell.
Early Thursday morning, I was up and en route to the airport once again. This year the AAUS symposium was held at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. I was excited since this would be my first time visiting Michigan. I arrived in Michigan around 2 pm and entered the smallest airport I have ever seen. Only one plane (with 11 rows of seats) comes in and out each day! They did not even have gates; the plane landed on the tarmac and the steps were let down. We then walked on the tarmac, grabbed our carry on bag, and walked inside. The inside of the airport consisted of 4 rows of seats to wait for the plane and one security line. There TSA security has a total of four full time employees. To top it off, the check in line was the same as the baggage claim!
Luckily, I came in on the same flight as John S. Pearse, who received the Scientific Diving Lifetime Achievement Award and was being honored at the AAUS Symposium. I hopped a ride with him to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where I would be staying in their bunkhouse for the duration of the symposium. I found out quickly that the town of Alpena is the appropriate size for its airport.
The conference officially started on Tuesday with different workshops throughout the first couple days. The first event I attended at the conference was on Thursday night, which was called ‘the bubble breaker.’ It was essentially a meet and greet of a bunch of people attending the conference as well as a raffle and auction to raise money for AAUS internships and scholarships. I was extremely thankful to meet some of the people that have helped support my internship/travel award this summer. It was a fun filled night, where I was able to catch up with a bunch of people I had previously met during the OWUSS annual weekend in New York City, in addition to meeting a lot of new faces. I was able to catch up with Jenna Walker, the OWUSS Internship Coordinator, George Wozencraft (previous Vice President- OWUSS Internships), Heather Albright (AAUS), Vin Malkoski (OWUSS/MA Division of Marine Fisheries), and Christopher Rigaud (AAUS/University of Maine). I was also excited to see one of my mentors and the Assistant Director of Marine Sciences from my college (University of New England), Addie Waters, at the conference.
Over the duration of the conference, I had a lot of opportunities to speak with multiple Dive Safety Officers from potential graduate school options in the future. In addition to graduate school options, it was helpful to speak to people currently in this field about job opportunities and other helpful tips and suggestions.
Friday and Saturday consisted of presentations in the morning and afternoon. Friday morning, I was scheduled to present about my internship.
Other talks included scientific diving class programs and scientific research such as the use of underwater scooters effects on surveying, use of rebreathers, free diving in Japanese culture, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, etc. I was most interested in the talk about the use of scuba diving within the United States Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
On Friday evening, I went out to dinner with a group of people from the conference in downtown Alpena. Alpena is a very small town with not much around the area, except a strip of restaurants right near Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
The conference ended on Saturday evening with a banquet dinner where awards were presented, such as the Diving Lifetime Achievement Award given to John S. Pearse, best student presentation, Kevin Flanagan Travel Award recipients, etc. The diving community definitely fits the definition of “It’s a small world.” At the banquet dinner, I met a fellow former employee of where my diving career began, The Florida Seabase.
The majority of people returned home on Sunday morning, however some stayed for the dive field trips the next few days. I was unable to leave on Sunday since the only plane that left sold out. Therefore, on Sunday I had an additional day to explore the area. The glass bottom boat captain from Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary showed me the surrounding area of Alpena. We saw a small fishing town, the large mine, and a state park that used to be an old mine. The mines are enormous and you definitely feel very small when a dump truck looks like the size of an ant.
I spent the afternoon walking through downtown Alpena and visiting the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary visitor center. TBNMS visitor center contains many different artifacts recovered from shipwrecks. They even have a replica of a ship that you can walk through inside the visitor center! It is filled with history of the Great Lakes.
On Monday, I had a long day of flying ahead of me. I left Alpena early afternoon to fly back to Savannah. Ironically, Reed Bohne the Regional Director for National Marine Sanctuaries at NOAA was arriving in Alpena the same time I was departing. Reed’s office is at Gray’s Reef and he is also a colleague of my advisor Susan Farady from the University of New England. Susan had introduced us when she learned that I was heading to Gray’s Reef. There was also a group of people from the conference at the airport that were taking the same flight out.
My flights went smoothly, and my final flight had a large group of young men and women that were heading to basic training for the Marines. After two connecting flights, I arrived in Savannah at 10:30pm and made my way to Marybeth’s house to crash for the night. After all my adventures these past two weeks, I was ready to stay in Savannah for the remainder of my internship!