Category Archives: Current Internships

A living history: Kalaupapa National Historical Park

A short, slow drive down a single-lane road takes us into the Settlement as Park Dive Officer Kelly Moore, and Aquatic Biological Science Technician Glauco Puig-Santana pick me up at the Kalaupapa airport, on the northern shore of Molokai, Hawaii. They take the opportunity to provide a brief introduction to my home for the next two weeks. Curiously, Kelly begins by detailing and demonstrating good driving practices on the peninsula. The recommendation? 1) Drive no more than 10-15 mph; 2) at each intersection, slow down, look left-right-left, and right again; 3) don’t assume vehicles will stop at stop signs; and 4) vehicles have the right-of-way over pedestrians. Last but not least? If you encounter a vehicle coming towards you, drop your speed, turn towards the shoulder of grass, pulling all four wheels off the road to create ample space for passing – and the other car will likely do the same. What initially strikes me as a highly unusual style of driving begins to make sense as I come to learn about the history of this captivating landscape and isolated community.

A single road leads into the Settlement from the Kalaupapa airport. The park is only accessible by small plane or by descending the switchbacks of a steep sea cliff on foot

A prison fortified by nature. Medical segregation. Hardship in separation.

The 2,000 ft. pali (sea cliffs) and deep, rough sea surrounding this charming leaf-shaped peninsula frame a dark history. From 1866–1969, this very location served as an isolation settlement for over 8,500 individuals forcefully removed from their homes – individuals who were diagnosed with a widely feared and misunderstood illness, known at the time as leprosy (now, Hansen’s disease – named after the scientist who discovered the bacterium that causes this disease). Easily treatable since the 1940s (and the advent of antibiotics), the settlement is now a refuge for a handful of patients who have chosen to remain here after the mandatory quarantine was lifted over 50 years ago. For many, long-term effects of this disease still impact daily life, such as numbness, paralysis, scarring, and impaired vision. Nowadays, extra precaution is taken at every corner (including the aforementioned driving norms to protect the safety of some patients who still get around on four wheels) with the support of the Hawai’i Department of Health and the National Park Service.

The National Park Service works not only to preserve the natural features of the environment but maintains museum collections, cemeteries, cultural landscapes, and historic buildings around the peninsula. Photo: Shaun Wolfe

Invisible to the untrained eye, this seemingly untouched, impeccably preserved, and dramatic natural coastline is physically scarred by its history. Archeological remains of native Hawaiian ahupua’a (land divides) run through the cliffs and valleys, designating historical land use areas, and contain well-preserved examples of irrigation systems, ancient birthing stones, heiaus (temples), and cultivated taro fields. Now, these remains are reminders of the lost connection with the ‘aina (land) that occurred here once the native Hawaiian population was decimated by a series of epidemics in the mid-to-late- 1800s and displaced following the sale of land to the Board of Health in preparation for incoming patients. During times of quarantine, physical barriers were erected throughout the Settlement to segregate patients from caretakers, visitors, and servicepersons (e.g., patient and non-patient washrooms, chest-high walls dividing two sides of a long, narrow visitors center, and short gates placed on waiting benches outside care homes). Although these barriers have since lost their function, those that remain serve as a daily reminder of the alienation and physical distance maintained for over a century within the buildings we are now working and living in.

Underwater, our goal for the next two weeks is to complete the annual Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys with Kelly, Glauco, and visiting NPS Marine Ecologist Sheila McKenna. Together, we will collect water quality samples, take benthic photos, and survey fish along fixed, permanent transects. My first time in the tropical Pacific can only be described as “fish Christmas” – as I take in the tens of new-to-me species (from endemic triggerfish humuhumunukunukuāpua’a – say that five times fast! to fancy butterflyfish, Hawaiian hogfish, and psychedelic wrasse).

NPS Marine Ecologist Sheila McKenna conducts fish surveys on a permanent transect, as part of the annual Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys

The view above and below the surface are equally as mesmerizing. Bus-sized boulders litter the seafloor for miles – dropped from the island over 1.5 million years ago when a third of Molokai collapsed into the ocean. On the east side of the peninsula, we are greeted by lush valleys, deep Pacific blues, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, and long-tailed tropical birds. Being my first time in Hawaii, it seems like someone has turned the saturation up on life. As the weeks progress, just when I think the peninsula can’t get any more beautiful – it always does.

A glimpse into our view during dive surveys

Taking shelter from the waves between dives, in Waikolu valley

Only in the best weather conditions can we reach the survey sites on the east side of the peninsula, pictured here

Persistent trade winds keep us cool and refreshed out on the water but also interrupt boat-based dive operations on several occasions, shifting our focus to terrestrial or shore-based fieldwork. Lucky for me, this means new training opportunities and time with a special marine resident of the peninsula – the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. In partnership with NOAA, the Kalaupapa Natural Resource Management team opportunistically surveys the resident population along approximately 3 km of coastline (which is home to more than 80% of the total monk seal population within the main Hawaiian Islands). This year, Kalaupapa saw the birth of 12 pups, which are continually monitored for general health and growth, tagged for identification, and vaccinated against morbillivirus. Genetic samples are also taken to inform a parental tree of the local population to understand and better protect this endangered species.

Aquatic Biological Science Technician Glauco Puig-Santana carefully places temporary dye on a sleeping monk seal pup, to assist in identification and monitoring. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677.

Two monk seal pups play in the shallows, gaining confidence before venturing into deeper waters. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677 (and the helpful guidance of Glauco as I try to navigate entry level photography, Mahalo!)

A curious monk seal pup wakes briefly from a mid-day nap. Each seal we encountered on surveys is photographed for reference. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677.

Earlier this year, during a routine survey, the NRM team found a young pup with a fishing hook lodged in his throat. After an initial assessment, the pup was taken to Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center for surgery to remove the hook and regain health before his return home. The pup was welcomed back to Kalaupapa in style via US Coast Guard helicopter (with a satellite tag souvenir from his time at the hospital) and surrounded by adoring fans. With the hard work and diligence of the NRM team, US Coast Guard, NOAA, and marine veterinary collaborators, this pup was saved from an uncertain fate – a local success story in protecting this endangered species.

Monk seal pup RP92 found in June with a fishing hook lodged in his throat. The pup received care at the Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center and was returned home healthy and hook-free. Monitoring and photos conducted under NOAA NMFS permit #22677. Photo: National Park Service/Kalaupapa NHP

While conducting fieldwork at the park, I quickly became familiar with an omnipresent force to be reckoned with – the constant pivoting required to keep field operations moving forwards, termed the “Kalaupapa shuffle.” A phrase coined to encompass the challenges of conducting research where weather windows are short, staffing is limited, and access to basic services such as the post office and groceries are restricted to a few hours each day. This delicate dance is necessary in the face of challenges and delays beyond one’s control. We celebrate the days when pivots go smoothly (and we can effectively shift from one project to another within the scope of a day) and learn from and embrace the days when seemingly everything is working against us. In a place where problem-solving requires equal parts creativity and resourcefulness, success teeters on a balance of resilience, flexibility, excellent communication, good spirits, and calm focus – traits all clearly exhibited by the dynamic marine duo of Kelly and Glauco.

Utilizing the sheltered harbour during rough weather to do full face mask training in preparation for cold water adventures later in the internship…

From a day-to-day perspective, Kalaupapa can be described as quite busy, as far as small, unincorporated communities go. Even though the settlement is made up of no more than 70 persons on a given day, there is no shortage of ways to spend evenings and weekends (from volleyball games to music nights, church services, and social gatherings – there is always something going on). In addition to community events, I find comfort in the simple, grounding daily routine I have come to know here. Items such as; checking the ground around a mango tree for freshly fallen fruits, sifting through drying sea salt harvested from nearby tide pools; finding a mortar and pestle to make Hawaiian chili pepper water, and a cliché but soulful sunset walk on the beach occupy my daily to-do list. During moments like these, I don’t dare think about tomorrow. As the days go by, I have a feeling it is going to be very hard to leave.

Harvesting sea salt from dried tide pools, a favorite pastime of many and a typical Saturday morning

Where you’ll find me after a day in the field – a ten minute walk from the office

Although it is the underwater Natural Resource Management program that brought me here, it is the memories of shared meals, conversations with long-term residents and patients, and adventures in nature with new friends that shine brightest in my memory. Kelly and Glauco, I am so happy to have been a part of your team. Two weeks flew by, but each day felt full. Thank you for showing me the best of Kalaupapa. Shared memories of foraging from the land (collecting papaya, avocado, mango, plantain, banana, chilies, lemons, and breadfruit – meaning often more than 50% of our meals were harvested no more than a few miles from the dinner table), learning to make fresh coconut milk (thank you Losa for sharing your knowledge of traditional Samoan techniques), soaking in freshwater streams of the Waikolu Valley, biking touring around the peninsula, and snorkeling in the shadows of offshore islands Okala and Mokapu are just some of the experiences that capture the spirit of Kalaupapa.

2017 OWUSS NPS intern Shaun Wolfe (intern reunion!!) and Prof. Kevin Weng rounded out the Kalaupapa crew for my last weekend at the park. Thanks for the laughs, the meals, and action-packed send off!

To feel connected to not only the land but the community are aspects of this visit that go above and beyond what I could expect from two weeks at a National Park, leaving a lasting impression. Here, community takes on the true essence of its meaning. Where everyone knows your name, and residents, patients, employees, and visitors alike take on a shared responsibility to maintain a harmonious, comfortable, and well-functioning living space while safeguarding and celebrating longstanding natural and cultural resources.

Today, a hard-to-come-by visitor’s pass to Kalaupapa National Historical Park is not only an access card to some of the most striking natural beauty I’ve laid eyes on, but an invitation into a community– an invitation to learn and pay respects and to live alongside a resilient and uplifted patient community who have known this peninsula during times of suffering and neglect. As time progresses and the patient population decreases, questions are raised as to the legacy of the settlement. Although the future of Kalaupapa is uncertain, we must find a way to continue to share the story of Kalaupapa –and the patients who are still writing the final chapter of its history in the present day.

 

 

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Mastering the Art of Working Under Pressure… Literally

Hi! My name is Yuen Azu, and I am the 2022 Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) / American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Dr. Lee H. Somers Scientific Diving Intern, hosted by the University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. I’m an undergraduate at Amherst College working towards a Biology degree, and I got an amazing opportunity this year to learn how to dive for research purposes.

My story begins in mid-July. It was a foggy, cool morning when I arrived at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. Surrounded in state protected land, the laboratory entrance is landmarked by a solid group of trees fortifying the gate. I eeked at 15 miles per hour along the last stretch of road after punching in the gate code, keenly aware of my speed after reading the warning signs for wildlife crossings. Horseshoe cove was blanketed in a gradient of whiteness until the undulating water disappeared just beyond the headlands. I was tempted to step out of my car and walk along the shore for a quick scenic stop, but the entrance was closed off with NO ENTRY PERMITTED signs.

Entrance to the Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California

I stepped out and pulled on a sweater. I had been warned about the mild temperatures of the coast but had naively thought that I could handle it Michigan-style. Still, it was the middle of summer and my brain was wired for heat at this time of year. Jason Herum, the Dive Safety Officer (DSO) for UC Davis and my day-to-day contact at the lab, was here to give me a private tour of the facility. He greeted me warmly outside, and we headed towards the main building. We had long phone conversations about the logistics of my internship over the past several months, and it was great to finally put a face to his voice. At a relaxed pace we made our way to the different wings of the building and walked over to other areas that I would be spending quite some time at, like the dive safety classroom, the dive locker, and the tank filling station. We also made a stop at the north-western edge of the property, a concrete and wood structure designated as the Diver Training Facility. Jason swung the heavy wooden door open and a blue, crystal-clear pool appeared on the other side. If it hadn’t been in the low 60s, I would have dipped my toes in the water without hesitation. We continued the outdoor tour to the edge of Horseshoe Cove, and Jason explained that typically access was restricted due to ongoing research, live feed cameras, and marine mammal pupping seasons. Hence the NO ENTRY PERMITTED signs.

Diver training facility at Bodega Marine Laboratory

I had a couple of days to settle in before the first half of the Research Dive Techniques course would begin. I spent that time sightseeing the Bodega Head, mentally and literally prepping for an intensive week, and catching the 2022 Australasian Scholar, Millie Mannering, right before she headed out to her next adventure. Helping her out was 2019 DAN Intern Abbey Dias, who also happened to work at BML. It was only for a few hours that day, but I was excited to see two familiar faces before my internship officially began.

Sunday rolled around and marked the beginning of a whirlwind week full of lectures, pool time, and mild sunburns. I met the other five students and learned their stories leading them to this course, each at a different point in their lives–either in graduate school, in between school, or working. I also met the other instructors alongside Jason: Shelby Kawana, the Assistant Boating and Diving Safety Officer, John Harreld, the Volunteer Instructor and co-founder of the Sonoma Coast Historical and Undersea Nautical Research Society (SCHUNRS), and Brian Bennett, the DSO at both San Francisco State University and Sonoma State University.

A snapshot of a classroom lecture for the Research Diving Techniques Course (Photo credit: Jason Herum)

With a 2:3 instructor-to-student ratio, we had a highly individualized learning experience. It had been months since I last took a breath while underwater and even longer since I dove in 50-degree water, so I needed a few moments for my body to adjust to the coldness seeping into my wetsuit. I wasn’t sure if I could get used to all of the restrictive layers of neoprene, especially with such thick gloves that made simple tasks cumbersome, but by the end of the week, I became much more confident in myself as a diver. My basic skills improved significantly, and I now feel a greater sense of security and assurance from having gone through rescue drills and learning to provide emergency care. We spent hours practicing CPR and using AEDs on dummies, setting up and breaking down oxygen units, and performing neurological assessments. In the water, we simulated beach and boat rescues, out-of-air scenarios, and my favorite– the ditch and don. In this exercise, we had to remove all of our gear (except our weight belts) at the bottom of the pool, turn off our tank, ascend to the surface, dive back down, turn on our tank, and put everything back on. If that sounds crazy to you, trust me, I was thinking the same thing when it was my turn. The ditching was relatively simple, but the donning was quite a struggle. I felt like I barely made it swimming back down to the 14-foot bottom without either my fins to propel me or my mask to help me navigate the otherwise blurry world. By the time I got my regulator in my mouth and opened up my tank, I was gasping. Conquering that challenge was the highlight of my day, maybe my week. On top of those emergency skills, we also hopped in the rarely-accessed Horseshoe cove to practice freediving and navigation. I had quite a lot of fun with both, but the navigation in particular was another confidence-boosting moment as my buddy and I landed fairly close to our target location in murky, surging waters. 

An injured diver scenario with us students in action (Photo credit: Jason Herum)

Standing in front of Horseshoe Cove and ready to freedive! (Photo credit: Sarah King)

The last two days of the session were dedicated to biological surveys and marine archaeology fundamentals. We simulated invertebrate transects, practiced sketching quadrats, used lift bags and redundant air sources, and performed trilateration. In addition to all of this, I was trained in using enhanced air nitrox (also called simply ‘nitrox’ or abbreviated as ‘EAN’) in which I breathe off a tank that has a higher percentage of oxygen. By the end of the first week of my internship, I obtained DAN DFA Pro certification.

Conducting a trilateration of a sunken canoe in the Dive Training Facility with my dive buddy (left) (Photo credit: Shelby Kawana)

A group shot on the last pool session at the Diver Training Facility (Photo credit: Shelby Kawana)

During the next few weeks of my internship, I joined dive projects, helped out at the tank-filling station, and shadowed a couple of labs at BML. My first dive was a marine archaeology survey in search of an anchor in a cove off the Pacific coast, and my second dive was to help retrieve, clean, upload data from, and re-attach scientific equipment at the NOAA field station located in the San Francisco Bay (with a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge). My third dive was in the cove right off BML, in which I video-recorded two other divers repairing underwater equipment. I also got to join a boat operation to collect water quality data in Tomales Bay, and on a separate occasion I got to dive there for some underwater instrument maintenance. Back at the lab, I got to learn the basics of air compressors and filling tanks with both air and Nitrox, and was also introduced to white abalone restoration research. 

On a mission with John Harreld to GPS-tag an anchor (Photo credit: Shelby Kawana)

Cleaning a CTD instrument with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance (Photo credit: Gregg Holzer)

In mid-August, we had the second half of the research diving course. We camped along the Sonoma coast and spent five days refining the skills we learned in the pool with a greater focus on scientific diving. We performed two types of marine archaeology search techniques and conducted invertebrate transects. Our final dive was geared towards exploring a shipwreck off Fort Ross, but the visibility was so bad that we instead turned the dive into a navigation exercise back to our entry point. By completing the course, I not only obtained AAUS Scientific Diving certification, but I left with NAUI Rescue Diving and Nitrox certification as well. It only hit me after sitting down and reviewing our course schedule that I had learned so much since the first day. Without the amazingly patient, helpful, and encouraging instructors, volunteers, fellow students, and other BML staff, I wouldn’t have gotten this far. 

Fully geared up and entering the water at Fort Ross (Photo credit: Sarah King)

Off to do invertebrate transects with my dive buddy Will Johnson (Photo credit: Jason Herum)

Holding up my certificate of completion for the UC Davis Research Techniques course (Photo credit: Isabelle Neylan)

For the latter half of my internship, I’ll be relocating to Lake Tahoe for the entirety of September to conduct invasive species surveys alongside the UC Davis Dive Team and work with the California State Parks Dive Team on a marine archaeology project. I’ll miss all of the little charms of Bodega Bay and my adventures around this area, but I’m stoked to start the next leg of my journey. What better place than a picturesque lake to spend a month honing my scientific diving skills! 

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Chambers, Compressors, and Everything in Between

My time at Divers Alert Network has been split between the medical department and the safety services department. On the medical side, we’re working on a research project regarding inner ear decompression sickness in recreational divers. On the safety services side, I’m focused on updating the training materials used by recompression facilities worldwide to better help chambers train their staff. Much of the old material will remain in the updated edition, but I hope to add curriculum from a variety of other sources in the hyperbaric industry, creating a more comprehensive guide than currently available at DAN or other teaching agencies. 

Part of this process involves tedious internet searches on the different types of valves, hinges, and piping materials, but a great deal of the research involves hands-on interaction with the various parts of a recompression facility. To accomplish this, DAN organized my visits to the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medical in Durham, NC, and Bauer Compressors Inc. in Norfolk, VA. 

First, going to Duke University’s recompression facility was mind-boggling! We took a tour of the entire facility, including the main chamber floor, control panel, medical rooms, and compressor floor. I have seen other chambers around the country, but nothing compares to Duke in terms of the size, complexity, and expertise available. There are several chambers; each has a specific purpose, maximum operating depth, and possesses unique aspects of engineering. My personal favorite was the golf chamber, which is quite small but can be pressurized to extreme depths far beyond the larger chambers. Studies in this chamber have focused on high-pressure nervous syndrome (HPNS), an issue rarely reported at depths less than 150 meters, so the environment inside this chamber is extraordinarily hostile, to say the least. 

Duke’s “Golf” chamber, where study participants once spent 45 continuous days to evaluate the symptoms of high-pressure nervous syndrome.

Duke’s main control panel, where chamber technicians and medical staff operate the chambers.

One of Duke’s many chambers. I found this one noteworthy because of its easily visible inlet and outlet piping systems, along with its fire suppression valves.

Our second stop was at the Bauer Compressor factory in Virginia. I had heard of Bauer because of their long history in the SCUBA/recompression industry, but I was shocked at the size of the factory. They had six large buildings, each containing close to 100 employees (and this was just at their US location). We were able to see the various stages of building a compressor, the detail-oriented engineering, and all the safety features that have made Bauer successful over the last 75 years. One of the highlights was their new filling station, which can sustain an explosion from a scuba cylinder at over 3000 psi without causing major damage to the dive shop or fill station attendant. I’m not trying to promote any of their compressors over another brand, but I can say that after visiting their facility I was humbled by how much I still have to learn about the engineering side of hyperbaric medicine.

One of the buildings within the Bauer campus

An example of one of the compressors that could be used at a SCUBA shop for filling tanks.

Between the two tours, we were able to see both sides of a recompression facility. While the updates to DAN’s training manual are not specific to certain types of chambers or compressors, having a better understanding of them allowed me to make more specific changes to the protocols. Right now, my focus has been solely on the chamber operator manual, but I’m hoping to also work on the chamber attendant manual and the chamber toolbox in the future. 

Once the edits are completed, the plan is to divide the manual into two editions; a longer form will remain in print while a shorter version will be uploaded to DAN’s eLearning site. Looking beyond the scope of my internship, DAN intends to translate the manual into several languages so recompression facilities around the world are able to adequately train new staff. Overall on my end, however, the project has been a great way to learn more about the engineering aspects of recompression facilities, and the importance of safety protocols to prevent accidents in hyperbaric environments. 

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Taking a Bite Out of Lionfish

As a vegetarian, I never thought I would find myself spearing fish—and enjoying it. But here I was, with a lionfish at the end of my pole spear, the thrill of my first catch still there as I transferred it to a waiting ZooKeeper (lionfish containment device).

Lionfish are invasive to the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA) region, and not only have they become established; they’re thriving. Originally from the Indo-Pacific, lionfish can now be found in huge numbers all the way up the East Coast of the United States and down to Brazil, in depths from 10 to 1,000 feet. Wherever they are, they’re terrorizing the native ecosystems with their voracious appetite. Lionfish will eat almost any prey species, and anything that will fit in their mouths and stomach (and even sometimes if it can’t). Many times, lionfish are found with fish popping out of their mouths because their prey was too big, or with a burst stomach.

With no native predator here in the TWA, humans have stepped up to control lionfish populations. This is where one of REEF’s main programs, the Invasive Species Program, which focuses on lionfish, comes in. To help fight the invasion, REEF educates the public, hosts lionfish derbies, and is conducting research on deep-water lionfish traps—all of which I’ve been able to get involved with this summer.

Not only have I aided in education through our Ocean Explorers Education Program I talked about in my last blog post, but also through informal tabling at local events and lionfish jewelry workshops. Despite how destructive they are, it’s undeniable that lionfish are beautiful—which makes their fins perfect for making jewelry. Not only does making lionfish jewelry increase lionfish economic value, but it also raises awareness. I’ve worn my lionfish necklace all summer, and it has started so many great conversations about lionfish, and created opportunities to spread more information.

Lionfish necklace and ring, made during a lionfish jewelry workshop

Lionfish jewelry workshop at Amoray Cay Resort

In addition to everyday conversations I’ve had with others, tabling is a great way to spread information beyond people we normally reach during our structured programs. I’ve tabled at an art walk outside the local brewery, and outside a major dive shop during lobster mini-season, creating a major range of people. Here, we’re able to clear up common misconceptions—for example, we explain that lionfish are actually venomous, not poisonous, so they’re safe to eat—or further detail lionfish spearing regulations to those going out lobstering in case they see one.

Through working at REEF, I’ve developed a stronger passion for education after I saw firsthand how if given the knowledge, people want to be involved and help with ocean conservation concerns. Most of the time, they just don’t know how. I wanted to reach a wider audience, which is why I created a social media series this summer on REEF’s Invasive Species Facebook Page. I created an infographic for each Sunday in the month of July, with each week focusing on a different way that people can get involved with lionfish. These included how to catch lionfish, lionfish jewelry and cooking, new developments in lionfish research, and advertising REEF’s upcoming derby. I had a lot of fun with this project, in creating the graphics, and learning to condense and clarify dense, important information. It was also cool to see after they were posted how people interacted and shared the posts.

Infographic on Eating Lionfish from my July Invasive Species Social Media series

In addition to education, there’s also the derbies—single-day events where teams compete to remove as many lionfish as possible. Although I unfortunately won’t be here for either of REEF’s two biggest derbies, in April and September, I was lucky enough to be here during for a smaller derby, held in place of the normal April derby where many teams had been unable to compete due to bad weather. Here, I was able to get a small taste of what it was like. After teams came and dropped off their catch, I helped measure them, and fillet them. Derbies, along with regular removals, are one of the most effective methods of controlling lionfish, so it was really cool to be part of that.

Measuring lionfish: At a derby, prizes are given to those who remove the smallest and largest lionfish

Learning how to fillet a lionfish, to eat later

REEF’s derbies and workshops on how to successfully and carefully remove lionfish have been a huge success, and in partnership with the community, have done wonders in controlling their populations. In the Florida Keys, finding a lionfish on the shallow reefs is a lot less likely, and I only saw a handful all summer. This is not the case in other areas of the Caribbean, where lionfish still run rampant on shallow reefs due to stricter spearing regulations.

But, while we’ve done a great job spearing and netting lionfish in the shallow regions, lionfish are still thriving in deeper waters where SCUBA can’t reach. REEF is currently working on developing a deep-water lionfish trap, known as the Gittings trap. The trap consists of a large metal rebar frame, with netting and a fish aggregating device (FAD) in the middle that attracts the lionfish. REEF is currently in the testing phase of these traps. Our goal is to eventually send them out with local fishermen to increase removal efficiency and provide opportunity for economic gain from the lionfish caught by allowing the fishermen to sell them with their other catch.

This research is what led me to my first spearing experience. That day, I had gone out with a few staff members on a trap retrieval mission. By 7 a.m., we were out on the boat. I’d been prepped for the worst conditions—4–6 foot waves, bad vis—but everything seemed to work out in our favor. The waves weren’t too bad, visibility was decent, and we found the trap quickly. With our main goal complete, we then had plenty of time to spear some lionfish.

Myself and members of REEF’s Conservation Science team with the removed Gittings trap

This was one of one of my first deep dives of the summer, and at 90 feet, there were many more lionfish than I was used to. However, we made quick work of spearing as many as possible, and in two short dives, we were able to remove 28. Although it took me a second to get the hang of the pole spear, I was proud to leave the dive with my first, and second, lionfish speared.

Twenty-eight lionfish speared, which were brought back to the dock to be measured and filleted

Although I’d learned a lot about these traps at work already, and even helped build them, seeing one deployed, how it worked under water, and how it would be removed was a really cool experience. Seeing all the lionfish on the deeper reef also made me realize how important these traps were, and the process of continuing to develop technology to fight the ever-evolving lionfish problem.

Seeing all the different parts of the Invasive Species Program and how they take multiple angles to tackle one main issue has been an interesting experience and has given me a lot to think about as far as ocean conservation. It was really inspiring to see how successful the program is, and to be able to participate in it and contribute to the cause myself. At the end, the major successes of the program are thanks to community and government support, and continued success will rely on it as well, from getting fishers involved, to local restaurants selling lionfish, to everyday people supporting the cause. I’m most thankful to have contributed to raising awareness, to help ensure this community support continues. I’m also hoping to make it down to the Keys to experience a big derby for myself one year!

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Summer in Maine

Maine is known as “Vacationland” and our coastline, mountains, and forests draw millions of tourists every summer. Mainer’s have come to dread the stream of traffic that begins to arrive in late May and departs soon after Labor Day. I’ve grown up with the same mindset dreading the endless traffic as I also try to enjoy my home state. However, this summer my perspective changed as I lived with more than 20 interns at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, many of whom do not have the joy of spending their summers in Maine. I was excited to share the beautiful state of Maine as other Bigelow interns also got to experience many Maine “firsts” of their own. I found myself many times this summer feeling like a tourist myself as I explored the coast with my peers or as I travelled to new places in Maine.

Summer 2022 interns staying at the Bigelow Residences, visiting on the famous trolls at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (CMBG) hosted by the CMBG interns!

This summer I have seen many incredible sights that my state has to offer for the first time. I saw my first moose and puffin! Early morning drives up north are notorious for moose. I saw the puffins  on a dive say in between fish surveys, when we were in transect from Metinic to Allen Island! Most recently, I saw my first Mola Mola (five in one day!) and swam with it too! They are the heaviest bony fish and bask in the warm surface waters in the Gulf of Maine (GoM) during the summer. I also saw my first Luna moth and first Boothbay sunrise with some interns!

Moose sighting in Baxter State Park!

A subpar photo of the Atlantic Puffin, sadly these seabirds are listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.

An amazing experience being able to swim with this gigantic fish!

The curious gaze of the Mola Mola

This Luna moth is male (as seen by his fluffy antennae), and they are one of the largest moth species in North America, only living for a few weeks post-metamorphosis.

A group of determined interns to watch the sunrise at least once during the summer. It was worth it to wake up at 4:30, especially when a favorite local bakery opens at 7 am.

I traveled farther north, east, and “up” in the state of Maine than I had ever done before. The most east being a dive site on the coast of Ram Island, off Machiasport. Shout out to the Downeast Institute for allowing Rasher Lab to stay at their dormitory while we were surveying our northern rocky reef sites. While this east in Maine, I saw and dove in my first true GoM kelp forest! I have also completed 100 dives in my drysuit since May of 2021 🙂 While I was the most north, I have been in Maine, I hiked Katahdin and therefore was also at the highest elevation in the state.

Laminaria digitata at Crumple Island

Kelp forest also at Crumple Island

My brother, Parker, and I, 1/4 of the way through the hike!

Knife Edge Trail Mount Katahdin

Halfway point at the peak of Katahdin!

Descent from the peak! The loop (Helon Taylor to Knife Edge to Saddle to Chimney Pond) we hiked was about 10 miles and we completed it in 9.5 hours!

I had the opportunity to participate in Bigelow Laboratories annual summer open house! I also helped set up for the event by decorating the whiteboard as a backdrop for a photobooth during open house with other Bigelow interns. I helped some staff make paper microscopes – Foldscope’s – for another open house activity. At the event, I volunteered at the “Discovering Density” station where I demonstrated and taught visitors the public how density works when freshwater and saltwater meet.

Drawings depicting interns research and critters found in Maine!

Attempting to look through the one of three Foldscopes I made!

Discussing density in terms of oil and water with a fellow intern

I also had the opportunity to meet up and eat lunch with Heather Albright of AAUS and Chris Rigaud (DSO of University of Maine), sadly we did not get a picture. Additionally, a couple local interns also from Maine Maritime met up with Professor Whitney (Summer researcher at Bigelow), Aubrey Mitchell (MMA student and Bigelow Intern), and me for some ice cream in downtown Boothbay Harbor.

Self-timer selfie post-ice cream!

One of the most exciting events I attended this summer was the first Rasher Lab Olympics. Dara, Shane, and Aubrey (graduate student in the lab) put together a nine-part series of team challenges influenced by lab activities that both the lobster and eDNA lab complete daily. I was “randomly” chosen to be on Dr. Rasher’s team where he, Dara, Shane, Caroline, Riley, and I competed against the rest of the lab and ended up victorious at the last event! Luckily, my unknown secret talent of folding origami boats came in handy as Doug sailed our ship with his lung capacity to victory!

“Lobster larvae” bobbing activity based on the Lobster Lab’s water changes

2022 Rasher Lab Olympic winners! Go Team Doug!

I cannot believe I have reached the end of my internship. It has been amazing to experience a summer full of research, diving, and exploring in Maine! I would like to thank AAUS and OWUSS for this incredible summer adventure as well as my host Doug Rasher and his lab (Dara, Shane, Rene, and Stuart) for their help and eagerness to teach me about Gulf of Maine kelp forests. I look forward to presenting my summer experience as the 2022 AAUS Mitchell Scientific Diving Research Intern at the 2023 annual meeting.

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Bricks and Bones: Dry Tortugas National Park

As we lift off the airstrip at Key West International Airport, the pilot chuckles to himself. He asks me, “Is this your first time?”. I respond with bulging, excited eyes, “How could you tell?”, my nose barely lifting from its position pressed against the passenger side window of the empty 10-seater plane. A low-altitude 45-minute flight takes us 70 miles west of the southernmost point of the continental US, displaying aerial views of sea turtles, dolphins, shipwrecks, glistening “quicksand” (rolling, underwater dunes, continually shifting under the strong tidal current), and the Marquesas Islands. Although the seaplane is not the only way to get to this park, it undoubtedly provides the greatest “wow” factor for first-time visitors. Upon arrival, we circle the park’s perimeter, my eyes locked on Fort Jefferson – the cultural focal piece of this park and the largest brick building in the western hemisphere. 

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key, as seen from the seaplane flying into Dry Tortugas National Park

I’ve arrived at the second park of my internship, Dry Tortugas National Park (est. 1935). Made up of seven small islands, it is one of the most inaccessible National Parks in the US. Due to its remote location, it can only be accessed by seaplane or ferry (both modes of transport are used by the park’s 120 daily visitors who enjoy a few short hours of swimming, sunbathing, birding, and picnicking before returning to Key West).

Fort Jefferson greets me as I step off the beached seaplane. With no land in sight for tens of miles, I ask myself, “why here?”. The fort was built to protect one of the most strategic deep water anchorages in North America, control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico, and protect the Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade. I am eager to learn more about this massive masonry fort I will call home for the next two weeks, in addition to diving in the crystal clear blue-green water surrounding us.  

Beyond the fort’s walls stretches miles of uninterrupted water. The moat wall or counterscarp was damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017 – the park is working to implement repairs soon

Construction of the fort began in 1846 and continued for 30 years. Each of the over 16 million bricks used to build this fort was brought over by small wooden ships from the far reaches of the Eastern US. Given its remote nature, the construction of this fort was no small feat – in all of its striking architectural precision and grandeur. At its peak, over 1,700 men were stationed here, placing a significant demand for basic resources that cannot be found here naturally. Over time, the name of the island evolved (initially Las Tortugas – which translates to “the turtles’ and eventually changed to Dry Tortugas), calling into focus the importance of sea turtles in the diet of its inhabitants. It also warns passing sailors of the lack of freshwater and alternative food sources.

During a walking tour led by the tourist ferry company, I learned that the fort was used as a military prison during the Civil War. It also held four men convicted of co-conspiring in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, including Dr. Samuel Mudd (who was instrumental in the fight against Yellow Fever that plagued the fort and was eventually pardoned from his sentence for his efforts in assisting sick patients).

Over time, I come to know new corners of the fort as they revealed their hidden secrets to me, often with the help of informal tours given to me by new friends and colleagues. From the bakery (which fed more than 400 people three times a day, known for its bread made of sticks, stones, flour, and sand) to Dr. Mudd’s cell (containing hand-carved water collection depressions in the ground), a cannon ball “cooker” (used to prepare hot cannon balls to fire at wooden ships), gun powder storage (signed with the names of ship captains who have visited the fort over the last hundred years), and remnants of Cuban chugs (makeshift boats used by immigrants who landed at the park over recent years), there is always more to uncover. With this growing cultural knowledge comes an increased awareness and appreciation for the historical significance of this fort from which we are conducting fieldwork. Each time I re-enter through the sally port (the one and only entrance to the fort’s interior) after a long, hot, salty, beautiful day underwater, I feel inspired and grateful for the opportunities I have been given to explore new places, perspectives, knowledge, and skills during this internship.

Overlooking Bush Key, which serves as nesting habitat for threatened bird species such as the Roseate Tern. Long Key (background) is the only documented nesting site for Magnificent Frigate birds in the continental US

Me with the obligatory picture at the park’s welcome sign.

As an avid backcountry camper, hiker, and aspiring explorer of all things tropical and dream-like, you can imagine my excitement upon learning that park Fisheries Biologist Clayton Pollock has organized for me to be whisked away to neighboring Loggerhead Key for my first two nights. An even more remote key within the park, it is covered in stunning vegetation and sublime white sand beaches, which frame a 150-ft brick lighthouse constructed in 1856. Brett Koch (Law Enforcement Park Ranger) drops me off at the dock with a bag of food and a jug of water, where I am met by University of Miami MPS intern Maddie Johnson. We have now effectively doubled the population of this island (n=2!) since interns typically conduct fieldwork independently on this key (although radio communication and emergency procedures ensure assistance is always a call away). An afternoon snorkel, sunset beach nap, a good book, and a frozen pizza are all I need to acclimatize to my new surroundings (a routine that would quickly become my go-to each evening) and prepare for the busy days of fieldwork ahead.

View of Loggerhead Key upon returning from an afternoon snorkel at one of the park’s finest shallow reefs

Named aptly for the abundance of sea turtles on the island, we quickly get to work the following day conducting sea turtle monitoring surveys. This work contributes to a long-term database on turtle nesting activities and hatch success that Park Service biologists have maintained since 1980. At 7 am daily, interns patrol the 2-mile long beach, skillfully interpreting turtle tracks to identify species, the direction of travel, and nesting activity. Nests are marked with carefully positioned stakes and GPS points and then monitored for the next 50+ days (watching for signs of hatchling emergence – indicated by a soft depression in the sand above the nest) to inform excavation timing. Nests are excavated after the incubation period to determine clutch size, hatching success, and any inundation, predation, or damage to eggs. In addition to contributing to the long-term monitoring program, Maddie will use this data, in combination with shoreline profiling, as part of her Master’s project, which aims to model and predict the effects of sea level rise on turtle nesting habitats under climate change scenarios. 

University of Miami MPS intern Maddie Johnson excavates a loggerhead turtle nest. Egg cases and nest contents are removed, counted, and inspected for indications of hatch success and clutch size. Work conducted under FCW Marine Turtle Permit MTP#22-187.

Notice on Loggerhead Key marking nesting sites, reminding visitors to be mindful of disturbing nesting grounds and regulations enforced by the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission

Patrolling the beach may sound like a relatively straightforward task, but in addition to the grueling conditions of a hot southern Florida summer day on a remote island with no running water, this island sees a tremendous amount of sea turtle activity (meaning it can take up to 7 hours to survey 2 miles of shoreline). To ensure accurate and meaningful data, interns must carefully document and decipher old tracks amidst the tens of new tracks created each night. Together, Maddie and I set a new record for the number of turtle activities recorded in one survey. We counted over 50 instances of false crawls (crawls where the turtle comes ashore but does not lay eggs in a nest), nesting, and abandoned egg chambers. I learned that although we counted 50 individual tracks, it doesn’t necessarily correlate to 50 individual turtles (considering that green sea turtles are very particular with nesting conditions and may come ashore several times in one night, over several days, before nesting). Nevertheless, these surveys indicate that Loggerhead Key is a crucial sea turtle nesting habitat that sustains a large population. 

A “turtle highway” on Loggerhead Key. Following and interpreting these tracks becomes complicated as individuals overlap and tracks build up on the beach over time

An incoming and outgoing track made by an adult female green sea turtle on Loggerhead Key

Tracks made by sea turtle hatchlings upon emergence from the nest, in the direction of the ocean on Loggerhead Key

By the end of the day, it wasn’t only the sun’s heat that had us wishing for a short, heavy rainfall, but the desire for nature to effectively provide us a “clean slate” for interpreting tracks by washing away previously surveyed tracks amidst the overlapping maze. I am not surprised to learn that many of the current NPS staff began as sea turtle interns. Given the challenging nature of the work, it surely speaks to the work ethic, organization, and diligence of researchers in this role, making them an excellent addition to many NPS field teams going forwards.  

Next up, the Natural Resources team arrives, and I meet Coral Biologist Rachel Johns and Coral biological science Technicians Karli Hollister and Evan Hovey. Together with Fisheries Biologist Clayton Pollock, we will spend a week sampling corals for a collaborator, Prof. Erik Sotka, from the College of Charleston. This large-scale project aims to assess coral genotypes for multiple species in the Southeast Region (including Dry Tortugas National Park, Buck Island Reef National Monument, Virgin Islands National Park, Salt River Historical Bay and Ecological Preserve, and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument) and develop SNP chips/protocols for rapidly assessing and comparing genotypes for existing and novel corals, with applications for coral restoration. Lucky for me, this project will take us to some of the most stunning dive sites in the park, as we aim to sample several reefs per day. 

A thicket of Acropora cervicornis (staghorn) corals and study site for the ongoing coral genotyping project. Photo: Karli Hollister

Photo: Karli Hollister

At first, collecting coral samples is a bit nerve-wracking (aiming to do as little harm as possible to the colony by carefully chipping off a 1cm piece). The work also involves juggling bags of tools, samples, a dive slate, scale bar, GPS tethered to a surface buoy, and camera underwater, often in shallow water with swell. However, by continually optimizing my gear setup, streamlining the sampling process, and becoming more comfortable with coral ID, I could effectively contribute to the team and start chipping away at the weeks’ worth of sampling they have ahead them.

Each coral sampled is tagged and photographed for future research

Not without its hiccups, working in such a remote location presents challenges regarding safety considerations, everyday operations, and equipment supply. Something as simple as a lack of plastic bags or generic sampling tags can limit the speed at which a project progresses until the next team arrives to supplement needed equipment. Nevertheless, the long days in the field, hours spent preparing and troubleshooting protocols, and post-sample processing flew by with such a lively team – cracking jokes and blasting tunes during surface intervals and at the tail end of long days. 

As Clay, Rachel, Evan, and Karli depart the park and I await the arrival of a new field team, I use the transition as an opportunity to join visiting research ecologist and long-time US Geological Survey collaborator Dr. Kristen Hart on her team’s extensive turtle monitoring program. She is joined by several coworkers and collaborators, including Andrew, Haley, John, Bree, Amanda, and Brian from Cape Lookout National Seashore, USGS, Nova Southeastern University, and the University of Georgia. Together, we spend a night tracking nesting sea turtles on the nearby East Key by patrolling the beach every 30 minutes between naps under the stars. Nesting sea turtles are outfitted with a satellite tag to track their movements, flipper tags and Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT) for identification, and scute and blood samples for genetic and isotopic analysis. Dr. Hart holds the only permit to study sea turtles on this key (and she has been coming here for 15 years!). This information is used to gather baseline population data, delineate areas that may serve as inter-nesting, migratory, and foraging hotspots, and infer the trophic position of sea turtles within peninsular Southeastern Florida. 

The following day is spent boating in slow circles around the shallow Garden Key Harbor while Dr. Hart and USGS Research Assistant Haley Turner stand at the bow with large dip nets at the ready. The goal for the day? To observe and catch juvenile green sea turtles for basic sampling and to understand the space use, relative habitat selection, and ecology of immature individuals. Many turtles we encountered were recaptures or resightings of individuals tagged in the previous years, speaking to the comprehensiveness of Dr. Hart’s work in the region. I settled into data collection while Kristen, Haley, and John did the challenging job of carefully catching these speedy youngsters. Having the opportunity to get up close with these resilient juveniles, I not only got to admire their brilliant shells and charismatic features, but also filled in many of my knowledge gaps regarding the life history, habitat usage, and behavior of this endangered species. 

USGS researchers Dr. Kristen Hart and Haley Turner watching for juvenile green sea turtles in the shallows of Garden Key Harbor

Releasing juvenile green sea turtles after sampling. Individuals are marked with temporary paint for identification within a given field season. Work conducted under NOAA permits

Once the next rotation of NRM coral team members arrives at the park, including Coral biological science Technicians Amelia Lynch and Melissa Heres, Park Dive Safety Officer Jordan Holder, and National Dive Safety Officer Steve Sellers, we prep to embark on a critical mission for the week ahead. Underwater, Dry Tortugas is facing its own epidemic – a lethal disease that turns fields of previously vibrant, healthy corals upside down, transforming them into dwindling skeletons of their former selves stripped of live tissue – a sea of bones. The culprit? Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD). As the disease’s epicenter, SCTLD first appeared in Florida in 2014, spreading quickly and causing high mortality. However, it wasn’t until recently, in May of 2021, that SCTLD was reported in Dry Tortugas National Park. 

Armed with the best currently available science and practical knowledge on disease treatment and intervention, we spend the week delivering doses of antibiotics, in the form of a thick topical paste, to affected colonies. This is my first time coming face to face with a large-scale outbreak of SCTLD. I take a few moments underwater to acknowledge the mass mortality surrounding me. Applying the treatment is an intimate and quiet process. I gently press the paste into each nook and cranny of active lesions – outlining and essentially quarantining the region between bare bones (coral skeleton), sick tissue, and healthy. Treating an entire site within a day is challenging, even with a dive team of four. We must often opt to prioritize larger, more productive colonies for treatment, given our limited bottom time on open circuit diving equipment, leaving some colonies untreated. As a glimmer of hope, while scanning treatment sites, it is possible to see positive instances where the treatment has effectively controlled the spread of the disease within a colony. I send my well-wishes to the coral I have treated, which will likely need follow-up appointments, conducted by the hard-working team of NRM divers at the park for the foreseeable future.

Scientists are only beginning to uncover the detailed pathology of the disease and other phenomena impacting coral reefs today, including coral bleaching and restoration/heat-stress mitigation techniques. A standout in these efforts within Dry Tortugas National Park is research led by Dr. Ilsa Kuffner, USGS Research Marine Biologist, regarding the re-establishment of stepping-stone (i.e., crucial, reproductive, connected, restorative) populations to aid in the recovery of threatened, Acropora palmata (elkhorn) coral. This research, partially inspired by the recent discovery of new elkhorn patches within the park (beyond the previously documented single remaining site), uses an assisted migration experiment to assess coral survival, calcification, growth, and condition. Five different genetic strains of this species were planted across five sites (spanning 350 km) in Florida. Curiously, only in Dry Tortugas did all of the relocated corals survive, and not only that – but these individuals calcified approximately 85% faster than the few surviving corals transplanted to the upper Keys sites. With this information, Dry Tortugas may be a hope spot for re-establishing endangered elkhorn coral. Efforts are ongoing to restore a sexually reproductive, connected population, hoping to bring this species back from functional extinction, thereby promoting its regional recovery in the face of global climate change. 

Newly discovered Acropora palmata within Dry Tortugas National Park, a threatened species throughout its range. Photo: Karli Hollister

As the long days turned into short weeks, my time at Dry Tortugas has come to a close all too quickly. Each day, I smile as a rush of excited visitors pours off the ferry, often having booked a ticket to the park weeks or months in advance. Each night, quiet falls on the fort, as visitors depart and I find a new corner of the fort to tuck into as dusk turns into starry night. Life on Dry Tortugas in the present day is serene, comfortable, and full of beauty – undoubtedly a stark contrast to the challenging conditions of the previous century. 

I want to thank the DRTO NRM team and Dr. Kristen Hart for welcoming me into your field teams, providing new learning opportunities, helpful advice, and plenty of time underwater (and thanks to Karli Hollister for sharing photos and Amelia Lynch for the fantastic tour of the fort!). Thank you to Clayton Polluck for sharing your knowledge and experience with me (and providing an extended home away from home in Key West when life throws some curve balls…I am deeply grateful for your hospitality and support). Thank you to Curtis Hall for inviting me to speak at the Reef Relief summer camp (it was a pleasure to teach and learn from the excellent group of students this program hosts at the park each summer). Thank you to Cindy Hull for your help in Key West preparing for my visit to the park. Each of your time and generosity contributed significantly to my smooth integration and outstanding experience at Dry Tortugas. Finally, thank you to the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center and Dave Conlin for your hard work behind the scenes, and generous above-and-beyond support, making sure interns each year have nothing short of exceptional, unique, and highly valuable opportunities to experience and work in some of the finest parks the US has to offer.

As the summer progresses, I often reminisce on daydreams I had earlier this year, as my Master’s program was coming to an end – of either doing research, traveling, or diving upon graduation. Now, this internship has provided an unmatched opportunity to combine all three of these dreams, all wrapped into one, made possible by the support of NPS, OWUSS, and their collaborators. Standing in front of Fort Jefferson, a structure made not only of bricks but of bones of ancient corals; I feel proud to be a part of the NPS dive team and Park Service community, working to preserve fascinating and unique cultural resources while protecting and restoring the natural wonders it surrounds.

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PCR, Gels, and Qubit®, oh my!

As mentioned in my prior blog, the month of June was busy with diving as we completed our spring survey at 10 dive sites. A break from intensive field sampling presented the opportunity to do molecular work in the lab! I was excited to dive into preparing environmental DNA (eDNA) samples for sequencing after spending several weeks collecting and filtering water destined for eDNA analysis. To reiterate, the Rasher Lab’s project in the larger Maine-eDNA program is focused on studying “Species on the Move” within kelp forest ecosystems across the Gulf of Maine (GoM). This study pairs traditional ecological surveys with collections of eDNA water samples, during our dive surveys. Combining the two approaches will help us gain a better understanding of our rapidly changing kelp forests in the GoM, because eDNA may reveal the presence of newly arriving species in the ecosystem that are currently too rare to detect through visual counts.

In our study, eDNA sampling consists of collecting six liters underwater at the dive site as well as three liters of water 1 meter below the surface. We take the water back to the lab and filter it immediately; the filter is then frozen for DNA extraction. This sample has a mixture of DNA from many organisms found in the environment, from bacteria and algae to the rarer fragments of DNA from fish, marine mammals, or sharks that may have swum through the area. Therefore, these samples contain a lot of information about the ecosystem – but finding the information you want requires a lot of lab work to ask the questions. I am going to discuss three different kinds of molecular work that we use to answer eDNA-related questions.

Me collecting water along the transect for eDNA analysis

Using eDNA to measure fish diversity

One goal of the study is to ask what fish species live in the rocky reef ecosystems along the coast of Maine. For example, how do fish communities in the GoM differ between those found in colder, northerly kelp forests vs. those found on warmer, southerly reefs? We start to answer this question by completing visual fish surveys, where we swim along transects and record the fish we have encountered. But if you have ever experienced a fish survey, you may realize it could take hundreds of hours underwater to see all the fish species. Now picture trying to do these fish surveys in a cold-water ecosystem with poor visibility, where few people have completed fish censuses before, and you’ll quickly realize that the fish surveys do not do justice to the fish diversity found in that ecosystem. So, we can ask our eDNA samples what fish are present by sequencing the fragments of fish DNA found in the water sample. To prepare the eDNA samples for sequencing, we use a process that includes PCR, PCR clean-up, gel electrophoresis, and Qubit®. The purpose of these steps is to amplify and isolate the fish DNA fragments from the eDNA sample prior to sending our samples to a company that conducts DNA metabarcoding, which will provide us with information of what species of fish are present in the environment.

Dara Yiu completing a juvenile fish swath survey at Metinic Island, midcoast Maine

An example of poor visibility: a school of Pollock at Metinic Island seen only four meters away

To effectively sequence the fish DNA, we need to choose a genetic “barcode”, which is a DNA marker where the associated gene sequence is unique for each species. A good barcode has two conserved regions that “sandwich” a variable section. The conserved regions are shared among all fishes, but not bivalves or crustaceans, and the variable region contains information to identify fish species. The sequence we target is called the “MiFish” fragment, and it fits the criteria extraordinarily well such that it has been used to assess fish diversity around the world.

We start preparing our sample for analysis by setting up a chemical reaction that easily finds the fish DNA fragments and makes thousands of copies. This process is called a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which is the molecular tool we use to amplify the fish fragments in our eDNA sample. PCR has three main steps: denaturing, annealing, and extension. But prior to starting those steps, we use a MiFish gene primer set to maximize the detection of fish DNA fragments. Essentially, this primer set detects the conserved region of the MiFish sequence in the eDNA sample and “latches on” to the respective section of fish DNA. In the end, it is easier to sequence and differentiate thousands of copies of the fish DNA, so amplification is an important step in measuring fish diversity from eDNA.

To set up this PCR reaction, first, I make a “Master Mix” which contains the following ingredients: primers that bind to the “conserved” sections of the barcode region, free nucleotides which are building blocks of DNA, and Taq polymerase – the enzyme that puts the blocks together and makes the new DNA strand. The amount of Master Mix created for each PCR is dependent on the number of samples that will be processed, and luckily a pre-programmed Excel sheet calculates the numbers! The Master Mix is then aliquoted into PCR tube strips and the eDNA sample is added too! All the PCR samples are then transferred to a thermocycler aka “Larry”.

The thermocycler is programmed with an optimized temperature cycle for the replication of our fish DNA. First, the samples are heated which causes the DNA strands to separate. Next, the samples are cooled in an annealing process which allows the primers to bind to the DNA strands. Lastly, Taq polymerase extends new DNA strands by adding the free nucleotides (building blocks) after the primer sites, making copies of the MiFish fragments. These three steps are repeated many times which results in amplification of the fish DNA. So, the small amount of fish DNA that was in the original sample ends up being a much larger amount after PCR.

“Larry” the thermocycler

Once our samples come out of the thermocycler, the PCR is complete, and we must run a gel electrophoresis. Electrophoresis uses electrical charges to separate DNA fragments of different lengths. Because DNA is negatively charged, the positive charge on the bottom of the rig pulls the DNA towards it, and over time the smaller DNA fragments travel faster and farther through the gel. This results in the band formation of DNA in the gel. The purpose of gel electrophoresis is to visually determine if the sample contains fish DNA. I combine a small portion of DNA with a loading dye. This is repeated for all the samples. The first and last wells of the gel are loaded with a DNA ladder which provides a reference for DNA fragment sizes. Once everything is loaded into the wells, I attach the lid and turn on the machine which sends electrical charges through the gel.

Loading a gel!

What a gel looks like as it is being loaded!

The bubbles in the gel rig form when the gel is running!

After the gel is run, the bands created during this process need to be dyed again and we use a DNA stain called SYBR gold. The gel is placed in a Tupperware container in the dark as SYBR is light-sensitive, for an hour to “soak in” the dye for UV visualization.

Bands from the gel!

As you can see, there are multiple bands present on the gel, but consistently the bottom bands represent our fish DNA. We want our final sequenced samples to be as “clean” as possible, so the remaining fish DNA post-PCR is given to Dara Yiu, a PhD student leading this part of the project. She completes a clean-up process which aims to remove excess fragments that may have also been amplified by the MiFish primers. This is because the MiFish primer can also attach to some bacteria that may share similar DNA segments to fish. We run one more gel, and then the samples are almost ready to be sent for sequencing!

Clean-up process!

Example of a finalized gel!

The last step before sending in the fish DNA for sequencing is to place them in a Qubit®. The Qubit® quantifies the amount (concentration [ng/uL]) of DNA in the whole sample based on a fluorescence emission. For example, the fluorescent dyes will emit a signal to the machine if it has bound to the target molecule, which in our case, is the DNA found in the sample. Because the Qubit® reads the DNA concentration of the whole sample, not just the fish DNA, the clean-up process is an important step.

Qubit® and samples

Close-up of Qubit® screen

Now the DNA samples are ready to be sequenced! We send them to a facility for DNA metabarcoding, which means the samples will be put into a sequencing machine that will read each DNA fragment. We will then match our sequences to a reference library (i.e., a database that contains the unique genetic signatures of each species that may be present in the GoM) to identify the fish species found at the rocky reefs where we collected our eDNA water samples.

Using eDNA to detect and quantify invasive species

After concluding fish molecular work with Dara, I learned two other variations of PCR: quantitative (qPCR) and droplet digital (ddPCR). These methods are typically used to identify a single species found in an eDNA sample and quantify the number of gene copes that are related to that species. Shane uses these methods to detect the presence of Dasysiphonia japonica (DJ), which is an invasive filamentous turf-forming red algae found in the southern Gulf of Maine, where kelp forests have largely collapsed in recent time.

When DJ is well established in an ecosystem, it is easy to see. It creates a fluffy red carpet on the bottom, where it may outcompete other native algae species, like kelp, for space. As the GoM gets warmer, DJ appears to be rapidly moving north up the coast. DJ can spread quickly because it can reproduce when it branches fragment or when its spores are transported in the water column to a new location. By subjecting the eDNA samples to qPCR/ddPCR we can measure the precise amount of DJ DNA in our eDNA samples, to verify its presence and infer how much DJ is present in the environment. Due to the sensitivity of these methods, we may be able to detect the presence of DJ on these reefs before we see it on our SCUBA surveys.

One example of kelp loss in a southern Maine rocky reef ecosystem and as a result DJ turfs form carpets

Another example of examples of DJ turf formation

qPCR is a similar PCR process that replicates a targeted sequence of DNA; however, it is special because when the target sequence is present, it gives off fluorescence as the reaction amplifies the DNA. By measuring the fluorescence and relating it back to standards of known gene copies we can calculate how many strands of DNA were in the original sample. qPCR assays need to be designed so only the target species is amplified thus giving off fluorescence. In our case, I had to confirm that the qPCR would only amplify DJ DNA and not accidentally amplify other common red algae species found at our GoM rocky reef sites. To test this, I first extracted the DNA from four red algae: Polysiphonia, Euthora, Palmaria, and an unknown red tube alga. Next, we ran a qPCR with those samples using the DJ assay. Luckily, none of these species amplified during qPCR, so we have a good molecular tool to measure DJ DNA.

Crushed up algae for DNA extraction!

Once we confirmed the specificity of the qPCR assay to only target DJ, we will be able to use it as a tool to determine how much is present in the water at different rocky reef sites.

After I learned how to use qPCR, I was presented with the opportunity to learn droplet digital PCR (ddPCR); which is like qPCR in that they both target single species, but ddPCR is newer and has a higher sensitivity – in other words, it can detect lower quantities – therefore greater capabilities of tracing rare species occurrences. Because of the high sensitivity, ddPCR is most used in the medical field, for example with cancer research. ddPCR gets its name “droplet” because there are 20,000 nano droplets in each tube, so rather one tube containing a single reaction, each tube contains 20,000 nano reactions. This is what contributes to its higher sensitivity. These droplets will fluoresce (positive) when the target species DNA is present or will not fluoresce (negative) when the target is absent. These droplets represent how many copies of the target are present in a sample. With our goal of detecting potentially rare invasive species and their range shifts across the coast of Maine, we decided to use ddPCR because of its higher sensitivity over qPCR.

To effectively use ddPCR, Shane Farrell (a PhD student leading this part of the project) and I have been running a series of tests to determine analytically validate the precise sensitivity of the DJ assay. First, we needed to optimize the temperature the reaction is run at; this meant exposing the same sample to a temperature gradient in a thermocycler. This test produced a series of separations between positive and negative droplets. The temperature that produced the most separation between positive and negative droplets, with the least amount of “noise”, is the optimal temperature to run the ddPCR for the future assays. However, if the temperature is too low, the assay would not be as specific, so we chose 59.5 C as opposed to 57 C. The additional 2.5 C adds to the specificity of the assay. We also completed two other tests to understand the false positivity rate of our assay and determined the lowest amount of DNA we can accurately quantify in a sample.

The dots on the upper portion of the graph represent positive droplets, whereas the line of dots on along the bottom are negative. We chose the temperature being pointed to, as there were the least number of dots in-between + and –

After completing these tests that help us understand the limitations of our ddPCR assay, we will run 110 eDNA samples with the ddPCR to find out how much DJ is present at our study sites distributed across the GoM. We already know that DJ is abundant in the southern waters, but it is important to document the spread up the coast to the cold northern waters, where kelp is currently still abundant. Afterall, the Rasher lab is focused on “Species on the Move”. We will also be using ddPCR to track two other species whose ranges are shifting: Membranipora membranacea (lacy bryozoan) and Centropristis striata (black sea bass). Developing a solid understanding of ddPCR as a molecular tool will be beneficial to recognize the range shifts of species as they react to warming in the GoM.

I am super thankful for the numerous opportunities I have had to conduct molecular work with Dara and Shane. It is truly a unique experience to be part of projects in the upcoming world of eDNA, especially on work being completed in my home state. As the end of my internship approaches, I am excited to be part of the summer sampling season at the 10 dive sites as well as finishing the remaining fish surveys!

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Sharing the Underwater World with the Ocean Explorers Education Program

“You’re the people who count fish.” Or, “You guys work with corals, right?” These are two of the most common responses we get at REEF when we ask people if they’ve heard of us before. And while the first is mostly right, the second, not so much. It’s understandable though, the confusion on what exactly is done at REEF — I myself wasn’t exactly sure when starting my internship this summer (although I would quickly learn).

REEF stands for Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and is a marine conservation non-profit based in the Florida Keys, but with a membership of over 75,000 worldwide. REEF’s mission is to protect biodiversity and ocean life worldwide by actively engaging and inspiring the public through citizen science, education, and partnerships with the scientific community. This is mostly done through four main projects. The Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP), the Invasive Species Program, the Grouper Moon Project, and the Ocean Explorers Education Programs.

I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in each of these programs this summer, but the one I’m most closely tied to is Ocean Explorers. This is our education program where we lead groups through immersive and hands-on activities centered around marine ecosystems. We work with all ages and experience levels, and tailor the program for each group’s needs.

As a Marine Conservation Intern, it’s my job to lead these events. My orientation at REEF was spent learning them inside and out in our on campus Interpretive Center (IC) with my fellow interns. There were four presentations total we had to learn: three about our other programs, and one about Florida Keys ecology. Hearing them for the first time, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t think I could ever learn them as flawlessly as our Education and Program Manager who was teaching them to us.

But when it came time to lead my first presentation of the summer, I felt confident and ready after all the practice I’d had. I was doing Fish ID, a presentation that goes through the most common fish you can see in the Florida Keys. It was for a group called Road Scholars, a tour group consisting of grandparents and their grandchildren. I found it fun to share my little tips and tricks for each fish, and see which ones they like the most (there’s many for the French Angelfish, including the yellow on its scales that looks like it has a french manicure, which are always hits).

Teaching Fish ID Presentation at John Pennekamp Coral REEF State Park (The trick to remember the Queen Angelfish is they have a crown on top of their head)

It was encouraging as the group became more engaged. These people were on vacation, and had never seen any of these fish, yet were excited and eager to learn. Afterwards, we did a mock survey with them of the fish we have on our walls, and it was awesome to see how much they remembered. Kids as young as 5 were identifying grunts, and reminding their grandparents of the names of the fish!

I’ve also done a few events with a program known as Road Less Traveled, made up of young teenagers. Fish ID with them was super fun, and they were all eager to guess the different families and full of questions about their behaviors and how often I see different fish. The best part though was I got to go out and snorkel with them after, so I could see for myself how much they remembered.

As soon as we got in the water, the kids were excitedly yelling amongst themselves about all the fish they were seeing — so many Sergeant majors and Yellow-tail snapper right at the surface! I’ve done Fish ID diving with a group as well, but snorkeling was a lot more engaging because the kids could ask me questions in real time, popping their head up to point out a specific fish or describe one they weren’t sure about. The boat debrief after was filled with more questions and what everyone’s favorite fish was, like parrotfish or the trumpetfish.

My awesome Road Less Traveled surveyors

My surveyors from a Great Annual Fish Count dive

Fish ID is one of my favorite things to do with groups, mostly because I know from personal experience how much more fulfilling snorkeling and diving is when you know the different fish by name, instead of just passively taking in the different darting colors. Even when someone can only tell me the name of one fish that they saw, they always do it with pride and excitement, and I can tell they’ll remember that fish for a long time.

Fish ID is the most common presentation we give to groups, but we also do a lot of Lionfish, as well. With the same program but a different group, we had one day where we did a quick Lionfish talk, and then a dissection and our Fish Investigator activity. In the activity, I had 5 different fish that had been found in the stomachs of Lionfish, and the group had to figure out what species they were. It’s definitely tricky, because the fish are usually juveniles and mostly stripped of their colors, but the kids were great in scouring the Fish ID books and picking out different features to match. They also loved the dissection, completely fascinated by the different parts and their venomous spines.

Lionfish Fish Investigator Activity with Road Less Traveled

There’s been many more events like these throughout the summer, and they’re always the highlight of my week. Many of these people are just here on vacation, and are coming in with little to no knowledge about the ocean. I feel honored to have this role of bridging the gap between them and the marine world. We all rely on the ocean everyday, in so many ways we don’t realize, and these education programs are an amazing way to make it more accessible to people. The more people know about the ocean, the more people are inclined to help protect it.

And as much as I have taught others this summer, I have learned so much as well, from the REEF Staff and even from those I’m supposed to be teaching. I’m excited to share more of what I learned and my experiences with our other programs in my next blog posts!

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Humans in a blue world: Biscayne National Park

National Parks serve not only to protect and sustain the health of the environment but educate and engage people in the enjoyment and benefits of nature. In short, one might say from an anthropocentric point of view; that the overarching mission could be the conservation of nature for the perpetual education of and enjoyment by humans. As the birthplace of National Parks, the U.S stands out for its efforts and resources dedicated to the protection and preservation of the extraordinarily diverse ecosystems contained within its borders. From the deserts of Joshua Tree to the Arctic tundra of Denali, I am awestruck by the seemingly limitless opportunities to explore new and unfamiliar environments. With over 297 million visitors per year (to 423 individual parks), it is undeniable the importance of these protected natural spaces. However, the way that people use National Parks and learn about natural resources must be thoughtfully regulated and presented to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy them for years to come. 

Just south of Miami, an unassuming park lies tucked away in the mangroves, with only 5% of its area appearing above water as land. Upon arrival, Biscayne National Park is made up of a visitors center with a parking lot about equal size. However, it only takes a few short minutes to realize, as you hear speedboat after speedboat passing by, that there is a tremendous number of activities to offer here; you just have to look beneath the surface.

Overlooking Biscayne National Park from the visitors center

Biscayne National Park was established in 1980 and is a hub for marine recreation. On a given day, the park’s waters (which make up 95% of the park) are a destination for boating, fishing, diving, birdwatching, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, and guided eco-adventures. On a clear day, you can see the Miami city skyline and surrounding industry – which seem only to stop right at the gates of the park’s entrance and contrast the mangrove-covered keys in the foreground. As I settle in, I can see that this park provides important access to south Florida’s stunning coastline for local visitors. It is home to some remarkable natural and cultural resources, for which the park is an educational platform. However, I was immediately curious about how human interaction and use of natural resources within the park are monitored and controlled to reduce human impact while promoting and sustaining the park’s use. Over the next two weeks, I will join Biscayne’s extensive marine monitoring and inventory program to understand how this is done.

Wasting no time, I joined Mosaics in Science Diversity intern James Puentes and Latino Heritage Internship Program intern Nate Lima for recreational creel fishing surveys at the neighboring public marina as part of the Fishery and Wildlife Inventory and Monitoring Program. The overarching goal of this project is to engage anglers in collecting catch data through informal interviews, which will assist the development of sustainable fisheries regulations. Over several hours, we interviewed more than 40 anglers and collected catch data (e.g., species, size, location of catch, hours fished) as boats returned after a day on the water. In addition to meeting fishing enthusiasts and sharing awareness of the newest fishery regulations established within the park in 2020, it is here that I saw my first ever manatee! Taken aback by their size and constant presence in the marina, I can see just how vulnerable they are to propeller strikes (as several boats return from sea every 5-10 minutes and a cue of new arrivals are immediately launched just moments later). Seeing scars on their backs is a stark reminder of the delicate respect that nature commands in this shared space. A reminder that we are guests in their marine home. As part of the park’s biological monitoring team, our presence in the marina that day served not only to collect valuable data but to remind boaters to take care and do their part to preserve and protect the sensitive habitat and wildlife within the park.

Recreational creel fishing surveys with Biscayne National Park summer interns James Puentes and Nate Lima

Manatees graze at Homestead marina while weekend boat traffic passes ahead – calling into focus the human-wildlife interactions within the area and importance of education to prevent detrimental impacts. Photo: Nate Lima

Next up, I had the unique opportunity to join an all-female team of divers from the Wounded American Veterans Experience SCUBA (WAVES) Project in collaboration with NPS, the National Park Foundation, and SoundOff films for marine debris removal. We were joined by an all-female crew from Horizons Divers, NPS SRC archeologist Annie Wright, University of Miami Dive Safety Officer Jessica Keller, and Women Divers Hall of Fame veteran mentor Caron Shake. After speaking with last year’s NPS SRC intern, Sarah Von Hoene, I was eagerly anticipating this project and excited for the rare opportunity to join an all-female team on the water. After introductions over a group dinner, I was once again struck by the fact that although we each have divergent backgrounds, this project has brought us together based on a set of convergent goals and commonalities with regard to love for the underwater world, desire to enact positive change and eagerness to participate in conservation missions by diving with a purpose.  

I set out on our first day, joining Biscayne National Park Biologists Vanessa McDonough and Shelby Moneysmith to meet the WAVES team at the dive site. As we exited the channel, into the bay, and beyond the keys, I’m caught off guard by the cheesy grin plastered across my face. My eyes fixate on my favorite color of blue amidst the vivid gradient in the water, a color I haven’t seen since my time as a Fisheries Resource Management intern with the University of Belize in 2019. Reflecting on my journey thus far, I remember not too long ago, as a recent HBSc graduate, when my ultimate goal was to somehow end up on a boat during working hours. I had no research experience, had barely seen the ocean for more than two weeks during my entire lifetime, and felt intimidated to break into such a seemingly oversaturated and competitive field. Now, I sit here dumbfounded, thinking: “Wow, I get to do this every day for the rest of the summer?” Let the fieldwork begin!

Over a week, the team collected 3,700 pounds of debris, including derelict lobster traps, fishing lines, hooks, and plastic waste. The mood on the boat was cheerful, full of inspired conversations about continued and future work to reduce marine debris and promote conservation. However, underwater, I felt heavy and somber. Particularly on the last day, when we moored up to an area frequently used by recreational anglers, I was overwhelmed and frustrated. Picking up fistfuls of monofilament while hoards of fishing boats float overhead, I could see the damage that years of debris build-up have caused as lines run through large barrel sponges and wrap tightly around branching corals. Lines left from recreational and commercial fishing (particularly the long, strong lines used to thread commercial lobster traps together), represent one of the biggest human impacts detrimental to marine conservation in the area. On a 45-minute dive, I covered no more than 20 square meters. The debris was that extensive. 

Piles of abandon trap ballast recovered from the depths of Biscayne National Park

Marine debris was sorted, weighed, and properly disposed of at the end of each field day

While I am proud of our efforts this week, I acknowledge that to find a long-term solution, the issue must be stopped at the source. Awareness is an essential first step in ridding the “out of sight, out of mind” principle that often applies to the marine environment, and each person that joins in the efforts has a positive snowball effect. With the privilege of working in and accessing the beauty of the underwater world comes the responsibility to start and continue the conversation on how we can protect this vital ecosystem.

Next, I had the opportunity to join the Habitat Restoration Program team, working with biological science technicians Gabrielle Cabral, Cate Gelston, and Laura Palma, and MariCorps NPS intern Sophia Troeh, for my first experience with coral outplanting, in support of the University of Miami’s Rescue a Reef restoration project. Together, we embarked on the ambitious goal to outplant > 1,500 Acropora cervicornis (staghorn) coral fragments. At the conclusion of the first day, I snorkeled over the site for an aerial view of our garden, struck by the somewhat unnatural appearance of the monoculture of coral fragments pinned to the reef by globules of cement. However, on the second day, we planted fragments amongst corals that had been outplanted the previous year. They were thriving and had quickly covered up the cement “scabs” on the reef, turning into beautiful, healthy corals. Although my role in this project was small (considering the tremendous efforts that go into collecting and raising these corals to be ready for outplanting), I got to reap the benefits of one of the most rewarding stages in the process – just as the many volunteers do through Rescue a Reefs extensive citizen science program. A rapidly expanding field, coral restoration may not be the solution to the climate crisis; however, it is a targeted mitigation tool we can use to preserve ecosystem function when the cost of doing nothing is increasingly severe.

Outplanting coral fragments at Biscayne National Park in collaboration with the University of Miami’s Rescue a Reef program. Photo: Gabrielle Cabral

Week two at Biscayne was dedicated to training above water – I would be completing the Marine Operator Certification Course under the supervision of Maritime archeologist Joshua Marano. Together, we went through boat orientation, operating systems/maintenance, navigation, communication, risk management, survival and rescue, fire suppression, marlinespike, trailering, boat handling, and anchoring. A jammed-packed and, at times, challenging course, these skills will be crucial for the internship going forward. I look forward to continually improving my boat handling skills with this “license to learn,” bringing forward necessary tools that will help me integrate into new field teams as I travel through parks this summer. 

Josh also took the time to introduce me to many of the park’s cultural resources, including artifacts from archaeological excavations that can be seen in the visitors center and stories from his experience at Biscayne over the years. Two wrecks, in particular, stand out for their significance within the park’s boundaries for reasons above and beyond pure historical value. First, the search for the Guerrero has drawn much attention to the park. It has also become a valuable educational, interpretive, and outreach tool, bringing volunteers and students from underrepresented communities to contribute to the uncovering and dissemination of the history of slave ships that have gone largely unwritten. Second, the HMS Fowey (wrecked in 1748 off the coast of Florida) represents an important landmark in the U.S shipwreck preservation case law. It was one of the first wrecks to gain attention federally and used as a case study in the establishment of protected archaeological sites, which were to be managed in the best interest of the public rather than privately salvaged and sold for profit.

Last up on the seemingly endless list of potential projects to join at Biscayne, I reunited with Biologists Vanessa and Shelby, and biological science technician Morgan Wagner, for a day of roving visual surveys (used to characterize and inventory fish biodiversity, abundance, and habitat type). As a fish identification enthusiast, I relished the opportunity to familiarize myself with the Florida Caribbean fish residents (and snap some photos) while getting a great overview of the diversity of habitats within the park during our six dives that day. 

Biscayne National Park biologist Vanessa McDonough surveying one of hundreds of sites they will do this year

After two short weeks, I can see that this park is managed by a hard-working and passionate team of employees, interns, and volunteers, who I had the great pleasure of working with. Thank you to Vanessa McDonough for facilitating, scheduling, and giving me the opportunity to learn from so many different people and projects during my stay. Thank you to my park roommates, James, Sophia, and Nate, for the friendly company, answering all of my questions, taking me for “emergency” food runs, and for welcoming me to the park on my first day with lionfish tacos and guac (!!) Thank you to Jessica Keller and Annie Wright for going the extra mile to include me in the WAVES project and socials (and showing me where to get the best key lime pie – which I proceeded to chip away at by the forkful after each field day). Thank you to WAVES and WDHOF team members Caron, Karen, Linsay, Char, Pat, and Maggie for the laughs, support, and conversations about our accomplishments and dreams – I hope to see you all again soon (fingers crossed for a DEMA reunion)! 

As humanity’s presence and impact continues to expand and reach new corners of the globe, the opportunity to work alongside like minded individuals in the exploration, preservation, and conservation of our blue planet is one that I cherish dearly. Thank you to everyone who made my first park an overwhelming success, and to SRC and OWUSS for supporting me in this journey.

WAVES team members celebrating their honorary induction into the WDHOF Associates membership, during a night full of laughter, tears, and celebration.

 

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New places and faces: the start of a grand adventure

It’s mid-March – a late weekday evening. I’ve returned home after a long day in the lab, refining the molecular assay I’ve been working on and troubleshooting for months as part of my Master’s thesis research. I take the evening to catch up with friends and family back home. It’s one of the only times of day I can reach them since they’re 8–10 hours behind my current time zone. Suddenly, my focus shifts as an email appears in my inbox. My jaw drops with a smile, and I immediately call a close friend on campus. She picks up, and I skip the greeting. All I can say is, “I just got a VERY exciting email.” I hadn’t even opened the message yet, but reading the subject line was informative enough. This was the email I’d be waiting for, hoping for, and dreaming of- I was going to be the 2022 National Park Service Research Intern for Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) and the National Park Service (NPS) Submerged Resources Center (SRC). 

Fast forward several months, through a whirlwind of late-night writing sessions, Master’s defense preparations, adjusting my graduation schedule, and soaking up my last bit of time in the Red Sea, I moved home after 2.5 years to squeeze in a short but sweet visit to my hometown, Thunder Bay, Ontario. A week after graduating from KAUST and returning to Canada, I find myself now in the hustle and bustle of New York City. It’s time for a new adventure to begin, and I’m here at the OWUSS 48th annual awards ceremony.

Looking over Lake Superior from my hometown Thunder Bay, Ontario. Even though the OWUSS NPS internship started in 2010, I will be their first Canadian intern.

Since 1974, OWUSS has provided support and opportunities for young people in underwater-related disciplines through scholarships and internships. These one-of-a-kind programs offer the chance to learn from a global network of leaders in the underwater world. Forty-eight years later, the annual awards weekend continues, this year marking the first time in three years that interns, scholars, alumni, board members, sponsors, volunteers, hosts, supervisors, and family come together to celebrate from all over the world. An event full of anticipation, energy, inspiring conversations, and new and familiar faces. It is spent sharing the latest updates from returning scholars and interns and welcoming the new class in preparation for their upcoming experiences. 

Most of the weekend’s events are hosted at The Explorers Club Headquarters. A truly one-of-a-kind venue – containing members and artifacts from numerous “famous firsts,” including the exploration and traverse of The North Pole, The South Pole, Mount Everest, Marianas Trench, and the Moon landing. I find these Headquarters quickly becoming “home base” for the week – even more so than our hotel. The atmosphere here serves to further heighten my excitement for the journey I will embark on over the next several months, during which I will travel to numerous national parks across the continental U.S. and Pacific Islands as a scientific diver. How could it not, when I find myself catching up on emails between presentations by Dr. Sylvia Earle, the United Nations Oceans Affairs team, and explorer Cristina Zenato while sitting next to the Apollo 11 Moon flag and Matthew Henson’s North Pole mittens.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, biologist, oceanographer, explorer, and President of Mission Blue, unveiling the latest updates in the efforts to establish a global network of marine protected areas, through local Hope Spots and raising awareness, access, and support for their conservation.

Conservationist, educator and explorer Cristina Zenato, delivering a powerful and passionate speech on how to inspire ocean stewardship and awareness.

The weekend proceeds with introductions and recognition of 2019, 2021, and 2022 interns and scholars through banquets, symposiums, and workshops. During the Saturday symposium, the audience has the great pleasure of viewing 2021 North American Scholar Jamil Wilson’s video presentation on Diving Through Adversity and 2021 European Scholar Arzucan N. Askin’s video presentation on the Depths of the Anthroposea.

Joining us in the audience is my immediate supervisor, Dave Conlin, Chief of the NPS Submerged Resources Center. He beams quietly while watching 2021 NPS Intern Sarah Von Hoene present her success and experiences last year. Although the spotlight is on the interns tonight, it must be acknowledged and celebrated that without Dave and the SRC team; their years of groundbreaking work in maritime archaeology; their strong working relationships turned deep friendships with NPS employees and collaborators across the country; and their dedicated action to lifting up young aspiring researchers and explorers, this internship would not be possible. For the past 12 years, in partnership with OWUSS, SRC has devoted tremendous time and resources to one individual per year to embark on this journey. Many of the NPS internship alumni are still active in OWUSS today and have launched successful careers in marine exploration, communication, photography, monitoring, and research. However, when praised for his support and achievements, Dave simply states, “I take no credit for my interns’ successes, just pride in their accomplishments.” This heartfelt sentiment is met with cheerful goosebumps. I feel them wash over me, along with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to be placed in such generous and capable hands. I feel honored that NPS SRC and OWUSS have chosen to invest in my personal and professional growth and am inspired see alumni and volunteers continuing to pay it forward by devoting the time, energy, and resources required to keep these long-term programs running.

OWUSS Class of 2022 interns alongside President and 1990 Rolex Scholar Steve Barnett (right) and Chairman Vincent Malkoski (left).

OWUSS NPS Submerged Resources Center interns (left to right: Michael Langhans – 2019, myself – 2022, Sarah Von Hoene – 2021, Shaun Wolfe – 2018) alongside NPS SRC Chief Dave Conlin (center)

For the first time, the OWUSS annual awards weekend now coincides with World Oceans Week, allowing scholars and interns to engage in panel discussions, workshops, presentations, mentoring, and networking events hosted by leading oceans organizations, researchers, and industry professionals. Overarching themes throughout the week include ocean governance, stewardship, and engagement; career coaching and personal branding; adaptive conservation and restoration; and blue economy innovation, to name a few. Thought-provoking points are raised about how the presence/absence of marine life dictates how/where we use/govern the ocean, the importance of quantifying recreational use of marine resources, understanding the political context of the science you are disseminating, the paradox of law without enforcement, and the future importance of interdisciplinary science. Regardless of the speaker, a common conversation emerges – that science is not finished until it is communicated. Reflecting on my experiences as a student and researcher at several universities, I note numerous examples of where academia often stops at 80%. During my time as an NPS intern, I hope to see firsthand how applied marine ecology, archeology, and photography are used to uncover, document, and directly communicate crucial information on natural and cultural resources to policymakers, stakeholders, and the general public. 

World Oceans Week at The Explorers Club Headquarters in NYC. OWUSS interns and scholars joined several workshops and panel discussions, including one on ocean governance, the blue economy, and oceans and climate change led by Valentina Germani and Francois Bailet of the United Nations.

OWUSS interns and scholars were invited to join the in-person United Nations World Oceans Day hosted by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. I joined the event with 2019 OWUSS European Scholar Kim Hildebrandt (center) and 2022 OWUSS European Scholar Hannah Douglas (right).

After a week in NYC, I leave feeling inspired yet disconnected. I can’t help but notice how these concrete jungle walls detach us from the natural world, hindering our connection with nature by negatively impacting our accountability for the state of the environment in our own backyard, muffling our understanding of where our food comes from, and amplifying our reliance on instant communication and gratification within our daily lives. Right on cue, after a fast-paced week, I head to Denver, Colorado – home of the Submerged Resources Center. 

A small team with global reach, one only needs to walk a few steps into the SRC office to gain a sense that this is a remarkable group of individuals working to drive their accomplishments. For more than forty years, the NPS SRC has been operational and recognized as a global leader in maritime archeology. Using an interdisciplinary approach and advanced scientific diving, they serve to locate, document, interpret, and preserve cultural resources and provide advice towards their protection. At their Colorado headquarters, I had the great pleasure of meeting and learning from Brett Seymour (Deputy Chief, A/V specialist), Susana Pershern (A/V specialist), and archeologists Matt Hanks, David Morgan, Anne Wright, and Andrew (AJ) Van Slyke. Millie Mannering, the 2022 OWUSS Australasian scholar, is joining us for a week of basic training and final preparations before setting off on her year-long adventure. As the week unfolds, I recognize each person’s unique journey that has led them to this team. I value the unique opportunity that this internship entails, in addition to my duties as a scientific diver, to gain insight into shaping my own individualized career path as I face the transition from graduate student to young professional. 

NPS Submerged Resources Center Headquarters in Denver, Colorado. The entrance is line with underwater photography, magazine covers, and mementos of exploration.

During our first day at SRC, archeologist AJ Van Slyke introduced us to some of his current work. Our overarching goal for the day was to update a predictive map to inform and identify survey locations in search of the Guererro (a Spanish slave ship wrecked in 1827 near the Florida Keys while engaged in battle with a British anti-slavery ship, the HMS Nimble). Based on a comprehensive report AJ wrote, which compiles literature and historical records detailing the events leading up to and following the wreckage, we play out each version of the accounts step by step – somewhat like a board game. The goal is to identify areas of geographical overlap in each ship’s story; however, interpreting historical information often presents significant barriers, as units of measurement can be described as an “arrows reach” away or reference landmarks that may no longer exist or have a documented location. Combined with the variability and inaccuracies of personal reporting and the combined efforts of excavating, analyzing, and interpreting findings, I can see that SRC has their work cut out for them. Nonetheless, the overwhelming successes of SRC in locating and documenting ships in remote, challenging, and unpredictable environments speaks to their hard work, talent, passion, and ingenuity and serves to bring knowledge to both the local and global community on history that has been lost beneath the surface of our oceans for decades. 

OWUSS 2022 Australasian scholar Millie Mannering and I translating field notes into hand drawn maps of historical shipwrecks.

NPS Submerged Resources Center archeologist AJ Van Slyke and I updating a predictive map in search of the Guererro’s final resting place.

We also joined archeologist Anne Wright for a DAN Diving Emergency Management Provider course, where she took us through several training sessions, including basic Life Support (CPR/First Aid), neurological assessments, emergency oxygen for scuba diving injuries, and first aid for hazardous marine life. Although I have maintained First Aid provider and instructor certifications as a lifeguard over the past years, it was a welcome refresher to prepare Millie, SRC archeologist David Morgan and I for a safe and full summer of diving ahead. 

NPS Submerged Resources Center archeologist Anne Wright leading us through a refresher on Diving Emergency Management, including emergency oxygen for scuba diving injuries.

Lastly, it was time for us to complete the Blue Card certification required to dive with the National Park Service. Deputy Chief Brett Seymour took Millie and I through several unique sets of dive and fitness testing, including gas sharing, rescue tows, NPS bailout (jumping into the water, gear in hand, to be assembled and donned on the pool floor), and NPS ditch and recovery (doffing all equipment underwater, turning air off, swimming away, and returning to don your gear). Although many of these skills are not necessarily meant to mimic “real-life” situations, they gauge a diver’s composure and response to stressors underwater and demonstrate the ability to think critically in unfamiliar situations.

Just over two weeks after my internship has begun, and before I’ve even set foot on my first park, I am astonished by the experiences I’ve had and the new network I am a part of. SRC has given me all the tools I need to succeed and then some, and I leave Denver, dive gear in hand, ready to take the leap and kick start what I’ve been selected to do. I want to thank each member of the SRC for making me feel so welcome and for trusting me to represent this team during my internship. Thank you for being exceptionally friendly faces to greet in the office each day, for sharing your current projects with me, and for the friendly conversation over lunch at your favorite spots. Thank you to Dave and Michelle for opening up your home and family to me, for going above and beyond to provide the comfort of a home away from home, and show me the best of Colorado (including a trip to my very first (!!) U.S National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park). Thank you to my internship coordinators, Shaun Wolfe, and Claire Mullaney, for supporting me in the preparations for this summer. Thank you to past NPS SRC interns I was able to meet (including Garrett Fundakowski – 2016, Shannon Brown – 2018, and interns present in NYC) for your helpful advice and for welcoming me into the NPS OWUSS family with open arms and enough stoke to last a lifetime.

Over the next several months, I look forward to traveling to each new place and each new park, with fresh eyes – eager to listen and learn, and apply my skills where applicable. Over time, I hope that many of you reading this blog will become familiar faces, and I look forward to taking you along on this grand adventure. 

 

 

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