Category Archives: Past Internships

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!



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!


The Data Dash – National Coral Reef Monitoring Program on St. Croix


“300 feet!” Bouncing off the crest of a three-foot wave, our 20 ft vessel peaked and then slapped the water causing a mist of sea spray to envelop the deck. The sea was alive, but under the bright sun it still retained a serene Caribbean blue. “200 feet!” I looked across the deck at my fellow divers perched along the gunnel. Laden with slates, meter sticks, and tapes and bouncing along with the boat, the five of us looked (and felt) ready to go. “100 feet!” The cries came from Kevin, our captain, who was navigating to our GPS point. He glanced back continuously between the oncoming sets, checking on the readiness of the team and making sure no one had fallen in prematurely. “50!” As the countdown dropped, a silence fell over the back of the boat as the team waited for the final call. This had to be a precise drop, as we were aiming for a specific GPS point in an area with currents that could take you far off target with each second spent on the surface. I settled in, secured my gear, and made sure everything was ready to go. “Go!!” came the call, and in went the divers. After a brief surface check, the team went straight down and began the next mad rush of the hour – the data collection.


My time in St. Croix was a wild, hectic dash – but it had to be. I was here in the Virgin Islands to take part in the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP). This program, started as a collaboration with the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and a large assortment of governmental/academic partners, monitors most of the coral reefs located in US waters. This amounts to a lot of surveying, covering reefs in the Pacific (Guam, American Samoa, Hawaii) to the Caribbean (Florida, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands). This is a colossal effort, requiring hundreds of people around the country to spend thousands of hours above and below the water. As well as frequent monitoring to collect a myriad of data on these reefs, this program also aims to standardize the methods of data collection as well as to collect data on a wide enough geographic spread to put sites into the context of the landscape – see how change at one site relates to that of their neighbors, or their distant relative. All that being said, we had a lot of work to do – with a goal of hitting 250 sites in two weeks, there was no time to waste.

As such a large program, it required lots of divers. This trip was composed primarily of four organizations: NOAA/NMFS, the NPS, University of Virgin Islands, and the Nature Conservancy. As such a large group the entire team rarely got together in one place, with the exception of an organizational meeting monday morning. This was held at a NPS building at the Christiansted National Historic Site, an old Dutch colonial settlement built on the island, in a repurposed warehouse originally built in 1749. Here I was able to meet the many members of the St. Croix NCRMP team.

After the meeting, each organization was split up into 6 different vessels and sent to different ends of the island, each with a different section of coastline to survey. Within those areas, each team was given GPS coordinates for new sites daily. These sites were randomly generated to obtain unbiased data and were stratified by depth and habitat type to encompass a diversity of environments.

A wide variety of depths were sampled, including ones that could have been snorkeled

While there was lots of data to be taken, I was starting the week off taking photos, working to document the survey methods. I was also doing a bit of shadowing, to learn the species of these clear Caribbean waters. This was a new area to me – I’d never dove in the Caribbean (or the Atlantic for that matter) and hadn’t done any tropical diving in four years. That fact alone made this trip quite the novelty – I learned to dive and got my first few certifications in warm water, but then jumped over to cold water while in college and hadn’t come back to the warm side since – so diving in a 3mm wetsuit with no added weight was a forgotten luxury. The 80-degree water was pretty nice too. I’d spent the last couple weeks in water averaging 38 degrees and the past couple years diving in the mid 50-degree Californian waters, making the tropical water was a welcome relief. This was also some of the nicest visibility I’d seen in a while. Overall, I was heavily enjoying my re-introduction to warm water diving.

While shadowing and photographing my team, I learned the down-low of the survey methods. I’d read about them in the mission protocol document, but nothing compares to seeing them in action. This program collects data on corals, fish and benthic cover, with the primary objective of determining the health of the reef. Each survey team was comprised of four divers: a coral demographic diver, line-point intercept diver, and two fish divers. Coral and fish divers surveyed coral and fish respectively (big surprise), collecting data on species, size, and abundance to determine health and diversity. Line-point intersect (which is the role that I was going to assume after my shadowing and photographic obligations ended) was responsible for collecting percentage cover information with species, substrate, and relief data that was collected under predetermined points on the meter tape. This data is used to get an idea of the overall character and species composition of the reef.

The team hard at work

Through my shadowing I got a close look at seasoned surveyors doing their thing in the water and was able to observe them at work. My team consisted of mainly NOAA folks: Kim Edwards, Laughlin Siceloff, Erin Cain, Michael Nemeth, as well as a diver from the Nature Conservancy, Allison Watts. Allison, as I discovered on one of my first days on the boat, is also part of the Our World Underwater family – she was the 2012 Monterey Bay Aquarium Dive Safety intern! Small world! Everyone apart from Allison and myself had had lots of experience with these protocols and species, so they were excellent resources for me to run all my questions by.

Each day was action-packed with diving: we’d start off by boating out towards our first assigned site of the day, do a quick drop, descend on our site, collect the data, and head back up for another one. Each team was given five sites to handle a day, which was relatively achievable given the survey protocol. Dives averaged between 30-45 minutes, so this ended up being only around 3 hours in water a day. And with this type of repetitive, back-to-back diving, time really flies. Each day went by in no time at all, with the only real surface interval we needed being the transit between sites (thanks nitrox). That time was occupied as well, as the team switched tanks and data sheets, as well as the obligatory disinfecting of survey gear. One of the big things that this program is looking for is coral disease, which is hypothesized to potentially be able to spread via divers. This resulted in a thorough gear disinfectant protocol, with everything requiring a sterilizing soak between dives and at the end of the day.

Surface intervals are busy too, full of tank switching, data transcribing, and gear disinfecting

After spending the first couple days photographing the team at work and the sites, I moved on to data collection. At first, I was just collecting mock data, allowing me to get hands-on experience and later compare my work to others to see how I did. With such a rigorous dive schedule, I got plenty of practice. While I was initially scheduled to continue doing these mock surveys for a while longer, an unexpected turn of events left us a team member down and I was thrown into the mix – it was time to prove myself. Thankfully, my practice had paid off (and the sites weren’t incredibly diverse, allowing me for an easy intro to the line point intersects) and I was able to complete all my work and not hold the team up for too long.

As someone who’d never dove these waters and hadn’t been on coral reefs in years, I thought the marine life was pretty incredible. The sea floor on most sites was covered in gorgonians and basket sponges, with assorted fish traveling through them. I saw lots of nurse sharks, garden eels, big rays, barracudas, octopuses. On one memorable dive we descended through a layer of gelatinous zooplankton so thick that you couldn’t see through them – it looked as though you were dropping into a bottomless ocean until you’d cleared the cloud of ctenophores, cydippids, and salps. While not every site was beautiful (randomly selected survey points works like that sometimes), that made the nice ones even more special. We ended up on some nice patch reefs, ones with enough coral to put the team to work. We also had the pleasure of diving with a curious group of dolphins on one of our surveys – which, let me tell you, is not distracting at all. They even stuck around for our safety stop, where I was able to watch one breach from underwater. It was incredibly elegant to see and looked like it effortlessly left the water.

Despite my wonder at all these new species, I couldn’t ignore the fact that these reefs weren’t healthy. As the LPI diver, it was jarringly obvious to me how much macroalgae I had on my transect. It was also very clear to me that the substrate that this macroalgae was on most of the time was coral skeleton. Bleaching and disease have ravaged these reefs, making life as a coral colony very difficult. I was an inexperienced disease-spotter, but I listened to my team talk about it on almost every surface interval. Thankfully, it wasn’t too prevalent on our sites, although it was there. The death of the coral colonies creates available substrate that is quickly colonized by opportunistic macroalgae, creating a bland monochrome landscape where vibrance used to thrive.

This pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) is dead on its lower half, where macroalgal species have already established themselves

While this particular reef has some nice patches of coral, it’s easy to see the numerous clumps of macroalgae covering all the area in-between.

If bleaching and coral disease weren’t enough, these reefs are also subject to intense hurricanes. Recently devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, the subtidal systems here are still recovering. St. Croix gets hit or brushed by hurricanes every 3 years or so on average, with hits by serious storms every 18 years. Tropical storms like these create a cooling effect that can be beneficial for coral reef ecosystems, as it relieves them of potential heat stress, but they can also be heavily damaging. Strong storm-induced waves can destroy coral colonies, especially the more delicate branching forms (like Acropora spp.). These storms can also flush anthropogenic nutrients into the nearshore environments, creating fuel for fast-growing algal species who can compete with coral larvae for space. The violent effects of these storms were bluntly presented to me when we conducted surveys on sites in an area known as the ‘Haystacks’. The haystacks are huge piles of skeletons of Acropora palmata, or elkhorn coral, all broken up by years of hurricanes. These piles are massive – easily 25-30 feet wide and up to 20 feet tall – and are almost completely devoid of coral growth. Typically, when Acropora corals are broken up from storms, the fragments can reestablish and continue growth, but that wasn’t the case here. Standing tall, dead and covered in algae, the haystacks were a poignant image of the unfortunate state of coral reefs to me. What at one point was a literal wonder of the natural world, a gigantic branching maze of living creature, now lies dead in a huge pile – a mass grave of coral.

My week in St. Croix went by fast – the daily schedule jam-packed with diving made the week fly by, causing Friday to feel like it came mere hours after Monday evening. While exhausting, this repetitive survey diving is something I love dearly. I started diving doing biological surveys on coral reefs and gained most of my dive experience conducting monitoring dives in California’s kelp forests, so jumping back into survey diving and swimming up and down a transect tape felt like a welcome home. As a marine biologist by training and an avid marine conservationist, the value of marine monitoring programs isn’t lost on me.  I’m grateful that I’m able to take part in such a large-scale program such as NCRMP, especially when considering the state of coral reefs today. Work like this couldn’t be more important, as these monitoring programs allow for widespread dissemination of invaluable data on ecosystem condition and health, hopefully up to the governing bodies that have the power to make the huge changes necessary to save these struggling seas.



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.


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.



Imaging at Isle Royale – 3D Photogrammetry on World-Class Shipwrecks

Exploring the wreck of the Cox

For the first 15 feet of our descent, the cloudy green water only allowed views of up to 10 feet ahead – I was limited to watching the tank and bubbles of Matt Hanks, my dive buddy, as we descended on the stern of the George M. Cox. Upon reaching the bottom, the visibility opened up to a dark and slightly murky 30 feet, giving me my first look at my third wreck of the trip. Not as intact as the Emperor or the America, the Cox was a bit more scattered and broken apart, but not without clear features. Some of the most striking ones sit right in the center of the wreck: two huge hulking boilers, nearly 10 feet in diameter and 20 feet long. These were stark, imposing, and an instant attention-grabber – I knew they’d make for a nice photo. Eager to start photographing, I swam back, peered through my viewfinder, and started looking for a good composition. While shooting, I noticed a mechanical whirring noise. Rather quiet, slightly inconspicuous, but present – and slowly getting louder. Occupied with my boiler photos, I pushed it to the back of my mind – probably just something on our boat up on the surface – and went back to work with the camera. After thirty seconds or so, I look up from my camera to do a typical surroundings check, to make sure my buddy is alright and that nothing has changed drastically. Check was going great: buddy was fine, I was still at the same depth and location that I’d been at, wreck is all still here, and – suddenly I realized the source of the mysterious noise. Seemingly materializing out of the murk and barreling towards me at what felt like breakneck speed was a dauntingly large, sleek, blue DPV-powered sled with three cameras attached and a rebreathing diver being towed from the back, a veritable underwater UFO. I sprint-swam out of the way and looked up to see the 6-inch eye of a camera lens peering down at me as it passed just feet over my head. That was my first experience with the SeaArray, the SRC’s flagship photogrammetry machine, and we were now on to our next part of our trip to Isle Royale National Park: doing 3D photogrammetry on some of the Park’s giant shipwrecks.

The SeaArray – the SRC’s sophisticated photogrammetry machine

3D photogrammetry is the process of creating 3D models of objects using still photos or video footage. This has a wide variety of applications, from visual effects to meteorology. It also turns out to be very useful in archaeology, the SRC’s original pursuit, as it allows archaeologists to have photo-realistic models of artifacts that may not be able to be removed from site (for cultural, diagnostic, or other reasons). It also has the potential to be indispensable in modeling larger, more inaccessible features like immovable objects, entire sites, or things that are difficult to observe and work on for extended periods of time – like submerged shipwrecks. The traditional approach to modeling shipwrecks was an endeavor: archaeologists would spend weeks on sites, putting in hours underwater painstakingly measuring and sketching these large-scale features. This process, something that the SRC perfected back in the early days, works perfectly fine but is a very time-consuming and effort-intensive process. Even back then in the 1980’s, photogrammetry was considered but not pursued due to insufficient technology. Now, in 2019, the SRC is finally putting the process to work on large-scale wrecks.

The tool for this project is a multi-camera array that has been the brainchild of Brett Seymour from the SRC and Evan Kovacs from Marine Imaging Technologies. Brett and Evan have been close friends for a while and have combined their friendships and affiliations on many projects in the past – filming, photographing, and 3D modeling wonders of marine archaeology from WW2 plane wrecks to Ancient Greek shipwrecks. They’ve been working together on the SeaArray for several years now, testing and perfecting it through various iterations. The most recent version, the one that I was lucky enough to see and dive with, consists of three 45.7 MP cameras (Nikon Z7s) in custom-built housings linked to a center control console with HDMI feedback from the three auxiliary units. This whole array, which is held together with a custom-fabricated carbon-fiber system of tubes and pieces, is then linked to a DPV (diver propulsion vehicle, or scooter) for ease of movement (as lugging this huge piece of equipment through the water would be nearly impossible in a slight current). When in operation, this unit will fire off three photos at once (one from each camera) in quick bursts, collecting all the visual data needed to create a high-quality 3D model.

The SeaArray at work on the bow of the Glenlyon

Now, why bother with making 3D models of these wrecks? I mean, it’s undoubtedly cool, but what does it do for us? From an archaeological standpoint, the technology of 3D photogrammetry is an absolute goldmine. The ability to make photorealistic scaled models of sites and artifacts with relative ease is valuable in general, and especially when it comes to marine archaeology as every minute spent underwater is more complicated, expensive, and dangerous than those spent above the surface. Being able to have an accurate model to examine from the safety of a desk anywhere in the world is far more convenient than having to travel to and dip underwater to see.  Alongside ease of studying, having accurate models like these also creates a type of digital conservation, preserving the wrecks in their present state for years to come. While cold freshwater is an ideal environment for slowing decomposition of materials, ice and strong winter storms can still damage them – within the past 10 years, the America lost a large section of its remaining structure from some heavy swell. Had there been a model created before the incident, the wreck would have been preserved in its pristine condition indefinitely in digital form, allowing future visitors to experience it as well.

Moving past the archaeological view, modeling wrecks like these is an invaluable tool for outreach as well. While photos, drawings, and videos of wrecks are captivating in their own way, there isn’t anything as immersive as a model that a user is able to explore on their own. It’s an incredibly useful way for visitors who may not be able to dive be able to explore what exists under the surface in their parks. The SRC does a great job of working to share this information with the public and have been producing great story maps ( to help share the story of the Isle Royale wrecks with the world. After all these wrecks, like National Parks, are public property – the Parks Service works to preserve and protect them, and to share their beauty with the world.

While an earlier version of this system had been tested in Isle Royale the previous year proving its effectiveness, it was now time to put the new model to work. The first wreck to experience the photographic power of the SeaArray was the George M Cox, one which had recently been dove by the team to install a new buoy. For the first test, Brett was the pilot with Jim Nimz as his buddy, while Matt and I dove around the wreck ourselves. After sending in team one and gently lowering down the array itself (Brett has been stressing its durability as an important factor in its design, but it’s still a little unnerving to not be careful when dropping a 100 thousand dollar camera system into the water), Matt and I geared up ourselves and dropped in. The dive went well, apart from having me having a near collision with the array itself, and we were now ready to put it to work on the two wrecks that we had planned to model this trip: the America and the Glenlyon.

Camera deployment and recovery is a delicate operation involving a davit and careful rigging

The Glenlyon in its previous (intact) state. Photo: Historic Photograph Collection, ISRO Archives

The next couple days were dedicated to modeling the wreck of one of our two primary objectives this trip, the Glenlyon. A steel steamer sunk in 1924, the Glenlyon’s wreckage is scattered over two areas on either side of the shallow shoal that brought it down. With the stern on one side and the bow on the other, this makes for quite a bit of area to cover when modelling. Furthermore, the SRC wanted to link the two areas into one cohesive model by covering some of the shoal in between the two spots, making this site a multi-day project. To make things even more difficult, the site was about a two-hour boat ride away from our home base at Windigo, on the exposed southern coastline of Isle Royale.

For my first day on the wreck, the mapping objective was the wreckage scatter of the bow of the ship. Brett and Jim were going in as the array operator and buddy, while I dove with Susanna Pershern. Our objectives were to photographically document the 3D modeling in action, as well as to avoid any possible collisions with the array itself (this one was more specifically towards me). The first dive on the wreck was amazing, another completely new experience. Like the Cox, this wreck was very disarticulated but still featured large recognizable items. The lake bottom was blanketed in algae-covered sheets of metal, interspersed with pieces like large gears or davits. The main features on the bow were a large boiler and then the mostly intact tip of the bow itself – complete with an anchor windlass still laced with the anchor-laden chain.

The next day we spent on the stern, a rather small site but one with some visually striking features. This spot, about an eight-minute swim away from the wreckage of the bow, is the final resting place of a mechanically-complex triple expansion engine – now a submerged mismatch of pistons, pulleys, and gears. Connected to this huge engine, and responsible for propelling this sunken 328-foot steamer, is a huge driveshaft and equally large prop. Altogether, this wreckage makes for a very cool looking spot, and stands to make a crucial contribution to the 3D model. In addition to the 3D photogrammetry, this site was going to be the location for one of Evan Kovac’s many other underwater cinematic pursuits: 8k 360-degree virtual reality video with the Hydrus, one of the worlds most advanced underwater virtual reality video systems. Having this much photographic power underwater in one location was a huge venture, one that took two vessels and eight people to manage but was really incredible to view.

Evan Kovacs with Hydrus on the stern of the Emperor. Photo by Brett Seymour

While spending hours underwater taking hundreds of gigabytes of photos and videos a day may seem like enough work to occupy a team, it just doesn’t cut it for the SRC. After returning from a day of diving with the SeaArray collecting photogrammetric data, another type of work begins – photographic processing and the creation of the 3D models. This workload is so intense that the SRC brought in a ringer just to work on it – Bryce Sprecher, a recent graduate from University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an absolute photogrammetry whiz. As well as bringing his expertise in photogrammetric processing, Bryce also brought along a custom built top-of-the-line computer, funded by Marine Imagine Technology specifically for this work. This computing beast was created to attempt to cut down on the lengthy processing times of creating these 3D models, which can range from 8 hours for a low-quality model to upwards of a week with higher quality ones. Bryce, Brett, and Evan worked together each evening to process and turn the roughly one terabyte of data created in one photogrammetric dive into a viewable 3D model, sometimes staying up into the late hours of the night – there’s no rest when you’re out in the field.

All that hard work is worth it when it pumps out sweet models like this – this is a model of the engine of the Henry Chisholm wreck created the last time the SRC visited Isle Royale

While the photogrammetry data was whipped up into some low quality models while out in the field (low quality was used to get a quick view of the model to determine that sufficient photographic coverage was acquired), the VR data had to wait to be turned into a polished final product. Talking to Evan, I learned that it’s quite the process to turn the super wide-angle footage from the 10 cinema-quality cameras into one seamless and professional 360-degree video file – one that can run up to 20 thousand dollars to process and produce a three-minute clip. That stuff would have to wait. For now, the focus was to be centered on getting out rough 3D models to confirm enough photographic coverage of each site, allowing us to avoid a situation where gaps in data are realized once we’ve left. This strategy saved us a couple times as well – early renders on the Glenlyon showed the team bare patches in the model between the main wreck and scattered wreckage, but still alerted us early enough in the trip that we had time to return to the site and fix the issue.

Brett Seymour imaging the triple expansion engine of the Glenlyon

Along with the Glenlyon, the other modelling target for the trip was the America. Sunk just inside the mouth of the calm Washington harbor, the America was slated to be an easy grab – protected from swells in almost every situation, a short 10-minute boat ride from the harbor, and not too deep to require advanced dive planning. There was only one issue: the wreck lay on a steep slope, making it highly variable in depth with the bow at around 2 feet deep and the stern reaching 85 feet. This leads to a huge gradient in lighting on the ship, which creates problems for imaging. How do you get even exposures when you’re transitioning from shooting in near daylight just below the surface to the gloomy depths of 80 feet underwater murky lake water? You shoot it at night.

The wreck of the America with the SeaArray over the bow, backlit by divers. Photo by Bryce Sprecher.

Now, this solution didn’t solve all the potential problems with modeling this wreck. There was still the huge change in depth, which created buoyancy woes when weaving up from 80 feet to the surface and back down again, over and over and over (especially when diving a closed-circuit rebreather). It also created new issues that had to be dealt with. The SeaArray now needed lights, and ones powerful enough to illuminate a large enough swath of ship to create an even exposure in all three of the cameras wide field-of-views. We also needed to mobilize a team to go out at night, needing more surface support and a larger staging vessel to make sure everything stays safe. Finally, you have the ever-present issue of temperature – the 37 degree water feels cold enough in the daytime.

Four Keldan video lights hard at work illuminating the wreck

Lots of factors were at play to make this wreck difficult to model, but at the same time there were lots at work to make it worth it. The America is arguably the Park’s most popular wreck due to its intactness and ease of access, raking in a good 20% of the yearly dives done at Isle Royale. It’s the only wreck that is accessible to non-divers as it’s bow nearly peeks out of the water and allows for a good section of the wreck to be seen from the surface. It also holds a special place in Park history: the vessel served as a passenger and cargo ferry for Isle Royale for a good 12 years before her untimely demise. Finally, it’s a visually striking wreck, and one that’s potentially structurally unsound as well (a portion of it collapsed in recent years), making for a good argument towards preserving it digitally with a 3D model.

The stern of the America, which up until recently was the home to an intact wheelhouse instead of the pile of timbers that you see here


Imaging the wreck of the America

So, with all this in mind, our team set off around 9:30 one evening (the sun doesn’t set until around 10, and we needed complete darkness) and motored off towards the America. It was a beautiful evening – warm, no wind, flat water – setting the stage for a seamless dive. After waiting for darkness to fall, we sent in the team of photogrammetry surveyors (Brett as the pilot and Evan as his buddy) and shortly after the photographers (myself and Susanna – a big thank you to Susanna for rallying and joining me on this dark and chilly dive, I appreciate your sacrifice). As predicted, the dive was not without issues. Shortly before dropping I realized that both of my strobes refused to work (despite battery changes and gentle encouragement) and immediately after descending realized that the seal of my dry glove had a major leak. This meant that all I had for illumination and navigation was the heavy-duty video light that I had on my camera – not ideal. To make things worse there was a slight current, which can be very disorienting when you’re dealing with a near blackout dive on a confusingly oriented surface like the heavily slanted deck of the tilted America. However, all of this frustration vanished with I got my first view of the Sea Array at night: Strapped to the gills with four 15000 lumen video lights and slowly motoring up the side of the wreck from the depths, it somehow looked even more alien than it had the first time I saw it. Susanna and I only stayed down for a little over 20 minutes until the extreme cold (and completely soaked left arm in my case) forced us to evacuate the water, but I absolutely loved those 20 minutes that I got to spend watching that marvelous creation weave slowly up and down that gloomy wreck at night.

The SeaArray imaging parts of the starboard side of the America

The rest of the trip was occupied with getting the last little bit of data needed on the Glenlyon, as well as filming some VR video with Evan’s Hydrus on the wrecks of the Emperor and the Cox. After completing all our scheduled work, we started up the busy process of packing up our many boxes of gear and heading on to our next ventures – which, for me, was the sunny beaches of the St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.

Packing up the boat to leave – I’ll miss you Isle Royale!


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!


Taking a bite out of DFA Pro

Diving can take individuals all over the world, and it is becoming increasingly accessible to people, including those with diverse backgrounds. This calls for the ability of critical safety materials to be available globally and meet the needs of the growing diver profile.

If you are a dive professional, you may have had the opportunity to take DAN’s Diving First Aid for Dive Professionals (DFA Pro) course. It is a comprehensive course focused on diving and non-diving related injuries. Content includes emergency O2 first aid, CPR with AED, and marine life-related injuries to provide basic training for those who use diving as part of their jobs or volunteer activities. The first version of this course was created in 2006 at the request of aquariums needing to track a variety of staff and volunteer divers to maintain their accreditation. After many years of research and revision, the course is now on version 3.0 with release expected in 2020.   

DAN is a global leader in scuba diving safety resources and has locations all over the world, including Asia Pacific, Brazil, South Africa, Europe, and headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. However, all the course materials and guidelines come from the DAN headquarters here in the U.S.

As a member of DAN and a dive professional-in-training, I had the opportunity to take this course both for my own benefit and for part of my internship. This past week, I finished the skills portion and completed the course. I definitely improved my emergency response skills and become more confident with each time I practice!

A humorus break—not so funny! Camilo was a great patient. Picture by Tess Helfrich.

Instructor Jim writing on Instructor Tess’s forehead to demonstrate part of proper tourniquet usage. Congrats, Tess, on earning your DFA Pro Instructor status!











Behind the scenes of the classroom, Patty Seery, Jim Gunderson, and I have been working together to reassess and rewrite the course materials as needed to fit our global audience. This includes comparing guidelines from organizations that are part of the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation (ILCOR) such as the American Heart Association (AHA), Australia and New Zealand Committee on Resuscitation (ANZCOR), Canadian Heart Association (CHA), and the European Resuscitation Council (ERC).

Practicing CPR with rescue breaths, 30:2. Picture by Jim Gunderson.


While most of the guidelines are consistent across the board, there are a few differences in recommendations that need to be addressed and considered. For example, there are 3 methods proven to be effective in responding to a foreign body airway obstruction (FBAO), commonly referred to as severe airway obstruction or choking, in adults. The ERC says no single technique alone is effective in resolving an FBAO, but the best method is multiple techniques used together, including back blows (or “slaps”), abdominal thrusts, and chest thrusts. The ANZCOR guidelines suggest chest thrusts and back blows are effective but abdominal thrusts are not. The AHA recommends abdominal thrusts be used first in rapid sequence for simplicity, but acknowledges multiple methods in combination may be needed. Of course, not one organization offers better guidelines than another—the guidelines are created based on research that can be interpreted in multiple ways, and thus, discrepancies exist. We are working to reconcile these conflicting methods because of the locations of our courses.

Now for the underwater adventures:
The Carolinas are known for the sharks that live off the coast—and this reputation dates back about 30 million years! Megalodon sharks, which are thought to have reached lengths exceeding the size of a school bus, are the equivalent of underwater T-Rexes. Although these giants lived way before our time, we can still occasionally find their teeth. I decided to test my luck and take a trip to South Carolina’s Cooper River to dive for these prized artifacts with some friends here at DAN.

Showing off my best teeth. Photo by John Cercopely.

Shout out to my awesome dive buddy, Tess! Photo by John Cercopely with Cooper River Dive Charters.









The conditions were harsh: below 7 feet it was completely dark, visibility was 10 inches at best, and we fought a current with screwdrivers stuck into the clay bottom. It was an incredibly challenging couple of dives, but I improved some valuable skills such as performing successful safety stops with no reference points. Above all, though, our efforts were greatly rewarded! I returned with a mouthful of awesome teeth.


The day’s finds! Size shown relative to my hand. Large tooth is about 5 inches and is from a megalodon. Other teeth might be from bull sharks, lemon sharks, tiger sharks, sand tiger sharks, and one alligator tooth (bottom right). Thanks to Cooper River Dive Charters!







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


Isle Royale – Shipwrecks and Buoys in Lake Superior

Isle Royale National Park

After the lengthy and fun-filled 18 hour drive we arrived at Grand Portage MI, our transfer point to the island. Isle Royale is an island in the Northwestern tip of Lake Superior, closer to our Canadian neighbors than Michigan. Made a National Park in 1940 to protect its wild landscape from the impact of the ever-interested logging and mining companies, Isle Royale is a remote and hard to access park boasting untainted northern wilderness, diverse wildlife, and beautiful backpacking. Its 893 square miles of woods host wildlife such as eagles, moose, and wolves. It is also home to the longest-running ecological studies of a predator prey system in the wild (61 years and counting), studying the oscillating population cycles of the island’s moose and wolves. For those of us more interested in the underwater side of things, it also is home to ten major shipwrecks – nicely preserved by the cold, fresh water and free of fouling by invasive zebra mussels. These wrecks, concentrated around the island due to its precipitous bathymetry and centralized location in major shipping routes, are what brought us to this chilly and wild island paradise.

Isle Royale is only accessible by boat or seaplane, and since we couldn’t fit our 2 tons of luggage into a small four passenger plane we opted to boat over. Upon arrival to the harbor we were met by West District Ranger Steve Martin, a close friend of the SRC who had arrived to welcome us to the park and help us across transferring project equipment to the island. Apparently things had been running far too smoothly at this point, because it was then that the SRC’s vessel, Cal Cummings, decided to protest our seamless morning with a myriad of boat-complaints – from battery to steering issues. I was impressed with the SRC’s troubleshooting and repair skills, after a bit of time at work they were easily able to locate the problem and coax the vessel back into service.

Launching the Cal Cummings, the SRC’s vessel


Not a bad day on Lake Superior

While our boat was undergoing a quick attitude readjustment, I joined the first trip across to the island on one of the ISRO boats. My first time on the waters of Lake Superior was stunningly beautiful- sunny, calm, and warm. Reading about the Park and the lake itself, I expected to run into much less favorable weather. Stories of intense storms whipping up 30 ft swells and winter chills dropping far below zero had me prepared for the worst, but my introduction to the park was beautiful and favorable. Zipping through the calm protected waters of Washington harbor and watching small wooded islands and the outstretched fingers of the elongated Isle Royale fly past was thrilling, and heavily reminiscent of the protected inland seas of Southeast Alaska.

After an hour crossing, we arrived at Windigo, our home for the next 3 weeks. Located at the western end of ISRO and consisting of a visitor center, store, campsite, and housing for park employees and visiting researchers, Windigo is the smaller of the two main entry points of the Park. While small, this is the only populated place for miles on this wild island and is a welcome stopping point for backpackers and day-trippers alike. Being a small operation, Windigo is home to one road and one car – an old Jeep that I’m not sure ever gets used, as it sat in the corner of a small field near the store the entire time I was there (and from what I hear, in the same exact spot it was in last year as well). Transportation of gear is handled mainly by a small fleet of miscellaneous vehicles: a golf cart, a utility vehicle, and a tractor hauling a small wooden trailer. The latter is what we used for our first couple trips hauling our bounty of gear up the hill to our housing, and quickly became an invaluable part of our daily pilgrimage to and from the dock. These vehicles are used and maintained by Marty Ogden, lead maintenance staff for the Windigo part of the island, who was incredibly helpful during our time on the island with everything from transportation, to maintaining power, to helping us unload all our gear.

While the primary reason we came to ISRO was to conduct 3D photogrammetry (more on this later) for a couple of the area’s shipwrecks, we couldn’t jump right into the fun. First, we had some other work to do: helping out the ISRO dive team with installation and maintenance of some of their buoys. The Park uses many buoys, some to mark safe passage into harbors or submerged hazards, and others as moorings or markings of wrecks for dive operations. These buoys are instrumental in keeping visitors and passing boaters safe. Unfortunately, the waters of Lake Superior get very cold in the winters and often freeze over – requiring the buoys to be removed when the park closes for the season. This means that, come May when the Park begins to open back up, lots of buoys must be reinstalled. The SRC, as a way to repay ISRO for helping support their photogrammetric efforts,  assisted in buoy installation according the strict manning requirements of OSHA for the first week of our visit. And so, we started our work.

SRC diver Matt Hanks splashes in for the first dive of the trip while Jim Nimz observes from the water

The first dive of the trip was on a sunken passenger ferry just barely inside the mouth of Washington Harbor, the America. This vessel, which lies in the protected waters and juts out of the depths to a mere five feet below the surface, was an easy way to start the trip as well as a good introduction for work to come – as the America was one of the primary photogrammetry targets of this trip. The work – which consisted of two divers locating the wreck and buoy attachment point (pretty easy when it’s visible from the surface), getting passed buoys from surface support on the boat (yours truly), and attaching the buoys via high-tech maintenance tools (wrench and zip ties) – went by without issues. I also got to see my very first wreck of the trip, one of the shallower ones at the bow and quite intact. Seeing glimpses of such a sharp and clean bow emerging from the depths from the deck of our boat was a powerful image for me, a small taste of what lies hidden in the foreboding waters surrounding this island.

Later that afternoon, I got in my first dive of the trip – my first in the Great Lakes and my second freshwater dive I’ve ever done – splashing in the comparatively balmy waters just off the Windigo pier (44 degrees compared to the 36 degree water just outside the harbor). Getting in the water was thrilling, seeing the lake floor carpeted with fallen leaves and branches from the nearby shore, the water dark with tannins. I delighted in the delicately silty bottom, and coming from a biological background, was excited to see some native clam species. As well as an introduction to the lake, the dive served as a check-out for me, where Brett observed and evaluated my skills. I guess he was sufficiently pleased, as shortly after I was cleared to join the team on some working dives.

Heading out for a day of work

Brett Seymour navigating to one of the sites near Rock of Ages lighthouse

The next couple days were a flurry of more maintenance diving. The team installed buoys on more wrecks (the Cox and the Chisolm) out near the Rock of Ages lighthouse, and then boated over to ISRO’s administrative headquarters, Mott Island. There we met Park Dive Officer Mike Ausema, Natural Resources Chief Seth DePasqual, and super volunteer Carol Linteau. From here, we would split the teams up to work on two different objectives. Team one (Mike, Seth, Brett, Susanna, and Matt) would go out on the ISRO park vessel and install a selection of harbor buoys, while team two (Carol, Jim, and myself) would stay back on land and work on some much needed buoy repairs to prepare them for install.

As part of team buoy maintenance, I got to learn some of the more technical, land-based aspects of the craft. Jim, maintenance diving expert and the SRC’s gear guru, is very knowledgeable in these regards and served as a bit of an instructor to Carol and I over the next couple hours. Under his patient direction, I learned a couple of skills essential for buoy work: splicing rope, mousing wire, and removing marking stickers. I was also able to master the art of efficient wrench-usage. With these newly acquired talents, I helped Jim and Carol prepare three new buoys for installation marking submerged wrecks.

ISRO Park Dive Officer Mike Ausema and ISRO Natural Resources Chief Seth DePasqual installing a no wake buoy. Image – Susanna Pershern.

Throughout this first week I was able to learn a bit about the technical aspects of NPS maintenance diving. Unlike most types of NPS dives, which are classified as scientific dives, maintenance dives are considered commercial dives and are sanctioned under OSHA rules. This means that they must be done slightly differently: they cannot be conducted on closed circuit (the SRC’s preferred method of diving), divers must carry a bailout bottle, and there must be a dive tender geared up and waiting at the surface while the maintenance buddy team is down, ready to hop in and assist at a moments notice. It was cool seeing all this work get done in a different fashion – despite not having dove much with the SRC team at this point I knew how much they were into diving with rebreathers, as it makes for more efficient diving (DSO Steve Sellers told me that they had run the numbers and found that they were 40% more efficient diving in the field with closed vs open circuit) – and seeing the team do such varied work. While not necessarily as thrilling as conducting archaeological assessments or 3D modeling shipwreck sites, maintenance diving is an important part of the diving work done at ISRO and is invaluable in making the area safer for visiting boaters.

The SRC geared up and ready to go, maintenance-style (left to right): Matt Hanks as dive tender, Jim Nimz and Susanna Pershern as divers (complete with bailouts)

I guess I had been a good intern during my buoy repair times on Mott Island, as I soon got word of some exciting news. The next day we were traveling to the north shore of the island, where, along with some buoy installs, I was to be treated to my first wreck dive of the trip: a dive on a massive freighter that wrecked there in 1947, the Emperor.

Brett Seymour examines the windlass of the Emperor

The day started off exciting: as well as going to and diving off of the north shore, where some of the islands deepest and most exciting wrecks lie, we were going to make a quick stop at the uninhabited ranger station on Amygdaloid Island to pick up a buoy and change into drysuits. Upon arrival at the small fringe island we were met with a bitter cold wind that felt like it had just came from the Canadian arctic, whipping through the chilly forests and across the border and the small stretch of water that separates Amygdaloid Island from the Canadian coast. Biting and unrelenting, the wind made a compelling argument to put on every warm layer I had and cover it all in a big waterproof suit. Thankfully an old ranger cabin on the island was available for our changing needs, and in its rustic and unheated wooden walls I climbed into enough layers to clothe a small family: three thermal bottoms, five thermal tops, two pairs of wool socks, and two drysuits one-piece undergarments, stacked on top of each other. With my newfound warmth and lessened mobility, I joined the team on our boat as we left that rugged and icy island in search of shipwrecks. The day was already off to a good start.

The cozy ranger station on Amygdaloid Island

As we traveled up towards our site, with the Canadian coast off our port side and Isle Royale’s north shore, speckled with remnants of the winter snowbanks, I thought of what it would be like going down in these waters. Many of the island’s shipwrecks met their watery grave during the lake’s violent winters, where storms thrashed the vessels into shoals and pulled passengers under. Wrecking here during the harsh northern winters was almost a sure death sentence – if the waters didn’t get you, the air would. One of the wrecks we passed on our way up that day, Kamloops, is a testament to this. The ship, now resting at a depth of around 260 ft, wrecked during a violent winter storm in 1927. While some of the passengers went down with the ship (and some remain there to this day), many escaped and made it to shore. These unlucky people didn’t fare much better than their drowned companions – the brutally cold temperatures quickly took their toll and the initial survivors succumbed to the elements. The fate of the Kamloops long remained a mystery – the ship vanished during a winter with no trace of its whereabouts until the discoveries of the bodies of some of the crew the next year along the coast of Isle Royale, and even then the location of the vessel itself was still unknown. It wasn’t until 50 years later that it was discovered by a diver.

Imagine being stranded on a remote coastline like this, during a winter storm with freezing temperatures and blustering winds

The fate of the Emperor, however, shows that storms aren’t the only cause wreckage around Isle Royale. The Emperor, a 525 ft freighter traveling along a common trade route across the lake, hit a barely submerged shoal off of the island’s north shore on a calm and moonlit night around 4AM on June 4th, 1947. Speculation says that an inexperienced first mate may have improperly adjusted the course by a couple degrees, dooming the vessel and setting it on a course for the reef. Reefs like these surround the island, and have caused the end of many of the ships that now rest beneath the surface.

After arriving at the site of the bow of the Emperor, our first team of maintenance divers went down to attach our freshly spliced and stickered buoy. After a successful attachment, it was time for my official introduction to Isle Royale diving. Brett hopped in the water with me and we dropped down to the massive bow of this unfortunate freighter. The size of this ship was hard to grasp at first – despite being relatively intact, years of ice forming and breaking on the surface of the lake has taken it’s toll on the comparatively shallow (40-50ft) bow and has left it partially mangled. Regardless, the wreck was still in great shape and very imposing, with massive features like a huge windlass, deck winches, and anchors present for viewing. Brett took me around the to the good spots and then ended the dive with a quick buoy inspection (have to make sure the team is doing quality work). Being the elite dive team that they are, they passed with flying colors.

The rest of the week was filled with more maintenance diving – attaching buoys to new wrecks, and fixing some older buoys that needed more chain due to lake level rise from last seasons massive precipitation. Maintenance teams went out to add buoys to three more wrecks: the Cox, the Chisolm, and the Glenlyon. Two of Isle Royale’s dive team, Seth and Carol, came down to join in on the festivities for these installs.

Dusk in Washington Harbor, from a nice hike

Not being an experienced maintenance diver myself, I didn’t get in on too much of this fun but instead had a couple days off, where I was able to go on a hike and catch up on some work. I was able to get in a dive on the America with Matt, just to explore the site before we approached doing photogrammetry on it. An absolutely wonderful wreck, the America is an old passenger ferry that lies in 15-85 ft of water. It is very digestible, large enough to be exciting but small enough to swim around it in one dive. It also remains very intact, with the entire hull and most of the deck machinery in place still. It had recently (within the last 10 years) fallen victim to a large swell (or set of large swells) that did some serious damage to the cabin and rest of the deck structure, which made for a very interesting debris field off one side of the wreck. Overall a very nice dive site with lots to explore.




Interspersed in with all of the buoy work was the first test of the SeaArray, the SRC’s flagship photogrammetry machine. This incredible piece of equipment was put to the test on a break between buoy installs on ships – but I’ll save all that exciting stuff for the next blog. Don’t want to get ahead of myself. Overall, the maintenance and buoy work was very successful. Combined, the SRC and ISRO dive teams installed 11 buoys: 5 no wake buoys, 1 channel buoy, and 5 wreck buoys. These buoys will serve their important job keeping the waterways marked and safe for the rest of the season, until their removal before winter and the damaging surface ice comes. Now, with all the maintenance work done, we were free to get on to the exciting part of the trip: the 3D photogrammetry of some of Isle Royale’s beautiful shipwrecks.


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.