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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 the Alli and Moose, the staff members that head the Invasive Species Program at REEF. Early Saturday morning, we headed over to the 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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EPSCoR Galore

It is humbling to be a part of something big and help work towards answering the many questions there are about how the world works and our role within it. This summer I have had the opportunity to do that as a part of the Alaska NSF EPSCoR Fire and Ice project. EPSCoR Fire and Ice aims to study climate-driven changes in wildfires and coastal ecosystems in Alaska. Brenda Konar and her crew, which I am lucky to be a part of, conducts research as part of the Coastal Margins team. My amazement of this project stems from the vast range of topics integrated into one larger scheme of how coastal environments change along glacial gradients in Alaska. These questions are studied across two regions: Kachemak Bay in the northern Gulf of Alaska and Lynne Canal in Southeast Alaska, each containing five sites. In order to capture a full picture of how climate-driven glacial melt is affecting Alaska’s coastal environment, the Coastal Margins team studies estuarine geology, intertidal community ecology, fish biology, oceanography, and ocean acidification and other water characteristics (sedimentation, light, salinity, temperature, etc).

Our crew conducts intertidal sampling once a month at the beginning of the month. Over my 8 weeks in Alaska, I will be assisting with two of these sampling events. The timing of these sampling events is crucial because intertidal work relies heavily on low tides. One of the main components of our sampling is in the rocky intertidal where you can find mussels, barnacles, and the alga, Fucus sp., as dominant species. The sampling consists of clearing quadrats for species composition and biomass, assessing percent cover, and collecting and replacing larval recruitment plates and tuffies.

The line where oceanic water and water containing glacial till mix near the Grewingk Glacier sampling site.

While our group specializes in intertidal ecology, we help out with other components then send off the samples and data to where other team members are stationed. One of the other components to the project is fish seining. At each site, we beach seine and count, identify, and measure all fish that are caught. In addition to learning how to properly beach seine, this gave me the chance to learn a few of the fish species in Alaska.

Fish seining!

Another component of the project our group helps with is taking water quality samples and conducting zooplankton tows. While water quality data collection was as simple as filling containers and taking YSI measurements, zooplankton tows required a bit more equipment. Zooplankton collection required using both ring nets and tucker trawls in order to collect zooplankton from different layers in the water column and using a CastAway to examine water characteristics.

To complement biological oceanography with physical oceanography, we launched drifter buoys into Kachemak Bay. Drifter buoys are essentially buoys equipped with GPS and temperature sensors that are attached to underwater sails that are caught by ocean currents. These drifters allow for the oceanographic modelling portion of the EPSCoR project. We launched four buoys a handful of times and could track their movements across the launch timeframe in order to see how currents circulate within Kachemak Bay.

Drifter buoys floating in the bay post-launch.

Launching drifter buoys also means finding drifter buoys at the end of each launch cycle. Searching for these buoys was like playing “Where’s Waldo” in a bay full of orange buoys. It is safe to say that all of the buoys were successfully found after every launch.

It was an exciting feat to find each and every drifter buoy.

The final portion of EPSCoR that we conducted was diving on the sensors at each of the five sites and collecting subtidal community ecology samples. At each site, there are sediment traps; temperature, dissolved oxygen, depth, and salinity sensors; and a tilt meter (for current speed and direction). Each month, these sensors are switched out in order to download data collected over the previous month. Typically, this requires diving in order to access the sensors. However, Kachemak Bay has almost a 10 meter tidal exchange making it possible to access some sensors from the shore at low tide.

Sediment tubes connected to sensors peeking out of the water at low tide.

In addition to switching out sensors, we also collected subtidal community samples by clearing contents within quadrats. Even if sensors were accessible at low tide, clearing quadrats for samples often required diving in order to collect a proper sample. This has been an especially exciting portion of the project for me because I will be working with these data and presenting a poster at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in January on variation in subtidal community ecology along a glacial gradient. Specifically, my project aims to identify patterns in subtidal communities associated with the glacial gradient.

Diving in a kelp forest near Hesketh Island.

Lots of sampling also means lots of samples to work through in the lab. The past few weeks have been full of sieving and sorting through intertidal biomass samples and hours at the dissecting microscope identifying larval recruits.

I had the opportunity to change modes from intertidal community ecology to marine birds and mammals for a few days while assisting USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) with work for Gulf Watch Alaska. Marine bird and mammal surveys are conducted each year along much of the Kachemak Bay coastline. It was a great chance to see another side to marine ecology as well as coves and bays in Kachemak Bay that I had not seen before. To round out these surveys and encompass different taxa, there was also a fish component that required hook and line fishing. Catching my first fish, seeing a pod of orca whales, and spotting an otter eating a huge octopus were highlights of the week!

It is hard to put into words how incredible my time in Alaska has been so far. I have learned so much about intertidal and subtidal ecology and a wealth of new field sampling techniques. I can’t wait to keep learning and get back into the water as we delve into the next month of EPSCoR sampling next week! Just to make sure we still need dry suits up here in Alaska, we all jumped in to test the water. Although summer is in full swing in Alaska, I am confident in saying that we will be bundling up in suits, gloves, and hoods next week!

Celebrating the end of a successful field season of some colleagues with a jump in the water.

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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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A Return to Home – REEF [1]

My arrival in Key Largo two weeks ago in many ways felt like a return to home. As a junior at the University of Kentucky, I studied abroad in Bonaire where I fell in love with the vibrant coral reefs ringing the small island. Since then I have been looking for ways to return to the tropics, and the Keys get pretty close. Lying just a few degrees above the Tropic of Cancer, Key Largo is by definition subtropical but has many of the same fish and invertebrates I spent countless hours studying in Bonaire. Here with my fellow interns and the staff at Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) as the Dr. Jamie L King Marine Conservation Intern, I have had the chance to view this underwater world through the earnest lens of a nonprofit.

2019 REEF Interns, left to right: Matt, Ben (me), Stacey, Kate. This was taken right before our first fish survey dives, with Rainbow Reef Dive Center. We saw a school of midnight parrotfish and several huge rainbow parrotfishes on one of our first days down here!

My time so far this summer has largely been split between three main avenues: working in and around REEF Headquarters; contributing to the Volunteer Fish Survey Project; and developing career skills such as my Divemaster certification. In the short time since my arrival, I have done everything from helping set up an aquarium tank for showcasing invasive lionfish, to diving with a group of spotted eagle rays on the local barrier reef, to swimming with manatees. While I have not gone diving every day, the office work that fills in the time between has been truly rewarding. Being an intern means being the face of REEF, in that many of REEF’s Volunteer Fish Surveyors never interact with any staff members in person. The organization has its roots in Key Largo, yet is truly global. While my interest as late has been in the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA) region, there are databases for several other major regions throughout the world that volunteers collect and submit valuable fish sighting and abundance data. I am happy to have started a project creating TWA fish identification practice quizzes to help prepare intrepid surveyors for identifying fish on dives, and I plan to work on other regions such as the Pacific Northwest.

Our second week here, the interns were given a tour of MarineLab, a marine science education center in Key Largo. By a stroke of luck we were able to snorkel with a small group of manatees. Pictured here was a very curious baby!

Just as exciting as REEF’s global reach, however, are the times that we are able to interact with the local community. While I have not had much involvement with education catered to a younger crowd in the past, being able to present on the ecology of the Florida Keys to middle school students recently made my day. I certainly see science as my career path, but I am also committed to making  science accessible. REEF has offered me a great opportunity to develop this skill, and I look forward to outreach/education events in the future. Lionfish derbies are a great example, so stay tuned!

This was an amazing moment on World Ocean’s day, when we contributed to Coral Restoration Foundation’s Coralpalooza event. Families and their kids visited the Interpretive Center at REEF to do fish “surveys,” and this kid in particular was very excited about identifying the Nassau grouper.

A large part of what has enabled me to reach this point as an Our World Underwater Intern has been gaining SCUBA certifications. Acquiring my Rescue and AAUS Scientific certifications while in Bonaire was instrumental in pushing my career forward in marine research, and the next step for me is achieving my Divemaster. One of the best things about REEF so far has been its absolute commitment to furthering its interns’ careers through both networking opportunities and providing access to diving. Both initiatives have helped me work with a dive shop in Islamorada called Key Dives, which will be training me to be a Divemaster throughout the summer. I am so privileged to be in this position, and I look forward to honing my dive skills in order to be a better scientist and instructor in the future.

This is a Yellow Stingray, an exciting sight in the Keys. I somehow missed a 15-ft sawfish on the dive prior, but seeing this beautiful ray undulating through the water made up for it.

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From the Intertidal to the Kelp Forests

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to assist with a plethora of different projects. Two of these projects are Gulf Watch Alaska and NaGISA. Gulf Watch Alaska aims to provide scientific data on the status of the marine environment since the Exxon Valdez oil spill and informs environmental management in the Gulf of Alaska (https://gulfwatchalaska.org/). Many groups have teamed up to collect data throughout the Gulf of Alaska, and the Konar group contributes to this effort by sampling in Kachemak Bay.

Our sampling consisted of surveys conducted on mussels, the low, mid, and high intertidal community, clams, and seagrass beds. We surveyed sites all across Kachemak Bay from the oceanic Port Graham at the base of the bay to the glacially influence estuarine site of Bear Cove at the head of the bay. This made for a week of experiencing the great variety of marine habitats in Kachemak Bay, learning various different sampling protocol, and sampling at many beautiful locations.

View from Bishops Beach rocky intertidal sampling site near Homer, AK.

While intertidal sampling meant time out of the water, it allowed me to gain a better understanding of rocky and soft intertidal ecosystems. Through percent cover surveys and sorting samples in the lab, I’ve become familiar with my intertidal algae and invertebrate species. It’s amazing how many different species of algae there are and how much the community can change throughout the intertidal zone.

Rocky intertidal sampling for percent cover at Cohen Island.

The seagrass beds required trips to different sites since they are part of soft sediment habitats. Lucky for me, this meant more boat rides with fantastic views of Kachemak Bay. Not to mention the beauty of the sampling sites themselves! At the seagrass beds, we measured percent cover and the dimensions of the bed. Where the dimensions were far too large to be measured with a transect tape, we marked coordinates of the bounding corners. The seagrass bed at the site aptly named Mud Flat was so large that I made it out to the low tide mark; it felt like I was walking out to sea! I might have gotten a bit stuck in the mud, but that just meant more time to appreciate the seagrass and mountain views.

Coming back from measuring the seagrass bed width. Photo by Brenda Konar

With the efforts of a great team, we successfully completed the Gulf Watch Alaska sampling. The week was full of learning and fun with a big group of amazing individuals!

Gulf Watch Alaska 2019 Kachemak Bay team.

Now back to the water with NaGISA! NaGISA is the Natural Geography in Shore Areas project that aimed to measure biodiversity in near-shore habitats and how they change over time. From 2000-2010, this project was conducted across a longitudinal and latitudinal gradient to capture changes in biodiversity around the world. Although the project has ended, the Konar Lab continues to sample high latitude macroalgal habitats for long-term monitoring. This was an extremely exciting experience for me because I was able to dive my first kelp forest! Then I was able to dive another four kelp forests to make our five sampling sites.

Preparing for a dive at Outside Beach near Seldovia, AK. Photo by Emily Williamson

These dives were both interesting and challenging in that sampling required being surrounded by kelp. Sampling consisted of clearing the kelp and invertebrates within 50 by 50 centimeter quadrats, which meant that we had to get to the holdfast of the kelp in order to remove it. Now I can add “how to remove a branching holdfast” and “the best way to remove a chiton” to my research diving skill set! Visibility was also a challenge that varied based on the site. At more glaciated sites, the visibility decreases due to glacial sediment entering the water.

Practicing drysuit buoyancy skills before sampling. Photo by Brenda Konar

I have learned countless skills over the past few weeks and worked at sites from seagrass to under the sea. Being a part of various projects has kept me busy with field and lab work, but I always remember to take the time to soak in the beauty of working in Alaska and how much I have grown as a scientist. Each and every site I have been to have been incredibly beautiful in their own way from booming mountains to adorable baby sea stars hiding between the rocks. I find it import in life and ecology to appreciate the little things, like watching a tiny barnacle filter food from the big bad ocean. At the end of each day, I make sure to look at the sunset and take a few breaths thinking about how grateful I am to be spending this summer at the Kasitsna Bay Lab. Thank you to OWUSS and Brenda Konar for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime!

One of many amazing sunsets around 11pm. So much daylight!

The resident otter in Kasitsna Bay snacking on a clam. Photo by Emily Williamson

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Diving into My First Week at Moss Landing!

  • A month ago I did not think I would be writing a blog on a sailboat in a beautiful marina in California. I just arrived in Moss Landing, CA a few days ago and already I will be leaving soon for Mexico. Since arriving, I have gotten to know my internship host and DSO, Diana Steller. She showed me around to Marine Operations and the Aquaculture Facility. In addition, I have met wonderful people including faculty, graduate students, and staff at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. 

View from Moss Landing Marine Labs
Tanks for seaweed at MLML Aquaculture Facility

I got the chance to help a graduate student, Dan, with his work at the Aquaculture Lab by weighing seaweed and emptying tanks. I learned the main five species of seaweed that they grow and SELL to chefs.

Seaweed (Dulse)

I was also able to have my checkout dive at Breakwater before I leave for Mexico. This was my first time diving in cold water and shore diving-so this was a very new and interesting experience for me. My wonderful instructor, Sloane Lofy, is also a grad student at MLML who studies kelp in the Phycology Lab.

Breakwater

I can’t wait to dive in Mexico and to learn more from the amazing graduate students and faculty about marine sciences!

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The Beginning

As of five days ago, I had never been to Alaska, let alone a research station tucked into the Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. The AAUS Mitchell Internship has given me the opportunity to join Brenda Konar and her group at the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory studying various aspects of intertidal and subtidal community ecology along a glacial gradient in the Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

Although Alaska is still part of the US, it feels a world away from Colorado. The trip up north took 12 hours across three flights and a water taxi. The views from the plane from Anchorage to Homer and the water taxi were unbelievable! The sights of crisp water, islands and bays, sea otters playing, and looming snow-capped mountains made the nerves of diving in the cold Alaskan waters slip away.

View from the plane from Anchorage to Homer.

My first few days at the research station consisted of processing samples in the lab for species composition, biomass, and reproductive effort. This allowed me to jump right into learning my Alaskan intertidal species. To further my species identification knowledge, I have been putting together a target species list for dive sampling- sea stars, kelp, nudibranchs, oh my!

After these first few days of diving into processing samples, I got to dive into the water. I learned how to properly don a dry suit, the beauty of corn starch on seals, and that the nerves of dry suit diving will immediately disappear once you’re weighted down and overheating. I can now officially say I have dove in a dry suit, and in just a few days we will go to work on dive sampling! I’m thrilled about this opportunity to expand my research diving techniques and experience in order to explore a whole new environment. I have already seen so many organisms, like sea stars and nudibranchs, that I had not often seen in warm water. The ocean is such a vast and incredible world, and I can’t wait to experience the wonders of cold water ecosystems while contributing to research.

First dry suit dive!

Lucky for me, the Konar group’s research covers both the intertidal and subtidal. This means that in addition to dive sampling, I get to help the team with intertidal sampling of mussels, clams, algae, and other critters. Today, I had the opportunity to assist with sea otter surveys where we set up a telescope at a look out point and recorded sea otter feeding behavior.

View from sea otter observation look out point.

I have already learned so much, and I know I will continue to absorb boatloads of knowledge and skills throughout the course of this summer. I have even gained some skills I didn’t expect, like learning how to don a survival suit!

Testing out survival suits!

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