Author Archives: Hailey Shchepanik, 2022 NPS

The end?: Department of Interior Washington DC

Going into the internship, I knew that many OWUSS NPS interns get the opportunity to present their whirlwind adventures in learning and diving to various NPS Associate and Deputy Directors at the Department of Interior office in Washington, DC. Of course, this means that the presentation is typically scheduled as the last Hoorah – the final destination once an intern has collected their share of experience, memories, perspective, and photographs from parks across the country.

To say that this week crept up on me is a bit of an understatement, and I found myself having to do a double-take once landing in DC. This can’t really be ‘the end,’… can it? I’m just getting good at this! After five or so consecutive weeks (and many months prior) of park hopping, flinging myself into new field teams, new states, and new environments, I am here now, swapping my well-worn NPS SRC field shirt for an ironed button-up, ready to show off the NPS Dive Program to decision makers who hold the future of this program in their hands.

Lincoln Memorial, National Mall, Washington, D.C.

I ease into the week with some sightseeing, having never visited Washington, DC, before. With the generous help and friendly company of Daryl Avery, NPS Branch Chief for Occupational Safety and Health, together, we walk through the National Mall and Memorial Parks – home to the country’s most iconic monuments commemorating historical events that shaped the nation. While the monuments can be appreciated by any passerby (and details read via interpretive signage or a quick Google search), they truly come to life with the help of Interpretive Rangers placed throughout the National Mall grounds. I was grateful to encounter many knowledgeable Rangers who shed light on the history of these significant events and individuals and their architectural design and construction – revealing small details one would likely miss without a trained eye. An educational and enjoyable day for myself and Daryl (featuring a delicious meal at the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill) and an excellent orientation to the city center, during which I noted additional points of interest to visit during downtime throughout the week.

WWII Memorial, National Mall. Interpretive Ranger Adam Cochran provides an excellent overview of each detail of the monument, greatly enhancing my visit.

View from the top of the Washington Monument, National Mall.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, National Mall. Powerful quotes line the walls – Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, National Mall.

The following day, I grab a hearty breakfast, settle into my new accommodations, and do one last presentation run-through before heading to the Department of Interior office to meet with Daryl and Michael May, NPS Chief of Office of Risk Management. After filing through security, affixing the necessary visitors pass to my collar, and a short tour of the facilities (including a beautiful display of artwork lining the halls – often attracting tourist groups), it comes time to do what I was brought here for… and I eagerly await the opportunity to share my experience with the NPS Executive team.

A 30-minute presentation passes quickly in a small board room, flipping through slide after slide of NPS Dive Program highlights, history, project goals, and accomplishments. Presenting to both divers and non-divers alike, I am relieved to see many encouraging nods and note-writing in the crowd, leading to positive feedback and curious questions in the discussion that follows. While preparing this presentation, I was taken aback by the fact that across 23 NPS dive programs (and 120 individual divers), over 6,500 dives were conducted in 2021 alone. Across seven National Parks, I worked directly with over 40 NPS divers, speaking to the scope of experience that interns gain in such a short timeframe. Bringing fresh eyes, a global perspective, curiosity, a strong diving foundation, and an eagerness to experience applied science, diving, and monitoring outside of academia, I gained a holistic perspective of the NPS dive program. I can honestly say that the multidisciplinary scope and rigorous safety protocols are unmatched by any other dive program or team I have previously been a part of.

A trip to DC would not be complete without visiting several of the impressive museums (often free for visitors), and as such, I filled my spare time with trips to the Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Acknowledging that it is possible to spend multiple days at each museum, I found myself returning to the National Museum of African American History & Culture on several occasions, opting to focus each visit floor by floor (organized in temporal increments from 1400 to the present day), making for a more comprehensive and impactful experience. During the week, I also had the opportunity to meet several NOAA Ocean Exploration employees, including Jeremy Weirich, Director, and Adrienne Copeland, PhD, Grants Program Manager, further enriching my experience in the nation’s capital.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture

Inside the National Museum of African American History & Culture. NPS Submerged Resources Center played an instrumental role in uncovering the remains of the Sao Jose (a Portuguese slave ship), in collaboration with Diving with a Purpose, George Washington University, and Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Museum of Natural History, Oceans Hall

Museum of Natural History

Reflecting on my experiences thus far, I feel empowered. Seeing first-hand the resources dedicated to underwater exploration and monitoring gives me hope – for education, preservation, and understanding of the underwater world, which makes up 70% of our planet. I am proud to stand in DC, representing the NPS Dive Program and sharing just a small glimpse into the work they do. As my time in Washington, DC, comes to a close, I am relieved that it is not yet the final chapter of my internship. Drawing on international connections and collaborating with underwater archeology teams around the globe, the NPS SRC team has connected me with Parks Canada for one last project. I am incredibly excited to represent NPS on my home turf in a few short days. Stay tuned as the OWUSS NPS intern goes international!

Thank you Daryl Avery (and Michael May) for hosting me in DC

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Feels Like Home: Crater Lake National Park

Having spent the last several years away from North America, I often worry about losing my “Canadian blood.” Is the antifreeze that naturally runs through my veins wearing thin? I have not spent an entire winter in the great white North since 2016 (my second year of undergrad), and I have been quite successful in avoiding the 7-8 months of snow and 1-2 months of -40C that my hometown is gifted with each year. But by now, I am due for another round of cold weather adventures – and I am tremendously excited to dive into the crisp, clear blue of Crater Lake.

Crater Lake National Park. Photo: Nate Akers

I land in Medford, Oregon, greeted by the airport shuttle bus driver who will take me to the off-site rental car office. Over small talk, he tells me that summer has passed (as of three days ago). He speaks to the steep, sudden decline in temperature (from 90 degrees and sunny last week to 60 degrees and rainy the next). But really, his outfit screams the same nonverbal story. Shorts, flip flops, and a breezy T-shirt… in 50-degree overcast skies. I recognize this familiar homage and resistance towards acknowledging that another short-but-sweet summer has passed. Just a few more days of shorts… before the layers come out and a long winter ensues. He jokes that my arrival has triggered a cold spell that will last throughout the week. That was music to my ears. It sure feels good to feel like home.

Sunset from the scenic Rim Drive during my first evening at the park

A historic stone cabin, towering ponderosa pines, and a lively group of seasonal NPS employees set the stage for my stay at the park. I am immediately impressed by the amount and diversity of natural resource management work happening within the park, from trails, to backcountry, streams, botany, and lakes – I am given a small glimpse into each of these programs throughout my stay.

Our goals for the week are varied but begin with site assessments of one of the lake’s most mysterious underwater landmarks – referred to as the Fumaroles. Cut deep and cylindrical into thousands of years of accumulated peat; they are long-standing natural formations and tunneling depressions in the benthos, of unknown origin and mechanism. What causes these formations? How have they maintained their form over thousands of years? Surely these exist elsewhere, but where? With the hope of garnering insight and scientific advice from other regions around the globe, the NPS Submerged Resources Center will visit Crater Lake next year to document and model in unmatched detail the anatomy of these strange formations, using cutting-edge, in-house-developed, 3D photogrammetry technology.

The “Fumaroles.” Crystal clear waters and mysterious formations amidst ancient peat.

Not long into our first dive, I am met, face to face, with Crater Lake’s most wanted aquatic criminal – a member of the introduced crayfish population. Diving alongside NPS Aquatic Ecologist Scott Girdner, former NPS Aquatic Ecologist Mark Buktenica (and continued NPS volunteer diver), and Fisheries Biologist Joshua Sprague, we conduct benthic aquatic invertebrate surveys as part of an annual monitoring program to quantify the impact of invasive crayfish on the declining endemic newt population. In particular, these surveys aim to evaluate how food availability is altered in areas that crayfish occupy – and park ecologists have indeed detected a dramatic reduction over time. Previous mesocosm studies conducted within the park also identified changes in the behavior of endemic newts in the presence of crayfish (such as the inability to coexist and being driven out of rocky sheltered habitats and induced stress response – driving newts to the surface to gulp air where they are preyed upon by introduced invasive fish).

An invasive crayfish, introduced into Crater Lake over 50 years ago, and threat to endemic newt populations

Aquatic Ecologist Mark Buktenica and Fisheries Biologist Joshua Sprague using an underwater vacuum to collect benthic invertebrates within a 1 meter transect

A compelling example of the reduction of food availability in areas before (left) and after (right) the introduction of invasive crayfish, based on benthic sampling

A topic of interest to me, and the theme of my Master’s thesis work, invasive species are ubiquitous in the present day. Within Crater Lake, Rainbow Trout, Kokanee Salmon, and crayfish have been introduced for tourism purposes – to provide recreational fishing opportunities for visitors. However, over 50 years later, we are beginning to see the repercussions of these actions, and the endemic newt population of Crater Lake is in peril. Once past a certain threshold, an invasive species is almost impossible to eradicate. It is likely a question of when, not if, the newt population will be extinct within the park, with unknown consequences regarding ecosystem health and function. Nowadays, many teams within the Crater Lake natural resource staff work to prevent other invasive species from becoming established – hoping to keep these areas pristine, natural, and native.

Every effort is made to prevent further introduction of new invasive species (including a complete ban on recreational swimming accessories – from goggles to paddle boards), in order to preserve native plants and aquatic organisms

Scott Girdner and Mark Buktenica lead the way for us aquatic interns and seasonal employees, with a combined total of 64 years of experience in and on Crater Lake. Highly attuned to changes in this unique environment, this impressive body of knowledge has been generated year after year, dive after dive, since the 1950s. A testament to the success of the NPS dive program on the ability to cultivate detailed knowledge of natural resources within the park to inform their protection and preservation. This is one of the only parks I visited this summer with such long-term knowledge contained within a single, or couple, of individuals. Knowledge, however, that is free for the asking, as Mark and Scott generously provide mini lectures on the boat before embarking on each new task, contributing to a short but highly successful and educational visit.

Topside view of dive operations

Aquatic Ecologist Scott Girdner and I conducting a shore transect to monitor the growth of filamentous algae booms, a recent occurrence in Crater Lake under changing environmental conditions

Over the week, not only does the dive team work as surveyors of natural resources (from “bug sucking” to crater exploring), but also underwater mooring repairmen, off-road tractor drivers, construction (and deconstruction) workers, weather station mechanics, backcountry hikers, and boat operators. Entering the workforce as a young professional, I aspire to cultivate such a well-rounded skill set, and the ability to contribute to each aspect of these field days, perhaps one day leading a team of interns, students, and employees with a built wealth of knowledge.

NPS Aquatic Ecologist Scott Girdner and Mark Buktenica installing a new solar panel on the weather monitoring station

Overlooking Wizard Island, volcanic cone and crater

Beyond the mesmerizing mystery that is the cold depths of Crater Lake, my time at this park stands out for the community of seasonal employees I met at Sleepy Hollows. Thank you, all, for welcoming me into the park, sharing your perspective, friendship, and personal journeys with me. A special mention to Nate Akers for introducing me to the crew during bonfires, games nights, and Christmas-in-September celebrations, and Hamilton Hasty for showing me hidden gems within the park. Thank you to Scott, Mark, and Josh, for hosting me, answering my many questions, and letting me in on one of perhaps the best-kept secrets of the National Park Service Dive Program. It is not only the rarity of this experience that lingers with me, but the evolving desire to continue cold water diving in even more remote and even colder parts of the globe.

Countless hikes line the rim of Crater Lake

As my internship nears completion, the significance of this opportunity, in terms of personal and professional development and the support I have received from those around me, is at the forefront of my mind. My advice? If given an opportunity so rare, so unique, and so beautifully mysterious as to dive and work in places not even your highly skilled, well-traveled, and internationally acclaimed supervisors have (those same folks who are cracking open doors for you to get into these excellent parks, with the support of the entire NPS diving program)… Run, don’t walk! Send in an application to OWUSS and NPS, share your story and your curiosities, and see how far it takes you. Whomever the next National Park Service Dive Program intern may be, I look forward to welcoming you into the NPS and OWUSS network with open arms, just as those before have done for me.

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Knee deep: Curecanti National Recreation Area

Carefully stepping off the boat’s bow ramp, I am nearly ready for our first dive of the day. Instantly, I feel the ground collapse beneath me, sucking me down slowly until I am knee-deep in muck. Hmm – should have seen that one coming. However, the sinkhole does provide a surprisingly stable position to put on the final pieces of my dive gear. I think to myself, we will have to swim away from this spot to start our dive because I have definitely silted up this entire area. I make a mental note to remember basic low-vis dive etiquette.

The public marina at Curecanti National Recreational Area, where we launch the NPS Park Ranger vessel for dives

This week I am diving with the excellent team at Curecanti National Recreational Area. Before my arrival, Melissa Post, Law Enforcement Ranger, host, and dive buddy for the week, warns me, “there’s not much to see in Blue Mesa” (the reservoir we will be diving within the park). Nevertheless, I am curious to see what Curecanti has to offer and look forward to making the short road trip from Denver. As a rule, I tend to avoid looking at images of my destination before I arrive. Really, it is in order to be able to go into a new experience, whether it be a new country, hike, campsite, or city, with minimal expectations or preconceived ideas on how it should look. I arrive at the park as day turns to dusk, pleasantly surprised by the scenic winding roads decorated with cliffs, rivers, mountains, and meadows.

Overlooking Blue Mesa from NPS on site housing – caught in its finest form as I arrive from Denver

Roadside views en route to the park

Underwater is a different story. If there were much to be seen here, well, I wouldn’t have seen it anyway. Quite literally, there is not much seeing to be done underwater – unless it is about a foot in front of your face! Joined by Jessica Frey, NPS Wildlife Technician (and topside support Spencer Reese from the Maintenance team), the four of us spent the next few days together refreshing skills, scoping out suitable dive sites for training, and practicing underwater searches. I enjoyed the challenge of diving in limited visibility. It reminded me of my training as a scientific diver at Cape Breton University in 2018. Snowy weather, an ill-fitting wetsuit in 50-degree seas, low vis, silty bottom, and the fact that we had to precisely locate and change out water quality loggers at fixed sites made for challenging conditions. Gradually refamiliarizing myself with dry suit diving (after receiving training in British Columbia in 2020), this week marks the transition into the cold water portion of my internship. Although I am sad to leave the fish and friends of the tropical Pacific behind, the blow is softened by the next great adventure.

Selecting our dive site alongside the scenic Dillion Pinnacles

Whereas spirits are usually high during dives at the other parks I’ve visited, a day of diving for the team at Curecanti often means something more somber. As a public safety dive team, employees and volunteers are recruited when a visitor is having either a bad – or very, very bad, day. From emergency rescues and body recovery to wreckage removal of planes, boats, ATVs, and other odds and ends, no two dive operations here are alike. In addition to dry suits and scuba tanks, rescue operations require innovative troubleshooting and often feature the help of massive lift bags and customized cranes. Melissa and Jess take me through several search patterns above and below the water, describing their pros, cons, coverage, and suitability for various missions. Although we follow standardized search protocols (such as a windshield-wiper or jackstay), rarely do these searches look as good underwater as they do on paper. Even in an environment seemingly as homogenous as Blue Mesa, a few jutting rocks or sunken logs can catch lines, pulling you off course and jeopardizing the efficacy and coverage of the search. Nowadays, with the help of State Parks and a multi-beam sonar, the Curecanti dive team can narrow down the location of search items before getting in the water – helping to streamline the effort and increase the chances of a successful operation.

Diving in Curecanti is rarely glamorous work but provides a necessary service, keeping the reservoir free from environmental pollutants and providing closure to those affected by recreational boating accidents and mishaps. Truly honorable work, it ignites an inspiration within me to seek opportunities where I can use my unique set of skills as a diver to contribute more to the community in ways beyond basic natural resource monitoring and scientific communication. Day-to-day, each employee at Curecanti fills multiple roles, as the demands and priorities of recreational areas differ significantly and may be more multidisciplinary than National Parks. On occasion, a quick radio call prompts Melissa to change out of field clothes back into Ranger uniform, seamlessly transitioning from boat operator to law enforcement officer at the drop (or swap) of a hat.

Curecanti National Recreational Area hub for Park Rangers, maintenance, and natural and cultural resources

Not without its hiccups (a leaky seal here, vanishing boat keys into a black hole there), the week flies by, and I finish our last dive feeling more confident in my dry suit skills. Now, I am ready to take on colder sites and more complex tasks underwater. Any ruffle in dive operations this week has been amalgamated into a revised mental checklist (to be flipped through before each upcoming cold-water dive), and the chance to whip out my spiffy save a dive tool kit (expertly put together by NPS SRC Chief, Dave Conlin, backed by decades of dive knowledge – a priceless item if ever to be packaged up and put on shelves).

My dive kit gets a bit bulkier these days with the added dry suit, warm undergarments, and weight harness

It was an absolute pleasure to join your team, Melissa, Jess, and Spencer, in the field each day. Visiting Curecanti was a valuable addition to my internship, made memorable by our time both above and below water. Traveling back to Colorado also meant the chance to reconnect with the SRC crew – which I hadn’t seen since the start of my internship (and a quick trip to Jason’s deli in true Lakewood fashion), and time at my home-away-from-home in Boulder, with Michelle, Dave, and Maya the dog, tucking in comfortably for the weekend and catching up over shared meals at a local eatery.

It puts a great smile on my face to think about the enormous cheerleading team I have within the NPS Dive Program, supporting and following along with me during this internship. At each park, I am surrounded by people who love what they’re doing and where they are doing it – and the energy is contagious. Before this internship, I saw diving as likely a bonus, not a focus of a future career. How could I ever get so lucky as to do this every day? However, I can clearly see, that diving is a necessary tool we need to quantify, evaluate, monitor, and discover the valuable submerged resources, including those hidden within the US National Park Service’s impressive range.

All smiles during a dive with Melissa Post, Curecanti National Recreational Area Law Enforcement Ranger and fantastic host – thank you!

 

 

 

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Full circle: Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Double-check gear. Double-check directions. Check for traffic, confirm the meeting place, and eat a hearty breakfast. My first (and only) assignment at the park begins at 0900 this morning, and I want to be fully prepared. I arrive at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Pass and ID office to meet Scott Pawlowski, Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources of World War II Valor in the Pacific National Memorial – to receive my sponsored pass to the military base that houses NPS offices, dive lockers, and cultural resource collections. After a quick introduction, I can see time is of the essence (with an average of 4,000 visitors per day and the end of the fiscal year approaching, everyone’s got their hands full, even more so than usual or at other parks I’ve visited). Knowing I’ll need a form of ID to secure my pass, I ask Scott if I should use my passport instead of a driver’s license… since I am not a US citizen. I quickly realize that is the wrong question to be asking when trying to access a high-security, active US naval base. Next thing you know, we were headed straight out the door in search of Plan B. Access Denied!

I stand by during a few quick phone calls and await further instructions. A handful of nervous minutes pass, but Scott relays a new plan. After several pivots, dive operations are still a go. I meet my dive buddies, NPS diver, PERL volunteer, and 2017 OWUSS AAUS intern Erika Sawicki and NPS Interpretive Guide Billy Crowe, at the visitors center, past the tourist ferry, and through to the “employees only” gated dock. Curious eyes watch as we launch the small NPS vessel destined for one of the nation’s most important war memorials, shipwrecks, and mass graves – USS Arizona.

My first glimpse of the USS Arizona memorial from the NPS vessel

Once we arrive at the memorial, while trying to be as inconspicuous as one can possibly be with flashy gear and clanking scuba tanks, Erika and Billy set the stage for our dive. Unrolling a well-used map from his bag, Billy gives me a hushed orientation to the ship, pointing out key features, the location of artifacts, and mapping our path underwater. The anticipation builds, and we wait for the perfect moment to slip underwater during the brief break between ferry arrivals. Knowing that only a handful of individuals are trained and permitted to dive this site each year and the significance of not only the remaining wreckage but of the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor creates an atmosphere unlike any other dive I’ve done. It makes sense – this dive is unlike any other dive I’ve ever done– or ever will do for that matter.

Moments before our dive on the USS Arizona, the memorial full of curious and contemplative visitors in the background

The attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the entry of the US into World War II. The wreckage of USS Arizona is a sacred site, home to the remains of 1,177 crew members who did not escape her fiery fate, forever buried at sea. Nowadays, dive operations are limited to preservation and documentation, in respect to those who have lost their lives and loved ones left behind in this tragedy.

Inside the memorial, stands a list of victims during the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor

During the start of our 90-minute dive, Erika points out a rope. Seemingly innocuous at first, I suddenly remember that this is the line that guides NPS divers during the interment of survivors who choose to return to the vessel after their passing. We descend into the empty turret, the bottom slow to emerge in limited visibility – this is one of the most powerful moments of the dive. It is here that crew members are reunited with their fallen comrades. In the more than 80 years that have passed since the attack, full lives have been lived in the wake, for the nearly 300 survivors. In the devastation of broken families, lost brothers, and national grief, USS Arizona is a place of reunion and remembrance in the present day.

We swim past artifacts scattered aboard the ship’s deck: boots, bowls, and personal belongings frozen in time. We peer into several blown-out portholes on the side of the ship, silted furniture still sits in place, providing context and scale, and a sullen personality to her remaining structure. Having never been on a ship of this size, I find it hard to imagine what everyday life would have looked like onboard. I wonder what these rooms were used for, who they belonged to, or if personal mementos once decorated its walls. Scanning the wreck, swimming under the hundreds of visitors above only feet about us, we round the bow, peering through large holes in the vessel where the anchor chain would have been attached, illuminated with sunlight. Although present, I am surprised at how little marine life occupies the outer walls and deck of the ship (although a few fish manage to pull my attention at times before returning to the task at hand). I snap back to see Erika floating upside down, carefully positioning herself headfirst in a stairway. I follow suit once she emerges and notice small globules of oil gathered on the overhead covering ­– evidence of the steady stream of oil that has been leaking since the first moments of the attack. We disperse slightly and take in a few last silent moments while collecting personal items accidentally dropped overboard by tourists. We quietly tuck away into the NPS vessel upon surfacing, and slowly cruise back to the visitor’s center. Between conversation, I’m left to digest this experience, seeing first-hand what the majority of the population will only ever see through a TV screen.

Three 14 inch guns stand strong among the wreck of USS Arizona

A few remaining artifacts scatter the deck of USS Arizona, including bowls and kitchenware

The sole of a WWII era shoe sitting atop the deck

A watchful porcupine fish peering between the pillars which support the memorial directly above the ship

The next day, a tour of USS Missouri fills in a handful of knowledge gaps and questions I have after yesterday’s dive. For the first time during the internship, I feel like a tourist (thank you, Scott, for organizing tickets for USS Bowfin, USS Missouri, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum for me). Blending in with visitors, I start the day with a walking tour of USS Missouri, which covers general boat specs (including firepower), and its role in the end of WWII as the site of the surrender ceremony of Japan on September 2nd, 1945. Now a historical museum, I am excited to explore below deck. Meandering each hallway of USS Missouri gave me a glimpse into just how well equipped and surprisingly spacious these ships were (although I’m sure no one was saying that when 3,000 crew members were on board). I walk past offices, dorm rooms, officers’ quarters, cafeterias, bakeries, dentist facilities, and post offices. In 30 minutes, I likely barely scratch the surface of the true scale of the ship; however, I quickly realize these are essentially floating cities. The well-staged rooms bring life to the ship, furnished in true mid-1900s fashion, and through this lens, I see the silt-covered, monochromatic remains of USS Arizona in a new light.

Approaching USS Missouri, now a historical museum

On deck of USS Missouri overlooking Pearl Harbor

Officers quarters below deck of USS Missouri

Undeniably a US tragedy, the impact of the attack on the American people, and Pearl Harbor had ripple a ripple effect globally. I wonder how many Canadians have ever had the chance to dive on USS Arizona? To experience history “first-hand” is a remarkable opportunity, and one that leaves a lasting impression. At Pearl Harbor National Memorial, history comes full circle, with historic vessels triggering both the beginning and the end of the US involvement in WWII side by side. The conditions of the vessels perhaps symbolic, the rusting remains of Arizona, heavy with the weight of war, and the polished Missouri leading the way forward, in peace and reconciliation.

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Resilient reefs: National Park of American Samoa

In 1917, Alfred Mayer, pioneering marine biologist and zoologist of the Carnegie Institute, began what is now the world’s oldest continuously monitored coral reef transect. Ahead of his time, he performed one of the first robust quantitative reef surveys, with his most notable effort and lasting legacy being the Aua reef transect in Pago Pago harbor, American Samoa.

Healthy shallow reefs line the Pago Pago harbour on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa

Inspiring modern-day scientists to continue in his footsteps, Dr. Alison Green and Dr. Charles Birkeland (who I had the great pleasure of working with and meeting during my Master’s at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) spearheaded regular surveys of the historical transect, through to its 100th anniversary, and into the present day. Remarkably, these reefs continue to thrive despite being subject to rapid development (as American Samoa transformed from a sustenance to market economy, developing major ports, industrial fishing, large-scale dredging, and wastewater disposal within the main harbor). 1995 surveys revealed that approximately 95% of the corals had been severely degraded following these activities. However, over time, the outer reef within the harbor has flourished. It now hosts an even greater abundance of corals than the pristine community observed by Meyers in 1917 – a truly resilient reef.

A silver plaque marks the world’s longest continuously monitored coral reef transect – a photo that I shared with colleagues back at KAUST, including Dr. Alison Green, who contributed to the areas continued monitoring over several decades

With the guidance and friendly company of my colleague, Valentine Vaeoso (and permission of the local village), I was able to visit this historical site (located only steps away from the main road), do my own informal survey of the area, and take in perhaps one of the only places in the world where you can have a roadside pizza delivered while snorkeling one of the most spectacular shallow reefs sites I’ve laid eyes on.

Underwater, you would never guess that you are only meters from the nearby village, roads, construction sites, and super markets

With field operations up and running, Marine Ecologist Dr. Eric Brown, Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt, and NPS Intern Valentine Vaeoso and I set off for a week and a half of fieldwork in fulfillment of the annual Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys. Developed by Dr. Eric Brown during his Ph.D. dissertation, this standardized protocol is now widely used throughout the Pacific National Parks. A highly experienced ecologist and meticulous teacher, I was excited to work alongside Eric on this project and learn more about his path through academia into the National Park Service.

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown, Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt, and I, immediately before a survey dive, in front of the steep walls of Pola island

In a nutshell, the Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys are comprised of four key aspects which monitor marine Vital Signs (i.e., indicators of physical, chemical, biological processes, and factors selected to represent the overall health of natural resources): fish surveys, benthic surveys, rugosity measurements, and water quality. Ian took the lead for fish surveys during each dive, identifying and sizing each individual fish. I followed closely behind, taking benthic photos every meter (an excellent opportunity to continue optimizing buoyancy control in different environmental conditions while carefully navigating fragile shelving corals and deep cuts in the reef). In his element, Eric followed behind, taking rugosity measurements on temporary sites – a tedious task that involves inching along the transect with a small metal chain, laying it across each nook and cranny of the reef, often having to wedge himself under shelves and deep holes (in a bulky rebreather to boot!). Water quality sampling duties were shared by all during surface intervals and involved filtering water samples for nutrient analysis.

Bethic photos are taken at each meter along the transect. Photo: Ian Moffitt

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown deploys a water quality sensor during surveys, alongside an impressive wall of coral

The reefs we surveyed are in generally good health – some showing damage by hurricanes but promising signs of recovery. Although NPSA has a high level of species diversity, it is known to have lower marine biomass compared to other parks, which may be due to fishing pressure, poor water quality in certain areas, the 2009 tsunami that altered reef structure, a Crown-of-Thorns (CoTS) outbreak from 2011–2015, and changes in climate leading to bleaching events. Nevertheless, global anomalies continue to thrive here, such as some of the world’s largest corals (including large Porities corals measuring up to 22 meters across, 8 meters tall, and a circumference of 69 meters). Estimated at between 420–652 years old, it is evident that the islands of American Samoa have ideal conditions that support hearty, long-lived, and resilient corals.

An example of one of the massive corals found in American Samoa. Photo: Wendy Cover/NOAA

Topside, I was treated to several marine-related activities to polish off my time in American Samoa. During our last field day, as we were bringing the research vessels back around west to the main harbor in Pago Pago, we encountered humpback whales! Two adults and one calf cruising the surface. My very first encounter with whales – I had to try my hardest not to squeal with excitement in the presence of these beautiful giants, as we followed the group from a distance while Eric narrated details of their behavior and occurrence in the area.

My first time whale watching during the final day of field work – I did not dare take my eyes off of the horizon

My last dive in American Samoa also treated me to a trip “bucket list” species I had yet to spot – the peculiar Hemitaurichtys polylepis

I also joined many of the NPSA staff for a biweekly paddling practice, during which we used traditional Samoan 6-person canoes to race around the harbor. A passion shared by many and the focus of much friendly competition throughout the year on the island, I was incredibly excited to score a seat on one of these boats and had a blast trying to keep up with the pacers rhythm while simultaneously trying not to tip the deceivingly unstable, narrow, canoe. That afternoon on the water gave me a small glimpse into the pride and camaraderie generated by this culturally significant sport – and I was warmed by the celebratory high fives and echo’s of a job well done by all as we finished practice.

Members of the NPSA team, from the Superintendent Scott Burch, to the Marine, I&M, Interpretation, and Terrestrial crew got together to paddle in traditional 6-person Samoan canoes on the harbour in front of the office

In addition to pristine, larger-than-life reefs, American Samoa is home to some of the best air quality across global population centers. As part of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, the American Samoa Baseline Observatory collects data to address research on three significant challenges: greenhouse gas and carbon cycle feedbacks, changes in clouds, aerosols, surface radiation, and recovery of stratospheric ozone. Sitting atop the scenic northeastern tip of Tutuila Island, at Cape Matatula, the Coconut Point crew (Ian, Norelle, Taylor, Adam, Joe, Alisha, Casey, Max, Monyca, and Bob the Owl) took a trip to the observatory during my last weekend on the island, for a tour hosted by Observatory Operator Gregory Freidman. One of only four facilities worldwide (Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, and the South Pole), these high-tech pieces of equipment aim to generate the best possible information to inform decisions on climate change, weather variability, carbon cycle feedback, and ozone depletion.

A souvenir to take home from NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, the American Samoa Baseline Observatory. A sample of some of the finest air the world has to offer within global population centers

Touring NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory American Samoa Baseline Observatory

Although my visit to NPSA is the longest I will spend in any park this summer, three weeks pass quickly – and I am left with countless reasons to return one day. My first time in the South Pacific Islands left much to explore – including the Manu’a islands, Rose Atoll, the giant Porites, and the neighboring Independent State of Samoa. I look forward to returning in the future and reuniting with new friends, whenever that may be.

The “hassles” of getting to this spectacular park were greatly eased by the support of the NPS team and new friends. Fa’afetai, Taylor, for graciously letting me crash at your new apartment just moments after returning from two years on the mainland. Thank you to Ian and Norelle for making sure I was always well-stocked with groceries, (and to Ian for suffering through a weekend shopping trip as a try to decide which patterned shirt out of hundreds to bring home with me), for Norelle for showing me where to find the best local treats. Thank you Tine for keeping days on the boats lively with tunes and generously upgrading my daily trip to the office from local buses to the open back of your truck, taking in the view on our daily commute. And lastly, thank you to Eric Brown for sharing your experience with me, being the voice of reason during fragmented field days, and hosting me at NPSA.

Against all odds – this team made it into the field! Thank you Tine, Eric, and Ian for welcoming me into your team, showing me around the island, and persevering across all road bumps we encountered to make my time at the park a great success

Thus far, this internship has been a whirlwind of new experiences, through which I have learnt just how capable I am of integrating into a new environment with the added pressure of a short timeframe and varying roles and responsibilities. Each place I will visit, from New York to Hawaii, and everywhere in between, is an entirely new experience for me – made possible by the unwavering support and encouragement of the NPS Submerged Resources Center and OWUSS. If given an opportunity like such, be sure to bring your energy, enthusiasm, and plenty of sunscreen.

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Against all odds: National Park of American Samoa

In the age of Instagram influencers and travel vloggers, it is now easier than ever to share one’s opinion with the virtual masses – critique, praise, compliments, or otherwise. Subsequently, these virtual advertisements and informal ratings often influence where we eat, travel, live, and work. With millions of visitors each year, it is no surprise that the US National Parks have their own archive of online reviews numbering in the thousands.

Mixed amongst glowing reviews about family trips, backcountry getaways, and tropical park paradises are the infamous one-star Google reviews – from visitors who just weren’t having any of it. Forever memorialized by Amber Share, designer, and illustrator, in her best-selling book “Subpar Parks,” she has created eye-catching posters poking fun at the best of the worst – America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors. Arches National Park? Looks nothing like the license plate. Zion National Park? Scenery is distant and impersonal. Sequoia National Park? There are bugs. And they will bite you on your face.

Driven by curiosity, I flip through a copy of Subpar Parks that lives on Marine Ecologist Dr. Eric Brown’s coffee table. I skim directly to the page featuring the National Park of American Samoa to see what I’m up against. “Not worth the hassle”? We will see about that…

Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors. These posters-turned-book poke fun at real one-star Google reviews left by visitors who did not take to the stunning vistas and pristine waters of American Samoa

I arrive in American Samoa with momentum, ready to jump into fieldwork. I am here to join Marine Ecologist Dr. Eric Brown and Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt – with the support of boat operator and NPS intern Valentine Vaeoso for the annual Inventory and Monitoring surveys. Having been on the road now for several months, I feel comfortable in the routine of quickly settling in, integrating into a new field team, and conducting fieldwork daily. On top of it all, I can’t wait to lay my eyes on Tutuila’s spectacular reefs.

Shallow reefs just below the surface in the main harbour of Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, located on Tutuila island

Despite the entire team’s desire to get back in the water and start chipping away at surveys as soon as possible – for the first time in three years, I soon learn that a few pieces of the puzzle still need to be placed before regular field operations can return.

There are several different types of barriers to conducting work in the field. Weather, environment, safety, staffing, supervision, emergency response, planning, equipment, and team expertise all play a role in a successful operation – some of these are out of our control, others accounted for and mitigated through risk assessments and contingency resources. In a perfect storm, the National Park of American Samoa has been hit by a steady flow of setbacks and delays with returning to “normal” work post-pandemic, taking a toll on team morale at times. Right on cue, my first week at the park coincided with some of the biggest waves of the year, a slew of meetings, and a new spurt of volcanic activity centered around the neighboring Manu’a islands – taking dive operations mostly off the table, but giving us extra time to tidy up the back end of the pre-fieldwork to-do list.

Downtime in the office gave me the opportunity to explore the National Park of American Samoa’s impressive visitor’s center

The team focused on safety training and skill refreshers for the first week and a half. Diving on closed circuit rebreathers, Eric and Ian went through several underwater drills and rescue scenarios. At the same time, I buddied on open circuit, familiarizing myself with their gear and rescue procedures while getting used to slinging a 40 L tank of 100% oxygen, which I will breathe during safety stops during repetitive dives in the coming weeks. On the monitoring side, we took several shore dives and snorkels to practice fish identification and sizing, a familiar task to me, albeit in a new ecosystem with plenty of new eye-catching fish to learn.

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown and Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt rehearsing drills for the rescue of a submerged closed circuit rebreather diver

Practicing fish ID on a shallow shore dive

A significant (and crucial) caveat in our ability to conduct fieldwork is the ongoing updating and streamlining of marine emergency response within the park. With a lack of coast guard vessels in the water and the usual Fagasa Bay boat ramp broken (the area from which we will conduct fieldwork) – the NPS team is working to train an in-house Search and Rescue crew, while simultaneously finalizing the logistics of mooring a second safety boat in Fagasa Bay, in order to minimize response time in the event of an emergency.

My role in these efforts was two-fold. We dove to inspect the existing mooring within Fagasa Bay, which was designated to support two small research vessels until a second mooring could be installed in the upcoming months. I also participated in several large-scale search and rescue drills, focused on initiating and responding to marine emergencies – such as boat malfunction and loss of communication. With the entirety of the park’s marine crew onboard, mimicking a typical field day, several of the NPSA terrestrial and maintenance employees took lead on the emergency response and used these drills to refresh their knowledge of emergency communication workflows and boat operating (from trailering and boat launching to kayaking to moored vessels, navigation, man overboard, and towing drills). By the end of the week, the team was operating like a well-oiled machine and drastically improved response time with increasing familiarity and confidence in each situation.

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown and Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt inspecting the mooring we will use to store two small research vessels while conducting field work over the next couple weeks

In an emergency, the terrestrial/maintenance response team would drive from the office to Fagasa Bay and kayak out of the moored safety vessel, as seen in this drill.

Finally, it came time for the moment we’d been waiting for. Our first survey dive! The cards had finally aligned (not without the hard work of many divisions within the NPSA team, and substantial frenzy of effort by Eric, Ian, and Tine before my arrival). We had made the two-hour journey by boat from the main harbor, Pago Pago, west, around the island to Fagasa, with both research vessels now in position. We were finally set up for the next week and a half of fieldwork. On the boat and underwater, spirits were high. In the wise words of Eric Brown, we were determined to “keep this train wreck moving.”

My uniform underwater. A 40L 100% oxygen tank used during safety stops and an underwater camera for benthic survey images

On the island of Tutuila, in front of the town of Leone, stands Niuavēvē Rock, a centerpiece and beacon of hope for community members and long-time residents. On this islet stands a single aging coconut tree, enduring natural disaster, generation after generation – against all odds. To thrive in such an environment takes strong roots, resilience, and unwavering strength, qualities mirrored by the people of American Samoa.

Niuavēvē Rock. A single palm on a rocky islet represents resilience and strength to the community, surviving over generations against all odds

These islands may not come with the easy conveniences of life on the mainland. Simple tasks may take longer, the comforts of home farther away, and a dose of uncertainty goes hand-in-hand with long-term planning. But all of this comes with the great privilege of knowing and exploring the natural and cultural beauty that encompasses American Samoa, a place where less than 20,000 visitors set foot each year.

The view from Coconut Point, my new home for the second week of my visit

Exploring secluded beaches on weekends with new friends

Thank you to Eric Brown and Claire for hosting me, helping me get settled in, showing me local eateries, and taking me to explore the island by foot during my first week at the park. Thank you to Ian Moffitt, Norelle Moffit, and Taylor Kamansky for adopting me into the Coconut Point family and showing me the pristine beaches and reefs during my first week. I feel incredibly grateful to be welcomed here and visit a region of the globe I would have previously deemed largely inaccessible to me, made possible with the support of the NPS Submerged Resources Center and OWUSS.

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A living history: Kalaupapa National Historical Park

A short, slow drive down a single-lane road takes us into the Settlement as Park Dive Officer Kelly Moore, and Aquatic Biological Science Technician Glauco Puig-Santana pick me up at the Kalaupapa airport, on the northern shore of Molokai, Hawaii. They take the opportunity to provide a brief introduction to my home for the next two weeks. Curiously, Kelly begins by detailing and demonstrating good driving practices on the peninsula. The recommendation? 1) Drive no more than 10-15 mph; 2) at each intersection, slow down, look left-right-left, and right again; 3) don’t assume vehicles will stop at stop signs; and 4) vehicles have the right-of-way over pedestrians. Last but not least? If you encounter a vehicle coming towards you, drop your speed, turn towards the shoulder of grass, pulling all four wheels off the road to create ample space for passing – and the other car will likely do the same. What initially strikes me as a highly unusual style of driving begins to make sense as I come to learn about the history of this captivating landscape and isolated community.

A single road leads into the Settlement from the Kalaupapa airport. The park is only accessible by small plane or by descending the switchbacks of a steep sea cliff on foot

A prison fortified by nature. Medical segregation. Hardship in separation.

The 2,000 ft. pali (sea cliffs) and deep, rough sea surrounding this charming leaf-shaped peninsula frame a dark history. From 1866–1969, this very location served as an isolation settlement for over 8,500 individuals forcefully removed from their homes – individuals who were diagnosed with a widely feared and misunderstood illness, known at the time as leprosy (now, Hansen’s disease – named after the scientist who discovered the bacterium that causes this disease). Easily treatable since the 1940s (and the advent of antibiotics), the settlement is now a refuge for a handful of patients who have chosen to remain here after the mandatory quarantine was lifted over 50 years ago. For many, long-term effects of this disease still impact daily life, such as numbness, paralysis, scarring, and impaired vision. Nowadays, extra precaution is taken at every corner (including the aforementioned driving norms to protect the safety of some patients who still get around on four wheels) with the support of the Hawai’i Department of Health and the National Park Service.

The National Park Service works not only to preserve the natural features of the environment but maintains museum collections, cemeteries, cultural landscapes, and historic buildings around the peninsula. Photo: Shaun Wolfe

Invisible to the untrained eye, this seemingly untouched, impeccably preserved, and dramatic natural coastline is physically scarred by its history. Archeological remains of native Hawaiian ahupua’a (land divides) run through the cliffs and valleys, designating historical land use areas, and contain well-preserved examples of irrigation systems, ancient birthing stones, heiaus (temples), and cultivated taro fields. Now, these remains are reminders of the lost connection with the ‘aina (land) that occurred here once the native Hawaiian population was decimated by a series of epidemics in the mid-to-late- 1800s and displaced following the sale of land to the Board of Health in preparation for incoming patients. During times of quarantine, physical barriers were erected throughout the Settlement to segregate patients from caretakers, visitors, and servicepersons (e.g., patient and non-patient washrooms, chest-high walls dividing two sides of a long, narrow visitors center, and short gates placed on waiting benches outside care homes). Although these barriers have since lost their function, those that remain serve as a daily reminder of the alienation and physical distance maintained for over a century within the buildings we are now working and living in.

Underwater, our goal for the next two weeks is to complete the annual Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys with Kelly, Glauco, and visiting NPS Marine Ecologist Sheila McKenna. Together, we will collect water quality samples, take benthic photos, and survey fish along fixed, permanent transects. My first time in the tropical Pacific can only be described as “fish Christmas” – as I take in the tens of new-to-me species (from endemic triggerfish humuhumunukunukuāpua’a – say that five times fast! to fancy butterflyfish, Hawaiian hogfish, and psychedelic wrasse).

NPS Marine Ecologist Sheila McKenna conducts fish surveys on a permanent transect, as part of the annual Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys

The view above and below the surface are equally as mesmerizing. Bus-sized boulders litter the seafloor for miles – dropped from the island over 1.5 million years ago when a third of Molokai collapsed into the ocean. On the east side of the peninsula, we are greeted by lush valleys, deep Pacific blues, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, and long-tailed tropical birds. Being my first time in Hawaii, it seems like someone has turned the saturation up on life. As the weeks progress, just when I think the peninsula can’t get any more beautiful – it always does.

A glimpse into our view during dive surveys

Taking shelter from the waves between dives, in Waikolu valley

Only in the best weather conditions can we reach the survey sites on the east side of the peninsula, pictured here

Persistent trade winds keep us cool and refreshed out on the water but also interrupt boat-based dive operations on several occasions, shifting our focus to terrestrial or shore-based fieldwork. Lucky for me, this means new training opportunities and time with a special marine resident of the peninsula – the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. In partnership with NOAA, the Kalaupapa Natural Resource Management team opportunistically surveys the resident population along approximately 3 km of coastline (which is home to more than 80% of the total monk seal population within the main Hawaiian Islands). This year, Kalaupapa saw the birth of 12 pups, which are continually monitored for general health and growth, tagged for identification, and vaccinated against morbillivirus. Genetic samples are also taken to inform a parental tree of the local population to understand and better protect this endangered species.

Aquatic Biological Science Technician Glauco Puig-Santana carefully places temporary dye on a sleeping monk seal pup, to assist in identification and monitoring. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677.

Two monk seal pups play in the shallows, gaining confidence before venturing into deeper waters. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677 (and the helpful guidance of Glauco as I try to navigate entry level photography, Mahalo!)

A curious monk seal pup wakes briefly from a mid-day nap. Each seal we encountered on surveys is photographed for reference. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677.

Earlier this year, during a routine survey, the NRM team found a young pup with a fishing hook lodged in his throat. After an initial assessment, the pup was taken to Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center for surgery to remove the hook and regain health before his return home. The pup was welcomed back to Kalaupapa in style via US Coast Guard helicopter (with a satellite tag souvenir from his time at the hospital) and surrounded by adoring fans. With the hard work and diligence of the NRM team, US Coast Guard, NOAA, and marine veterinary collaborators, this pup was saved from an uncertain fate – a local success story in protecting this endangered species.

Monk seal pup RP92 found in June with a fishing hook lodged in his throat. The pup received care at the Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center and was returned home healthy and hook-free. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677. Photo: National Park Service/Kalaupapa NHP

While conducting fieldwork at the park, I quickly became familiar with an omnipresent force to be reckoned with – the constant pivoting required to keep field operations moving forwards, termed the “Kalaupapa shuffle.” A phrase coined to encompass the challenges of conducting research where weather windows are short, staffing is limited, and access to basic services such as the post office and groceries are restricted to a few hours each day. This delicate dance is necessary in the face of challenges and delays beyond one’s control. We celebrate the days when pivots go smoothly (and we can effectively shift from one project to another within the scope of a day) and learn from and embrace the days when seemingly everything is working against us. In a place where problem-solving requires equal parts creativity and resourcefulness, success teeters on a balance of resilience, flexibility, excellent communication, good spirits, and calm focus – traits all clearly exhibited by the dynamic marine duo of Kelly and Glauco.

Utilizing the sheltered harbour during rough weather to do full face mask training in preparation for cold water adventures later in the internship…

From a day-to-day perspective, Kalaupapa can be described as quite busy, as far as small, unincorporated communities go. Even though the settlement is made up of no more than 70 persons on a given day, there is no shortage of ways to spend evenings and weekends (from volleyball games to music nights, church services, and social gatherings – there is always something going on). In addition to community events, I find comfort in the simple, grounding daily routine I have come to know here. Items such as; checking the ground around a mango tree for freshly fallen fruits, sifting through drying sea salt harvested from nearby tide pools; finding a mortar and pestle to make Hawaiian chili pepper water, and a cliché but soulful sunset walk on the beach occupy my daily to-do list. During moments like these, I don’t dare think about tomorrow. As the days go by, I have a feeling it is going to be very hard to leave.

Harvesting sea salt from dried tide pools, a favorite pastime of many and a typical Saturday morning

Where you’ll find me after a day in the field – a ten minute walk from the office

Although it is the underwater Natural Resource Management program that brought me here, it is the memories of shared meals, conversations with long-term residents and patients, and adventures in nature with new friends that shine brightest in my memory. Kelly and Glauco, I am so happy to have been a part of your team. Two weeks flew by, but each day felt full. Thank you for showing me the best of Kalaupapa. Shared memories of foraging from the land (collecting papaya, avocado, mango, plantain, banana, chilies, lemons, and breadfruit – meaning often more than 50% of our meals were harvested no more than a few miles from the dinner table), learning to make fresh coconut milk (thank you Losa for sharing your knowledge of traditional Samoan techniques), soaking in freshwater streams of the Waikolu Valley, biking touring around the peninsula, and snorkeling in the shadows of offshore islands Okala and Mokapu are just some of the experiences that capture the spirit of Kalaupapa.

2017 OWUSS NPS intern Shaun Wolfe (intern reunion!!) and Prof. Kevin Weng rounded out the Kalaupapa crew for my last weekend at the park. Thanks for the laughs, the meals, and action-packed send off!

To feel connected to not only the land but the community are aspects of this visit that go above and beyond what I could expect from two weeks at a National Park, leaving a lasting impression. Here, community takes on the true essence of its meaning. Where everyone knows your name, and residents, patients, employees, and visitors alike take on a shared responsibility to maintain a harmonious, comfortable, and well-functioning living space while safeguarding and celebrating longstanding natural and cultural resources.

Today, a hard-to-come-by visitor’s pass to Kalaupapa National Historical Park is not only an access card to some of the most striking natural beauty I’ve laid eyes on, but an invitation into a community– an invitation to learn and pay respects and to live alongside a resilient and uplifted patient community who have known this peninsula during times of suffering and neglect. As time progresses and the patient population decreases, questions are raised as to the legacy of the settlement. Although the future of Kalaupapa is uncertain, we must find a way to continue to share the story of Kalaupapa –and the patients who are still writing the final chapter of its history in the present day.

 

 

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Bricks and Bones: Dry Tortugas National Park

As we lift off the airstrip at Key West International Airport, the pilot chuckles to himself. He asks me, “Is this your first time?”. I respond with bulging, excited eyes, “How could you tell?”, my nose barely lifting from its position pressed against the passenger side window of the empty 10-seater plane. A low-altitude 45-minute flight takes us 70 miles west of the southernmost point of the continental US, displaying aerial views of sea turtles, dolphins, shipwrecks, glistening “quicksand” (rolling, underwater dunes, continually shifting under the strong tidal current), and the Marquesas Islands. Although the seaplane is not the only way to get to this park, it undoubtedly provides the greatest “wow” factor for first-time visitors. Upon arrival, we circle the park’s perimeter, my eyes locked on Fort Jefferson – the cultural focal piece of this park and the largest brick building in the western hemisphere. 

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key, as seen from the seaplane flying into Dry Tortugas National Park

I’ve arrived at the second park of my internship, Dry Tortugas National Park (est. 1935). Made up of seven small islands, it is one of the most inaccessible National Parks in the US. Due to its remote location, it can only be accessed by seaplane or ferry (both modes of transport are used by the park’s 120 daily visitors who enjoy a few short hours of swimming, sunbathing, birding, and picnicking before returning to Key West).

Fort Jefferson greets me as I step off the beached seaplane. With no land in sight for tens of miles, I ask myself, “why here?”. The fort was built to protect one of the most strategic deep water anchorages in North America, control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico, and protect the Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade. I am eager to learn more about this massive masonry fort I will call home for the next two weeks, in addition to diving in the crystal clear blue-green water surrounding us.  

Beyond the fort’s walls stretches miles of uninterrupted water. The moat wall or counterscarp was damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017 – the park is working to implement repairs soon

Construction of the fort began in 1846 and continued for 30 years. Each of the over 16 million bricks used to build this fort was brought over by small wooden ships from the far reaches of the Eastern US. Given its remote nature, the construction of this fort was no small feat – in all of its striking architectural precision and grandeur. At its peak, over 1,700 men were stationed here, placing a significant demand for basic resources that cannot be found here naturally. Over time, the name of the island evolved (initially Las Tortugas – which translates to “the turtles’ and eventually changed to Dry Tortugas), calling into focus the importance of sea turtles in the diet of its inhabitants. It also warns passing sailors of the lack of freshwater and alternative food sources.

During a walking tour led by the tourist ferry company, I learned that the fort was used as a military prison during the Civil War. It also held four men convicted of co-conspiring in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, including Dr. Samuel Mudd (who was instrumental in the fight against Yellow Fever that plagued the fort and was eventually pardoned from his sentence for his efforts in assisting sick patients).

Over time, I come to know new corners of the fort as they revealed their hidden secrets to me, often with the help of informal tours given to me by new friends and colleagues. From the bakery (which fed more than 400 people three times a day, known for its bread made of sticks, stones, flour, and sand) to Dr. Mudd’s cell (containing hand-carved water collection depressions in the ground), a cannon ball “cooker” (used to prepare hot cannon balls to fire at wooden ships), gun powder storage (signed with the names of ship captains who have visited the fort over the last hundred years), and remnants of Cuban chugs (makeshift boats used by immigrants who landed at the park over recent years), there is always more to uncover. With this growing cultural knowledge comes an increased awareness and appreciation for the historical significance of this fort from which we are conducting fieldwork. Each time I re-enter through the sally port (the one and only entrance to the fort’s interior) after a long, hot, salty, beautiful day underwater, I feel inspired and grateful for the opportunities I have been given to explore new places, perspectives, knowledge, and skills during this internship.

Overlooking Bush Key, which serves as nesting habitat for threatened bird species such as the Roseate Tern. Long Key (background) is the only documented nesting site for Magnificent Frigate birds in the continental US

Me with the obligatory picture at the park’s welcome sign.

As an avid backcountry camper, hiker, and aspiring explorer of all things tropical and dream-like, you can imagine my excitement upon learning that park Fisheries Biologist Clayton Pollock has organized for me to be whisked away to neighboring Loggerhead Key for my first two nights. An even more remote key within the park, it is covered in stunning vegetation and sublime white sand beaches, which frame a 150-ft brick lighthouse constructed in 1856. Brett Koch (Law Enforcement Park Ranger) drops me off at the dock with a bag of food and a jug of water, where I am met by University of Miami MPS intern Maddie Johnson. We have now effectively doubled the population of this island (n=2!) since interns typically conduct fieldwork independently on this key (although radio communication and emergency procedures ensure assistance is always a call away). An afternoon snorkel, sunset beach nap, a good book, and a frozen pizza are all I need to acclimatize to my new surroundings (a routine that would quickly become my go-to each evening) and prepare for the busy days of fieldwork ahead.

View of Loggerhead Key upon returning from an afternoon snorkel at one of the park’s finest shallow reefs

Named aptly for the abundance of sea turtles on the island, we quickly get to work the following day conducting sea turtle monitoring surveys. This work contributes to a long-term database on turtle nesting activities and hatch success that Park Service biologists have maintained since 1980. At 7 am daily, interns patrol the 2-mile long beach, skillfully interpreting turtle tracks to identify species, the direction of travel, and nesting activity. Nests are marked with carefully positioned stakes and GPS points and then monitored for the next 50+ days (watching for signs of hatchling emergence – indicated by a soft depression in the sand above the nest) to inform excavation timing. Nests are excavated after the incubation period to determine clutch size, hatching success, and any inundation, predation, or damage to eggs. In addition to contributing to the long-term monitoring program, Maddie will use this data, in combination with shoreline profiling, as part of her Master’s project, which aims to model and predict the effects of sea level rise on turtle nesting habitats under climate change scenarios. 

University of Miami MPS intern Maddie Johnson excavates a loggerhead turtle nest. Egg cases and nest contents are removed, counted, and inspected for indications of hatch success and clutch size. Work conducted under FCW Marine Turtle Permit MTP#22-187.

Notice on Loggerhead Key marking nesting sites, reminding visitors to be mindful of disturbing nesting grounds and regulations enforced by the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission

Patrolling the beach may sound like a relatively straightforward task, but in addition to the grueling conditions of a hot southern Florida summer day on a remote island with no running water, this island sees a tremendous amount of sea turtle activity (meaning it can take up to 7 hours to survey 2 miles of shoreline). To ensure accurate and meaningful data, interns must carefully document and decipher old tracks amidst the tens of new tracks created each night. Together, Maddie and I set a new record for the number of turtle activities recorded in one survey. We counted over 50 instances of false crawls (crawls where the turtle comes ashore but does not lay eggs in a nest), nesting, and abandoned egg chambers. I learned that although we counted 50 individual tracks, it doesn’t necessarily correlate to 50 individual turtles (considering that green sea turtles are very particular with nesting conditions and may come ashore several times in one night, over several days, before nesting). Nevertheless, these surveys indicate that Loggerhead Key is a crucial sea turtle nesting habitat that sustains a large population. 

A “turtle highway” on Loggerhead Key. Following and interpreting these tracks becomes complicated as individuals overlap and tracks build up on the beach over time

An incoming and outgoing track made by an adult female green sea turtle on Loggerhead Key

Tracks made by sea turtle hatchlings upon emergence from the nest, in the direction of the ocean on Loggerhead Key

By the end of the day, it wasn’t only the sun’s heat that had us wishing for a short, heavy rainfall, but the desire for nature to effectively provide us a “clean slate” for interpreting tracks by washing away previously surveyed tracks amidst the overlapping maze. I am not surprised to learn that many of the current NPS staff began as sea turtle interns. Given the challenging nature of the work, it surely speaks to the work ethic, organization, and diligence of researchers in this role, making them an excellent addition to many NPS field teams going forwards.  

Next up, the Natural Resources team arrives, and I meet Coral Biologist Rachel Johns and Coral biological science Technicians Karli Hollister and Evan Hovey. Together with Fisheries Biologist Clayton Pollock, we will spend a week sampling corals for a collaborator, Prof. Erik Sotka, from the College of Charleston. This large-scale project aims to assess coral genotypes for multiple species in the Southeast Region (including Dry Tortugas National Park, Buck Island Reef National Monument, Virgin Islands National Park, Salt River Historical Bay and Ecological Preserve, and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument) and develop SNP chips/protocols for rapidly assessing and comparing genotypes for existing and novel corals, with applications for coral restoration. Lucky for me, this project will take us to some of the most stunning dive sites in the park, as we aim to sample several reefs per day. 

A thicket of Acropora cervicornis (staghorn) corals and study site for the ongoing coral genotyping project. Photo: Karli Hollister

Photo: Karli Hollister

At first, collecting coral samples is a bit nerve-wracking (aiming to do as little harm as possible to the colony by carefully chipping off a 1cm piece). The work also involves juggling bags of tools, samples, a dive slate, scale bar, GPS tethered to a surface buoy, and camera underwater, often in shallow water with swell. However, by continually optimizing my gear setup, streamlining the sampling process, and becoming more comfortable with coral ID, I could effectively contribute to the team and start chipping away at the weeks’ worth of sampling they have ahead them.

Each coral sampled is tagged and photographed for future research

Not without its hiccups, working in such a remote location presents challenges regarding safety considerations, everyday operations, and equipment supply. Something as simple as a lack of plastic bags or generic sampling tags can limit the speed at which a project progresses until the next team arrives to supplement needed equipment. Nevertheless, the long days in the field, hours spent preparing and troubleshooting protocols, and post-sample processing flew by with such a lively team – cracking jokes and blasting tunes during surface intervals and at the tail end of long days. 

As Clay, Rachel, Evan, and Karli depart the park and I await the arrival of a new field team, I use the transition as an opportunity to join visiting research ecologist and long-time US Geological Survey collaborator Dr. Kristen Hart on her team’s extensive turtle monitoring program. She is joined by several coworkers and collaborators, including Andrew, Haley, John, Bree, Amanda, and Brian from Cape Lookout National Seashore, USGS, Nova Southeastern University, and the University of Georgia. Together, we spend a night tracking nesting sea turtles on the nearby East Key by patrolling the beach every 30 minutes between naps under the stars. Nesting sea turtles are outfitted with a satellite tag to track their movements, flipper tags and Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT) for identification, and scute and blood samples for genetic and isotopic analysis. Dr. Hart holds the only permit to study sea turtles on this key (and she has been coming here for 15 years!). This information is used to gather baseline population data, delineate areas that may serve as inter-nesting, migratory, and foraging hotspots, and infer the trophic position of sea turtles within peninsular Southeastern Florida. 

The following day is spent boating in slow circles around the shallow Garden Key Harbor while Dr. Hart and USGS Research Assistant Haley Turner stand at the bow with large dip nets at the ready. The goal for the day? To observe and catch juvenile green sea turtles for basic sampling and to understand the space use, relative habitat selection, and ecology of immature individuals. Many turtles we encountered were recaptures or resightings of individuals tagged in the previous years, speaking to the comprehensiveness of Dr. Hart’s work in the region. I settled into data collection while Kristen, Haley, and John did the challenging job of carefully catching these speedy youngsters. Having the opportunity to get up close with these resilient juveniles, I not only got to admire their brilliant shells and charismatic features, but also filled in many of my knowledge gaps regarding the life history, habitat usage, and behavior of this endangered species. 

USGS researchers Dr. Kristen Hart and Haley Turner watching for juvenile green sea turtles in the shallows of Garden Key Harbor

Releasing juvenile green sea turtles after sampling. Individuals are marked with temporary paint for identification within a given field season. Work conducted under NOAA permits

Once the next rotation of NRM coral team members arrives at the park, including Coral biological science Technicians Amelia Lynch and Melissa Heres, Park Dive Safety Officer Jordan Holder, and National Dive Safety Officer Steve Sellers, we prep to embark on a critical mission for the week ahead. Underwater, Dry Tortugas is facing its own epidemic – a lethal disease that turns fields of previously vibrant, healthy corals upside down, transforming them into dwindling skeletons of their former selves stripped of live tissue – a sea of bones. The culprit? Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD). As the disease’s epicenter, SCTLD first appeared in Florida in 2014, spreading quickly and causing high mortality. However, it wasn’t until recently, in May of 2021, that SCTLD was reported in Dry Tortugas National Park. 

Armed with the best currently available science and practical knowledge on disease treatment and intervention, we spend the week delivering doses of antibiotics, in the form of a thick topical paste, to affected colonies. This is my first time coming face to face with a large-scale outbreak of SCTLD. I take a few moments underwater to acknowledge the mass mortality surrounding me. Applying the treatment is an intimate and quiet process. I gently press the paste into each nook and cranny of active lesions – outlining and essentially quarantining the region between bare bones (coral skeleton), sick tissue, and healthy. Treating an entire site within a day is challenging, even with a dive team of four. We must often opt to prioritize larger, more productive colonies for treatment, given our limited bottom time on open circuit diving equipment, leaving some colonies untreated. As a glimmer of hope, while scanning treatment sites, it is possible to see positive instances where the treatment has effectively controlled the spread of the disease within a colony. I send my well-wishes to the coral I have treated, which will likely need follow-up appointments, conducted by the hard-working team of NRM divers at the park for the foreseeable future.

Scientists are only beginning to uncover the detailed pathology of the disease and other phenomena impacting coral reefs today, including coral bleaching and restoration/heat-stress mitigation techniques. A standout in these efforts within Dry Tortugas National Park is research led by Dr. Ilsa Kuffner, USGS Research Marine Biologist, regarding the re-establishment of stepping-stone (i.e., crucial, reproductive, connected, restorative) populations to aid in the recovery of threatened, Acropora palmata (elkhorn) coral. This research, partially inspired by the recent discovery of new elkhorn patches within the park (beyond the previously documented single remaining site), uses an assisted migration experiment to assess coral survival, calcification, growth, and condition. Five different genetic strains of this species were planted across five sites (spanning 350 km) in Florida. Curiously, only in Dry Tortugas did all of the relocated corals survive, and not only that – but these individuals calcified approximately 85% faster than the few surviving corals transplanted to the upper Keys sites. With this information, Dry Tortugas may be a hope spot for re-establishing endangered elkhorn coral. Efforts are ongoing to restore a sexually reproductive, connected population, hoping to bring this species back from functional extinction, thereby promoting its regional recovery in the face of global climate change. 

Newly discovered Acropora palmata within Dry Tortugas National Park, a threatened species throughout its range. Photo: Karli Hollister

As the long days turned into short weeks, my time at Dry Tortugas has come to a close all too quickly. Each day, I smile as a rush of excited visitors pours off the ferry, often having booked a ticket to the park weeks or months in advance. Each night, quiet falls on the fort, as visitors depart and I find a new corner of the fort to tuck into as dusk turns into starry night. Life on Dry Tortugas in the present day is serene, comfortable, and full of beauty – undoubtedly a stark contrast to the challenging conditions of the previous century. 

I want to thank the DRTO NRM team and Dr. Kristen Hart for welcoming me into your field teams, providing new learning opportunities, helpful advice, and plenty of time underwater (and thanks to Karli Hollister for sharing photos and Amelia Lynch for the fantastic tour of the fort!). Thank you to Clayton Polluck for sharing your knowledge and experience with me (and providing an extended home away from home in Key West when life throws some curve balls…I am deeply grateful for your hospitality and support). Thank you to Curtis Hall for inviting me to speak at the Reef Relief summer camp (it was a pleasure to teach and learn from the excellent group of students this program hosts at the park each summer). Thank you to Cindy Hull for your help in Key West preparing for my visit to the park. Each of your time and generosity contributed significantly to my smooth integration and outstanding experience at Dry Tortugas. Finally, thank you to the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center and Dave Conlin for your hard work behind the scenes, and generous above-and-beyond support, making sure interns each year have nothing short of exceptional, unique, and highly valuable opportunities to experience and work in some of the finest parks the US has to offer.

As the summer progresses, I often reminisce on daydreams I had earlier this year, as my Master’s program was coming to an end – of either doing research, traveling, or diving upon graduation. Now, this internship has provided an unmatched opportunity to combine all three of these dreams, all wrapped into one, made possible by the support of NPS, OWUSS, and their collaborators. Standing in front of Fort Jefferson, a structure made not only of bricks but of bones of ancient corals; I feel proud to be a part of the NPS dive team and Park Service community, working to preserve fascinating and unique cultural resources while protecting and restoring the natural wonders it surrounds.

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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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