Author Archives: Hailey Shchepanik, 2022 NPS

Humans in a blue world: Biscayne National Park

National Parks serve not only to protect and sustain the health of the environment but educate and engage people in the enjoyment and benefits of nature. In short, one might say from an anthropocentric point of view; that the overarching mission could be the conservation of nature for the perpetual education of and enjoyment by humans. As the birthplace of National Parks, the U.S stands out for its efforts and resources dedicated to the protection and preservation of the extraordinarily diverse ecosystems contained within its borders. From the deserts of Joshua Tree to the Arctic tundra of Denali, I am awestruck by the seemingly limitless opportunities to explore new and unfamiliar environments. With over 297 million visitors per year (to 423 individual parks), it is undeniable the importance of these protected natural spaces. However, the way that people use National Parks and learn about natural resources must be thoughtfully regulated and presented to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy them for years to come. 

Just south of Miami, an unassuming park lies tucked away in the mangroves, with only 5% of its area appearing above water as land. Upon arrival, Biscayne National Park is made up of a visitors center with a parking lot about equal size. However, it only takes a few short minutes to realize, as you hear speedboat after speedboat passing by, that there is a tremendous number of activities to offer here; you just have to look beneath the surface.

Overlooking Biscayne National Park from the visitors center

Biscayne National Park was established in 1980 and is a hub for marine recreation. On a given day, the park’s waters (which make up 95% of the park) are a destination for boating, fishing, diving, birdwatching, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, and guided eco-adventures. On a clear day, you can see the Miami city skyline and surrounding industry – which seem only to stop right at the gates of the park’s entrance and contrast the mangrove-covered keys in the foreground. As I settle in, I can see that this park provides important access to south Florida’s stunning coastline for local visitors. It is home to some remarkable natural and cultural resources, for which the park is an educational platform. However, I was immediately curious about how human interaction and use of natural resources within the park are monitored and controlled to reduce human impact while promoting and sustaining the park’s use. Over the next two weeks, I will join Biscayne’s extensive marine monitoring and inventory program to understand how this is done.

Wasting no time, I joined Mosaics in Science Diversity intern James Puentes and Latino Heritage Internship Program intern Nate Lima for recreational creel fishing surveys at the neighboring public marina as part of the Fishery and Wildlife Inventory and Monitoring Program. The overarching goal of this project is to engage anglers in collecting catch data through informal interviews, which will assist the development of sustainable fisheries regulations. Over several hours, we interviewed more than 40 anglers and collected catch data (e.g., species, size, location of catch, hours fished) as boats returned after a day on the water. In addition to meeting fishing enthusiasts and sharing awareness of the newest fishery regulations established within the park in 2020, it is here that I saw my first ever manatee! Taken aback by their size and constant presence in the marina, I can see just how vulnerable they are to propeller strikes (as several boats return from sea every 5-10 minutes and a cue of new arrivals are immediately launched just moments later). Seeing scars on their backs is a stark reminder of the delicate respect that nature commands in this shared space. A reminder that we are guests in their marine home. As part of the park’s biological monitoring team, our presence in the marina that day served not only to collect valuable data but to remind boaters to take care and do their part to preserve and protect the sensitive habitat and wildlife within the park.

Recreational creel fishing surveys with Biscayne National Park summer interns James Puentes and Nate Lima

Manatees graze at Homestead marina while weekend boat traffic passes ahead – calling into focus the human-wildlife interactions within the area and importance of education to prevent detrimental impacts. Photo: Nate Lima

Next up, I had the unique opportunity to join an all-female team of divers from the Wounded American Veterans Experience SCUBA (WAVES) Project in collaboration with NPS, the National Park Foundation, and SoundOff films for marine debris removal. We were joined by an all-female crew from Horizons Divers, NPS SRC archeologist Annie Wright, University of Miami Dive Safety Officer Jessica Keller, and Women Divers Hall of Fame veteran mentor Caron Shake. After speaking with last year’s NPS SRC intern, Sarah Von Hoene, I was eagerly anticipating this project and excited for the rare opportunity to join an all-female team on the water. After introductions over a group dinner, I was once again struck by the fact that although we each have divergent backgrounds, this project has brought us together based on a set of convergent goals and commonalities with regard to love for the underwater world, desire to enact positive change and eagerness to participate in conservation missions by diving with a purpose.  

I set out on our first day, joining Biscayne National Park Biologists Vanessa McDonough and Shelby Moneysmith to meet the WAVES team at the dive site. As we exited the channel, into the bay, and beyond the keys, I’m caught off guard by the cheesy grin plastered across my face. My eyes fixate on my favorite color of blue amidst the vivid gradient in the water, a color I haven’t seen since my time as a Fisheries Resource Management intern with the University of Belize in 2019. Reflecting on my journey thus far, I remember not too long ago, as a recent HBSc graduate, when my ultimate goal was to somehow end up on a boat during working hours. I had no research experience, had barely seen the ocean for more than two weeks during my entire lifetime, and felt intimidated to break into such a seemingly oversaturated and competitive field. Now, I sit here dumbfounded, thinking: “Wow, I get to do this every day for the rest of the summer?” Let the fieldwork begin!

Over a week, the team collected 3,700 pounds of debris, including derelict lobster traps, fishing lines, hooks, and plastic waste. The mood on the boat was cheerful, full of inspired conversations about continued and future work to reduce marine debris and promote conservation. However, underwater, I felt heavy and somber. Particularly on the last day, when we moored up to an area frequently used by recreational anglers, I was overwhelmed and frustrated. Picking up fistfuls of monofilament while hoards of fishing boats float overhead, I could see the damage that years of debris build-up have caused as lines run through large barrel sponges and wrap tightly around branching corals. Lines left from recreational and commercial fishing (particularly the long, strong lines used to thread commercial lobster traps together), represent one of the biggest human impacts detrimental to marine conservation in the area. On a 45-minute dive, I covered no more than 20 square meters. The debris was that extensive. 

Piles of abandon trap ballast recovered from the depths of Biscayne National Park

Marine debris was sorted, weighed, and properly disposed of at the end of each field day

While I am proud of our efforts this week, I acknowledge that to find a long-term solution, the issue must be stopped at the source. Awareness is an essential first step in ridding the “out of sight, out of mind” principle that often applies to the marine environment, and each person that joins in the efforts has a positive snowball effect. With the privilege of working in and accessing the beauty of the underwater world comes the responsibility to start and continue the conversation on how we can protect this vital ecosystem.

Next, I had the opportunity to join the Habitat Restoration Program team, working with biological science technicians Gabrielle Cabral, Cate Gelston, and Laura Palma, and MariCorps NPS intern Sophia Troeh, for my first experience with coral outplanting, in support of the University of Miami’s Rescue a Reef restoration project. Together, we embarked on the ambitious goal to outplant > 1,500 Acropora cervicornis (staghorn) coral fragments. At the conclusion of the first day, I snorkeled over the site for an aerial view of our garden, struck by the somewhat unnatural appearance of the monoculture of coral fragments pinned to the reef by globules of cement. However, on the second day, we planted fragments amongst corals that had been outplanted the previous year. They were thriving and had quickly covered up the cement “scabs” on the reef, turning into beautiful, healthy corals. Although my role in this project was small (considering the tremendous efforts that go into collecting and raising these corals to be ready for outplanting), I got to reap the benefits of one of the most rewarding stages in the process – just as the many volunteers do through Rescue a Reefs extensive citizen science program. A rapidly expanding field, coral restoration may not be the solution to the climate crisis; however, it is a targeted mitigation tool we can use to preserve ecosystem function when the cost of doing nothing is increasingly severe.

Outplanting coral fragments at Biscayne National Park in collaboration with the University of Miami’s Rescue a Reef program. Photo: Gabrielle Cabral

Week two at Biscayne was dedicated to training above water – I would be completing the Marine Operator Certification Course under the supervision of Maritime archeologist Joshua Marano. Together, we went through boat orientation, operating systems/maintenance, navigation, communication, risk management, survival and rescue, fire suppression, marlinespike, trailering, boat handling, and anchoring. A jammed-packed and, at times, challenging course, these skills will be crucial for the internship going forward. I look forward to continually improving my boat handling skills with this “license to learn,” bringing forward necessary tools that will help me integrate into new field teams as I travel through parks this summer. 

Josh also took the time to introduce me to many of the park’s cultural resources, including artifacts from archaeological excavations that can be seen in the visitors center and stories from his experience at Biscayne over the years. Two wrecks, in particular, stand out for their significance within the park’s boundaries for reasons above and beyond pure historical value. First, the search for the Guerrero has drawn much attention to the park. It has also become a valuable educational, interpretive, and outreach tool, bringing volunteers and students from underrepresented communities to contribute to the uncovering and dissemination of the history of slave ships that have gone largely unwritten. Second, the HMS Fowey (wrecked in 1748 off the coast of Florida) represents an important landmark in the U.S shipwreck preservation case law. It was one of the first wrecks to gain attention federally and used as a case study in the establishment of protected archaeological sites, which were to be managed in the best interest of the public rather than privately salvaged and sold for profit.

Last up on the seemingly endless list of potential projects to join at Biscayne, I reunited with Biologists Vanessa and Shelby, and biological science technician Morgan Wagner, for a day of roving visual surveys (used to characterize and inventory fish biodiversity, abundance, and habitat type). As a fish identification enthusiast, I relished the opportunity to familiarize myself with the Florida Caribbean fish residents (and snap some photos) while getting a great overview of the diversity of habitats within the park during our six dives that day. 

Biscayne National Park biologist Vanessa McDonough surveying one of hundreds of sites they will do this year

After two short weeks, I can see that this park is managed by a hard-working and passionate team of employees, interns, and volunteers, who I had the great pleasure of working with. Thank you to Vanessa McDonough for facilitating, scheduling, and giving me the opportunity to learn from so many different people and projects during my stay. Thank you to my park roommates, James, Sophia, and Nate, for the friendly company, answering all of my questions, taking me for “emergency” food runs, and for welcoming me to the park on my first day with lionfish tacos and guac (!!) Thank you to Jessica Keller and Annie Wright for going the extra mile to include me in the WAVES project and socials (and showing me where to get the best key lime pie – which I proceeded to chip away at by the forkful after each field day). Thank you to WAVES and WDHOF team members Caron, Karen, Linsay, Char, Pat, and Maggie for the laughs, support, and conversations about our accomplishments and dreams – I hope to see you all again soon (fingers crossed for a DEMA reunion)! 

As humanity’s presence and impact continues to expand and reach new corners of the globe, the opportunity to work alongside like minded individuals in the exploration, preservation, and conservation of our blue planet is one that I cherish dearly. Thank you to everyone who made my first park an overwhelming success, and to SRC and OWUSS for supporting me in this journey.

WAVES team members celebrating their honorary induction into the WDHOF Associates membership, during a night full of laughter, tears, and celebration.

 

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New places and faces: the start of a grand adventure

It’s mid-March – a late weekday evening. I’ve returned home after a long day in the lab, refining the molecular assay I’ve been working on and troubleshooting for months as part of my Master’s thesis research. I take the evening to catch up with friends and family back home. It’s one of the only times of day I can reach them since they’re 8–10 hours behind my current time zone. Suddenly, my focus shifts as an email appears in my inbox. My jaw drops with a smile, and I immediately call a close friend on campus. She picks up, and I skip the greeting. All I can say is, “I just got a VERY exciting email.” I hadn’t even opened the message yet, but reading the subject line was informative enough. This was the email I’d be waiting for, hoping for, and dreaming of- I was going to be the 2022 National Park Service Research Intern for Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) and the National Park Service (NPS) Submerged Resources Center (SRC). 

Fast forward several months, through a whirlwind of late-night writing sessions, Master’s defense preparations, adjusting my graduation schedule, and soaking up my last bit of time in the Red Sea, I moved home after 2.5 years to squeeze in a short but sweet visit to my hometown, Thunder Bay, Ontario. A week after graduating from KAUST and returning to Canada, I find myself now in the hustle and bustle of New York City. It’s time for a new adventure to begin, and I’m here at the OWUSS 48th annual awards ceremony.

Looking over Lake Superior from my hometown Thunder Bay, Ontario. Even though the OWUSS NPS internship started in 2010, I will be their first Canadian intern.

Since 1974, OWUSS has provided support and opportunities for young people in underwater-related disciplines through scholarships and internships. These one-of-a-kind programs offer the chance to learn from a global network of leaders in the underwater world. Forty-eight years later, the annual awards weekend continues, this year marking the first time in three years that interns, scholars, alumni, board members, sponsors, volunteers, hosts, supervisors, and family come together to celebrate from all over the world. An event full of anticipation, energy, inspiring conversations, and new and familiar faces. It is spent sharing the latest updates from returning scholars and interns and welcoming the new class in preparation for their upcoming experiences. 

Most of the weekend’s events are hosted at The Explorers Club Headquarters. A truly one-of-a-kind venue – containing members and artifacts from numerous “famous firsts,” including the exploration and traverse of The North Pole, The South Pole, Mount Everest, Marianas Trench, and the Moon landing. I find these Headquarters quickly becoming “home base” for the week – even more so than our hotel. The atmosphere here serves to further heighten my excitement for the journey I will embark on over the next several months, during which I will travel to numerous national parks across the continental U.S. and Pacific Islands as a scientific diver. How could it not, when I find myself catching up on emails between presentations by Dr. Sylvia Earle, the United Nations Oceans Affairs team, and explorer Cristina Zenato while sitting next to the Apollo 11 Moon flag and Matthew Henson’s North Pole mittens.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, biologist, oceanographer, explorer, and President of Mission Blue, unveiling the latest updates in the efforts to establish a global network of marine protected areas, through local Hope Spots and raising awareness, access, and support for their conservation.

Conservationist, educator and explorer Cristina Zenato, delivering a powerful and passionate speech on how to inspire ocean stewardship and awareness.

The weekend proceeds with introductions and recognition of 2019, 2021, and 2022 interns and scholars through banquets, symposiums, and workshops. During the Saturday symposium, the audience has the great pleasure of viewing 2021 North American Scholar Jamil Wilson’s video presentation on Diving Through Adversity and 2021 European Scholar Arzucan N. Askin’s video presentation on the Depths of the Anthroposea.

Joining us in the audience is my immediate supervisor, Dave Conlin, Chief of the NPS Submerged Resources Center. He beams quietly while watching 2021 NPS Intern Sarah Von Hoene present her success and experiences last year. Although the spotlight is on the interns tonight, it must be acknowledged and celebrated that without Dave and the SRC team; their years of groundbreaking work in maritime archaeology; their strong working relationships turned deep friendships with NPS employees and collaborators across the country; and their dedicated action to lifting up young aspiring researchers and explorers, this internship would not be possible. For the past 12 years, in partnership with OWUSS, SRC has devoted tremendous time and resources to one individual per year to embark on this journey. Many of the NPS internship alumni are still active in OWUSS today and have launched successful careers in marine exploration, communication, photography, monitoring, and research. However, when praised for his support and achievements, Dave simply states, “I take no credit for my interns’ successes, just pride in their accomplishments.” This heartfelt sentiment is met with cheerful goosebumps. I feel them wash over me, along with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to be placed in such generous and capable hands. I feel honored that NPS SRC and OWUSS have chosen to invest in my personal and professional growth and am inspired see alumni and volunteers continuing to pay it forward by devoting the time, energy, and resources required to keep these long-term programs running.

OWUSS Class of 2022 interns alongside President and 1990 Rolex Scholar Steve Barnett (right) and Chairman Vincent Malkoski (left).

OWUSS NPS Submerged Resources Center interns (left to right: Michael Langhans – 2019, myself – 2022, Sarah Von Hoene – 2021, Shaun Wolfe – 2018) alongside NPS SRC Chief Dave Conlin (center)

For the first time, the OWUSS annual awards weekend now coincides with World Oceans Week, allowing scholars and interns to engage in panel discussions, workshops, presentations, mentoring, and networking events hosted by leading oceans organizations, researchers, and industry professionals. Overarching themes throughout the week include ocean governance, stewardship, and engagement; career coaching and personal branding; adaptive conservation and restoration; and blue economy innovation, to name a few. Thought-provoking points are raised about how the presence/absence of marine life dictates how/where we use/govern the ocean, the importance of quantifying recreational use of marine resources, understanding the political context of the science you are disseminating, the paradox of law without enforcement, and the future importance of interdisciplinary science. Regardless of the speaker, a common conversation emerges – that science is not finished until it is communicated. Reflecting on my experiences as a student and researcher at several universities, I note numerous examples of where academia often stops at 80%. During my time as an NPS intern, I hope to see firsthand how applied marine ecology, archeology, and photography are used to uncover, document, and directly communicate crucial information on natural and cultural resources to policymakers, stakeholders, and the general public. 

World Oceans Week at The Explorers Club Headquarters in NYC. OWUSS interns and scholars joined several workshops and panel discussions, including one on ocean governance, the blue economy, and oceans and climate change led by Valentina Germani and Francois Bailet of the United Nations.

OWUSS interns and scholars were invited to join the in-person United Nations World Oceans Day hosted by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. I joined the event with 2019 OWUSS European Scholar Kim Hildebrandt (center) and 2022 OWUSS European Scholar Hannah Douglas (right).

After a week in NYC, I leave feeling inspired yet disconnected. I can’t help but notice how these concrete jungle walls detach us from the natural world, hindering our connection with nature by negatively impacting our accountability for the state of the environment in our own backyard, muffling our understanding of where our food comes from, and amplifying our reliance on instant communication and gratification within our daily lives. Right on cue, after a fast-paced week, I head to Denver, Colorado – home of the Submerged Resources Center. 

A small team with global reach, one only needs to walk a few steps into the SRC office to gain a sense that this is a remarkable group of individuals working to drive their accomplishments. For more than forty years, the NPS SRC has been operational and recognized as a global leader in maritime archeology. Using an interdisciplinary approach and advanced scientific diving, they serve to locate, document, interpret, and preserve cultural resources and provide advice towards their protection. At their Colorado headquarters, I had the great pleasure of meeting and learning from Brett Seymour (Deputy Chief, A/V specialist), Susana Pershern (A/V specialist), and archeologists Matt Hanks, David Morgan, Anne Wright, and Andrew (AJ) Van Slyke. Millie Mannering, the 2022 OWUSS Australasian scholar, is joining us for a week of basic training and final preparations before setting off on her year-long adventure. As the week unfolds, I recognize each person’s unique journey that has led them to this team. I value the unique opportunity that this internship entails, in addition to my duties as a scientific diver, to gain insight into shaping my own individualized career path as I face the transition from graduate student to young professional. 

NPS Submerged Resources Center Headquarters in Denver, Colorado. The entrance is line with underwater photography, magazine covers, and mementos of exploration.

During our first day at SRC, archeologist AJ Van Slyke introduced us to some of his current work. Our overarching goal for the day was to update a predictive map to inform and identify survey locations in search of the Guererro (a Spanish slave ship wrecked in 1827 near the Florida Keys while engaged in battle with a British anti-slavery ship, the HMS Nimble). Based on a comprehensive report AJ wrote, which compiles literature and historical records detailing the events leading up to and following the wreckage, we play out each version of the accounts step by step – somewhat like a board game. The goal is to identify areas of geographical overlap in each ship’s story; however, interpreting historical information often presents significant barriers, as units of measurement can be described as an “arrows reach” away or reference landmarks that may no longer exist or have a documented location. Combined with the variability and inaccuracies of personal reporting and the combined efforts of excavating, analyzing, and interpreting findings, I can see that SRC has their work cut out for them. Nonetheless, the overwhelming successes of SRC in locating and documenting ships in remote, challenging, and unpredictable environments speaks to their hard work, talent, passion, and ingenuity and serves to bring knowledge to both the local and global community on history that has been lost beneath the surface of our oceans for decades. 

OWUSS 2022 Australasian scholar Millie Mannering and I translating field notes into hand drawn maps of historical shipwrecks.

NPS Submerged Resources Center archeologist AJ Van Slyke and I updating a predictive map in search of the Guererro’s final resting place.

We also joined archeologist Anne Wright for a DAN Diving Emergency Management Provider course, where she took us through several training sessions, including basic Life Support (CPR/First Aid), neurological assessments, emergency oxygen for scuba diving injuries, and first aid for hazardous marine life. Although I have maintained First Aid provider and instructor certifications as a lifeguard over the past years, it was a welcome refresher to prepare Millie, SRC archeologist David Morgan and I for a safe and full summer of diving ahead. 

NPS Submerged Resources Center archeologist Anne Wright leading us through a refresher on Diving Emergency Management, including emergency oxygen for scuba diving injuries.

Lastly, it was time for us to complete the Blue Card certification required to dive with the National Park Service. Deputy Chief Brett Seymour took Millie and I through several unique sets of dive and fitness testing, including gas sharing, rescue tows, NPS bailout (jumping into the water, gear in hand, to be assembled and donned on the pool floor), and NPS ditch and recovery (doffing all equipment underwater, turning air off, swimming away, and returning to don your gear). Although many of these skills are not necessarily meant to mimic “real-life” situations, they gauge a diver’s composure and response to stressors underwater and demonstrate the ability to think critically in unfamiliar situations.

Just over two weeks after my internship has begun, and before I’ve even set foot on my first park, I am astonished by the experiences I’ve had and the new network I am a part of. SRC has given me all the tools I need to succeed and then some, and I leave Denver, dive gear in hand, ready to take the leap and kick start what I’ve been selected to do. I want to thank each member of the SRC for making me feel so welcome and for trusting me to represent this team during my internship. Thank you for being exceptionally friendly faces to greet in the office each day, for sharing your current projects with me, and for the friendly conversation over lunch at your favorite spots. Thank you to Dave and Michelle for opening up your home and family to me, for going above and beyond to provide the comfort of a home away from home, and show me the best of Colorado (including a trip to my very first (!!) U.S National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park). Thank you to my internship coordinators, Shaun Wolfe, and Claire Mullaney, for supporting me in the preparations for this summer. Thank you to past NPS SRC interns I was able to meet (including Garrett Fundakowski – 2016, Shannon Brown – 2018, and interns present in NYC) for your helpful advice and for welcoming me into the NPS OWUSS family with open arms and enough stoke to last a lifetime.

Over the next several months, I look forward to traveling to each new place and each new park, with fresh eyes – eager to listen and learn, and apply my skills where applicable. Over time, I hope that many of you reading this blog will become familiar faces, and I look forward to taking you along on this grand adventure. 

 

 

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