Category Archives: 2017 National Park Service

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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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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