Category Archives: 2019 National Park Service

Michael Langhans

Photography, Archaeology, and Outreach – YDWP in Biscayne National Park

This final short week in Biscayne National Park was almost definitely the one week of my internship that I was most nervous for. By a wild stroke of luck, I had been handed an incredible opportunity: a chance to take photos for a magazine, something that many photographers dream of. Mary Frances Emmons, editor-in-chief at SCUBA Diving Magazine and good friend of Dave and Brett, had reached out to Brett asking if he’d be able to photograph a program happening at Biscayne National Park this summer. Brett was unavailable, as he had SeaArrays to drive and shipwrecks to model, but as luck would have it he would have an intern in the area right around the same time – me.

The job was to photograph this year’s maritime archaeology segment of the Youth Diving with a Purpose program, an initiative to get underprivileged youth into subtidal work through archaeological and biological experience. I’d be working with a journalist and a few members of the Parks Service to document and assist this program during its time at Biscayne. This was obviously something that I was very excited for, the chance to not only have published photos in a major magazine but to shoot on assignment as well, but also a daunting task.

This was my first real underwater photographic assignment and a big one too – the folks at SCUBA Diving had taken a bit of a gamble on me, trusting the good reviews from Brett and Dave and hiring someone with no real magazine experience as the only one to provide photos for their article. I was honored that everyone had so much faith in my shooting ability and determined to make them all proud. However, I knew this assignment would touch on some of my weaknesses as a photographer. Despite spending most of the past couple years taking photos, my photographic experience was limited in two major aspects of this assignment: taking topside photos and underwater shots of people. Most of my experience comes from underwater wildlife photography, so while I was very comfortable using a camera I was a little hesitant as to how to approach this. Thankfully, the past couple weeks of this internship had been an excellent warm-up with the large number of images I produced for my blogs.

The program that I was assigned to document, Youth Diving with a Purpose (YDWP), is one that the SRC has been collaborating with for a while. YDWP is an offshoot of the successful Diving with a Purpose, a nonprofit designed to preserve and protect submerged cultural resources while also providing archaeological education and training. These programs have a special focus on shipwrecks of the African slave trade and uncovering more detail about the maritime history and cultures associated with this. A specific maritime target of the group since its founding is the wreck of the Guerrero, a high-profile slave ship that is believed to have sank somewhere off the Florida Keys. This particular vessel has yet to be located, so in the meantime the group is focusing on assisting the Parks Service with mapping the many wrecks located within the boundaries of Biscayne National Park.

This year, students from across the U.S., U.S. Virgin Islands, and Costa Rica travelled to South Florida with a team of instructors to tackle the mapping of a wreck in Biscayne called BISC-60, or Captain Ed’s wreck (named after the Captain who discovered it). This site is the remains of a mid-1800s vessel, lying in 22 feet of water just above the southern border of the Park. These students would spend a day in the classroom learning the basics of underwater mapping and maritime archaeology along with some history about the park, before venturing out into the field to put those newly discovered skills to work.

Jumping into a dive on the site

This week started off with a long day of lectures and land-based exercises. I travelled to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Biscayne National Park with the team of NPS personnel who would be assisting the YDWP team this week: Dave Conlin of the SRC, David Gadsby (an archaeologist from the Washington branch of the NPS), Josh Marano (maritime archaeologist with south Florida parks), and Sydney Pickens (a recent YDWP graduate and budding marine archaeologist). While my main job would be to photograph the program, the rest of the Parks Service team would be working to facilitate the program from the Parks side of things: setting up the classroom and the wreck site, making sure the program has everything they needed, and of course lending their valuable expertise.

 

While the students got an assortment of lectures, ranging from everything from the history of the DWP program to scientific illustration, I worked to document the process. Taking classroom photos of lectures and illustration practice wasn’t the most exciting thing I’ve done during this internship but was still something that I took seriously. Thankfully, I was also able to pick up a little of the info that the various lecturers had to say, learning a little bit about the Park, the history of YDWP, and about maritime archaeology. After taking a couple hundred shots of the students hard at work absorbing lectures and practicing their sketching skills, we moved onto a welcome outside break to practice the mapping process itself.

 

 

As minutes underwater is much more precious than those on land, the YDWP instructors took their time in ensuring that the students were very clear on the mapping procedure before they even stepped foot on a boat. In the muggy Florida heat outside the visitor center the students gathered to watch the instructors demonstrate mapping on a mock shipwreck – an assortment of objects laid on the grassy ground. This was a fun experience for me as, like these students, I had no real experience with mapping shipwrecks. I’d been able to observe the Submerged Resources team modeling quite a few with next-generation technology but had never really learned much about the old-fashioned way of doing it – with pencil and paper. Using measuring tapes and lots of patience, the instructors thoroughly explained the basics to the mapping to the students – including trilateration, how to take careful and accurate measurements, and the importance of not disturbing the baseline. The baseline, a transect tape that is reeled out through the middle of the site, is what all measurements are made in reference to. If it gets uprooted or moved before the in-water mapping is finished, all progress could be lost.

Early the next day, I met up with the NPS team to head out to our site. We were going to arrive a little earlier than the YDWP folks, who were departing with a dive charter out of Key Largo, to set up the marker buoys and the baseline. Arriving at the wreck site, the water was wildly calm – not a ripple to be seen. Josh and David geared up and hopped in to set up the lines while Sydney and I swam around to get a quick look at the site before the group arrived. The serene calm on the surface of the water extended to the dive site, as water motion was negligible. Perfect conditions for the first day.

One of the last times I’d see the wreck without anyone on it

Soon after we’d gotten in, the YDWP team arrived and it was time to get to work. I wanted to have the maximum amount of time possible to photograph them, so I went down as soon as the first people started dropping in. Now, before starting the dive I was a bit hesitant as to how my shots would all turn out, but I had clear ideas of what type of photos to produce and was confident in my ability to procure them. I’d had a lot of practice photographing people doing somewhat similar work in earlier parks so I figured this wouldn’t be too different – but boy was I wrong. I hadn’t accounted for the sheer amount of people on such a compact site – there were four different teams of 4 students, each team with an instructor leading them. This wreck wasn’t huge either, at one side it compacted into what was roughly a 10X4m area (and this is with 10 divers working in it). To make things worse, divers were now fighting a slight current which had just picked up, forcing everyone to maintain a slow kick into it.

That’s a lot of divers – in some parts of the site, divers had to work in very close quarters to get their measurements done

These crowds meant one important thing to me, something that I hadn’t foreseen. With so many people on the site, it was difficult for me to produce clean shots without distracting background action. It seemed like every time I spotted a team doing some work that would display nicely and moved into position, someone else would drift into the background of my composition or a rouge fin would appear from outside the frame. Wanting to create distinct images without parts of people cutting in or out of frame, I ended my first dive disappointed. I felt as though I had largely failed on my mission and had to re-plan my approach to get less busy images. Thankfully the group was doing at least 4 dives on the wreck, so I had a couple more chances.

Some images (like this one) turned out nicely but still had a few more people in the background than I’d have liked

The next dive went slightly better, although there was also some added difficulty. I had received a request by the YDWP instructors to get portraits of each student underwater, so added this concept to the back of my mind while trying to get clean magazine shots. Trying to isolate single students out of the masses was difficult in itself, but I also ran into another problem that I didn’t really think I’d ever have: no one would look at the camera. Typically, when shooting people underwater I don’t really want that, I’d prefer to have the people as an accessory in the shot for scale or added impact and to have them look towards the subject – but for portraits it’s a different game. I did admire the student’s steadfast dedication to the task – despite my shoving a camera in their face and praying that they’d look at it (even for just a second), no one caved. I ended the first day of diving feeling unsuccessful – I hadn’t managed to produce many clean working shots and had only gotten nice portraits of one or two of the students. I knew I had to approach things differently for our upcoming dives.

Students were so absorbed in their mapping that they paid no attention to the photographer snapping away photos right in front of them

Overnight, I had pondered plans for ways to isolate my subjects and get clean shots. I had thought up ingenious ways to briefly distract the students to take their portraits, and clever methods of capturing backgrounds free of rogue divers. As it turned out, I really didn’t need any of these. This day I was to ride out of Key Largo with the YDWP team and took that opportunity to ask a couple of the instructors if they’d mind assisting me with the portraits a bit and running their students by me at the start of their dive. I’d planned to be waiting right beneath the boat and the teams could drop down, stop by my marine portrait station, and then be on their way. As always, this proved to be much simpler in theory (I ran into issues with teams jumping in at the same time, forgetting to stop by, or just getting in each other’s photos) but was much easier than yesterday’s approach. With some light hounding on some of the instructors, I managed to get everyone to bring their students past me for picture.

 

As for the magazine shots, things just seemed to work out in my favor that day. Students weren’t as tightly packed together on the wreck, people weren’t swimming around as frantically, and everything seemed more relaxed and calm. While still requiring careful compositions and an ever-vigilant eye to watch for roving divers, I had a much easier time getting good photos this day.

 

For such a seemingly small event, this year’s YDWP was getting a bunch of attention. There was obviously the article for SCUBA Diving magazine, which myself and a journalist were working on, but there were a couple other media outlets: AARP sent out a team to do an article on Ken Stewart, the founder of YDWP, and Washington Post was there doing video piece as well. On top of that, the program attracted some high-ranking Park officials. Joe Lewellyn, Acting Superintendent of Biscayne, came out for a day on the water, as did Pedro Ramos, Superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas. Florida Public Archaeology Network’s Rachel Kangas rejoined us for a dive too- everyone wanted to see this program in action. Pedro Ramos joined everyone on the YDWP boat and spoke many kind words encouraging the students to continue this work and stressing the importance of them striving to uncover this history. It was nice to see all the Park support for this impactful program, an excellent use of our public lands in an educational and outreach-oriented program.

After the first two days of diving, it was time for our last day in the classroom – the mapping day. This was when the students would put their field illustrations and measurements to work, taking all of the info that they had gathered while underwater and transcribing them on land. First, they’d map out their portion to scale on a little personal map, and then once they’d finished add that section onto master map with the entire wreck on it. This was very cool for me to see, all the hard work that I’d observed happening underwater turning into a tangible product, and something that I’m sure was very satisfying for the students as well.

Students adding their portion to the final product

The mapping day was much like our first classroom day, with lots of hard work indoors sketching away, but this time everyone knew what they were doing. The students worked a hard, long day turning their field sketches into a polished result. Unfortunately, their work wasn’t done yet. As these things sometimes go, they needed just a few more measurements to get the map finished. Thankfully, a day was left open just for this possibility. Friday, our last day in the program, was left open for any potential re-measurements so we went back out.

Students hard at work on the final product

Only needing a few measurements, Friday wasn’t too hard of a working day. We still did two dives, but they were both very relaxed. Most everyone was taking measurements on the first dive, collecting the last little bits of data that they needed for the map. After a nice long surface interval, where the YDWP team experimented with an ROV to compare their map with one generated from ROV-collected photos (a new approach that the group is testing out), we went back in for one final time. With almost all the necessary data collected at this point, this was more of a clean-up and fun dive. Seeing everyone swim around and just enjoy absorbing all the maritime history was nice, and a good way to polish off the trip. At this point I had gotten pretty much all the shots I’d wanted for my magazine assignment, so I worked with the journalist from Washington Post to capture some video clips for her story – another fun venture into the world of media for me.

Getting those final measurements

After Friday’s final dive, the team finished up the week with a victory barbeque. Gathering up to celebrate the hard work and accomplishments with good food and drinks was a lovely way to cap off the project. Just before this, I was able to polish up all the portraits I’d shot and deliver them to the YDWP instructors, which was also a nice experience. Everyone was very kind in thanking me for joining them. While I joined the group for a photographic assignment, by the end of the week I felt like I was more than just their photographer. The instructors and students were very welcoming to me, despite not knowing me, and were open and accepting to me joining their program and photographing their every moment. As someone who hasn’t done many assignments like this, I was a little hesitant at first to get so up close and personal with the team – at first, I felt like an outside viewer, invading personal space for the shots. Working with this group that feeling quickly melted away and I felt at ease and appreciated – I couldn’t have asked for a better program to work with, and I was sad to see it end.

The 2019 YDWP Team

With this program wrapping up, my time in South Florida was coming to an end. Before heading out, I made sure to make time for what is becoming an Our World Underwater intern tradition – an annual meet-up between the NPS intern and the REEF during their times in South Florida. Ben Farmer, this year’s REEF intern, was kind enough to invite me to join him and some of his fellow REEF coworkers to dive at West Palm Beach’s blue heron bridge, a popular dive spot a bit north of Miami. I was able to join him two weekends in a row for spectacular dives full of interesting marine life, where we saw cool creatures like frogfish, flying gurnards, and pike blennies. I had a great time meeting up with and diving with Ben, an excellent diver, who is going on to an exciting year of working in the Turks and Caicos after his internship. It’s a pleasure seeing what exciting futures other members of the Our World family are going on to pursue.

Ben Farmer and I on our Blue Heron Bridge dive

 

After Biscayne I left South Florida, checked out of my motel home, and headed to the airport. From there, I returned to the Caribbean for the second part of my Virgin Islands adventure: the next round of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program, this time on St. John.

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Traveling the Maritime Heritage Trail in Biscayne National Park

A couple hundred years ago, the water off the coast of south Florida was not a good place to be a mariner. Fringed by submerged reefs, shoals, and islands, this treacherous coastline claimed many unfortunate vessels before the modern era of detailed charts and high-tech equipment. Many of these ships remain in these waters, slowly deteriorating from years of exposure to saltwater and biological activity, but still serving as a piece of history. Now, they act as a maritime time capsule, preserving a glimpse of the past underneath the warm waters.

Matt Hanks exploring the Lugano

These wrecks can teach us a lot about years past, but they aren’t completely safe in their watery resting places.  Along with the slow breakdown of vessel materials from the salt and biological activity, these wrecks are also subject to salvagers and the occasional heavy storm. While the days of intense wreck salvaging are behind us and the protection of National Park waters can serve to keep them safe, these boundaries don’t do much to deter hurricanes when they decide to come to town. Recent years have brought some strong storm activity through the park, causing potential damage to these historic sites.

Dave Conlin examining the Alicia

Biscayne National Park, located in south Florida just below Miami, is a 173,000-acre park that is 95% water. Protecting a number of distinct ecosystems, from mangroves to coral reefs, this park hosts boundless underwater sights. It also is home to a number of shipwrecks – 40 which have been officially documented but countless more likely lay undiscovered. Out of these, a selection of six of the most visit-able wrecks have been turned into the Maritime Heritage Trail – an opportunity for visitors to experience some of the Park’s treasured cultural resources. This trail, encompassing a wide range of vessel types, sizes, and eras, is a curated trip through some of the unfortunate maritime mistakes that occurred in Biscayne’s waters. By utilizing maps, brochures, and mooring buoys, park visitors can see, learn about, and experience these wrecks for themselves while snorkeling or diving.

Jim Nimz reads an informational plaque at the wreck of Arratoon Apcar

I was here with members of the Submerged Resources Center: Dave Conlin, Brett Seymour, Jim Nimz, and Matt Hanks. We were joined by Josh Marano, a talented maritime archaeologist who works the South Florida Parks. While here, we had a couple of objectives, all based around checking on the status of these historical wrecks post-hurricanes. Firstly, we’d be using the SeaArray, the SRC’s cutting-edge photogrammetry machine, to model the wrecks of the Maritime Heritage Trail. This would preserve them digitally as well as to start a baseline for continuous imaging-based archaeological assessments. We would also be conducting an assortment of measurements to learn about the composition and stability of the sediments around the sites – a way to learn how well they can preserve the wrecks and how much they change with the constant influx of storm-based wave energy.

Everyone’s favorite photogrammetry machine at work in Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park has a very busy dive program, so while we unpacked and prepared our equipment (a myriad of dive, imaging, and survey gear) we tried to be as compact as possible and to make the smallest impact on the Park as we could. This was a bit difficult with the sheer volume of stuff required to do our work but we did our best, and only colonized a portion of the outdoor patio and roughly half of a large restroom. You have to work with what’s available, even if sometimes it means storing your dive gear next to a toilet – it’s all part of the adventure. Another important first step was to introduce ourselves to the Acting Superintendent of Biscayne, Joe Llewellyn. The SRC works directly for superintendents and park managers so its important that they understand the research or fieldwork, as well as just nice to share info with interested parties.

Superintendant Joe Llewellyn observing the SRC team at work in the field

Once we had prepared all our gear, launched the SRC’s boat the Cal Cummings, and worked out our game plan, it was time to get out on the water. Our first wreck of the trip was the Arratoon Apcar, a wreck on the Heritage Trail in the far northern part of the park. As I mentioned earlier, the waters of Biscayne are full of shallow sandbars and shoals, so navigating out to our site for the day was a twisting trail through countless channels and around submerged hazards. The Arratoon Apcar wrecked in 1878 in especially unfortunate circumstances – this wreck is just a couple hundred feet from a lighthouse which was actively being built at the time of the wreck. The builders at the time were forced to watch as this vessel ran aground right in front of the light, which was just weeks from being complete.

The wreck of Arratoon Apcar

Our goal here was to create a 3D model of the site using the SeaArray. Brett Seymour would operate the beast with Jim Nimz as his buddy, and I was tasked with documenting the process along with creating images of the wreck for the Maritime Heritage Trail’s online documents – websites, story maps, etc. This was a fun opportunity for me to work on my wreck photography – a skill I had just started to develop earlier this summer at Isle Royale – as well as to get a nice introduction to the warm Biscayne waters. This wreck itself was nice, mostly just the bare structure remained after the decades spent underwater but what was left painted a clear image of what the vessel used to be. Located in shallow, clear water with covered in invertebrate growth and surrounded with reef fish, it was a lovely dive.

Fish take shelter under wreckage of Arratoon Apcar

After the dive on the Arratoon Apcar I headed out with Dave Conlin and Matt Hanks, the archaeologists of the SRC, to do some good old fashioned archaeology. For this we were joined by Josh Marano, maritime archaeological expert of the south Florida parks, whose local knowledge and expertise was indispensable when locating these wrecks and navigating the waters. We were to go to a couple more wrecks on the Heritage Trail to create GPS-based datums marking the site. This would allow the SRC to tie their newly created 3D models into maps, to place them accurately in their locations and allow for a full spatial understanding of the site in context to the map. This process involved a couple steps. First, a team of divers would descend on the site and locate two suitable locations on the fringes of the site. At these locations the divers would hammer in metal pins into the substrate, pins which would be incorporated into the model and a map to pair the two. Finally, it was time to take a GPS waypoint of the pins. This required a slightly different diver setup: as GPS signals are unable to travel through water, one diver would swim up to the metal pin underwater while towing along a buoy to mark their location. The other diver would swim along the surface following the buoy with a GPS in a drybag, taking waypoints when the buoy was directly over the metal pin.

Dave Conlin adding a marker pin near the wreck of HMS Fowey

I was able to join Dave, Matt and Josh on three more sites that day: the HMS Fowey, 19th century schooner wreck, and the China wreck. It was pretty special to visit four new wrecks in one day. These next three were full of surprises and artifacts. The China wreck site is littered with pieces of fine China (plates, dishes, bowls), pieces of its original cargo that still remain from when it wrecked years ago. The 19th century schooner was essentially two large piles of ballast (think big stones) but still had some of the original vessel material buried underneath. The HMS Fowey was one of my favorites: this was a 18th century British warship that sank in 1748.

Dave Conlin showing off an encrusted cannonball from the wreck of the HMS Fowey

This wreck is one of the crown jewels of the park with a secret location, limited dive access, and a restricted zone surrounding it to protect it from potential salvagers. This wreck is home to much of the wood siding of the vessel (protected from decomposition by being buried in an anoxic sediment environment), along with many exciting artifacts: piles of cannonballs (the ship’s shot locker, which rusted into an artificial reef after years in saltwater), a cannon, and a sword (amongst others). This is such a historically important wreck that it recently underwent a couple huge archaeological projects: one large excavation effort to uncover the site from its silty resting place in order to map and understand the full extent of the site, shortly followed by a large reversal of that process – covering the wreck in hundreds of pounds of sand in order to halt the decomposition process and to hide it from anyone who might damage it. This huge cover-up operation was unfortunately rather ineffective, as shortly after it was completed a hurricane paid the site a visit and promptly removed much of that newly added sand. This, again, was one of the reasons why our visit to this site was especially important: it was necessary to check in on such a historic cultural resource in the wake of powerful storms.

As well as adding the marker pins a final step to add to the models was site measurements. While the 3D models created by the SeaArray should theoretically be perfectly to scale, the SRC wanted to ground truth the data. To do this, they took an assortment of detailed measurements at the modeling sites -finding the lengths of conspicuous pieces of wreckage to check with the model later, as a way of proofing it. I joined the archaeologists for a couple dives to document this process, always great to see science in action.

Matt Hanks and Matt Lawrence take measurements on the Lugano

The next couple of days were mixed with a combination of shooting site photos with Brett, Jim, the SeaArray, and with marking site GPS points with Dave, Matt, and Josh. I was able to visit four more wrecks, all with storied histories. There was the Mandalay, a luxury windjammer that ran aground in 1966 on New Year’s Eve and was quickly stripped of its fineries. The Alicia, carrying so much valuable cargo that it sparked a huge battle between 70 different groups of salvagers that lead to court battles and salvage law changes. The Lugano, who at the time of her wrecking was the largest vessel ever to wreck in the Florida Keys. The Earl King, a cargo carrier who ran aground in the Keys and was saved and repaired, only to run aground one final time in Biscayne 10 years later. It was a real pleasure to dive on all these sites with the SRC, and travel the Maritime Heritage Trail.

A couple of days into the trip we were joined by two new members of the team: Tara Van Niekirk, a graduate student and frequent collaborator with the SRC doing sediment studies at Biscayne, and Sydney Pickens, a recent Columbia graduate and Slave Wrecks Project collaborator getting an introduction to maritime archaeology with some of the NPS’s finest. They joined up with the archaeological dream team of Dave, Matt, and Josh, creating a talented group of professionals that I was honored to work alongside.

With this team we started to work on some sediment studies, part of Tara’s graduate research that the SRC was working on with her. These were conducted in order to learn more about the stability and composition of the sediments at the site – important factors responsible for preserving the organic materials of the wreck. Silty, mucky sites tend to be the best for preservation, as the muck creates an anoxic environment that greatly slows the decomposition process. By taking sediment cores from locations around study sites and carefully analyzing the layers, archaeologists can learn a lot about the site itself. Along with merely the sediment composition, they can look at the layering and see how it has changed over time: comparing and dating the layers between each other can tell them about the movement of sediments through periods of heavy storm activity, which can be helpful in understanding the abiotic factors affecting the site. Another useful measurement device that we would be installing were scour chains. These, essentially carefully marked and measured lengths of chain, are buried into the sand with a set amount of links exposed. When returning to the site at later dates, archaeologists can continuously check the chain to see if any more or less chain is exposed, telling them information about the changing sediment levels – if the site is being slowly excavated by weather, or slowly covered up.

Josh Marano and Dave Conlin prepare a scour chain for installation

The goal was to take do these measurements at a selection of the Maritime Heritage Trail wrecks. We started off with taking sediment cores at a couple sites, including some of my favorites like the HMS Fowey and China Wreck. The coring process was a cool one to witness. To start, a plastic coring tube was inserted into a length of metal pipe. This pipe was then smashed down into the substrate using a variety of tools, ranging from a mallet to this metal contraption used to drive in stakes (affectionately called a ‘whammer-jammer’ by the team). This core sometimes slid through the sediment with ease and other times took much more effort – it all depended on the substrate composition. Afterwards, the pipe was removed from the ground and the internal plastic core taken out. This was the finished sample, which was to go up to the surface to be sent out for analysis. I enjoyed seeing the sediment cores on the boat – sometimes distinct layers were visible even to my untrained eyes, and it was cool to see the differentiation in sediment types.

After taking all our sediment cores, we moved on to the scour chains. While burying chains in sand may seem like a simple process, it takes a little more effort than you might think. In order to bury them deeply enough and without disturbing too much sediment, the team utilized a special dredge-like tool. Composed of a metal pipe linked via a hose to a water pump on the boat, this tool sends high-powered jets of water into the sand, essentially liquefying it and allowing the chain to be effortlessly planted into the ground. It was very fun to watch the team utilizing this tool at work, and I’m thankful that I was able to document the experience.

Josh Marano adding scour chains in the Pillar Dollar Wreck

Interspersed in between all of this archaeological work I was able to still spend time with Team Imaging (Brett, Jim, and the SeaArray) as they worked to model the sites. I had a really good time working with these guys, especially as I was able to spend most of my time working to creatively photograph the wreck sites. I have fun with all types of underwater photography but it’s a particularly enjoyable experience when I’m able to truly spend time with a site to figure out how I think I can best capture it. It’s a welcome break from the often fast-paced world of documenting science at work, and I really like being able to slowly swim around a site and carefully scrutinize it to determine how I want to portray it. It’s also still thrilling to see the SeaArray cruise through the water, snapping away photo after photo of the wreck sites. I even got the chance to trade roles with Jim for a bit, trading my camera for a DPV, and spent a couple minutes following Brett around as his buddy.

 

One interesting thing that differed between our modeling work at Isle Royale and Biscayne was the exposure of the project. In sharp contrast to the remoteness of Isle Royale, Biscayne is in close proximity to a lot of people – just south of Miami and just north of the Florida Keys. In an area with such rich maritime archaeological history, there are a lot of people who were very interested in the SRC’s work. Because of this, we had visitors from other organizations come out almost every day to experience the team and the SeaArray at work. We were visited by the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary’s maritime archaeologist Matt Lawrence, who joined us for a day of diving and site measurements. Florida Public Archaeology Network’s Sara Ayers-Rigsby and Rachael Kangas joined us to check out some sites and help with sediment measurements. Superintendent Joe Llewellyn came out to check out our work in his park one day and visit some wrecks. Jesse, an archaeological intern from Everglades National Park came out with us. A University of Miami graduate student working on science communication joined us for a day, who was excited to witness the modeling process that would make these offshore wrecks so attainable to the general audience. Most of all, everyone wanted to see the SeaArray in action and to watch this cutting-edge imaging tool at work at important archaeological sites. It was really special for me to see the far-reaching impact of this project, the interest and excitement it created, and the collaborative efforts taking place to get this work done. This solidified in my mind how important this work was, with so many different parties wanting to take part and help it along the way.

Brett Seymour operating the SeaArray with his buddy Jim Nimz following closely behind

My first two weeks at Biscayne flew by before I knew it in a wild flurry of archaeology, shipwrecks, and imaging. I really enjoyed my travels down the Maritime Heritage Trail, exploring the submerged history that this beautiful park has to offer. I’m grateful for Biscayne National Park’s support of all our activities during these busy few weeks, Josh Marano for lending his time and expertise, and as always the SRC for having me along for their wild adventures. Now, I’m on to my next project at Biscayne National Park, one I’m especially excited for: working on my first magazine assignment with SCUBA Diving Magazine, documenting the Youth Diving With a Purpose program!

Excited for new projects at Biscayne National Park

 

 

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Dry Tortugas National Park – Monitoring Coral Reefs around the Largest Masonry Structure in the Americas

Dry Tortugas National Park

Before this summer, I never imagined that I would be waking up on a ship heading to a 19th century fort in a remote island paradise. A couple weeks ago, that was my reality when I traveled with the South Florida Caribbean Network to Dry Tortugas National Park for 10 days of coral reef monitoring.  Located 70 miles west of Key West, FL, Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) is an 100 square mile park that mostly open ocean, consisting of less than 1% land. On one of its few islands lies the Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere (composed of more than 16 million bricks!). Initially designed as a defensive outpost to gain control of important waterways in the area (Gulf of Mexico, Straits of Florida), work on the fort faltered during the American Civil War. It was then repurposed into a military prison, where it held unlucky prisoners in a hot, brick oven of a fort (famous prisoners include four charged crimes associated with the assassination of President Lincoln), and then later served as a coaling station for coal-fueled U.S. ships.

Inside Fort Jefferson

Along with a storied land-based history, DRTO is also peppered with maritime history. Located in the center of a maritime highway and surrounded by large fringe reefs, barely submerged shoals, shifting tides and strong currents, the ocean surrounding the fort is a navigational nightmare for early sailors. Due to these treacherous conditions, the waters surrounding the fort are home to hundreds of shipwrecks, the most submerged resources of any park unit. However, we weren’t here for the  archaeological sites that exist within the park boundaries. We were here for the coral reefs.

Dry Tortugas is home to some spectacular coral reefs

The South Florida and Caribbean Network (SFCN) is part of the Parks Service’s Inventory and Monitoring network – part of the NPS that is in charge of gathering and analyzing information on the natural resources that exist in park boundaries. SFCN covers the marine side of the South Florida and Caribbean parks, an area in which one of the most biologically critical natural resources is the coral reef. DRTO is home to some of the finest reefs in Florida, unlike ones anywhere else in the Keys. Far from any cities or towns, these reefs have been relatively free from degradation by human influences and are in much better shape than many of their near-shore cousins. The reefs here also consist of a reef terrace habitat: a uniquely flat and uniform plate-like floor of corals, caused by lower-light conditions at deeper depths, creating a huge flat plateau of coral growth up to five feet off the sea floor.

Centuries worth of old coral skeletons lie underneath the exposed surface area

To top things off, these reefs make for ideal fish habitat with their high level of structural complexity hidden in the 5 feet of coral-made structure under their biological roof. The DRTO reefs make up some crucial spawning grounds for certain species of reef fish, due to a mix of ideal habitat and currents and retention gyres working to keep fish around. Furthermore, these reef’s larval supply gets caught up in currents and sent towards South Florida, working to replenish their more heavily impacted reefs. This oceanic linkage was discovered earlier and then protected in 2001, creating a positive response from overfishing after the fact – a conservation success story.

 

All these conditions make the reefs at Dry Tortugas a pretty special spot- a haven for threatened corals and overharvested reef fish, where they have a slight break from the onslaught of perils sent their way. However, they aren’t safe from everything. Like most of the rest of South Florida and Caribbean reefs, coral disease has made an appearance in DRTO. First noticed on their reefs by NPS researchers in 2008, coral disease (primarily chronic white plague out on these reefs) has had variable prevalence but is becoming more persistent – 2016 and 2018 were especially bad years. In the past 5 years, the SFCN team has noticed around an average of 30% disease-related coral loss at their monitoring sites – especially bad news when coral cover has been on a steady decline since 1979. The disease kills off corals and then sloughs off their tissue, leaving a freshly exposed white skeleton. This quickly gets overgrown by turf algae, which then inhibits growth by new corals.

Close-up on diseased coral – the stark white skeleton is freshly deceased, while the brown turf algae encroaching from the corner dictates less recent mortality

The SFCN team works to monitor and report on the state of these reefs to see how they react in response to events like disease outbreaks and bleaching. They’ve been surveying these reefs since before disease reached the Dry Tortugas, making their surveys crucial resources for understanding how these plagues start and spread. I was lucky enough to tag along to see how it all worked.

The M/V Fort Jefferson from in the water

During our time out at DRTO, we stayed on the Motor Vessel Fort Jefferson, the 110-ft vessel serving as a transport boat, research vessel, dive support, as well as any other needs the park may have. While staying on a boat may seem like meager lodging, the M/V Fort Jefferson was far from it. Decked out with a full kitchen, bathrooms, bunks and living area, this was a veritable floating hotel – the only thing it was missing was Wi-Fi. I was here with four marine biologists and ecologists of the SFCN team: Mike Feeley, Rob Waara, Jeff Miller, and Lee Richter, as well as two of their research interns: Steph Topal and Morgan Wagner from University of Miami. Also on board was the Ft. Jefferson’s incredible crew: Captain Tim, Mikey Kent, and Brian Lariviere.

Upon arrival at the Fort, we immediately went to work. With a full trip of benthic monitoring and temperature logger collecting ahead of us, there was no time to waste. Shortly after the arrival of our floating hotel to Garden Key, home of the Fort Jefferson (the brick one, not the vessel), we gathered up our dive gear and headed out on the 27-foot SFCN vessel, the Twin Vee. The first day’s work was easy enough – go to the first benthic monitoring site and set a mooring for our work for the rest of the week, as well as to conduct a quick shakeout dive to reacquaint everyone with their gear and the ocean. The first monitoring site is at a spot called Bird Key – a highly rugose reef that was one of SFCN’s initial survey spots in the area, as well as the first spot that disease was a serious issue. Not much disease persists here anymore, but its impacts are still obvious: coral cover has dropped in response to around 8-12%, potentially only leaving the few resistant ones remaining.  During our shakeout we had a brief chance to explore – the reef was peppered with small canyons reaching down to the sand, one with a small swim-through, making for fun diving. I was excited to spend the next couple days here, exploring more of what the site had to offer.

On our return to Garden Key, I had a chance to check out something that I’d been thinking about ever since reading the blogs of past OWUSS NPS interns. Living underneath the M/V Fort Jefferson and the docks it moors up to are at least three goliath groupers, groups of tarpon, and tons of baitfish. I was eager to go spend some time amongst the fishy masses so pretty much as soon as we returned from our dive I grabbed my camera and jumped in. The density of biological life in such a small location was really thrilling – I’d dive through a thick cloud of fish to reach clearings with slowly patrolling tarpon, pretending to be ever uninterested in their tasty prey that swirls around them constantly, and then swim a little deeper to be met with the gigantic face of a 500 lb goliath grouper (or two, if you’re lucky). Having this much action right underneath your housing was pretty unbelievably convenient, so I stayed in the mix until the sun set and I didn’t have enough light to see in the dim underbelly of the docks. Ending my first day at DRTO swimming with hundreds of fish had me thinking it couldn’t get any better, but I sure was wrong.

 

The next day we started work in earnest: benthic reef monitoring at the Bird Key sites. This monitoring requires two teams. The first one, the recon team, is in charge of finding preset pins (big 1-foot metal spikes) nailed into the reef and running a transect tape between the two for the second team, the survey team, to survey. This recon team sounds like it has a pretty easy task, and it would be if it weren’t for the tenacity of life underwater. In a marine environment, things grow fast and they grow wherever they can. This makes locating metal pins rather difficult, as they quickly get overgrown with algae, sponges, hydroids and tunicates which make them seem to melt into the surrounding reef. To complicate things even further, the structure and life of the surrounding reef changes as well, which can work to obscure any obvious landmarks used to locate the pins in previous years. At the Bird Key site the transect locations are not particularly close to each other – to find one, you must start at the previous one, then follow a certain compass bearing for a set distance. At this point you have to start searching for an almost certainly overgrown metal pin that can be sticking out anywhere from 10 cm to 1ft out of the reef. The SFCN team has laminated maps of sorts – with compass bearings and distances listed from one transects to another, as well as with pictures of obvious landmarks to use when locating points – but that only helps so much. A careful eye is a necessity in this type of work. And of course, when one pin is found, the work isn’t over yet. Then you have to begin the whole process over again to find the second pin to end the transect itself. Sometimes, setup can be a lot of work.

While the setup team was hard at work searching for pins in a reef, the benthic monitoring team was following in their footsteps collecting data. With a team of three collecting data on coral disease, benthic composition, and coral health, they made quick work of a transect. To make things even more efficient, the team collects their data using iPads in underwater housings, which not only makes for easy data taking with the ability to easily integrate photos of disease but also allows for quick data entry – as all you have to do at that point is upload the info. While I spent most of my time at Bird Key with the setup team, I was able to join the monitoring team for a couple of dives and watch them at work. Watching them tear through a transect like it was nothing was pretty impressive.

Mike Feeley and Lee Richter making quick work of the transect

With a team this efficient, we made quick work of the Bird Key sites, finishing up in two days. Despite lower vis than other sites, Bird Key was a fun spot to dive. Lots of cool structure, one of the biggest coral colonies I’ve ever seen, and a huge and friendly resident goliath grouper that became accustomed to hanging out under our boat made for some pretty nice dives.

The next couple of days we started working at a new reef, one named Santa’s Village (after the elf hat-shaped coral heads peppered around the site). Here, I worked with the setup team to find the pins and run transects as the monitoring team was diving on closed circuit rebreathers. These sites were much easier to setup than Bird Key, as instead of following a treasure map of transects we just had to find a center pin and then locate transects that were just 10m in cardinal directions from there. That made for a much easier setup, which gave us ample time to explore these sites. Beautiful reefs with pretty spectacular coral cover for the area, it was fun spending time to look around.

Here, our setup team consisted of the three interns (myself, Steph, and Morgan) and Jeff Miller. Jeff, who has been diving on these reefs for many years now, was a valuable resource to have around as he knew these spots like the back of his hand – he could tell you how that coral head was looking last year, or what makes that particular colony so unique. In our post-setup exploratory swims I stuck around his side and tried to soak up some of the information he had to offer. As someone with no previous experience in this area I had lots of questions for him, and highly appreciated being able to get such detailed and site-specific answers. However, these answers weren’t always happy ones. A rather typical post-dive discussion between Jeff and Mike would often be a somber reflectance of what it once was. The sites were visually striking in the volume of life present to an outsider like me, but a sad reminder of a steady decline for those who visit them once or twice a year. With this in mind, I tried to work with Jeff on the majority of our dives to document specific cases of disease, coral recovery or loss, or particularly healthy colonies – a nice way to put my photographic abilities to work.

 

Returning to the M/V Fort Jefferson after a hard day at work

After a hard day at work monitoring, the team would offload gear from the SFCN’s Twin Vee to the M/V Ft. Jefferson, go through the prerequisite gear rinsing and decontaminating (due to the widespread coral disease in South Florida and the Caribbean, daily decontamination is becoming a pretty boilerplate process in most subtidal research operations) and start work on tank filling. This often left us a couple of hours free before time to begin dinner preparations – and what better to do than to get back in the water? Dry Tortugas was home to some pretty incredible snorkeling: the giant goliath groupers, baitfish and tarpon under the dock to the coral-encrusted fort walls themselves, to the patch reefs surrounding the islands. There was enough there to keep an underwater photographer busy for weeks. I took full advantage of all the free time I had, hopping back in the water with a mask, fins and camera almost every day of the trip.

Once we had polished up monitoring work at the Santa’s Village sites, we moved on to the final batch of baseline monitoring sites for the trip: ones at Loggerhead forest, a reef offshore of Loggerhead Key. These sites were set up in the same way as the ones at Santa’s Village with the easily located transect pins, which gave us lots more time to explore the sites and take them in. I found these sites at Loggerhead forest particularly beautiful, with some big and healthy-looking Orbicella and Colpophyllia colonies and lots of fish, but heard from the team that they’re now just a fraction of their former beauty. This illustrates the importance of baseline monitoring like this. Without knowing the past state, one could easily assume that the reefs are doing great with their high coral cover and fish density. When compared to previous years, the state of decline is more obviously clear.

 

As well as monitoring these sites, we worked on collecting and offloading temperature logger data. Over the years, the SFCN team has set out a large number of waterproof temperature loggers at various locations throughout the park to keep an eye on how things are changing. These loggers, which are located at all of the baseline monitoring sites as well as a collection of other select locations, must get their data offloaded occasionally to ensure they still have room to keep taking measurements. We did a good number of quick bounce dives (some required more searching for the logger than others) to offload data, which doubled as a great way to get a quick look at a wide variety of different sites.

Between all of the diving, snorkeling, photo processing, and sleeping that I was doing at this point in the trip, I really didn’t have too much time for much else. I was so preoccupied with that batch of activities (and they sure were nice ones to be preoccupied with) that it took me until about halfway through our time at DRTO to realize that some of the finest photographic opportunities this park has to offer occur after the sun goes down. Being located on an island that’s almost 70 miles away from the closest civilization makes for some pretty dark nights – which means that there’s some killer stargazing. Even more exciting to me was the discovery that the waters surrounding the fort are packed with bioluminescent organisms, creating an incredible glowing display when disturbed. These nighttime activities came to occupy my late evenings as I tried to capture all of their glory, keeping me busy each day after the sun went down.

After all of the monitoring had been finished and the temperature logger data had been collected, we only had one last thing on our to-do list: some photogrammetry. While I’m now no stranger to photogrammetry after my time with the SRC up in Isle Royale National Park, I’ve never been involved with it being put to use on biological resources. After some careful work, it allows for the creation of a highly accurate model, which can be used to examine reef health and condition. The setup for this process was a little more involved than that of the monitoring. The areas that were picked to be mapped were both off of baseline transects in Loggerhead Forest, so the initial location wasn’t too hard to find as it was based off of previous transect pins. From there, however, we had to determine the location of the four corners of the survey zone in reference to those initial transect pins, and then to describe the locations of those corners with a heading and distance from the center pins and mark them with a slate to help with the processing. Once all that setup work had commenced, we were free to depart and let the photogrammetry team move in and capture all the necessary data by carefully swimming grid patterns over the site while continuously taking video, being sure to cover every inch of the allocated area.

Accuracy is crucial for tasks like this – the slightest deviation from the correct location could throw off the whole model. Here, Morgan Wagner and Jeff Miller double check their maps

And with that, all of the work we had planned was done – but our trip wasn’t yet. With a little more free time, I made sure to go check out the Fort Jefferson itself. I had been so occupied with all of the incredible in-water photographic opportunities that I had been neglecting the land-based ones. I spent the good part of an afternoon exploring the fort (and boy does it get hot inside a giant brick building in the afternoon sun) and taking all the photos I could.

 

Our final day in DRTO was occupied with diving. The plan was to do two recon dives to Sherwood Forest, the spot where the unique reefs of Dry Tortugas were first described. Estimated to be over 9000 years old and one of the best nursery habitats in the United States due to the highly complex structure, this particular reef is an incredibly valuable resource and could certainly use quick visual survey. Our dives on the site were paired with some current, which gave us a look at a good amount of the reef – I’ve never seen such a huge aggregate reef before. It seemed to stretch forever, and was even more incredible when considering the layers upon layers of old growth that are hidden under the uppermost visible part of the reef. Like the rest of the reefs in the Tortugas, this one no longer lives up to its former glory, but according to the experts on board our SFCN team it’s faring better than many others and still a sight to behold.

After returning from those dives, a subset of the team (Rob, Lee, and the interns) went back out on the water for a couple more fun dives. The first of those was a site called the Maze, a wildly fun reef full of complex structures like small canyons, swim throughs and small cave-like pockets under coral heads. I dove with Lee and had an incredibly memorable dive exploring these secluded little structures. Afterwards we ended the day with a classic DRTO wreck dive at the Windjammer, the wreck of an iron-hulled sailing vessel that sunk in the park in 1907. Structurally intact, fishy, and covered in healthy coral, this made for a great dive and a lovely way to end out our trip.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a special place, and not one I’ll forget anytime soon. It has got so much going for it: a gigantic brick fort, island breeding grounds for hundreds of seabirds and turtles, beautiful seas and skies, killer snorkeling and diving, and a pretty phenomenal and biologically important reef system. All of these unique aspects packed into one Park and tucked away in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico make for a spot unlike any other, one of the coolest National Parks (and places) I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit. I’d like to extend a heavy gratitude to the SFCN team (Mike Feeley, Jeff Miller, Lee Richter, Rob Waara and their interns Steph Topal and Morgan Wagner) for having me along, making me feel welcome and allowing me to observe and partake in their work, as well as a big thanks to the crew of the M/V Fort Jefferson (Captain Tim, Mikey Kent and Brian Lariviere ) for taking great care of us during our time with them. I hope to be lucky enough to return some day, but for now I’m on to my next park of the internship: Biscayne National Park in South Florida.

Goodbye Dry Tortugas, you will be missed

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The Data Dash – National Coral Reef Monitoring Program on St. Croix

 

“300 feet!” Bouncing off the crest of a three-foot wave, our 20 ft vessel peaked and then slapped the water causing a mist of sea spray to envelop the deck. The sea was alive, but under the bright sun it still retained a serene Caribbean blue. “200 feet!” I looked across the deck at my fellow divers perched along the gunnel. Laden with slates, meter sticks, and tapes and bouncing along with the boat, the five of us looked (and felt) ready to go. “100 feet!” The cries came from Kevin, our captain, who was navigating to our GPS point. He glanced back continuously between the oncoming sets, checking on the readiness of the team and making sure no one had fallen in prematurely. “50!” As the countdown dropped, a silence fell over the back of the boat as the team waited for the final call. This had to be a precise drop, as we were aiming for a specific GPS point in an area with currents that could take you far off target with each second spent on the surface. I settled in, secured my gear, and made sure everything was ready to go. “Go!!” came the call, and in went the divers. After a brief surface check, the team went straight down and began the next mad rush of the hour – the data collection.

 

My time in St. Croix was a wild, hectic dash – but it had to be. I was here in the Virgin Islands to take part in the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP). This program, started as a collaboration with the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and a large assortment of governmental/academic partners, monitors most of the coral reefs located in US waters. This amounts to a lot of surveying, covering reefs in the Pacific (Guam, American Samoa, Hawaii) to the Caribbean (Florida, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands). This is a colossal effort, requiring hundreds of people around the country to spend thousands of hours above and below the water. As well as frequent monitoring to collect a myriad of data on these reefs, this program also aims to standardize the methods of data collection as well as to collect data on a wide enough geographic spread to put sites into the context of the landscape – see how change at one site relates to that of their neighbors, or their distant relative. All that being said, we had a lot of work to do – with a goal of hitting 250 sites in two weeks, there was no time to waste.

As such a large program, it required lots of divers. This trip was composed primarily of four organizations: NOAA/NMFS, the NPS, University of Virgin Islands, and the Nature Conservancy. As such a large group the entire team rarely got together in one place, with the exception of an organizational meeting monday morning. This was held at a NPS building at the Christiansted National Historic Site, an old Dutch colonial settlement built on the island, in a repurposed warehouse originally built in 1749. Here I was able to meet the many members of the St. Croix NCRMP team.

After the meeting, each organization was split up into 6 different vessels and sent to different ends of the island, each with a different section of coastline to survey. Within those areas, each team was given GPS coordinates for new sites daily. These sites were randomly generated to obtain unbiased data and were stratified by depth and habitat type to encompass a diversity of environments.

A wide variety of depths were sampled, including ones that could have been snorkeled

While there was lots of data to be taken, I was starting the week off taking photos, working to document the survey methods. I was also doing a bit of shadowing, to learn the species of these clear Caribbean waters. This was a new area to me – I’d never dove in the Caribbean (or the Atlantic for that matter) and hadn’t done any tropical diving in four years. That fact alone made this trip quite the novelty – I learned to dive and got my first few certifications in warm water, but then jumped over to cold water while in college and hadn’t come back to the warm side since – so diving in a 3mm wetsuit with no added weight was a forgotten luxury. The 80-degree water was pretty nice too. I’d spent the last couple weeks in water averaging 38 degrees and the past couple years diving in the mid 50-degree Californian waters, making the tropical water was a welcome relief. This was also some of the nicest visibility I’d seen in a while. Overall, I was heavily enjoying my re-introduction to warm water diving.

While shadowing and photographing my team, I learned the down-low of the survey methods. I’d read about them in the mission protocol document, but nothing compares to seeing them in action. This program collects data on corals, fish and benthic cover, with the primary objective of determining the health of the reef. Each survey team was comprised of four divers: a coral demographic diver, line-point intercept diver, and two fish divers. Coral and fish divers surveyed coral and fish respectively (big surprise), collecting data on species, size, and abundance to determine health and diversity. Line-point intersect (which is the role that I was going to assume after my shadowing and photographic obligations ended) was responsible for collecting percentage cover information with species, substrate, and relief data that was collected under predetermined points on the meter tape. This data is used to get an idea of the overall character and species composition of the reef.

The team hard at work

Through my shadowing I got a close look at seasoned surveyors doing their thing in the water and was able to observe them at work. My team consisted of mainly NOAA folks: Kim Edwards, Laughlin Siceloff, Erin Cain, Michael Nemeth, as well as a diver from the Nature Conservancy, Allison Watts. Allison, as I discovered on one of my first days on the boat, is also part of the Our World Underwater family – she was the 2012 Monterey Bay Aquarium Dive Safety intern! Small world! Everyone apart from Allison and myself had had lots of experience with these protocols and species, so they were excellent resources for me to run all my questions by.

Each day was action-packed with diving: we’d start off by boating out towards our first assigned site of the day, do a quick drop, descend on our site, collect the data, and head back up for another one. Each team was given five sites to handle a day, which was relatively achievable given the survey protocol. Dives averaged between 30-45 minutes, so this ended up being only around 3 hours in water a day. And with this type of repetitive, back-to-back diving, time really flies. Each day went by in no time at all, with the only real surface interval we needed being the transit between sites (thanks nitrox). That time was occupied as well, as the team switched tanks and data sheets, as well as the obligatory disinfecting of survey gear. One of the big things that this program is looking for is coral disease, which is hypothesized to potentially be able to spread via divers. This resulted in a thorough gear disinfectant protocol, with everything requiring a sterilizing soak between dives and at the end of the day.

Surface intervals are busy too, full of tank switching, data transcribing, and gear disinfecting

After spending the first couple days photographing the team at work and the sites, I moved on to data collection. At first, I was just collecting mock data, allowing me to get hands-on experience and later compare my work to others to see how I did. With such a rigorous dive schedule, I got plenty of practice. While I was initially scheduled to continue doing these mock surveys for a while longer, an unexpected turn of events left us a team member down and I was thrown into the mix – it was time to prove myself. Thankfully, my practice had paid off (and the sites weren’t incredibly diverse, allowing me for an easy intro to the line point intersects) and I was able to complete all my work and not hold the team up for too long.

As someone who’d never dove these waters and hadn’t been on coral reefs in years, I thought the marine life was pretty incredible. The sea floor on most sites was covered in gorgonians and basket sponges, with assorted fish traveling through them. I saw lots of nurse sharks, garden eels, big rays, barracudas, octopuses. On one memorable dive we descended through a layer of gelatinous zooplankton so thick that you couldn’t see through them – it looked as though you were dropping into a bottomless ocean until you’d cleared the cloud of ctenophores, cydippids, and salps. While not every site was beautiful (randomly selected survey points works like that sometimes), that made the nice ones even more special. We ended up on some nice patch reefs, ones with enough coral to put the team to work. We also had the pleasure of diving with a curious group of dolphins on one of our surveys – which, let me tell you, is not distracting at all. They even stuck around for our safety stop, where I was able to watch one breach from underwater. It was incredibly elegant to see and looked like it effortlessly left the water.

Despite my wonder at all these new species, I couldn’t ignore the fact that these reefs weren’t healthy. As the LPI diver, it was jarringly obvious to me how much macroalgae I had on my transect. It was also very clear to me that the substrate that this macroalgae was on most of the time was coral skeleton. Bleaching and disease have ravaged these reefs, making life as a coral colony very difficult. I was an inexperienced disease-spotter, but I listened to my team talk about it on almost every surface interval. Thankfully, it wasn’t too prevalent on our sites, although it was there. The death of the coral colonies creates available substrate that is quickly colonized by opportunistic macroalgae, creating a bland monochrome landscape where vibrance used to thrive.

This pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) is dead on its lower half, where macroalgal species have already established themselves

While this particular reef has some nice patches of coral, it’s easy to see the numerous clumps of macroalgae covering all the area in-between.

If bleaching and coral disease weren’t enough, these reefs are also subject to intense hurricanes. Recently devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, the subtidal systems here are still recovering. St. Croix gets hit or brushed by hurricanes every 3 years or so on average, with hits by serious storms every 18 years. Tropical storms like these create a cooling effect that can be beneficial for coral reef ecosystems, as it relieves them of potential heat stress, but they can also be heavily damaging. Strong storm-induced waves can destroy coral colonies, especially the more delicate branching forms (like Acropora spp.). These storms can also flush anthropogenic nutrients into the nearshore environments, creating fuel for fast-growing algal species who can compete with coral larvae for space. The violent effects of these storms were bluntly presented to me when we conducted surveys on sites in an area known as the ‘Haystacks’. The haystacks are huge piles of skeletons of Acropora palmata, or elkhorn coral, all broken up by years of hurricanes. These piles are massive – easily 25-30 feet wide and up to 20 feet tall – and are almost completely devoid of coral growth. Typically, when Acropora corals are broken up from storms, the fragments can reestablish and continue growth, but that wasn’t the case here. Standing tall, dead and covered in algae, the haystacks were a poignant image of the unfortunate state of coral reefs to me. What at one point was a literal wonder of the natural world, a gigantic branching maze of living creature, now lies dead in a huge pile – a mass grave of coral.

My week in St. Croix went by fast – the daily schedule jam-packed with diving made the week fly by, causing Friday to feel like it came mere hours after Monday evening. While exhausting, this repetitive survey diving is something I love dearly. I started diving doing biological surveys on coral reefs and gained most of my dive experience conducting monitoring dives in California’s kelp forests, so jumping back into survey diving and swimming up and down a transect tape felt like a welcome home. As a marine biologist by training and an avid marine conservationist, the value of marine monitoring programs isn’t lost on me.  I’m grateful that I’m able to take part in such a large-scale program such as NCRMP, especially when considering the state of coral reefs today. Work like this couldn’t be more important, as these monitoring programs allow for widespread dissemination of invaluable data on ecosystem condition and health, hopefully up to the governing bodies that have the power to make the huge changes necessary to save these struggling seas.

 

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Imaging at Isle Royale – 3D Photogrammetry on World-Class Shipwrecks

Exploring the wreck of the Cox

For the first 15 feet of our descent, the cloudy green water only allowed views of up to 10 feet ahead – I was limited to watching the tank and bubbles of Matt Hanks, my dive buddy, as we descended on the stern of the George M. Cox. Upon reaching the bottom, the visibility opened up to a dark and slightly murky 30 feet, giving me my first look at my third wreck of the trip. Not as intact as the Emperor or the America, the Cox was a bit more scattered and broken apart, but not without clear features. Some of the most striking ones sit right in the center of the wreck: two huge hulking boilers, nearly 10 feet in diameter and 20 feet long. These were stark, imposing, and an instant attention-grabber – I knew they’d make for a nice photo. Eager to start photographing, I swam back, peered through my viewfinder, and started looking for a good composition. While shooting, I noticed a mechanical whirring noise. Rather quiet, slightly inconspicuous, but present – and slowly getting louder. Occupied with my boiler photos, I pushed it to the back of my mind – probably just something on our boat up on the surface – and went back to work with the camera. After thirty seconds or so, I look up from my camera to do a typical surroundings check, to make sure my buddy is alright and that nothing has changed drastically. Check was going great: buddy was fine, I was still at the same depth and location that I’d been at, wreck is all still here, and – suddenly I realized the source of the mysterious noise. Seemingly materializing out of the murk and barreling towards me at what felt like breakneck speed was a dauntingly large, sleek, blue DPV-powered sled with three cameras attached and a rebreathing diver being towed from the back, a veritable underwater UFO. I sprint-swam out of the way and looked up to see the 6-inch eye of a camera lens peering down at me as it passed just feet over my head. That was my first experience with the SeaArray, the SRC’s flagship photogrammetry machine, and we were now on to our next part of our trip to Isle Royale National Park: doing 3D photogrammetry on some of the Park’s giant shipwrecks.

The SeaArray – the SRC’s sophisticated photogrammetry machine

3D photogrammetry is the process of creating 3D models of objects using still photos or video footage. This has a wide variety of applications, from visual effects to meteorology. It also turns out to be very useful in archaeology, the SRC’s original pursuit, as it allows archaeologists to have photo-realistic models of artifacts that may not be able to be removed from site (for cultural, diagnostic, or other reasons). It also has the potential to be indispensable in modeling larger, more inaccessible features like immovable objects, entire sites, or things that are difficult to observe and work on for extended periods of time – like submerged shipwrecks. The traditional approach to modeling shipwrecks was an endeavor: archaeologists would spend weeks on sites, putting in hours underwater painstakingly measuring and sketching these large-scale features. This process, something that the SRC perfected back in the early days, works perfectly fine but is a very time-consuming and effort-intensive process. Even back then in the 1980’s, photogrammetry was considered but not pursued due to insufficient technology. Now, in 2019, the SRC is finally putting the process to work on large-scale wrecks.

The tool for this project is a multi-camera array that has been the brainchild of Brett Seymour from the SRC and Evan Kovacs from Marine Imaging Technologies. Brett and Evan have been close friends for a while and have combined their friendships and affiliations on many projects in the past – filming, photographing, and 3D modeling wonders of marine archaeology from WW2 plane wrecks to Ancient Greek shipwrecks. They’ve been working together on the SeaArray for several years now, testing and perfecting it through various iterations. The most recent version, the one that I was lucky enough to see and dive with, consists of three 45.7 MP cameras (Nikon Z7s) in custom-built housings linked to a center control console with HDMI feedback from the three auxiliary units. This whole array, which is held together with a custom-fabricated carbon-fiber system of tubes and pieces, is then linked to a DPV (diver propulsion vehicle, or scooter) for ease of movement (as lugging this huge piece of equipment through the water would be nearly impossible in a slight current). When in operation, this unit will fire off three photos at once (one from each camera) in quick bursts, collecting all the visual data needed to create a high-quality 3D model.

The SeaArray at work on the bow of the Glenlyon

Now, why bother with making 3D models of these wrecks? I mean, it’s undoubtedly cool, but what does it do for us? From an archaeological standpoint, the technology of 3D photogrammetry is an absolute goldmine. The ability to make photorealistic scaled models of sites and artifacts with relative ease is valuable in general, and especially when it comes to marine archaeology as every minute spent underwater is more complicated, expensive, and dangerous than those spent above the surface. Being able to have an accurate model to examine from the safety of a desk anywhere in the world is far more convenient than having to travel to and dip underwater to see.  Alongside ease of studying, having accurate models like these also creates a type of digital conservation, preserving the wrecks in their present state for years to come. While cold freshwater is an ideal environment for slowing decomposition of materials, ice and strong winter storms can still damage them – within the past 10 years, the America lost a large section of its remaining structure from some heavy swell. Had there been a model created before the incident, the wreck would have been preserved in its pristine condition indefinitely in digital form, allowing future visitors to experience it as well.

Moving past the archaeological view, modeling wrecks like these is an invaluable tool for outreach as well. While photos, drawings, and videos of wrecks are captivating in their own way, there isn’t anything as immersive as a model that a user is able to explore on their own. It’s an incredibly useful way for visitors who may not be able to dive be able to explore what exists under the surface in their parks. The SRC does a great job of working to share this information with the public and have been producing great story maps (https://nps.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=1a72876ce6e24a74a732a80875ed33bf) to help share the story of the Isle Royale wrecks with the world. After all these wrecks, like National Parks, are public property – the Parks Service works to preserve and protect them, and to share their beauty with the world.

While an earlier version of this system had been tested in Isle Royale the previous year proving its effectiveness, it was now time to put the new model to work. The first wreck to experience the photographic power of the SeaArray was the George M Cox, one which had recently been dove by the team to install a new buoy. For the first test, Brett was the pilot with Jim Nimz as his buddy, while Matt and I dove around the wreck ourselves. After sending in team one and gently lowering down the array itself (Brett has been stressing its durability as an important factor in its design, but it’s still a little unnerving to not be careful when dropping a 100 thousand dollar camera system into the water), Matt and I geared up ourselves and dropped in. The dive went well, apart from having me having a near collision with the array itself, and we were now ready to put it to work on the two wrecks that we had planned to model this trip: the America and the Glenlyon.

Camera deployment and recovery is a delicate operation involving a davit and careful rigging

The Glenlyon in its previous (intact) state. Photo: Historic Photograph Collection, ISRO Archives

The next couple days were dedicated to modeling the wreck of one of our two primary objectives this trip, the Glenlyon. A steel steamer sunk in 1924, the Glenlyon’s wreckage is scattered over two areas on either side of the shallow shoal that brought it down. With the stern on one side and the bow on the other, this makes for quite a bit of area to cover when modelling. Furthermore, the SRC wanted to link the two areas into one cohesive model by covering some of the shoal in between the two spots, making this site a multi-day project. To make things even more difficult, the site was about a two-hour boat ride away from our home base at Windigo, on the exposed southern coastline of Isle Royale.

For my first day on the wreck, the mapping objective was the wreckage scatter of the bow of the ship. Brett and Jim were going in as the array operator and buddy, while I dove with Susanna Pershern. Our objectives were to photographically document the 3D modeling in action, as well as to avoid any possible collisions with the array itself (this one was more specifically towards me). The first dive on the wreck was amazing, another completely new experience. Like the Cox, this wreck was very disarticulated but still featured large recognizable items. The lake bottom was blanketed in algae-covered sheets of metal, interspersed with pieces like large gears or davits. The main features on the bow were a large boiler and then the mostly intact tip of the bow itself – complete with an anchor windlass still laced with the anchor-laden chain.

The next day we spent on the stern, a rather small site but one with some visually striking features. This spot, about an eight-minute swim away from the wreckage of the bow, is the final resting place of a mechanically-complex triple expansion engine – now a submerged mismatch of pistons, pulleys, and gears. Connected to this huge engine, and responsible for propelling this sunken 328-foot steamer, is a huge driveshaft and equally large prop. Altogether, this wreckage makes for a very cool looking spot, and stands to make a crucial contribution to the 3D model. In addition to the 3D photogrammetry, this site was going to be the location for one of Evan Kovac’s many other underwater cinematic pursuits: 8k 360-degree virtual reality video with the Hydrus, one of the worlds most advanced underwater virtual reality video systems. Having this much photographic power underwater in one location was a huge venture, one that took two vessels and eight people to manage but was really incredible to view.

Evan Kovacs with Hydrus on the stern of the Emperor. Photo by Brett Seymour

While spending hours underwater taking hundreds of gigabytes of photos and videos a day may seem like enough work to occupy a team, it just doesn’t cut it for the SRC. After returning from a day of diving with the SeaArray collecting photogrammetric data, another type of work begins – photographic processing and the creation of the 3D models. This workload is so intense that the SRC brought in a ringer just to work on it – Bryce Sprecher, a recent graduate from University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an absolute photogrammetry whiz. As well as bringing his expertise in photogrammetric processing, Bryce also brought along a custom built top-of-the-line computer, funded by Marine Imagine Technology specifically for this work. This computing beast was created to attempt to cut down on the lengthy processing times of creating these 3D models, which can range from 8 hours for a low-quality model to upwards of a week with higher quality ones. Bryce, Brett, and Evan worked together each evening to process and turn the roughly one terabyte of data created in one photogrammetric dive into a viewable 3D model, sometimes staying up into the late hours of the night – there’s no rest when you’re out in the field.

All that hard work is worth it when it pumps out sweet models like this – this is a model of the engine of the Henry Chisholm wreck created the last time the SRC visited Isle Royale

While the photogrammetry data was whipped up into some low quality models while out in the field (low quality was used to get a quick view of the model to determine that sufficient photographic coverage was acquired), the VR data had to wait to be turned into a polished final product. Talking to Evan, I learned that it’s quite the process to turn the super wide-angle footage from the 10 cinema-quality cameras into one seamless and professional 360-degree video file – one that can run up to 20 thousand dollars to process and produce a three-minute clip. That stuff would have to wait. For now, the focus was to be centered on getting out rough 3D models to confirm enough photographic coverage of each site, allowing us to avoid a situation where gaps in data are realized once we’ve left. This strategy saved us a couple times as well – early renders on the Glenlyon showed the team bare patches in the model between the main wreck and scattered wreckage, but still alerted us early enough in the trip that we had time to return to the site and fix the issue.

Brett Seymour imaging the triple expansion engine of the Glenlyon

Along with the Glenlyon, the other modelling target for the trip was the America. Sunk just inside the mouth of the calm Washington harbor, the America was slated to be an easy grab – protected from swells in almost every situation, a short 10-minute boat ride from the harbor, and not too deep to require advanced dive planning. There was only one issue: the wreck lay on a steep slope, making it highly variable in depth with the bow at around 2 feet deep and the stern reaching 85 feet. This leads to a huge gradient in lighting on the ship, which creates problems for imaging. How do you get even exposures when you’re transitioning from shooting in near daylight just below the surface to the gloomy depths of 80 feet underwater murky lake water? You shoot it at night.

The wreck of the America with the SeaArray over the bow, backlit by divers. Photo by Bryce Sprecher.

Now, this solution didn’t solve all the potential problems with modeling this wreck. There was still the huge change in depth, which created buoyancy woes when weaving up from 80 feet to the surface and back down again, over and over and over (especially when diving a closed-circuit rebreather). It also created new issues that had to be dealt with. The SeaArray now needed lights, and ones powerful enough to illuminate a large enough swath of ship to create an even exposure in all three of the cameras wide field-of-views. We also needed to mobilize a team to go out at night, needing more surface support and a larger staging vessel to make sure everything stays safe. Finally, you have the ever-present issue of temperature – the 37 degree water feels cold enough in the daytime.

Four Keldan video lights hard at work illuminating the wreck

Lots of factors were at play to make this wreck difficult to model, but at the same time there were lots at work to make it worth it. The America is arguably the Park’s most popular wreck due to its intactness and ease of access, raking in a good 20% of the yearly dives done at Isle Royale. It’s the only wreck that is accessible to non-divers as it’s bow nearly peeks out of the water and allows for a good section of the wreck to be seen from the surface. It also holds a special place in Park history: the vessel served as a passenger and cargo ferry for Isle Royale for a good 12 years before her untimely demise. Finally, it’s a visually striking wreck, and one that’s potentially structurally unsound as well (a portion of it collapsed in recent years), making for a good argument towards preserving it digitally with a 3D model.

The stern of the America, which up until recently was the home to an intact wheelhouse instead of the pile of timbers that you see here

 

Imaging the wreck of the America

So, with all this in mind, our team set off around 9:30 one evening (the sun doesn’t set until around 10, and we needed complete darkness) and motored off towards the America. It was a beautiful evening – warm, no wind, flat water – setting the stage for a seamless dive. After waiting for darkness to fall, we sent in the team of photogrammetry surveyors (Brett as the pilot and Evan as his buddy) and shortly after the photographers (myself and Susanna – a big thank you to Susanna for rallying and joining me on this dark and chilly dive, I appreciate your sacrifice). As predicted, the dive was not without issues. Shortly before dropping I realized that both of my strobes refused to work (despite battery changes and gentle encouragement) and immediately after descending realized that the seal of my dry glove had a major leak. This meant that all I had for illumination and navigation was the heavy-duty video light that I had on my camera – not ideal. To make things worse there was a slight current, which can be very disorienting when you’re dealing with a near blackout dive on a confusingly oriented surface like the heavily slanted deck of the tilted America. However, all of this frustration vanished with I got my first view of the Sea Array at night: Strapped to the gills with four 15000 lumen video lights and slowly motoring up the side of the wreck from the depths, it somehow looked even more alien than it had the first time I saw it. Susanna and I only stayed down for a little over 20 minutes until the extreme cold (and completely soaked left arm in my case) forced us to evacuate the water, but I absolutely loved those 20 minutes that I got to spend watching that marvelous creation weave slowly up and down that gloomy wreck at night.

The SeaArray imaging parts of the starboard side of the America

The rest of the trip was occupied with getting the last little bit of data needed on the Glenlyon, as well as filming some VR video with Evan’s Hydrus on the wrecks of the Emperor and the Cox. After completing all our scheduled work, we started up the busy process of packing up our many boxes of gear and heading on to our next ventures – which, for me, was the sunny beaches of the St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.

Packing up the boat to leave – I’ll miss you Isle Royale!

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Isle Royale – Shipwrecks and Buoys in Lake Superior

Isle Royale National Park

After the lengthy and fun-filled 18 hour drive we arrived at Grand Portage MI, our transfer point to the island. Isle Royale is an island in the Northwestern tip of Lake Superior, closer to our Canadian neighbors than Michigan. Made a National Park in 1940 to protect its wild landscape from the impact of the ever-interested logging and mining companies, Isle Royale is a remote and hard to access park boasting untainted northern wilderness, diverse wildlife, and beautiful backpacking. Its 893 square miles of woods host wildlife such as eagles, moose, and wolves. It is also home to the longest-running ecological studies of a predator prey system in the wild (61 years and counting), studying the oscillating population cycles of the island’s moose and wolves. For those of us more interested in the underwater side of things, it also is home to ten major shipwrecks – nicely preserved by the cold, fresh water and free of fouling by invasive zebra mussels. These wrecks, concentrated around the island due to its precipitous bathymetry and centralized location in major shipping routes, are what brought us to this chilly and wild island paradise.

Isle Royale is only accessible by boat or seaplane, and since we couldn’t fit our 2 tons of luggage into a small four passenger plane we opted to boat over. Upon arrival to the harbor we were met by West District Ranger Steve Martin, a close friend of the SRC who had arrived to welcome us to the park and help us across transferring project equipment to the island. Apparently things had been running far too smoothly at this point, because it was then that the SRC’s vessel, Cal Cummings, decided to protest our seamless morning with a myriad of boat-complaints – from battery to steering issues. I was impressed with the SRC’s troubleshooting and repair skills, after a bit of time at work they were easily able to locate the problem and coax the vessel back into service.

Launching the Cal Cummings, the SRC’s vessel

 

Not a bad day on Lake Superior

While our boat was undergoing a quick attitude readjustment, I joined the first trip across to the island on one of the ISRO boats. My first time on the waters of Lake Superior was stunningly beautiful- sunny, calm, and warm. Reading about the Park and the lake itself, I expected to run into much less favorable weather. Stories of intense storms whipping up 30 ft swells and winter chills dropping far below zero had me prepared for the worst, but my introduction to the park was beautiful and favorable. Zipping through the calm protected waters of Washington harbor and watching small wooded islands and the outstretched fingers of the elongated Isle Royale fly past was thrilling, and heavily reminiscent of the protected inland seas of Southeast Alaska.

After an hour crossing, we arrived at Windigo, our home for the next 3 weeks. Located at the western end of ISRO and consisting of a visitor center, store, campsite, and housing for park employees and visiting researchers, Windigo is the smaller of the two main entry points of the Park. While small, this is the only populated place for miles on this wild island and is a welcome stopping point for backpackers and day-trippers alike. Being a small operation, Windigo is home to one road and one car – an old Jeep that I’m not sure ever gets used, as it sat in the corner of a small field near the store the entire time I was there (and from what I hear, in the same exact spot it was in last year as well). Transportation of gear is handled mainly by a small fleet of miscellaneous vehicles: a golf cart, a utility vehicle, and a tractor hauling a small wooden trailer. The latter is what we used for our first couple trips hauling our bounty of gear up the hill to our housing, and quickly became an invaluable part of our daily pilgrimage to and from the dock. These vehicles are used and maintained by Marty Ogden, lead maintenance staff for the Windigo part of the island, who was incredibly helpful during our time on the island with everything from transportation, to maintaining power, to helping us unload all our gear.

While the primary reason we came to ISRO was to conduct 3D photogrammetry (more on this later) for a couple of the area’s shipwrecks, we couldn’t jump right into the fun. First, we had some other work to do: helping out the ISRO dive team with installation and maintenance of some of their buoys. The Park uses many buoys, some to mark safe passage into harbors or submerged hazards, and others as moorings or markings of wrecks for dive operations. These buoys are instrumental in keeping visitors and passing boaters safe. Unfortunately, the waters of Lake Superior get very cold in the winters and often freeze over – requiring the buoys to be removed when the park closes for the season. This means that, come May when the Park begins to open back up, lots of buoys must be reinstalled. The SRC, as a way to repay ISRO for helping support their photogrammetric efforts,  assisted in buoy installation according the strict manning requirements of OSHA for the first week of our visit. And so, we started our work.

SRC diver Matt Hanks splashes in for the first dive of the trip while Jim Nimz observes from the water

The first dive of the trip was on a sunken passenger ferry just barely inside the mouth of Washington Harbor, the America. This vessel, which lies in the protected waters and juts out of the depths to a mere five feet below the surface, was an easy way to start the trip as well as a good introduction for work to come – as the America was one of the primary photogrammetry targets of this trip. The work – which consisted of two divers locating the wreck and buoy attachment point (pretty easy when it’s visible from the surface), getting passed buoys from surface support on the boat (yours truly), and attaching the buoys via high-tech maintenance tools (wrench and zip ties) – went by without issues. I also got to see my very first wreck of the trip, one of the shallower ones at the bow and quite intact. Seeing glimpses of such a sharp and clean bow emerging from the depths from the deck of our boat was a powerful image for me, a small taste of what lies hidden in the foreboding waters surrounding this island.

Later that afternoon, I got in my first dive of the trip – my first in the Great Lakes and my second freshwater dive I’ve ever done – splashing in the comparatively balmy waters just off the Windigo pier (44 degrees compared to the 36 degree water just outside the harbor). Getting in the water was thrilling, seeing the lake floor carpeted with fallen leaves and branches from the nearby shore, the water dark with tannins. I delighted in the delicately silty bottom, and coming from a biological background, was excited to see some native clam species. As well as an introduction to the lake, the dive served as a check-out for me, where Brett observed and evaluated my skills. I guess he was sufficiently pleased, as shortly after I was cleared to join the team on some working dives.

Heading out for a day of work

Brett Seymour navigating to one of the sites near Rock of Ages lighthouse

The next couple days were a flurry of more maintenance diving. The team installed buoys on more wrecks (the Cox and the Chisolm) out near the Rock of Ages lighthouse, and then boated over to ISRO’s administrative headquarters, Mott Island. There we met Park Dive Officer Mike Ausema, Natural Resources Chief Seth DePasqual, and super volunteer Carol Linteau. From here, we would split the teams up to work on two different objectives. Team one (Mike, Seth, Brett, Susanna, and Matt) would go out on the ISRO park vessel and install a selection of harbor buoys, while team two (Carol, Jim, and myself) would stay back on land and work on some much needed buoy repairs to prepare them for install.

As part of team buoy maintenance, I got to learn some of the more technical, land-based aspects of the craft. Jim, maintenance diving expert and the SRC’s gear guru, is very knowledgeable in these regards and served as a bit of an instructor to Carol and I over the next couple hours. Under his patient direction, I learned a couple of skills essential for buoy work: splicing rope, mousing wire, and removing marking stickers. I was also able to master the art of efficient wrench-usage. With these newly acquired talents, I helped Jim and Carol prepare three new buoys for installation marking submerged wrecks.

ISRO Park Dive Officer Mike Ausema and ISRO Natural Resources Chief Seth DePasqual installing a no wake buoy. Image – Susanna Pershern.

Throughout this first week I was able to learn a bit about the technical aspects of NPS maintenance diving. Unlike most types of NPS dives, which are classified as scientific dives, maintenance dives are considered commercial dives and are sanctioned under OSHA rules. This means that they must be done slightly differently: they cannot be conducted on closed circuit (the SRC’s preferred method of diving), divers must carry a bailout bottle, and there must be a dive tender geared up and waiting at the surface while the maintenance buddy team is down, ready to hop in and assist at a moments notice. It was cool seeing all this work get done in a different fashion – despite not having dove much with the SRC team at this point I knew how much they were into diving with rebreathers, as it makes for more efficient diving (DSO Steve Sellers told me that they had run the numbers and found that they were 40% more efficient diving in the field with closed vs open circuit) – and seeing the team do such varied work. While not necessarily as thrilling as conducting archaeological assessments or 3D modeling shipwreck sites, maintenance diving is an important part of the diving work done at ISRO and is invaluable in making the area safer for visiting boaters.

The SRC geared up and ready to go, maintenance-style (left to right): Matt Hanks as dive tender, Jim Nimz and Susanna Pershern as divers (complete with bailouts)

I guess I had been a good intern during my buoy repair times on Mott Island, as I soon got word of some exciting news. The next day we were traveling to the north shore of the island, where, along with some buoy installs, I was to be treated to my first wreck dive of the trip: a dive on a massive freighter that wrecked there in 1947, the Emperor.

Brett Seymour examines the windlass of the Emperor

The day started off exciting: as well as going to and diving off of the north shore, where some of the islands deepest and most exciting wrecks lie, we were going to make a quick stop at the uninhabited ranger station on Amygdaloid Island to pick up a buoy and change into drysuits. Upon arrival at the small fringe island we were met with a bitter cold wind that felt like it had just came from the Canadian arctic, whipping through the chilly forests and across the border and the small stretch of water that separates Amygdaloid Island from the Canadian coast. Biting and unrelenting, the wind made a compelling argument to put on every warm layer I had and cover it all in a big waterproof suit. Thankfully an old ranger cabin on the island was available for our changing needs, and in its rustic and unheated wooden walls I climbed into enough layers to clothe a small family: three thermal bottoms, five thermal tops, two pairs of wool socks, and two drysuits one-piece undergarments, stacked on top of each other. With my newfound warmth and lessened mobility, I joined the team on our boat as we left that rugged and icy island in search of shipwrecks. The day was already off to a good start.

The cozy ranger station on Amygdaloid Island

As we traveled up towards our site, with the Canadian coast off our port side and Isle Royale’s north shore, speckled with remnants of the winter snowbanks, I thought of what it would be like going down in these waters. Many of the island’s shipwrecks met their watery grave during the lake’s violent winters, where storms thrashed the vessels into shoals and pulled passengers under. Wrecking here during the harsh northern winters was almost a sure death sentence – if the waters didn’t get you, the air would. One of the wrecks we passed on our way up that day, Kamloops, is a testament to this. The ship, now resting at a depth of around 260 ft, wrecked during a violent winter storm in 1927. While some of the passengers went down with the ship (and some remain there to this day), many escaped and made it to shore. These unlucky people didn’t fare much better than their drowned companions – the brutally cold temperatures quickly took their toll and the initial survivors succumbed to the elements. The fate of the Kamloops long remained a mystery – the ship vanished during a winter with no trace of its whereabouts until the discoveries of the bodies of some of the crew the next year along the coast of Isle Royale, and even then the location of the vessel itself was still unknown. It wasn’t until 50 years later that it was discovered by a diver.

Imagine being stranded on a remote coastline like this, during a winter storm with freezing temperatures and blustering winds

The fate of the Emperor, however, shows that storms aren’t the only cause wreckage around Isle Royale. The Emperor, a 525 ft freighter traveling along a common trade route across the lake, hit a barely submerged shoal off of the island’s north shore on a calm and moonlit night around 4AM on June 4th, 1947. Speculation says that an inexperienced first mate may have improperly adjusted the course by a couple degrees, dooming the vessel and setting it on a course for the reef. Reefs like these surround the island, and have caused the end of many of the ships that now rest beneath the surface.

After arriving at the site of the bow of the Emperor, our first team of maintenance divers went down to attach our freshly spliced and stickered buoy. After a successful attachment, it was time for my official introduction to Isle Royale diving. Brett hopped in the water with me and we dropped down to the massive bow of this unfortunate freighter. The size of this ship was hard to grasp at first – despite being relatively intact, years of ice forming and breaking on the surface of the lake has taken it’s toll on the comparatively shallow (40-50ft) bow and has left it partially mangled. Regardless, the wreck was still in great shape and very imposing, with massive features like a huge windlass, deck winches, and anchors present for viewing. Brett took me around the to the good spots and then ended the dive with a quick buoy inspection (have to make sure the team is doing quality work). Being the elite dive team that they are, they passed with flying colors.

The rest of the week was filled with more maintenance diving – attaching buoys to new wrecks, and fixing some older buoys that needed more chain due to lake level rise from last seasons massive precipitation. Maintenance teams went out to add buoys to three more wrecks: the Cox, the Chisolm, and the Glenlyon. Two of Isle Royale’s dive team, Seth and Carol, came down to join in on the festivities for these installs.

Dusk in Washington Harbor, from a nice hike

Not being an experienced maintenance diver myself, I didn’t get in on too much of this fun but instead had a couple days off, where I was able to go on a hike and catch up on some work. I was able to get in a dive on the America with Matt, just to explore the site before we approached doing photogrammetry on it. An absolutely wonderful wreck, the America is an old passenger ferry that lies in 15-85 ft of water. It is very digestible, large enough to be exciting but small enough to swim around it in one dive. It also remains very intact, with the entire hull and most of the deck machinery in place still. It had recently (within the last 10 years) fallen victim to a large swell (or set of large swells) that did some serious damage to the cabin and rest of the deck structure, which made for a very interesting debris field off one side of the wreck. Overall a very nice dive site with lots to explore.

 

 

 

Interspersed in with all of the buoy work was the first test of the SeaArray, the SRC’s flagship photogrammetry machine. This incredible piece of equipment was put to the test on a break between buoy installs on ships – but I’ll save all that exciting stuff for the next blog. Don’t want to get ahead of myself. Overall, the maintenance and buoy work was very successful. Combined, the SRC and ISRO dive teams installed 11 buoys: 5 no wake buoys, 1 channel buoy, and 5 wreck buoys. These buoys will serve their important job keeping the waterways marked and safe for the rest of the season, until their removal before winter and the damaging surface ice comes. Now, with all the maintenance work done, we were free to get on to the exciting part of the trip: the 3D photogrammetry of some of Isle Royale’s beautiful shipwrecks.

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On February 13th I got one of the most exciting emails I’d ever received: the one breaking the news that I had been chosen as the 2019 Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society Research Intern with the National Park Service. After a few minutes of jumping around in excitement, I composed myself and calmly replied that yes, I would be absolutely delighted to accept this internship. And that’s where this all began.

A little background on myself: I had graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz the past summer  with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology. At UCSC, I was able to really start to explore how I could interact with and learn about the underwater world and coastal environments. I was lucky to spend four years learning about a plethora of marine science with some really incredible professors: from invertebrate zoology, to the biology of marine mammals, to the ecology of kelp forests.  I furthered my diving career with an AAUS scientific diving certification, allowing me to take my diving past recreational and into the realm of science! This certification opened many doors for me – with it I was able to enroll in two field quarters, conducting ecological research in the kelp forests of Monterey and Southeast Alaska, as well as spending two seasons doing biological surveys on kelp forests inside California’s network of Marine Protected Areas with the UCSC branch of PISCO subtidal (a long term monitoring program of nearshore ecosystems along the Pacific coast).

My local Californian kelp forests!

Along with diving for science, I’ve been lucky enough to get in a good amount of recreational dives throughout my time at university.  Close proximity to great diving and a drive to get underwater as often as I could allowed me to spend a lot of time exploring the kelp forests of the Monterey Bay area for pleasure and doing one of my favorite things: underwater photography. I’ve been diving with a camera of some shape or form ever since my very first couple dives with a head-mounted GoPro, but eventually worked my way up to a housed DSLR system about halfway through my junior year at university. Shooting underwater with this has become one of my biggest passions and something that I’m thankful that I’ve been able to dedicate a lot of time to over the past couple years.

My favorite camera and I enjoying a dive in Big Sur CA (Photo: Marc Shargel)

Jump forward two months to early April, to the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society annual meeting in New York City. Designed as a way for friends and society members to meet and catch up and for scholars and interns of the previous year to share their adventures, this weekend was a whirlwind of introductions and events. The Society is filled with a plethora of talented and distinguished marine conservationists, explorers, researchers, photographers, and enthusiasts and it was an incredible experience to be able to mingle and meet with such a diverse group of individuals. The weekend included a morning of presentations from the 2018 class of scholars and interns at the Explorer’s Club headquarters in Manhattan, an inspirational couple hours of learning what these driven young people had been up to throughout the course of their scholarship year/internship. The morning concluded with inductions into the Explorer’s Club for the 2019 class – what an incredibly surreal experience it was to join such a distinguished organization for scientific exploration, something I still haven’t really gotten over.

2019 OWUSS Interns (Left to right): Ben Farmer (REEF Marine Conservation Intern), Liza Hasan ( AAUS Mitchell Scientific Diving Research Intern), Kyra Jean Cipolla (Dr. Lee H. Somers AAUS Scientific Diving Intern), myself, and Abbey Dias ( DAN Diver’s Safety Education Intern)

Roughly one month after that, on May 12th, I flew out to Denver Colorado to spend a week at the headquarters of the Submerged Resources Center (SRC). The SRC is a group of archaeologists, photographers, and diving experts who make up one of the Parks Services’ most elite diving teams. They are also, luckily for me, my sponsors for the internship. I was to spend a week with them at their offices in Lakewood, CO to get oriented for the summer and get all of my NPS paperwork in line – physicals, dive checkouts, liability waivers and such. After flying in at 7PM and a quick dinner with my hosts for the week, Dave Conlin, archaeologist and the Chief of the SRC, and his lovely wife Michelle, I started the week running. The next morning I was introduced to the rest of the SRC crew: Brett Seymour (Deputy Chief and audio/visual extraordinaire), Steve Sellers (National Dive Safety Officer), Susanna Pershern (audio/visual expert), Matt Hanks (archaeologist), Claire Finn (Office Manager) and Jim Nimz (Diving Operations Specialist). Everyone at the SRC office was incredibly welcoming to me during my time there, and made me feel very much at home.

Entrance to the SRC Office

Monday brought on an exciting doctor’s visit for my NPS Blue Card certification, where I got a very thorough dive physical. After a myriad of tests, from EKGs to spirometry to chest x-rays, I was on my way back to the SRC office. I spent the rest of the day reviewing the current course of my internship with Brett, and then doing some light reading on the history of NPS diving and then a brief foray into 81 pages of dive policy and rules.

Flatiron Mountains outside Boulder CO – Some of the scenery I encountered on my commute to the SRC HQ

The next couple days were just as busy. Tuesday started off with a CPR/AED/first aid recertification with Jim, where we recapped the basics of first aid and CPR administration, AED usage, neurological assessments for SCUBA diving injuries, emergency O2 administration, as well as an overview of the SRC’s first aid kit and medical gear. That was followed with one of the most exciting parts of my week: the gear checkout.

SRC gear locker: pretty much all the dive gear you could ever want in one convenient location

Cylinders, compressors, and camera gear

Tools on tools

The SRC has one of the coolest gear lockers that I’ve ever laid my eyes on: a room right next to their office filled with all the dive gear you could want. Drysuits, rebreathers, cylinders, tools, cameras, DPVs – you name it. Brett and Jim gave me a quick tour of the locker and decked me out with all the dive gear I’d possible need for my travels throughout this internship, and – as I’ve heard the SRC crew say a couple times across the couple weeks I’ve spent with them, “two is one and one is none” – I was also given plenty of spares. The plethora of gear that I was given was compounded by the fact that I was to be doing diving both in the 80 degree waters of the Caribbean and the 30 degree waters of Lake Superior, so I’d be packing both warm and cold water gear. The list of gear that I was given is as follows: a BC, regs, wetsuit, wet gloves, dry gloves, glove liners (X2), wet boots (X2), hoods (X2), dive computers (X2), reel, DSMB, cutting device, Nautilus emergency tracking device, dive lights (X2), dive notebook, mask (X2), fins, drysuit undergarments (many), drysuit (X2), wet gear bag, dry gear bag, dry bag, towel, NPS hat (X2), SRC field shirts (X5), board shorts, rash guard, deck coat, and thermal liners. With this gear overload, I started to ponder the logistics of packing all of this gear up for the many flights I’d be undertaking.

My gear for the summer

After getting geared out, the next logical step was to hop in a pool and test it (and my swimming ability at altitude) out. For that, I headed down to the local pool with Steve Sellers for my NPS blue card checkout. Here we ran through some typical dive and swim tests, like a 900 yard swim and SCUBA bailout drill (jumping in the water with all your gear wrapped up in your hands and donning it underwater). Almost all of these drills I’d done before, but previously I’d been about 5200 ft lower in elevation so this was a little bit more taxing than I was used to.

After getting my blue card certification and getting all prepped to dive with the NPS, I helped the SRC team prep for their next big adventure – 3D photogrammetry up in Isle Royale National Park – a trip that I was lucky enough to be able to join in on. Now, this is a three week field excursion into a relatively remote national park. This means we needed lots of gear and lots of preparation. Isle Royale NP is an island up in northern Lake Superior and is mostly wilderness, so on top of packing food, gear, and supplies for a three week stretch we’d also have to bring drysuits and thermal protection. This, on top of the fact that the 3D photogrammetry work is very gear-intensive in itself, means that we had a whole lot of stuff to pack up. Thursday and Friday of my first week were spent preparing for this big endeavor – running last minute errands, grabbing and fueling up the boat, and loading what felt like a couple hundred pelican cases into the back of our truck and trailer. After a full day of packing, a lovely good-bye dinner with my gracious hosts Dave and Michelle, and a relaxed Saturday off of exploring the Denver area, I was ready to start my next adventure: a 1210 mile drive to the wild and remote waters of Isle Royale National Park.

 

Heading to Isle Royale National Park

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