Category Archives: Internship Journeys

Behind the Scenes!

This week we did not go on any field trips, but it was far from boring!

DAN is in the middle of a website “makeover,” which includes the online seminars being offered at no charge to their members. With the introduction of the eLearning platform, all existing modules needed to be copied from the original platform, then formatted to fit the eLearning platform. I downloaded and formatted seven different modules, plus the modules used internally by the Institutional Review Board. Programs to check out later when they are launched are:

  • Pathophysiology and Decompression Illness
  • Breathing Underwater is an Unnatural Act
  • Inert Gas Exchange, Bubbles, and Decompression Theory
  • Ears and Diving
  • Diabetes and Diving
  • Optimal Path
  • Pathophysiology of DCI

This is what the formatting screen looks like before an image is added.

And this is what the formatting screen looks like after an image is added.

This is what the final product will look like on eLearning.

This was a great experience — much different from what I had been doing here with the field trips and the classes. It was so cool to be able to go “behind the scenes” to help build the DAN online education programs.

The other project I am working on is creating a program for DAN instructors on education theory and teaching methodologies. I am focusing on “effective teaching practices” for adult learners. This is something I have been looking forward to since Patty brought up the idea. The process and research that needed to be done for this program are so different from what I am used to — teaching practices for children. It is interesting to see the other side of teaching practices and compare what I have learned in my university classes with what I am learning here.

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Lionfish & Shipwrecks

Now that we are through with camps for the summer, my remaining weeks will be spent either at the office or at a lionfish derby. The lionfish derbies are part of REEF’s Invasive Lionfish Program. They consist of dive teams, freediving or scuba diving, which collect lionfish by spearfishing or netting. There are prizes for the most, the biggest, and the smallest lionfish.

Lionfish first started appearing on the Florida coastline in 1985 due to aquarium releases. Since then, they have spread to most of the Caribbean directly competing with native fishes. The last derby in Ft. Lauderdale brought in 506 lionfish from 7 teams! Our derbies are a great community event that help educate people on the detrimental effects of releasing a non-native species


Our remaining derbies for the summer are in Palm Beach and Jacksonville. Aside from taking lionfish out of the water, the other objective of these derbies is to demonstrate how tasty lionfish are. We serve free lionfish ceviche at the derbies and have a culinary competition by participating chefs. If we can increase the demand for lionfish by patrons at restaurants and grocery stores, then removal efforts by divers will become more cost effective.

Two weekends ago my regular days were interrupted by a welcomed guest, Shannon Brown the OWUSS NPS intern! We managed to connect while she was here in South Florida at Biscayne National Park. She and other members of the NPS team took me out to the Maritime Heritage Trail to significant and very old ship wrecks. I did what I do best and conducted a fish survey on these wrecks. Because I am not AAUS certified, I could only snorkel these areas, but I was able to see plenty!

Shannon and her co-worker, Joel, changed my perspective on Marine Archeology. While I was busy being distracted by the biology of the area, they were marvelling at the stories the structure of the ship could tell. With their help, I was able to appreciate what I was seeing a little bit more and understand their excitement for maritime history. Shannon tried on my hat and conducted a fish survey herself which she was very proficient at! The entire NPS team was extremely welcoming to me and it was a great reminder of what a privilege it is to be apart of the Our World Underwater network.

Thanks again to Shannon for the pictures and to Dave Conlin for the warm welcome!

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Farm to Table — Kelp to Processing Table

This week was dive intensive. Early in the week, Monday and Tuesday, I finished digitizing the old kelp data thus making it possible for Courtney to make maps of the kelp using geographic information systems (GIS) using ArcMap to visualize the data. Using these maps, we can see that kelp is moving further north to colder waters, along with a change in species composition. Cold water species such as Alaria esculenta are virtually non-existent in the warmer southern waters which are predominantly inhabited by other species like Saccharina latissima and Laminaria digitata.

Predicted percent kelp cover from 1997 survey data. Dark regions signify greater kelp cover; whereas, lighter areas represent less kelp cover. Created by Courtney Stuart.

       

Predicted percent kelp cover from 2004 survey data. Dark regions signify greater kelp cover; whereas, lighter areas represent less kelp cover. In 2004 there is a resurgence in kelp cover in all four sampled regions in the Gulf of Maine. Created by Courtney Stuart.

Hattie, a dive master for the AAUS class, having some fun with a giant scallop!

On Wednesday I had my third AAUS class. This class is always a highlight of the week due to the close community we have formed in such a short period. With only six people in the class, three instructors and three students, it is a more intimate and fun atmosphere with jokes and laughter flowing each day. Chris keeps the class upbeat but keeps us focused on learning and our diving tasks for the day. This Wednesday we headed to my neck of the woods, Bigelow Labs, to complete a dock dive from their property in the Damariscotta River. The purpose of these dives was to plan and execute a multi-level dive starting at 45 feet and progressing upwards. Bigelow is uniquely suited for a dive like this, right off their dock is 20-30 feet of water and a short 20-foot swim will drop you into 60 feet. We completed two multi-level dives while getting to experience a different environment from our previous dive site Sand Cove. We saw massive kelp, five to six feet long, and giant scallops almost the size of dinner plates. Lobsters, Jonah crabs, and Green Crabs inhabit every crack and crevice.

Thursday was finally my first true scientific dive a Bigelow! We woke up early and prepared the gear and loaded the boat to be on the water by 8:00 a.m. We had four dives planned for the day – two dives at Damariscove, one at 10 meters the other at 5 meters, while two more dives at Pemaquid at the same depth profiles.

We will be sampling these two sites plus 18 others this summer. Each site has been sampled back in 2004 with little knowledge about the changes over the last 14 years. The return of these kelp beds to Maine have been understudied in the past years. The aquatic ecosystem in Maine long ago was a more diverse system with many trophic levels and a complex food web. Cod was a top predator eating smaller fish and keeping the sea urchin population at bay. However, in the 1950s we started fishing cod and nearly fished cod to extinction in the 1990s. Without these top predators left in the waters of Maine, sea urchin population spiked. Sea urchins are incredible but destructive organisms. Their appetite is unquenchable; urchins can eat 2-4 percent of their body weight each day! Sea urchins also have a preferred food of choice: kelp. Thus, with the fall of cod and the spike in urchin populations, kelp was quickly being eaten and obliterated by the urchins. In 15 years kelp beds, like cod, were gone leaving empty sand and rock patches with only urchins, known as “urchin barrens.” However, Mainers are resourceful and like to make money. Urchins and their gonads are a valuable delicacy in Asia and quickly people started to dive and snorkel for these small spiny creatures. The business was so lucrative and easy that in less than ten years Mainers had fished almost all the sea urchins from the Gulf of Maine. In those ten years, it is estimated that 250,000,000 urchins were taken from Maine’s waters!  With the decimation of the urchins, kelps soon started to return to the Gulf of Maine. And here we are today, kelps are returning, yet no one really knows how much has returned, which species returned, and what proportion of species make up these kelp beds. These questions, along with others, are the questions that Doug and Thew are trying to answer. To answer these complex ecological question means collecting data, and collecting data means getting in the water, and getting in the water means SCUBA diving! Now my summer has really begun!

While I’m in the water, Courtney starts handing me collection bags, and quadrats from the boat.

The dives at Damariscove and Pemaquid were an entirely new experience for me. Unlike recreational dive, scientific diving has a unique feel to it. You have a mission, an objective, and you are simply using SCUBA to accomplish that goal. You aren’t diving for the pleasure of seeing kelp beds and lobster, although it’s a bonus if you like the work! On each dive, I am either diving with Doug or Thew while the other stays on the boat as surface support. Each diver is loaded with gear for the dive: writing slates with underwater paper, collection bags, transect tapes, and quadrats. A bit cumbersome on land and the surface, but underwater it is manageable. All dives start with a descent down the anchor line to the bottom. Depending on those ten-foot tides it could be anywhere from 30 to 45 feet. Once we reach the bottom, we either are directly over a kelp bed or swim a few meters to the start of one. I wait at the starting point while the other diver runs the 10-meter transect across the bottom. While the other dive is doing that, I place one of the half-meter quadrats at the two-meter mark. After laying the transect line, Doug or Thew will come to that first quadrat to begin analyzing and quantifying everything inside, including percent cover of the different kelp species. They will record the type of substrate these seaweeds are growing on and if there are any crab or lobster in the quadrats. After they are done they will move to the left side of the two-meter mark on the transect, then the right side at 4 meters, left side at 4 meters, doing this until they reach 8 meters.

Thew trying to record percent coverage of different seaweeds in the quadrat.

After they record their data I come in and place my quadrat in the same place and begin to collect all the kelp in the quadrat. Kelp can be as big as 6-7ft or as small as an inch. Each kelp is put in a collection bag and will be later measured and weighted. Not only do I collect all the kelp I also collect all of the small understory, the small little seaweeds that cover the bottom. After both divers collect their data we pick up the transect and ascend back to the surface. We will take a short break moving to the next depth or site while getting new collection bags ready and fresh sheets of underwater paper.

The dives themselves take anywhere from 25 minutes to 1 hour. We left Bigelow at 8 a.m. and were back by 4 p.m. The water was cold, only 52F, and doing all four dives can get pretty cold. I have been graciously gifted a drysuit by USIA however, at this point it is being shipped to me, thus I’m diving a 7/8mm semi-dry which tests my fortitude. Being wet and in 50-degree water for 6 hours at a time is definitely an experience. But I love it. That’s why I came here to dive, and there was plenty happening this week.

After our one-day dive trip, we had Friday to process the samples I had collected and prep for a three-day research cruise to Hurricane Island. Hurricane Island is 10 miles southeast of Rockland and two miles southwest of Vinalhaven in the Fox Islands archipelago, Penobscot Bay, Maine. The island has a small staff along with cabins which provide hands-on education programs and research opportunities focusing on marine sciences, for all ages from middle school to adults. The island is run completely of the grid, with solar panels generating the electricity and a gravity fed pump for water. The simplicity of the island is charming. 

Loading the Silver Sides for our trip to Hurricane Island.

A fully load boat! 18 tanks, 3 sets of dive gear, sorting geat, and our clothing.

Our three-day trip, Sunday-Tuesday, was a work-filled fun time. Going on the trip was the usual crew: Doug, Thew, Courtney, and I. We woke up early and loaded our trusty boat, the RV Silver Sides, and started on the 1.5hr ride to Hurricane. After getting there we immediately unloaded our essential research gear and got a quick tour of the facilities. Doug has an “in” at Hurricane, Phoebe Jekielek, the Program Director for the Island. They were good friends in the early stages of their careers at the Marine Darling Center. Phoebe is this wildly funny, free spirited person with a smile that is contagious. After our dives when we would sort our samples, she would come to hang out and tell stories of when Doug and she were younger and all the “shenanigans” they got into. So after our quick tour, we jumped in the boat to go on our dives for the day. Similarly to our last dive outing, we would be sampling two sites and two depth using the sample procedure and protocols as before. It was nice to have Courtney on the boat, as an extra set of hands to help out. After a couple of long hours, we headed back to Hurricane.  

Hurricane Island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late night sorting. Thew measures and weighs each kelp, Courtney sorts the understory, Doug trying to key out the similar looking species, and I record the species weights and length. Processing samples can take anywhere from 2-4 hours so good music and a speaker is key!

A goat cheese salad, with fresh beets along with crackers and hummus — yum.

Serendipitously, that Sunday Hurricane Island was providing a farm to table dinner, one of three they put on for the community in the summer. This white tablecloth, five-course meal, was the talk of the town and somehow Phoebe squeezed us four grubby scientists on the guest list. When we unloaded the boat we looked like a motley crew, wet, tired, dirty, and even slimy from our kelps. None of us packed nice clothes for such an occasion making this event even more comical. We cleaned up as best we could and dressed to the nines (jeans with ripped holes, and rain coats) sat for an amazing meal. Seared scallops, kale salad, halibut, pork and polenta, and rhubarb cake. Doug and Thew continuously reminded Courtney and me that this is never how nice research trips usually are and we should be extremely lucky. After the dinner was over we all slowly and painfully and to leave to process our samples, sorting, identifying, measuring and weighing kelps and seaweeds into the night. Monday was the same plan, get up, dive, and process samples. Hurricane provides it residents breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all of which are high quality and fresh meals. Although they aren’t five-course meals we still were spoiled. They even packed us an amazing lunch of salad, beets, hummus, and crackers.

In the span of our three days at Hurricane Island we dove 12 times at six different sites. Each morning was an early wake-up call, load the boat, eat breakfast and be on the water by nine. Our nights were long, getting back at six or seven followed by cleaning and rinsing gear and ourselves. Dinner would promptly follow with our day ending in sorting our samples, which took three hours with all of us working hard. It seemed like a short trip with us always being on the move or needing to complete some task. I enjoyed my time on the island and would love to go back to visit and hike their trails. For more information on Hurricane Island: http://www.hurricaneisland.net/

Next week we will take a day trip to Monhegan and Allen island and I have AAUS class. During the week, we will be preparing for our down east trip which should bring lots of diving and stories. Thank you to Pheobe for being an amazing host at Hurricane and to Courtney for the GIS maps. Thank you OWUSS and AAUS. 

Until next time – Shane

 

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Counting Kids not Fish

One of the programs here at REEF that I mentioned in my last post is the Explores Education Program. I am working specifically on the Ocean Explorers Camp. This is an environmental camp with an ocean focus for kids ages 7-12. Each day we are in or on the ocean in some capacity doing activities like snorkeling and kayaking. We host the camp at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

The responsibility to physically be at camp as a counsellor switches between interns. When I am not actually there, I am working on camp curriculum design. This is one of my independent projects I have undertaken. Thanks to my last position, I have experience in environmental education camp program design. I am thrilled to be given the trust and support to exercise this skill set.

In my previous position, I learned and implemented Earth Education Guidelines into my designs. Explained to me by my supervisor but synthesized by Steve Van Matre in his book, Earth Education, “Earth Education is the process of helping people live more harmoniously and joyously with the natural world.” By following the guidelines, you can hope to achieve three outcomes: feeling, understanding and processing. Essentially you aim to create programs that emotionally connect participants to the environment while also having them achieve an understanding on a subject of importance. The last outcome focuses on the participant’s own impact on the environment and how they can take action towards positive change.

I am hoping to take my knowledge and experience using these guidelines to create a comprehensive program design that can be used by REEF in years to come. One of the program components I am creating is a “New World Scavenger Hunt”. Working with a local museum, The Florida Keys History & Discovery Centre, I have gathered information and resources on what life would have been like for the early European explorers and the Native American population of the area. The goal is to have the kids experience how these people interacted with the environment around them. My desired outcome on this particular component is to teach the kids that it is important to look at our past and the perspectives of others to make smart decisions about our environment.

Education is in REEF’s name and I am excited to contribute.

 

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The end of my Alaska adventure

I left off my last blog post while I was aboard The Lituya motoring along from Juneau to Prince of Wales with Ginny and her husband Matt. My trip down was spectacular. The weather was great and the opportunity to spend a few nights on the boat, anchoring in places with almost no one in sight was out of this world. The first night we anchored in glassy waters just outside the bay of a town called Kake. I will honestly never forget the feeling of sitting on the boat as the sun was setting watching the eagles soar over the water and trees.

The next morning was met with rivaling views. As the fog cleared after our early morning departure, the most magnificent reflection I’ve ever seen was created on the water. The second day was packed with spotting sea otters (which would later come in handy when learning to do sea otter surveys with the Prince of Wales team), dodging kelp, and navigating the Rocky Passage, a big but shallow short cut Ginny decided to take. 

We made it to our destination in Prince of Wales later that day but had time to spend before our meet up on the North of the island with the team the following day. We decided to check out a small bay called Hole in the Wall, named because of its extremely narrow passage, which can only be navigated at certain tides. Luckily our timing was perfect and Matt and Ginny were able to navigate through. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and spying for black bears on land.   

The following day I hopped off the boat, drove down to the south of POW and met up with some of the team. For the rest of the week I helped out with all of the intertidal sea grass surveying that took place every morning. Overall, my one week on POW was outstanding. Despite the extremely early wake ups at 2:00 and 3:00 each day to catch the low tides, I was able to help out a lot and have a great time with all the people there. For anyone interested in the science being done on POW, I definitely recommend checking out the APECS (Apex Predators, Ecosystems, and Community Sustainability) website to learn all about impacts of sea otters on ecosystems and marine resources. 

After working with the crew in POW, I flew back to Juneau for my final week and got ready to fly back home to California. This internship experience was five weeks of intensive cold water diving and field work, during which I learned new hands on techniques as well as participated in real applications of scientific processes I have recently studied in school. I undoubtedly learned more about myself and my future goals, and would like to thank the many people at OWUSS, AAUS, and the University of Alaska who made these opportunities possible for me. Thank you again to all who have followed and supported me on this journey!   

 

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New Adventures Start Here.

While in Maine opportunities come both under and above the surface. When I’m not diving, I have the chance to explore the state of Maine. This past weekend I decided to venture north and explore Acadia National Park. One fun fact about me is I am an avid road cyclist, so much so I had to bring my bike to Maine for the summer. So, when briefly researching Acadia and what to do over the weekend, I read about the carriage roads. These roads were commissioned by John D. Rockefeller from 1913 to 1940. These 57 miles of compacted smooth gravel roads are perfect for runners, walkers, bikers, and even the occasional horse-drawn carriage. My weekend was filled with numerous miles on my bike exploring the trails and taking in all the beauty that Acadia had to offer. The highlight of the trip was climbing to the peak of Cadillac Mountain which had spectacular views of the coast and Bar Harbor.

After the great weekend, it was back to work. Doug had signed Courtney, a summer intern at Bigelow also working in the lab, and myself up for a boating course. In the event one of us needed to drive the boat we would have the proper training and knowledge of the high seas. The class was two days and consisted of learning the entire US Coast Guard “Navigation Rules and Regulations Handbook,” survival procedures for cold water environments, a multitude of anchoring methods, and how to read and plot on charts.

After the two days of the boating course, I had my AAUS class at the Darling Marine Center. Before each class, we have designated reading material from either PADI or SDI. Our class time is spent reviewing these readings and Chris Rigaud usually gives a quick PowerPoint lecture on this week’s scientific diving skill. This week class was short due to the high tide coming in at 11:15 a.m. Here in Maine and especially around East Boothbay, the tides rise and fall over nine feet! Therefore, it is essential to get out during high tide when we have the most water. We had two dives planned in which we would be reviewing our navigation and buoyancy skills, along with other small tasks. Our first dive was fairly shallow at 30ft with the water temperature reaching a chilly 51oF. During our first dive, we practiced mask removal and replacement along with buddy breathing. Chris teaches a more rigorous buddy breathing than in normal SCUBA classes. Buddy teams must share only one regulator taking two breathes and passing it to their buddy that is holding their breath. (Well not really holding their breath because we all know the number one rule in diving — never hold your breath!) The buddy team must safely ascend using this method. After practicing these skills, we were released to plan a quick dive while floating on the surface. The only stipulation of this dive was to navigate back to the departure point.  We planned a short out and back dive along a nice kelp wall with massive kelp completely shading out the bottom. Lobsters and crabs scurried and hid as we passed just overhead.

After a one hour surface interval, we were back for our second dive. The sole purpose of this dive was to try and prefect our buoyancy and streamline our dive set up. Chris had set up two hula-hoops just big enough for a diver to squeeze through without touching the sides. In many buoyancy classes, students swim through swim rings or swim squares at fast speeds. Chris implored us to try and inch our way through, stating: “Anyone can maintain neutral buoyancy swimming Mach 3, but it takes real skill and control to go slowly through it.” The ultimate goal was to stop and hover exactly in the middle of this small hula-hoop a task I could not complete. These 25 minutes of us having fun and practicing our buoyancy is something many divers don’t give themselves. Most divers whether it be recreational, commercial, or scientific usual have some objective of the dive – exploring a reef, repairing a pipe, or sectioning the bottom. Most people do not dive just to try and work on their dive skills. I enjoyed and valued this practice time and hope to dedicate more time throughout this summer and in my life to working purely on such skills.

My first dive at Bigelow and in front of Doug and Thew was a bit anticlimactic. Due to unforeseen issues, we have yet to start collecting field data on the kelps, so this dive was primarily a check out dive for Thew and myself. Thew especially, wanted to make sure his gear was in working order and his new drysuit seals were properly trimmed. We used this dive to get oriented with each other’s equipment, weight systems, dump valves etc.. The second goal for this dive was to practice the sampling methods that I would need to carry out on a dive. The dive was short, around 20 minutes at 20 feet. The sampling method had us run out a 25 meters transect line on the bottom. Using the half meter quadrats I made, I would start at the beginning of the tape measure and lay my transect on the bottom. Any kelp stipe (the root) originating in the half meter transect was to be cut and put in the collection bag I carried with me. I would replicate this process four times – at the 2,4,6, and 8 meter mark on the meter line. The dive was successful because 1) Thew and I both gained knowledge of each others dive setups, and 2) I felt confident in the sampling procedures that I would be conducting independently on future dives.

 

Thew (left) and Doug (right) laying out all of their gear checking it over before going in the water.

To end the week, Bigelow had a BBQ on Friday for all of the employees and interns. During the BBQ there were the “Lab Olympics” going on, which had different wings of the building competing against each other in different oceanographic themed challenges. The BBQ was a good way to meet other people who worked at Bigelow and to get to know Doug and Thew on a more informal level.

From left to right: Myself, Doug, Doug’s daughter Betsy, Thew, and Courtney.

Next week we start conducting our kelp surveys. Doug, Thew, Courtney, and I will be going on a three-day dive trip to Hurricane Island to do the work.

Thank you to Our World Underwater Scholarship Society, American Academy of Underwater Sciences, and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences for giving me this great opportunity.

-Shane

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Life on (semi) Permanent Vacation

The Keys are not what you call a bustling metropolis. Most metropolitan dwellers come to the Keys to escape their everyday, busy city lives. For most people its just that, a vacation. But for me, and the other three interns for REEF’s 2018 summer semester, its our current home. I am not in Nova Scotia anymore, that’s for sure.

I am fairly familiar with the area as I have been coming down to dive it the past six years. But since I’ve started at REEF, I have gotten the opportunity to know the community better. My supervisor, Ellie, set up meetings for me and the other interns with other organizations in the area over the course of our first couple weeks. This included the History of Diving Museum, The Coral Restoration Foundation and The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center. Each of these organizations is filled with passionate people who are dedicated to spreading the good work of environmental conservation across the Keys. Its an exciting place for me to be as I explore the potential pathways for my career.

For those who don’t know, REEF has four main categories of focus: The Grouper Moon Project, The Invasive Lionfish Program, the Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP) and the Explorers Education Program. I will talk more in depth of each of these categories in future posts. As an intern here, I have the opportunity to add to or take on a project that is in line with REEF’s focus. I am particularly interested in the VFSP because since its beginnings in 1993, it is now the world’s largest database on marine fishes! I plan to contribute to its database while I’m here by diving as much as possible. Being able to identify the fish in the area is giving me a greater sense of appreciation for everything I see, big and small.

The VSFP is a great way to encourage already ocean concerned people, like scuba divers, to participate in the bigger picture of conservation. It is also a great resource for scientists and researches. But what about those who don’t have a background with the ocean? How can the REEF database be used to engage the rest of the public on issues of conservation? Stay tuned as I try to answer this question over the course of my internship.

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80° to 40°: Leaving Hawaii and the start of my summer in Alaska

Hey everyone! For those of you who don’t already know, my name is Lena and I have the honor of being the first OWUSS/AAUS Mitchell Scientific Diving Research Intern. I’ve included my full biography below for those of you who want to know a bit about my background, otherwise I will get right in to telling you about the start of my internship and some adventures I’ve been up to already. 

I am 21 and just finished my sophomore year studying Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Originally from Santa Cruz, California, I have grown up connected to the ocean and chose to study biology in order to combine my love of conservation and diving. In high school, I volunteered with The Marine Mammal Center, helping rescue stranded marine mammals along the California coast. 

I became PADI Open Water certified in 2014 during my senior year of High School. After High School, I embarked on a gap year, traveling to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Fiji, and Madagascar. In Thailand, I volunteered at Elephant Nature Park, and had the unique experience of assisting with the rescue of an injured and abused elephant. In Cambodia, I taught English to second grade Cambodian children. In both Fiji and Madagascar, I had my first experiences with scientific diving, doing fish and invertebrate surveys as a volunteer with a non-profit group. Living simply on small islands and diving almost daily I found my passion, bringing together diving and scientific study. While in Fiji I gained my PADI Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, and Dive Master certifications. Subsequently, I worked as a dive master in Fiji, deepening my love for the underwater world. Determined to keep excelling as a diver, I earned my AAUS Scientific Diver certification in the Spring of 2017. I am excited for this summer and the opportunity to acquire new scientific diving skills. 

This summer, I am working closely alongside doctoral student Jared Weems as he conducts his research on Blue King Crabs (BKC) around Saint Paul Island (SNP), located in the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. With the goal of understanding the difficulties behind stock recovery of BKC after severe overfishing prior to 1999 when direct harvest was closed, Jared has dedicated his time and research to studying three possible causes: larval supply, predation on juveniles, and habitat availability. Detailed info about Jared’s research can be found on his website, Pribs Blues Muse, https://www.sfos.uaf.edu/research/pribsbluesmuse/, but I will tell you a bit about the methodology of each project as it comes up throughout the summer. 

My summer is broken up into two asymmetrical chunks of time or trips to Saint Paul, the first of which I have just finished. I left home in California on May 18th, just a week after finishing school, and flew up to Juneau. After a couple days of shopping for food and supplies, where I got my first ever pair of XtraTufs, a staple in Alaskan work and style, Jared and I began our journey to Saint Paul. We left Juneau in the morning and after a short stopover in Anchorage and then Dillingham where we waited for the weather to clear, we made it to Saint Paul on a flight full of birders, undoubtedly heading to the island to explore its world renowned sea bird colonies.

We arrived in Saint Paul to surprisingly nice weather and settled in at the NOAA Staff Quarters. (For anyone interested in the history, Saint Paul has a unique story involving Russian slavery and the Fur Seal trade prior to Aleut Independence). Saint Paul, also one of the 2,500 islands that make up the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, is home to arctic fox, a reindeer herd, fur seals, stellar sea lions, harbor seals, whales, colonies of millions of sea birds (and the extremely rare walrus! pictured later). 

Jared, looking out over the harbor and town of Saint Paul on a stormy day hike

Taking advantage of the good weather, the first few days of work were long and packed with preparation as we waited for our dive gear to arrive on another plane. We prepped and painted 44 concrete blocks, which will later act as anchor lines for our survey sites around the island. We also made 125 glaucothoe settlement bags, which are placed around each of the anchors to collect juvenile crabs over the course of the summer in order to assess population abundances. 

After days of preparation and the start of a streak of bad weather, we waited out the wind and the seas inside and exploring around the island. I began learning my cold water species of algae, fish, crab and other invertebrates while Jared worked on calibrating the cameras for the deep water camera drop surveys and making bread in his beloved bread maker. When our first weather window to go out on the water appeared in the forecast we loaded up our concrete blocks on The Lunax, the islands amazing rescue boat, and headed out to set as many of our sites as possible. It ultimately took two days and lots of energy from peanut m&m’s but we finished putting in all but two blocks.

Another project that we worked on, as I mentioned a bit earlier, was the camera calibration. Sheila, so named by Jared’s tech from last summer, is a modified crab pot that holds a stereo GoPro system used to assess the benthic habitat at deep water sites. With bad weather and one unsuccessful attempt diving in the harbor to calibrate Sheila’s camera, we decided to get creative and think of another method to calibrate the cameras in water. Later that day, I found myself suiting up to climb into a fish tub filled with ice cold water at the Trident Foods warehouse. 

One of the final projects we worked on was deploying SPATTSs (Solid Phase Absorption Toxin Tracking) as part of a harmful algal bloom (HAB) study in the area. In addition to setting the SPATTs in the small boat harbor, we deployed them at four of our dive sites in order to be able to dive, retrieve, and replace them later. 

Finally, after two and a half weeks we finished our early season preparations and will be ready to start diving when we return from our two week break on June 24th. Yesterday, June 7th, we made it back to Juneau where I met up with Jared’s advisor, Dr. Ginny Eckert, to join her on a short trip to assist with some of her other students’ research on Prince of Wales. I am currently writing from her boat, The Lituya, which we will be on for two nights as we bring supplies down to the island. The mountains and snow along the passage are like nothing I’ve ever seen before, so I’m loving these few days to relax, take in the views, and hopefully see some whales! Its been a completely unique experience for me already these last two weeks so I can’t wait to see what’s next.  

On our last day, just before we flew out of Saint Paul, a walrus was spotted off East Landing on the island! Having not seen a walrus come to Saint Paul in nearly 15 years, this was an extra special day to see my first walrus. I had already checked my bag, which had my camera, at the airport but luckily a friendly bird guide let me borrow his binoculars and I was able to take a few pictures with my phone through the binoculars!

 

 

 

 

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Discovering the Heat-Resistant Reefs of Ofu Island at the National Park of American Samoa

“Don’t mind the lizards, watch out for mean dogs, and don’t drink the water. Those are my three biggest island tips,” Tori tells me as we are preparing to go to the grocery store. “I wasn’t sweating it about the lizards, but good to know about the dogs!” I respond. Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa has a rash of stray dogs. As cute as they may look (they generally do not look cute), they are wild animals and fairly ferocious.

Tori picked me up from the airport last night, and I was instructed in an email to look for a “blonde woman that is extremely tall, she will stand out.” Sure enough, in a sea of Samoans, Tori stands out. She has adjusted to the island after 7 months of working at NPSA and embraced many of the traditions here. As a native Ohioan, she has a wholesome flavor to her and is probably the most hard science/technically focused of the team.

The shoreline of Olosega Island.

After a short drive, we enter a chaotically arranged grocery store and Tori excitedly exclaims, “Zucchinis! I haven’t seen zucchinis since I’ve been here!” As beautiful as American Samoa is, it’s geographically closer to New Zealand than the mainland US. Being that far away creates challenges for trade, and particularly for produce since very little is grown in Polynesia.

We are shopping for our upcoming trip to Ofu Island in the Manua islands. Ofu is about 75 miles away from Tutuila, where the National Park Service (NPS) is based out of. We will be flying out tomorrow on a small 12-passenger plane. There are about 150 people that live on Ofu and about 200 that live on Olesega, which is connected to Ofu via a narrow, 100m long bridge. Needless to say, provisions are hard to come by on the island. Once we pack up the car, we head to park headquarters to ready our coolers for the morning.

Our destination is in Manua. Here are the beautiful islands of Ofu and Olosega.

After Tori introduces me to some of the park staff, I meet Bert Fuiava, Park Diving Officer and acting Marine Ecologist at the National Park of American Samoa (NPSA). Bert is a massive man. In the words of the acting NPSA superintendent, Daniel George, “Bert’s arm is the size of my leg!” Bert’s muscular exterior belies his fun-loving personality. Though he works extremely hard, he is the biggest prankster on the NPSA team and embodies the “no worries” island attitude.

After I meet Bert, I meet Ian Moffitt. Ian and I connected virtually many years ago. Truth be told, I have applied to work at NPSA multiple times over the years. Being from Los Angeles himself, Ian and I have a mutual contact that connected me with him years back. After occasional internet chats, it is great to actually meet him in person. “Want to come help me out with some boat stuff real quick?” he asks me.

(L-R) Bert Fuiava, myself, and Daniel George at park headquarters.

Soon enough, we are at the NPSA boat yard. Ian shows me around and I get to work gathering equipment for Ofu and doing a bit of housekeeping. Unfortunately, Ian isn’t coming with us to Ofu, so this may be one of my only opportunities to talk with him. Ian’s been in American Samoa for almost 3 years- the longest of any of the pelongis (non-Samoans) on the NPSA team. He tells me about the benefits and challenges of his stay on the island and how his career has progressed at NPSA. Without Ian, NPSA would have trouble continuing their dive program. His mechanical knowledge is a precious resource, as he keeps all the park boats up and running. We also talk about our hometown of Los Angeles a bit as well. I don’t always have a hunger to be around people that grew up in the environment I did, but it is really nice every now and then. Ian is such a solid guy. He is constantly working and hyper focused, but knows how to have fun and isn’t so serious that he can’t crack a joke every now and then.

Tutuila is one of the hubs of the tuna industry in the Pacific. The scene of locals preparing nets for massive international fishing vessels is common in Pago Pago.


Tori, a few of her friends, and I are lathering up in bug spray at Tisa’s. Tisa and her husband, who oddly goes by the name of “Candyman” run Tisa’s Barefoot Bar. It’s a bar/restaurant that makes from scratch or catches nearly everything they serve- including fresh fish and piña coladas. While Tisa’s food and drink was the draw for us, I was more interested in their Marine Protected Area (MPA). Tisa and Candyman manage the MPA that lies directly in front of their business. “Their giant clams are the biggest I’ve seen on the island,” Tori tells me.

I ask Candyman how they deal with poachers. He tells me that it’s usually easy because they can see them walking on the beach or snorkeling on the surface, but lately it’s been tough. “There are no scuba shops on the island, but people are still getting scuba gear here. They go out at night for the clams and they are hard to see underwater. I’ve been kayaking out though and dropping some rocks in the water when I see lights!” Though this sort of management would never be considered acceptable in the developed world, it is working here and quite an inspiration to me.


“So apparently there’s a matai on our plane,” Tori tells us as we are loading up the van in the morning. Matai’s are high-ranking Samoan chiefs. Having a matai on your plane means that you and your luggage will not get priority and may or may not make it to your destination. Normally, this isn’t a huge deal. However, there is only one flight a week to Ofu. Even though we sent most of our heaviest equipment via boat last night, not having our gear (or even worse, crew) for the week would be devastating.

Ofu’s corals have quite the reputation and it’s easy to see why!

Once we get driving, Daniel lightens the mood. He says, “someone described these planes to me the other day as a ‘flying busses,’ which is comforting…how high do these planes go?” Bert responds, “4000 feet I think.” “Ok, good. If it was 5000, it might be a problem, but I feel totally fine hoping out of the plane at 4000 feet if it comes down to it.”

This is the essence of Daniel. Daniel has spent most of his life on the Pacific coast of the lower 48 and currently heads an Inventory and Monitoring team based out of Pinnacles National Park in California. He perfectly walks the line between being professional and having fun. As such, he is quite popular with his team. Daniel is also one of those people that is probably the smartest person in any given room that he walks into. He is an avid birder that leads his team by example with a strong work ethic and is probably the funniest person I’ve met all summer.

The plane coming down on the runway at Ofu Island.

Once we get to the airport and grab a quick breakfast, we board the plane with the matai without a hitch. After unsuccessfully looking for whales outside my window for 30 minutes, we arrive on Ofu and head to “the lodge.”

The bridge that connects Olosega and Ofu.

The lodge is a 1-minute walk from the airport (note that the airport is just an airstrip and an open structure). It’s odd to not have to find transportation to my destination from an airport, but really convenient. The lodge sits right by the coast and next door to the NPS visitor’s center on Ofu. A married island couple named Ben and Deb run the lodge. They each spent significant amounts of time stateside and can communicate and connect well with their guests.

Elsa and Jason Bordelon inspecting a prized delicacy on the island- coconut crab.

We quickly put away our food in the breezy kitchen of the lodge to a reggae soundtrack and start putting together gear for the day. While we are gathering up the equipment we need, I hear 3 year old Elsa Bordelon exclaim, “best day ever!” as she looks out on the ocean. Elsa is the really the star of the trip. She is the daughter of Jason Bordelon, Chief of Interpretation. Jason and I bond quickly as he also spent several years on the west end of Catalina Island and likes to surf. Between Elsa and work, Jason is staying pretty busy on Ofu. Elsa is a free spirit if there ever was one and makes the whole crew laugh throughout the week.

There is a small store on Olosega where residents can buy mostly canned goods. Chicken is also available in zip loc bags.


Once we are ready to go into the field, Bert, Tori, and I hop in the truck with the Ofu NPS team- Brian and Boy. Ofu is of particular interest to the scientific community because of what happens in its nearshore “pools,” where seawater gets held up at low tide and the interaction with the open ocean is limited. These pools heat up to above 90 F, which is much hotter than corals should be able to withstand. Yet, the corals in the pools are thriving. Why is this? What makes these corals different? Does this provide us hope in the face of a warming ocean?

NPS is continually working with Stanford and Old Dominion University to answer these questions. This week, we are taking water quality samples (just like I did at KALA) as part of the Inventory and Monitoring process that goes on in the Pacific, as well as looking at coral reef plots that partnering universities are researching. The latter exercise involves us finding corals that the university has tagged in the warm pools, retagging them (the tags get covered in encrusting algae very quickly), and taking photos so that all involved parties can analyze how quickly the coral is growing, bleaching, or receding. The idea is to find which corals are growing well in the warm pools and why that is.

Massive, bouldery Porites corals make up the majority of the coral cover on the island.

As we are taking our water quality samples, Bert is teaching Boy and Brian how to do it so that they can help with the study when the Tutuila-based team isn’t on Ofu. After we go to several sites and finish all of the water quality samples we need to take on Ofu, we call it a day and head back to the lodge.


It’s a warm afternoon on Ofu and Tori and I are swatting mosquitos off ourselves. We are on day 3 of our Ofu mission. I’m getting the hang of searching for tagged corals. It’s been very challenging because the tags are small to begin with and are often completely fouled or missing. We are struggling with certain tags more than others and start to see a pattern of which ones are missing. This helps us determine where we need to make new sites versus where we should actually spend effort looking for tags.

Bert inspects one of our new tags, they are never this obvious when you come back to them in 6 months time.

After our second site of the day, Bert shouts out, “Sione!” Sione is my name in Samoan and has become my nickname on Ofu. “Let me see how you husk a coconut!” I told Bert that I can husk coconuts- which is true. There is a perfect husking stick at this site. The thing is, I haven’t had a perfect husking stick to husk a coconut on in 4 years. It should be easier, but because I’m out of practice and have been husking coconuts with a pocket knife all summer, I struggle a little. About 8 minutes later, I’ve husked my coconut. “I’ll show you the Samoan way!” Bert says, as he proceeds to husk a coconut in about 20 seconds and we all laugh.

Tori records data about the corals and the number of our new tag to makes sure it all makes sense for both NPS staff and collaborating universities.

As day turns into night, we are all cooking dinner. I look at the food Daniel brought, which is only rice, beans, and quinoa. I have to ask him. I turn to Daniel and say, “are you vegetarian?” I am hoping for a fellow vegetarian in American Samoa. Despite how every single person I’ve met who has been to American Samoa has told me how difficult it is to be vegetarian here, it’s actually not too hard. However Daniel is not a vegetarian, “I’m mostly vegetarian, but I’ll slam an animal every now and then if I need to.” I can’t help but crack up at that statement. Slam an animal?! That has to be one of the funniest ways he could have put it.

Coral nurseries like this are common in Ofu.

Though Daniel is hilarious, what I admire about him most is his commitment to his values. The reason he brought so little food with packaging to Ofu was because knows that what is brought to Ofu gets put into a “dump” (a hole in the ground) on Ofu and often will end up in the ocean or burned. In order to reduce his footprint on the island, he brought food that has the least amount of packaging possible. This is what a leader should be doing.

Daniel dives in to get a photo.


My scuba boot tan is pretty spectacular right now. After 5 days of surveying, the back of my legs are extremely tan and the skin under my boot line is not. Today, we are also doing some video surveys along our transect lines. The way it works in-water is Bert and I set up the transect tape at each site, then Tori swims along the tape taking video. The video is analyzed later and compared to past videos. NPS is specifically looking at coral cover and coral health from previous survey to this survey.

Healthy corals mean healthy fish!

Additionally, we are taking a cow bile mixture with us today in case we see any crown of thorns sea stars (COTS). COTS are native to Samoan waters, but they are what I like to call “coral reef lawnmowers.” They are ravenous coral eaters and don’t really have natural predators. It’s difficult for humans to remove them as well since their bodies are covered in venomous spines. As such, having multiple COTS in a small area can spell death for that entire section of reef. NPS uses cow bile to kill COTS. It is inserted into the COTS through a syringe and will disintegrate the COTS within 24 hours without harming any other marine life.

The white “scar” on the coral on the left side of this structure was caused by the COTS that ate it, cryptically hanging out under the overhang. COTS are generally much more active at night than during the day.

After our first site, we head to a site where we’ve been seeing COTS throughout the week. I take my camera in the water. Tori, Brian, Boy, and I look for COTS while Bert holds the cow bile mixture. After about an hour of work, we inject 10 COTS. American Samoa experienced a massive COTS outbreak many years ago and it has been the primary objective of NPSA to manage the outbreak until this year when it was deemed managed. All in all, they killed over 26,000 COTS.

A more conspicuous COTS. They really do live up their name, don’t they?! Crown of thorns?

This is even more impressive when considering the logistical challenges of American Samoa. There are no dive shops nor places to get boat parts in American Samoa, and shipping to and from the territory is unreliable at best. That being said, the fact that Brian and Boy can accomplish the things they accomplish is even more impressive. They are the only two NPS employees on Ofu.

Throughout the week, I’ve gotten to know Brian and Boy pretty well. Brian is a clear communicator who has infinite curiosity and an open mind about his new island home (he’s been on Ofu for about 3 months). He is supported by his wonderful bohemian wife, Rebecca- a California surfer with the most caring heart. Boy is a local. Born and raised in Manua, his local knowledge helps fill in the culture and local ecology knowledge gaps for Brian. Boy is also one of the hardest workers I’ve met this summer.

Bert injects a COTS with cow bile as Brian looks on.

After a long day of surveying and COTS management, we head back to the lodge. Jason and his family have ordered dinner tonight as a special treat and the dinner is a locally speared fish. Daniel and I start to talk about the experience of a speared fish and Daniel says, “yeah, I imagine that the fish probably tells his friends ‘hard pass’ in regard to being speared.”

Later on, Daniel and I team up again. This time, it’s to take down some of the locals in a game of billiards, and by take down I mean that our goal is solely to keep our dignity in tact after we leave the pool table. We proclaim ourselves “Team Pelongi.” As Team Pelongi gets the game started, I miss an easy shot. Daniel jokes, “oh nooo! Your whole family is embarrassed and they’re not even here!” I end up laughing so hard, it’s difficult to finish the game. I never get tired of Daniel’s humor.


Marine debris is an issue even in the remote waters of Ofu.

Today is our last day in Ofu. The mission for today is removing some marine debris that we spotted a few days ago at one of our sites. There is a huge fishing net wrapped around a dead coral head. It likely killed that coral head along with countless others. It’s hard to say if it also killed other, larger animals in the ocean, but marine debris does that more often than not.

The team works to free the net.

Once we are at the site, we find the debris and begin moving it. Boy brings a machete, which makes the process surprisingly quick. Within 2 minutes, the net is ready to be removed. My job is to document the whole thing, but by the time I’m ready to shoot, they have almost removed the net! Once the net is removed, the team drags it onto shore and into the truck.

Run Forrest, run! Boy leads the charge taking the net back up onto the beach.

After the removal and some fun snorkeling, we go over to Boy’s family’s land to harvest some young coconuts. Brian picked some would-be trash and turned it into a pole to knock coconuts off of trees. Once we have 7 or 8, Boy starts giving us a lesson. “You see? Like this,” as Boy flicks a coconut to show us how to tell if it’s good or not. Then he starts flaking off the top of the coconut with his machete. I ask him I can do my own, because I’ve always wanted to try. He agrees and I start hacking away to get the perfect drinking hole in the top. The process is really fun for a beginner but also a little more difficult than it looks. How do the locals have such pinpoint accuracy with their machetes?


I leave American Samoa tomorrow, so I need to finish editing all of my photos and get my last good byes in. My first stop is the NPSA office. After many hours of editing, I say my goodbyes to Jason and Bert. “Sione! This is for you,” Bert says giving me a NPSA shirt. I thank Bert for hosting me, all of his hospitality, and showing me the ropes on Ofu. I also tell him to come visit me in California when he and his family go to their second home on the west coast.

Later that evening, Ian and Paolo (another NPSA employee) come over to hang out with Tori and I. Ian brings up something I said after meeting him last week, “We’d been talking for no longer than 5 minutes, and then I’m walking out the door to help someone and I hear you say ‘thanks Ian, you’re so cool and thoughtful!’” Paolo lets out a laugh, “cool and thoughtful! HA! That is classic!” Ian puts things into context, “I was kind of stressed and didn’t even notice when you said it. Then I was like, wait, did he just say that?! Was that a joke?! Ha ha ha.” For the rest of the night, “cool and thoughtful” becomes our phrase of choice. “I hope that ‘cool and thoughtful’ becomes my legacy at NPSA,” I laugh.

Boy reaches to play with an octopus on Ofu.

I had a blast with Paolo and Ian. It’s really fun to be around two California guys so far from home. Unfortunately, I say my goodbyes to them and Tori when Daniel picks me up for my flight. Daniel is my last goodbye. I tell him that I am going to contact him when I get up to Pinnacles one of these days and that I think he makes an excellent Superintendent.


American Samoa is one of the most remote and unique places in the National Park Service. It was such a privilege to be able to go to NPSA, and particularly Ofu. It was the perfect end to my summer tour- a beautiful landscape and equally beautiful seascapes with the best crew I could ever ask for. I was also happy with my own effort and work at NPSA, which is a great feeling to have. I would say that I feel like I finished on a very high note, but truth be told, I’m not finished. In 36 hours, I’ll be in Washington D.C…

 

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