Category Archives: Internship Journeys

 

For the last two weeks of my internship, I shed the title of “scientific diver in training” and became an AAUS Scientific Diver thanks to Diana Steller, Shelby Penn, and my fellow classmates. The first week consisted of lectures on different topics including equipment, cylinders & regulators, species identification, dive emergency & rescue, diving physics, and diving physiology. After expanding our minds in the classroom, we enhanced our skills in the water. We had our checkout dives at Breakwater Cove (where I had my first cold water dive at the beginning of the internship). Then at Hopkins Marine Station, we had our first practice on Reef Check surveys.

Left image- Diana Steller demonstrating how to conduct fish transects with a 2-meter reference, Eliseo Nevarez 

Right image- Tumbling tanks that has red rust on the inside. Thanks to Shelby Penn for showing me how to tumble tanks!

Reef Check helps ensure the long-term sustainability and health of rocky reefs and kelp forests along the coast of California. They monitor rocky reefs inside and outside of California’s marine protected areas. Reef Check also provides scientific data (which is collected by dedicated volunteers) needed to make knowledgeable decisions for the sustainable management and conservation. Reef Check California volunteers are divers, fishermen, kayakers, surfers, and boaters! I am so happy that I had the chance to get involved with Reef Check this summer and for anyone living in California interested in diving and conservation, please volunteer! Check out their website to learn more.

We learned species identification of fish, abalone, crabs, sea stars, slugs/snails, sea cucumbers, urchins, kelp, and other algae. As a dive team, we conducted four different surveys: algae, fish, invertebrates, and uniform point contact (UPC) using 30 meter transect tapes. For algae, we counted individuals (only if they met certain length requirements) and recorded number of stipes for two species: Feather boa and Giant kelp in an area of 2 m across the transect. We also had to keep an eye out for algae species that are invasive including Caulerpa sp., Undaria sp., Sargassum muticum, and Sargassum horneri. For invertebrates, we counted individuals (of certain lengths) and recorded sizes of abalone. For fish, our instructors and trained volunteers counted and sized the fish that they observe in an area 2 m across the transect tape and 2 m off the bottom (30 m x 2 m x 2 m). The goal of UPC is to characterize the habitat so this survey combined cover, substrate, and relief at 30 points along the transect.

Left image- Bull kelp with other algae on a rocky reef.

Top image- All of the students moving the zodiac into the water for our deep dive.

During the second week of the diving course, we camped and practiced more Reef Check surveys at Big Creek State Marine Reserve in Big Sur, California. Big Creek is a 14.51 square mile MPA that was established September 2007. This dive site is the perfect place to obtain our AAUS certification. There was an easy beach entry, a freshwater stream nearby to rinse off our equipment, grassy area for our belongings, and super thick kelp to explore in.

Top image- Students happily rinsing off in the stream after a long dive. 

Left image- View of the beach, bridge, and the mist during a break in between dives.

Right image- Our lovely compressor that we used to fill tanks while camping. 

Our normal day included waking up at the camp site, preparing lunch, walking to the beach, practicing as many surveys and we could on 2 dives, rinsing off in the stream, then continuing with lectures and/or exams. On our last survey day, Dan Abbott from Reef Check came to test us on our species identification skills. We then divided into 3 teams with each diver in charge of one specific survey. Each team had two transect sites to finish and luckily, we all finished them on the last day!

Top- (Left) Beautiful view of our dive entry site and our guardian, a seagull. (Right) Normal view of our swim to the temporary transects. 

Bottom- (Left) Our first snorkel/kelp crawl at Big Creek (Right) More beautiful kelp. 

I couldn’t have wished for a better way to end the AAUS/OWUSS internship. This small group of people (there were only 7 students in our class) have become lifelong friends and dive buddies. From spending time every day with each other for two weeks, we all became very close and helped build one another’s skills and experience. Through difficult and hard times, we supported each other well and lifted each other’s spirits when they were low. Scuba diving is an activity where you trust your dive buddy with your life. This allowed us to build strong relationships and work together perfectly. We trusted each other to finish surveys as a team and most importantly, dive safe. We studied hard to remember the species we needed to know to conduct surveys and we quizzed each other until we all felt comfortable and confident.

Left- Group photo of our wonderful AAUS class + Dan Abbott from Reef Check.

Middle- Fellow student, Lauren Strope, loving the kelp, water, and sun.

Right- Some locals welcoming us back to Moss Landing the day we returned. 

Deepest thanks to Diana Steller, without her there is no way I would’ve obtained four diving certifications, completed Reef Check training, helped on multiple research projects in California and Mexico, and had the time of my life this summer. I’ve learned many lessons about marine science, diving, and life from Diana. Thank you to the people from Moss Landing Marine Labs, San Diego State University, and those who participated in the AAUS Scientific Diving Course for the adventures, shared laughter, and teaching me how to be a better diver, researcher, and person. I can’t wait to see the success of future OWUSS/AAUS interns and to follow in the footsteps of past researchers and scientists. Although this is my final chapter as the OWUSS and AAUS intern, I am looking forward to dive deeper into marine science in the future.

A team (Chase McCoy, Shelby Penn, myself, Diana Steller, Mariana Kneppers) after our last dive at Big Creek.

 

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New Shores – REEF [4]

Bayside view from Sundowner’s, Key Largo. Taken while my parents were visiting near the end of my internship

Eleven weeks – it is strange to think how short my internship with REEF this summer truly was. I knew before arriving how fast the summer would go by, but the ephemeral nature of seasonal positions is always a little surprising. Before I reflect on my time in Key Largo, however, I would like to go back to this past April, when my experience with OWUSS really began.

I was just finishing up my senior year at the University of Kentucky, and I was juggling a lot of activities. The deadline for my senior thesis and poster presentation was coming up, and finals loomed just ahead. I was more than happy to take a break from finals and paper-writing the second weekend of April to travel up to New York City, a stark departure from the rolling hills of central Kentucky. This was to be an exciting weekend for several reasons – I had never been to the Big Apple, and I was about to be inducted as a member of both the Explorer’s Club and the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. On top of this, I was about to meet back up with my friend Liza Hasan, who had recently accepted this years’ AAUS Mitchell Internship. Liza and I became good friends back in 2017 when we both studied abroad in Bonaire, at a research station focusing on tropical marine ecology. We were overjoyed when we found out we had both received internships from OWUSS, knowing how rare and unique of an opportunity this was for each of us. We would also have the chance to see our friend Shannon Brown again (who was the 2018 NPS intern), who was an intern at the Bonaire research station when we were students!

After a redeye flight out of Lexington to Newark, I took in the sights of the big city as I arrived via the bus system. New York was something else – unbelievably tall and expansive, home to countless people accomplishing a million different tasks. This past spring, I visited many big cities for the first time, from New Orleans to Atlanta to San Francisco, but nothing compared to this. The awe I felt simply rolling my luggage down the streets of Midtown Manhattan added to the feeling that I was stepping into an entirely new world with this internship.

The 2019 interns! Photographed at the New York Yacht Club. From Left: Myself, Liza Hasan (AAUS Mitchell), Kyra Jean Cipolla (AAUS Somers), Michael Langhans (NPS), Abbey Dias (DAN)

The weekend would prove to be a whirlwind, what with meeting all the other interns, to official inductions at the top floor of the Radisson, to a night of dancing at 48 Lounge. We made a wild realization that four out of the five 2019 interns had all had Dr. Franziska Elmer as our research mentor at one point (including me and Liza). And this was all the first night! It turned out that Kyra and Abbey had both completed research projects under Dr. Elmer while studying abroad at the School for Field Studies in Turks & Caicos recently, while Liza, Shannon, and I all knew her through the Bonaire program. All of these seemingly random connections painted a beautiful picture of how the OWUSS community functions – it is there, in part, to get qualified young people in touch with the people they need to, in order to forge a path forward in the underwater world. This would become apparent the next day, when we had several socials and formal events at the Explorers Club and New York Yacht Club, respectively. Everyone in the society was incredibly excited to meet us and hear about our ambitions and university studies, as well as introduce us to past OWUSS interns and scholars. Hearing the presentations of each prior intern/scholar and how they were all going on to do amazing things in their fields directly after their experiences was inspiring. Not only that, but it was a challenge to do great things and build upon my own experience with REEF.

Pastel illustration at the Explorers Club

Roosevelt Portrait in the Explorers Club

It was with that challenge that I returned to Kentucky to finish out my undergraduate career and then move on to the Florida Keys. But I had one surprise yet in store – just before leaving for New York, I had sent in an application to work as a Waterfront Assistant at the same field station that Dr. Elmer worked at in Turks & Caicos. Just before finals week hit in late April, I received an email saying I had been offered the job! I was both overjoyed and immediately stress-planning about how this would all work. Coming on as a Waterfront Assistant was contingent upon me completing my Divemaster (DM) certification over the summer, since I would start in Turks & Caicos in late August. Thankfully, REEF would end up being incredibly accommodating and allow me to complete my DM throughout the summer (read more here).

And that brings us back to the present. In the time since my last blog post, my time with REEF mostly consisted of wrapping up my personal project and working as a camp counselor once again. These coincidentally were my favorite aspects of being a REEF intern! The flexibility to pursue one’s own project at the REEF office (while not assisting with office work, lionfish derbies, Fish & Friends seminars, etc.) was exciting, especially because of the support offered by the staff. Two of the remote staff, Janna Nichols and Christy Pattengill-Semmens, were instrumental in helping me put together a Quizlet program, as part of the Learning Resources for the Volunteer Fish Survey Project. David gave me the idea early on to produce PowerPoint slides to help surveyors learn all the Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced fish species of the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA). I ended up using Quizlet instead, and developed lists of all the relevant species for each tier of difficulty, and then matching up photos with the common and species names of each species. Part of what was so exciting about this was that in the process I became much better at identifying TWA fish myself. What made this really rewarding, though, was the knowledge that my work would reach a wide, potentially international audience through the REEF website. Christy and Janna helped me get my Quizlets integrated directly into the website (see here). Not only that, but now REEF staff and volunteers are putting together Quizlets for every other region, making it truly accessible for anybody that wants to learn fish ID of a region anywhere in the world. One of my main goals going into the summer was to make the science that we do in the marine world more accessible, and I could not have been more satisfied with how this turned out.

It was (almost) always a joy working with the kids at Ocean Explorers Camp. Can’t beat a re-creation of the Titanic

As my personal project winded down, my last week at REEF ended up being as a camp counselor again. I never expected to love working with the kids as much as I did, but couldn’t have been happier having another go at Ocean Explorers Camp. This time I went in with a bit of experience under my belt, and made a commitment to do things a bit differently. I made a concerted effort to spend more time getting to know each camper, instead of just a few (as fun as getting chased around by Dakota the first week was!), and in doing so I feel that I connected with the kids pretty well. It was incredible seeing how quickly they could absorb knowledge about the ecology of the Florida Keys, and it gave me a chance to improve my interpretation skills. I have learned that kids in the 8-12 age range are perfectly equipped to learn a ton of information in a short amount of time, but only if you manage to keep their attention for more than a few minutes! A big part of that was figuring out how much each kid already knew about fish, corals, etc., and then not underestimating their knowledge, but instead building on what they already know and were interested in. I was surprised at how quickly I got back in the flow of being a counselor that week, and honestly I could see myself working in some marine education for children again in the future, whether through a job or as a volunteering effort. None of the kids gave me any adorable collages this time around, but I still felt a connection with them and won’t soon forget their unabashed excitement for the underwater world.

Natalie had her turn as the captain! Taken while out on John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s glass bottom boat.

With that final week at REEF completed, my internship now consisted of intensive Divemaster training through the first week of August. I had finished the bulk of my training requirements throughout the summer, on days off and over the weekends, however there were still my final written exams. With some feverish last-minute studying and review of decompression theory, I passed both sections of the written exam! Now it was time to get more time out on the boat and actually leading dives. I had already led a couple dives, covered in my third blog, but it was important to see what it was like leading dives for tourists/locals of various experience levels from morning to close, and then coming right back the next day and doing it all over again. That is how I learned to deal with the random challenges that popped up day-to-day, such as what to do when someone’s gear from the prior day got left at home, or how to lead a dive for a customer who lost their certification cards. On top of that, I was very happy to get the extra experience leading dives/working the boat, since that is what I will be doing for students in Turks & Caicos for the next year. Key Dives was the perfect shop to learn from this summer, largely because it was such a small shop with a tight-knit staff. They all expected the very best of me and pushed me to learn from my mistakes after every dive, even the small ones. If I momentarily lost where the mooring line was and had to ask for a direction, you can bet I was given some constructive criticism about it back on the surface. I had to learn quickly, and ultimately it all paid off. By the end of my DM training, I was very comfortable leading dives, pointing out rare fauna unique to certain sites. I was lucky enough to spot more than ten bonnethead sharks on a dive over a seagrass-heavy area on my very last trip with Key Dives, and the group I was leading was loving it.

Cutting through the crystal blue waters of Islamorada on the Key Dives boat, the horizon is endless

 

Bud n’ Mary’s Marina, where the Key Dives boat departed every day

The Key DIves shop!

With that last day at Key Dives, my internship officially concluded. However, I will soon be taking everything I learned to new shores in Turks & Caicos. I can’t say enough how thankful I am to everyone at REEF for helping make this summer incredibly memorable, as well as vital for my professional development. With newfound experience in everything from K-12 outreach to dive briefing, I am equipped to move forward in the field of marine science as a much improved educator. My time at REEF may be over, but I cannot wait to see the great things that future REEF/OWUSS interns go on to do next year!

The marina behind the Square Grouper restaurant, in Islamorada

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What is a Rhodolith?

By the end of this blog entry, trust me, you will know. From July 15th  to the 25th I had the pleasure of assisting on several different research projects around Catalina Island, California. After packing personal gear, dive gear, an inflatable boat, motor, and research gear from Moss Landing Marine Operations we set off for San Pedro. From San Pedro to Catalina (about a 5-hour drive), we discussed research projects and I grew more and more excited for diving around the island.

Avalon, Catalina Island

A clear day for diving at Avalon!

Diana Steller and Matthew Edwards are co-principal investigators on the main research project titled “Minimizing disturbance impacts by California vessel mooring systems on living rhodolith benthos in Catalina MPAs: an experimental assessment”. The project objectives are: “to identify and experimentally evaluate potential vessel mooring systems that may reduce impacts to rhodolith beds and other sensitive Catalina Island benthic habitats; to identify a suite of efficient field metrics to rigorously monitor integrity and recovery of rhodolith habitats; and to assess productivity and ecosystem functioning of rhodolith beds in order to evaluate restoration potential for recovery of impacted habitat.” (Steller & Edwards, SeaGrant). This involves many hours of scientific diving, lab work, and a few boxes of Oreos for energy.

A round rhodolith!

Scottie loves his greens!

Right on the day we arrived at Two Harbors (Big Fishermen’s Cove), I dove with the Survey Team at Emerald Bay. The Survey Team consisted of Diana Steller (Research Faculty/DSO of MLML and my internship host), Scott Gabara (Ph.D. candidate at San Diego State University and former MLML student), June Shrestha (MLML graduate student), and myself. Throughout the trip, we went to 6 different study sites and conducted benthic surveys inside and outside rhodolith beds.

Each of us had a different task and would attempt to complete them on dives that were a little over an hour long each. June conducted fish surveys and Scott would lay out the transect, identify the benthic substrate, count and identify the associated organisms on top of the rhodoliths within a 20 m transect. Diana and I would work with Scott on the same transect and use a 25 cm x 25 cm quadrat for substrate percent cover and we dug for organisms like snails, sea stars, urchins, and other small creatures. We also obtained sediment cores to collect live and dead rhodoliths to do size frequencies (where we took abundance in each size class and measured the volume).

Getting a rhodolith core isn’t as easy (or clean) as you think…

Scottie surveying the rhodolith bed using a quadrat.

 

Me holding a lovely rhodolith core.

A clean and clear core.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another section of the Rhodolith project involved deploying underwater chambers. There were 10 chambers in total, some located within rhodolith beds and some on top of crushed rhodolith/sand habitat. Inside the chambers were sensors that took measurements of water quality. During chamber surveys, benthic details and cores are taken as well. An additional part of the chamber experiment involved crushing of the rhodoliths with chains to mimic the crushing action of mooring chains. A Tupperware, rigid cylinder, and a spoon were used to collect live rhodoliths in order to bring them back to the lab to find size-frequency for each within and outside rhodolith bed samples.

Some brittle stars wanted to say hello! (Look close and you can see their arms)

Now on to the important part: what is a rhodolith? How does it form a bed? Most people don’t know what rhodoliths are. One day, a local boater on Catalina asked us what we were diving for and we responded “we’re observing rhodolith beds” and he replied that there isn’t much to see there within the bays. But truthfully, a rhodolith bed is a whole new world. If you look up a rhodolith on Wikipedia, you’ll read that rhodoliths are “ colorful, unattached, branching, crustose, benthic marine red algae that resemble coral. Rhodolith beds create biogenic habitat for diverse benthic communities.” This is definitely true plus they deposit calcium carbonate within their cell walls so they form small hard structure just like hard corals do. However, rhodoliths are unlike coral since they don’t attach themselves to any rocky substrate or seabed. That’s why they’re often called tumbleweeds because they roll around the sand and have thin branches. Rhodoliths are autotrophic and produce energy through photosynthesis so they only survive in the photic zone where it’s shallow and light can reach the little rhodoliths.

It wouldn’t be an interesting field season with just one project going on. An interesting project that was unrelated to rhodoliths was Taylor Eddy’s project on spatial variation in spiny lobster foraging preferences. Taylor is studying how spiny lobsters interact with the intertidal habitat and the seasonal variability of these interactions. Specifically, she is looking at how different food resources available in this habitat affects their reproduction and demography (size, sex, and abundance). To do this, she collects lobsters at high tide in the intertidal and subtotal, records the size, sex, and reproductive status of each lobster, and then removes a leg (don’t worry, they grow back!) to get a muscle sample for a diet study. Taylor is a CSUMB and MLML student working on her Master’s thesis and has conducted research on Catalina numerous times. We had to collect lobsters on three transects at night from two sites (Big Fishermen’s Cove and Birdrock). The first collection night, my role was the “runner”. I shined a red light on one end of the transect while two divers (Riley Young of CSUMB and Dillon Dolinar of SDSU) collected as many lobsters as they could with their hands. We could use only red lights because lobsters don’t see the color red which was a new fact to me. Once they collected lobsters, I brought them to the boat where Taylor got her measurements.

Snails love rhodoliths!

A Garibaldi wanted to say hello during our research dive! First time I saw one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were two main tasks that had to be done in the lab: size frequency and core live/dead processing. To do a size-frequency, we 1) separate live rhodoliths into three different size classes 2) count the number of rhodoliths in each size class 3) measure the volume of each size class along with the dry mass of the rhodoliths once they’re entirely dry. We did the same thing with the sediment cores without separating them by size, just by live and dead ones.

Dillon Dolinar (SDSU) happily removing water from a collected core.

 

Samples in their Petri dishes

Darrin Ambat (SDSU) sorting live and dead rhodoliths collected from a core.

Upclose with size-frequency rhodoliths

Dillon and Ehrick placing snails that were tagged at Isthmus Cove.

Charnelle happily sorting live and dead rhodolith from a core.

Freshly tagged snails.

Charnelle Wickliff, a student of California State University Monterey Bay and Moss Landing, has a project with the goal of measuring snail growth and movement between rhodolith beds, rocky reef, and kelp forest. This involved collecting Megastraea sp. from the rhodolith beds, measuring the width, and tagging them with a number using super glue (without gluing your fingers together). The snails were returned to the beds with markers. Charnelle will return to those markers and resample the area to find the snails and reevaluate their growth and movement between habitats.

Fun finds on a dive at Avalon! Plus a snail wanted a picture of itself!

Me measuring the width of one of our lovely snails.

Cat Harbor during an evening hike.

I will definitely miss the fun times, diving, and sunsets at Catalina! Stay tuned for my next blog post on the next chapter of my internship: AAUS Scientific Diving Course!

 

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Under the Sea – REEF [3]

A hulking mass loomed in the deep blue water, far away but not enough to escape the limited visibility. I only noticed it because the instructor, Jason, had motioned excitedly to our group, pointing off in the distance a couple moments before. It generally takes a lot for the instructors at Key Dives to get that excited underwater, so I figured it had to be something great. Sure enough, I soon realized that I was looking at none other than a pair of Goliath Groupers. One would be forgiven for mistaking these colossal fish for submarines cruising through the deep tropical waters. Words cannot describe how small I felt for a moment, witnessing these groupers go about their day around me, inching closer as we hovered transfixed. I had long known about this species but never really understood how awesome it would be to see them in person. While they are not the longest fish I have seen, their sheer weight and size is what makes them mind-boggling. I did not snap any photos because I was taking on a supervisory role that dive (to say nothing of how I forgot my GoPro on the boat), but I will savor the memory forever. All the more exciting was that this sighting occurred while diving the wreck of the Eagle. A Dutch ship built in 1962 that went on to change hands between owners in Israel and the Cayman Islands, it was struck by an electrical fire in 1985 and purchased by Monroe County in the Keys (read more here). Like several wrecks in the Keys, the Eagle was intentionally sunk to transform it into an artificial reef. These reef-wrecks are a huge draw for tourism, and part of the reason I am able to find such fantastic diving in the Florida Keys. We saw these particular goliath groupers after falling, scuba-style, through a huge hole in the side of the Eagle. Since the Eagle rests on its side, this meant positioning carefully over the hole, exhaling, and letting gravity do the work as we descended straight through the wreck, bottoming out near 100 feet deep over the sand.

View from the bow of the Giant Stride, Key Dives’ vessel

I found myself on that unbelievable dive of the Eagle while completing my deep dive scenario for divemaster training. I have not touched all that much on the pure diving aspect of my summer so far in these blogs, and here I wanted to highlight that. For the record, I do not have any photos from my divemaster training since often I am supervising other divers and need to keep my focus on them. For that reason, I have peppered photos from various other dives this past month throughout the post to give an idea of what I have seen in the water! Anyway, for the first several weeks at REEF, all of my diving consisted of fish surveys, from boats run by several different dive shops throughout Key Largo. I wanted to start off slow, because prior to arrival, my only dives since Bonaire (Fall 2017) had been a couple quarry dives in Kentucky last year. While I arrived as a certified Rescue diver and was a very confident diver leaving Bonaire, it had been a long time and I knew I was taking on a big commitment by aiming to complete my divemaster as a REEF intern. I wanted to respect my upcoming training as the considerable challenge I knew it would be, and so I first spent some time in the water getting my “sea legs” back. Being able to brush up on my tropical fish identification while doing so was all the better. By the time I finally arrived at Key Dives (a dive shop in Islamorada, south of Key Largo) in late June to start my training, I felt ready. I knew that this summer I would need to become a much improved diver and educator within a very short amount of time, and I wanted to hit the ground running.

Shortfin pipefish (Cosmocampus elucens), shot while doing a REEF fish survey on Blue Heron Bridge (BHB), West Palm Beach

The four weeks since starting that adventure have made this the summer of a lifetime. My training started out simple with a lot of pool work, mostly knocking out water skills as well as my scuba skills circuit. I have been doing my training alongside another man named Kent, who has been nothing but helpful and supportive as we progressed along. My first experience with the skill circuit was in a nice heated pool at Mike’s house, the owner of Key Dives. I realized then how tightknit the staff at the shop was, both by how willing Mike was to open up his house for me and Kent, but also the fact that Cortney, one of the instructors, offered to come over after hours to help us. I won’t lie: I totally failed that first circuit, but I came out of the pool happy as could be. I knew before even starting that I was not going to have all of my skills down because it had been a while since doing some of them, and to pass the circuit you have to successfully demonstrate all 24 skills relevant to teaching new divers. That said, I only failed a handful of skills, so I knew exactly what to work on going forward. Within a week or so, I had finished the circuit to demonstration quality!

Diving with the other interns at BHB

With the circuit complete, I was now entrusted to demonstrate skills to divers training to get their Open Water certification. And so a few weekends ago, I worked with a father and his young son to get the son certified, and I was able to see him nearly all the way through his open water course, from pool work to checkout dives in a local marina. It was incredibly fulfilling to see the light turn on for the student as he grasped the concept of letting go and breathing through a regulator, and seeing what it was like to glide underwater in the way only scuba diving allows. These checkout dives were in a pretty unique spot too – since seas were rough that day, we dove in Jules’ Undersea Lodge. Jules’ is a local attraction nestled in a marina far from any wave action, and is in fact the only underwater hotel in the United States. Tenants stay the night by diving down about 25 feet and are greeted by a transfixing display of schooling fish attracted by the shelter of the mangroves. At the bottom is a fully furnished hotel room, complete with food and drink brought down to you. While we didn’t get to stay the night ourselves, being able to take our time and see the benthic community was a great time, for both the student and myself.

The only undersea hotel in the United States!

The visibility at Jules’ was less than stellar however, which reminded of my own open water checkout dives done in the summer of 2017 in Falling Rock Park, a quarry in Kentucky. There is something special about learning to dive in such an environment because any stray movements can kick up silt that obscures visibility, from hours to entire days. Being forced to treat the benthic environment with care is a huge benefit for those so new to diving, something that, for me at least, carried over into my dives I would end up doing in warmer waters. Diving here in the tropics is generally very easy – the water is clear and warm, and visibility only gets low when there is a rare strong current, or if you are diving deep areas like wrecks. But carrying over that level of care for the substrate below is just as important here – you never know if your next fin kick could stunt years of growth on a head of coral!

Bridge foundation at BHB. The benthic communities found here are similar to the communities found in the Jules’ Undersea Lodge marina (sponges, hydroids, cnidaria, bivalves)

Back to divemaster, though: after successfully assisting with the training of the open water student, it was time to lead a few dives myself. I previously co-led scientific research dives in Bonaire, but that was on a dive site I knew by heart, and with an experienced buddy that I was very familiar with. Last Friday on the boat with Key Dives, I was tasked with leading a group of three that I had never met and had varying levels of dive experience, out on a site that I had never dived before. The dive briefing itself went very well, however I knew the biggest challenge would simply be navigating an unfamiliar site. After getting dropped at a site with a ripping current and no reef in sight, captain Kenny re-positioned the boat nearby. This time went as smoothly as I could have hoped – I looped in and out of a beautiful patch of spur and groove reef, always aware of where the boat was above me. It was a liberating feeling, knowing that I could do this, and it was gratifying to see the group I was leading having a blast and filming video of sharks and turtles around us.

Yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis) eyeing the camera. Photo by Michael Langhans

Flying gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans) – I was very excited to see one of these fish at BHB!

With a large chunk of my divemaster training behind me now, I have been able to take a breather for a bit and hop in the water for some fun dives. I was very happy to carve out time to dive with Michael, the current OWUSS NPS intern, on Blue Heron Bridge (BHB) in West Palm Beach. Thus, we have continued the time-honored tradition of the NPS and REEF interns meeting up over the summer! Michael has been staying near Biscayne National Park for the better part of July, and we were able to make our schedules match. Over the course of two weekends, Michael, myself, and all the other interns/lead interns at REEF dove BHB together. BHB is regarded as some of the best shore diving in the world, and I must say it was my favorite experience diving so far. I gained an intense appreciation for just how impactful macro photography can be, watching Stacey and Michael spend 30 minutes at a time photographing a pair of frogfish. While I am currently only equipped with an older GoPro, I used that time to really search for the smaller things in the substrate, and was completely blown away by the sheer diversity of life found at BHB. One moment I was watching a frogfish waddle along the sand, and another I was catching a fleeting glimpse of an uncommon blenny species as it darted into an old car rim.

Striated frogfish (Antennarius striatus). Masters of camouflage, we happened to catch this one out in the open! Photo by Stacey Henderson

Banded jawfish, Opistognathus macrognathus. Jawfish are often very cautious of divers and will duck into their holes when threatened. Photo by Michael Langhans

Our BHB dives ended up both being almost two hours long, since the site is so shallow and air lasts for a long time at ten feet. Given the time to relax and study one spot for hours, I would say that was the most content I have ever been on a dive. When Michael and Stacey shared their photos with everyone above-water, I felt as if I had missed an entire level of detail present at the site. Crisp underwater macrophotography tells a story unlike any other: the subtle markings on certain fish become apparent, the shape of the eyes suddenly becomes entrancing, the coloration of the skin gains depth. The dedication that Michael brings to the NPS internship through his photography is hard to miss, and it was in fact part of what inspired me to recently purchase an underwater camera myself! I have featured photos by him and Stacey from Blue Heron Bridge throughout this post, to provide an idea of what I have been seeing the past few weeks.

I finally got the chance to dive with Michael, the OWUSS NPS intern! Keeping the tradition alive. Photo by Stacey Henderson

With some fun dives out of the way, I will be finishing up my divemaster here over the next few weeks, but not before a second round of Ocean Explorer’s summer camp! I am very excited to oversee another group of campers as they learn about the underwater world of the Florida Keys. Since my time at REEF is coming to a close soon, I am also finishing up a few long-term projects related to REEF’s Volunteer Fish Survey Project. Stay tuned to hear more on that front!

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Behind the scenes of dive safety: Hyperbaric chambers and cylinders

“The bends” — or decompression sickness (DCS) — can be a serious dive-related injury that results from inadequate elimination of accumulated inert gases (like nitrogen) from body tissues. The body absorbs more gas from breathing while diving than it does at the surface in attempt to equilibrize gas concentrations in tissue with the increasing ambient pressure of the surroundings. Therefore, to reverse this process and eliminate the accumulated gas, the reduction in ambient pressure must be slow and controlled. For this reason, it is recommended that divers do not exceed an ascent rate of 30 feet/9 meters per minute and they perform a safety stop to wash out as much remaining gas that was accumulated under pressure as possible. In the event of a rapid ascent, inert gases are not properly washed out from the body tissues and the person becomes “bent.”

If a person is suspected to have DCS, they will be sent to the nearest medical facility to be evaluated by a physician, and then DAN will contact the nearest available hyperbaric facility for treatment.

A common misconception about hyperbaric treatment of DCS is that it causes bubbled nitrogen in the body to re-dissolve back into the blood. The real benefit to hyperbaric treatment is that the act of breathing oxygen at increased pressure and concentration creates a pressure gradient. This gradient allows for more effective removal of other gases in the body (like nitrogen) through exhalation and addresses the inflammatory response to aid in healing as well. Hyperbaric medicine is not just for scuba divers, because the benefits of high concentrations of oxygen can be used to treat serious infections and heal wounds resulting from diabetes or radiation treatment, as well as treat other indicated conditions.

The entrance and inside of the chamber “Charlie.” Operating lights are visible hanging from the ceiling because the chamber was originally intended for use as an operating room for open-heart surgeries. Since the invention of the heart and lung machine (at the same time as the chamber was finished), this is no longer needed.

 

 

 

Duke’s hyperbaric medical facility has an interconnected multi-place chamber system, and recently the other DAN interns and I received a tour of the facility from Eric Schinazi, a hyperbaric chamber specialist at Duke. He shared with us the history of the chambers, how they were built, how they’re controlled, and how air is compressed.

The control panel station for all the chambers at Duke. Pressure gauges are visible (large round circles) and are very similar to the pressure gauge on scuba cylinders.

While we were touring the chamber, there was a research project being conducted on oxygen toxicity. We got to peek into the research chamber to see how the research subject was preparing to exercise while breathing compressed gas in the chamber.

Looking into the small pool in the research chamber. The research subject is preparing to exercise on a bike sitting under the water. He is connected to various sets of electrodes and a respirometer for monitoring outside the chamber.

A big thanks to Eric for such a wonderful tour! I hope to stay out of hyperbaric chambers during my diving career, but it was a great experience to learn what hyperbaric treatment involves.

Cylinders:

Speaking of compressed gas, last week DAN employees and interns also had the opportunity to visit the Luxfer aluminum cylinder manufacturer where we learned how the cylinders are made and tested — it was like an episode of “How It’s Made”!

Cylinders are created from one piece of metal and formed into their shape through heating and pressure manipulations. Pictures were not allowed in the factory, so to get an idea of what the process looked like, you can check out this YouTube video of steel cylinders being created. It is generally the same process, except for minor differences between steel and aluminum cylinder production and details unique to each processing factory.

A ruptured cylinder. Cylinders are designed to split like this in the event of an explosion, to avoid fragmenting and shrapnel. This proves how essential it is to take good care of gear.

While at the facility, we also had the opportunity to take a visual cylinder inspection course from Mark Gresham, CEO of PSI-PCI (Professional Scuba/Cylinder Inspectors).

All cylinders need to have a visual inspection at least once per year (and hydrostatic testing every 5 years), but visual inspections should be done more often if there is reason to believe the cylinder may have sustained damage. This could be from dropping a cylinder, running the cylinder dry (because this greatly increases the risk of water getting into the cylinder), heat exposure, or after it’s been stored for a long period of time. In the event of an explosion, cylinders are designed to split down the middle (photo to the left) to avoid fragmenting and shrapnel.

Mark also was very generous to meet with us at DAN earlier this week to continue educating us on Oxygen cleaning and cylinder valve inspection. I took my first valve apart, and then put it back together! Let’s hope it still works!

 

A special thanks to Mark for his generous time and for sharing loads of knowledge with us.

I am very thankful to this opportunity from OWUSS and DAN to gain so much exposure to all the different fields that play a role in making diving functional and safe, as well as the opportunity to learn from people at the top of their fields.

This week underwater:

“Stop polluting our water!”—A message from the fish.

 

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Dive Safety Ins and Outs

 

The Giant from Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz. Photo: K. Cipolla

The one word that perfectly describes the past few weeks would be exploration. In all different meanings: mental exploration and physical exploration. Now that I am back in California in between research trips, I’ve had the chance to explore terrestrial and marine environments of the local area. The day after the Mexico trip, I saw some Redwoods up close for the first time. There were so many people of different backgrounds enjoying the park and the educational trail guides. Parks are great protected lands that improve water quality, provide vegetative buffers to development, produce habitat for wildlife, and provide a place for children and families to connect with nature. It made me think of ways to get people to connect with the ocean like they do with forests. Engaging people from a variety of genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, perspectives, backgrounds, areas of expertise, religions, cultures, and other variables to connect with nature and science is so important and this small exploration allowed me to really dig deep in thought about the availability of the ocean life to diverse groups of people. This was a great experience out of the water and a fun break before diving into more dive-related activities in Moss Landing.

Visual inspection for scuba tanks. Photo: Rhea’s Diving

I am so lucky that I get to learn about not only research diving techniques, but also about dive safety, gear maintenance, and dive planning. I shadowed the Assistant Dive Safety Officer at Moss Landing Marine Labs, Shelby Penn, for a few days and got to learn and help on various tasks. On the first day, tasks consisted of reorganizing tank records that Moss Landing keeps and I learned about tumbling tanks, hydrostatic testing, and much more. The second day, Shelby showed me how to visually inspect tanks and all the workings inside the valve. We inspected a few tanks after emptying them, by inspecting the inside for rust and bumps, cleaning out the tank, switching some new parts for the valve, and cleaning the valve. I can now say with confidence that I can put a valve back together!

Shelby Penn (Assistant DSO & our handy dandy oxygen kits) Photo: K. Cipolla

On the last day, we did maintenance on some Oxygen Kits at Marine Operations and added in new gear, replaced some old parts, and updated the records. This taught me more about the proper gear to keep in oxygen kits and made me more familiar with these important safety tools. Now I know exactly what goes into emergency O2 first aid, as well as other first aid techniques I learned in DAN’s Diving First Aid for Dive Professionals (DFA Pro) course that I took at the beginning of the internship.

Besides learning about dive safety, I got to assist a Moss Landing graduate student, Max Rintoul, with his thesis project focused on kelp growth at Granite Canyon with another Moss Student, Dan Gossard. I learned more and more about the history of MLML  and several grad students’ experiences. From how they created their research project, worked through stages of revisions with their advisor and mentors, actually going out in the field (or lab) to observe or conduct experiments, and finally working through samples/data to answer their research question.

 

 

Clear, beautiful view of Granite Canyon from the water. Photo: Dan Gossard

Max puncturing the kelp in order to measure the growth in a month from now. Photo: Dan Gossard

Granite Canyon Dive Site. Photo: Dan Gossard

Moss Landing Marine Laboratories administers the Master of Science in marine science program for California State Universities in northern and central California and is dedicated to both education and research. It is so great to meet graduate students who work at Moss Landing but are from different California State Universities. I love the collaboration between the students and faculty, between lab members, and between different labs entirely. When you’re a scientist, one of the best parts of the job is getting to work with other scientists. It’s sharing your ideas with other people and together creating the best science that you can. I am super excited to work with more scientists especially since I am going to Catalina Island in a few days to help with multiple Rhodolith projects! More on that next time!

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Summer Camp Round Two – REEF [2]

Sunset view of the palm trees swaying in the wind at La Jolla Resort

Summer camp was always a special experience for me as a kid. Growing up, camp was a time for me to escape from the confines of the classroom and explore new possibilities during summer breaks. My parents were great and exposed me to plenty of different kinds of camps, my favorite being one that was held on a sprawling farm called Pepperhill in the backcountry of Kentucky. I begged my parents to sign me up again, year after year, because there was something so reassuring about knowing I had untold adventures awaiting for me every summer. Whether it was horseback riding, gaining experience levels in the pool, shooting archery, or going on caving trips, summers on Pepperhill developed interests for me that I never would have had otherwise. Camp took an already burgeoning personal interest in the outdoors and developed it into a burning curiosity for what lied in store for me, essentially in my backyard.

You may be wondering why I am talking about a camp back in Kentucky on a blog post about REEF and the underwater world. Which is reasonable. I say all this because I see no better way of prefacing why contributing to REEF’s Ocean Explorers Camp was so meaningful for me. A few weeks ago I met 15 campers on a Monday morning, bright and early. We were stationed under a small structure called Grouper Pavilion in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, going through the stages of trying to remember everyone’s names. The first few campers that I interacted with under the pavilion only took interest in me because I sat down at the crafts table and started sketching a (terribly depicted) tropical fish. I did not expect them to be so excited to join in, but soon they were producing drawings way better than mine! Keep in mind these were 3rd graders (the ages of campers ranged up to about 8th grade). I had no idea what I was getting into, to be honest, since I had never acted in this kind of capacity with kids so young before. The closest I had come was helping run a live touch tank in Charleston last summer, but being an actual camp counselor this time around brought with it more responsibilities. I did my best to hang back and let the kids enjoy their activities on the first day, and watched to see how Brittany, our supervisor, handled the kids’ endless questions. I wanted to make sure that I was being a good role model, especially since this was Ocean Explorers Camp – what these kids learned about the ocean during their week with us could truly make a lasting impression. That said, my first day mostly consisted of supervising kayaking and snorkeling activities, so my job was mainly to keep kids from absconding into the mangroves.

Matt, one of the other interns assisting with Ocean Explorers camp, and his camper Will on our first mangrove kayaking trip

Over the next couple of days at Pennekamp we spent time out on the reef, via glass bottom boat and a snorkeling charter. I learned that there is truly no better way to distract children than by sticking them on a boat where they can look down and see the ocean. Several large nurse sharks and barracudas swam by under the boat, serving to both entrance the kids and provide us interns a much needed break from constantly wrangling runaway children. This was also around the time when a girl named Dakota became particularly enamored with stealing my sunglasses (and occasionally my buff). She and a couple of her friends were actually the same campers who outdrew my feeble attempt at a fish on the first day of camp. I am not sure what was so special about my personal belongings, but she was so proud of wearing them out on the boat that eventually I gave up and let her do her thing.

10 out of the 15 campers, at the front of the glass bottom boat. It was never easy to get this many of them in one shot! Photo by Matthew Hall

The kids couldn’t keep their eyes off the reef. Nothing like a couple nurse sharks to keep them occupied

On Thursday, we went back out on the boat, but this time the kids got to jump in the water and see the reef up close. Our boat stopped near the locally famous Christ of the Abyss Statue, which has a neat history, as a Pennekamp Park Ranger told us. It was one of a set of three Christ statues sunk around the world, this one sunk in Dry Rocks reef off Key Largo in 1965. The first two were sunk in Italy and in Grenada, to commemorate a fallen diver and as a gift to the people of St. George’s, respectively. I had never visited this renowned site, and I was just as excited as the kids to snorkel around the statue. Making sure the group didn’t stray too far from the boat was a bit stressful, but if anything it was good preparation for my divemaster training this summer! After a nice day out on the water, we enjoyed a relaxing boat ride back to the mainland, where the kids got to witness a pod of dolphins frolicking through the water.

Christ of the Abyss Statue. Photo by Bates Littlehales, National Geographic 1971

Heading back from snorkeling, the captain sighted a pod of dolphins. Here the kids looked on as we circled back around

And so the final day of camp arrived. On a second kayak trip out to the mangroves, my boat partner was none other than Dakota, the sunglasses-snatcher. She asked if I would be back next year, and I had to tell her maybe, but that I would probably be elsewhere. I could tell she really enjoyed being at camp and didn’t want to leave – a very sweet moment. Near the end of the day when the campers got to visit the gift shop, she ended up spending a decent chunk of her money on a pair of sunglasses and a buff, so she could look “just like Mr. Ben.” I honestly had to keep it together a little bit when she said that, and I knew it was going to be hard to say goodbye to this group. Around this time, I also got to spend more time with the other half of the group I had not interacted with as much throughout the week. They were a bit older than the others, and were genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say about identifying all the different fish in Pennekamp’s mini-aquarium. Gaining experience interpreting facts about tropical marine conservation to an age group I wasn’t used to was a huge plus for me during Ocean Explorers camp.

The group learning how to make “slime” (a mixture of water and flour). The slime represented slimy materials that marine fish use all the time, from mucus coating the bodies of moray eels to bubbles that parrotfish sleep in at night

At the end of the day Friday, the campers were tasked with making their own collages using photo prints from the past week. Dakota refused to leave without giving me hers, one that she had put a lot of work into, and my heart melted a little bit more. I realized then that I saw myself in these campers. When I was that age, positive experiences where I could really dive into a new environment were so important, and it was special to be on the other side this time as a counselor. I have actually gone ahead and signed up to help out with another summer camp at the end of the summer, as a nice send-off from my time at REEF.

Aside from summer camp, another huge aspect of REEF’s outreach during the summer are lionfish derbies. My first derby was right after summer camp week, which was a pretty dramatic turnaround. Just after the last camper departed on Friday, we grabbed our dive gear and headed up to Ft Lauderdale for the weekend. Friday night we took it easy and met up with Alli and Moose, the staff members that head the Invasive Species Program at REEF. Early Saturday morning, we headed over to Sea Experience dive shop to help set up for the day’s lionfish dive. At the shop, Alli presented about lionfish, explaining to participants how lionfish invaded the Atlantic, how lionfish have devastated native fish populations, and how we can help fend off the invasion. Many of the participants were fishermen, who were very gung-ho about getting in the water and spearing some invasive fish!

After weathering a very rainy and overcast morning, we set out for our afternoon lionfish dives. This would be my first time spearfishing, as well as my first time participating in a drift dive. I was nervous, but very excited to be out on the boat and gaining new experiences. As we approached the dive site about 5 miles off the coast of Ft Lauderdale, the Miami skyline greeted us through a post-rain glow. Giant striding into the ocean with that scenery around me was surreal, and it only got more exciting as we descended to ~80 feet. The ocean floor was very different than what I was used to on the reefs surrounding the Keys – some of the same fish and coral species were scattered across the bottom, but the terrain was flat and unforgiving. Additionally, the concept of having to let the current take me where it pleased was humbling. Not so humbling, however, was being able to spear my first lionfish. I missed the first couple tries and was fairly disheartened, but kept at it and was able to get a great shot into a sizeable fish. Lionfish are so unused to being predated in the Atlantic that it was hardly a hunt at all, but nevertheless I felt a rush of excitement. I was suddenly reminded of why diving is so rewarding for me – there is nothing quite like being able to explore and contribute to scientific efforts. It never hurts to be carrying a spear underwater either.

Me spearing my second lionfish off the coast of Ft Lauderdale. Notice how my hand is not actually around the spear – don’t do that! The lionfish could have easily swum off with the spear in it (not exactly ideal). Photo by Tom Sparke

On Sunday, the festivities really began with the Ft Lauderdale Derby. Thirty total divers brought in 417 invasive lionfish (you can read more about that here)! As part of the team helping measure each catch, this meant I was chucking hundreds of lionfish up onto a table for Moose to process. Team members looked on eagerly to see if they brought in the biggest fish, since there were awards for biggest/smallest catches, as well as most fish caught. The biggest catch ended up being 392 mm, or about 1.3 feet! The event was a whirlwind of activity, but it was a great chance to see citizen science in action. Each catch and its measurements were logged, which will help contribute to an ongoing project to see how many lionfish are present off the coasts of Florida. A large part of why I was excited to take this internship was the ability to help out with events that truly engage the local community, and this was a perfect example of that. I am very much looking forward to the Sarasota Derby being held at Mote Marine Laboratory this coming weekend.

Me and Moose handling lionfish at the Derby, with team members looking on

A lionfish that was in the middle of eating a goatfish too big for its stomach. Invasive lionfish are known to be gluttonous, eating just about anything that fits in their mouths

It is strange to think I only have about a month left as a REEF intern – there are so many projects going on here, a few of which I will center my upcoming blog posts about. Of particular interest to me is the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, which I am planning on committing much of my time to in the next several weeks. I am also hoping to team up with Michael, the current National Parks Service Intern, for a day, so stay tuned for that. I would also recommend reading his excellent post about Isle Royale National Park!

Lastly, below are some stray photos from fish survey dives I have been doing while not corralling kids or spearing lionfish:

My favorite photo I have taken so far, albeit without any color correction. I love seeing healthy Acropora palmata (elkhorn coral) out on the reefs, as that can be few and far between now in the Keys. Coral Restoration Foundation is doing great things to help restore this species – I hope to volunteer with them soon!

Flowing gorgonian

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Turtley Amazing Trip to El Pardito, Mexico

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to help on a wide variety of research projects that took place on and around the beautiful island of El Pardito. But before I get into the extraordinary stories of the sunsets, hikes, and inspiring research. I must explain how we got there …

The first segment of the research trip to Mexico consisted of waking up at 3am to go from San Jose Airport to San Diego Airport, then an Uber ride to the border, then a flight from Tijuana to La Paz, Mexico, arriving promptly at our destination at 3pm. This frantic travel time was 100% worth it. The next day we took a few boats to the barren rock island (to be correct, there is actually 1 cactus on the island), El Pardito. The crew on this research trip consisted of a few faculty and their graduate students from UCSC, a graduate student from UCSD, a turtle researcher from Costa Rica, an assisting researcher from Mexico, and myself.

Isla El Pardito, home to incredible fishermen and their families. (Image: Pinterest)

Sunset in La Paz

The first research project that I assisted on was focused on potential turtle food found in riverine mangrove habitat in the San Jose Estero (estuary). Our team (Unofficial Team Name: Dive Goddesses) identified and collected 100 samples (approx. 10 of each species) of sponges, tunicates, and vegetation within the Estero via snorkel. After collection, the goal was to run isotope analysis on all the samples so we had to dry them out. We made small boats out of aluminum foil for cleaned samples to dry in the sun. We not only learned several species identifications but also perfected our aluminum foil origami skills.

Myself and Andrea Paz

Myself, navigating with a GPS (Photo: Dorota Szuta)

Once all the samples were dried and put in their respective vials, the next project started: Benthic Biomass! Our team went back out into the Estero to weigh biomass of the invertebrates that grow on mangrove shoots. My main role was navigator, and I also helped with scraping the organisms from the shoots, removing water from the contents (cowboy with a rope-style), and weighing them. The lovely Dorota Szuta who is a sponge and tunicate expert identified organisms, recorded the data, and brought the shoots to the boat, which was the MVP, the heart and the brain to the project. We finished sites on the main channel, lagoon, and side channels in one day!

Cortez Stingray cruising along the bottom of the sand

Next project: Fish Surveys. Again we traveled within the Estero, we learned new species, and made a species identification PowerPoint, but one thing was different – no origami. Also a few of us on the team dived in shallow water to survey the fish. We learned different species of grunt, snapper, stingray, parrotfish, wrasse, damselfish, and more!

There were other tasks done that related to other projects. For example, Diana Steller and I dived to put in receivers for the turtle tagging project in a non-planned matching wetsuit, hat, and shirt. This was my first dive in Mexico and my first time working underwater with a receiver. The dive consisted of finding the GPS point of the old receiver, dropping cinder blocks with chains attached, descending to attach the receiver to the cinder block. For the second receiver, we used a screw anchor which involved kneeling on the sand and twisting a metal bar into the sand in order to attach the receiver. We also had an audience: a three-banded butterflyfish that took residence in between the cinderblocks.

Diana Steller and myself about to go on our dive to plant new turtle receivers (Photo: Dorota Szuta)

A sentence that I never expected to say is “I went diving for turtle poop”. Before this trip, I never thought about what turtle poop looked like. Here’s some turtle poop history: one component of this ongoing turtle project is to find out where the turtles spend most of their time and what they eat, since Hawksbill sea turtles are Critically Endangered and they are the most threatened out of all turtle species. In the past, researchers that came to El Pardito would put cameras on the turtles to track what they ate and their interactions. But it was hard to see exactly what they wanted to consume. Years ago, Diana and her past graduate student, Dorota found poop (which they thought was human at the time) that had green specks of algae, tunicate, and other benthic life. It was the perfect opportunity to find out what these turtles consume!

Flash forward to now: myself and others had our faces a foot above the sand scanning for turtle poop. There have been 13 poops found in the past, and after about three dives/snorkel trips, we, unfortunately, found 0. There was one potential poop that Dorota and myself collected but it disintegrated.

Sunset from El Pardito (Photo:Kelly Zilliacus)

On a happier and non-poop-related note, El Pardito and the neighboring islands were home to the most amazing sunsets and star gazing. Luckily while we were there, we went as a group to hike, explore, and watch the full moonrise at a nearby island. The views were breathtaking (I may have also been out of breath from running up the hill to catch pictures of the sunset from the top).

Sunset from the top of a hill on a nearby island.

Besides the Turtle projects, there was a project focused on the Manta Rays. Two wonderful scientists, Melissa, a Ph.D. student from UCSC and Nerea, who was working on her postdoc, worked very hard to retrieve drone footage of the rays.

Melissa and Nerea prepping the drone to capture manta ray footage

My view of the manta rays, swimming below and around the boat

Although I didn’t directly help with their project, they let me go with them to watch them in action. It was very exciting to see them work together to find big groups of rays and follow them with the drone. This involved Nerea watching the screen (under a towel) and Melissa driving the drone. They got amazing videos of the manta rays while I watched the water looking for manta ray splashes.

I want to also give a shout out to the 2019 Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society interns. I am incredibly proud to be in the same cohort of interns and excited to share experiences with them and the OWUSS family.

2019 OWUSS Interns (Left to right): Ben Farmer (REEF Marine Conservation Intern), Liza Hasan (AAUS Mitchell Scientific Diving Research Intern), myself, Michael Langhans (National Park Service Intern) and Abbey Dias ( DAN Diver’s Safety Education Intern)

I am so grateful that I had the chance to go on this research trip and I look forward to helping with other research and dive here in California.

A photogenic bunny at the La Paz Serpentarium

Bonus content: Some of us visited the La Paz Serpentarium where we got to see snakes, birds, alligators, foxes, and feed some guinea pigs and rabbits.

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Fin

A week has passed since my last day at REEF and I am home reflecting on all the fins I got to see during my three months in The Keys.

Turtle Fins:

I was able to help trained NOAA volunteers by going out on turtle walks. During the months of June and July, Loggerhead sea turtles come ashore in Islamorada to nest. On our Sea Oats Beach, we had 21 nests and 15 false crawls this season. A false crawl is a marked incident where it looks like a turtle has come ashore to nest but there was no nest dug; this usually happens if the turtle gets spooked or the conditions are unfavourable.

After 60 days since being marked, nests are checked regularly for signs of hatching. I was able to help excavate 3 nests this summer and released 3 baby turtles that were trapped in a nest. We collected data on the number of eggs and which of those were hatched/unhatched. Then we open the unhatched eggs to record if they are fertilized or not. All this information is important to monitor the turtle population in the area.

Fish Fins:

Since getting to know more fish species, I have started to appreciate seeing rare fish. For example, finding these Papillose blennies was a real thrill.

I spotted them during a dive with Allison and Carlos Estape who are established REEF members and fish ID experts. Carlos was very excited by my find as this was the first time they have seen this species in the keys or otherwise. It is an especially rare find because it is not listed in the Alligator Reef and Evirons paper which is the most comprehensive list of species of the area to date; it contains 618 different blenny species!

Another set of small fins belongs to the Mangrove blenny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amy Lee, REEF Trip Program and Communications Manager, informed us that she had seen a Mangrove blenny while snorkelling through some dock pilings. This was surprising news because Mangrove blennies have only been described to be in Cuba. So, we organized “The Great Bayside Blenny Hunt”. The group of us pictured below went out to find this far from home fish.

After a couple of hours snorkelling, we were able to capture two live specimen and obtain in situ pictures. The specimens were sent out to a lab for DNA sequencing and we received word that our predictions were correct: this was in fact a Mangrove blenny. Thanks to our efforts, it was the first time its DNA had been sequenced and the first specimen captured in Florida since the 1960s.

Human Fins:

A high percentage of my summer consisted of helping with educational programs. A specific one that I will always remember is Force Blue. Force Blue is a program that unites Special Operations veterans and marine conservation professionals to create a team of conservation warriors. Force Blue employs these veterans’ highly trained diving skills to assist in conservation efforts which accomplishes two missions: helping to assimilate combat veterans to civilian life and supply aid and bodies to citizen science initiatives.

REEF participated in this program by training The Blue Force team to contribute to our database by surveying fish. We also educated them about the lionfish invasion and trained them to properly remove lionfish. It was an amazing opportunity to dive with these men and to learn a little bit about their world. For some of them, this was the first time they had seen a coral reef despite being trained divers for many years.

……

As far as the question I asked in my first blog, how REEF’s extensive database can be used to engage a wide audience on ocean conservation, I have decided to answer that by staying on past my internship to help with the Fishinar program. Fishinars are REEF’s brand of interactive webinars designed to teach the finer points of identifying fish. They are meant to be an aid for those already involved in our Volunteer Fish Survey Project and an introduction to fish surveying for those who are not. Fishinars can also be on relevant topics of ocean conservation.

I will be helping to grow this program by sourcing different advertisement opportunities and creating topics to deliver a Fishinar myself. Speaking, as a form of science communication, is a passion of mine and I am excited for the opportunity to grow that skill.

My time here at REEF gave me first hand experience in the world of marine conservation. Because of this experience, I now have a better understanding of where I want to contribute in the future. The connections I made and the chances I had to grow my skill set were invaluable. I have many people to thank but especially my supervisor, Ellie Splain for giving me the trust and encouragement to accomplish my goals this summer. As well, thank you to the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society who without, this experience would not have been the same.

Best Fishes,

Ronnie

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Goodbye Summer, Hello Future.

Over the past couple weeks diving has been spotty due to the high seas and busy schedule of Doug. However, the Rasher Lab did go out for a few day trips to the southern coast of Maine by Casco Bay. Unfortunately, kelp has seemed to up and disappear from these previously inhabited sites. Remnants of small horsetail and sugar kelp plants are scattered infrequently. The fleshy red seaweeds that are warm water toleratant comprise a majority of the hard rock substrate that kelps usually thrive on. Morale on the boat is always a little lower when the dive sites are seemingly barren, a situation that was happening at every site in Casco.

The highlight of the last couple weeks was when Chris took our dive class to Monhegan Island on a dive charter. I had previously dived Monhegan with Doug and Thew earlier in the summer; however, I was still excited because Monhegan is known for its steep mountain cliff faces and sheer drop-offs. Small swim throughs between rocks and mega-fauna like seals abounded, while Mola Mola greeted us as we approached our dive site. This wasn’t at all like the 5 and 10-meter kelp collection dives. Our first dive had a deck (depth limit) of 120 feet, Chris wanted us to experience and see first-hand how inversely proportional depth and remaining bottom time were as a person went deeper. At 120 feet, we had 13 minutes at depth before we would run into decompression obligations. We also were given the opportunity to don a redundant gas supply, a small 20 cubic foot pony bottle, which I was eager to opt for, both for safety and to practice carrying the gas.

     

In a tropical setting with over a 100 feet of visibility, diving to depth of 100 feet seems almost effortless. Little thought and worry crosses a person mind (although maybe it should) when conducting such a dive. Here though, in Maine, in 50-degree water with less than 40 feet of visibility, and over 30 pounds of weight, drysuit, and a redundant gas bottle – there was a lot to think about.  

When looking at my dive computer while descending it seemed like feet turned into inches; 90 feet down, seconds later, 100 feet, 110 feet. We slow our descent by becoming neutrally buoyant. At 120 feet you begin to feel the onset of nitrogen narcosis affecting your judgment. You get a sense of euphoria and lose some of the sharp mental acuity you may have had at the surface. Personally, I thought to myself, “what in the world am I doing at 120 feet with all this stuff on me.” I was sucking through air and usable bottom time like no tomorrow and signaled to my buddy to ascend to a more suitable depth. Besides, there’s nothing to see at 120 feet anyway. The dive was successful with everyone returning to the boat safely. After a quick lunch break, we drifted around the island to a dive site reminiscent of some of our sampling sites.

After the dive trip, there were few opportunities to dive. My last classes of AAUS consisted of water rescue skills and a DAN Pro first aid course. In the past, I’ve found that CPR/general first aid classes have been mainly lecture and some hands-on work – a boring afternoon with little information retained. Yet, Chris completely flipped my past experiences upside down. Broken up between two weeks, the DAN Pro CPR and first aid course was a hands-on opportunity to learn, review, and discuss different methods of life-saving and patient care.  What made the class helpful was that it was a discussion, Chris was obligated to teach the DAN standards, yet after, he would give his advice and wisdom from his years of experience in situations he’s been in as a volunteer firefighter.  He would also ask if we’ve been taught differently from other organizations or know something different. This dialogue made the class blow by and actually improved the retention of information, for me at least.  At the end of class, Chris provided the class with small rectangular slates with general CPR guidelines, how to providing emergency oxygen, how to assembly a DAN oxygen kit, and a neurological assessment slate. These will be stowed in my save-a-dive dive kit; hopefully the only time they will see the light of day is when I renew my CPR certification!

My last dives with Doug and Thew couldn’t have been much better. We had an overnight trip planned around the Mount Desert Island region. We took the Silver Sides and started the two-hour boat ride north toward Acadia. It was a perfect day with calm seas which spared our spines from the usual waves of the Gulf of Maine. I was particularly excited for this overnight trip because we would be camping on an island instead of getting a motel room or just driving back to Bigelow. The only downside to a long day of cold water diving is you want a warm shower when you get back, a luxury we were not afforded on an island in the middle of the ocean. However, what this small island lacked in amenities made up for in beauty.

 

 

 

The dives in this region were kelp dominated especially at the five-meter depth. In the past, our dives had little kelp for me to collect, and when there is little kelp, I usually can complete my collection process just as Doug or Thew is done collecting percent cover estimates. Not on these dives. On one occasion, there was such an abundance of kelp that Thew was so used to me being finished when he got done with his job he started reeling up the transect line and handing his quad to me to carry back to the surface. After about 30 seconds of me trying to get his attention and communicate that I was only halfway done, and still had two more full square meters to harvest. He then re-laid the meter tape and he held the bag and stuffed the kelp as I cut the stipes by the handful. When we got back to the boat we had a pretty hardy laugh about the incident as he said, “Yeah, I was reeling in the tape and saw you signaling me, I thought we were done… nope, you were only halfway.”

 

 

 

After our dives, we headed to the secluded island to camp for the night. One thing about pulling up with a boat was the whole shoreline was rocking, and with nine-foot tides, we couldn’t just park the boat on shore or even very close. Thew had to anchor the boat offshore and swim to the island in his dry suit. A job that Doug and I concluded would be best for the previous division one colligate swimmer.  We set up our tents and then ate dinner on the rocks, a Pad-Thai dish Thew made the night before. After dinner, we sat on the rocks eating some cookies and watching the sunset. It had been an amazing summer with incredible experiences and even better people culminating in a beautiful last moment, as dusk turned into night and the stars appeared one by one – a place to reflect on my summer and think about my future. Doug and I stayed up talking about my next steps in the immediate future, and his plans for his research.  The peacefulness of the night faded away as daylight approached. The lobstermen were out in force or it seemed like it at least. The engines in those boats produce the most ridiculously load noise at 5 a.m. It doesn’t help that sound travels on water, but you would swear the U.S. Navy was conducting some operation with the noise that was produced by these boats.

The next day was my last AAUS class of the summer. In the morning, we went to Pemaquid Point for a fun dive. Chris asked to be my dive buddy citing “It’s my last dive here” a bittersweet moment, I’d accomplished so much over the 100-hour class and the summer as a whole, which I could be very proud of, yet after this, it’s was coming to end. I asked Chris to take the lead on the dive because for the last dive I just wanted to enjoy myself, not worry about navigation, and let the professionals worry about that! The dive was a good one, we saw fish! Yes, there are actually some fish in the Gulf of Maine! I also saw the biggest lobster by far of the summer hiding in a crack. I swear the claws were bigger than my hands. After our first fun dive, it was back to the DMC to concluded our rescue exercises and put them to a test in a simulated live rescue.

Class ended on a high note, after we got done diving, cleaned and rinsed our gear, we head to the air condition library at the DMC to take our pictures for our AAUS certification cards. We also got to learn our dive class nickname, a tradition Chris has been doing ever since his first class at UMaine. The class will get their class picture framed and hung in the dive locker with the nickname below. We were gifted with the name “the lone divers.” Being there was only three of us we also were given specific names, “Tonto, Lone Ranger, and Silver.” Somehow I was relegated to Silver, maybe a more fitting name then I truly realized at first. Chris even signed off on his last email to me “Hi-Ho Silver,” he always knows how to make a person laugh and keep it lively.

My Internship was a complete success. I earned my AAUS dive certification and got a lot of hands-on research with Doug at Bigelow. I also made friendships that will last a lifetime and made connections that will indefinitely help me in my future search for underwater science exploration. My plan at the moment is to go back to school at Lawrence University to complete my senior year. I will graduate early — this Thanksgiving — and I plan to come back to Maine and continue to help Doug and Thew with diving in the winter months. I hope to continue my education in a Ph.D. program studying inter/intra-species interactions in either kelp forests or coral reefs. Thus, if you’re reading this and know of — or have — an open spot and funding for a PH.D student I’d love to get connected with you!

This is my last blog for my internship summer, and I have many people and organizations to thank. Thank you, Dr. Lee, Somers and Martha Somers for your extreme generosity. A special thank you to Chris Rigaud, Doug Rasher, and Thew Suskiewicz. Chris was an incredible host, he was a great mentor that was willing to go above and beyond to make my internship enjoyable and fruitful, whether it was loaning me gear or being on call if I ever had a problem. Doug went above and beyond as a co-host. He gave me every opportunity possible to dive, was willing to give me advice and mentor me in the realm of graduate school, and made me feel at home in his lab. Thew, was a great teacher and mentor. He was extremely patient with me when I was first identifying seaweeds and taught me all about good dive practices. His methodical attention to detail kept me in check and productive the entire summer. Thank you to Our World Underwater Scholarship Society, American Academy for Underwater Sciences, and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Thank you OWUSS and AAUS for giving me this opportunity and supporting me throughout the process and in the future. Thank you, Bigelow, for housing me and making me a part of your world renowned scientific community. Thank you, Katherine Newcomer, for your wisdom and guiding me through this internship. Jenna Walker and Stephanie Roach for all your hard work behind the scenes, coordinating these wonderful internships and coordinating with USIA. Thank you USIA for letting me use your amazing drysuit, without it I would have been one frozen popsicle. Thank you to everyone else at OWUSS, AAUS, and Bigelow, for your hard work which makes internships like this possible. I had a blast and I look forward to sharing my experience at Lake Tahoe at the AAUS symposium, and the OWUSS annual weekend in New York.

 

With that, Chris – I look forward to diving with you again in October! Doug – be ready for more hipster music when I come back in the winter! Thew – congratulations on the new baby!

Signing off for the last time, your Our World Underwater Scholarship Society 2018 Dr. Lee H. Somers American Academy for Underwater Sciences intern.

 

-Shane

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