Category Archives: 2019 National Park Service

Michael Langhans

Remembering the Fallen – Diving the Wrecks of the Pearl Harbor Memorial

The USS Arizona Memorial from Ford Island

December 7th, 1941, marks the most devastating attack on American soil in history. Early that fateful Sunday morning a surprise attack by Japanese fighter planes struck the Pearl Harbor Naval Base near Honolulu, Hawaii, and inflicted catastrophic damage. In under two hours, these fighters managed to destroy or damage almost 20 American naval vessels, over 300 airplanes, destroy airfields and support structures, killed over 2400 citizens and wounded around 1000 more. Out of all the casualties, almost half of them were from the USS Arizona, a battleship that was struck by an 1800-pound bomb. Detonating in its powder magazine and bringing down the ship with over 1000 crewmen inside, this vessel is one of the only two who still remain in their final resting places. Nearly 78 years later, as my small propeller passenger plane circled over the harbor waiting for clearance to land, I looked down on the hull of the Arizona, silhouette barely visible under the brown harbor water, and wondered what I’d see down there. I had heard stories from others who’d dove the wreck in the past, but still couldn’t really prepare myself for what was to come.

The USS Arizona Memorial from the sky

I was only visiting Pearl Harbor National Memorial for a few days, the first to do some diving and the next two for some other projects. On the morning of September 11th, Dan Brown,  Park Diving Officer, picked me up from my AirBnb and took me on base. Pearl Harbor is a massive military base, which was pretty flabbergasting to me. I hadn’t really realized they came this big, and was amazed to see all of the housing, speciality stores, and amenities that were hidden inside. Dan took me to the Parks dive locker, where I met Scott Pawlowski, Curator and diver for the Park. After some quick introductions, we gathered all of our gear and drove out to Ford Island to get to work installing new buoys on the USS Utah. The Utah is the second of the two vessels that remains sunken in the harbor, after recovery efforts on it failed. This ship, a retired battleship that had been converted to a target ship, was struck by torpedoes on December 7th and capsized, taking around 58 crewmembers with it. Recently, one of its marker buoys had drifted off, creating a submerged hazard that nearby boaters could collide with. I was to accompany Dan and Scott as they replaced the existing buoy and added a new one, while photographically documenting the swaps so they could use the photos to train new employees.

The USS Utah, with the memorial in the background

We arrived at the Utah right after a 9/11 memorial was wrapping up. As the final staff members picked up the last chairs and tables, we dragged our dive gear across the grass and started gearing up. Now, the significance of diving in Pearl Harbor on 9/11 wasn’t lost on me – visiting the site of the most deadly attack on US soil 18 years after the second most deadly attack certainly made things a little more intense. I also had no real idea what to expect. I’ve dove on a couple wrecks before, including ones with a loss of life, but none this substantial and with such a historic impact on my country. I was expecting a quiet, low-vis wreck dive didn’t know what it would be like doing that on these historic sites.

Swim-through on the USS Utah

Unlike the Arizona, the Utah is not nearly as much of a tourist site. It doesn’t have a huge memorial built over the wreck or get visited by thousands of people a day, instead sits on the other side of Ford Island near a quiet field in front of a memorial pier, making for a softer and more reflective experience. We took advantage of this more secluded nature and jumped on a visitor-less window to suit up and swim out towards the wreck. Just breaching the surface in front of the pier, rusted shards of the hull and the side of the deck jut out to the water make this wreck seem dynamic and even more aged than it is. We drop into the water and I follow Dan and Scott to the stern. The ship is now laying on her side, making for a disorienting dive as you swim along it, especially in low-visibility conditions. Eager for photos, I made a couple quick stops to capture something before realizing that I was quickly losing sight of my buddies in the murk. It took a lot of self-restraint and careful, watchful navigation to not get lost here. After a little bit of swimming, we arrived on the stern, the anchoring site of the recently escaped buoy. Here, I got into position and snapped away as Scott masterfully tied in a new buoy. After a couple minutes and a lot of shutter actuations later, I found myself swimming back along the heavily listed deck towards the bow. 

Scott securing the buoy to the wreck

On the return, navigation was a little easier as it was now my second time making the trip, but I still noticed things I hadn’t seen before (and still had to utilize the entirety of my self-restraint to not fall behind taking photos). I passed stairs plunging below deck, swam past windlasses and marveled as giant 15-foot guns materialized into view before me. This was a bit ship, and the murky waters just added to the mystique of the experience. New, mysterious things would appear in-front of you as you swam along, giving you seconds to take in and process them before the next round of surprises would appear. Before I knew it we were back at the bow where we had started, and Scott and Dan went right to work switching out the last buoy.

Dan replacing the remaining buoy on the USS Utah

Our dive on the Utah was a quick one, as Scott was flying later and had to be out of the water in time for a sufficient surface interval. This fast-paced timeline, along with the fact that I had work to do and didn’t want to disappoint, meant that I didn’t really think much of the history of the ship while I was diving on it. For the Utah that realization came later while I was standing on the memorial pier after changing out of my dive gear. Looking at the rusted remains that rise out of the water and the bronze plaque commemorating the fallen, I thought about what it might have been like to go down with that ship, to be trapped below deck when it capsized that dreadful Sunday morning. A frightening thought, and something that I knew would be on my mind later when I’d be diving the Arizona.

One of the guns on the USS Utah

After a quick lunch with Dan, we set off to our prep point for the Arizona dive. This would be different for a few reasons. The Arizona gets many more visitors than the Utah, with more than 1300 a day visiting the memorial, so we had to try our best to not be distracting (which is tough, as SCUBA divers are incredibly interesting to many people). We had a different task – this time I was to photograph marine life on the wreck, for the NPS to use in creation of outreach materials – so I had to put my head in a different place and prepare myself mentally for a new job. It’s a larger vessel, about 100 feet longer than the Utah at 608′ total length, meaning we had to be more attentive to navigation. Finally, we had a time constraint – the Navy had some sonar tests planned at a nearby dock, so we had to be out of the water before those started.

The bow of the Arizona in murky harbor water

With all of this information swimming around our heads, Dan and I swam out to the marker buoy on the bow as stealthily as possible and dropped in. Visibility was slightly better here, shifting between 5-12 feet, so I quickly got to work and started snapping away at anything alive. Photos of biological life are my favorite types of photos to take but I knew I still had to work hard to capture compelling images of it in low visibility, especially when most of the life is encrusting invertebrates. The hull of the ship is completely covered in life of all kinds, as hard structure in a silty harbor environment attracts many different species. Sponges, tunicates, bryozoans and corals adorned the deck and structures and turned them into a multicolored array of life. These organisms, while intricate and beautiful, are a bit hard to glorify with a wide-angle lens (which I had equipped), so I focused on juxtaposing them with the wreck itself for greater impact.

While swimming along the deck of the Arizona, it really became clear just how large this ship is. Resting face-up in a sea of mud, diving this sites wasn’t nearly as disorienting as the Utah, and travelling along it allowed for a full comprehension of exactly what you were on. Seeing some of the large, intact structures that remain on the ship, like the huge barrels of the 14-inch gun turrets, was a stark reminder of what you were on – a battleship.

As I was photographing life on the wreck, I also took some time to capture snapshots of little reminders of what occurred here. Unlike the Utah, the Arizona still has a lot of artifacts from the crew who used to live there. Its ‘gentle’ descent to the harbor bottom likely assisted in this, so some items still lay on its silent decks. During our dive we passed things like a pitcher in what used to be the galley, or the remains of an unlucky crew member’s boot.These served as a solemn reminder of the tragedy that occurred here years ago, and that the past occupants of these silty decks, despite the years in between and occupational differences, were just as human as I am.

Interspersed with moments of reflection and focused shooting, I was hit with tinges of panic relating to a very pertinent issue for me in that moment – I was working with critically low camera battery. After our Utah dive, I had forgotten to turn my camera off, which normally is a non-issue as it automatically goes into a battery-saving sleep-like mode. However, a recently developing sticky shutter problem that I was battling caused the camera to stay active the entire surface interval, draining my precious battery-life and threatening to cripple my ability to work. This, unfortunately, was not an issue I noticed until I had descended into my dive, starting off with a pitiful 24% battery. I was now stricken with a difficult dilemma – trying to conserve my battery long enough for it to last the entire dive, while also wanting to photograph everything I saw on this once-in-a-lifetime dive. This was especially stressful as I again wanted to deliver on my task to produce good images of the life on the wrecks, and shooting incredibly conservatively to sustain a dying battery isn’t always the best way to do that. Thankfully, fate worked out in my favor and I managed to stretch the battery to last the whole dive (with a whole 4% to spare at the end too).

Stairs going below deck on the USS Arizona

When we reached the stern of the ship, we visited two locations that were especially somber to me. The first one was seemingly innocent – the empty turret where some of the rear guns used to lie – but has a different use today. As we dropped down into this cylinder, somewhat reminiscent of a large smoke-stack, we were met with a large deposit of fine silt with a rope descending into it. This, as Dan signed to me, was where survivors of the bombing can choose to be laid to rest. Out of the 1512 crew members on board, around 300 of them survived the attack. If they desired, their cremated remains would join those of their crewmates in the Arizona itself, and the way in was through that silt. The remains would be lowered below deck through a hole in the base of the turret in an elaborate ceremony. Being in such close proximity to a way into this ship, which effectively is a tomb for the 1000+ people who went down with it, as well as thinking of what it must have been like for the survivors, who lost so many of their friends and chose to be buried with them, made this a very meaningful moment. The other location was the portholes on the side of the ship. Unlike the silt in the remains of the turret, these portholes were literal windows into the ship, glimpses into the dark insides of a deep tragedy. It was odd looking in these and thinking that no one has been inside these rooms in almost 80 years, and that the last time they were occupied something absolutely terrible happened. Furthermore, there was an ebb and flow of water coming in and out of these portholes. Out of place in an otherwise calm harbor, this must have been caused by slight currents moving through the hull of the ship, travelling the maze of passages inside. To me, this dynamic movement made the Arizona seem alive in a way I hadn’t seen before. I thought about what the current had passed by on its journey through the ship, how it had brushed past things that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades.This flux of water in and out of the ship seemed to compliment the sentiment around the memorial. Despite being entombed in the vessel indefinitely, the memory of these lost sailors was still very much intertwined with the outside world, with sentiments constantly coming and going with the tides.

A porthole on the USS Arizona

Coming up from the dive, I had a lot on my mind. Along with lots of questions for Dan that I just couldn’t figure out how to communicate to him underwater, I had also just dove on what is essentially a mass grave. I’m not naturally a somber person, but it came pretty easily here. Looking past the loss of life, its also a pretty cool dive, so I was a bit excited. Diving on a battleship itself is a rare opportunity, but diving the one whose sinking essentially kickstarted the US’s participation in WWII  – a pretty incredible chance to explore a historic site in a way that only a really select few are able to. Still buzzing from that dive, I headed home that night eager to look through my photos and to log my dives. I had a lot to write down.

The rope on which remains of the Arizona survivors are lowered into the ship

The next day I met Dan at the visitor center and started to look through my photos with him. We wanted to select a few shots of life on the wrecks, identify the life, and then to create some informational material for visitors. I had edited and picked some selects the night before, but the identification proved to be a more difficult task than initially thought. Almost all of the selects I had chosen were of invertebrate life, as the few fish I had seen on my dives hadn’t been agreeable subjects. Invertebrates, to those from a non-biological background, can be a bit difficult to identify sometimes. While family and genus are sometimes easy, locking down the exact species can often be pretty tough, sometimes requiring time-intensive keying out or even a microscope to pick out defining features. To make this even more difficult for us, we didn’t have an ID book on hand and had to resort to internet guides. Thankfully, quite a few of the species were common ones, and we had the assistance of local experts like Eric Brown via email, so we were able to lock down a couple IDs for the outreach project. After this, I helped Dan with a few errands around the base. This was a cool opportunity to see more of it, still very exciting for me as I’d never spent much time on any base before, let alone one this size. It was thrilling to drive along and see huge battleships moored beside the road, and Dan did an excellent job showing me some of the historic sites the base had to offer.

The USS Bowfin

On my final day at PEARL, I did some sightseeing. Scott was nice enough to hook me up with a Pearl Harbor Memorial Sites Passport, which includes admission to the Arizona memorial as well as three of the other historic sites on base : the USS Bowfin, the USS Missouri, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. This was a long day of tourism, but was a highly educational experience. It was nice to learn more about the war and the event that started it for the US, certainly put the last couple days in a bit of context. I thought the Memorial and it’s associated museums did an excellent job portraying the attack from both sides – the US and the Japanese. They included eyewitness testimonies from veterans from both countries, highlighting above all that this was a human war, hurting people from each land, not just a faceless enemy murdering for pleasure. I also found touring the USS Missouri very interesting. The battleship where the treaty ending the war was signed, the Missouri is open for visitors to go inside and explore its halls and rooms. This put the Arizona in a new light for me, as it revealed just how huge that ship really is. It’s hard to comprehend while swimming along the deck how much of the ship is closed off and hidden away, buried under mud and impossible to see, but walking the never-ending halls of the Missouri opened my eyes to the immense area below deck where most of the life on these ships really took place.

The USS Missouri

Visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial was a very impactful experience for me. Diving on and seeing these historic sites in person is powerful and hard to describe. The memorial does an excellent job of honoring those who passed. Despite having passed decades ago, these lost crew members still influenced the hundreds of visitors who view the memorial every hour, people who come to learn and pay their respects. Their sacrifice, whether or not it was in defense of a mutual belief between the crew and the tourists who come, was a human sacrifice. They lost their lives defending something that was dear to them – their country, their freedom, their families. It doesn’t matter whether or not people viewing the memorial agree with US foreign policies or even agree with the US’s position in the war. Everyone can emphasize with giving your life to protect what you stand for.

The names of the fallen in the Pearl Harbor Memorial

Leaving Pearl Harbor was significant to me for one more reason – it marked the last park in my summer of adventure. After a short week off, I would be flying off to DC for some final presentations, before ending this wild internship. While sad its all coming to an end, I think PEARL was a fitting end to this journey. Starting off, I learned how the NPS works to preserve submerged archaeological treasures, then how they monitor and protect biological resources. Travelling to Kalaupapa, I saw how they protected historic sites to ensure sensitive past transgressions aren’t quietly swept under the rug, and at Pearl Harbor I saw how they preserved and honored the memory of those who gave their lives for our country. Feeling as though I had experienced a diverse array of the places and resources that the National Parks Service works to preserve, I now felt ready to go to DC and share what I’d experienced.

The USS Arizona Memorial

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An Isolated Paradise -Marine Monitoring at Kalaupapa National Historic Park

Kalaupapa National Historic Park is one of those places that you can tell is special from the moment you get there. Isolated from the rest of the Hawaiian Islands by towering sea cliffs and from the rest of the world by thousands of miles of open ocean, this small peninsula was once a colony for people with Hansen’s disease (or leprosy), reminding us that even the most beautiful places can be a prison. Under orders from King Kamehameha V of Hawaii, victims of this disease were snatched up from their lives with little to no notice and indefinitely interned on this remote peninsula. Facilities were minimal and compassion was almost entirely absent. The patients were left to live in isolation, unable to have any type of physical contact with visitors, from 1866 until the end of mandatory isolation in 1969.

Bay View Housing, formerly for the patients but now occupied by NPS employees

Since the cure of the disease, the settlement has become a much happier place, with some of the patients choosing to stay on what is now their home despite the lifting of travel and visitation restrictions. Around 9 patients still live on the settlement, with the rest of the residents being employees of the NPS or the Department of Health, who remain on site to maintain and support the park and patients.

My visit to Kalaupapa wasn’t always in the books. Due to personnel changes in the park (the long-time marine ecologist, Eric Brown, moving to a new position in American Samoa), I was told that I wouldn’t be able to visit during my internship as the annual marine surveys wouldn’t be taking place. While in Channel Islands National Park, I met Kelly Moore (who is taking the Kalaupapa marine ecologist position) and learned that the surveys were back on the schedule and were going to take place right after my time on the islands ended. After some quick arrangements with various parks service folks, I found myself on a flight out to Hawaii just two days later, eager to join up with a new team.

My ride into the settlement

When the strict isolation laws of Kalaupapa were let up, the governing of the peninsula was turned over to the patients. In order to retain control of the land that is now the only home that most of them know, they set up some rules to ensure that it remained a happy place for themselves. These rules include ones like no children under the age of 16 (as historically children weren’t allowed on the settlement and any birthed there were taken from their mothers as soon as they were born, so children spark unpleasant memories for some patients), a strict limit on the number of visitors allowed, and an escort required for all visitors outside the settlement grounds. The last rule was the first one that I noticed, as I wasn’t allowed to leave the airport until my park sponsors were there to pick me up.

The peninsula and settlement from the sky

Landing on Kalaupapa’s airstrip in a small, 8 person passenger plane, I walked across the tarmac and picked up my luggage to be greeted by Sheila McKenna, marine ecologist with the Pacific Parks Inventory and Monitoring,  and Glauco Puig-Santana, a biotech working for both Pacific Parks I&M and Kalaupapa. From there, we rode into town and met Eric Brown and quickly began to orient ourselves on the survey protocol. We had a lot of sites to get done, around 20, and a short window to complete them all so we got right to work.

Pre-dive setup

Following a typical I&M protocol, these surveys were straight forward. Eric Brown, a seasoned Kalaupapa surveying veteran, handled the fish counts, while a buddy (either Sheila, Glauco, or myself) would cover the benthic photoquadrats to determine bottom cover. Temporary sites, ones that were randomly selected each year, had an added survey type – rugosity measurements. This required another diver, who would work with Eric to reel out and lay down a rugosity chain while the benthic diver finished their photoquadrats. This chain was reeled out along the transect line and laid flush with the bottom, following all contours. Once it reached the end of the transect, the length of chain laid out would be counted to give a measure of benthic complexity. The more chain was laid out over the 25m transect line, the more complex the rugosity was.

The team laying down a rugosity chain on transect

Permanant sites, ones without rugosity, were alot easier and faster than the temporary ones. With only fish counts and benthic photoquadrats to complete, the work went by pretty quickly. Working as a photoquadrat diver was a pretty good deal too. You’d have to wait for Eric to get some headway on his fish counts before starting, which gave you a little time to look around and enjoy the site. I took full advantage of this free time and took my fill of photos.

Glauco Puig-Santana taking some benthic photoquadrats

Another important part of the surveys, something that happened at both temporary and permanant sites, was water quality measurements with a sonde. A sonde is a multiparameter that collects data with six user-replaceable sensors, collecting a wide variety of data, ranging from conductivity and temperature to turbidity. This high-tech piece of equipment would be used to compare subtle biotic and abiotic differences between sites and see how they might influence biological life.

The sonde working away taking measurements

For the first couple days our team consisted of Eric, Sheila, Glauco, myself, and Randall Watanuki. Randall, a long-time employee of Kalaupapa, covered the boating as he was highly experienced with it and had a recent injury that kept him from diving. We started off with some easy sites close to town, on the leeward side of the peninsula. Kalaupapa is subject to high winds, making the leeward and windward sides of the peninsula have drastically different weather.

Randall Watanuki, our expert boat operator

Shortly after knocking out a couple easy protected sites, we got a weather window allowing us to venture over to the exposed side. This area is rarely visited by anyone due to its remote location and exposed nature, so it hosts some of the finest diving on the peninsula. It also has some very dramatic views of the sheer sea-cliffs and assorted islands. The north shore of Molokai has some of the highest sea-cliffs in the world, which made a lovely backdrop for some fieldwork.

Those are some serious sea cliffs

The diving in Kalaupapa NHP was beautiful and different from anything that I’d done before. Unlike a lot of the rest of the state, there aren’t any aggregated reefs surrounding the peninsula, but instead lots of scattered individuals of cauliflower and antler corals. This is a low, but relatively stable, coral cover and is pretty healthy, with a low frequency of disease and bleaching. The seafloor is a lava boulder habitat, composed of primarily large chunks of bedrock and huge scattered boulders, making lots of sharp relief and fun diving. While the corals and rocks are cool, the fish life is what makes Kalaupapa really shine. It boasts a high fish abundance and biomass, the highest in the main Hawaiian Islands. With very little fishing pressure, these fish are free to thrive without fear. These waters were also incredibly clear, with some of the best visibility I’ve experienced.

Hidden on the far side of the peninsula was an incredible treat. Underneath one of the few islands dotting the clear blue waters was an awe-inspiring structure – a massive underwater arch, allowing for a swim-through underneath the island itself. Around 70 feet tall and 30 feet wide, this was a truly unique experience unlike anything I’d done before. I had heard about this from past interns and was sincerely hoping I’d have a chance to visit it myself, and thankfully Eric found some time at the end of a long survey day to take us over. Our trip through this arch was made even more special by a visit by two turtles, who gracefully glided around the opening. It really was a dive to remember.

Each dive day was meticulously planned out by Eric Brown. The high potential for rough weather meant we had to take full advantage of good windows to visit the exposed side. Winds could quickly whip up a small craft warning, preventing us from using the boat and from working efficiently. Even when conditions were below that threshold, swell could prevent us from working. It wasn’t really the diving that was hard to do in rough weather, it’s all pretty calm when you’re underwater, but more so the water quality measurements. Certain sites required water samples to be taken from a variety of depths, which typically took about 20-30 minutes of sitting on the deck carefully collecting and securing the samples. This work was easy enough in calm weather, but much more difficult when the small boat is being thrashed around by 3-4 foot waves. We ended getting almost all of our sites done before a small craft warning came through, forcing us to visit our last 3-4 from shore with a little swim (up to 800m offshore).

Glauco collecting a water sample

While out on the water, we visited some of the finest lunch locations I’ve ever been to. Whether it was a view of crystal clear water and seabird-doting islands, sea caves and sea arches, or seasonal waterfalls, each day brought on a new lunchtime treat.

An unforgettable lunch by a waterfall

One thing that struck me about this park was how safety-conscious they were. Every morning before going out we all gathered and discussed potential hazards, changes from previous days, and risks to make sure everyone was comfortable and on the same page. We were very careful to have extreme redundancy in terms of communications, bringing 4-5 different ways to contact help if needed. This park was also the best in terms of all the units I’ve visited in terms of using PFDs. As soon as you got back on the boat after a dive, PFD time. Stepping on the boat from the dock? Hope you’ve got your PFD. These precautions are all understandable when considering the remote location and the proximity of any potential help. The Park only has one vessel (the one we’d be using) so any assistance would have to come from elsewhere, the closest spot being on the other side of the island. Safety had to be a big concern.

Sleeping monk seal, shot under NOAA/NMFS Permit #16632-02

Alongside all of the marine monitoring, I was able to help out with a more land-based survey as well – monk seal walks. I joined Glauco for a couple treks along the coastline, searching for, identifying, and counting any monk seals that we came across. These endangered seals have taken a liking to the Kalaupapa peninsula and have chosen to return here often to pup, making it the number one pupping location in the main Hawaiian Islands. Since 1997, 123 pups have been born on these beaches – a substantial amount considering their small population size of around 1400 individuals, only around 300 of which live on the main Hawaiian islands. I really enjoyed getting to go along with Glauco and get an up-close glimpse of these seals, who spent their afternoons slumbering like logs on the beach. We got lucky on a couple of our dives and were greeted by some underwater, so it was cool to see them on land as well.

Staying in Kalaupapa for almost three weeks I had ample time to explore around, which was great as there was a lot to see. Just being a Hawaiian Island means it comes with some inherent beauty, but this peninsula had a lot more than blue water and nice beaches (although it did have a lot of those too). Travelling around with Glauco, who made sure to show me all the cool spots, I was able to see some of the treasures that Kalaupapa has to offer – lava caves, sea arches, sea caves with seabird rookeries in them, historic buildings, sea cliffs, and a small lake inside a crater with the greatest depth to surface area ratio of any lake in the world (814 feet deep and 160 feet wide). I took my camera all over with me, taking in the stunning sights and beautiful views.

All of the work that we were doing really highlighted some of the difficulties of being such a remote park unit. Eric told me that, despite the size, the NPS employees for Kalaupapa are the costliest out of any park unit simply because of the expenses of shipping out all the necessary supplies. With no roads leading in or out of the park as the peninsula is flanked by steep sea-cliffs, all supplies must be either flown in on small passenger planes or brought in on a ship. A supply barge comes once a year with various foods, supplies, and equipment, and is a major event for the town.

The settlement and its adjacent sea=cliffs

As well as being remote, Kalaupapa is a small park with an even smaller dive team, so some things ran a little bit differently than other places I’d been to. The compressor where tanks were filled is shared with the town’s fire station. Having only one park vessel meant that help is often very far away. Fueling that vessel is another challenge – the Park’s only fuel source is a small gas station, which is only open one day a week, meaning fueling consists of waiting in a long line as everyone fills up, filling up 6-8 gas cans, and then swimming them out to the boat’s mooring. Lots of things take a couple extra steps. A small team complicates these marine surveys even more, as there are only really two full time Kalaupapa employees who dive. This makes the help of the Pacific Parks Inventory and Monitoring that much crucial, as they not only send out someone to help with the surveys (Sheila McKenna), but also fund a joint biotech with Kalaupapa and the Pacific Parks unit to assist with work like this (Glauco Puig-Santana). This collaboration is crucial to getting the necessary work done.

The size of the town is another thing that really makes this place special. It’s small. Small enough that everyone knows each other, making for a really tight-knit community. Spending a little under three weeks there, I just brushed the surface of how close of a bond this is. Weekly volleyball games, game nights, movie nights are times for the town to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Travelling around with Eric, who before recently leaving for a new job had spent years living here, I saw how not a single person went by him without saying hello and catching up a bit. Even to me, an outsider, everyone was very welcoming.

Near the end of my time at Kalaupapa, it became apparent that there was interest to see some of the videos I had taken during our survey dives. Pretty much everyone who lived in the settlement had never really seen the marine environment in depth, anything past a quick snorkel near the jetty. There’s a wild and beautiful ecosystem down there right off the coast, but rocky cliffs and rough weather make them pretty inaccessible if you don’t have a boat. With a little arranging from Glauco, we setup a little marine presentation for the town. Eric was to give a quick talk on the state of the marine program and environment, while I would create a short video highlighting their underwater backyard. While taking some time to complete, this video was very well-received and much of the community came up to me afterward to express their wonder towards what lies just offshore. It was a very fulfilling experience, being able to give back a bit to the community that was so welcoming to me, and I’m glad I was able to share a bit of what I’ve been lucky enough to see. This video, if you’d like to see it, can be found here.

In a little under three weeks, we were able to knock out the entirety of our survey sites, making excellent time with a nice clear window of weather. With the marine work winding down for the year, I had to move on. I had one final park left for me on this internship, one that I knew I’d remember for a long time. Pearl Harbor National Memorial, where I’d join their dive team to visit the USS Utah and USS Arizona.

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Exploring Submerged Forests at Channel Islands National Park

 

Santa Cruz Island

Kelp forests are a magical place. An incredibly productive ecosystem packed full of biological life, these temperate underwater forests are an absolute delight to dive in. The image of towering kelp is what initially inspired me to pursue diving, so I was understandably excited to visit one of California’s finest kelp forest diving locations: Channel Islands National Park.

I was visiting Channel Islands to join up with their Kelp Forest Monitoring (KFM) team on one of their week-long monitoring trips. This program, which has been surveying the islands for 38 years now, is one of the longest running monitoring programs in the NPS. Visiting sites all around the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, the KFM team collects a huge amount of data to assess the health of this diverse ecosystem and to aid in management decisions.

The island areas closest to ports are heavily impacted by fishing activities. Despite 20% of the Park’s water being closed to fishing, sport and commercial fishing are allowed in the remainder of the Park and is the greatest impact on the marine environment there. The Park’s islands make up around 3% of the California coastline yet account for 15% of all California commercial marine fisheries landings. Unique ocean conditions mix warm and cold water currents around the islands, making them an incredibly diverse location for marine life – more than 2000 marine species live in the area. Such an abundance of life in a place so close to millions of people needs to have some type of monitoring keeping an eye on it, and that’s where the KFM team comes into play.

In order to effectively monitor and gather information on the complex environments, the KFM team collects a litany of data to monitor fish, invertebrates, and algae. They employ a wide array of survey types and methods, from quadrats and swaths to count individuals, to size frequency surveys and recruitment modules to learn of recruitment events and size classes, to more specialized types of data collection like plankton tows and collecting acoustic data to answer more specific questions. They utilize special techniques to be more productive underwater, like using a diver attached with surface-supplied air and communication equipment along with a surface-based tender and data recorder to allow for longer dives without the need for the diver to spend any time writing stuff down, or breathing pure oxygen from a hanging bar while on safety stops to be able to do such long and repetitive dives safely.  If you can think of a type of data to collect in a kelp forest, there’s a good chance this group is doing it.

I was to join up with them for one of their week-long trips out on the water. With so many sites to survey and the relative isolation of the islands (the closest being 9 miles offshore, and the furthest 70 miles), this group does their surveying from a live-aboard research vessel – the Sea Ranger II. This 58 ft. vessel is the perfect floating research station, complete with bunks, a galley, scuba compressor, and lots of sampling gear. It has everything you’d need for a week out on the water. Working and diving from this vessel allows the team to get much more work done, staying out on the ocean all week instead of making the trip back to the mainland each evening.

The back deck of the Sea Ranger II

I joined up with the KFM team Monday morning and before I knew it we were off to the islands. With no time to waste, we’d be going straight to our first survey site and going straight to work as soon as we’d arrived. We had a couple hour boat ride on the way out, giving me plenty of time to read up on the group’s survey protocols and to prepare myself for some cold-water diving. While I’m not a stranger to diving in chilly seas, it had been a couple months since I donned a drysuit for Isle Royale’s 36-degree waters, so I had a little bit of setup in front of me.

When we were on site and bundled up in various forms of exposure protection, we jumped off the swim step and got to work. I had done some kelp forest surveying before during my time at university, so I was put right to work on algae counts and size frequencies. Counting all individuals of certain species within 5m quadrats, I swam down the 100m transect with Joshua Sprague, a Marine Ecologist at CINP. We were counting a small selection of algae and sea star species, one of these being probably the most conspicuous resident in kelp forests, giant kelp itself. As the backbone of these forests, giant kelp creates habitat for countless species of fish and invertebrates. Certain conditions can cause rampant herbivory, often at the tube feet of spiny sea urchins, which can result in these bountiful forests being reduced to bare rock, or  ‘barrens’. Unsurprisingly, some of the species that we collected a large amount of size frequency data on was the two most common species of urchin in Californian waters, the red and purple urchins. I spent a large portion of my first day swimming around plucking these living pincushions off the sea floor and chucking them into a mesh bag for topside sizing.

The Kelp Forest Monitoring team does a lot of sizing of invertebrates, as a robust collection of sizes can be used to glean information of recruitment events and potentially even die-offs. Sizing, however, can take a fair amount of time. Calipers are used for precise measurements and sizes must be physically written down – which all sounds easy and quick but can really add up when you’re trying to size at least 200 urchins at each site. Additionally, time spent underwater is limited, so it must be maximized to its full extent. At sites where urchins are abundant, these inverts are sometimes brought up to the surface to be measured in order to increase efficiency. It seemed like after almost every time I returned to the back deck post-dive there was part of the team sitting out there sizing something.

In addition to the urchin size frequencies, there was a whole other source of need for sizing – artificial recruitment modules, or ARMS. These, essentially little stacks of halved cinderblocks designed to create available and desirable habitat for juvenile invertebrates, are a way for the KFM team to learn a little bit about waves of larval recruitment happening inside their park. Each year, these modules are visited, taken apart and picked clean of their invertebrate residents, brought up to the surface, sized, and then brought back down and put back away in their little artificial homes. This task was a coveted one by the team, and was described to me as the kelp forest monitoring equivalent of opening a Christmas present – you never really know what you’ll find inside. I grew to agree with them, it was always a fun surprise. Sometimes you’d get nothing but some small urchins and a what seems a couple hundred brittle stars, and other times you’d be greeted by a mother octopus and her clutch of eggs (no, we didn’t bring those up to size them as well).

An Artificial Recruitment Module

Diving with the Channel Islands crew, it really was work pretty much all day long. With so much data to collect, there isn’t much time for slacking off. Even when all of the diving was over there was still more data to get – a plankton tow to complete, hydrophone recording to make, or a species list to compile. It was inspiring to see them working nonstop to gather all the information needed to thoroughly monitor these special forests.

After finishing up our site on Santa Rosa Island, we headed off to the neighboring Santa Cruz Island for our next stop. Santa Cruz, the largest of the northern Channel Islands, also has the most native vegetation – the result of a huge effort to remove introduced grazers and reestablish a natural landscape. This made for a beautiful commute, getting a chance to view these sheer sea-cliffs and the greenery that blanketed them. We also got a chance to visit a unique Santa Cruz Island feature – the Painted Cave. One of the largest sea caves in the world, this enormous cavern extends a quarter mile into the island with an opening big enough to fit a 60-ft boat into it. Keith Duran, the skilled captain of the Sea Ranger II, brought the vessel all the way into the cave to give us a close look.

The entrance to the Painted Cave, which stretches up to 160ft tall at its opening

Once we arrived at our new site off of Fry’s Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, we went straight to work. I was starting off with the familiar 5m quadrats, but little did I know I was in for a surprise. The previous sites were relatively easy for these quads, with only a couple species to count, but this one was a different story. A silty bottom with scattered boulders, it seemed like every exposed surface was covered in an invasive algae species called Sargassum horneri. Resigning ourselves to an a long, mind-numbing dive, my buddy Laurie Montgomery and I committed to the count, in the end reaching tallies of thousands of individuals, a task which took 75 minutes and almost all of my sanity.

Understory growth, like the ones pictured here (not Sargassum) can form dense carpets and severely complicate counts

Also while on Santa Cruz Island I got a chance to break out the camera. For most of this trip there was too much work to do to be able to take photos, but I seized an opportunity to join Rilee Sanders and Cullen Molitor as they finished up some work. As visibility was low, I opted to shoot macro, something that I haven’t gotten a chance to do much of recently, in hopes of getting some nice photos of the California morays that everyone was talking about.

The next day we finished off our final site of the trip, and then went to do some logger retrievals. The KFM team has set out some acoustic loggers throughout the park and I was able to join some of the pick-up dives. In hopes of being able to use these hydrophone recordings to gauge ecosystem health, these loggers take 5-minute recordings every 15 minutes until they run out of battery or memory. Diving with Joshua Sprague and Kelly Moore, these dives were short and sweet – drop down, grab the logger, and bring it back up – but a nice way to get a quick view of some diverse sites. While doing these logger pickups, I visited my first marine protected area of the trip – a beautiful, lush kelp forest full of healthy marine life.

Channel Islands National Park is home to a network of marine protected areas. A mix of State and Federal marine reserves and conservation areas, these designations offer various forms of protections to marine life and serve as a sanctuary to preserve species diversity and abundance. In 2005, the KFM team added new sites to their protocol to survey inside and outside of these protected areas to try and gauge their effectiveness, and the results are clear. These MPAs work wonders for preserving species diversity and sizes, which allows for the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem. This is pretty clear when diving in them as well – the protected sites were among the most beautiful ones I visited on the trip, a telling testament to the importance of protection of special places.

We wrapped up our final day with some diving on Anacapa Island, the smallest of the northern islands and the closest to the mainland. This was one of the two islands out of the seven that I had never been diving on, so I was excited to check it off my list (only San Clemente Island left!). Even more exciting was that we had enough time to get a survey dive in after finishing off the last bit of work. We’d be working a couple sites around Anacapa, picking up loggers and such, and would have a little bit of free time before needing to head back to the mainland. I was able to jump into the chilly waters a couple final times and got to enjoy the beautiful kelp forests in the marine reserves off Anacapa Island for a bit before heading back home.

Shortly before leaving the Channel Islands I was met with an unexpected surprise. I was chatting with Kelly Moore, a long term KFM veteran who is about to start a new position at Kalaupapa National Historic Park. Kalaupapa NHP is one of the parks that is frequently visited by OWUSS NPS interns, but was one that I didn’t think I’d be able to visit this year due to shifting personnel and an unfortunately scrapped survey season. I mentioned this to Kelly, and was surprised when she mentioned that the fieldwork was in fact not scrapped, but still planned and was to start literally the day after I returned back from the Channel Islands. Even more exciting, she thought they could probably use an extra hand. At this point in my internship, I had no parks planned for me after CINP, so I sent out an email and before I knew it I was booking flights to Hawaii two days in advance from my phone while on a boat 50 miles offshore. With these exciting plans ahead of me, I drove straight to San Francisco as soon as I left the Channel Islands harbor in Ventura and hopped on a flight to another beautiful island chain, one a little bit more remote – the Hawaiian Islands.

Santa Rosa Island

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Keeping an Eye on the Coral – Coral Reef Monitoring at Virgin Islands National Park

As soon as I saw the bright blue tropical water from the small plane window I knew my flight was going the right way. The unmistakable vibrant waters of the Caribbean were moving closer and closer as we began our descent. I was eager to return to this part of the world and was looking forward to more picturesque beaches and wildly clear waters. This trip I was returning to the Virgin Islands, but to a new one this time: St. John, home of Virgin Islands National Park.

Virgin Islands National Park, encompassing 60% of the land area on St. John and about 9 square miles of the adjacent ocean, is a beautiful place full of tropical forests, historic ruins, and fringing coral reefs. Surrounding it is Virgin Islands Coral Reefs National Monument, adding an additional almost 20 square miles of protection to the reefs around the island. I was here for the second leg of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP), a nation-wide effort to survey and keep track of the health of coral reefs. Lead by NOAA, this was a collaborative effort including groups like the NPS and University of Virgin Islands. This work was identical procedurally to what I worked on in St. Croix, as the survey methods must be the same in order to create comparable data. After my previous warm-up round a month before, these surveys collecting information on reef complexity, fish diversity, and coral health felt very comfortable and familiar. There was one big difference between the two for me though: in St. John, I collected much more data.

In St. Croix, I spent 3 of my five diving days photo-documenting the work at hand and shadowing to try and pick up the survey methods, only jumping into data collection on the last two days because the team was short a member. In St. John, I collected data from start to end – forcing me to data dive with a bulky camera strapped to my BC if I wanted to get any photos of the reefs. This was fun, as I like scientific diving and data collection, but did have one major downside. All of this fun data collection was paired with another, far less fun, task: data entry.

All that data has to go somewhere

All data entry had to be done by the end of the trip, so each day of diving 5-7 dives a day means 5-7 data sheets are waiting for you when you return home, tired after a long day of diving. Sure, you could wait to enter these until a little bit later in the trip but they’ll quickly pile up, creating an imposing stack of impending work. This data entry obligation was difficult to manage, with all the other internship duties I had along with dinner and other evening activities. To make matters worse, the survey type that I was doing, line-point intersect, was collecting information on percent cover of the benthic environment – meaning that I’d always have 100 points to enter, regardless on how barren the site was. Certain less-than-interesting sites gave the fish and coral surveyors a welcome break from the intense data collection, but the hapless LPI diver was doomed to work tirelessly.

Sometimes the tables were turned, and recording point after point of turf algae seemed preferable to counting and sizing hundreds of fast-moving fish

All of my gripes aside, this data entry is a key portion of the survey process – completely necessary if you are interested in doing any types of analysis or learning anything from all of these numbers that have just been produced. Additionally, doing it right after collecting it leaves little room for forgetting key information. It’s much harder to decipher messy underwater handwriting a month after it was written rather than a couple hours later.

So what was all this survey data on? If you were to ask members of my vessel during the St. John NCRMP leg, you might get a lot of answers of ‘scrubble’, a lovely benthic habitat composed of sand and rubble (and often not much else). The protocol is designed to survey any type of habitat that could potentially harbor coral, including the ones that may boast one small coral colony in 50m of seafloor (we visited some of these). As long as there was a single piece of hard substrate, we’d survey it (and yes, that little rock over there in that seemingly endless sea of sand counts – we checked). The words ‘coral reef surveys’ may invoke beautiful mental images of expansive living grandeur, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you have to monitor the sites that are what I imagine it would look like if a coral reef sneezed and forgot to cover its mouth, or sites that have so much algae and so little coral that you’ll have to double check you aren’t diving in California. However, someone has to collect this data – after all, zeros are important data points too.

Sometimes the algae/coral balance was skewed a little bit more towards the algae than you’d like it to be

As with St.Croix, these were randomly selected GPS waypoints that were chosen based off of benthic maps created using bottom sounder data.  This means that you’re often diving on sites that have never been visited before – and that no one really knows what type of habitat you’ll be dropping in on. Sometimes, that hard bottom that you (and the quickly growing dataset) have been pining for isn’t so hard after all. My team had more than our fair share of bounce dives, dropping in on large swathes of sand or seagrass and coming right back up. Sometimes, these seemingly-uneventful bounce dives would unearth thrilling sites: a school of hundreds of adult bonefish, tiny cryptic sargassum-dwelling invertebrates, or potentially my favorite sight of the trip – the largest palm tree I’ve ever seen. Sitting calmly on the dark ocean floor at around 90 feet deep, this submerged giant must have been over 70 feet tall.

While these soft-bottomed dives sometimes had fun surprises, the reefs were still much nicer

Despite feeling as though our team had somehow angered the gods who pass out the site survey assignments and were doomed to spend our days ticking off point after point of turf algae, we did still manage to visit some pretty spectacular sites. The Friday of our first week was the uncontested peak of the trip – visiting five aggregate and patch reef sites, with unparalleled visibility and surprisingly high coral cover. To top things off, our very first site was on the fringing reef, the reef furthest away from the islands and widely-thought to be the nicest around.

One of the nicer reefs we got to visit

With not many observed instances of disease or bleaching by our team, these reefs seemed pretty healthy. However, it was pretty clear that they had recently been subjected to some wild, intense, storm-driven swells. Occasionally, we’d run into coral colonies that looked like they’d been bashed in by a couple of angry garbage trucks on a bender, huge chunks of growth split apart in ways that seem impossible to comprehend. We’d also run into other signs of storm damage as well. Entire trees underwater was a common one, unintentional visitors from an outside world who’ve turned into a semi-permanent reef feature. Fragments of roof was another one, forcing one to imagine just how strong winds must have been to rip this huge chunk of metal off of someone’s house and deposit it a quarter mile offshore. We also ran into the wreckage of what looked like a rather large ship, broken apart and scattered across the reef.

Remnants of an unfortunate ship

While not a huge amount of disease was observed, as it has relatively recently made its way to the Caribbean, this doesn’t mean that we didn’t take any precautions to avoid spreading it. This park was the most cautious out of all the ones I’ve been to in terms of taking preventative measures – they were promoting what they hope to become ‘the new rinse’. Consisting of soaking gear in a diluted bleach solution (less than 1%) and then rinsing in freshwater, this thorough procedure is designed to remove any possibility of disease transmission through diver’s gear. The Parks Service is attempting to popularize this procedure throughout the Caribbean, supporting local recreational dive operations in their transition by supplying the bleach, with hopes that it’ll become widespread.

With a lot of the surveying gear touching the bottom, disinfecting is a crucial precaution

This disease, stony coral tissue loss disease, has only recently been detected in the U.S. Virgin Islands but poses an incredibly dire threat. Affecting 22 different species of coral with a mortality rate from 66-100%, it poses to decimate Caribbean reefs. First making an appearance near Miami in 2014, this disease quickly spread through the Florida Keys and has recently made its way out to the Caribbean as well, putting reefs already in major distress from climate change under even more stress. Described by researchers as being comparable to an underwater Ebola, this disease is currently incurable and ripping through reefs, killing corals that are hundreds of years old in mere weeks. Scientists are forced to result to dire containment measures, physically removing infected coral colonies from the reefs in a last-ditch effort to stop the spread. The speed and intensity of this disease make it a very real issue, putting even more importance on the island-wide monitoring we were undertaking. With a wide distribution of sites surveyed, this program has a good chance of locating and identifying disease before it becomes too widespread.

A diseased coral quickly losing living tissue – this may be a different disease, black band disease

Diving off of St. John, there’s a lot of boat traffic. Ferries travel around constantly moving between the many islands peppered through the area, private charters zip back and forth between beaches, and seemingly every other person on the islands has their own boat. This meant that we had to be extra vigilant when surfacing, especially as we managed to do a surprising number of sites in major boating channels. For some reason, vessels in this area don’t really seem to care much about dive flags – despite being clearly marked and obvious in the water, they’ll power right over them. Thankfully, the largest vessels (the ferries) weren’t very stealthy – their powerful, rumbling engine was audible even 90 feet down, and was hard to ignore when its booms resonated through your body.

Another hazard that we had to deal with was currents. While sometimes simply a nuisance, causing more exertion than desired, these had the potential to cause more serious issues. We had one memorable dive with such a raging current that I was almost unable to swim against it. The LPI diver has to swim into the current twice in the dive, once to reel out the transect and once more to collect their data, so I had to fight this angry stream of seawater twice over, exerting myself much more than I would have liked at depth to make the tiniest bit of headway. When we’d finally finished that dive and were able to stop fighting it, we noticed that our gas consumption and physical exertion weren’t the only things that this current had taken a toll on – it had also pulled down our dive float. Lying pitifully on the end of a suspiciously slack line at 85 feet down, wrinkled and compressed to half its size, our small buoy and handheld GPS combination had been yanked down to the depths by a whole lot of fast-moving water. With the help of a lift bag and a quick decrease in pressure, it happily returned to its former full and turgid state but was the subject of quite a few post-dive discussions in the days to come.

Strong currents really made us appreciate the dives without them

One final hazard was weather. Despite St. John rarely getting thunderstorms, we had quite a few during our monitoring trip. Often these storms would quickly materialize out of dark clouds without warning, surprising us in the middle of our day. We had one memorable dive where a lightning storm started while we were under – I remember the eerily calm surface of the water, the surface mottled with the impacts of thousands of raindrops and the occasional blast of illumination on the darkened reef from a flash of lighting.

Calm and serene underwater, cold and wet above

One small perk of doing all of these high-traffic, high-current, scrubble dives in the middle of the channel was a small novelty that I’m really pleased to be able to say that I’ve done – an international dive. With the close proximity between the USVI and the British Virgin Islands, it only made sense for a couple of these randomly selected points to fall right on the border. And sometimes, the transect happens to head across international lines, or a drifting safety stop takes you a little into someone else’s territory (it’s hard to see these borders underwater). While essentially meaningless, I got quite a kick out of these globe-trotting dives.

Some British fish

Like St. Croix, the dives for this program were fast and seemingly non-stop. Over the course of the two-week period, we quickly worked ourselves up to an average of 6-7 a day, occasionally even doing eight. Diving a range of depths and a mix of air and nitrox gases, high numbers of dives were achievable and safe – but sometimes lead to long days out on the sea.

Long days underwater are always worth it when you’re rewarded with sights like this

A huge perk of spending two weeks in St. John was that it gave me an entire weekend off between surveying to explore a bit more of the island. A huge amount of the island is National Park, encompassing a vast expanse of undeveloped forest and beaches. While lovely to see from the water as it really highlights the scale of the whole area, it was nice to get up close and personal as well. During time off I got a chance to see the sea turtles at Maho Bay, juvenile lemon sharks at Reef Bay, and even to take a quick visit to the British Virgin Islands. This was a really beautiful area that I’m glad I got a little time to see.

Juvenile lemon shark in the shallows at Reef Bay

I was happy to join on for another couple weeks of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program as it’s such an important cause. At such a pivotal point for the fate of coral reefs it’s exciting to be on the forefront of the monitoring, collecting the data that will be used to inform policymakers about the ocean health. Additionally, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about these reefs and the issues they face – all relatively new stuff to a cold-water diver like myself. After two busy weeks full of diving and data, I left the Caribbean for good. I was now heading to the opposite side of the country, to spend the remainder of my internship diving in a completely different ocean. It was time to say goodbye to the corals of the Caribbean and hello to the ecosystem that got me into diving – the lush kelp forests of California, at Channel Islands National Park.

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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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