Author Archives: Shannon Brown

WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument: Learning our History and Honoring the Sacrifices of Many

In 1962, the USS Arizona Memorial was constructed over the sunken vessel to commemorate the lives lost in the Pearl Harbor attack and allow visitation of the site. The National Park Service took over operations in 1980 and worked jointly with the US Navy to open the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center. An executive order in 2008 established the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (VALR) which placed the USS Arizona Memorial, USS Utah Memorial, USS Oklahoma Memorial, and several other WWII sites under the care of the NPS.

I arrived at VALR on Wednesday morning and was blown away by the crowd and the visitor center, which was updated in 2010. When I was about seven years old, my entire family traveled to Hawaii on vacation. Other than losing my mask to the waves, the only memory I have of the trip was my visit to Pearl Harbor. I was excited to return and to work alongside the NPS.

Upon heading to the rangers office, I was greeted by Scott Pawlowski, Curator and Park Dive Officer at VALR. Scott explained our plans for the next few days, detailed the diving program at the park, and gave me a quick tour of Ford Island. For the remainder of the afternoon, Scott gave me the chance to explore the visitor center. Since the expansion, the center allows visitors to visit the three memorials while also having access to the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.

On Dec 7th, the USS Utah was hit by two torpedoes which caused the vessel to flood and sink. After several failed attempts to raise the ship, the decision was made to leave the vessel in Pearl Harbor.

During my visit, the USS Arizona memorial was closed due to an engineering issue with the floating dock connected to the Memorial. However, I watched the short documentary and took a boat tour over to the ship. On Dec 7, 1941, about 15 minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona was bombed by the Japanese. The bomb detonated in the powder magazine and caused the violent explosion of the ship which killed 1,177 servicemen. While 21 vessels lay sunk or damaged after the attack, almost half of the casualties on that day are attributed to the USS Arizona.

With no visitors crowding its deck, the USS Arizona Memorial stood peacefully in the harbor

My next stop that afternoon was the USS Missouri. Located across from the visitor center and accessible by bus, this American battleship was commissioned in 1944. Most significantly, on September 2, 1945, the deck of the USS Missouri was the site in which the Allied and Axis powers signed an agreement of peace. After being decommissioned after the Korean War, and then recommissioned to provide support in Operation Desert Storm, the USS Missouri was decommissioned her final time in 1992. Upon completing her active naval service, in 1999, the USS Missouri was placed as a centerpiece in Pearl Harbor to help symbolize the formal ending of World War II.

The massive three-gun turret located on the front deck of the USS Missouri

My final two stops of the day were the Pacific Aviation Museum and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum. The USS Bowfin was launched exactly a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This fleet attack submarine now resides by the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and allows guests to explore her narrow hallways while learning about her nine war patrols between 1943 and 1945.

After touring the tiny hallways, I took the opportunity to enjoy the sunny deck of the USS Bowfin Submarine

With no diving scheduled until Friday, I spent the next day on base working alongside Scott and Stan Melman, current archivist at VALR. My first project was to unlock several CDs which contained eyewitness accounts of the attack. Once unlocked, these CDs would be shared with the public and used to add to the historical record. Unfortunately, even after much research, I was unable to unlock the CDs. While I felt defeated, I still eliminated a few potentials and hopefully made success more likely for the next individual.

My second project of the day was to research waterproof and oleophobic fabrics or coatings that could be used for an upcoming project. The USS Arizona went down with about 500,000 gallons of oil and is still leaking about 9 quarts a day. To prevent oil from contaminating the surrounding ecosystem, later this year, Scott and Brett, Deputy Chief and A/V Specialist at the SRC, hope to create a collection tents that they can capture the leaking oil. Previous attempts have failed because the materials were compromised by the underwater environment and exposure to oil.

While spending the day in the office, I was also given the amazing opportunity to join several military personnel on a tour of the historical collected led by Scott. The historical collection at VALR includes over 60,000 objects ranging from photographs, drawings, memorabilia, diaries, newsletters, etc. that pertain to the War in the Pacific. The collection is used by the park for public programs; in addition, the park works to preserve and protect these resources while making the archives available to researchers. Each item in the collection tells its own unique story.

After an office-filled day, I drove to the North Shore community of Haleiwa to enjoy the sunset and some ice cream

On Friday, I arrived at VALR with my scuba bag in tow. Currently, VALR has a small dive team which dives 30 to 120 times per year depending on the needs of the park. The purpose of today’s dives was to replace the buoys on the USS Arizona and USS Utah. Buoys placed at the bow and stern of each vessel are changed every 6-7 weeks. Even with only a few weeks in the water, the once clean, white buoys are quickly covered in encrusting organisms. To eliminate the hours wasted cleaning organisms and oil from the underside of the buoys, Scott devised a plan to wrap the buoys in saran wrap. After preparing four buoys, Scott, Stan, and I met up with Dan Brown, Concessions Management Specialist at VALR and our third diver.

When the memorial is open, usually the VALR dive team relies on an O2 kit and dive flag located at the front of the memorial. With the memorial closed, we took a few additional minutes to load our small boat at the visitor center. After notifying the NPS and US Navy by radio of our dive operations and boating plans, we slowly migrated to the USS Arizona and began setting up our gear. With a giant stride from the dock, Scott, Dan, and I were in the water with the new buoys in tow. As we swam towards the stern against the surface current, I watched as Scott quickly clipped on the new buoy before removing the previous one. After repeating the same procedure at the bow, Scott, Dan, and I ducked under the surface to complete an orientation dive.

Scott works diligently to replace the buoy on the bow of the USS Arizona

Diving the USS Arizona was a surreal experience. Today, this vessel remains the grave for over 900 servicemen who died on December 7, 1941. And while over 1.5 million people visit the memorial each year, I was among the few to have the privilege of diving such an important landmark of American history. As the silence of the underwater world set in, I thought of the many men who lost their lives that day and the efforts of the NPS and US Navy to protect the USS Arizona.

When built the USS Arizona had twelve 14-inch guns, now only three of these guns remain as the other triple gun turrets were salvaged after the attack

As we explored the USS Arizona, Scott pointed out a well-preserved section of tile from the kitchen and a patch of wooden decking peaking out from under the sediment. With limited experience on wrecks, I was surprised with how well many of the artifacts on the USS Arizona were preserved. From kitchen bowls to pots to shoe soles, every piece of history made the vessel feel as though a lively crew had just inhabited its hallways.

 

In contrast to the death the vessel represents, life in the form of marine creatures can be found at every surface. Beautiful feather duster worms extend their radioles into the water column while sea cucumbers twist themselves around the diverse sponge species that cover the now abandoned deck. The USS Arizona is around 30 ft at the deepest point. After surfacing, Scott commented on the spectacular visibility. Unbeknownst to me, 15-20 ft visibility on the USS Arizona was rare due to its location in the harbor. So not only was I fortunate to dive the site, but I was also lucky that my dive buddy was in view. While we, unfortunately, ran out of time to dive the USS Utah, I will never forget the afternoon that I spent diving the USS Arizona.

 

Before leaving Hawaii for the mainland to continue my adventures, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Erika Sawicki, the 2017 OWUSS AAUS intern. Last year, she spent time at Scripps Oceanographic Institute and worked alongside NOAA at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. If you are interested in learning about her internship, click here.

Soaking up the sun with Erika before spending the next 20 hours traveling back to Florida

Thanks for all those who welcomed me to World War II Valor in the Pacific Monument. Even though my visit was short, I am so thankful that this internship gave me the opportunity to return to Pearl Harbor and observe all the amazing work the NPS does at VALR. Next stop, Dry Tortugas National Park with the South Florida/Caribbean Network Inventory and Monitoring Program!

Quick facts about VALR

  • During the busy season, certain areas of the USS Arizona are riddled with debris as tourists lean over the memorial railing and drop their glasses, wallets, etc.
  • Survivors of the USS Arizona are permitted by the US Navy to have their ashes spread on the wreckage
  • 23 of the 37 sets of brothers serving on the USS Arizona died in the attacks on Dec 7, 1941
  • VALR is located within the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickman, therefore, only military and park service divers are allowed to dive the USS Arizona and USS Utah
Share

Kalaupapa National Historical Park: An Isolated Hawaiian Paradise

On Sunday, after arriving in Honolulu the previous night, I caught an 8-passenger plane to Kalaupapa National Historical Park (KALA). I was picked up at the airport by Eric Brown, the Park Dive Officer and a marine ecologist at KALA, and his wife, Claire, who have lived on the peninsula for 13 years. After a quick tour of the settlement, Eric dropped me off at Bay View Home, my home for the next week. Built in 1916, Bay View Home originally served as a group home for older, disabled, and blind patients.

With my duffel, dive bag, and groceries in hand, I climbed aboard to begin my next adventure!

With no known cure in 1866, as Hansen’s Disease began to spread across Hawaii, the current monarch (King Kamehameha V) decided to exile thousands to the isolated peninsula. Families were broken as children and spouses were ripped away from their homes and relatives. Patients of this isolated colony were treated as prisoners with limited access to resources and reduced contact with the outside world. Over 8,000 people lived and died on this remote peninsula. By 1949, forced isolation at Kalaupapa had ended and the lives of patients drastically changed as the new superintendent promoted social activities and lifted restrictions that prevented patients from holding jobs. Officially, the Hawaiian isolated policy was not abolished until 1969, at which time, patients were given the choice to remain or leave. Today, Hansen’s Disease, otherwise known as leprosy, is curable and is one of the least contagious of modern-day communicable diseases. In 1980, Kalaupapa National Historical Park was established to protect the remaining residents and preserve the history of the peninsula. Nine patients still remain in Kalaupapa with about 70 national park service and department of health employees.

Upon arriving in the office on Monday morning, I met the natural resource management team and set out in search of green sea turtle nests with Alexandra Engler, a participant of the International Volunteers in the Parks Program, and Yubee Isaac, a UH Hilo National Historical Park Intern. Every morning, they checked the nearby black sand beach for nests. On average 5-6 nests are found per year at KALA, unfortunately, no nests had been observed this season.

Natural Resource Management Building at KALA

The remainder of my Monday was spent at sea. In partnership with the University of Hawai’i, acoustic receivers were placed in the waters surrounding KALA. In previous years, large pelagic fish and sharks were tagged with acoustic transmitters. When they swam near these strategically placed receivers, the movement of these apex predators was recorded and then studied. With the study complete, Randall Watanuki, a maintenance mechanic at KALA, and I spent the afternoon diving to remove these receivers. Using GPS coordinates, Randall and I would jump into the rough seas only to be met with a calm underwater environment that allowed us to quickly locate the receivers and unhook them from the ocean floor.

Alex helps me out of the water after successfully retrieving a receiver PC: Yubee Isaac

The following day was spent practicing the benthos and fish monitoring protocol that the marine team would employ later in the summer to monitor 30 sites around the peninsula. In the harbor, Eric laid five, 25 meter transects. Along each transect, Eric counted the number of fish and estimated their size. Fish density and species richness would be determined from this data. As Eric focused on fish counts, Randall and I took turns measuring rugosity with a chain and operating the camera. Photographs taken at every meter were analyzed to determine coral cover and disease prevalence. Though the harbor was a relatively barren, shallow habitat, the morning dive gave Eric and Randall a chance to refresh their skills in preparation for the busy monitoring season.

Practicing my underwater photoquadrat skills in KALA’s harbor PC: Yubee Isaac

On Wednesday morning, I accompanied Alex and Yubee as they monitored Kalaupapa’s monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi) population. Endemic to these islands, monk seals are an endangered species once almost hunted to extinction. Currently, there are around 1,300 monks seals throughout the Hawaiian islands. To monitor the seals, Alex and Yubee walk along the beaches in search of the mother’s and their pups. Monk seals spend a majority of their lives in the water; however, females return to the beaches where they were born to give birth. They then remain on land with their pups for about 2 months before abandoning the pup and returning to sea. After being weaned, the marine team at KALA in association with NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, measure the pups, given them immunization shots, and tag their flippers so they can continue to monitor the pups as they grow. The purpose of these morning walks was to not only check in on KALA’s population but to determine whether any new pups were ready to be tagged.

An adorable pup feeds from his mother while she sleeps in the shallows

In the afternoon, Eric, Randall, and I completed a short, harbor dive to set up a mooring for the park boat. Due to the large swells and rocky shoreline, Eric wanted a place further from shore to attach the boat when necessary. This dive gave me the opportunity to observe some shallow maintenance work while exploring the nearby ecosystem.

Eric and Randall work together to set up the offshore mooring system for the NPS boat

With more receivers to remove and water samples to collect, the marine team loaded the boat on Thursday morning and headed out for another adventure. Similar to our previous dives, Randall and I successfully collected three more receivers even after battling some strong surface currents. While Randall handled the tools, I controlled the line for the surface buoy that marked our location. In between dives, I assisted Eric, Randall, Yubee, and Alex as they collected water samples from three predetermined sites. At each site, a Niskin bottle was used to collect water from the surface. The samples were filtered and then stored for later analysis. Two snorkelers would also enter the water at each site. With a multiparameter instrument attached to a float, they would lower the device to depth to collect data such as water salinity and temperature. Water quality data collected around Kalaupapa’s peninsula allows Eric to monitor any water chemistry trends that may influence the marine ecosystem.

Meet Esmeralda. This rusty truck belongs to the marine team and is used to carry scuba gear to and from the docks. When the barge arrives this summer, the team will say farewell and a new truck will take Esmeralda’s place.

Upon returning to shore and drying our gear, Alex and Yubee were kind enough to invite me over to their home for the evening. Staff Row, built between 1890 and 1930, originally served as housing for the medical professionals living at the settlement. Today, these buildings are home to a group of interns working for the National Park Service. We spent the evening trading stories as we enjoyed an outstanding ratatouille dish cooked by Alex.

With limited access to gasoline and a relatively flat landscape, a majority of the workers use bikes to get around

While our work week was behind us, Yubee, Alex, and I awoke early the next morning to begin our hike to the topside of Molokai. Kalaupapa National Historical Park is accessible by plane or by a single hiking trail. The trail is around 3 miles, 1,600 feet, and has 26 switchbacks. No roads connect the small settlement of KALA to the 7,500 people living on the other side of Molokai. Many inhabitants of KALA, hike this trail multiple times a week to get groceries, visit topside, and/or live with their families who reside topside. Unlike Eric, whose impressive trek takes less than an hour, Alex was patient as Yubee and I took our time. We were enjoying the scenery while simultaneously catching our breaths.

What a view! PC: Alexandra Engler

Upon reaching the top of the trial, Eric drove a group of us down 10 miles to Kaunakakai, the largest town on the island, home to two grocery stores. There we explored the small, lively town while filling our bags with groceries and our stomachs with ice cream. After returning to the settlement, that evening, I joined several members of the community for their weekly potluck and movie night at Tim’s house. Tim is the chef for the nine patients who remain on the peninsula.

Enjoying the scenic views and calming breeze from my hammock, while avoiding the falling coconuts

After enjoying a relaxing Saturday morning, I accompanied Eric on a weekly monk seal walk. Starting at the Kalaupapa airport and ending at the harbor, we walked along the shoreline to count the monk seals, record their activity and habitat. To prevent seals from becoming accustomed to humans, we stayed low and avoided eye contact. During the walk, we observed three nursing mothers, a pregnant female, and multiple weaned pups playing in the shallows.

Eric gets a closer look at the pregnant female’s flippers to determine whether she has been tagged

Monday morning marked my second to last day at Kalaupapa National Historical Park. In the morning, I assisted Randall as we filled the boat’s gas tank. Due to a sizable swell, we were unable to pull the boat against the dock. Instead, Randall and I swam three gas tanks out to the boat. Upon returning to headquarters, we were greeted by Erika Johnston, ‘Ale’alani Duboit, and Emily Conklin. All three are Ph.D. candidates in the Toonen-Bowen lab at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. For the next week, they would be freediving and collecting samples of two native coral species for a connectivity study. We spent their first day in the field at two sites. At each site, we collected ~20 samples of each species from separate coral colonies located around 15-20 feet deep.

Erika and ‘Ale’alani freediving below the waves to collect coral samples along KALA’s coastline

My final morning at KALA was spent at the settlement’s nursery. Alongside Ryan, a volunteer for the terrestrial team at KALA, Yubee and I helped transfer juvenile plants to individual containers so they could grow freely. While the nursery was filled with native plants, most of Kalaupapa’s peninsula is inhabited by non-native species. Pittosporum halophilum (native coastal species) and Reynoldsia sandwicensis (native crater species) were the two species we transferred. After growing in the nursery, these plants would be transferred by the terrestrial team to their natural habitats. While the re-introduction of these native species at the crater had worked well due to their fenced environment, the plants sent to the coastline of KALA had seen limited success due to deer predation.

Hiding in the shade of the nursey as we replant a few hundred juveniles

After our trip in search of the pregnant monk seal ended with no success, Eric, Yubee, Alex, and I jumped into the trunk and headed to the airport. With my baggage in tow, I climbed into the small plane, this time crowded with seven other passengers and headed back to Honolulu, Hawaii. Before returning to the mainland, I would spend the next four days at World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

Alex, Yubee, and I pose in front of the tiny KALA airport PC: Eric Brown

Thanks to the amazing team at Kalaupapa National Historical Park for welcoming me with open arms. You made me feel like a member of the community, and I look forward to hopefully returning in the future!

Quick facts about KALA

  • Following my departure, KALA welcomed its 11th monk seal pup for this season beating a previous record set in 2013
  • Once a year, a barge brings large items like furniture and cars to the peninsula
  • The only gas station on the peninsula is open 3x a week and each person is limited to a specific amount of gasoline – therefore most people travel by bike
  • To enter KALA, you must have a resident sponsor. For tourists, permits are provided by the Kalaupapa resident owned and operated tour company, Damien Tours
Share

Biscayne National Park: Coral Reefs, Seagrass, and Endless Mangroves

In the early 1950s, developers and conservationists fought over the future of the northernmost keys of Florida. Located by Biscayne Bay, developers envisioned building hotels, roads, and a large industrial seaport to support the growing population. The battle between the two groups raged on for many years, until 1968, when Biscayne National Monument was created. Expanded and re-designated as Biscayne National Park (BISC) in 1980, the park protects the ecological and historical resources found in Florida’s northern keys.

Upon arriving in Miami, Shelby Moneysmith, the Regional Dive Officer and a biologist at BISC, picked me up at the airport alongside Herve, her husband who works for the University of Miami in coordination with BISC. After a filling lunch, I unpacked at park housing and accompanied Shelby and Herve for a quick stop at a popular fruit stand (Robert is Here). The once small, fruit stand started in 1959 but has since grown into a huge operation which sells a wide variety of fruit and delicious milkshakes. My mango milkshake was especially delicious!

That evening, I met my roommate for the next two weeks. Originally from North Carolina, Devon received an internship to work with the interpretation department through the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Initiative. On Monday (Memorial Day), Devon and I took the free day to explore the grounds and the visitors center. While Biscayne National Park is approximately 180,000 acres, 95% of the park is water.

Due to weather, my dives on Tuesday and Wednesday were canceled. However, luckily on Wednesday, I was able to accompany Shelby and Elissa Condoleezza-Rice, a biological science technician, on one of their turtle nest monitoring trip. Every few days, six beaches along Biscayne’s keys are checked for loggerhead turtle activity. Loggerhead turtles reproduce every 2-4 years but often nest multiple times throughout the season (May-October). As an endangered species, the greatest threat to loggerhead sea turtles is the loss of habitat due to coastal development, predation, and human disturbance.

For turtle nest monitoring, we anchored near a beach, popped off the dive door, and waded towards the shore

After wading to shore at a few beaches and observing no activity, Shelby and Elissa found evidence of a false crawl on our fourth beach. When a female turtle crawls onto the beach to explore a nesting area but in the end decides to move on, this is characterized as a false crawl. At each false crawl, the surveyors marked the site, record location/site characteristics, and any additional metadata. This information prevents the surveyors from recounting the activity, and in case the false crawl ends up being a misidentified nest, they have the location for future monitoring.

Within a few more minutes, Shelby, Elissa, and I stumbled upon our first turtle nest. Compared to a false crawl, a nest was distinguishable because a patch of sand/vegetation was clearly disturbed as the loggerhead dug a chamber to store her clutch. At each nest site, we gently dug about an elbow deep into the sand to locate the clutch. Little contact was made with the eggs to limit the introduction of bacteria. To protect the nest, a screen was placed above the nest to protect the chamber from predation.

Hopefully, in about 60 days, little hatchlings will be crawling from this nest to the water

On Thursday, I finally participate in the diving operations at BISC. For two days, Arlice Marionneaux, an American Conservation Experience intern at BISC, and I planned on surveying several archaeology sites within the park’s borders. Checked every ~5 years for damage and looting, Biscayne National Park has over 120 archaeological sites. Most of these sites are known only by GPS coordinates. At each site, we used a map to locate pre-recorded wreck fragments including wood decking and ballast piles. Several sites had been damaged by Hurricane Irma, and on a few occasions, we were unable to find the marked artifacts.

Thursday was also filled with a multitude of boat problems. From radio issues to boat battery problems, our engine stopped working on a few occasions and forced us to throw anchor in a channel to prevent running aground. While stressful at the time, I learned a lot about boats and troubleshooting from Arlice.

On Friday, with a different boat, we headed out to finish several more archaeological sites. On our second of the four dives, Arlice and I visited the Lugano. Sunk on March 9, 1913, this British steamer was heading to Cuba with general cargo and 116 passengers when it grounded on Long Reef during high winds. Unlike the previous sites, the Lugano is a more exposed wreck site. While surveying the area, we observed a large diversity of reef fish, a nurse shark, and removed several fishing lines wrapped around gorgonians.

Located along BISC’s Heritage Trail, the Lugano is a well-preserved wreck inhabited by a variety of marine life

That evening, Dennis Maxwell, a park ranger at BISC, was kind enough to bring Devon and me on an evening kayak trip through the mangroves. With the visitors center in the background, Devon and I took off on the crystal clear water as the sun set over BISC. As we rounded the corner of a mangrove, we observed brown pelicans dive-bombing mullets riddling the shallow waters. To evade the pelicans, mullets jump out of the water. From our fluorescent orange kayak, the show as pretty spectacular.

Definitely one of the best ways to spend the evening at Biscayne National Park

Saturday morning began with a knock on my door. Terry Helmers, a volunteer at BISC for 31 years, asked whether I wanted to spend the day assisting with mooring buoys. With no weekend plans, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. Throughout BISC, there are 40+ mooring buoys along the heritage trail and various other locations to allow visitors to easily explore their park without damaging the marine habitat below. Replaced every year, these buoys can get damaged by hurricanes or boat engines. Mostly by freediving to 10-30 ft, Terry and Ana Zangroniz, another volunteer, spend several weekends at the beginning of the summer season replacing the buoys. While I had experience freediving for fun, I struggled to stay down for extended periods of time while also expending energy to unscrew bolts and remove caked on organisms. Terry, on the other hand, could unattached a buoy and bring it the surface in one breath. It was beyond impressive!

Replacing a float underwater to mark the location of a future buoy on the Heritage Trail – PC: Ana Zangroniz

In addition to replacing buoys at six sites, Ana and Terry let me snorkel the Mandalay. Sunk in 1966, this luxury-line from the Bahamas to Miami hit a shallow reef. All 35 passengers were rescued and scavengers later stripped the vessel. Sitting in shallow, clear water this well-persevered wreck is teeming with fish life. At the surface, hundreds of chubs surrounded you as you explored every small crevice of the vessel. In addition, I saw a midnight parrotfish. While relatively common in Biscayne National Park, when in Bonaire, I was the only member of my marine station to not see a midnight parrotfish after living there for seven months. Finally, after traversing the dang Atlantic, I could finally check a midnight off my list!

 

Unintentionally, we also collected a large amount of marine debris while out for the day. With limited fishing regulations and a crowded metropolitan city nearby, Biscayne has a sizable amount of marine debris. From plastic bags floating along the surface to abandoned crab traps scattered on the bottom, Terry, Ana, and I collected what we could.

Following a relaxing Sunday, I traveled out again with Elissa and Hayley Kilgour, an NPS intern, to check for turtle nests on Monday. After observing Shelby and Elissa the previous week, I was excited to correctly identify two nests myself during the day trip. While returning to the boat, we also saw five juvenile blacktip reef sharks swimming through the shallows. In the shallows, we commonly saw stingrays or tiny fish but sharks were definitely a treat.

Aren’t they adorable? – PC: Elissa Condoleezza-Rice

On Tuesday, I assisted with the ongoing marine debris study. Previously, transect markers/floats were placed at 12 sites through the park for a lionfish removal study. After the study was complete, the natural resources department decided to use these sites to study the accumulation of marine debris. Marine debris is collected from each site once a year and the amount/type is recorded to estimate the overall accumulation. Every 6 months, markers are cleaned and damaged floats are replaced. While diving with Vanessa McDonough, a biologist at BISC, we were met with strong currents and a float bag that decided to prematurely travel to the surface. Fortunately, we managed to check the markers and to spear a few lionfish along the way.

Lionfish are carnivorous fish native to the Indo-Pacific. These beautiful fish were popular ornamental fish which were either intentionally released in the Atlantic and accidentally released due to storms. In the Atlantic, lionfish have no known predators, reproduce year-round, and compete with native fish for food and space. At BISC, biologists spear lionfish in hopes of reducing their numbers at the park. At the end of our day, we measured the total length of each lionfish and stored them in the fridge for future interpretation programs.

 

Elissa measured each lionfish while carefully avoiding their 18 venomous spines

After an eventful day in the field, I was starving. Jay Johnston, BISC’s education program coordinator, was kind enough to invite me and several other employees and interns to his house for Taco Night. Our evening was filled with chips and salsa, scrumptious tacos, and great conversation.

With Amanda Bourque, an ecologist for BISC, as my dive buddy, we completed two more marine debris site dives on Wednesday. Since these sites are apart of an ongoing study, we were not allowed to pick up any debris within the transect. Already within six months, these sites were covered in stray lines and crab traps that were hard to resist collecting.

Blue skies and calm waters….ready to dive!

Thursday was spent assisting with goliath grouper survey dives. Relatively uncommon within BISC, at previously chosen locations, 20 min roving diver surveys are used to search for this critically endangered species. Unfortunately, during our four dives, a Goliath was not observed. We did, however, manage to spear a bunch of lionfish even one that decided to hid under Elissa’s legs mid-capture.

My final day was spent monitoring the turtle nesting beaches. With no new nests, Elissa, Hayley, Suzy Pappas, and I decided to perform a short beach cleanup on Tannahill. Suzy runs a non-profit organization called the Coastal Cleanup Corporation whose mission is to remove marine debris from Florida’s coast and educate the public. She volunteers with the turtle monitoring group at Biscayne and often sponsors beach cleanups throughout the year. During our quick 30-min beach cleanup, the four of us collected 10-12 full garbage bags of trash ranging from glass, buoys, and microplastic.

Cleaning up the trash and hopefully making more space for turtle nesting – PC: Suzy Pappas

After returning to headquarters and disposing of the trash, I was greeted by several individuals from the natural resource management department. Apparently, while Herve and Austin were collecting samples for water quality analysis earlier that morning, they came across a 3 m Burmese python hanging off the buoy about 1.4 miles offshore. Vanessa, Elissa, and Herve worked together to restrain the invasive species and get an accurate length measurement. My fear of snakes definitely prevented me from jumping in to help wrangle the creature.

Vanessa, Herve, Elissa, and Hayley handled the ~17 lbs animal

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Shelby and Herve drove me to the airport so I could continue my adventure. Three flights, lots of snacks, and almost a full day later, I would arrive in Honolulu, Oahu. From there, I would take a small plane to my next destination, Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

Thanks to all the great people who made Biscayne National Park feel like home for two weeks!

Quick facts about BISC:

  • Park has four distinct marine ecosystems: a fringe of mangrove forest, southern expanse of Biscayne Bay, northernmost Florida keys, and portion of the third largest coral reef
  • Fishing and other harvesting activities are dictated by state law within the park boundaries
  • Home to many protected species including the Schaus swallowtail butterfly, American crocodile, five species of sea turtles, and elkhorn and staghorn coral
Share

Channel Islands National Parks: Exploring the Majestic Kelp Forests

With Denver in my rearview mirror, I flew into LAX ready to visit my first park. Headquarter in Ventura, California, Channel Islands National Park (CHIS) is composed of five spectacular islands and their surrounding marine environment. Created in 1980, the main goal of this National Park was to protect the diverse terrestrial and marine ecosystem of the Channel Islands.

After a shuttle ride along Highway 101, I was met by Joshua Sprague, a marine ecologist for CHIS. He graciously showed me to my accommodations for the evening, the Sea Ranger II. The 58-foot research vessel would be my home for the next six nights. On this fine Sunday evening, the boat remained docked behind the Visitors Center. With the crew not arriving until early Monday morning, I spent the evening exploring the harbor, walking the beach, and learning how to not bang my head into every overhang on the Sea Ranger II.

Beautiful view as I walked along the beach across from the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center

In the morning, the members of the long-term kelp forest monitoring project began trickling in. After organizing our gear and stocking the kitchen with a healthy supply of snacks, we bid farewell to our loud barking neighbors (i.e. the California sea lions) and headed towards our first site of the week along Santa Cruz Island’s coast.

The Kelp Forest Monitoring (KFM) Program at CHIS is an extremely impressive, complex operation. Starting in 1982, the program initially monitored 13 dive sites around the islands but as of 2005 has expanded to 33 sites. The marine ecosystem surrounding CHIS supports over 2000 species. Each year from May to October, these 33 sites are surveyed to collect the size and abundance information of 120+ species of marine fauna (e.g. algae, invertebrates, and fish). The data allows researchers to examine the kelp forest’s health and monitor ongoing changes to the environment. KFM was not created with the intent of answering questions. The data from the program is public record, and the identified baselines are used to help establish marine protection protocol. Currently, 20% of CHIS waters are considered state marine protected areas. In addition to the KFM program, Channel Islands National Park supports a wide variety of other programs that focus on the overall health of the park resources (e.g. intertidal, pinniped, bird, and invasive plant monitoring).

With a rougher Pacific Ocean passage behind us, we arrive at our site for the day, Pedro Reef– Santa Cruz Island. Not located within an MPA, the dive site is barren and uninhabitable. The lack of kelp at this site can be attributed to overfishing. When predators of sea urchins are overfished, their population size increases. As herbivores, urchins consume the kelp that provides food and habitat to other marine organisms.

Topside view of Pedro Reef- Santa Cruz Island

Having just completed my blue card certification in Colorado, I still had to finish the open water portion. For this, David Kushner, the Regional Dive Officer and head of the KFM program, ran me through several underwater skills. While the low visibility had me a little disoriented at first, I am proud of how I handled my first open water dive in a drysuit and my first dive in the Pacific Ocean. Getting out of the water was another feat entirely. With the waves rolling and about 20 lbs. resting on my hips, let’s just say I rolled onto the boat platform rather than gracefully glided. Definitely not a picture worthy exit. As part of my exam, I was also supposed to perform a surface swim. However, due to a recent great white shark sighting, it was decided that me swimming across the surface in a brown drysuit might appear too seal-like.

After finishing my dive and realizing that my drysuit didn’t actually manage to keep me dry, I spent the remainder of the day assisting topside as the KFM crew finished collecting data. From band transects to roving diver fish counts, a multitude of different surveys are performed at each site to observe the fish, invertebrate, and algal communities. Water temperature is recorded, and a video transect of each site is captured for historical reasons. The imagery allows the KFM members to visually look back on the 33 sites visited each year during their survey season. One of the most impressive survey protocols used by the KFM program is Random Point Contacts (RPC). In a full-face mask attached to surface supplied air, a diver travels along the transect and at random points calls out the organism covering the substratum. The full-face mask allows the diver to communicate with the surface support person and the need for a slate is eliminated. Such a technique, allows a massive subset of data to be collected in a shorter amount of time.

Kenan Chan (surface support person) records benthos information communicated to him by Cullen Molitor (diver)

In the evening, Captain Keith Duran anchored the Sea Ranger II at Smuggler’s Cove. We ate a lovely dinner, and then I watched as the crew checked and consolidated the data collected at Pedro Reef. Each evening of the cruise, the team spent 1-2 hours discussing the site in detail. They recorded any anomalies and worked together to create a species list for the site (ranking species based on their prevalence).

On Tuesday morning, with the anchor pulled at 7:30 am, Captain Keith drove us to our second dive site of the week, Landing Cove – Anacapa Island. Tuesday’s dive site was located in a marine reserve established in 1978, the oldest in California. Diving this site provided a unique contrast to the urchin-dominated Pedro Reef where we spent the previous day. Landing Cove also gave me my first opportunity to observe the diverse kelp forest habitat in its full glory. With a leaking drysuit, I was fortunate enough to borrow Cullen’s extra 7mm. The suit definitely kept me warm and the camouflage pattern was a great fashion statement. On my first dive, I accompanied Merrill McCauley, a park ranger, as he completed a macro survey. Macro surveys involve counting stipes on 100 giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) along the transect line. During the second dive, I followed Luis Hernandez and Merrill through the towering kelp as they performed 5-m transects. Since I had no experience identifying the fauna at CHIS, by the second day, I was still too green to contribute to official data collection.

 

Topside, I assisted Kenan, Luis, and Cullen as they measured 100+ sea urchins brought to the surface. Safely returned to their homes on the subsequent dive, these sea urchin measurements allowed the team to understand the population dynamics of the three common sea urchin species found in CHIS: purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), red sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus), and white sea urchins (Lytechinus anamesus).

One urchin, two urchin….white urchin, purple urchin

Following a productive day of diving, the seasonal interns and I explored Anacapa Island. This small desolate island becomes a dense, western gull breeding ground from May to July. Anacapa supports the largest protected breeding colony of western gulls in the world with over 10,000 individuals. While we enjoyed the amazing views and the baby seagulls, Erin Jaco, unfortunately, learned the hard way that these birds sometimes use their poop as a foul weapon.

From the roof to the island’s sign, no place is untouched by the western gull population on Anacapa Island

OWUSS Intern + Seasonal KFM Interns (Cullen, Erin, Luis, and Kenan)

On Wednesday morning we anchored at Cavern Point – Santa Cruz Island. Located in an MPA established in 2003, this site gave me the opportunity to contribute to the data set for the first time. Luckily, the previous evening, Cullen was kind enough to help me patch my drysuit. And thankfully, his repair was successful. On my first dive, Merrill and I performed macro counts and measured gorgonians. For the second dive, Captain Keith and I were given the opportunity to explore. I became enticed by the spectacular invertebrate community at the site. From the sea cucumbers to tunicates, these are creatures that you don’t notice when you are focused on counting Macrocystis stipes or searching for the next gorgonian to measure. Keith and I also saw several massive California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher). Overfished in some regions of the park, the KFM program has found that targeted marine fish, such as sheephead, have larger average lengths within MPAs. And bigger fish means there are more eggs.

Topside view of Cavern Point – Santa Cruz Island

Graced with a few more hours of daylight, the group explored Santa Cruz Island. The largest of the Channel Islands is split between the National Park (24%) and The Nature Conservancy (76%). Docking at Scorpion Anchorage, we hiked 3.5 miles (roundtrip) to a vantage point of our day’s dive site. Compared to Anacapa, this island was covered in green vegetation and rolling hills. While on the island, island foxes, a unique subspecies, ran along the campsite trails. Living on six of the eight islands, these foxes are 1/3 smaller than their mainland ancestor.

Rolling hills of Santa Cruz Island

Located in a marine conservation area established in 2003, Thursday’s dive site: Keyhole – Anacapa Island, is closed to all fishing except recreational/commercial lobster and pelagic fish. Unique to this data collection day, Merrill and I spend one of our three dives measuring the bat stars (Patiria miniata) that riddled the site along the transect line.

Look, it’s me! PC: Merrill McCauley

Since Friday marked the end of the KFM trip, the team did not have sufficient time to visit another survey site. Instead, we used the morning to complete a 90-foot dive at Yellowbanks – Santa Cruz. Open to all fishing, this kelp-less landscape is dominated by brittle stars and enormous sea urchins. Previously a home to abalone, the only evidence of this species was a large shell trapped in a discarded lobster trap entangled on the ocean floor. Upon completing the dive, we were accompanied by common dolphins as we traveled back to Ventura.

Calm waters led the way to CHIS Headquarters

By the end of the KFM trip, I had learned a lot. My buoyancy with a drysuit had drastically improved, and my entry/exit from the water was nowhere near as clumsy as my first day. When I arrived, I have to admit I was intimidated by the amazing, dedicated divers of the KFM program. To collect data vital to the park’s records, they performed long dives several times a day often in limited visibility and current. I learned a lot from them and enjoyed getting the opportunity to dive all week in this lovely park. I even had a fantastic drysuit hand tan to show for my first national park of the summer!

Like my first night in Ventura, my final night was spent on the docked Sea Ranger II surrounded by a chorus of barking sea lions. After almost missing my shuttle back to LAX, I arrived hours before my flight and got the chance to catch up with a close, college friend, Chloe Von Helmolt. In the evening, I headed back to the airport in search of warmer waters. Biscayne National Park about an hour south of Miami, Florida would be my next destination. While I enjoyed kelp forest diving, tropical waters were calling my name as I boarded my red-eye in search of the sunshine state.

Thanks again to the amazing Kelp Forest Monitoring team!

Quick facts about KFM Program:

  • Longest established marine inventory and monitoring program within the National Park Service
  • Over 400+ divers have assisted with the Kelp Forest Monitoring Program
  • Have been able to map the spread of several invasive species (e.g. Sargassum horneri)

 

Share

The Beginning: Drysuits, Sharks, and the Submerged Resources Center

Hello, my name is Shannon Brown, and I am the 2018 OWUSS National Park Service Intern. I am excited to take you along with me as I travel for the next three months to various National Parks and assist with their ongoing archaeological, biological, and cultural programs.

A little bit about myself…I was born and raised in a small suburb outside of Chicago, Illinois. I’m 22 years old, and I graduated with a B.S. in Marine Biology from the University of Oregon in spring 2017. After my summer with the National Park Service, I will be attending King Abdullah University of Science in Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia to obtain a Master’s Degree in Marine Science. Within the marine field, I have a passion for marine invertebrates and marine conservation. I studied feather duster worms during my undergrad, and while interning in Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean last year, I participated in a long-term project on the island’s benthos and a project focusing on the lifecycle of a trematode parasite found in reef fish. This summer, I look forward to combining my love for the National Park Service (NPS), and my love for marine science as I learn more about the NPS diving and research programs.

My journey began with an early morning wake-up on Sunday (5/13) and a short flight from Chicago to Denver. After getting my bearings and some caffeine, Bert Ho pulled up in a white suburban and graciously drove me to the National Park Service building in Lakewood, Colorado. Bert Ho is a survey archaeologist for the Submerged Resources Center (SRC).  After being dropped off at the NPS offices, I spent the remainder of my Sunday settling into my Airbnb and learning how to park the massive white suburban.

The next morning, I visited the SRC office and met the members of the team. Due to their intense schedules, this small group of archaeologists and two photographers are rarely all together. Getting the opportunity to sit in on a staff meeting was incredible. They took turns discussing ongoing projects that ranged from setting marker buoys at Isle Royale National Park to working with at-risk youth at Dry Tortugas National Park. In addition to meeting the team, I spent time discussing logistics with Brett Seymour, the Deputy Chief and A/V specialist. Additionally, with Jim Nimz, the SRC dive technician, Brett and I spent time determining what equipment I would require for my upcoming adventures.

Tuesday morning began with medical testing required for my blue card certification. To dive for the National Park Service, divers must obtain a blue card which verifies their health, physical fitness, and diving knowledge. Jessica Keller, an archaeologist for the SRC, was kind of enough to drive me to the doctors in the early morning. After being poked and prodded,  I headed to a local pool with Brett to complete the fitness portion of my blue card test. While I have faith in my swimming abilities, the swim test made me nervous due to Denver’s high altitude. Thankfully, I managed to swim the 75 feet underwater and 1,200 feet without swim aids within the required time frame. And I only lost one of my contacts in the process! After finishing with a few dive skills, Brett and I headed back to the SRC were I completed the final portion of the blue card certification – the written test.

Most of my travels this summer will be to warm water environments; however, at the beginning of my adventures, I will be diving at Channel Islands National Park. For this reason, on Wednesday morning, Brett and I completed my dry suit checkout dive. Jessica and Susanna Pershern, an A/V Specialist for the SRC, also accompanied us to the pool as they needed to test out equipment for an upcoming trip. Fully decked out in their dry suits and rebreathers, these two were mesmerizing as they gracefully hovered above the pool floor. After I learned how to properly dawn a dry suit, Brett helped me with my buoyancy and taught me how to properly dump (i.e. release excess air from the dry suit). Following the pool session and a casual lunch outside with Jessica, Susanna, and Matt (an Archaeologist for the SRC), I spent the remainder of the day watching videos from the NPS SRC Vimeo. You should definitely check them out!

Testing out my drysuit for the first time! PC: Brett Seymour

On Wednesday evening, Dave Conlin, the Chief of the SRC, invited me to Boulder to have dinner with him and Michele Tomillo, the national sales coordinator for Fourth Element. Fourth Element is the supplier of wetsuits, rash guards, and booties commonly worn by the SRC team. After a tasty dinner and lovely conversation, the 50 min drive back to my Airbnb was speedy and my bed was calling.

Thursday morning was spent organizing gear. Since I am traveling/diving for 3 months straight, I wanted to ensure that nothing was left behind. Following a filling lunch with Michele and the entire SRC team, Brett and I collected our gear and headed to the Denver Aquarium. While there, we dove in the shark tank exhibit with the guidance of Wendy Murray – Dive Program Manager at the Downtown Denver Aquarium. This exhibit has sand tiger sharks, blacktip reef sharks, sandbar sharks, zebra sharks, and sawfish. Not only did the exhibit give me a chance to test out my wetsuit and GoPro, but I got to observe these gorgeous, graceful creatures up close. While diving, we even found a few shark teeth scattered along the exhibit floor. Shark’s teeth are organized in neat rows. When sharks shed their teeth, which they do continuously, another tooth shifts into its place.

All shark dive photos – PC: Brett Seymour

On my last day in the office, I got to observe Brett and Susanna as they finished editing a video filmed in partnership with the WAVES Project at Lake Mead. I enjoyed learning about the project and also found it fascinating how much work goes into even the final stages of video editing for the SRC.

My final full day in Denver was spent reorganizing since the dreary weather prevented much exploring. Upon leaving the SRC, my dive bag weighed 70+ lbs. Luckily, after shipping several pounds of excess clothing home and reorganizing my small duffle, I was able to successfully reduce the bag to 50 lbs. Praise portable bag scales!

All packed and ready to travel!

In the early morning on Sunday, I parked the white suburban for the last time and headed to the Denver airport to officially start my NPS adventure. Before my flight, I was fortunate enough to grab breakfast with Leah, my previous coworker/roommate in Bonaire, and her boyfriend, Brandon.

Quick breakfast with friends before heading to California

My first stop on this whirl-wind adventure is Channel Islands National ParkThere, I will assist with the Kelp Forest Monitoring project by participating in a 5-day research cruise. Thanks again to the entire team at the SRC for being so welcoming during my time in Lakewood, Colorado. I enjoyed getting to know you all, and I appreciate the time you took to help prepare me for my internship. And thanks to Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® for this spectacular opportunity.

 

Quick Facts about the SRC:

  • Formally established in 1980
  • Initially referred to as the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (SCRU)
  • Previous headquarters of the SRC were in Santé Fe, Mexico but they moved to Lakewood, Colorado in 2000s
Share