Category Archives: Current Internships

First Days and Fish Surveys

A month after I sat sleepily on a plane bound for NYC, I enter REEF’s Headquarters in Key Largo, Florida. REEF HQ is an adorable yellow house in the median of the Overseas Highway and the oldest house in the Upper Keys. Nearby stands a restored wooden cistern, which was used in the early 20th century – back before freshwater was transported to the Keys from the mainland – to collect rainwater for use by the house’s residents. The white picket fence ornamented with brightly colored fish and corals adds to the charm of the place.

I arrive at REEF HQ with 2 of my 3 wonderful new roommates and fellow interns, Lawrie (no, that is not a typo) and Ashley. At 9 AM, the office is already bustling, and the six full-time staff members and two leadership interns gather in the main room of the house/office to introduce themselves. I am excited to be working with such a small team, and looking back, I think this made learning the ropes in the office easier. Still, I am surprised at how much there is to learn and remember, even for such an intimate office space. There is certainly plenty to keep us busy!

Me, Lawrie, and Ashley on our first day in Key Largo

Me, Lawrie, and Ashley on our first day in Key Largo

Before I talk any more about my experiences here, I want to go big picture for a moment. REEF’s overarching mission is to conserve marine environments through citizen science and education, and they have three major projects that serve this goal. One project, the Grouper Moon Project, aims to monitor, study, and protect one of the still-thriving Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations off the coast of Little Cayman. Because many spawning sites such as this one have been overfished, protection of remaining spawning sites is important. Unfortunately, not much happens with this project during the summer months, so it’s not a part of my internship. But I do have the privilege of being able to get involved with REEF’s two other projects: the Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP) and the Invasive Lionfish Project.

The VFSP was developed in 1990 as the foundation of REEF. The goal? To enlist volunteer divers and snorkelers to collect fish species richness and abundance data by identifying and counting the fish they observe. These data are collected using the Roving Diver Survey Method, which allows divers to swim freely while surveying. Divers then enter their data into REEF’s online database, which is now the largest marine sightings database in the world.

And last but not least: The Invasive Lionfish Project. I am sure most (Many? Some? Not totally sure who my audience is here) of you know that lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, are invasive in the Atlantic; they were first spotted off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s, and aquarium releases are theorized to be the cause of their arrival. Their lack of predators and rapid rate of reproduction (they spawn about every four days after they reach sexual maturity at one year old) enabled lionfish to rapidly populate the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and East Coast of the United States, where their numbers are now far higher than in their native range. Their overabundance, along with their voracious appetites and ability to eat as much food as they can swallow, means that they cause damage to coral reefs by consuming copious amounts of local reef fish. REEF works to control the lionfish population by hosting events such as Lionfish Derbies, Lionfish Collecting and Handling Workshops, and Lionfish Jewelry Workshops. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself – more on those later.

Working at REEF is refreshingly different from my previous jobs and internships, which have always required that I focus all of my energy on one project. As a Peer Writing Tutor at Indiana University, my only job for any given hour was the student and the paper in front of me. On various independent research projects, I would chip away at the project for twelve weeks or a semester or a year. Things might go wrong, new pieces might be added, but I was still working towards one goal. My goals at REEF are less linear. Occasionally I’ll begin chatting with an eager high school student or a friendly vacationing family on a dive boat, and they’ll ask me, “So, what is it that you do, exactly?” This question always makes me pause for a moment while I gather my thoughts; I still have not come up with a sound bite to concisely describe my mixed bag of intern duties. Many days are spent working in the office, but even those aren’t uniform. Usually, tasks stack up in every shape and size – sometimes I’m doing computer research, sometimes I’m helping out with an education program, and sometimes you can find me rinsing out coolers or weed whacking in the yard. By helping me learn how to prioritize and efficiently complete many different projects, working on such varied jobs is filling holes in my skillset that I did not even know existed. I am happy to take on this challenge; I would be naïve to think that every position in my future will involve a goal that is neatly packaged into one large, digestible task. In fact, most of them probably won’t.

When I’m not in the office, you can probably find me underwater.

A perk of being an intern at REEF is being able to dive for free with an assortment of dive shops on Key Largo to conduct fish surveys for the VFSP. Somehow, this piece of information slipped by me when I was preparing for my internship in the spring, so I was stunned to be met with this news during my first day at work. We are allowed to take half of a workday to do a two-tank dive and a couple fish surveys, and we can dive outside of work whenever we want. Most weeks, we try to do at least one night dive and a half-day of diving on the weekend in addition to a couple weekday dives.

Because I studied abroad in Bonaire my junior year, I was already familiar with the most common Caribbean reef fish, but I was excited to brush up on my fish ID skills and start learning some new species. On our first Wednesday in the Keys, we go on our first dive as REEF interns with Ellie, REEF’s Education Program Manager (and former OWUSS REEF intern!). I immediately start noticing some differences between the fish life on Bonaire’s reefs and the fish life here. Fewer smallmouth grunts, but more white grunts; many more large, boldly-colored parrotfish; far fewer goofy-looking porcupine fishes and stoic trumpetfishes.

[Unfortunately, I am having some technical difficulties with my SeaLife and cannot pull photos off of it onto my computer. But hopefully I will be able to post some fish pictures soon!]

Hm. Me, REEF, first days, fish…I think that’s about all. But I want to end this post the same way my time with OWUSS began: with a collision of worlds. IU does a week-long field school in the Florida Keys, and during my second week here, I once again found myself hugging Charlie and Mylana hello. Armed with a laptop, pole spear, and Zookeeper, Lawrie, Ashley, Marie (one of the two leadership interns, Roommate Number 4, and marvelous human being) and I climb the stairs to the living quarters above Quiescence Diving Services. There, we take a deep breath and do our first presentation for REEF while the IU students eat Key lime pie.

The Saturday before the IU crew heads back to the Midwest, all the IU alums in the Keys gather for a Saturday night barbeque. These faces, which I had seen often in IU’s classrooms, my lab meetings, and the familiar 1920s-era pool in the Wildermuth Intramural Center, color a new landscape with familiarity.

It is a warm and lovely way to begin the summer.

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Dry Tortugas National Park: Hitting My Stride with SFCN

“Goooooooood morning divers!! Great day for a day man!” Mikey Kent, Park Diving Officer for Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) greets us. Perhaps no one in the National Park Service experience has a more pervasive reputation than Mikey Kent. He has medium length salty blonde hair, is covered in nautical tattoos, and probably has never had a bad day in his life. He is always doing something- playing, working, or both. And as someone once told me, “Mikey has never met anyone he didn’t already know for 30 years.”

"I've been told I need to work on my professionalism." No Mikey, never change. Photo credit: Mike Feeley

“I’ve been told I need to work on my professionalism.” No Mikey, never change. Photo credit: Mike Feeley

I am prepping dive gear, snacks, and underwater clipboards for the dive team I’m with for the day. Mikey meanders his was through the Fort Jeff greeting each person he sees (Fort Jefferson is the full name of the boat, but it is known as Fort Jeff to distinguish the boat from the actual fort with the same name). “J Mills, you are looking extra sharp today my man!” J Mills is Mikey’s nickname for Jeff Miller. Jeff is a coral biology and disease specialist on the South Florida Caribbean Network (SFCN) monitoring team that I am with at DRTO. He is quick witted, sports board shorts covered in sumo wrestlers, and states, “it goes without saying, so I’ll say it again, my unpredictability is my predictability.”

Jeff puts 110% effort into his sun protection.

Jeff “J Mills” Miller puts 110% effort into his sun protection.

I’ve been diving with Jeff for two days finding metal rods that mark coral survey sites underwater. The goal is to find all of the pins, layout a transect tape (underwater measuring tape) connecting the pins, and survey coral species and disease that are within a meter of the tape on each side. Once SFCN has the data, they inform the park’s decisions on how to properly manage their natural resources (in this case, marine environment/life). The trick is that the pins can be difficult to find. The tops of the pins- about the size and shape of a half dollar- protrude from the coral reef by as little as 3 centimeters and are often overgrown with coral and algae. Looking for these pins with “J Mills” (who has over 7,000 dives to his name) may be the most humbling experience I’ve ever had underwater. Jeff finds pins without a compass that take me and the other divers 20 minutes to find.

During the surveys, we are looking for coral diseases such as this.

During the surveys, we are looking for coral diseases such as this.

“You coming sailing tonight?!” Mikey asks me. “Wouldn’t miss it, I”ll be there!” I respond as I am passing the day’s lunch cooler, cylinders (SCUBA tanks), and cameras down to my team’s boat, which is side-tied to the Fort Jeff. One final gear check and we cast off to conduct coral surveys at “Santa’s Village”- a reef site in the far north of the park.


It all started 2 days ago when Mike Feeley, Andy Davis, Kelly O’Connell, and Jeff picked me up from a rented Submerged Resources Center (SRC) house near Biscayne National Park. I was told about the SFCN team from many people before I actually met them. I think the best summary came from Bert Ho of the SRC, “they’re a great team of guys who know their stuff, you’ll love ‘em.”

Mike Feeley is the team lead at SFCN and greets me in the truck. Mike is a tall, barrel-chested man with a deep voice. He has a Michigan heart but a Miami aesthetic. He’s also perhaps the most even-keeled person I’ve ever met and keeps his team steady. We meet Lee Richter and Rob Waara in Key Largo and I get in their truck.

“Are those guys going to lunch at Subway?! Wow! I can’t believe they are doing that, Subway is god-awful. We are going to Chad’s Deli, their portabello sandwich is out of this world! You definitely lucked out in the lunch department,” Rob tells me. “We need to stop at Office Depot first to get some Cheese Balls.” Lee interjects, “most important item in the truck! Though it is a little concerning you can’t get them at a grocery store.” Lee and Rob are a funny duo that work very well together. Rob is the Dive Officer for SFCN. He commutes about an hour and a half to work so that he can live on an island, speaks very quickly, and has a soft spot for Recess Peanut Butter Cups. Lee is in his late 20’s. Him and Rob love to kiteboard. Lee is kind of guy you’d like your daughter to date. He is always smiling, loves The Life Aquatic, and is exceedingly patient as I come to find out.

"To my surprise, they actually do have cheese in them!" Lee indulges in some Cheese Balls.

“To my surprise, they actually do have cheese in them!” Lee indulges in some Cheese Balls.

“If we are doing portabellos, we need to call them in, they take 20 minutes to cook,” Rob warns us. Lee tries to call the deli, but can’t get through. While Rob parks the truck with the trailer, Lee and I put in the food order. “If it looks like it’s going to take a while, forget the portabello,” Rob tells us. Lee decides Rob is probably exaggerating and orders the portabello sandwich for Rob. We wait…and wait…and wait. All the while, Rob is both very bored in the car and increasingly worried that we are running later and later with each passing moment. So he calls Lee after about 5 minutes. “Hey Rob, yeah we put in the order. It’s coming, we’ll be out there soon buddy.” He calls again. He texts. He calls again. “I love Rob, he’s a brother to me. But it’s exactly that- he’s a brother to me,” Lee laughs without expressing even the faintest frustration.

“I wasn’t exaggerating! I don’t know how they cook those portabellos, they take forever but man are they delicious!” Rob says back on the road. We get down to Key West where the Fort Jeff is docked on a Coast Guard/Navy base. After unloading food, gear, and smaller boats onto a bigger boat, we go to dinner in Key West.

Loading smaller boats onto bigger boats.

Loading smaller boats onto bigger boats.

Key West is a funny place. It reminds me a bit of the port town of Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean. It is a small salty community where most residents’ skin looks like leather from decades of saltwater and sun and you can’t go down a grocery aisle without hearing about so-and-so’s kid who is off sailing to Grenada. We’re going to dinner that night in a “kind of sketchy” place near Key West, according to Mike.

The restaurant is on Stock Island, a “kind of sketchy” place according to Mike Feeley. It’s right on the water and hosts a strange mix of salty leather-skins and tourists inside. Before we enter, we see the most intricate and impressive truck I’ve ever seen (albeit in the trashiest way). It is covered in plastic sea creatures and seascapes have been painted all over the exterior.

The trashiest, but most impressive truck I've ever seen.

The trashiest, but most impressive truck I’ve ever seen.

In the restaurant, we meet Benjamin “Ben Jammin’” D’Avanzo. Benjamin is a “buoy boy,” he installs and maintains buoys for NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. He sports a blonde Mohawk, dives in tights with rainbow unicorns on them, and enjoys fine vegan cheeses. I share some jokes and get to know the SFCN team over dinner. We call it a night fairly early to get ready for the next day’s voyage, though it’s not exactly an early start.

Benjammin' in his rainbow unicorn dive tights.

Ben Jammin’ in his rainbow unicorn dive tights.


9:00 AM casually rolls around and we cast off for DRTO. I’ve never seen so many islands in my life. Coming out of Key West, there are endless sandy islands skirted with green mangroves.

Looking through a cannon opening at Fort Jefferson. The moat below used to be home to a crocodile.

Looking through a cannon opening at Fort Jefferson. The moat below used to be home to a crocodile.

After a 5 hour tour, we arrive to the real Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. The fort is a massive work of masonry. Constructed in around the time of the Civil War, it is a large brick hexagon surrounded by a moat that used to have a crocodile in it. We tie up and I head out for a check out dive with Rob and Kelly O’Connell. Kelly is SFCN’s intern and a master’s student at the University of Miami. She loves coral biology, packs lunches for everyone on the boat, and gets sunburnt easily.


“Well, it’s day 3 of the hostage crisis,” Mike says as the Caribbean sunrise shines through the tinted windows of the Fort Jeff. I’ve been working with Elissa Connolly-Randazzo quite a bit so far. I also worked with Elissa at Biscayne National Park. Elissa is a spunky Jersey girl who has a personality that enabled her to thrive as the only female volunteer with the SFCN crew for years. She previously lived at DRTO as an intern and has a more intimate knowledge of the park than Ben, Kelly, or myself.

The M/V Fort Jefferson (Fort Jeff) in front of the Fort Jefferson. This is a toughie!

The M/V Fort Jefferson (Fort Jeff) in front of the Fort Jefferson. This is a toughie!

Underwater, I am starting finding my groove searching for survey pins. Elissa and I are mostly meeting our goal of setting up all transect tapes at each site we go to for Rob, Jeff, and Ben to survey. After setting our personal record of finding all pins and setting up a site in 35 minutes (including a safety stop!), we get back to the Fort Jeff at Fort Jefferson (getting it yet? Neither am I, don’t worry).

“The groupers are under the boat! I see 3 of them! No, 4! I mean 5!” Elissa says excitedly. I stop putting away gear and go look. 5 goliath groupers are under the Fort Jeff. I’ve only seen 1 or 2 at a time under the dock and the boat. Growing up to 8’ long and weighing up to 600 pounds, they are the biggest finfish in the region. I’ve been wanting to jump in the water with them and take some photos since I arrived.

The goliath groupers were a welcome sight for me. Here's one going in for a light snack under the Fort Jeff.

The goliath groupers were a welcome sight for me. Here’s one going in for a light snack under the Fort Jeff.

“Mike, can I jump in and take some shots of the groupers?” I ask, with nothing to lose. “If the ship’s crew is ok with it, sure!” Mike responds. I run to find the crew, get cleared to free dive, and grab my camera.

Elissa and I plan our entrance strategy, and enter the water under the pier. We talk at the surface near the groupers. “I not going to lie, I’m a little nervous. These fish are way bigger than me,” Elissa tells me. “We’ll see how they react, but try to get face to face with one if you can and I’ll do what I can to get the shot,” I tell her. I take a big breath in and dive down. Elissa gets pretty close to a grouper, but I have to get even closer since I have a wide-angle lens on my camera. I exhale quickly at the surface and look at the shots that I just took. They are awful. I set my exposure for the sunny spot between the pier and the boat. Elissa and the fish are in the shadow of the boat. The photos are completely black. “Did you get it?!” Elissa asks anxiously. “…We are going to have to do that one again,” I tell her.

Elissa was really patient with me as I tried to get the right shot. Even though we weren't limited on how long we could be in the water, we were limited on how long we could stay under since we were free diving.

Elissa was really patient with me as I tried to get the right shot. Even though we weren’t limited on how long we could be in the water, we were limited on how long we could stay under since we were free diving.

What follows is a religious experience. The sunlight gleams through the pier onto Elissa and the groupers as we become completely calm with the giants below the surface. Everything is quiet except for the swooshing of the groupers’ cadual fins (tails), the shutter of my camera, and the boat rocking in the wind chop at the surface.

These photos are important to me. The goliath grouper has been protected for quite some time in Florida, but there is pressure now from the fishing industry to remove protection. Though populations have recovered wonderfully in certain areas, the population as a whole has not. Goliath’s are slow growing fish that are extremely susceptible to overfishing. Photos that humanize the fish and bring a living, breathing, beautiful animal to people that may not otherwise see them can sometimes turn the tide in a debate like this. While I don’t have any expectation that my photos will be the catalyst, I hope that they can play a part.

After swimming underneath the Fort Jeff, I came upon this giant.

Sometimes your best shots are unplanned. After swimming underneath the Fort Jeff, I came upon this giant, pointed the camera up, and just reacted.

After shooting the goliath’s for a while, we go towards the stearn of the ship. There is a big school of silversides (small baitfish) under the pier. I imagine a shot in my head and dive down. I use my strobes (flash) for the shot. They create an extreme reflection off of the fish and it looks like thousands of small strobes flashing back into my camera. The photos are horrible. I dive down again and turn off the strobes. That looks bad too and I can’t get close enough to the school with the wide angle lens to capture them. I try again, strobes on but placed differently. No dice. After about my 20th dive, I get pretty frustrated. I can’t create the shot I am imagining. I decide to try something new. I turn the strobes to flash at my own ears, behind the camera, to diffuse the light more. I dive down to the seafloor and shoot the school from the bottom up. The school moves closer to me when I’m at the bottom. My strobes fire and I swim to the surface. Finally, I get the shots I was thinking of.

This baitball of silversides was frustrating and, eventually, rewarding to shoot. I was really happy with this shot.

This baitball of silversides was frustrating and, eventually, rewarding to shoot. I was really happy with this shot.

“Hey, how’d the photos turn out?!” Curtis Hall, Park Ranger at DRTO, asks me. “You have some time right now? I can show you!” I say. He invites me up to his place. It is a beautiful apartment inside of the fort that is marked by a giant arch over the living room/kitchen. As we go through the photos, Curtis seems pretty happy with my work. “It’s a learning process for me. It’s all still really new and it’s a lot of guess work, but I’m pretty happy with some of these,” I tell him. As we get talking about my internship, he asks me what I’d like to do after I graduate. I tell him I’d like to work in media and/or scientific diving. I express my concern to him about the former, “I don’t know that I could make any money in media.” He replies, “With these photos, I think you could!” Hearing that sort of encouragement from an NPS employee was pretty special and gave me a little bit of validation to the thought that I am progressing behind the camera. I may be far from becoming an expert, but at least I’m better than I was last week, and that is exciting for me.

Knowing that the park valued my photos and could use them made me feel pretty fantastic.

Knowing that the park valued my photos and could use them made me feel pretty fantastic.


“Day 5 of the hostage crisis.” Today is different. We are diving a site called “LH-4,” meaning it is near Loggerhead Key- a small sand island near the Fort Jefferson that is home to a large lighthouse, many nesting turtles, and not much else. LH-4 is special because there is a photogrammetry site there. Jeff asks me to bring my camera on the boat today. “You know, you don’t have to twist my arm about it Jeff,” I respond jokingly.

Jeff and Rob brief me on the photogrammetry project. There is a rectangular plot we will set up underwater. Then, in a lawnmower-like fashion, we will swim up and down the plot, taking as many overlapping photos as possible from both birds-eye and side profile views. Once we have the images, they will go into a software program that will stitch them together and build a 3D model of the reef. Rebuilding the model each time they visit the site and comparing it with previous models will enable SFCN determine the health and growth of the reef over time.

Rob photographing the photogrammetry site.

Rob photographing the photogrammetry site.

I start the lawnmower up and about 600 photos later, I’ve completely covered the reef. Since I completed my task, I start taking photos of corals and everyone else working. Once we get topside, Jeff states, “that was a tough dive for me, I was really having a hard time with my buoyancy down there.” He then jokingly gleams at me, “you need to delete those photos of me, I looked like crap down there!”

I'm a man of my word Jeff! Here's a different shot of J Mills- the man, the myth, the legend.

I’m a man of my word Jeff! Here’s a different shot of J Mills- the man, the myth, the legend.

We return to the Fort Jeff, put away our gear, and none other than Mikey Kent strolls through the main cabin, “ anyone trying to float tonight?” It took me a second to realize what he was saying. “Are you sailing tonight?” I ask. “It’s Dry Tortugas National Park man! Of course we are going sailing!” Mikey responds.

Mikey, Ben, and I head out to Mikey’s small catamaran that he brought over on the Fort Jeff from Key West. “You learn the basics of sailing and then it’s kind of like, you see whatever makes the boat move and go with that,” Mikey tells me. We push off and head away from the island. The wind is calm and it is nearing sunset. The boat is so light that even the slightest bit of wind gets the boat moving pretty quickly. We cruise over the shallow waters upshore of the Fort Jefferson and see nurse sharks chasing each other (it is mating season!). “Time to get into sunset position boys,” Mikey states as he maneuvers the rudder with his foot. We sail around the fort while Mikey tells us about the time he sailed to Cuba from Key West in this boat. “I was trying to grow out a mustache for Cuba for 5 weeks. My mom called me home and I had to shave it. Momma’s house, momma’s rules…5 weeks though! It killed me!” Mikey’s story soundtracks a beautiful sunset. Pinks and oranges light up the water and sky just beyond the brick walls of the fort. “I messed up! I should have brought my camera, it’s calm enough that it would have been safe on deck in a dry bag,” I tell Mikey and Ben. “You didn’t mess up man, you’re on a sailboat!” Mikey states. I agree and remember a quote from one of my favorite photographers, “some of my best photos are the ones I never took with a camera.”

I may not have got the shot from the sailboat, but sunsets at Dry Tortugas can be pretty special.

I may not have got the shot from the sailboat, but sunsets at Dry Tortugas can be pretty special.


“Day 6 of the hostage crisis,” Mike states in his morning brief. Today I’m switching boats with Kelly. My new dive buddy is Andy Davis, a Brazilian with the faintest accent I’ve ever heard an English-speaking Brazilian have. Mike and Lee are also on my new boat, the “mini v,” which is the smaller of the two SFCN boats.“We have strong knees and shoulders on the mini v,” Mike warns. It’s a 19-foot catamaran and much less spacious and stable than the boat I was on for the first five days. “Have fun trying to get ready on that little boat with all those big guys!” Kelly teases me.

After spending quite a bit of time topside on the mini v, I find that it is a little slower and a lot wetter than the big boat. While I am on the surface, so is Andy. It’s the first time I’ve spoken with him at length. He has lived in the US Virgin Islands or Florida for the past 10 years or so, but still has a strong connection back home in Brazil. His sense of humor is subtle, and he should pride himself on his carefully crafted one-liners.

Resting my knees and shoulders on the "mini v." Photo credit: Andy Davis.

Resting my knees and shoulders on the “mini v.” Photo credit: Andy Davis.

It takes one dive for Andy and I to get dialed in to how each work underwater. Things run smoothly and we are finding pins really quickly. We also begin downloading information underwater from “hobos”- a device that stays submerged at a survey site permanently and measures water temperature over many years.

Andy measures rugosity- a measure of how complex the reef structure is.

Andy measures rugosity- a measure of how complex the reef structure is.

After I cook a stir-fry dinner for the SFCN team, I go with Kelly to a potluck hosted by the DRTO staff and interns. It’s at a picnic table situated in front of a large opening in the fort’s second story looking over the sunset. I meet 4 humans, 2 birds, and 1 dog. The humans are Megan, Tracey, and Yung, three of the interns at DRTO, and Kayla, a DRTO biologist. “This bird is awesome, and this one will bite your face off,” Kayla warns me as she dawns a parrot on her shoulder and one on her fingers. As Kayla intermittently flips the bird on her fingers upside down, I ask Tracey where he’s from. He tells me rural Pennsylvania, “we had days off of school for the beginning of deer season.” We laugh and try to guess what Mikey is saying as we see his boat flying on the water in front of a gorgeous sunset. I look towards the fort’s lighthouse and see incredible colors on the horizon. “Thank you guys for having me and I’d love to stay longer, but I need to go shoot the lighthouse!” I run out of the potluck through the archways of the fort, grab my camera, run up the spiral staircase, and then down the sandy path the lines the roof of the fort. The colors are fading fast. I mostly missed it. I’m kicking myself for not getting there earlier.

Wandering through the arches within the walls of Fort Jefferson.

Wandering through the arches within the walls of Fort Jefferson.

I’ve been weathering strong winds for four straight nights on top of the fort trying to get the perfect shot of the lighthouse. There are incredible lightning storms that form every night on the horizon behind the lighthouse. They are so far in the distance and happen at such irregular intervals that I haven’t been able to capture that moment yet. The lighthouse is my Moby Dick at the fort so far. It’s the most obvious thing to shoot, and perhaps the easiest, which makes it the hardest thing to make interesting.


“Day 7 of the hostage crisis.” The crew is noticeably more tired at this point in the trip. Spirits are still high, but the mood is slightly heavier. I step outside the Fort Jeff to start getting my gear ready. It’s pouring rain. Mike and Rob are outside as well getting their rebreather gear together while having a spirited debate about diving operations. I decide to go back into the ship as Lee is looking outside. “They’re like two parents sometimes, they’ll be laughing about this in 10 minutes,” he says.

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, Rob and Mike come in with smiles on their face. “We’re going to try to do a shorter day today,” Mike tells the SFCN crew. “…And, it’s grill night! I’m grilling fish, steaks, chicken, portabello mushrooms, vegetables, corn, you name it, I’m grilling it!” Rob announces. Though this is welcome news to the crew, though the reaction is a little muffled by the lethargy in the room.

I didn't write about it, but this jelly was incredibly hard to photograph for me. I took about 30 photos before it ascended further than I wanted to go. This was the only useable shot.

I didn’t write about it, but this jelly was incredibly hard to photograph for me. I was so excited to see one and took about 30 photos before it ascended further than I wanted to go. This was the only useable shot.

The mini v takes off for a shorter, but challenging diving day. We dive a site that hasn’t been visited in many years. Some of the survey pins are missing and it takes a lot longer to do out work. But as Andy and I reach our safety stop, we see a silky shark.

Andy hammers in new survey pins to replace the missing ones.

Andy hammers in new survey pins to replace the missing ones.

Two hours later, Mike and Lee ascend from their dive absolutely elated. “That was incredible,” Mike starts telling us. “I heard you screaming at me through your rebreather and I couldn’t figure out what you wanted! And then I saw it, a manta doing summersaults only a meter away from us!” Lee continues. “Did you get the shot?! I saw you with the iPad” Mike asks. “I tried, but it asked me for the password to sign in and I didn’t want to mess with it, so I just enjoyed the experience,” Lee says. We all let out a collective sigh, but are really excited. As Mike sums it up, “it’s one of those ocean moments you’ll never forget.” However, as it always is with the SFCN team, Lee doesn’t get off the hook so easily. Once the rest of the team hears the story, it becomes a running joke. “I saw a [insert animal name here]! Shaun, you should totally put that in your blog! Oh…except Lee didn’t get a picture of it…”

Since I don't have a photo of a manta to put here, I'll just put a picture of Lee!

Since I don’t have a photo of a manta to put here, I’ll just put a picture of Lee!

We return to the Fort Jeff and are greeted by Chef Rob. He’s laid out quite the feast to grill. While he’s grilling, Mike and Mikey take off for a sail. As team lead, Mike takes the brunt of the work for SFCN, so the crew is really supportive of him going out and having some fun. Everyone digs into the mahi mahi and mashed potatoes to the sound of 1970’s era pop music- Steely Dan, America, and Carroll King. Smiles and laughter fill the room when Jeff loudly states, “can’t have potatoes without BBQ sauce!” All the while, Lee is doing his best Rob impression by saying Rob’s favorite exclamation, “whoa!”

J Mills, Mikey, and Benjammin' hang out after Chef Rob's feast.

J Mills, Mikey, and Ben Jammin’ hang out after Chef Rob’s feast.

As the sun goes down, we all talk about how happy Mike is going to be when he gets back from sailing. Not only is he sailing rather than working, but he’s with Mikey. You’d have to be in a pretty sour mood to not have fun with Mikey.

About 10 minutes later, a soaking wet Mike Feeley comes into the Fort Jeff, grinning from ear to ear. “We were flying out there, a lot of good runs!” Mike recalls. “Man, we almost lost me! I was holding onto the rudder while my body was skipping like a pebble and DMF (Mikey’s name for Mike) uses some big man strength and pulls me on board! It was awesome!” Mikey says as we all crack up at the story. Mike and Mikey dig in to the food as well and we all enjoy a wonderful night together.

The grounds of Fort Jefferson used to bustling with 400 some soldiers and held many more buildings that have since fallen or burned down.

The grounds of Fort Jefferson used to bustling with 400 some soldiers and held many more buildings that have since fallen or burned down.


Some incredible diving and Mike’s sailing adventure breathe new life into the crew. After two more days of coral surveys, we have finished everything that SFCN set out to do. On this morning, Mike tells us “the goal is to be back by about 2:30, so we can pack up and help load the back deck.” We are going to Tortugas Bank, a reef just past the park boundary that starts in 90 feet of water and goes down to 130 feet. Mikey Kent yells out as we start loading the boat, “what are we doing today boys? Banging tanks and blowing bubbles?!”

Ben doing a backflip in front of Loggerhead Key.

Ben doing a backflip in front of Loggerhead Key.

Jeff, Ben, Mike, and Andy drop in first. Rob is at the helm while we live boat from the surface. “Dolphins!” someone shouts. “I really wish someone had a nice camera so we could capture this magical moment at sea,” Rob says as he looks at me sarcastically. As I am scrambling to get my snorkel gear on and camera ready, the pod leaves as quickly as they came. A similar moment happened earlier in the trip when Elissa and I saw a sailfish that came right up to the boat. It hung around for no more than 2 seconds. Earlier in the trip I would have been pretty hard on myself for not getting the shot, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t get every photo and am (mostly) at peace with that.

The reefs around Dry Tortugas can be covered in macroalgae or be partially diseased. This was a nice patch to find!

The reefs around Dry Tortugas can be covered in macroalgae or be partially diseased. This was a nice patch to find!

The divers surface and Jeff says “the structure is beautiful, but that was a pristine reef 20 years ago and very little of it is left.” Since the reef wasn’t as Jeff remembered it and the visibility wasn’t as good as we were hoping for, we decide to do our second dive at a survey site that Andy and I dove on. The structure around the site looked really cool but we didn’t have time to explore it before. Once we arrive, I buddy up with Lee.

Lee having some fun during a safety stop.

Lee having some fun during a safety stop.

We descend onto swim-through arches and caves all around us. Visibility isn’t excellent, but the topography and fish are amazing. I find myself scrambling on dives like this to get the photos I want while keeping up with the other divers. I feel like I am winging it with the photos in order to not hold up the group, but I really don’t have the time I need to set up the shots. That being said, I don’t let it stop me from enjoying the dive.

Lee explores the caves of our dive site.

Lee explores the caves of our dive site in his dive tights.

Our next stop is Loggerhead Key. It’s a bigger island than Garden Key, where the fort is, and is home to a big historic lighthouse. “Wow, we haven’t had visibility like this all week!” Mike says as we get to dock. I dry the big glass dome that holds my camera lens to try my hand at the ever-famous “over-under” shot, where half the photo is underwater and half is above water. I walk in the ocean from the beach carefully, remembering the warning Chris Milbern (2016 OWUSS Rolex Scholar) gave me, “if your dome is wet, your over-unders will be covered in water droplets.”

Trying my hand at an over-under at Loggerhead Key.

Trying my hand at an over-under at Loggerhead Key.

After a few over-unders, I go below the pier to take some photos of the schools of fish there and then hop out. Mike told us we had enough time to walk the island end to end, so I decide to do exactly that. I start at the lighthouse, take some photos, and then walk up the beach. “Loggerhead Key is the best thing this park has to offer on land.” Mikey has been saying this since we got to DRTO. As amazing as the fort is, Loggerhead is truly special. It’s exactly what you imagine when you imagine paradise- a small sand island with a few coconut trees and skirted by bright blue, crystal clear water.

As I walk around the island, I notice two other things. The first is the amount of turtle nests. The DRTO natural resource team marks current nests on the island and there are hundreds. The second is the amount of trash washed up on the beach. Loggerhead key isn’t close to anything. It may not be as remote as some islands in the pacific or near the poles, but you certainly aren’t going to get on your kayak and paddle over there on a Sunday afternoon. Most of the trash is plastic, which looks exactly like the jellyfish that many turtles eat. The juxtaposition of the plastic near the turtle nests was heart breaking. I put as much trash in my bag as I could going back to the boat.

Trash washes ashore at Loggerhead Key. Pesticide like Raid and plastic are incredibly harmful to turtles and other marine life that surrounds the island.

Trash washes ashore at Loggerhead Key. Pesticide like Raid and plastic are incredibly harmful to turtles and other marine life that surrounds the island.

Back on the boat, Lee, Ben, and I revel in the 1990’s music channel on our boat’s satellite radio. We sing along to 90’s classics while the rest of the team comes back to the boat. “I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend!” we sing along to Third Eye Blind’s hit as we go back to the fort.

Soon after, dinnertime rolls around on the boat. “Whoa! Mustache! You know what? I am going to join you, I like this idea,” Lee states after seeing my newly-shaved mustache. “Last night on the boat is a special occasion that calls for some facial hair festivities,” I tell him. We all begin recalling funny jokes from the trip and bring up memories. Before I go to bed, Mikey tells me, “you have to leave that mustache for when you go to St. Croix!”


It’s 9 PM in Miami’s Wynnwood art’s district. The walls are covered in street art, traffic moves slowly while cars stop to talk to friends on the street, and loud music plays from every corner. “You know, they were never worried about you once,” Kelly tells me. “Plus, they gave you a nickname. I think they liked you,” she continues. Mike started saying my name in a peculiar (and hilarious) way early in the week. It was like he was lifting really heavy weight that he needed my help with before he got crushed. It caught on, and the whole crew began saying my name like that. “It’s from a movie, about some guys from the IRA I think,” Mike told me.

The SFCN crew really made me feel like part of their team. They didn’t lower their expectations for me or constantly check in to make sure I was doing ok. They just expected I would carry my weight from day one like everyone else. They teased me just as they did everyone. Maybe it was because I spent so much time with them in close quarters, but I really bonded with this group of people. I had stumbled at Biscayne- struggling a bit with new gear and a fast-paced schedule. At DRTO, I felt like I hit my stride. I was a little sad to leave, but I knew I was going to work with SFCN again in two weeks on St. John.

The next morning, Kelly graciously took me to the airport after housing me for the night. We said our goodbyes, or “see you in two weeks,” and I left for the next adventure- St. Croix.

SFCN and the crew of the Fort Jeff. Front (L-R): Andy Davis, Me. Back (L-R): Kelly O'Connell, Brian LaVerne, Lee Richter, Rob Waara, Mikey Kent, Benjamin D'Avanzo, Mike Feeley, Jeff Miller, and Captain Tim.

SFCN and the crew of the Fort Jeff. Front (L-R): Andy Davis, Me with a mustache. Back (L-R): Kelly O’Connell, Brian LaVerne, Lee Richter, Rob Waara, Mikey Kent, Benjamin D’Avanzo, Mike Feeley, Jeff Miller, and Captain Tim.

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Prologue: 48 Hours in New York City

Hi everyone! If you’ve already read my bio on the internship page, then I suppose you can just skip this next paragraph – but for fear of catapulting everyone else into a detailed account of my life without a little background, I want to introduce myself.

I’m Claire Mullaney, the 2017 Dr. Jamie L. King Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) Marine Conservation Intern through the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri and a former student at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana, I am a Midwesterner through and through. I just graduated from IU in May with a B.S. in Biology along with certificates in Animal Behavior and Underwater Resource Management. I am 22 now, but I began diving and taking classes through IU’s academic diving program when I was 18. In addition to diving, I focused my undergraduate years and summers on different areas of biological research, from molecular genetics to marine ecology to human dimensions. While I loved my semesters and summers in the lab, I realized quite suddenly a year ago that my true focus – in my day-to-day thoughts, if not yet in my career plans – was not research for its own sake, but rather marine conservation, marine resource management, and education. My love for literature and writing (my heart still hurts for the dual degree in English Literature that I was not able to complete) also feeds an interest in using writing to evoke compassion for the environment and to communicate marine conservation issues.

My internship at REEF officially began on Monday, May 22. But exactly a month before that, I went to the OWUSS banquet in New York City. And that’s where I want to begin. The weekend of April 22 introduced me to the OWUSS family, brought new friends, and fueled my drive to throw myself into a future focused on marine conservation; it seems like the perfect place to start this blog.

When I leave for NYC at 6 AM on Friday, April 21st, I am 1) still wondering if I really should be missing my dives to get my Full Face Mask Specialty Certification, which are happening today, and 2) happy to be getting out of town for the weekend; finals and my thesis defense still loom between me and graduation, and I am content to put them off for as long as I can.

That afternoon and evening, the names I have been reading over email become faces: Jenna. Erika. Shaun. Roberta. The 2016 and 2017 interns, along with the OWUSS team, gather in the lobby of our hotel before heading to the Terrace Club – which is across from Rockefeller Center – for a casual dinner. There are more new faces to meet here, and the atmosphere is cheery; people are catching up with old friends, making acquaintances, sharing stories. The faces aren’t all new to me, though. Charlie Beeker, the Director of IU’s Center of Underwater Science, was the first professor with whom I ever had a college class. Now, days before I graduate, we meet again in NYC. I spend most of the evening getting to know the other interns, and I chat with some people Charlie has pointed out to me. Standing on the balcony and looking at the New York skyline, surrounded by divers and ocean enthusiasts from around the country and world, I have a “I can’t believe I get to be in this place and do this thing” moment.

There will be many more in the coming days and months.

The next morning, we head to the Explorer’s Club for refreshments and to learn about the summers and years of the 2016 Interns and Scholars. The Explorer’s Club is the perfect backdrop for this event. I don’t really remember what I was expecting the Explorer’s Club Headquarters to be, but definitely not the museum/gathering space hybrid that it is. The halls and rooms hold relics of famous explorations: rocks from the moon, old game trophies (hunting trophies would never be taken on any current expeditions, of course), and the whip of Roy Chapman Andrews, who inspired the character of Indiana Jones (much to my dismay, the whip was absent for restoration purposes…I’m already counting down the days until next April). I was too busy gazing wide-eyed at all the artifacts and daydreaming to take many photos, but I do quickly snap these two as I am heading down the stairs.

A signed photo of Buzz Aldrin is one of many snapshots hanging on the staircase walls at the Explorer's Club

A signed photo of Buzz Aldrin is one of many snapshots hanging on the staircase walls at the Explorer’s Club

A photo of Bob Ballard, Ralph White, and crew holding the Explorer's Club flag on the Titanic Discovery Expedition

A photo of Bob Ballard, Ralph White, and crew holding the Explorer’s Club flag on the Titanic Discovery Expedition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought the only thing that Bob Ballard, Buzz Aldrin, and I would have in common was that we were all from the same planet – certainly not members of the same club.

2017 Interns and Scholars getting inducted into the Explorer's Club

2017 Interns and Scholars getting inducted into the Explorer’s Club

The fanciest, and my most favorite, part of the weekend is the Saturday dinner at the New York Yacht Club. Spirits are high, and it is another wonderful evening of talking to old friends – including Mylana Haydu, the DSO at IU and my instructor for the better part of the last three years – and making new ones. I come away from the evening, and from the weekend as a whole, marveling at both the friendliness and experience of everyone I have met. Despite my youth and relative inexperience, I feel included, welcomed, and – please know that I never use this word lightly – inspired.

It may have taken a few tries…

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…but eventually, I managed to get a photo with Mylana Haydu, IU’s DSO and my instructor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posing for photos is complicated!

Posing for photos is complicated!

2017 OWUSS Interns, finally photo-ready

2017 OWUSS Interns, finally photo-ready. From L-R: Erika Sawicki, me, Shaun Wolfe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interns, past and present. From L-R: Patrick Peck, Garrett Fundakowski, Melissa Smith, Allie Sifrit (2016); Erika Sawicki, Shaun Wolfe, me (2017).

Interns, past and present. From L-R: Patrick Peck, Garrett Fundakowski, Melissa Smith, Allie Sifrit (2016); Erika Sawicki, Shaun Wolfe, me (2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still here? Thanks for sticking with me. More soon.

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2017 AAUS/OWUSS Internship — Final Week in California

As the weekend quickly came to an end, the second week of class began. I was rested and ready to go! The second week of the course really dives into the training of different types of scientific procedures and processes that assist scientists in the field. Buddy teams are changed every day in order to help you not become accustomed to the same diver each time. With scientific diving, you may have multiple different buddies and it is helpful to learn how to approach this in training. In order to get all of the buddy teams on the same page, a short dive briefing was given by our instructor to explain the goal of each dive.

IMG_7355         Dive Briefing by Rich WalshSIO Pier

Truck with Scuba diving gear on SIO Pier

In addition, another safety measure before beginning your dive was a check in on the surface with your dive plan (planned time, depth, psi in, psi out, dive table letter group, etc.).

Check in

Check in before descending

I really looked forward to Monday because it would be my first time diving in a kelp forest. Originating from New England and never traveling to the West Coast prior to this course, I had heard about kelp forests. However, now was my chance to finally have a firsthand experience! This would also be our first day diving off small boats. At SIO, the process for using boats is a little different than most places. The system is used to minimize the time it takes to launch a boat. The boat ramp would add an hour to the procedure since it is located at Mission Bay Park, San Diego, California. The boats are launched off the pier, using a crane system to pick the boats up, bring them over the side of the pier, and then lowered into the water. Then each person has to climb down a 30 foot chain ladder to get on to the boat!

                   Ladder

Boats

Small boat procedures at SIO Pier

Tuesday broke the normal routine of dives in the morning and classroom in the afternoon. We had a deep dive and beach entry in the morning from La Jolla Shores and a night dive was planned for the evening. The deep dive was done in groups of four students and one dive instructor. We surface swam out to the canyon from La Jolla Shores and then descended and explored. While heading back, each member of the group had enough air left for us to swim underwater until we hit about 5 feet of water and were basically back at shore. The night dive was back off SIO pier. We were tasked with more search pattern practice for this dive, which became a lot more difficult at night!

Wednesday we were back at SIO Pier to put our search and recovery skills into action. On the first dive, we were to search and recover two chains (approx. 10 pounds) that were thrown off the pier. The catch was that we did not see them thrown, but another buddy team would have to explain to us their approximate location. On the second dive, we were to find a “spider” which is a large metal object that is used to hold various underwater data collection machines. The “spider” was weighted down with ~50 pounds, so we also had to put our lift bag skills into action.

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“Spider”

We then got to tour behind the scenes of Birch Aquarium, which is the aquarium at Scripps. Melissa Torres, who gave us the tour, is in charge of diving operations at Birch Aquarium and also an instructor for the course. We got to see the tanks that can be dove in, both behind the scenes and from the general public’s perspective.

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Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Thursday concluded the scuba diving portion of the course. We were back on the small boats and dove Mia’s reef, which is an artificial reef. Small boat diving utilizes the seated back roll entry. This course was the first time I used this skill, and it is a lot easier than I had originally thought! In addition, we were also diving NITROX after learning the classroom material. I had never dove NITROX previously, but there are many benefits to this certification, such as extending bottom time at deeper depths. The first dive we completed a transect, collecting counts and sizes of different kelp species. The final dive of the class was reserved for a fun dive! We got to explore the reef, but always keeping in mind good diving practices and the skills we learned throughout the course!

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Small boat diving on surface

Often the conditions were not optimal during the course, but this forced us to perfect our skills with even more accuracy. For example, we had to deal with surge while trying to take measurements and maintaining neutral buoyancy. Conditions are one factor that you need to take into consideration while planning scientific dives. You need to be realistic about whether or not you can complete the task within the given conditions that day. If it is not feasible, you should reschedule when the conditions are more optimal for your plan.

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Small boat diving from depth

On Friday, the final day of the class, we took the final exam. This was a cumulative exam that covered all of the material from the course. This course is not only about scientific scuba diving skills, as much as it is about physically and mentally preparing yourself to complete the tasks at hand, even if you are exhausted. In addition, it is about adjusting to the conditions. California water is a brisk ~55°F and 5-25 foot visibility, something I had not dove very often.

Even with all these new skills to learn, there is always time to have a little fun!

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Getting towed by the Boat

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Getting fed pretzels

Class Picture

Class Picture after completing final dive: Left to right back: DSO Christian McDonald, Erika Sawicki (Me), Richard Walsh, Jim Behrens, Sho Kodera, Ben Frable, Irina Koester, Camille Pagniello, Anthony Tamberino, Tom Levi. Left to right front: Chad, Melissa Torres, Ellen Briggs, Pichaya Lertvilai, Megan Cimino, Kelsey Alexander

After 19 days in California and three different hosts who graciously let me stay at their homes, I am headed back home to Massachusetts for a couple weeks. My next adventure will begin at the end of July when I head to Savannah, Georgia to work with NOAA at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. I am really excited to see what this opportunity presents and am ready to get started!

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Hello, my name is Erika Sawicki and this year I received the OWUSS-AAUS Dr. Lee H. Somers Scientific Diving Internship. I am from a small town called Wilbraham, Massachusetts and recently graduated from the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine with a double major in Ocean Studies & Marine Affairs and Environmental Science and a minor in Philosophy. I am extremely grateful for the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) and the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) for their continued effort to create a positive and meaningful learning experience for me this summer.

After an interesting turn in events, I found out I would be completing my AAUS Scientific Diver Certification in La Jolla, California at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) with Diving Safety Officer (DSO) Christian McDonald. One week later, I was on a plane across the country to Los Angeles… Next, I was greeted with the wonderful California traffic and a four hour drive to San Diego.

Boston                   California

              Massachusetts                            to                                          California

My first night in San Diego I was warmly welcomed by Faith Ortins and Jeff from Diving Unlimited International (DUI). I had the opportunity to take a tour of DUI and learn how a drysuit was made. It was really fascinating to learn that almost the entire process is done by hand.

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DUI3DUI4

Diving Unlimited International 

For the rest of my time in California, I was warmly welcomed to stay at Mary and Sally’s condo. Sally Wahrmann is a member of the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame (WDHOF), with extensive knowledge and dive experience of the NE wreck Andrea Doria. After a couple of days of settling in and exploring the area, my Scientific Diver course began on Saturday (6/17). It is a two-week intensive course consisting of very long days, starting at 7:30 am and ending around 5:30/6 pm each day. In addition to our class, homework was required each evening.

Prior to enrolling in a Scientific Diver course you have to fulfill the pre-requisites, which include a medical exam, first aid and emergency oxygen certification, and a recreational SCUBA certification. The AAUS Scientific Diver course includes a minimum of 100 hours of training and 12 dives, along with a swim test, confined water checkouts, and open water checkouts. In addition to the Scientific Diver certification, at SIO you are able to receive Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, Oxygen Provider, and NITROX certifications during the course. I had previously received all but the NITROX certification, but it was a great opportunity to review this material. The class had a wide range of experience levels, but everybody worked together well.

Saturday was an introductory day filled with the swim test and snorkel skills in the pool, along with a swim out to the pier (1,090 feet) and free dive down to the bottom. On Sunday, we started to use our SCUBA equipment. The importance of buddy checks was stressed; no matter how much other planning is happening at the surface for your scientific procedures, a buddy check should always be included. Buoyancy is also an important skill that we practiced. As well, we practiced different scuba entries into the pool, such as the back roll (for small boats) and giant stride.

SIO Pool

Monday started in the pool with different stress tests, such as getting gear from the bottom of the pool. We also practiced rescues skills. In addition, we determined proper weighting with our exposure suits and beach entries. Proper weighting will help with your buoyancy control. On Monday, we also started classroom lectures. For the rest of the course, we had a classroom session every day, usually after our dives. Tuesday we practiced our rescue skills in the ocean, which made the whole process a lot more difficult. This was also our first dive of the course. It was used to practice basic skills and explore our main dive site (SIO pier) for the course. Wednesday was our final pool session; we got to practice different skills, such as lift bags, transect measurements, assembly of equipment blindfolded, etc. Although challenging, it was a lot of fun to experience all of these new challenges.

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Pool

      A black piece of plastic was placed in our masks to make it impossible to see when completing the tasks.

Thursday started our new schedule of two morning dives, followed by a classroom session in the afternoon. Each day had a different focus for the dives. For example, Thursday we focused on rescue skills and rocky entries, while on Friday navigation and search patterns were practiced. During our class session, we practiced providing oxygen. We learned how to set up the oxygen kits and also got to experience what it is like to receive oxygen. Oxygen is a life-saving tool that is necessary to be on site for all scientific dives.

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                                              Oxygen Provider Practice

After a long and exciting seven days, the first half of the class came to an end. I was exhausted and really looking forward to some sleep over the weekend before the second week began!

Children’s Pool Beach, La Jolla California

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Biscayne National Park: Bumps in the Road

“Oh, hey!! Hi Shaun! Where are you?! Carousel 26? Ok, I’m at 23.” I try to interject, “I could meet you-” Jeneva Wright of the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) continues, “I’ll see you in a minute, running towards you now!” I’ve never met Jeneva, but I soon see a brunette woman with black-framed glasses, briskly jogging with a rolling bag. She’s going up the stream of a roaring river of weary travelers. She’s on the phone with someone else, “Tell them we’ll be there in 30 seconds! Tell them you’ll move if we aren’t there!” That must be Jeneva- she gives me a subtle head nod and now I’m joining her in the brisk upstream jogging.

We hop in a red SUV with a Louisiana license plate. The windows are rolled down. The South Florida humidity is in full effect, but since the sun is down it’s pretty comfortable. Jeneva starts chatting with the driver and introduces me. Enter Arlice Marionneaux, Biscayne National Park Intern. She is a tall and lean free spirit who is finishing up her Master’s degree at the University of West Florida. The three of us chat for a while getting to know one another as Arlice graciously drives us to the Submerged Resources Center house through a lightning storm.

The SRC house is a fairly spacious 2 bedroom mid-century house that the SRC team has rented out for their time at Biscayne. It is about 10PM, which is the unspoken bedtime for the house. The SRC team is excited to see us, but a bit groggy. Matt Hanks, a self described “closet ginger” (he has freckles and a red beard) and dirt bike aficionado, is the first to make conversation with me. Matt is my roommate in the house. Just like me, he is from California, loves salty popcorn, and is an expert in using an underwater magnetometer. Ok, I’m joking on that last point (he is an expert, but I have no experience with one). Matt and I stay up for a while longer hanging out in our room. I’m not sure if he was humoring me and my excitement or he actually wanted to stay up, but I appreciated it either way.


6:30 AM, time to wake up. 6:30 generally seems early to me, but today it feels particularly early since I woke up at 2:30 AM PST to catch my flight yesterday. “I emptied the bucket this morning, so we should be good for the day,” Matt says. Air conditioning is a way of life in South Florida and ours leaks slowly into the house.

“I got the saddest but most adorable note from Juan (the property’s handyman). It said ‘I’ve been working hard to come over and fix the ac, but my gout has been flaring up, I have been having trouble with my arthritis, my dentures broke, but I should be over soon to fix it. Trying, Juan,’” Jeneva tells us.

Jeneva then lays out the decision I have to make for the day: I could stay on-shore and take a tour of the facilities with some of the Biscayne staff and get settled into the house or I could go on the boat with the SRC staff towing the magnetometer looking for potential shipwreck pieces on the seafloor. Easy choice.

Me trying to get the shot and stay out of the sun! Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Me trying to get the shot and stay out of the sun! The buff on my face also doubles as mosquito protection. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Matt and the SRC team give me some food for breakfast and lunch, I pack my things and prep for a day on the boat. While Jeneva is briefing the SEAC team (Southeast Archeological Center, more on them later) and the SRC team, I realize that I’ve never met anyone that embodies “bright eyed and bushy tailed” more than Jeneva. As project lead, her positivity and open communication keep her team pushing hard. She assigns me to be on the Cal Cummings (SRC’s flagship) with Matt and Susanna Pershern. I am quietly elated. I haven’t gotten to talk to Susanna much, but I am eager to get to know her. She is a photographer and as someone that hopes to focus the internship on imaging, I saw her as a potential mentor and friend.

Josh Marano, Archaeologist at Biscayne National Park, with a magnetometer on the Cal Cummings.

Josh Marano, Archaeologist at Biscayne National Park, with a magnetometer on the Cal Cummings. Photo credit: Jeneva Wright, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

We fire up the “behemoth” SRC truck (a 3.5 ton extended cab dueley) and arrive at Biscayne National Park. The name “behemoth” was given to the truck by SRC team member, Bert Ho. Bert is from Tenessee, works on the water but hates beaches, and half-jokingly ends most of his sentences with “no one listened, but you all will soon realize that Bert is always right. Hey Shaun, put that in your blog!” (you made it Bert!) He is a quirky, but brilliant guy that can find solutions where others see problems.

Once at Biscayne, the mosquitos give us their morning blessings as we load the boat and I get a quick tour of the facility. Soon enough, we are under way, navigating through the mangrove-laced keys. When we arrived at the clear, coral-ridden waters of the southeast portion of the park, Matt starts the survey.

Boaters beware! Going outside these buoys that mark the channels between Biscayne Bay and the rest of the park could result in your boat becoming a nice hat for a coral reef.

Boaters beware! Going outside these buoys that mark the channels between Biscayne Bay and the rest of the park could result in your boat becoming a nice hat for a coral reef.

The survey involves towing the magnetometer behind the boat and then driving the boat at an idle speed in a very long zipper pattern. The magnetometer looks like a torpedo and senses electromagnetic fields that metal pieces have on the seafloor. It sounds easy enough, but keeping the boat in a straight line laid out by a GPS system can be a challenge- especially if you are in conversation. “I can’t drive if I’m talking, I’ll get off the survey line, never fails, “ Susanna tells me.

While Matt is driving the survey line, he tells me the story of the Guerrero and the Nimble, the ships that the SRC team is looking for at Biscayne National Park. The Guerrero was a Spanish pirate slave ship that forcibly took people from Africa and likely pillaged human cargo from other slave ships leaving Africa. The ship then set sail for Cuba. As it was passing through the Florida Straits, it was spotted by the British navy ship Nimble. The Nimble was looking for slave ships, since the slave trade was outlawed in both Britain and the US (though slavery was still legal in the US). As the Nimble fired warning shots ordering the Guerrero to stop for inspection, the Guerrero fired back. After a long cannon-filled fight, the Guerrero put up a latern in the middle of the night (signaling surrender), knowing that the British navy would honor maritime law. The Nimble ceased firing that night and the Guerrero ran, beginning a five-hour chase in poor weather. The Nimble was built for speed, and caught up to the Guerrero. The Guerrero was reckless in trying to escape and hit a reef at full speed. The collision tore the hull in half and toppled the masts. 41 of the 561 Africans on board drowned. The Nimble tried to slow itself, but ultimately ran aground onto a reef as well. The Africans that survived were either sold as slaves in Cuba or held in poor conditions in Key West, Florida until they were eventually shipped to Liberia years later (which was not their home country).

We are trying to locate these shipwrecks using the magnetometer to find metal pieces that may have been left behind. When the magnetometer gets a reading of metal on the seafloor (called an anomaly), we log a GPS point so that a dive team can investigate it. Throughout the day I get to know Matt better and get a chance to connect with Susanna. Susanna oozes artist. She can be reserved, but is overwhelmingly emotionally intelligent and caring. She practices her (minimal) French all day in hopes of learning it and warns me, “never bring a banana on the boat.” We also enjoy a laugh over her favorite internet music video spoof for the sparking water brand La Croix.

Susanna Pershern never goes anywhere without a La Croix sparkling water.

Susanna Pershern never goes anywhere without a La Croix sparkling water.


We arrive at the park to be greeted by a Biscayne intern named Andie Dowell, a bubbly Californian has her heart set on getting a PhD and eating strawberry ice cream. SEAC, SRC, Andie, and I load the boats for a day of anomaly jumping.

“Anomaly jumping,” as the SRC team calls it, is a blitzkrieg operation. Everything and everyone is constantly in motion. The captain yells out distances to the anomaly “100! 80! 60…” and is echoed the crew. Buoys are dropping, divers/snorkelers are jumping in, and we go onto the next anomaly before divers are pulled from the water. We spend no more than 20 minutes at any anomaly site. Most anomalies are junk metal, metal rods marking old biological survey sites, or derelict lobster traps. Perhaps the liveliest person on board of a lively boat is Jessica (Jess) Keller of the SRC team. Jess is a sparkplug of a woman and has the best sunglasses tan of anyone I know. She and I jump together quite a bit throughout the day.

Rachel Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network team member, throwing a buoy to mark an anomaly.

Rachael Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network team member, throwing a buoy to mark an anomaly.

I also jump with Eric Bezemek from SEAC. Eric is a tall and comical Midwesterner who loves the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. We develop team chemistry early on and have our hearts set on finding a cannonball and dub our team name “The Cannonballers.” We didn’t end up finding a cannonball, but we did find an outrageous number of derelict traps, to which we’d come to the surface and exclaim in our best Admiral Akbar voice, “it’s a trap!”

Sometimes I try to lighten the mood with a little algae crown. Ironically the algae I'm wearing is in the same genus of the most invasive algae we have in California. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Sometimes I try to lighten the mood with a little algae crown. Ironically the algae I’m wearing is in the same genus of the most invasive algae we have in California. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

At the end of the day, we completed 31 anomalies (1 shy of the SRC record). When we pull in to the dock, there were a bunch of lionfish remains in the water. “Looks like they went out for lionfish, fish tacos tonight! You’ll be doing that soon enough,” Eric tells me.

Eric Bezemek looks closely at the GPS to find the anomaly buoy drop point.

Eric Bezemek looks closely at the GPS to find the anomaly buoy drop point.

The sun goes down and our doorbell is ringing every 10 minutes or so. Matt caught some fish earlier in the month that he is grilling up and team SEAC and a few Biscayne folks are joining in the festivities. Charlie Sproul from SEAC, a hospitable southerner with a proper drawl and a strange fear of visiting Australia, talks about what he brought to dinner. “My wife makes the best cheesey grits. That’s grits with sharp cheddar you know. Grits with gouda is grits with gouda, not cheesey grits, very different things.”

I get a call a few minutes into the lively discussion on sweet tea- it’s Claire Mullaney, the REEF intern of Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society ®. “Hi Shaun! I’m here, but I don’t know which house is yours!” REEF is based about 40 minutes south of Biscayne and we’d been speaking about meeting during the summer since the OWUSS banquet in New York City this past April. I find Claire and introduce her to the group. She already knows Jess- they met at an Indiana University alumni event.

With sizzling fish on the grill outside, everyone inside recognizes that Andie and I (the Californians) know the least about Southern culture. Charlie decides to start with the basics. “Sweet tea is sweet tea, ain’t nothing like it. There’s unsweetened tea with sugar and then there’s sweet tea, and they don’t even taste remotely the same.”


It’s 6:00 AM and the entire SRC house is (mostly) awake. No one is complaining but I know no one wanted to wake up this early. I am apologizing profusely because I’m diving with the Biscayne NPS dive team today and they start earlier than the SRC team. With a turn of the key, the behemoth is on the road. “Wait, I don’t have my phone,” I realize. Most days, it wouldn’t matter, but I’m not with SRC today and they may need to contact me. “No problem, we’ll go back,” Jeneva states. My mistake puts the team behind 15 minutes and makes me late to my first day with the Biscayne dive team. When you have to jump over 1,000 anomalies, every minute counts. Plus, how could I forget something so rudimentary to all millennials? This is not the impression I wanted to make on the SRC or the Biscayne team.

Shelby Moneysmith not only has the coolest name in the National Park Service, but is one of the coolest people you will ever meet.

Shelby Moneysmith not only has the coolest name in the National Park Service, but is one of the coolest people you will ever meet.

The first person to greet me at the dock is Shelby Moneysmith- a blonde, salty, and charismatic woman who is beloved by everyone that has every worked with her. Shelby, Mike (Biscayne NPS diver), and Vanessa (the head of Natural Resources at Biscayne) brief Elissa (a volunteer to remember for a future blog!) and myself on the day’s operations. Elissa and I are assigned to lionfish removal, which means using a short Hawai’ian sling to spear lionfish in the park.

Shelby Moneysmith recording data during a coral survey.

Shelby Moneysmith recording data during a coral survey.

The first 3 dives are fairly shallow and we don’t see any lionfish. That being said, the fauna is amazing and the coral is the healthiest I’ve seen in the park. I see lobsters, moray eels, octopus, and a nassau grouper (a rare find in the park!). The fourth dive we went deeper and all of us were going for lionfish. Vanessa and Mike go first. They shoot 21 lionfish. So naturally, Shelby, Elissa, and I are dead set on getting at least 22.

Once you shoot a lionfish, you, you have to be careful of its venomous spines. Game bags are lined with PVC pipe to help the hunter slide the fish into the bag without accidentally touching the spines.

Once you shoot a lionfish, you, you have to be careful of its venomous spines. Game bags are lined with PVC pipe to help the hunter slide the fish into the bag without accidentally touching the spines.

We descend on a small coral colony covered in lionfish. I have never speared lionfish before or had any success with a Hawai’ian sling. Vanessa warned me that the smaller fish are much harder to spear and Shelby admittedly doubted whether I’d be able to get the hang of the sling. However, my confidence builds quickly when my second fish is only 9 centimeters long. After a quick 11 lionfish rampage, we don’t find many others. We chalk it up to Vanessa and Mike stealing them all. Either way, we left the ecosystem in a better state than we found it and it was a win all around.

Filling cylinders with Jess Keller. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Filling cylinders with Jess Keller. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

“So, exciting day…” Jeneva says, foreshadowing big news during our daily debrief. Before she can continue, Jess exclaims, “it was awesome! Last jump of the day after a whole lot of nothing, we found a shipwreck!” Jeneva interjected and clarified, “There is no way that we can say it is the Guerrero, but it is certainly historic.”

The one day I’m not with the SRC team, they find something! I am pretty disappointed that I didn’t get to partake in the finding and the post-finding elation, but I am happy for the team. This is why they are here and historic findings provide a boost of motivation and breathe new life into them.


Perfect front roll technique- hand over the mask! Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Perfect front roll technique- hand over the mask! Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

It’s the morning time. Jeneva has her coffee, Susanna is packing away her daily La Croix, and I’m eating a big bowl of oatmeal. Claire is over to get briefed before heading out with us today to jump anomalies. Matt is particularly giddy this morning because it would be the first in-water day for him since the start of the project. That giddiness carries into the field. “That was definitely a bellyflop!” Matt says. He and I have some fun practicing useless but fun (and still safe, mom) water entries, such as the front roll, while finding anomalies.

Matt Hanks goes in for the bellyflop.

Matt Hanks goes in for the bellyflop.

In the evening, Jeneva and I go to the screening of the documentary about the Guerrero at park headquarters. The screening is an in-house NPS community event. It provides a chance for park employees that aren’t working on the project to see what it is all about and ask questions. The screening is held in the visitor center, which is lined with incredible historic artifacts retrieved from shipwrecks in the park. The under-the-sea themed building smelled like pizza and Mediterranean couscous while laughter and hardy conversations filled the room all night.

Once we get home, Jeneva starts working on her computer. The entire SRC team works extremely hard and no one outworks Jeneva. “You guys, I’m dying. I have so much work to do, can I please have a little colada?” Jeneva asks Jess. Jeneva has an addiction to coladas, a tiny Cuban sugary expresso shot that apparently have the same effect as 10 Red Bulls. Jeneva has been known to go overboard with the coladas, so the SRC team has a half-jokingly (but half-not-jokingly) banned Jeneva from coladas. “Well…” it seems she has caught Jess in a moment of weakness when Matt interrupts, “absolutely not! Jess, you aren’t going to give her any!” he says with a smile on his face. Then Jess plays bad cop, “No Jeneva, the coladas are staying in the fridge.” “Really?! Please! You guys, please!” Jeneva says with the smallest tear in her eye. “Oh look at her, we have to give her one- but just one!” Matt and Jess eventually agree.


Ahhh, this morning is an off day. That means I can finally catch up on my computer work. “I would go diving off of Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary if I were you, we are all going to be couch potatoes today,” Jeneva tells me.

A few calls later and Claire picks me up. So much for my computer work! We are off to dive a wreck and a beautiful coral reef…except traffic had other plans for us. Red brake lights line highway 1. The normal 30 minute drive to Key Largo takes about 2 hours with the incoming Fourth of July traffic. Luckily the shop was more than happy to put us on a later dive, though it meant forgoing the wreck dive.

A school of goatfish cruises by me on a dive in the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary of the Florida Keys.

A school of goatfish cruises by me on a dive in the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary of the Florida Keys.

In the water, Claire and I opt to stay away from the herds of divers on the reef. She preforms fish surveys for REEF while I try my hand at underwater photography. Susanna was kind enough to give me some tips on shooting in the clear and warm waters of South Florida before I left the house. “Expose for the water first, get it to be the deep blue that you want,” she told me. Patches of brilliant and healthy coral, schools of brightly colored tropical fish, and some megafauna as well (shark and a turtle!) act as my subjects. The camera is giant, cumbersome, and a little heavy. It is a more advanced system than I have ever used, topside or underwater. I felt like a baby using silverware for the first time when I used it in a pool in Colorado. In the ocean, it feels much more natural and easier to handle.

After a wonderful ocean-side dinner, I say my final goodbye to Claire and we wish each other well until we meet again at the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society annual banquet in New York City next spring.


6:30 AM arrives and I awake to the sound of my vibraphone alarm tone on my phone. Another day of anomaly jumping and the prospect of finding something. I begin packing my dive gear and realize I don’t know where my secondary computer is. In the chaos of trying to find it, I forget my lunch and water at the house and only realize it once we get to the park. “No big deal. It’s a self-punishing mistake really,” Susanna says. Luckily, Andie was gracious enough to jump over to her house and grab some extra food and water for me. I beat myself up over this mistake though. This is my second mistake with the SRC team. I want to prove that I am field ready, that I have the capacity to contribute and be a team member. How am I going to do that when I can’t even remember water for the day? It seems like I’m proving to be pretty unprepared as much as the team tells me otherwise.


“Hi Shelby! Can I bring my camera out today?” I ask. “Do it! We’ll make space!” Shelby responds. Today we are doing 3 survey dives and a lionfish dive. We drop into our first dive and I start taking photos of Shelby immediately. Vanessa approaches us and shows us her slate. “Way too rough, quadrat won’t stay put, can’t do a survey here.”

New plan. We head to deeper water to do two lionfish dives. Shelby and I go first this time around and hope to outdo Mike and Vanessa to make up for our earlier blunder. Except, my magic from my first lionfish dive is gone. We drop down on a nice reef full of lionfish. After spearing the first fish I see, I have several frustrating misses. It takes me multiple attempts to get some of the fish throughout the dive. Luckily, Shelby spears many and we come to the surface with 11.

Shelby Moneysmith with a nice lionfish on her spear, helping us to a resounding win for the day over Mike and Vanessa.

Shelby Moneysmith with a nice lionfish on her spear, helping us to a resounding win for the day over Mike and Vanessa.

The next dive, I take my camera down. As soon as we get on the lionfish, I start taking photos. Shelby hunting under ledges, swimming with a lionfish on her spear, bagging lionfish. Any shot I can get, I take. I remember Brett’s words of advice, “I’ve never kicked myself for taking too many photos on a dive.” Every time I jump in the water with the camera, I can feel my comfort level going up exponentially controlling and using the system. I am still at the beginning stages of novice-hood, so every dive teaches me a lot about the camera.

Speared! Shelby swimming a lionfish back to the game bag.

Speared! Shelby swimming a lionfish back to the game bag.

I then hand Shelby the camera after making sure the exposure is properly set so she can get a couple shots of me hunting. We come to the surface with 8 fish this dive. Our 19 best Vanessa and Mike’s 13, and we are pretty happy about it. After weighing the fish back on shore, Mike filets a few. I take some home to the SRC crew and cook lionfish tacos that night for SRC, SEAC, and Arlice making sure to whip up some of the famous Catalina Island fish taco special sauce- a recipe I learned from my old friend Nate Erlandson on the island. Everyone indulges in the catch of the day and eats until they can’t.

"An iPhone is about as fancy as I get with cameras, I have no idea what I'm doing." Well Shelby, your shots turned out pretty well! Photo credit: Shelby Moneysmith, National Park Service.

“An iPhone is about as fancy as I get with cameras, I have no idea what I’m doing.” Well Shelby, your shots turned out pretty well! Photo credit: Shelby Moneysmith, National Park Service.


My time at Biscayne taught me a lot. Biscayne NPS, SEAC, SRC, and all of the interns couldn’t have been more kind and patient with me. They stood by me as I took my lumps, but this first stop was exactly that- taking a lot of lumps. I never felt completely in rhythm at Biscayne. It was an incredible experience and I met some amazing people, but I leave my first stop feeling like I could have done better. Maybe that is what first stops are for. Maybe I needed to work out the kinks. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. A lot of people helped me to get to this point and I feel like I owe it to them, the National Park Service, and to myself, to do better. As I pack my things for my next stop in the Dry Tortugas, I think about how I can improve with a new crew, a new system, and a new location. While I’m proud of what I accomplished at Biscayne, I am looking forward to progressing further between the brick walls of Fort Jefferson at  Dry Tortugas National Park.

Most of the archaeology team from Biscayne. Front (L-R): Rachael Kangas, Claire Mullaney, Jeneva Wright, Jess Keller. Middle (L-R): Susanna Pershern, Me, Charlie Sproul, Matt Hanks. Rear (L-R): Josh Marano, Eric Bezemek. Photo credit: Rachael Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network.

Most of the archaeology team from Biscayne. Front (L-R): Rachael Kangas, Claire Mullaney, Jeneva Wright, Jess Keller. Middle (L-R): Susanna Pershern, Me, Charlie Sproul, Matt Hanks. Rear (L-R): Josh Marano, Eric Bezemek. Photo credit: Rachael Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network.

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Finding Family at OWUSS and the National Park Service

Hi all! Let me introduce myself. I am Shaun Wolfe, the 2017 National Park Service Intern for Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®. I am 26 years old, from Los Angeles, California, and have spent the last 10 years on Catalina Island seasonally. Currently, I am a master’s candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. I am focusing on Coastal Marine Resources Management and Strategic Environmental Communication. I have a particular interest in marine conservation and using images to tell stories. In the professional world, I have worked in outdoor recreation, S.C.U.B.A. diving, and aquariums. When I’m not in class, underwater, or behind the camera, I enjoy traveling, playing the drums, and surfing the waves of the California coast.

I would like to preface this first blog with this: most of the photos below were unplanned and taken with an iPhone. Excuse the poor quality, next blog will be different!


It’s 3:00 in the afternoon in sunny Santa Barbara, California. Palm trees shake with the sea breeze on UCSB’s campus as they gaze towards Channel Islands National Park. I am walking down the shadowy stairwells of the Bren School when my creepy, but comical, ghostly ringtone plays. “Dave!!! I’ve been meaning to call you and catch up!” It’s my biggest mentor and one of my best friends, Dave Chan. Dave is an incredibly talented diver, loves Star Wars, and serves as the Director of Marine Science at the Pennington Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. He was the first person to take a chance on me in the underwater world when he hired me as an intern and has taught me much of what I know about diving, animal husbandry, and life in general. “You’ll never guess who I just got off the phone with!” he says as I begin to think who it could be. “Brett Seymour of the National Park Service (NPS)! They are down to you and one other person! I wouldn’t let them off the phone until they were sold on you,” Dave exclaims.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I applied to be the National Park Service Intern with Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® (OWUSS) after some encouragement from Kelly Moore, the Park Dive Officer at Channel Islands National Park. I applied because it was too good of an opportunity to not apply for, but I never thought I would hear back after sending in my application. Soon enough, all of my other references- Jose Bacallao, Sean Hastings, and Allison Horst- each contacted me and said they had been called.

I am trying my best to not get my hopes up. I still have a 50% chance of not getting the internship. That being said, I have already told most of my classmates about the news. Then, in my biogeochemistry lecture, I get the email stating I have been chosen to be the 2017 OWUSS NPS Intern. I can’t help but text the good news to my friends in the lecture hall. As soon as class gets out, I am swarmed by an outpouring of love, support, and congratulations from my classmates and administrators (particularly Dee White).


Two months later, I’m boarding my JetBlue flight to New York City holding a garment bag with a blue suit inside. I have never flown with a suit (or owned one for that matter) in my life, but this trip calls for fancy attire. I am coming to New York for the annual OWUSS banquet. After enjoying a cold sparkling water on board my red-eye flight, I take the A train into Manhattan, grab brunch with an old friend, and prepare for the night ahead.

At 5:45 PM, I meet the 2016 and 2017 OWUSS interns and internships staff in the lobby and we travel as a large herd to the event. When I arrive at the venue, I am greeted by my supervisors and mentors for the summer- Dave Conlin (a marine archaeologist) and Brett Seymour (a photographer and videographer). They are a perfect pair. Dave is the funny uncle who cracks jokes while meandering effortlessly from group to group in the room. Brett is a hip and stylish creative who is passionate, humble, and speaks with purpose. “Pretty awesome isn’t it? You’re part of the family now,” Dave tells me as we look out on the skyline. I spend the rest of the evening getting to know the OWUSS scholars, interns, and staff.

In the morning, I catch a rideshare to the Explorer’s Club with Claire Mullaney, the 2017 OWUSS Dr. Jamie L. King REEF Marine Conservation Intern. Claire is passionate about marine conservation, gets cold if the temperature is below about 85F, and has made it a life goal to make people want to visit the Midwest.

I admittedly didn’t know nearly enough about the Explorer’s Club when I applied to be a member months prior. The club and its members have been at the forefront of exploration around the globe (and solar system) since 1904. It’s headquarters are in a brownstone building in Manhattan and hold secrets and treasures from decades of exploration. I was in awe of the artifacts in the building- original blood-stained expedition maps from the first polar and eastern expeditions, game trophies from early western safaris to Africa, and Robert Peary’s sled he took on his first expedition to the North Pole. Walking the halls of the club is a humbling experience. Seeing photos of other members such as Teddy Roosevelt, Buzz Aldren, and Sir Edmund Hillary is enough to make anyone feel unworthy.

That evening we are treated to a formal dinner at the New York Yacht Club. The Yacht Club is an unbelievable venue. The walls of its ballroom are covered with models of hulls of boats that have partaken in the America’s Cup sailing race. Ornately decorated marble structures and dark wooden railings line the balconies. As I stroll around room, I see some nameplates that immediately pop out to me- David Doubilet, Jennifer Hayes, and Cristina Zenato.

I mention those names to Dave and Brett. “They are all good friends of mine, would you like to meet them?” Dave asks. I was shocked. These are heroes of mine, truly inspirational figures. They are all incredibly humble and I am taken aback by how willing they are to offer their help to me. Though I navigate the conversations fairly well, I have a moment of awe when David Doubilet, my favorite underwater photographer, uses me as an audience to test out his best Irish accent.

I had to ask David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes for a photo after meeting them. This was taken post-Irish accent. So much photography experience in one photo! From L-R: Brett Seymour, Jennifer Hayes, David Doubilet, me.

I had to ask David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes for a photo after meeting them. This was taken post-Irish accent. So much photography experience in one photo! From L-R: Brett Seymour, Jennifer Hayes, David Doubilet, me. Photo credit: Elizabeth Seymour.

Later on I speak to Chris Milbern, the 2016 OWUSS Rolex Scholar. Chris’ story is inspiring to me. He came into his scholarship year with concerns similar to mine, particularly about getting up to speed with a camera underwater. I approach him and ask if he’d be willing to send me some reference materials that he used when he was learning about underwater photography. To that he replies, “Well, you live in Southern California, right? Can you come to Palm Springs?”


“Is that you at the gate? Black car? Ok, just come straight on in, we are the house right at the first bend.” It’s the coolest day of the week at 98F in Palm Springs, California. Chris Milbern and his girlfriend Vera are just moving into their new house in the desert, but still offered to host me for the day. “Every camera system is totally different, but at least this will give idea of what you’re dealing with,” Chris tells me as he shows me the components to his system.

Chris takes me through the entire photographic process, from building an underwater camera rig to setting up the shot you want to making the shot happen. “The biggest thing is that you want it to look natural,” he states. Once Chris and I wrap up, I spend some time bonding with him and Vera. Turns out, Chris and I have more in common than diving. We have a common mentor in Mike Anghera (my original Diving Safety Officer), we lose our keys too frequently, and we both love stickers. I leave Palm Springs with two new friends and thank two of the most unreasonably kind people I’ve ever met.


Before I start visiting National Parks, I make a stop at the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) headquarters in Lakewood, Colorado (just outside of Denver). I land and am greeted by Dave and Brett, each with a rolling waterproof carry on bag in hand. “I love this truck. If you take care of them, they last forever. I think it will be good past 250,000 miles,” Dave tells me as we get into his Toyota Tacoma. On the way to his house, I tell Dave how much I appreciate him and Brett choosing me for the internship. “I haven’t always had people willing to help me and I’ve failed many times, not being able to get a job in the field,” I tell him. “It’s all about passing it forward. That’s why we are here,” Dave replies.

We arrive to Dave’s house, where I will be spending the weekend. It is situated in a quaint neighborhood that backs up to the Flatiron mountains in Boulder, Colorado. Dave and his wife, Michelle, graciously offered to put me up for the weekend at their place. The first person to greet us when we walk in is his dog Luc. Luc is a brown spaniel that loves chasing balls, has gorgeous brown eyes, and has the energy of about 20 dogs. Later that evening, I get to know Michelle. Michelle is a sporty, short haired woman who loves Ben Stiller films and is full of incredible stories. “We were at the US embassy Thailand. He didn’t have any identification on him, but we ended up getting a new passport and going out with the ambassador to a party that night!” she tells me about a guy she used to travel with in her younger days.

I spend most of the weekend at SRC headquarters. It is a sight to behold. The halls are lined with Brett’s photography and an original Mark IV US Navy diving suit greets you when you enter. The SRC diver locker, otherwise known as the “armory,” is filled with enough dive gear to make even the saltiest diver’s jaw drop- everything is top-of-the-line, from photography equipment to closed-circuit rebreathers. The thing that caught my eye more than anything else though, was how every piece of gear is labeled “National Park Service” or has the NPS arrowhead logo on it. The whole place just oozes with cool.

Brett gets to work pretty quickly giving me my gear for the summer. Exposure gear, dive gear, and photography gear. I try my best to keep up with everything he tells me about my new gear while also trying to manage my excitement. I can’t lie though, being handed a wetsuit that says “National Park Service” on it made me feel really cool.

The next day, Brett and I spend some time in a local dive shop pool. He wants to give me a chance to get the camera in the water. I am nervous and using all new equipment. When we get the camera in the water, it was much heavier than I expected and I have trouble keeping my trim (orientation in the water column) and buoyancy consistent. After fidgeting around with the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and strobe power for a while, I get to the point where I am taking acceptable (albeit poor) photos. “That was good. The thing about underwater photography is, it’s simple. If you’re photos are too dark, open up the aperture a little bit,” Brett tells me. That simple advice stuck with me and was really comforting to hear as a novice.

That night, I go out to “Salt,” a hip and delicious restaurant that his home to many bearded men and decorated with distressed wood. Dave, Michelle, and I exchange travel stories and Dave tells me about when he was a ski bum in his 20’s. It is the perfect send off before I would leave for summer. Brett, Dave, and Michelle made me feel at home and brought me into their family.


The last stop I have to make before beginning my summer is to see Kelly Moore at Channel Islands National Park to finish my Blue Card certification (the certification needed to dive with NPS). Kelly is a true California beach gal who grew up on Catalina Island. She greets me that morning with a bright smile and asks, “have you ever seen the landing dock at Anacapa Island? No? Well, it’s the most exciting dive entry you’ll ever have!” Sure enough, I come to find out that the drop of about 10-15 ft between the dock and the water puts the “giant” in giant stride. On our first dive Kelly has me navigate to a giant swim-through arch underwater. It is surreal. I had never been to a swim-through arch before. I swam through it on my back, looking towards the surface, watching my exhaled bubbles climb the walls of the rocky arch.

Kelly Moore hops off the dock at Anacapa. This was originally a video, hence the strange cropping, but it was too big to upload to the blog!

Kelly Moore hops off the dock at Anacapa. This was originally a video, hence the strange cropping, but it was too big to upload to the blog!

After spending some time on the surface to watch a live-broadcast underwater educational segment (part of the Channel Islands Live program), Kelly asks me if I want to do another dive. “Last one off the loading dock is a rotten egg!” I respond. We explore some sea caves on the second dive and visit the memorial site of an NPS diver that passed away underwater in the cove. Near the caves, multiple California sea lions dance with us and buzz our heads, coming as close as just a few inches at times. When we get back to the mainland, I thank Kelly again for encouraging me to apply in the first place. She expresses her excitement for me and the journey ahead, “can you smuggle me in your suitcase?” she says jokingly.

My time with Kelly at Channel Islands reflected my time in Denver, Palm Springs, and New York City. Everyone has been exceedingly willing to help me and give me a chance, for which I am eternally grateful. Dave, Brett, Chris, and the entire OWUSS community have made me feel like part of the family. It is a tight-knit group, much like NPS, and one that I’m honored to be a part of. Seeing the camaraderie within OWUSS makes me all the more excited to begin my journey of exploring the National Parks this summer and joining the NPS family.

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PAGO PAGO – NATIONAL PARK OF AMERICAN SAMOA

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The last stop on my whirlwind adventure of an internship was American Samoa. Prior to booking the flights, I didn’t even know where American Samoa was, let alone anything about the island that awaited me on the other side of the 6-hour flight. I didn’t even know who was meeting me at the airport! Fortunately, when I landed in American Samoa the night of Friday, September 9th and made my way out of the airport, I looked so lost that I was approached by two strangers who turned out to be Biological Science Technicians Michele Felberg (the 2015 OWUSS North American Rolex Scholar!) and Paolo Marra-Biggs. While I was ecstatic that I was finally here – I have heard so many wonderful things about American Samoa throughout my journey – I was also exhausted from the long day of travel. As we drove to the village of Utulei, where I would be staying with Michele, darkness hid the island from view. Yet still, the sound of the waves hitting the shore along the coastal road and the palm trees faintly lit by the occasional streetlight seemed to taunt me in my tired and sleepy state.

The village of Utulei. The orange trim of my house for the month is barely visible above the trees.

The village of Utulei during the day. The orange trim of my house for the month is barely visible above the trees.

The next morning I woke up to the smell of Michele cooking a Welcome brunch for me. Soon Paolo, fellow park service employee Ian Moffit, and his girlfriend Nerelle, came over, donning me with a lei as they walked in. It was quite the welcome party! Following brunch, Paolo and Michele took me on a grocery run and gave me a brief introduction to the island.

Map of American Samoa

Map of American Samoa

American Samoa is the southernmost territory of the US at 14° south of the Equator, and it consists of five main islands and two coral atolls. Boasting a population of around 60,000, the big island of Tutuila is only slightly larger than Washington DC. Here, there is only one main road and it runs east-west along the length of the island, hugging the dramatic southern coastline. As we drove through what seemed to be taken from the pages of a travel magazine, beautiful blue water gave way to long stretches of sandy beaches on our left, while we passed by mountains flaunting lush green rainforests and towering over quaint villages on our right. The rest of the weekend was a blur of sensory overload as I took in the pristine natural beauty of my new island home, from wading in the shallow lagoon at Coconut Point to looking out over the village lights at night from atop Aoloau.

Coconut Point

Coconut Point

Coconut Point

Coconut Point

When I arrived at Park Headquarters in Pago Pago for my first day, we got straight to work. The National Park of American Samoa (NPSA) encompasses over 13,000 acres, of which, about a third are marine, which means the marine team is kept very busy! To start us off, Marine Ecologist, Tim Clark, called a morning meeting to discuss the weather forecast and to go over the plans for the week ahead. With the wind and waves holding steady over the next few days, our goal for the week was to tow-board the entire north side of the island looking for outbreaks of crown-of-thorns sea stars (COTS), a voracious echinoderm that feeds on corals.

For the past few years, the NPSA marine team has been monitoring a large-scale COT outbreak on the northern coast of the island. Although these sea stars are native to the Indo-Pacific, because they prey upon living corals, population surges can overwhelm and often decimate an entire reef. Thus, in an attempt to rescue the reefs here, the Park Service has undergone eradication efforts to control the population and return it to a natural level. They have gone on hundreds of eradication dives and killed thousands of COTS, all in hopes of restoring balance to the reef. So, our mission for the week was to determine the current status of the outbreak by locating and documenting the individual COT outbreaks along the coast.

After putting together a Float Plan, a document detailing our plan for the day as well as any and all complications that could arise, we headed to the warehouse to grab the boat and gather the gear. Within the hour we were on the water, launching out of Fagasa, and ready to towboard. Towboarding is a survey technique where two people are towed behind a boat while looking down at the reef. In this case, we were looking for signs of COT outbreaks.

Paolo and Michele being towed behind the RV Poge.

Paolo and Michele being towed behind the RV Poge.

Me towboarding

Me towboarding

Traditionally, in an area with a COT, one will see a gradient of discoloration on a stretch of reef, ranging from bone-white, where the most recent meal was, to a faded yellow, where algae has begun to grow overtop of the dead coral skeleton. However, this can be hard to spot from 60 feet above the reef and it took me awhile to develop a search image. Not every patch of bright white on a reef indicates the presence of a COT, as both coral bleaching and coral disease often leave behind a white coral as well. So, for the first few outbreaks, Michele would signal the boat to stop so that I could get a closer look and begin to distinguish COT scarring from bleaching and disease. In some instances, the outbreaks were worse than others and could last a few hundred yards or so, indicating the presence of multiple COTS. Soon enough, I began to recognize COT outbreaks and even found a few of my own!

Typical scarring from a crown-of-thorns seastar

Typical scarring from a crown-of-thorns seastar. Notice the gradient from bone-white to faded yellow.

When I wasn’t in the water, I was sitting on the back of the RV Poge, the park’s 28 ft Boston Whaler, and recording the data. Any time an outbreak was found, the towboarders would signal me to take a GPS point to mark the location of the outbreak while writing down both the depth and the intensity of scarring. While still keeping an eye on the towboarders, I couldn’t help but take in the spectacular views!

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The village of Afono

The village of Afono

Over the course of the first week, we towboarded the entire north coast (over 30 miles!), both in and out of the park boundaries. You might think that staring at the ocean floor while being towed behind a boat for 8 hours a day, multiple days in a row, would get old, but it was possibly the best way to be introduced to the reefs of American Samoa! Through this process I was able to get a spectacular bird’s eye view of the vibrant reef and I was absolutely blown away by what I saw. Plate corals and fuzzy tabletop corals formed intricate multi-level terraces on the steep reef slope, while boulder corals the size of minivans loomed over small pink cauliflower corals, humorously juxtaposed. Home to over 250 species, the reef was alive with every combination of color, shape, and size of coral imaginable. Never before in my life had I seen such massive and diverse corals! And as an added bonus, while we were towboarding I got to see some charismatic megafauna, including countless green sea turtles, a pod of dolphins, and my first-ever blacktip reef sharks!

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After we completed the towboarding, the next task was to take all of the data and compile it into a map so that we could visualize where the outbreaks were along the coast. After receiving a quick lesson from Paolo on how to import the data from the GPS into ArcGIS, Michele and I worked on creating a map of the towboard data. Once it was finished and we compared it to the map with previous years, it was evident that the number of outbreaks had significantly decreased. When we showed Tim, we discussed the next step and whether or not we needed to go on any eradication dives. Since the goal of the program is to return the COT populations to their natural levels and not eradicate them completely, we decided to forego eradication dives for now. Instead, Tim suggested we go on a few GSI collection dives to take care of the one or two larger sections of outbreaks.

COTS Outbreaks, 2014. Courtesy of the NPS

COTS Outbreaks, 2014. Courtesy of the NPS.

COTS Outbreaks, September 2016. Courtesy of the NPS

COTS Outbreaks, Sept 2016. Courtesy of the NPS.

 

 

GSI stands for gonadosomatic index. It is a measure of gonad mass as a proportion of total body mass and is used in many different species as way to determine sexual maturity. So, in addition to monitoring and controlling the COT outbreak, the NPSA marine team has begun collecting GSI data on the seastars in an effort to track their spawning cycle. But first we needed some COTS!

Michele checking the pO2 on our tanks.

Michele checking the pO2 on our tanks before heading out into the field.

With our new mission in hand, we headed into the field to collect a dozen COTS for GSI. With Ian captaining the RV Poge, we sped off to Fagamalo, an area with a concentrated outbreak. Paolo, Michele, and I excitedly assembled our rigs and geared up for the getting in the water. Because COTS are covered in long, poisonous spines, we wore protective gloves and wielded barbeque tongs on our dive in order to protect ourselves when removing the COTS from the reef. Once we splashed, we searched for a patch of reef with heavy scarring, indicating the presence of multiple COTS, and then descended, tongs at the ready. Not wanting to be vulnerable and exposed when predators are out, the nocturnal seastars tuck away in the cracks and crevices of the reef during the day. However, despite the COTS’s best efforts to hide, Paolo and Michele were pros at this and had gathered half of what we needed before I had even finished checking under my first rock. It only took a few more minutes for us to fill the collection bag with a dozen of the little buggers, two of which I collected on my own!

Paolo, Michele, and I ready to dive in!

Paolo, Michele, and I ready to dive in!

Paolo and Michele at work searching for those COTS

Paolo and Michele at work searching for those COTS

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michele inspects the full collection bag on our safety stop.

Michele inspects the full collection bag on our safety stop.

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Making sure to keep them submerged in seawater, we brought the COTS back to the warehouse in order to take the GSI measurements. Wet weight, number of arms, and average diameter were all recorded before cutting each COT open. Then came the tedious task of sorting the red-orange tissues of the digestive glands from the paler yellow-orange tissues of the gonads using a pair of tweezers. Once the gonads were completely removed from the COT, they were weighed as well. Finally, before finishing up with a COT it was sexed by looking at the gonads under a microscope. On average, the whole process took about 40 minutes per COT, but the more fecund ones took a bit longer on account of the sheer amount of gonads needing to be separated (over 200g!).

Cutting down the arm of the COT to begin the dissection

Cutting down the arm of the COT to begin the dissection

Separating the gonads from the digestive tissue

Separating the gonads from the digestive tissue

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, during my second week, the wind and waves picked up and kept us out of the field. However, there was plenty of work to be done back on land. While, Michele and Paolo planned for an upcoming outreach event at Coast Week, Ian and I kept busy at the warehouse as a lot of things needed maintenance. The backup compressor needed fixing, the boat trailer needed new brake pads, the RV Malie’s engine needed rebuilding, etc. Together, Ian and I checked each item off one-by-one. When we got to the engine, though, there was not much I could do to help, so I sat and watched Ian take the engine apart as I spliced lines to be used for moorings.

Fixing the backup electric compressor

Fixing the backup electric compressor

Ian removes the caliper in order to examine the old break pads

Ian removes the caliper to examine the old break pads

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first ever splicing job!

My first ever splicing job!

As the week rounded out, the wind and waves died down just in time for the culminating festival for American Samoa’s annual Coast Week. With the motto “A healthy coast is a wealthy coast”, the event is aimed at raising awareness for the natural resources the island has to offer and the environmental issues impacting those resources. The NPS, along with other government agencies and local businesses, ran educational tables as vendors sold food, village youth groups put on traditional performances, and South Pacific Watersports hosted competitive outrigger canoe races. With so much to do, the event was bustling the entire day. It was amazing to see the community come together to support the cause and have fun while learning about the environment!

Paolo and Michele running the educational NPS table at Coast Week

Paolo and Michele running the educational NPS table at Coast Week.

The NPS team took home the trophy at this year's Coast Week outrigger canoe races.

The NPS team took home the trophy at this year’s Coast Week outrigger canoe races.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The taupou, the daughter of the village chief, performs the sacred Samoan dance, the Taualaga.

The taupou, the daughter of the village chief, performs the sacred Samoan dance, the Taualaga.

The Utulei youth group performs a traditional dance with coconut shells.

The Utulei youth group performs a traditional dance with coconut shells.

 

At work the next week, we switched gears to fish-tracking. Much like the work being done in Kalaupapa, the project here at NPSA is also tracking fish with the use of acoustic tags and receivers. However, the NPSA marine program’s goal is to try to locate the spawning sites of large snappers and groupers that have been severely overfished, in order to inform policies to better protect them. Preliminary work in the park has been promising, so the project was beginning to pick up steam. At our Monday morning meeting, Tim set the mission for the week – expand the receiver array by installing 4 more receivers and tag more fish. In order to prepare for the next few days in the field, I checked to make sure that all of the acoustic tags were still working, inventoried the receivers, and set them up to start collecting data. With the receivers launched and ready to go and plenty of mooring lines already spliced, we were all set for installation.

With a preliminary receiver array already in place, we were aiming to fill in the gaps and expand the study area with these installation dives. When we got to a site, Tim and Michele would drop down with a mooring line and find a large, sturdy reef structure at about 80 feet. Once they did, Paolo and I would descend, guiding down a subsurface mooring buoy. This proved to be a difficult task as you can imagine due to the float’s buoyancy, but with the help of some heavy linked chain, we managed to swim it down gently. From there, we secured the line to the bottom and then to the buoy before releasing the chain, sending the buoy shooting into the water column. Since the study was intended to track benthic fish species, the receiver was placed at 40 feet off the reef and aimed down, hence the need for the buoy. Over the next two days, we installed 3 new moorings, replaced one that was fraying, and deployed 4 new receivers.

Paolo, Ian, Michel, and me pose for a picture in front of Pola Island before our receiver installation dives.

Paolo, Ian, Michele, and I pose for a picture in front of Pola Island before our receiver installation dives.

Tim preparing for the dive with his rebreather

Tim preparing for the dive with his rebreather

Paolo heads toward Mooring #8 to replace a frayed line

Paolo heads toward Mooring #8 to replace a frayed line

Red-footed boobies fly overhead as Tim surfaces from the dive.

Red-footed boobies fly overhead as Tim surfaces from the dive in front of Pola Island.

With that done, we spent the next day fishing for the groupers and snappers the study was targeting – specifically, the yellow-edged lyretail, Variola louti, and the two-spot red snapper, Lutjanus bohar. We started off in Tāfeu Cove, a protected bay in the Park where both species have been known to hang out. After an unsuccessful morning, with the only catch being a small untaggable parrotfish, we decided to head around to the other side of Pola Island where known feeding grounds are located. As we rounded the Pola, I got a bite. Following a bit of a fight, with an incision wound to show for it, I finally reeled in the feisty barracuda! While we ended the day empty handed, I was pretty stoked about reeling in both of the catches of the day, even if they weren’t what we were looking for.

I caught a barracuda!

I caught a barracuda!

On our way back to Fagasa to take the boat out of the water, Tim noticed the classic arched back of a humpback whale. We immediately stopped the boat to watch. A few hundred yards away, what looked like two or three whales were hanging out on the surface preparing for a dive. Just after they disappeared under the surface, a humpback majestically breached out of the water and landed with a spectacular splash. Our jaws dropped. I have never seen a whale breach before in real life and it was perhaps the most regal thing I have ever seen in the wild! Unfortunately, I was not camera ready, but I did manage to get a picture of one of the whale’s flukes to prove that we did in fact see whales.

The fluke of a humpback whale emerges as it dives down into the ocean.

The fluke of a humpback whale emerges as it dives down into the ocean.

On the weekends, when we weren’t working, Ian, Paolo, and Michele took care to show me a good time around the island. One weekend, we hung out on the secluded Larsen’s beach. The next weekend, we went on a hike through the rainforest in order to get to Massacre Bay, the site of a massacre that occurred when the French explorer LaPerouse landed there in 1787. Another time, we even got to take Ian’s sailboat out for a spin. Every weekend was a new adventure! I could tell you more, but I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Larsen's beach

Larsen’s beach

Massacre Bay

Massacre Bay

 

 

 

 

 

Climbing for coconuts

Climbing for coconuts

Leaving Larsen's beach.

Leaving Larsen’s beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hike down to Massacre Bay.

The hike down to Massacre Bay.

The memorial at Massacre Bay.

The memorial at Massacre Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Ian steers us out of Pago Pago harbor

Paolo hoists the main sail

Paolo hoists the main sail

On my final weekend in American Samoa, I was excited to get to experience the traditional cultural holiday known as White Sunday. Over the course of my month stay I have come to learn that, like many other Polynesian cultures, the Samoan people have at their core faith, family, and music. These traditional values are evident in many aspects of their life – from the period of daily afternoon prayer, called sa, to every Sunday being dedicated to spending time with the family, going to church, and preparing the traditional ground oven or umu. However, this Sunday was special. Akin to a Mother’s Day or a Father’s Day, White Sunday is a day dedicated to honoring children. As the name implies, all the kids wear white and some even get special outfits sewn for the occasion.

The children posing after putting on a beautiful White Sunday celebration.

The children posing after putting on a beautiful White Sunday celebration.

At the potluck meal after White Sunday mass, the children are served first.

A potluck was served after mass for the children.

A Church prepared for White Sunday.

A Church prepared for White Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I accompanied Nerelle and Ian to church that day and had an amazing time. I was immediately welcomed by the close-knit congregation and invited to celebrate the holiday with them. In true White Sunday fashion, the celebration was led by the children and featured all kinds of performances put on by the kids. It was a delightful way to end my last weekend in American Samoa!

Find your Park.

Find your Park. I know I did.

I would like to extend the sincerest of thank you’s to everyone who made my month in American Samoa so fun and memorable! Tim for providing the opportunity to come work for your beautiful park and for inviting me to join the marine team. Paolo, Michele, Ian and Nerelle for welcoming me with open arms and sharing with me your adventures and your homes. Adam, Shivaun, Alan, Sabrina, and Bob for the talks on the beach and the hikes through the rainforest. And last, but not least, Alex for sharing with me your friendship and showing me your take on American Samoa. You all made this experience something I won’t ever forget.

The sun sets over the International Date Line, with Western Samoa barely visible on the horizon. "Between here and there is tomorrow." ~ Paolo Marra-Biggs

The sun sets over the International Date Line, with Western Samoa barely visible on the horizon. “Between here and there is tomorrow.” ~ Paolo Marra-Biggs

 

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MOLOKA’I – KALAUPAPA NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK

Kalaupapa National Historical ParkKalaupapa National Historical Park

On my way to Kalaupapa, I made a pit stop in Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i to visit my cousin, David, and his wife, Katie. Though my stay was brief, I very much enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at the beach and a morning swim at popular snorkel site Honaunau Bay (aka Two-Step) with my family. Thanks guys for welcoming me to Hawai’i and taking me in for a night! But after spending just over 24 hours in Kona it was time to make moves towards Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

Me, Katie, David

Me, Katie, David

Two-Step, Hanounou Bay, Hawai'i

Two-Step, Hanounou Bay, Hawai’i

 

 

 

 

 

The 8-passenger, propeller plane left from Oahu just before sunrise. With just a half hour flight, we left behind the hustle and bustle of early morning Honolulu and entered a completely different realm. The park is located on the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north side of the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i. Sea cliffs, the tallest in the world at over 3,000 feet, and the surrounding ocean isolate the peninsula from the rest of the island, a fact that played an important role in its history. Today, visitors to the park, like myself, must either walk down a trail along the cliff face from topside Moloka’i or fly in directly on a small, chartered plane operated by Makani Kai Airlines.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

As the sun rises, Kalaupapa emerges into view on the horizon aboard the Makani Kai flight.

As the sun rises, Kalaupapa emerges into view on the horizon aboard the Makani Kai flight.

At the airstrip, I was greeted with an aloha by Marine Ecologist and Park Dive Officer, Eric Brown. After showing me to the historic Nurse’s quarters, my home for the next two weeks, Eric took me on a quick tour of the park, educating me on the extraordinary history of the peninsula.

Marine Ecologist, Eric Brown

Marine Ecologist, Eric Brown

In the mid-1800’s, Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy, began to sweep its way across the Hawaiian Islands. With no known cure and little knowledge of the disease itself, King Kamehameha V became fearful of the consequences of such an epidemic and exiled those afflicted with the disease to the Kalaupapa peninsula in 1865. Over the next hundred years, more than 8,000 patients with Hansen’s disease were torn away from their families and forcibly quarantined in the settlement on Kalaupapa under the Segregation Act. Early patients suffered not only from disease and the sorrow of separation, but also from food shortages, inadequate shelter, and a complete lack of medical care. Eventually, the generosity, charity, and effort of individuals, like Father Damien and Mother Marianne, brought major improvements to the lives of the patients. In the late 1940’s, the discovery of sulfone drugs brought about a cure for Hansen’s disease and the number of patients at Kalaupapa began to decrease as a result of the treatment. Finally, in 1969, the century-old Segregation Act was officially abolished.

Today, about a dozen cured patients have chosen to remain in the settlement and are allowed to come and go as they please. Here, they are continually cared for by staff from the Hawai’i Department of Health and members of their families. With a mission to preserve this solemn narrative for future generations, as well as protect the plethora of cultural and natural resources on the peninsula, Kalaupapa was established as a National Historical Park in 1980 and nowadays Park Service staff rounds out the population in the settlement at just under 100 people. As Eric’s tour progressed it became increasingly evident that the community here at Kalaupapa is extremely close-knit. Having been on the peninsula for less than an hour, Eric had already introduced me to about twenty residents! If this was any indication of how the next two weeks were going to go, I was excited to become a part of the Kalaupapa community!

A resident's home sits in front of a backdrop of Kalaupapa's infamous sea cliffs.

A resident’s home sits in front of a backdrop of Kalaupapa’s infamous sea cliffs.

Eric and I ended our tour at the Natural Resource Management Office just in time for the workday to begin. Here I was introduced to the rest of the Marine team – Maintenance Mechanic, Randall Watanuki, and Biological Science Technician, Sinefa Annandale. Together, we had a meeting to discuss the plans for my time here at Kalaupapa. This was my longest stay in a park to date and I was excited to get to experience multiple weeks of park operations at a single park. The first week of my visit, we would be finishing up the benthic marine monitoring surveys the team had started the previous week. And for the second week, visiting researchers from the University of Hawai’i were coming for a shark-tagging project! But first, there was one last freshwater site to be completed for annual water quality monitoring.

The Natural Resource Management Office

The Natural Resource Management Office

Without knowing quite what to expect, I hopped in the truck with Eric and Sinefa and we drove off to the eastern side of the peninsula. At a certain point the paved road of the settlement gave way to faint tire-tracks running through a meadow and leading up to the edge of a tropical rainforest. Machete in hand, Sinefa led the way into the dense growth. I followed behind Sinefa as he hacked away at sinewy vines and low tree branches. By far the coolest hike I’ve ever done, we trekked through the underbrush, blazing our own trail, and descended down 1,000 feet into Kauhako crater toward the freshwater lake sitting at the bottom. Though barely 300 feet across, the lake bottoms out at over 800 feet deep, making it, according to Eric, the deepest lake in the world for its surface area. As I collected and filtered water samples for lab analysis, Sinefa tested the water quality with a Sonde. The whole process only took 10 minutes and then we made our way back up the caldera walls, having to make use of ropes for the steeper parts of the ascent.

View from the start of our hike down into the Kahuako Crater.

View from the start of our hike down into the Kauhako Crater.

Sienna hacks at the shrubbery clearing a path.

Sinefa hacks at the shrubbery clearing a path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sinefa operates the sonde while I filter water samples from the lake.

Sinefa operates the sonde while I filter water samples from the lake.

We used ropes for the steeper parts of the ascent.

We used ropes for the steeper parts of the ascent.

Sinefa looks behind him, breaking the rule to never look down.

It got pretty steep!

Back at the office, Eric decided to make use of the last hour or so of the workday by performing my checkout dive. While it can get repetitive to prove my skills to each new park, it is crucial that these checkout dives be performed so that the park divers are aware of my composure and comfort-level underwater and I am aware of theirs. After going over the basic mask clearing and buddy-breathing skills, we had time for a quick lap around the dock.

Beautiful corals speckle the volcanic rocks of Kalaupapa's reef.

Beautiful corals speckle the volcanic rocks of Kalaupapa’s reef.

Kalaupapa’s underwater resources are vastly different from those I have seen so far on my trip. Large volcanic boulders scattered the reef slope, each with one or two individual coral heads growing on top. Compared to other reef communities I’ve seen where encrusting corals, sponges, or algae will fill in any and all exposed substrate on a reef, there appeared to be a considerable amount of open space just waiting to be occupied. However, while Kalaupapa’s percent coral cover and coral species diversity seemed relatively low, the community of fish that call these reefs home was vibrant and flourishing. Everywhere I looked – in the coral heads, under the rocks, up in the water column – I saw hundreds of fish. Huge schools of surgeonfish, unicornfish, and chubs swam alongside us, only to panic and swim away as a large barracuda came into view.

 

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Eric swims over a collection of vibrant corals.

Corals speckle the large volcanic boulders of the reef.

 

A school of chubs swims alongside of us.

A school of chubs swims alongside of us.

The chubs panic and disperse as a barracuda looms nearby.

The chubs panic and split as a barracuda looms nearby.

Over the course of the next two days, Eric, Randall, Sinefa, and I went out on the boat and completed the last remaining sites for the benthic marine monitoring program. Every year, the Marine team visits a total of 30 sites around the peninsula and gathers data on coral cover, rugosity, and fish species. On each dive, Eric would lay down the 25m transect tape and perform a fish count, while Sinefa or Randall (whoever wasn’t on the boat) would follow behind and take photographs of the substrate at every meter, which be analyzed later for percent cover data. Finally, Eric and I would round up the dive, teaming up to take a rugosity measurement.

Randall swims the transect tape taking photographs of the substrate. Eric can be seen in the distance doing his fish count.

Randall swims the transect tape taking photographs of the substrate. Eric can be seen in the distance doing his fish count. Note the vast amount of bare substrate.

However, the work week was cut short due to incoming storms Hurricane Lester and Hurrican Madeline. On Thursday, the park service and the state employees had the day off in order to prepare for the storms. In the morning, everyone gathered at the town hall to hear from the Emergency Preparedness team about what to expect for the weekend. With Lester set on a B-line for the entire Hawaiian archipelago and winds estimated to be over 100mph when it reached Moloka’i, the settlement went into lockdown mode. The trail to topside Moloka’i was closed, in addition to all flights out being suspended for the next few days. Additionally, a storm shelter was being set up in the town hall for those who experienced any damage or power outage during the storms and needed food or shelter.

Hurricane Lester predicted path

Hurricane Lester’s predicted path.

With this in mind, Eric and I spent the day batting down the hatches at the office. We also moved the boat to a more secure mooring offshore and added extra lines for security. We debated moving the boat to the harbor on the other side of the island, but with the trail closed, Eric decided to play it by ear and make the decision as the storm got closer and its path became clearer.

Overnight, Madeline had stirred up the wind and dumped some heavy rains, the only damage being a small landslide and downed tree on the trail. The good news was that the Friday morning weather update showed Lester taking a more northerly route. While we were longer in the direct path, Moloka’i was placed under a Hurricane watch for high winds and rains throughout the weekend. So in anticipation of being locked up in our houses for the next two days, Tim Richmond, the Food Services Supervisor for the settlement, invited a bunch of people over for a potluck movie night. We watched Young Frankenstein as we indulged on a delicious dinner of spaghetti and Eric’s vegan meatballs. All in all, it was a fun bonding activity that made me really feel like a part of the Kalaupapa family.

Hurricane Lester veers away from the archipelago.

Hurricane Lester veers away from the archipelago.

The weekend passed by extremely uneventfully. For all of the hectic preparations, not a drop of rain or the slightest breeze made an appearance on Saturday or Sunday. So on Sunday, the trail opened back up and activity resumed in the settlement.

That Monday, Labor Day, was relatively quite in the settlement. I was used to pool parties, fireworks, and BBQs, which is why I didn’t initially question the bonfire-esque smell coming into my room at 1:30 in the morning. But at 2:00, I rolled over and immediately knew I was in trouble. The building, not 20 yards out my window was on fire. Screaming came from the adjacent rooms and it was evident Kylie, Jake, and Susan had awoken to the blaze out their window as well. Kylie ran to sound the settlement alarm as Jake radioed it in to the park Emergency Services. Together, we all ran from our building into the street. All we could do was watch as the kitchen burned. Soon everyone from the community was outside watching with us as others from the community fought the fire from two fronts. By the time we had noticed the fire, it was too late to save the state dining hall and the majority of the effort was spent controlling the fire and preventing it from spreading to other buildings or into the open field across the street. We were extremely lucky it had rained not an hour before and the grass was still wet.

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A resident watches the historic building collapse.

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Volunteer forces mobilizing to fight the fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While devastating to watch, it was amazing to witness an entire community come together in the face of this disaster. Everyone helped out, whether it was turning the hydrant on or getting water bottles to the firefighters, stamping out the embers in the adjacent field or holding the high-pressure hose. Just as the sun peaked over the horizon, the last ember went out. The next 24 hours was an emotional time in the settlement as everyone tried to go back to his or her daily schedules. I have to commend all of the brave souls who helped fight the fire and supported their fellow community members through this tragedy that destroyed such a historic building and a vital cornerstone for the settlement.

Volunteers fight the fire well into the night.

Volunteers fight the fire well into the night.

Jake carries the high pressure hose, one example of the community effort required to fight the fire.

Fighting the fire was a community effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pan sits on the steps leading up to the remains of the historic state kitchen.

A pan sits on the steps leading up to the remains of the historic state kitchen.

After an exciting night started off my second week in Kalaupapa, two visiting researchers from the University of Hawai’i, Kosta Stamoulis and Alex Filous, flew in to continue work on a shark-tagging project. In order to track sharks, and other apex predators, acoustic transmitters are implanted into a cavity on the underside of the fish and a plastic tag is attached at the base of the dorsal fin. These transmitters emit a coded series of pings that are then picked up and recorded by acoustic receivers that are placed strategically around the reef. The array of receivers allows for the researcher to track the movement of the tagged fish as well as the time stamps of the movement. When compiled, this information can be used to identify feeding grounds, spawning sites, and habitat ranges.

Before we could get around to tagging any new fish, we had to collect the receivers and download the data from the last 6 months. We spent the next day and a half collecting receivers located all around the peninsula – even venturing over to the breathtaking eastern side of the peninsula! Some were located just offshore in a shallow, meter-deep lagoon where blacktip reef sharks have been known to hang out, while some were located 500 meters offshore at a depth of 70 feet. We were able to retrieve all but Receiver #7, which had broken off of its mooring presumably during a strong swell event and, after a 50 minute search effort, we determined that it was lost to the sea.

The eastern side of the peninsula had breathtaking views.

The eastern side of the peninsula had breathtaking views.

You might recognize the sea cliffs of Kalaupapa from the original Jurassic Park movie!

You might recognize the sea cliffs of Kalaupapa from the original Jurassic Park movie!

Once all the receivers were collected, the mornings were spent underwater redeploying the downloaded receivers and the evenings were spent on the boat fishing. This was by far the biggest fishing endeavor I have ever been on, as I’ve only ever fished in lakes, so I was a bit overwhelmed at first. We had bait rods and game rods; we were using live bait, so we had a flow-through bait tank to keep the bait alive in the back of the boat; and, not to mention, we had all of the equipment and gear to do the tagging. Baitfish seemed to be the limiting factor for all of our outings. Oftentimes it took us a while to locate the ‘opelu (mackerel scad) or akule (big-eye scad), but once we saw a huge school on the fish finder we would drop the lines, jig them up, and reel in the bait.

Our fearless captain, Randall.

Our fearless captain, Randall, leads us on a quest to find bait.

After stockpiling up some bait, Randall would drive us offshore a bit where Kosta and Alex would toss in their lines with the live bait thrashing about and wait. Sometimes they would bring up their lines only to find that a predator had taken a huge chunk out of the baitfish without their knowing. Other times the predators would make it known and put up a fight before somehow managing to get off the hook; they were taunting us. But by the end of the week, Alex and Kosta had reeled in four sizeable fish – unfortunately, none of them were sharks. Alex and Kosta each caught one ‘omilu (Bluefin trevally, Caranx melampygus) and one ulua (Giant trevally, Caranx ignobilis). Once they brought the fish on board, we would run a hose over the gills as they measured its size and inserted the two tags. And of course, we grabbed a picture before putting it back in the water. I didn’t catch any taggable fish. Instead my biggest accomplishment of the fishing trips was catching 3 ‘opelu on one line to save the day and allow the guys to keep fishing for a bit longer.

Alex struggles to reel in a big one!

Alex struggles to reel in a big one!

Inserting the acoustic tag into the ulua.

Inserting the acoustic tag into the ulua.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kosta and Alex pose with an 89cm ulua.

Kosta and Alex pose with an 89cm ulua

Tagging the dorsal fin of an 'omilu with a plastic tag

Tagging the dorsal fin of an ‘omilu with a plastic tag.

 

 

 

The day before I left, Eric came over and invited Jake, a visiting archaeologist for Cultural Resources, and I along for a monk seal survey. Beginning at the northernmost tip of the peninsula, we walked along the rocky western shoreline in the hopes of observing monk seal activity. Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the world with fewer than 1,000 individuals left in the wild. The park has been monitoring their behaviour and tagging individuals to help track the population as well as determine habitat preference and seasonal behavioural dynamics. About an hour into our walk, we spotted two subadult monk seals basking on the sandy beach. Jake and I ducked into the tree line while Eric quietly approached to observe them and identify them based on their tags. It was amazing to get to see these endangered animals up close and know that the park is doing what it can to help document their behaviour and protect their habitat. And as if the two weren’t enough, we spotted and identified another two individuals, potentially a mating pair, hanging out just up the beach!

Eric walks the rocky shoreline on our monk seal survey.

Eric walks the rocky western shoreline of the peninsula on our monk seal survey.

Eric tries to identify the individuals without disturbing their day in the sun.

Eric tries to identify the individuals without disturbing their day in the sun.

Monk seals basking in the sun on the beaches of Kalaupapa.

Monk seals basking in the sun on the beaches of Kalaupapa.

Two monk seals playing in the sand.

Two monk seals playing in the sand.

Jake and Eric pause to record the identifications of the monk seals.

Jake and Eric pause to record the monk seal IDs.

 

 

 

 

 

Overall, the two weeks I spent at Kalaupapa were quite eventful. Kalaupapa is unlike any park I have been to as of yet. With a tragic narrative set at the base of majestic sea cliffs, Kalaupapa is truly a park of endurance and beauty. Its storied history has shaped the settlement into the quaint, close-knit family it is today and its isolation has helped preserve its wonderful natural resources from the vibrant fish communities to the fertile jungles. I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to experience all it has come to be.

Beautiful Kalaupapa

Overlooking the Kalaupapa settlement

I would like to extend a huge thank you to Eric, Randall, and Sinefa for making me an honorary member of the Kalaupapa Marine crew and allowing me to explore your beautiful park through a variety of experiences! Thanks to Kosta and Alex for imparting me with your wisdom and teaching me how to fish. And a big thank you to Tim, Jake, Kylie, Susan, Julia, Ryan, Emily, Claire, Meli, and the rest of the wonderful people at Kalaupapa who welcomed me with open arms into your community and into your family. Until next time!

A Kalaupapa sunset.A Kalaupapa sunset.

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VENTURA – CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK

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On Friday, August 19th, I said goodbye to the Hawaiian Islands and hello to the California coast as I crossed back over to the mainland. I landed in LAX and caught a shuttle to Ventura Harbor where Park Headquarters is located for Channel Islands National Park. There, I was greeted by Marine Ecologist Joshua Sprague who led me to the park’s 58-foot research vessel, the Sea Ranger II, where I would be spending the weekend before joining the Kelp Forest Monitoring (KFM) team for a 5-day monitoring trip.

Ventura Harbor

Ventura Harbor

On Monday, after a day exploring the harbor and beach for myself, I awoke to the hustle and bustle of the crew arriving bright and early to prep the boat for the week ahead. Josh introduced me to Marine Biologist and Regional Dive Officer Dave Kushner, Captain Keith Duran, and Biological Technicians Katie Grady, Parker House, Keenan Chan, and Christy Santschi. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only visitor for the week. Ian Jacobson, the Dive Program Coordinator for local nonprofit LA Waterkeeper would be joining me in helping out the KFM team. After loading dive gear, survey equipment, and enough food to feed an army onto the boat, we were off to the Channel Islands for an intensive week of diving and field surveys in the kelp forests of Southern California.

As we motor out, the KFM crew prepares for the day of diving.

As we motor out, the KFM crew prepares for the day of diving.

The park itself consists of five of the eight Channel Islands – Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Cruz – and the water extending one mile offshore. Located at the confluence of cold northern waters being carried south by the California current and the warm waters coming up along the coast from the south, the Channel Islands boasts an exceptionally diverse marine ecosystem. In addition to bringing together both warm- and cold-water species and yielding a high biodiversity, the currents also produce a nearly continuous upwelling phenomenon, which brings nutrient-rich water up from the deep ocean, supporting a highly productive environment. Because of this, the park boasts some of the most pristine examples of kelp forests in California. In fact, when Channel Islands National Park was created in 1980, Congress specifically noted this and highlighted the park’s scientific value as a site for long-term monitoring.

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island

Launched in 1981, the KFM Program is the longest established marine monitoring program in the National Park Service. Now in its 35th year, the KFM Program has grown from monitoring 13 permanent sites selected at the time of its formation to the now 33 sites located throughout the park. In 2005, the program doubled when 16 sites were added to better monitor the newly established Marine Reserves and to assess the efficacy of these reserves over time. Every year, each site is surveyed following the same detailed protocol and data are collected on over 70 species of algae, invertebrates, and fish. This long-term, multi-decade dataset has helped scientists understand the large-scale ecological patterns and processes at work in kelp forest communities that a five-year study would fail to detect. In addition, the data has allowed scientists to predict the larger trends in population dynamics of individual species and has informed various resource management strategies adopted by the state of California (including the establishment of marine reserves in 2002 and the closure of the abalone fisheries in 1997). Maintaining such an important and comprehensive dataset means that every summer, from May until October, the KFM team heads out on these 5-day monitoring trips every other week in order to complete surveys on all 33 sites.

KFM Site Map. Channel Islands National Park.

KFM Site Map. Channel Islands National Park.

On the way out to our first site, Josh explained the game plan of a typical day at a monitoring site. With a total of 12 different sampling techniques to perform and a massive amount of data to collect, each site typically requires 3 or 4 hour-long dives. Per person! And with a total of eight divers on board, there were a lot of moving parts to keep track of, especially with two of us being new to the program and the protocols. However, having done this countless times before, the KFM team ran like a well-oiled machine. When we pulled up to Anacapa Island at Site #13, Landing Cove, as soon as the anchor dropped, a team of divers entered the water. Their job was to lay the 100-meter baseline transect and take a video of the site. Once that was done, it was time for everyone else to hop in.

A view of the kelp forest from the surface.

A view of the kelp forest from the surface.

Looking down the 100-meter baseline transect as it disappears into the dense kelp forest.

Looking down the 100-meter baseline transect as it disappears into the dense kelp forest.

Not only was I new to the program and the protocols, but this was also my first dive ever in the California environment, let alone a thriving kelp forest biome. So all of the organisms were new to me. As such, I was paired with Dave Kushner for the day and told to just take in the ecosystem and observe the site while being his dive buddy.

Dave Kushner motions for me to follow him into the kelp forest.

Dave Kushner motions for me to follow him into the kelp forest.

When I first splashed into the water, I was immediately taken aback. I was not quite sure what I was expecting, but it was nothing in comparison to what I saw. I was surrounded by Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera), some easily over 40-feet in height. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but when I paused for a second, I noticed the calming rhythym of the fronds swaying majestically in the surge. Taking a deep breath, I followed Dave into the dense maze of kelp, trying not to get entangled. As we swam along, strange fish I had never seen before darted in between the kelp blades. In the distance, a bat ray (Myliobatis californica) glided by in the canopy and a sea lion swam just yards away, checking us out. Compared to the showy color scheme of a Caribbean coral reef, the Californian kelp forest had a much cooler color palette, filled with earthy tones and muted hues. That is, except for the Garibaldi damselfish (Hypsypops rubicundus), whose burnt orange added an occassional splotch of color to the landscape.

 

The sunlight dances as the kelp canopy sways in the surge.

The sunlight dances as the kelp canopy sways in the surge.

Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

Bat ray (Myliobatis californica)

Bat ray (Myliobatis californica)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sea lion comes by to check us out.

A sea lion comes by to check us out.

He decides we're not very fun and leaves us be.

He decides we’re not very fun and leaves us be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At times the kelp forest can get so dense that you can't see more than a body length ahead of you. In these cases, you also need to be extra cautious about entanglement.

At times the kelp forest can get so dense that you can’t see more than a body length ahead of you. In these cases, you also need to be extra cautious about entanglement.

When we made it to the start of the baseline transect, Dave and I began working on 1-meter quadrat surveys. With a goal of determining abundance of certain sedentary indicator species, this sampling technique was primarily focused on algae and invertebrates. At regular intervals along the transect, I would set up two 1-by-1 meter quadrats, one on either side of the tape, and Dave would search for snails, sea stars, and other organisms within the boundaries and record the abundance. On our next two dives, Dave and I took band transects perpendicular to the baseline. Though conceptually similar to the quadrat surveys, this sampling technique was designed to determine the abundance of less common or clumped organisms, like endangered abalone species or rock scallops, and therefore encompassed a much greater search area. While Dave swam the 60-square meter sections collecting the data, he would point out different organisms so that I could begin to develop a search image of my own. Additionally, as he was doing the surveys, I took pictures of various fish, algae, and invertebrates so that I could look them up later and identify them for practice.

California's state fish the Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicund) stands out dramatically in the kelp forest.

Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus)

 

As we continued our way down the baseline doing more band transects, we crossed paths with other members of the team who were busy at work. Some of them were collecting size measurements on hundreds of urchins, while others were counting the number of stipes (think stems) of individuals of Giant Kelp. Nearby, Katie, attached to a surface supply of air, could be heard calling off data points into her full-face communication system for Keenan to record topside. With four dive pairs operating at once, the site was alive with a suite of scientific activity! Finally, after racking up over 26 hours (yes, you read that right – 26 hours!) of bottom time and rigorous data collection, we had completed the first site of the trip.

Hanging at 15 feet, the KFM has an oxygen bar you can breathe on for your safety stop. Definitely a treat after a long dive!

Hanging at 15 feet, the KFM has an oxygen bar you can breathe on for your safety stop. Definitely a treat after a long dive!

Coming up from the last dive of the day. Together, we had over 26 hours of bottom time on Day 1 alone!

Coming up from the last dive of the day. Together, we had over 26 hours of bottom time on Day 1 alone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throughout the rest of the week, we went to different spots off of Santa Cruz Island and repeated the day-long process of surveying a site. Our second site, Pedro Reef, was a stark contrast from where we were diving the day prior. Instead of diving on a beautifully lush kelp forest, we descended on an empty and exposed urchin barren. Located outside of the Marine Reserve, Pedro Reef serves as a prime example of how overfishing can have devastating cascading impacts on a kelp forest. Fishing pressures on predators like the California sheepshead and other apex consumers, allow sea urchin populations to boom unchecked. From there, elevated urchin populations graze on and mow down entire sections of kelp forests. To add insult to injury, the site saw a dramatic change from the previous year’s already dismal barren state. An invasive brown alga Sargassum horneri had taken over and covered practically every inch of available substrate.

An octopus hides in a crevice, surrounded by a field of the invasive Sargassum.

An octopus hides in a crevice, surrounded by a field of the invasive Sargassum.

At Pedro Reef, I was paired up with Katie and got to switch it up and implement different sampling techniques. For our first dive, I got to practice identifying the various species of fish I had studied the previous night by doing a Roving Diver Fish Count with Katie. Together we dropped down, each with our own dive slates and began swimming in a lane that spanned out 10 meters on either side from the baseline transect, counting every fish we saw. For someone who just learned about the fish of the southern California waters, I have to say that I was proud of my ability to at least identify all of the indicator species, even if I did have to write down descriptions of a few fish because I didn’t remember their names. On our second dive, Katie and I were designated to do the 5-meter quadrats. This protocol called for combing 1-by-5 meter segments on either side of the baseline and quantifying the amount of adult and juvenile Giant Kelp and Sargassum. As this site was overgrown with Sargassum, we spent well over an hour raking through the macroalgal carpet counting the individuals and determining their reproductive maturity. While tedious, this data will be very important for understanding long-term patterns and processes associated with urchin barrens and the cascading effects of overfishing. Plus, as a bonus, looking at the substrate so closely during the surveys revealed some colorful surprises!

Flabellina iodinea (Spanish shawl)

Flabellina iodinea (Spanish shawl)

Jorunna pardus

Jorunna pardus

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Wednesday, we changed it up and did something a bit different. We went to the backside of Santa Cruz Island, to Yellowbanks, a site that had already been surveyed earlier in the summer. Instead of doing the normal routine, we went to check on the Artificial Recruitment Modules (ARMs). Basically just stacks of cinderblocks inside wire cages, ARMs are an important part of the KFM program. All of the other sampling techniques the program utilizes are non-intrusive, meaning divers do not turn over rocks or reach inside crevices to look for organisms. However, since many young recruits and juveniles often take shelter in those protected spaces, a large and crucial demographic of creatures are overlooked in these surveys. By deploying the artificial 3-dimensional structures and thus providing shelter for juvenile organisms, the KFM team has created an artificial habitat for a comprehensive intrusive survey.

Young urchins find shelter in an ARM.

Young urchins and other juvenile organisms find shelter in an ARM.

On the first dive, each person picked an ARM and disassembled it, carefully removing each cinderblock and placing all of the indicator species found on, in, or under it into a giant mesh collection bag. After an ARM was completely disassembled, the goodie bags of sea creatures were brought back to the boat where their contents would be measured. On deck, everyone gathered around the bucket of creatures with a set of calibers and called out mesurements of urchins, sea stars, cowries, and snails to a data collector. The organisms were then returned and the ARMs reassembled.

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The KFM program uses Artificial Recruitment Modules (ARMs) to conduct systematic intrusive surveys. With my collection bag in tow, I begin to disassemble an ARM and examine the contents.

A diver measures a Crowned sea urchin (Centrostephanus coronatus) with a pair of calipers. These urchins are quite fragile and are measured on the dive to avoid injury.

A diver measures a Crowned sea urchin (Centrostephanus coronatus) with a pair of calipers. These urchins are quite fragile and are measured on the dive to avoid harming the urchin.

A pile of purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) that have already been measured make up just a portion of the contents of a typical ARM.

A pile of purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) that have already been measured make up just a portion of the contents of a typical ARM.

Following our long days, whether they were spent diving for 3-4 hours or sitting hunched over a bucket of urchins, we would motor over to Santa Cruz Island, where we dropped anchor in Prisoner’s Bay for the night. Every evening, a different person on the KFM team cooked dinner for the group as the rest of us sat down and talked about the day. There was always a little bit of data processing and discussion to be done before work was officially over and dinner was served. Life aboard the Sea Ranger II was similar to that of the MV Fort Jeff out at Dry Tortugas National Park. While most people might find the cramped spaces or the lack of certain amenities like cell phone service or internet hard to handle, I had really come to enjoy life aboard a dive boat. Something about the daily schedule of dive, eat, sleep, repeat really clicks with me!

On Thursday evening, after spending the day surveying Scorpion Anchorage off of Santa Cruz Island, we had a visit from a surprise guest. The infamous Pike Spector, last year’s OWUSS NPS Intern, just happened to be spending his last week before heading back to grad school on Santa Cruz Island and came out to say hi to the KFM team. It was awesome to get to meet Pike and chat about his experience last year and the cool things he is doing now after his internship.

2015 OWUSS NPS intern, Pike Spector, paddles out to say hi to the Sea Ranger II and the KFM team.

2015 OWUSS NPS intern, Pike Spector, paddles out to say hi to the Sea Ranger II and the KFM team.

Thursday, August 25th, also marked the official date of the NPS Centennial. I could not think of a better to celebrate the Centennial than by spending the day diving in the kelp forests of Channel Islands National Park, all while taking part in the longest established monitoring program in the National Park Service! So while parks around the country were celebrating the Centennial with big parties and special events, we celebrated the best we could…by baking cookies!

Captain Keith jumps ship for a sunset SUP session.

Captain Keith jumps ship for a sunset SUP session.

Friday came all too quickly. Unfortunately, I had to sit out of the last day of diving because I was flying out of LA the following morning. That afternoon, we made our way back to Ventura Harbor and unpacked the boat from long week in the field. After saying goodbye to the KFM crew, I stayed overnight on the boat before catching an early morning shuttle to begin my weekend of travel to my next destination: Kalaupapa!

All packed up and ready to head back to the harbor.

All packed up and ready to head back to the harbor.

The KFM crew: (left to right) Parker, Christy, Katie, Keenan, Ian, Josh Sprague, me, Dave Kushner, Captain Keith

The KFM crew: (left to right) Parker, Christy, Katie, Keenan, Ian, Josh Sprague, me, Dave Kushner, Captain Keith

I had an absolute blast diving with the KFM crew and living on board the Sea Ranger II! I really have to commend the crew for the commitment they show for their work. I have to admit that that one week exhausted me. And to think they do it dozens of times in a summer season! I also want to extend the sincerest of thanks to the entire crew for welcoming me into your family for the week and for incorporating me into such an important monitoring program! Another huge thanks goes out to Parker and Josh, who let me borrow their cameras when I flooded mine. (Without them, this would have been a pretty borring blog.) I had such a fantastic time! I’ll definitely be back!

Sunset on the beach in Ventura Harbor.

Sunset on the beach in Ventura Harbor.

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