Category Archives: Current Internships

Off-the-Grid and Off-the-Wall: Dry Tortugas National Park

“Prison or paradise? It’s up to you.” My eyes return to the blunt words as I peruse an old document titled, “Living/Working in Fort Jefferson”. The anonymously-written precautionary article, dated back to 1988, is pinned to a bulletin board in the galley of the Motor Vessel (MV) Fort Jefferson. However, the article doesn’t refer to living/working on the 110-ft. National Park Service (NPS) transport vessel. Rather, it discusses the realities of accepting an NPS position at Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO), my next internship destination. What am I getting into? I nervously wonder as the ship makes its way across the calm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Not many people get an opportunity to live in a 19th-century brick fort on a subtropical key.” It comes with some trade-offs, though, particularly communication and transportation difficulties.

It’s a wild feeling to stand on top of Fort Jefferson and see ocean as far as the eye can see in all 360 degrees.

DRTO has quite literally been paradise for some, prison for others. There’s no denying its incredible beauty — white sand beaches, picturesque sunsets, and captivating underwater features. The 100 square mile park, located 70 miles west off Key West, FL, is primarily underwater — seven small islands are scattered throughout the park, collectively adding up to only 143 acres (less than a quarter of a square mile). The other 99.75 square miles are open ocean and vibrant coral reefs. The park’s remoteness alone is confining, nevermind the diminutive acreage of land one can roam. However, the park’s minute size hasn’t prevented it from garnering a rich history and cultural significance. The second-largest island, Garden Key, is home to Fort Jefferson (yes, the same name is that ship that services the park) — a hexagonal fort built out of 16 million red bricks, making it the largest all-masonry structure in the United States. The fort was originally built in the mid-1800s as a harbor and outpost for ships passing through the Gulf of Florida and Straits of Mexico. During the Civil War, it served as a tool to blockade Southern shipping and detain over 2,500 prisoners.

A 300-pound rifled Parrott cannon sits atop Fort Jefferson. Rather than firing rounded cannonballs, rifled cannons shot pointed projectiles with much better accuracy.

In the lower left corner you can see the distinct grooved skeleton of a coral. When the fort was initially built, sand and coral were mixed into concrete and used as building material.

The fort was abandoned by the Army in 1875 and designated by President Roosevelt as Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935. After an expansion in the 1980s, Congress officially redesignated the area as Dry Tortugas National Park.

The only way — one bridge crosses the fort’s moat (previously inhabited by a crocodile!).

The sun illuminates the archways of the fort.

Fort Jefferson is quite a masonry feat.

Nowadays, DRTO is known for its dazzling coral reefs, rich bird activity, and submerged historic shipwrecks. Until recently, the park was also the only remaining section of Florida’s coral reef system free from Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) — a water-borne, highly lethal infectious disease known to affect over 20 species of hard corals (I discuss the disease more in this blog post). Unfortunately, crisis arose in May 2021. During a routine survey, NPS divers observed the telltale white lesions indicative of SCTLD on 11 coral colonies within the park. DRTO responded quickly, forming a Coral Response Team of biologists to focus solely on coral monitoring and disease treatment. This week, I’m planning to assist the team as they work to slow the spread of the disease. 

A shallow seagrass field alongside the fort.

— 

With little to no internet access, cell service, and stores on DRTO, the logistical preparations involved in staying there are complex. Brett Seymour and Jim Nimz, both from the Submerged Resources Center (SRC), are joining me on this week’s trip. Together, we spend two days in Key West ironing out logistics and gathering the last supplies needed before we leave. The most time-consuming errand by far is the trip to the Publix grocery store. We need to buy everything we want to eat for the next two weeks. For someone like me — a snack-a-holic with a high metabolism who is practically incapable of resisting food-related cravings — this is anxiety-inducing. Brett’s wife, Elizabeth, has kindly organized meal-prepped dinners for us to bring, which reduces some of the grocery shopping pressure. I do my best to cover all the remaining bases — chips, chocolate, candy, coffee, soda, and sandwich fixings. Oh, and some apples and lettuce, too. Fruits and vegetables are important.

We trailered the SRC’s boat, Cal Cummings, from Biscayne National Park down to Key West.

A small portion of our food haul prior to heading to Dry Tortugas. There were many, many more carts.

Sunset in Key West — taken from my hotel room as I finished packing and using the internet while I had it.

The next morning, we convene at the Naval Air Station where MV Fort Jefferson is docked. The last few cases of gear and food are packed onto the ship by Captain Tim and Brian Lariviere, the ship’s boat engineer. I’m particularly excited to see some familiar faces when we arrive at the dock — Jeff Miller and Lee Richter from the South Florida/Caribbean Network (SFCN) are here! Jeff, Lee, and I worked together during my first internship project in St. Croix, USVI. We catch up with each other and I meet their co-workers, marine biologist Rob Waara and intern Brandy Arnette. The SFCN crew will be conducting benthic reef surveys and staying on Loggerhead Key, the largest island in the park. There are only two houses on the 49-acre island, both of which run solely off of solar power. The only other structures on the island are the Loggerhead Lighthouse and a small boathouse that’s literally split in half (i.e. unquestionably uninhabitable). It is the true epitome of a remote subtropical island paradise — or prison, if that’s not your thing. 

From left to right: Lee, Cameron, Elizabeth, and Chase prepare a game of Settlers of Catan in the galley of the MV Fort Jeff. I wish I could say I won, but Lee crushed us all.

Five hours go by on the ship. After a game of Settlers of Catan and a valiant attempt to catch up on blog writing (followed by a much-needed nap), I get restless. I’m pacing and glancing out the windows when a low-lying, dark stretch of land slowly appears on the horizon. The closer we get, the more I’m able to make out the features of the fort — the iconic red bricks, two-tiered casemates on all six walls, cannons lining the top, and a surrounding moat (currently dysfunctional due to Hurricane Irma damage). In short, it is like nothing I have ever seen before. During the first half an hour of unloading gear and touring the living quarters, I get a familiar feeling — the simultaneous rush of excitement, confusion, curiosity, and anxiety. Culture shock at its finest. I wouldn’t have ever expected to get such a feeling from visiting a national park, but DRTO is truly a park unlike any other. Within 30 minutes, the overwhelm settles and I unpack in my temporary home, a renovated apartment on the second floor of the fort. 

That tiny strip of black on the horizon? Welcome to Dry Tortugas National Park!

I thought my three boxes of food was a lot, but not compared to how much food is required to feed Brett’s family of four with two teenage boys!

As soon as I finish unpacking, I hear a knock on the door. “If you’re free, could you take some photos for us?” Lead park ranger Curtis Hall explains that he’s helping with Coral Camp, a youth program for aspiring marine scientists. He would love some photos of the camp experience and has heard through the grapevine that I’ve come with a decent camera setup. I’m stoked at the chance to explore, so I grab my camera bag and meet the group at the dock to head over to Loggerhead Key. I spend the next few hours photographing the campers as they learn how to track turtles and identify nests on the beach, snorkel the reefs, and explore the island. It’s my first time using the SRC’s underwater camera rig, and while I’m happy with my topside shots, the underwater shots are whacky. Instead of filling out the entire frame, the photos are small and circular. I can’t figure out what the cause of the peculiar framing is, but I try to work around it. When I get back to Garden Key in the evening and mention the issue to Brett, he quickly identifies the problem. Of the two lenses I have for the Nikon D800, I used the shorter of the two, which isn’t long enough to fill out the underwater camera housing. A rookie mistake, but I’m learning. I’m thankful to have Brett around as I get comfortable with the new camera.

The Loggerhead Lighthouse was built in 1858 to aid vessels navigating through the shallow waters around Loggerhead Key and Garden Key.

 

Sometimes the best way to learn is to just be thrown in. Curtis was eager to get a photo of the entire Coral Camp group underwater, but with a new-to-me camera setup and novice photography skills, it was much harder than I anticipated. Determined to produce a decent final product, I compromised and had half of the group sit on the wall of the fort’s moat. While I didn’t get any spectacular shots, it was a useful chance to improve my split shot skills.

 

 

 

 

Loggerhead Key: An isolated island paradise.

This is what happens when you don’t use the right lens in your underwater camera housing!

— 

What I’m really looking forward to is diving with the coral response team, but I learn upon arrival that I won’t be able to for at least a few days. Due to the combination of Covid-related housing rules and a recently damaged bathroom in one of the apartments, there’s a housing shortage on DRTO. Most of the biotechs are staying in Key West until there’s available park housing. Since the coral response team isn’t diving and I’m itching to get in the water, I convince the SFCN crew to let me join them on their survey dives for the next couple of days. Dad jokes and one-liners quickly recommence once I’m back on the boat with Jeff and Lee. Paired with Rob’s entertaining DJ skills and Brandy’s easygoing sense of humor, it’s a fun time on the water with this group. Plus, they have snacks galore on the boat. Cheese balls and cheesy jokes?! The SFCN crew knows how to speak my language. 

Rob Waara dances and wears shirts inside out like no one is watching.

This is what I get for accidentally leaving my rash guard on SFCN’s boat… I didn’t believe it when Jeff told me he got it on (apparently it took three people). Can’t argue with that photographic proof, though!

As mentioned earlier, SFCN is completing benthic surveys of the DRTO reefs. They’ve been monitoring and surveying these reefs for decades, so there’s a well-established protocol in place. The surveying process involves two teams — a setup team to prepare each site and a survey team to collect and record data. I’m jumping in with the setup team, Lee and Brandy. Our tasks are seemingly straightforward: descend on a site, find the site’s metal transect pins that are nailed into the benthic substrate, and run transect tapes from one pin to another. Once we’ve laid out all of the transects, Jeff and Rob will conduct the surveys and record data. 

Brandy and Lee finish running transect tapes across a survey site.

Finding the pins is the real challenge. We have laminated photographs with notes about each site, including the distances between pins and the compass bearings from the origin pin (placed in the center of the site) to the others. Sometimes the photographs include a distinct feature that leads us straight to the pin. Other times, the photos aren’t so helpful and we spend minutes swimming back and forth over the reef until someone waves or yells (Lee’s rebreather hoses channel sound quite effectively, so it’s easy to hear when he’s found a pin). Once we spot the pins, we roll out the transect tapes. At some sites, Lee replaces old Hobo data loggers — small submersible devices that collect water temperature data. From this data, researchers can assess the frequency of water temperature trends, particularly warm and cold water events suspected to cause stress to coral reef ecosystems. We make fairly quick work of the sites, although a lightning storm rolls through, forcing us to quickly head back to Loggerhead and hide out while it passes. All in a day’s work here at DRTO! 

The DRTO reefs are some of the healthier aggregate reefs I’ve seen in a while.

Lee uses photos and notes to determine which direction will lead him to the next transect pin.

After finishing our survey sites for the day, Jeff takes us on another dive to see something special: this massive Orbicella colony.

Jeff measures the diameter of the Orbicella colony. After consulting with another coral expert, he tells me that this colony is at least 200 years old. “This is what we need to protect,” he emphasizes.

Jeff and Brandy inspect the Orbicella colony.

Jeff points to a SCTLD lesion on a much smaller coral right next to the huge Orbicella colony. This will become a high-priority site for the coral response team. If they can treat the lesions, they may be able to prevent further spread of the disease onto any neighboring corals.

The SFCN crew drops me off at Garden Key at the end of the day and I eat dinner with Brett, his family, and Jim. While I’ve been diving with the SFCN crew the last couple of days, Brett and Jim have stayed busy surveying the DRTO reefs the “techy” way: with a high-resolution underwater camera system called the Sea Array. The large contraption consists of three cameras, a propulsion system, control panel, and sub-sea GPS navigation system. Essentially, the Sea Array uses photogrammetry technology to merge tens of thousands of digital images into a 3D visualization of underwater resources, like shipwrecks or coral reefs (if you’re interested in learning more about how the Sea Array, I encourage you to check out this engaging storymap). I’m eager to see the Sea Array in action and to continue working on underwater photography, so I ask to join Brett and Jim on the SRC’s boat, Cal Cummings, for a day. They agree, but they warn me that I’ll only be able to dive for about 45 minutes. Once the Sea Array is calibrated and ready to go, Brett and Jim use diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs) to cruise over the reef and complete their surveys. I’m a decent swimmer, but there’s no way I can keep up with them once the DPVs are turned on. On top of that, they use closed-circuit rebreathers, which allow them to dive for hours at a time — much longer than I could dive on my open-circuit system. 

Brett Seymour operates the Sea Array.

Nevertheless, I meet them the next morning and we boat out to one of the reef sites that still needs to be mapped. Brian, the MV Fort Jeff’s boat engineer, is captaining for us. He’s an expert boatman — he can fix an engine in a pinch, and his boats are as organized as a Michelin star chef’s kitchen. “Everything has a place,” he reminds me as he neatly tucks my scuba gear into a corner — a much better spot than the middle of the boat deck. Mise en place – everything in its place — is especially important on the boat today, seeing as the Sea Array alone takes up a third of the boat deck. Along with it are three large buoys that we place on the outskirts of the survey site. The buoys use GPS to track the Sea Array while underwater and relay location information to the Sea Array operator and the boat. We drop the buoys, carefully lower the Sea Array into the water, and make our way to a sandy patch on the seafloor where Jim and Brett set up. I start snapping away on the camera, and once the Sea Array is ready to go, Brett cruises over the reef a few times so I can take more photos. I’m trying to be better about taking lots of photos during these moments. “If there’s space on the SD card, why not use it?” Multiple photographers have reiterated this to me. It feels indulgent to hold the shutter button down and hear the click, click, click continue on, but you never know what exact moment will give you “the shot”. 

It’s difficult to convey just how large the Sea Array is.

Brett and Jim prepare the Sea Array for a reef survey. It’s not a quick task by any means — one site survey can take between three and four hours.

As the Sea Array cruises over this coral reef, it is capturing tens of thousands of images of the sea floor, which are compiled to create a highly detailed 3D map of the reef in its current state.

— 

On my last day, the coral response team makes it back to the park, and they’re ready to dive. I’m bummed to be leaving right after they arrive, but one day is still plenty of time to treat some corals. I’m spending the day with Karli Hollister, Rachel Johns, and Clayton Pollock. They have a priority list of sites that need SCTLD treatment. Tackling the disease is difficult due to its rapidly spreading nature, but by isolating diseased colonies there is a chance to halt disease progression. To do so, we use a mix of amoxicillin and Coral Cure Base2b, a specialized paste designed to adhere to coral. Rachel, a coral biologist and lead of the coral response team, shows me how to mix the paste and explains the application procedure. The Base2b paste adheres to coral skeletons, not living tissue. For it to adhere effectively, it must be applied directly to the lesion lines where the disease has already killed the coral’s tissue. Then, the amoxicillin antibiotic is slowly released into the coral.

An up-close shot of the antibiotic paste used to treat SCTLD. The white section is skeleton, but the top portion of the coral is still alive and could potentially be saved.

Karli Hollister (left) and Rachel Johns (right) work together to treat the lesions of a coral infected with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.

The antibiotic paste must be worked into the lesion line where the already killed coral and healthy coral meet. When applied well, the paste can isolate the diseased portion from the healthy bit.

Karli Hollister treats an infected coral.

—-

By the end of my stay in DRTO, I’ve had the lucky opportunity to work with not one, but three different dive teams while in the park. Individually, each team has their own focus — from novel and large-scale photogrammetry efforts, to continued long-term reef surveying and monitoring, to targeted coral intervention and disease treatment. Collectively, however, each project shares the same overarching goal: to understand, preserve, and protect the valuable and unique underwater gardens of Dry Tortugas National Park.

In the 1850s, a ship filled with barrels of powder cement sank off of Loggerhead Key. As the wooden barrels degraded, the cement was activated by the water exposure and set in place underwater. You can snorkel and see dozens of these cement “barrels” in rows, the same formation they were on the ship.

A lush thicket of Acropora prolifera totally blew me away during my DRTO snorkeling adventures. So healthy, and so much of it!

Whether you’re diving deep or snorkeling in the shallows of DRTO, there is always something interesting to see.

Dry Tortugas isn’t the easiest place to live, but everyone (and everything!) there seems to find a way to be resourceful and thrive.

If I wrote about all the memorable moments I’ve had in Dry Tortugas, this post would easily become twice as long. So many people helped to make this an unforgettable experience. As always, a huge thank you to OWUSS and the SRC for making this trip possible. To the entire staff at DRTO — your dedication and passion are positively infectious. Thank you for making me feel welcome and sharing your work, stories, and time with me. I hope to see you all again one day! SFCN crew — thanks for the laughs, the snacks, and for making me feel like a part of your team once again. Always an honor to be on a boat with you fine folks. And to Brett, Elizabeth, and Jim — thank you for being exceedingly willing to feed me, help me, and go out of your way to maximize my opportunities during my internship. It has been a privilege to spend the last 10 days in such an incredible place with such wonderful people. 

 

My last Dry Tortugas sunset — for now!

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One fish, two fish…175 fish?!

Along with tracking individual stoplight parrotfish, Sparisoma viride, our team has been busy conducting behavioral observations and getting GPS tracks of four other species of parrotfish for a total of 175 fish follows! It has been interesting to see how these species’ behaviors differ. While striped parrotfish (Scarus iseri) pay little attention to other males and do not defend their space on the reef regularly, other species, like the redband parrotfish (Sparisoma aurofrenatum), interact with conspecific males by flaring their dorsal fins as if to say, “this is my area, stay out!”

The redband parrotfish, Sparisoma aurofrenatum, will flash its fins at intruders instead of chasing them away like other parrotfishes.

One of Josh’s goals for the summer is to get a better idea about how terminal phase stoplight parrotfish interact with other conspecific males to defend their territory on the reef. During multiple dives, Josh and I followed male stoplight parrotfish and categorize the type and the duration of interactions with both terminal and initial phase fish. While males regularly chase smaller “floater” males (i.e., fish that do not possess a territory) out of their territory, it appears that males of similar size that share territory boundaries interact less often and less aggressively. . This “dear enemy” effect has been observed in several other species, but never documented in parrotfishes! Males will often interact with females in their territories. These interactions are usually brief and appear to be over feeding spots. However, on occasion we would see males chase females completely out of their territories, suggesting that maybe these females were not part of their harem.

Collecting “dear enemy” data on parrotfishes
Photo Credit: Joshua Manning

In his previous work, Josh found that males of some species partition reef space into non-overlapping territories but share space with other parrotfish species. As part of Josh’s dissertation work, we wanted to observe how fishes interact within shared spaces. During days we were not diving, our team donned snorkel gear and headed to Invisibles and Aquarius to simultaneously track parrotfishes. During these tracks, I would follow a male stoplight parrotfish around the reef site while Josh followed a male queen parrotfish. For most of the follows, our fish generally did not interact much, often swimming by without paying any mind to the other. Occasionally, however, the two fishes would swim toward the same patch of the reef to graze. It was a moment of excitement for us on the surface – sometimes we would be so focused on following the fish and seeing which species got to graze at the coveted lunch spot that we would forget about the other person on the surface!

A terminal phase queen parrotfish, Scarus vetula, after briefly grazing on the benthic substrate continues swimming to find its next snack!

Josh hopes that these data will help us to better understand the drivers behind territory maintenance and space use in parrotfishes, which may have implications for the makeup of the underlying benthic community. This in turn could provide important insights into coral reef management to restore and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

The team is all smiles after wrapping up a great field season!

This summer has been packed full of field work both above and below the surface and I was able to learn a lot about the role of parrotfishes on coral reef ecosystems! I am so grateful that I was able to experience Bonaire for the first time with this amazing group of researchers. Thank you to Our World Underwater Scholarship Society and the American Academy of Underwater Sciences for providing me with the opportunity to be the 2021 Mitchell Internship, and to Josh Manning and the members of the McCoy lab at Florida State University for being such great hosts!

 

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All Women, All Week: Marine Debris Removal in Biscayne National Park

two scuba divers looking at a derelict lobster trap underwater Biscayne National Park is a coastal haven of mangrove forests, coral reefs, and historical submerged shipwrecks. The 173,000-acre park in South Florida is 95% underwater, so marine debris removal is a priority for Biscayne’s natural resources team. This week’s project objective is to remove as much marine debris from the park as possible. The term “marine debris” encompasses a plethora of objects that are discarded in the ocean. Soda cans, car tires, monofilament fishing line, toilets (yes, toilets), nets, plastic bags, you name it. They’re tossed into the sea and can cause significant damage to coral reefs and marine life. Many of these items take decades, or even centuries, to degrade. When these harmful objects are left in marine ecosystems, they accumulate and pollute the ocean more and more each year.

This week’s project is extremely unique, and I can’t wait to get started. For one, the team consists entirely of women. Not only that, but five of the team members are military veterans from the Wounded American Veterans Experience Scuba (WAVES) program. The non-profit is a partner organization to the NPS Wounded Veterans In Parks (WVIP) program, which provides opportunities for veterans to volunteer with parks or programs like the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) and work alongside NPS divers on specific resource or maintenance projects. In addition to supporting the mission of the NPS, scuba diving offers countless therapeutic benefits due to the properties of an aquatic environment 一 the feeling of weightlessness, limited audio input, and less force of gravity. For military veterans, the freeing and relaxing nature of diving can further facilitate recovery from a number of service-induced injuries, from amputation to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I’m excited to participate in such a unique experience for the veterans, and I’m particularly thrilled that we’re working as an all-female team. Personally, I’ve never done anything scuba-related with a fully female group. Most of my scuba instructors were men, and in my experience, men far outnumber women in the professional diving industry. Similarly, female representation in the armed services is small. Working in male-dominated work environments can have its challenges, especially when the job is fairly physically demanding. I’m hopeful that during the upcoming week, the women involved in the project will be able to work without feeling the need to “keep up with the guys”, an all-too-common pressure that many women feel in the workplace, especially in the armed forces.

The crew for the week! From left: Karen, Ashley, Annie, Abbie, myself, Linsay, Jess, Char, and Esme. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern

My internship schedule is packed until October, with the exception of a single week of downtime between my recent project in St. Croix and my upcoming assignment in Biscayne. I fly back home to Colorado for the off days. It’s a much-needed opportunity to catch up on writing, organize my photos, and repack for the next leg of my journey.

Come Saturday morning, I head to the airport to hop on a flight to Miami. I’m back in the groove of traveling (or so I think…), so I cruise through security and arrive at the terminal with plenty of time to spare. First, I sit down to reorganize my backpack. Airport security has a tendency to be suspicious of the wide-angle lens that fits on my underwater camera housing, so I typically pack the lens in the top of my bag before going through security and rearrange it prior to boarding my flight. After I reorganize, I grab breakfast, fill up my water bottle, and head to the gate.

The flight is nearly four hours long, so I’m planning to work after we take off. I fidget in my seat until the seat belt sign turns off. My morning cup of coffee has kicked in and all I want to do is put my headphones on, zone out, and catch up on blog writing. Eagerly, I jump up and reach for the laptop case in my backpack.

Strange. I can’t feel it. I dig deeper in the seemingly bottomless bag. It’s a laptop case, so it takes up a decent amount of space. At least, it does when it’s in the bag, which I quickly realize it is not. I immediately start mentally backtracking my steps. Within seconds, I know where my laptop is. It’s on the floor, next to a seat in the terminal. Gate B43. Well, it might be. Who knows at this point.

I’ve NEVER done this before. Sure, I’ve left the bathroom without picking up my cell phone, but I’ve always been quick to realize my mistake and turn around to grab it. Unfortunately, there is no option to turn around in this scenario. I’m rattled, but the situation is out of my control. I sit back into my seat, remind myself that it could be worse, and try to shake it off. I’ll handle it when I land.

Ultimately, there’s not much I can do to “handle” the lost laptop scenario. I file a report with lost and found and will just have to wait and see. Thankfully, the SRC crew is more than supportive when they hear about my predicament. SRC Chief, Dave Conlin, generously offers me the use of his personal laptop for as long as I need, and Matt Hanks, one of the team’s archaeologists, says he’ll check the lost and found in Denver when he flies out to meet us in a few days (the SRC men will be working on archaeological projects in Biscayne while we’re doing the WVIP project). It’s reassuring to feel like no matter what happens to the computer, I’m in good hands.

It’s Monday morning, and I’m piling into a packed-to-the-brim Suburban with Annie Wright, an SRC archaeologist, and Susanna Pershern, an SRC photographer. Annie is the project lead, and Susanna is documenting the project. Susanna and I are dive buddies for the week, so I’m looking forward to watching and learning from her. I wasn’t able to work on underwater photography much during my last project in St. Croix, but this week I’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn, practice, and hone my underwater photography skills. Having access to a professional makes for an even better situation!

Car and stacks of equipment next to the car

After loading the car, we drive to Key Largo and meet the women from the WAVES group. There are five veterans: Linsay, Abbie, Char, Esme, and Karen. Accompanying the group is Ashley, a WAVES scuba instructor, and Jess Keller, a former SRC archaeologist who now works at the University of Miami. At first, introductions are polite and somewhat reserved. I get the sense that everyone’s a bit nervous but simultaneously excited. I sure am! Our ten-woman group will be living together in an apartment above Quiescence Dive Services and diving together off a charter boat from Horizon Divers for the week. In other words, we’re going to be together A LOT. In my experience, I’ve found that there’s always an initial “sussing out” period when you join a fieldwork crew, especially when you don’t know anyone. You have to get a sense of everyone’s personalities, how they work, what their quirks are, etc… Usually, by day two or three, walls tend to fall down and people open up with each other more.

sunset and palm tree

The initial plan is to start diving on Tuesday, but a small tropical storm rolls through on Monday and continues into Tuesday, making the waters too rough for diving. The unexpected dry day is a good chance to prep my camera gear and get to know the group a little better. The veterans seem to be clicking with each other quickly, and I find myself being drawn into their conversations. There’s an unspoken sense of comradery between them that’s noticeable as they talk about their backgrounds, struggles, successes, and goals. They’re all incredibly eager to get in the water, and I can’t help but feel energized myself from the enthusiasm in the air.

On Wednesday, we’re able to go diving! The early risers, Char and Ashley, get up first and start the coffee. By 6:45, the apartment is bustling as everyone eats breakfast, makes lunch, and grabs essential items for the day. We load up the cars and shuttle down to the marina, where we meet our entirely female boat crew: Captain Dani, and mates Chelsea and Megan. The charter boat makes for a very relaxed run out to the dive sites. It’s spacious, comfortable, and moves with ease through the water (that’s all thanks to Captain Dani). It even has a head (boat toilet)! I try to remind myself that this will not be the norm for the rest of my internship. I’m used to schlepping tanks around, loading equipment onto the boat, and helping with mooring and docking, but because we’re on a charter boat, the captain and crew handle everything. I try to make good use of the extra time by experimenting with the camera and writing notes for my blog.

Captain Dani, left, and mate Megan.

Once we reach our first dive site, another boat appears with two more women aboard. Shelby Moneysmith and Vanessa McDonough are the SE Regional Dive Officer and Fishery and Wildlife Biologist, respectively, at Biscayne NP. They’re going to be meeting us at each dive site to assist with debris removal. Once they moor their boat to ours, Shelby and Vanessa don their snorkels, jump in the water, and swim over to our boat. They’re ecstatic to be participating in the project and give us a brief on the dive sites we’ll be visiting for the day.

Vanessa and Shelby met us every day to help with debris removal.

The team gets off to a fantastic start collecting debris. We’re on the lookout for monofilament lines, cans and bottles, fishing equipment, and whatever other debris we encounter during the dives. As we come across debris, each diver has a mesh bag that they can store it in for the duration of the dive. Larger objects, like derelict lobster traps, can be sent directly to the surface with lift bags. A lift bag is a piece of diving equipment designed to lift heavy objects from the seafloor. They’re made with airtight fabric and can be clipped to objects and subsequently filled with air from a diver’s second stage, pulling the object to the surface. Once a piece of debris reaches the surface, one of the boat captains drives over and pulls the object from the water. On the smaller side of things, monofilament fishing line is particularly important to find and remove. The small yet strong line can easily slice through soft corals and wrap around other marine creatures, like turtles and fish.

Jess Keller inflates a lift bag to pull a large pile of rope to the ocean surface.

 

Project leader, Annie Wright, pulls a monofilament fishing line up from the reef.

While the rest of the group is collecting debris, Susanna and I follow with our cameras. I desperately want to start snapping miraculous photos off the bat, but I quickly realize that this craft is going to take a LOT of practice. Thankfully, Susanna is patient with me and takes the time to give me suggestions underwater and answer my questions topside. At first, I feel flustered and clunky with the camera rig underwater. I’m not sure what to do with the strobe lights, how to manually adjust the camera settings correctly, or what to focus on in the first place. It’s overwhelming, but I quickly come to enjoy the challenges this new practice presents. Until recently, I had never been a fan of bringing a camera with me underwater. It always seemed impossible for me to adequately capture the colors, the activity, and the vastness of the underwater world. But, one of the biggest challenges of working in marine science is trying to effectively communicate issues and convey ecological change, and visual communication is an essential part of doing just that. So, I’m determined to do my best and figure it out.

It took me a few days to understand how to use camera strobes effectively. This was the first photo that was lit the way I envisioned!

Midway through the first day of diving, another boat appears on the horizon and moors up behind us. Pedro Ramos, the Superintendent for Everglade, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas National Park, has been escorted out on the water by SRC Chief Dave Conlin and David Morgan, another SRC archaeologist. Like Vanessa and Shelby, Pedro dons a snorkel and swims aboard for a few minutes. He’s excited to meet the veterans and expresses his support and encouragement for the vets and the project.

As I talk to the vets more and listen to them converse with Pedro, I come to understand that having a mission is especially motivating to them. It makes sense, considering that they come from careers where everything is mission-oriented and objective-driven. To go out each day with the intention of locating and removing as much marine debris as possible gives all of us a sense of purpose, and an even more enjoyable sense of accomplishment when the day is over and there are trash cans full of debris on the boat.

The week progresses smoothly. I’ve abandoned any hope of retrieving my laptop from the Denver airport, but towards the end of the project, I’m not even thinking about it much since we’re having so much fun. I’m much busier both underwater and above water now that I’m working on photography. During each dive I scout around, looking for the veterans and snapping pictures of them pulling monofilament line off of corals and stuffing old glass bottles into their bags. Once we’re back home, I have to rinse the camera housing in freshwater, pull out the batteries to charge them (admittedly I forget this step a couple of times), and upload and organize the day’s photos on the computer. It requires quite an attention to detail, but I’m starting to find a rhythm.

Linsay and Abbie collect debris, stirring up some of the sediment on the seafloor

—–

It’s Friday afternoon, and the boat cruises back to the marina. I pull my phone out and am surprised to see that I have service (coverage is spotty on the water). Emails are coming through, and one catches my eye. It’s from the Denver airport lost and found. I’m not expecting any miraculous recovery updates, since it’s been nearly a week since I left the laptop in the terminal. But, to my disbelief and overwhelming joy, the email reads, “Lost article located…”. LOCATED! Absolutely giddy with relief and excitement, I run to the bow of the boat, where everyone is relaxing after the long day of diving. “They found my laptop!” I exclaim. Susanna jumps up, as excited as I am. “No way!” The rest of the team yells a collective “hooray!” as I dance around. Could this week get any better?!

—–

By the end of the week, it’s as if all of the women on the team have known each other for ages. We’ve laughed, cried, learned, and grown together. We’ve made an impact in Biscayne, and I think the project as a whole has made an impact on everyone involved. Overall, we collected 587 pounds of marine debris, from tiny lead weights to cumbersome derelict lobster traps. Just the monofilament line alone is enough to stretch across three football fields. On the photography side of things, I snapped nearly 500 photos during the project! I’m extremely happy to have made strides with my photography skills. It’s a lot harder than I anticipated, but the process of understanding the lights, camera, and my subjects in order to capture what I envision is totally addicting.

Our friends from the National Park Foundation joined us for a few days on the boat

There are so many people and organizations who made this week happen. The project wouldn’t have been possible in the first place without funding from the National Park Foundation and support from the SRC who created and manage the NPS WVIP program. Additional support came from the Women Divers Hall of Fame, an organization that recognizes women leaders and innovators in the diving community. To everyone involved, thank you. I truly hope it is the first of many all-female WVIP projects. I’d also like to thank Susanna Pershern for her patience, guidance, and encouragement as I work to improve as an underwater photographer. And of course, thank you to OWUSS and the SRC for making it possible for me to participate.

Next week, I’m staying in Biscayne National Park and working with the natural resources team on various projects. Check back in a bit for another week of adventures!

 

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Final Weeks at REEF

We are officially in the last two weeks of the internship and I am not ready for it to end. This last month has been full of outreach events, diving, and surveying. Earlier this month was Rock the Dock, a REEF tradition held at a beloved local bar. It’s a cookout, hangout, and outreach event all at once, with free t-shirts included. What else could you ask for? We had a booth which included a nerf gun shooting gallery called Reef Protectors. The goal of the game is to shoot only the lionfish, leaving the other fish intact. Helping little kids with this game was fun and dangerous. I almost took a nerf dart to the face! All of the proceeds made by the bar, Sharkey’s, during Rock the Dock go back to REEF which is just one example of how much people care here in the Keys.  

Helping future Reef Protectors shoot lionfish at Rock the Dock

We’ve also had some great groups visit us this month. West Coast Connections, Road Scholars, and Road Less Traveled are all education groups that take like-minded people from across the country and bring them on adventures to different areas. We got to be a part of their journey to the Keys, giving them presentations on Fish ID, Invasive Species, and Florida Keys Ecology while they were here. West Coast Connections spent the most time with us, which was a ton of fun. All the kids were in high school and interested in marine science, so we got to foster that love by taking them snorkeling on local reefs and kayaking through the mangroves at Pennekamp State Park. I loved working with the group for a full week and getting to see them grow as they learned how to ID fish and then saw those fish in their habitats on the reef. I will never get tired of how excited kids get when seeing fish that they know!

Teaching West Coast Connections some Florida Keys ecology before we kayak through the mangroves

I will also never get tired of the diving down here. Most of the dives that I have completed have been on shallow, high profile reefs. I’ve slowly been collecting a life list of fishes that I have seen. Most recently, I saw the Greater Soapfish which has been on my list forever! Unfortunately for my friends, as I learn the smaller fish, like Gobies and Blennies, I have been spending more time staring at the sand for entire dives. Most dive shops know to let us go unguided now. While everyone else is looking for the Eagle Rays and turtles, the REEF group is trying to find the Goldspot Gobies and Redlip Blennies, fish that are only a couple inches long maximum. Next week we are planning to dive another well-known wreck down here, the Eagle, which I am so excited for! This summer was my first experience with wreck diving, and now I can’t get enough. I love exploring deep wrecks and feeling like we are the only people in the ocean when we are down there.

Right after I saw a Soapfish!

We are planning to make the most of the last two weeks here, with as much diving as possible, a trip down to Key West, and even more education events. I am not ready to leave the Keys or the family that I have found down here, so I will continue working in Key Largo for an organization called MarineLab, a marine science education organization. I am so excited for the next step of my Keys adventure and owe it all to REEF and OWUSS!

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Seagrass sampling using quadrats in Estero Bay, FL.

At Florida Gulf Coast University there were a few ongoing research projects I helped with including seagrass collection. I joined a grad student and some undergrads on a day of seagrass sampling out in Estero Bay right behind the Vester Marine Station. The sampling was your basic randomized quadrat counts. I had done seagrass sampling before but either in freezing northern California water or in 1-3m deep sites without scuba gear. So sampling in sites of 1.5m max depth in a warm bay was a nice change. We worked really fast and managed to do (an almost record) 20 sites by the afternoon. 

Amanda Ho collecting halimeda algae off the east coast of Florida.

 

Our next dive training session was done on Florida’s Eastern Coast at a reef site called Ant Mounds off Deerfield Beach. Here is where I did my first ever nitrox dive with a 32% oxygen mix. We analyzed our tanks and calculated our dive based on dive tables to hone our skills from the e-learning. On the first dive, we once again collected halimeda and dictyota samples followed by on-boat processing. Then we switched our tanks and did a nice fun dive along the southern portion of the reef. This site had dozens of barrel sponges and a visiting loggerhead sea turtle.

Our last day of diving was probably my favorite, despite having to wake up at 3:00 in the morning for it. Although I set 15 alarms, none went off, but somehow, I miraculously awoke at 3:20 in the morning. We all successfully met at the dock shortly after 4:00 in. the. morning. to load up the vessel and depart on a 3 hour boat ride to the first sampling site 80 miles off the coast of Ft. Myers, FL. Thankfully, the conditions were smooth and it was surprisingly relaxing to be so far from land.

 

 

A Mako shark adorned with sargassum spotted 80 miles offshore in the gulf c/o Alex Donnenfeld.

Once there, a few went on a tech dive to evaluate a potential site for red tide research, while me and my buddies snorkeled around the boat looking at small schools of fish and a curious barracuda in stunningly crystal clear blue water. We made our way back to the tech divers once they surfaced only to see they had made a new friend: an unwavering, adequately-sized, silky shark. We definitely needed a bigger boat. A little further from that initial point we noticed another dorsal fin in the water which turned out to be a mako shark. I was stoked; I’d only ever seen nurse or black-tip sharks until then. 

 

 

Amanda Ho deploying a sediment trap.

After gawking for the requisite amount of time, we carried on with research. We took YSI and CTD readings, along with water samples at 6 sites in the gulf. The data would be sent to Fish and Wildlife for an ongoing red tide monitoring project. At the final site, we geared up our tanks to deploy sediment traps at an artificial reef consisting of cement structures. After 14 hours at sea we got back to the marina at 7:00 pm only to begin the long process of unloading and washing the boat.

 

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The Adventure So Far

I began my internship here at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation a little over six weeks ago but thinking back on everything I have done so far it feels like I have been here for years. My weeks at REEF have been jam-packed with activities and learning experiences, and they have also been full of fun with the best coworkers anyone could ask for! My journey here started with an unexpected complication when I dropped a fridge on my leg the day that I left for the Keys, and I was anxious about starting this new chapter of my life straight from the hospital. The second that I met my housemates/coworkers, all my stress disappeared. My fellow interns, Hailey and Maddie, are the sweetest, friendliest people I’ve ever met and getting to go through this internship with them so far has been an unbelievable amount of fun!

Our first few weeks here were orientation and a steep learning curve. Originally, we were supposed to go straight into the water but the weather was rough when we first got here, with waves at an average of 3-4 ft, so we weren’t able to go snorkeling and diving until week 3. On the bright side, the time that we lost in the water we made up for exploring our new home (and I didn’t have to plastic wrap my stitches which is always a bonus)! The former interns before us left a Keys Scavenger Hunt, which included going to their favorite café in Islamorada (the adjacent Key), wandering through an artist village featuring a giant lobster statue, and finding a plant nursery complete with chickens, a bunny, and dogs! Not all the lessons were as fun as this, but they were all equally important. A large part of orientation was learning our educational presentations by heart that cover our four main programs, and I am now an expert on lionfish/invasive species, Florida Keys Ecology, and our fish ID program!


Me, Hailey, and Maddie in front of the giant lobster at the artist village

Speaking of fish ID, survey trips are definitely my favorite part of this internship, even if it is so hard to choose. Our first survey trip was unsupervised, with just the three of us Marine Conservation Interns, and it was a challenge. If I can take any lesson from this internship so far, I will say that mistakes are far easier to learn from than getting things right on the first try, and this snorkel trip was a great example of this. The waves were rough and so was the current and holding onto our dive slates was more of a struggle than I thought it would be. Since then, we have all discovered our favorite survey set-ups, which is apparently a rite of passage here. I am now a level-2 surveyor and hope to achieve at least ten surveys before leaving!

Our first survey trip!

The diving here is incredible too! Only Maddie and I came into this internship with our certifications, but Hailey completed the last of her check-out dives this weekend which promises many group dives ahead. So far, I have only completed six dives, but all of them were unique and special. I have dived shallow wrecks at night, high profile reefs, and a deep wreck, which was exciting and a little terrifying. Below is a picture of my supervisor and I on our way to dive Spiegel Grove.

Something that I was most looking forward to this summer was our Ocean Explorers Summer Camp, which we are wrapping up this week. Even though it was a little exhausting (kids have so much energy!) I am so sad that it is over. I loved being able to introduce kids to my favorite parts of the ocean. Even though I only got three days with them, it was so special! I was able to take them snorkeling, kayaking, seine-netting, and many other fun activities. Our first week of camp was ages 8-10 and the second was 7-13. Working with a variety of age groups gave me different but equally fun experiences. I knew that I had a passion for educational outreach but working at camp confirmed this!

Giving my first official educational outreach presentation

While I don’t want to think of this internship ever ending, I am so excited for the next six weeks! I know that they will be just as fun-packed and educational as the last half, with new experiences and adventures. I am hoping to make it down to Key West with my roommates to see a sunset and go on a tour of all the best Key Lime Pie in the area (and maybe see a Key Deer!). I can’t wait to spend more time in the water now that the weather has started to calm down a little! More updates and pictures to come!

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AAUS Somers 2021 – Part 1

After over a year of waiting, I was glad to finally be the 2021 Dr. Lee H. Somers AAUS Intern with the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS). I was originally supposed to participate last summer, but COVID got in the way. Before the pandemic, I graduated with a degree in Environmental Science and Oceanography and I thought I should earn my AAUS certification. I’ve been diving for a few years, but up till now, only had my Advanced Open Water certification. 

The goal with AAUS is to complete a minimum of 12 dives geared toward scientific diver training, but as a bonus I got my rescue, nitrox, and diving first aid for professional divers certifications, as well. I spent hours on the e-learnings before I arrived at my internship’s host university in Florida. Once there at the Vester Marine Station of Florida Gulf Coast University in southwest Florida, I started by practicing rescue skills in their massive swimming pool. Before this, I had never actually dived in a pool — not a lot of wildlife, but I must say the vis is great. 

Test tube containing a turf sample.

The following week, I got to join the DSO (Calli Johnson), Vester’s research coordinator (Adam Catasus), and research assistant/divemaster (Alex Donnenfeld) on a sampling trip to the Keys, where we were met with rough conditions. My buddy and I made sure to take lots of bonine after that. Our days there were spent collecting samples of halimeda and dictyota algae from various sites. After each dive, we would process the samples to gather the epiphytes growing on the algae to later be tested for ciguatera, a potent toxin that seafood-eaters would do best to avoid. We had to process the samples quickly on the rocking boat to preserve the cells. With only a small portion of sample water lost to the deck, we shook up the samples and poured them through sieves until we had enough epiphytes isolated to separate into test tubes.

Amanda Ho sporting the new inside-out wetsuit trend.

When we returned to the Keys Marine Lab where we were staying, we continued our rescue cert requirements by doing a standard CPR/First-Aid course, which was convenient since it had been two years since my last renewal. But the day was not over yet. After a day on the boat, we got right back in the water for some night dives to deploy screens that would collect more epiphytes. That was easy enough, except that my flashlight hardly worked and I was so exhausted I put my wetsuit on inside out.

The next day, we did the exact same thing: algae collection, on-boat sample processing, and night dives to collect the screens. My buddy and I went by ourselves for the screen recovery, and with some spotty navigation, we finally arrived at the screens and successfully recovered them on our own. On the last day, we did, surprise, the same thing, but finished with performing our open water rescues from depth and officially completed the rescue diver certification.

Amanda Ho (center), Sam Ainsworth (left), and Alex Donnenfeld (right) headed out on a night dive.

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If Coral Reefs Were Forests

NPS boat heading to sea from marina

Between long dive days, spending free time with the crew, and exploring the island, week two on St. Croix passes quickly. We continue conducting fish and benthic surveys for the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) during the day, and the evenings become focused on data entry. On a good day we conduct around seven site assessments, and each site assessment needs to be entered into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) online data system. Data entry can be tedious, especially when survey sites are particularly fishy (lots of fish species and measurements to enter), but it’s fun with the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and National Park Service (NPS) crews. On some nights, I hang out with the NPS guys. We all banter while Jeff prepares his nightly chicken and barbeque sauce dinner, and I bounce between checking out Lee and Mike’s underwater photos and entering data on my laptop. Other nights, I meet with the UVI group and finish data entry while listening to music, watching movies, and comparing our days on the different boats.

As the project continues, I find myself more and more elated to be diving again, especially after 2020, the year of jarring isolation. Scuba diving on a daily basis “fills my cup” — there is nothing quite like breathing underwater and being immersed in the ocean. It provides a sense of peace and perspective that has always been difficult for me to find above water. As soon as I descend, my senses settle with the quiet calm and I focus solely on the present moment. I can’t quite explain it, but I soak up the time underwater as we continue to survey the reefs. The more time I spend diving around St. Croix and working with the NCRMP team, however, the more I’m faced with an unsettling, somber realization.

At face value, this job may seem like a vacation of sorts, a lucky chance to spend two weeks on a Caribbean island and dive to my heart’s delight. However, for marine biologists (especially those working in the Caribbean), diving every day is not equivalent to a carefree vacation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Everyone involved in the NCRMP project comes from a marine science background. We all choose this field (or it chooses us, some might say), and from my perspective, everyone is incredibly passionate about what they do. That being said, having a deeper knowledge of coral reef ecosystems inarguably makes it more emotionally taxing to dive amongst the reefs because we cannot help but see what is happening — they’re dying. They’re being wiped out by diseases and bleached by warming waters. It’s impossible for someone who studies these delicate ecosystems to be ignorant of the ghostly white, ever-growing presence of bleached corals and the algae-covered skeletons that were once vibrant and thriving. Personally, I find it consuming my thoughts as I spend my second week on St. Croix. I feel a self-imposed pressure to make these blog posts lighthearted and cheery, but I also believe that the SCTLD outbreak in the Caribbean is a crisis, and it is incumbent upon me to write about the somber reality of being a marine biologist in this day and age. 

Brain coral with SCTLD damage

SCTLD takes over a brain coral. The white side has been killed by the disease. Photo credit: Dan Mele

In the last decade, Caribbean reefs have experienced unprecedented declines due to overwhelming stressors, from warming waters, to increased hurricane damage, to novel infectious diseases. These phenomena are global, but within the realm of the Caribbean, specifically, we’ve seen the rise of a new disease in particular. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has been wreaking havoc on the Caribbean reefs since it first appeared off the coast of Florida in 2014. SCTLD is a highly lethal, infectious disease known to affect over 20 species of hard corals, and it can quickly turn a diverse, bustling reef into a graveyard. The disease spreads rapidly — it can kill a hard coral within a month (note, some of these corals can be hundreds of years old) and spreads easily through the water column. 

Marine biologists have to deal with disease — it’s part of being a biologist. But SCTLD in particular is hitting hard, and not just underwater. Emotionally, it’s taking a toll on researchers and field techs in a way that I didn’t fully understand until coming to St. Croix. For one, it’s an unavoidable topic. It’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds because, frankly, it’s everywhere. Site after site, we jump into the water, descend to the seafloor, and witness the damage. Some corals show the early signs of infection: splotchy white lesions, indicating recently dead areas caused by SCTLD. Other coral bodies have been killed completely, leaving behind colorless, stiff skeletons. At a handful of dive sites, I can’t help but feel as though I’m floating through a mass graveyard, arriving too late to save anything and bearing witness to incomprehensible damage.

Scuba diver with SCTLD-infected coral in the foreground

A diver looks on at an infected coral. Photo credit: Dan Mele

After a long day, Jeff and I have a conversation about SCTLD as we’re driving the boat back to the marina. Jeff is a coral disease expert and has studied coral reefs since the mid-80’s. He’s been diving the reefs around the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1997 (nearly as long as I’ve been alive). I can’t even fathom how many hours he’s spent underwater, and for the last 25 years he’s been a firsthand witness to the Caribbean reefs’ changes. There’s a mixed emotional response from him as we talk about SCTLD and the state of the reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands — a cocktail of exasperation, frustration, and sadness. I share these feelings with Jeff, and I find myself constantly wondering why other people don’t feel the same intense emotional response that Jeff and I do when we talk about the ocean and the future of coral reefs. We’re watching a natural disaster unfold before our eyes. Why aren’t more people talking about it? Why aren’t more people doing something about it? Where’s the sense of urgency?

I’ve lived in the foothills of Colorado for the last five years. Last summer, I watched three forest fires sweep through my local mountains within a week. When night fell, I would look west and see the glowing red and orange hues of flames dance and pulse on the mountainside. During the day, a dense cloud of smoke and ash hung in the sky. The fires were raging for weeks, forcing people out of their homes and destroying much loved recreational areas and trails. But, as soon as the fires appeared, the community was there. There were so many people driving into the mountains to try and help firefighters that public statements had to be released to tell people to stay home. There were fundraisers. There were donation events. There were news articles and updates every day. The community was watching the mountains they loved burn down, and they wanted to do whatever they could to fix it. 

I have to think that if the reefs around St. Croix were forests, and coral diseases like SCTLD were forest fires, the general public would be up in arms, donating money to rescue groups and rallying the community to help out however possible. If only they could see the reefs with their own eyes and understand SCTLD’s overwhelming presence, they would understand. Because this ecosystem lies beneath the waves and out of everyday view, though, many people struggle to understand that the same level of destruction that a forest fire imparts on a forest is happening to the coral reefs right this very second. 

Pillar coral with white lesions from SCTLD

SCTLD initially forms small white lesions on coral before eventually spreading over the entire structure. Photo credit: Dan Mele

This unfortunate reality is largely a result of barriers — barriers in communication and barriers in knowledge and understanding. A world-class photographer with a top-of-the-line camera system can take photos of SCTLD underwater. It’s taking photos that emotionally captivate and engage viewers that’s necessary, but challenging. Social science suggests that people consume information that aligns with their personal experience and worldview — in other words, people tend to care about the things that directly relate to their own lives. However, the majority of the population does not scuba dive. There’s a notable portion of the global population that has never even seen the ocean, let alone been in it. This leaves people like me, Jeff, and other marine biologists with a rather daunting challenge: conveying the urgency and significance of a massive problem like SCTLD to people who aren’t directly affected by it, and as a result, don’t really care. 

I’m always one to take on a challenge, but I can’t help feeling frustrated by how hard it seems to bridge the communication barrier between marine biologists and the general public. Sometimes our efforts seem like those of Greek legend Sisyphus, the man who was condemned by the gods to live out his eternal life rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down once he reached the hilltop. Realistically, we cannot fully erase the damage that SCTLD has done. As Jeff reminds our crew throughout the week, “you’re never going to see these reefs look like this ever again in your lifetime”. Despite that potential truth, as I work with the dedicated organizations and people involved in the NCRMP project, I am motivated by the fact that all of us still believe that the boulder is worth pushing. More so, they consistently push as hard as they can, day in and day out. They recognize that every bit of time, effort, and action matters when it comes to facing issues like climate change and SCTLD, and there’s an unspoken agreement amongst us as we move through the project: knowing that you can’t completely solve a problem does not mean that you shouldn’t continue to make the situation better. 

Close-up photo of a brain coral with a small white lesion from SCTLD

A close-up of an infected brain coral. Photo credit: Dan Mele

NOAA and the NPS are both driving forces in preserving and protecting areas like the Virgin Islands coral reefs, funding research efforts, and communicating the significance of protected areas to the public. They make missions like NCRMP possible. There’s also the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), which has established a successful coral restoration program, where broken pieces of coral are collected from the reefs, grown and multiplied in their coral nursery, and planted back on the reef. All of the UVI grad students and lab techs involved in NCRMP are also heavily involved in the coral restoration program, and I can tell you that it’s in great hands. Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy operates a coral laboratory and nursery on St. Croix, and has partnered with leading coral science organizations to tackle the Caribbean reef crisis with novel technologies and experimental techniques. Collectively, these organizations continue to do what they can to mitigate damage to ocean ecosystems, rebuild what’s been lost, and encourage further conservation efforts. 

As I pack my bags and prepare to depart from St. Croix, I continue to reflect on my experiences over the last two weeks. One of my primary goals when I began this internship was to share what I learn along the way in a thought-provoking, engaging manner — I want to close the communication gap between those with their boots on the ground and people who aren’t directly exposed to the ongoing issues and efforts in the national parks. This project has motivated me even more to do just that. Thank you to everyone from the NCRMP mission for welcoming me onto the team, sharing your thoughts and stories with me, and helping make the first project of my internship a success. Additionally, a big thanks to Dan Mele for allowing use of his photography in this post. Next stop: Biscayne National Park!

five people on the bow of a boat

Last day of NCRMP celebrations! From left: Jeff, me, Kaya, Kristen, and Mike

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Scientific Surveys, Seasickness, and Surprises in St. Croix

The journey begins! The first destination for my internship is St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’ve never been to any of the Virgin Islands, so prior to leaving Colorado, I take some time to research the region and brief myself on its history. The largest of the four U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix measures in at 82 square miles. Reading this, I expect it to seem absolutely massive in comparison to the eight square mile island on which I lived in Thailand! Additionally, St. Croix is home to not one, but three national park sites: Buck Island Reef National Monument, Christianstead National Historic Site, and Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve. On land, there are 18th century buildings scattered throughout the Christianstead waterfront, the oldest being Fort Christiansvaern, built in 1738. The five historical structures provide a glimpse into aspects of government on St. Croix during Danish sovereignty, from the colonial administration, to the international slave trade, to the military and naval establishments. 

Downtown historic church

The historic buildings in downtown Christianstead offer a glimpse into St. Croix’s history and culture.

Danish Customs House

The Danish Customs House in downtown Christianstead

Underwater lies Buck Island Reef National Monument, the first designated Marine Protected Area (MPA) within the U.S. National Park Service. It wraps around two-thirds of St. Croix, and was dubbed by President Kennedy in 1961 as “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea”. Kennedy recognized the scientific, educational, and aesthetic importance of the area, and created the national monument in the hope of preserving its beauty and rich biodiversity for the benefit of the American people. Sadly, the reef has faced a number of challenges in recent decades. Invasive lionfish, hurricanes, disease, and coral bleaching events have all taken their toll. Currently, the biggest threat is Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), a lethal coral disease that has been spreading rampantly throughout Caribbean reefs since 2014. I’ve come across the disease before (during my thesis fieldwork in Cozumel, Mexico), and I’m nervous to see the extent of the damage around St. Croix.   

My two week assignment is to assist with the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP), a biannual survey that aims to assess ecological reef conditions such as fish species/composition/size, benthic cover (i.e. which substrates and organisms are present on the seafloor), and coral density/size/condition. Ultimately, the information gathered from NCRMP provides geographic and ecological context to inform and supplement local reef monitoring efforts, and aids general studies of tropical reef ecosystems. NCRMP covers a huge region, including Florida, Puerto Rico, USVI, and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Galveston, Texas. The goal, for our current purposes, is to assess approximately 150 sites around St. Croix during the next two weeks. Typically, the NCRMP team surveys closer to 250 sites, but we’re working with a skeleton crew this year due to travel restrictions for NOAA personnel who are normally involved. Still, there are around 20 people working on the surveys this year, coming from a handful of different agencies: NPS, NOAA, the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR). 

St. Croix Site Map

All of the sites to be surveyed around St. Croix and Buck Island are identified with a black dot. We will try to get to as many sites as possible in the next two weeks.

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It’s Saturday morning and I finish packing my bags, careful to weigh them so I don’t exceed the 50 pound limit per bag at the airport. I have a good feeling that the portable luggage scale I purchased is going to come in handy for the next few months. I try as best I can to cut the weight down, but I’m traveling for almost four months and need all my dive gear, running gear, underwater photography equipment, and of course, snacks. I end up with two 50 lb. bags to check and one carry-on that weighs around 25 lbs. Of course, I’m not thrilled by the thought of carrying my own bodyweight in luggage, but I reconcile my unease with the thoughts that  I’ll be both extra-prepared and have stronger shoulders by the end of the trip!

Luggage packed

I’ve had many people offer to “carry my luggage” for the duration of my internship. If only I could take someone up on it!

I have an overnight stay in Miami before my flight to St. Croix, and I’m incredibly thankful to have some help finding a place to crash for the night. Steve Barnett, the President of OWUSS, graciously connects me with Kenny Broad, an OWUSS scholar from the early 90’s. Kenny is now an accomplished cave diver, National Geographic Explorer, and professor with the University of Miami. He’s based in Miami and kindly offers me his guesthouse for the night, which I gladly accept. 

Plane window view

I snagged the window seat on my flight to Miami and caught some gorgeous views.

After a restful night in glorious air conditioning (thanks again, Kenny!), I head back to Miami International Airport to catch my flight to St. Croix. I know that NPS Dive Officer Mike Feeley, my point-of-contact for this project, is on the same flight as me, so I send him a slightly anxious text before boarding. “Hey Mike, just in case I have bad phone service when I land at STX, I’m wearing a grey hoodie w/ black pants and a blue backpack. Will find you at baggage claim. See you in a bit!” Mike texts back with a description of his outfit, but I’ve already been told that he’s quite tall, which ends up being the easiest way to track him down once we land in St. Croix. His height and broad frame sticks out amongst the sea of travelers, and the NPS hat he’s sporting confirms my suspicions that he’s the guy I need to find. Mike is a good-natured, pop music loving fish biologist/ecologist with extensive experience working in the Caribbean. We chat in the airport while we wait for our bags, and are soon greeted by the rest of the NPS crew, Jeff Miller and Lee Richter. Jeff is a coral biologist/disease specialist who’s worked with NPS for decades. Initially, he seems fairly straight-faced, but I’m quick to learn that he has an endless bank of puns and dad jokes that make him and everyone around him chuckle throughout the day. He’s also an impressive athlete, and is the first known person to swim 23 miles unassisted around St. John (one of the smaller Virgin Islands). Similarly, NPS marine biotechnician Lee Richter is an avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast with a seemingly endless supply of energy. Mike, Jeff, and Lee all work for the NPS South Florida/Caribbean Inventory and Monitoring Network, so they’ve spent a lot of time with each other, both underwater and above. They catch up with each other in the car, and Lee and Jeff are more than happy to give me tips on where to run as soon as I express my hope to continue training for some upcoming endurance races after I’ve completed the internship. 

The crew gives me a small tour of St. Croix, starting with the most important locale: the grocery store. (If you haven’t caught on, food plays something of an outsized role in my life.) Groceries are expensive here (welcome to island life), but they have most of the items you’d find in a grocery store stateside. We stock up on supplies and fill the bed of the truck with water, toilet paper, snacks, rotisserie chicken, and barbecue sauce (Jeff needs little more than chicken, barbecue sauce, and pita chips to fulfill his caloric needs). After the grocery store, we head to the condos we’ll be staying at. As we drive across the island, I remember my days on Koh Tao, and can’t help but compare the two islands in my mind. Koh Tao has roaming stray dogs, while St. Croix has free-ranging chickens everywhere. People drive on the left side of the road on both islands, but cars seem to be preferred over motorbikes here. As I continue to make mental note of the obvious differences, I feel an immediate, familiar calm to be back on “island time”. Once we arrive at the condos, I unpack my gear, chat with my roommate, and prep my dive bag for the next day. We’ll be diving first thing in the morning, and I can’t wait to jump in the water.

Groceries in the pickup

Dive gear and sustenance. What else do you need?

It’s Monday morning, the first day of NCRMP! Before heading out on the boats, the entire team meets for a project briefing at the NPS headquarters in town, located in part of the Christianstead National Historic Site, the Old Danish Customs House. The building was originally completed in the early 1840s, but underwent a complete restoration in 2010 after hurricane damage rendered it unusable. These days the first and second floors are dedicated to NPS park management. We all gather in the building and I eagerly meet more of the team. Most of the group consists of graduate students who are part of the Marine and Environmental Science program at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). They have a collective “quirky scientist” sense of humor that I love, but I embarrassingly can’t keep up with the banter. They’re obviously deeply knowledgeable about Caribbean corals and fish, and they throw around scientific names and references with such ease that it makes my head spin. Despite being a little overwhelmed, I’m thrilled to be surrounded by so many people who work in marine science—the atmosphere is filled with excitement and anticipation. We go over safety and logistical information, split off into three different boats, and start throwing gear in the trucks. 

Find Your Park sign at NPS HQ

 

Eddie Boy

Jeff and Kristen start loading up Eddie Boy, our ride for the next two weeks.

To my dismay, I’m told I have to stay out of the water because my dive-physical paperwork hasn’t yet been sent from the doctor’s office to the NPS. Trying to make the best of it, I plan to use the day topside as an opportunity to review survey protocols and study up on local fish and coral identification. I’m on the NPS boat, Eddie Boy, with Mike, Jeff, Alex Gutting, and Kristen Ewen. Alex and Kristen are both alumni from the graduate program at UVI, and continue to pursue coral reef research and fieldwork. Kristen is a Biological Science Technician and Dive Safety Officer for the St. Croix park, and shows a level of dedication to her work that I find quite impressive. She has wrangled rats (it’s a constant battle to keep them off of Buck Island), saved turtles, and helped rebuild coral nurseries around the island. Alex has also been pivotal in the island’s coral restoration efforts, and currently works for the Nature Conservatory as St. Croix’s Coral Conservation Coordinator. They’re both laid-back, proactive, and extremely knowledgeable about the local underwater ecosystem. I’m eager to learn from them and, more especially, to dive together. 

Alex setting up gear

Alex assembles her dive kit on the boat

After shuffling tanks and gear from truck to boat, our team takes off. The run to the first dive site goes quickly, but I soon notice things going wrong. A headache develops. My stomach starts to turn. I’m incapable of taking my eyes off the horizon without the feeling of nausea. The familiar, yet dreaded, feeling of seasickness begins to set in. 

I’ve dealt with seasickness before, but normally it subsides as soon as I jump in the water and head underwater. Today, however, I’m stuck on the boat for the day, and I have no other option but to fight it topside. Ultimately, I lose the battle. For the next few hours, I alternate between leaning overboard to provide food to the fishes, and laying in a corner of the boat deck with my eyes closed, listening to the rest of the crew jump in and out of the water. Thankfully, everyone is sympathetic. I feel significantly better once we get back to land. We spend the drive home exchanging war stories. In an attempt to mitigate my self-consciousness, Jeff tells a story about another intern. “This poor intern,” he starts, “we pick her up on her first day and take her to this local restaurant, great spot we think, and we all have dinner. The next day the food poisoning kicks in and we have to take turns jumping off the boat and swimming downstream for a few minutes to get everything out between dives. Just terrible.” I take a moment to appreciate the fact that I only had to deal with vomiting, and not other forms of GI distress. We stop at the store to stock up on Dramamine, and I cross my fingers for a more successful day tomorrow. 

Seasickness stinks

My favorite spot on the boat for the first two days of the project.

To my dismay, Tuesday isn’t much better. The waters around St. Croix are normally choppy, but even the most seasoned divers are getting sick today. Eight-foot swells knock the boat back and forth all day long. I manage to make it in for the first dive, but even with a healthy dose of the anti-seasickness pills, I’m not able to keep it together for the whole day. Back to the floor of the boat for me. 

The first two days are mentally challenging. Seasickness isn’t something you can just will away, even when you try your hardest. Once your inner ear starts disagreeing with your eyesight, the brain reacts with a burst of stress hormones, and suddenly you’re incapacitated—physiologically convinced that you’re in the spin cycle of a washing machine. I find it especially difficult to deal with seasickness when other people around me don’t have it. In this case, it makes sense that I am the sole victim, seeing as I haven’t been on a boat in the last year, while my crewmates spend many of their workdays out at sea. Despite knowing this, it’s tough to spend the first two days of the internship I’ve anticipated for over a year feeling absolutely awful and, to that end, incapable of diving or helping the crew. Is this how it’s going to be all summer? Am I not cut out for this? Anxious thoughts preoccupy my mind for much of Tuesday. I’m supposed to be working and contributing, not sitting on the sidelines. I worry that my crewmates are starting to question my abilities as much as I’m questioning myself. Desperately hoping to get past this, I try to draw from my ultrarunning experience and focus on problem-solving. What can I control? How can I fix this, going forward? 

On Wednesday, I’m determined to avoid getting seasick. I take one Dramamine in the morning (apparently three is overkill and makes things worse, as I learned yesterday), followed by a larger breakfast than usual. I bring lots of food and water for the boat, and I learn that the weather is supposed to be better today. At long last, I get to experience a full day of diving on St. Croix. Finally! We celebrate my revival and a day of calmer weather, and Mike begins to lead me through training. 

I can finally dive!

By the middle of the week, I’m up and about on the boat (and MUCH happier) thanks to the wonders of Dramamine.

NCRMP surveys are focused on two main types of data collection: fish surveys and benthic surveys. There are two people per team, and both assessments are required at most sites. One person stays on the surface to drive the boat, and the other four divers drop down to conduct the surveys. I’ll be doing fish surveys for the whole project, which involves recording all the fish species seen at a site. We take note of fish counts and sizes first. Next, we do a quick environmental assessment, which provides details on the type of site and the condition (anything from sand patches with dominant seagrass cover to aggregate reefs with healthy corals). Meanwhile, the benthic team assesses coral cover on the seafloor by laying out a transect tape and documenting which coral, algae, or seagrass species are touching the tape. These surveys typically take about 25-35 minutes, so there’s a lot of jumping in and out of the water all day. On a good day, we can hit six or seven sites. 

Kristen and Kaya

The crew: Kristen (left) and Kaya (right), both sporting their underwater themed leggings.

Jeff Miller

Jeff, ready to jump in.

Mike Feeley

Mike awaits the go ahead from Kristen to jump in. The dive flag buoy gets tied down underwater and helps the boat driver locate the team when they finish a dive.

It takes me a few dives to get used to the routine. Despite having watched everyone on the boat execute dives and discuss protocols for the first two days, I’m anxious about correctly executing the dive as I buckle the straps of my fins and sit on the side of the boat, ready to back roll off when we are on site. Because we need to survey specific coordinates for each dive site, everyone has to be ready to roll into the water as soon as the boat hits its GPS waypoint and the driver says, “Go divers, go”. There’s no lingering at the surface, as the current can quickly take you away from the designated site. Instead, we do a negative descent, an entry technique that involves squeezing all the air out of our BC before we jump in so that we start sinking as soon as we hit the water. I haven’t done this sort of entry much in the past, so it’s jarring to jump overboard and begin free falling through the water within seconds. I notice my heart rate shoot up during the first few descents, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to practice the entry method. Once we fall to the seafloor my heart rate calms, and I am back in my element.

Collecting data underwater

Kristen catches me in the middle of a survey as I record fish numbers and sizes. The red and white fish in the photo are squirrelfish. (photo credit: Kristen Ewen)

Clipboard underwater

Essential data collection equipment – clipboard, data sheet, and a pencil.

By Thursday, I’m elated that I haven’t experienced any further seasickness. Finally, I begin to feel like I’m hitting my stride. The crew is settling into a rhythm as well, and we all seem to have ways to boost morale and keep the collective energy up. Mike is the DJ of the boat (I push for 70’s rock, but today’s top hits win out) and Jeff provides clever puns and one-liners throughout the day. I bring along chips, gummy bears, or cookies to share every day. “Ah, the health food aisle,” Mike jokes when he finds me in the junk food section of the grocery store as we make our daily stop on the way to the marina. We have a long day, so snacks are crucial. Our sites are on the other side of the island, so we have to nearly circumnavigate the whole of the island. The run to the first site takes an hour and a half, but it’s a great chance to see the less populated and more wild areas. When I see the unpopulated Jurassic Park-esque green cliffs on the south side of the island, I wonder what it must’ve been like to discover the island in its original state, untouched by people. 

Ocean view from the boat

One of the UVI boats cruises back to shore at the end of a workday.

The untouched side of St. Croix

Untouched green cliffs on the south side of the island.

The day is going smoothly until Jeff notices that the dual engines aren’t moving in unison when he steers. I scan over the engines and realize that, to our collective panic, the steering system has broken. I’m able to grab the bolts that broke off before the ocean sweeps them away, and Jeff and Mike manage to fit one bolt back into place. It’s enough of a temporary fix for us to get back to the marina, but we have to cut our dive day short. 

Mike fixing boat

Mike works on a temporary fix for the boat’s steering system.

On Friday, Jeff has made dozens of calls to try and get Eddie Boy fixed, but a mechanic can’t look at it until mid-afternoon. Luckily, the NPS has another boat in the marina that we can use for the day. Kestrel is a small boat, with a firm “three points of contact” rule when it’s moving. It also has less cover, so most of us don our wetsuits pretty early in the day, as being doused with saltwater on the way to the first dive site is a given. It’s a beautiful day for diving until mid-afternoon, when a storm rolls in and gives us a heck of a return ride. I’m amazed that one pill in the morning can make eight-foot swells and churning waves somewhat fun—the joys of modern medicine! By the end of the day, however, and after a week full of unexpected ups and downs, the crew is ready for the weekend. Personally, I’m excited to catch up on writing, go trail running on the east end of the island, and to spend some time with the rest of the team I’ve yet to hang out with.

Landscape of St. Croix

I love the bright greens and blues of the island and its surrounding waters.

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Bon Bini na Boneiru!

As the 2021 American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Mitchell Scientific Diving Intern for the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS), I will be assisting Ph.D. candidate Josh Manning with his dissertation research, along with other members of the McCoy Lab at Florida State University, Ph.D. candidate Ethan Cissell and undergraduate student Lena Kury! Josh’s research focuses on how parrotfish territoriality affects patterns of grazing intensity on the coral reefs of Bonaire. Parrotfishes are important grazers that use their beak-like teeth to scrape at the substrate, which helps to keep algae in check and creates bare space for juvenile corals to settle and grow. After several field seasons on the reefs of Bonaire, Josh noticed that males of some species, particularly the stoplight parrotfish Sparisoma viride, swim within well-defined territories and will chase off other males that enter these areas. This summer, we are recording the behaviors of several parrotfish species to better understand how these territories are defended and how they influence other aspects of parrotfish behavior.

After countless Zoom meetings working out travel logistics during a pandemic, three flights, multiple Covid-19 tests, and one last quarantine on Bonaire, our team was finally cleared to start conducting research! During our first few days of diving, we explored a few dive sites on the Northern leeward coast of the island, familiarized ourselves with everyone’s equipment, and ensured that we were weighted correctly so that we could practice proper buoyancy. As we descended onto the reef at Karpata, a historically well-studied site, I was instantly overwhelmed by the diverse species of corals thriving on the reef!  With reef-building coral species like Orbicella annularis providing small hiding spaces for creatures of all sizes, it was not surprising to see a diverse assemblage of fish species. We were even lucky enough to find a green sea turtle, resting on top of soft corals!

A graysby rests on Orbicella annularis, a foundational species of coral found on the reefs of Bonaire.

The view from the entry point at a popular dive site, Karpata.

After everyone felt comfortable in the water, it was time to get to work! A large portion of Josh’s research involves observing parrotfish behaviors, so we spent the next day practicing our fish identification skills! Parrotfishes are protogynous hermaphrodites that transition from an initial female phase to a terminal male phase based on social cues. These phases can have incredibly distinct colorations, so it is important to be able to differentiate when fishes are the opposite sex, or an entirely different species! While we will mostly be following terminal phase males this summer, it is important that we can also identify initial phase fish within each territory. This may help us to understand if males defend their territories from neighboring fishes to protect their preferred grazing spots, their mating opportunities, or a combination of the two!

Stoplight parrotfish coloration changes drastically from the initial phase female (top photo) to the terminal phase male (bottom photo).

On our first day of data collection, we dove at one of Josh’s predetermined study sites, Invisibles, to record the behaviors of the stoplight parrotfish S. viride. During these dives, Josh identified a fish to observe for 30 minutes, while Ethan and I counted the number of initial phase fishes present within its territory. Josh would then signal to Lena, who was snorkeling at the surface with a handheld GPS receiver, to begin tracking the movements of the fish. At first, it was really difficult to determine how many initial phase fish were in each territory – if only they would just stay still! This became easier with time, and soon I was able to enjoy watching the fish from afar as they were grazing the reef substrate, visiting cleaning stations, and defending their territories from intruders.

After a few days at Invisibles, we moved on to tracking S. viride at our second dive site, Aquarius. This time, I was in charge of GPS tracking as the top-side snorkeler. Viewing these fish from above made it much easier to discern the boundaries of each territory, and when intruding fish were attempting to sneak into the territories. While it is tricky to keep up with a fish that is chasing another male out of its territory, especially when swimming against the winds on top of a flotation device, it has become my favorite part of tracking the stoplight parrotfish! These chases help us determine the true boundaries of each fish’s territory, so that we can better understand the impacts of their grazing!

While Josh observes parrotfish behavior underwater, I snorkel with a GPS receiver to record fish movement and identify territory boundaries.
Photo credit: Lena Kury

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