AAUS Somers 2021 – Part 1

After over a year of waiting, I was glad to finally be the 2021 Lee H. Somers AAUS Intern with the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS). I was originally supposed to participate last summer, but COVID got in the way. Before the pandemic, I graduated with a degree in Environmental Science and Oceanography and I thought I should earn my AAUS certification. I’ve been diving for a few years, but up till now, only had my Advanced Open Water certification. 

The goal with AAUS is to complete a minimum of 12 dives geared toward scientific diver training, but as a bonus I got my rescue, nitrox, and diving first aid for professional divers certifications, as well. I spent hours on the e-learnings before I arrived at my internship’s host university in Florida. Once there at the Vester Marine Station of Florida Gulf Coast University in southwest Florida, I started by practicing rescue skills in their massive swimming pool. Before this, I had never actually dived in a pool — not a lot of wildlife, but I must say the vis is great. 

Test tube containing a turf sample.

The following week, I got to join the DSO (Calli Johnson), Vester’s research coordinator (Adam Catasus), and research assistant/divemaster (Alex Donnenfeld) on a sampling trip to the Keys, where we were met with rough conditions. My buddy and I made sure to take lots of bonine after that. Our days there were spent collecting samples of halimeda and dictyota algae from various sites. After each dive, we would process the samples to gather the epiphytes growing on the algae to later be tested for ciguatera, a potent toxin that seafood-eaters would do best to avoid. We had to process the samples quickly on the rocking boat to preserve the cells. With only a small portion of sample water lost to the deck, we shook up the samples and poured them through sieves until we had enough epiphytes isolated to separate into test tubes.

Amanda Ho sporting the new inside-out wetsuit trend.

When we returned to the Keys Marine Lab where we were staying, we continued our rescue cert requirements by doing a standard CPR/First-Aid course, which was convenient since it had been two years since my last renewal. But the day was not over yet. After a day on the boat, we got right back in the water for some night dives to deploy screens that would collect more epiphytes. That was easy enough, except that my flashlight hardly worked and I was so exhausted I put my wetsuit on inside out.

The next day, we did the exact same thing: algae collection, on-boat sample processing, and night dives to collect the screens. My buddy and I went by ourselves for the screen recovery, and with some spotty navigation, we finally arrived at the screens and successfully recovered them on our own. On the last day, we did, surprise, the same thing, but finished with performing our open water rescues from depth and officially completed the rescue diver certification.

Amanda Ho (center), Sam Ainsworth (left), and Alex Donnenfeld (right) headed out on a night dive.

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If Coral Reefs Were Forests

NPS boat heading to sea from marina

Between long dive days, spending free time with the crew, and exploring the island, week two on St. Croix passes quickly. We continue conducting fish and benthic surveys for the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) during the day, and the evenings become focused on data entry. On a good day we conduct around seven site assessments, and each site assessment needs to be entered into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) online data system. Data entry can be tedious, especially when survey sites are particularly fishy (lots of fish species and measurements to enter), but it’s fun with the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and National Park Service (NPS) crews. On some nights, I hang out with the NPS guys. We all banter while Jeff prepares his nightly chicken and barbeque sauce dinner, and I bounce between checking out Lee and Mike’s underwater photos and entering data on my laptop. Other nights, I meet with the UVI group and finish data entry while listening to music, watching movies, and comparing our days on the different boats.

As the project continues, I find myself more and more elated to be diving again, especially after 2020, the year of jarring isolation. Scuba diving on a daily basis “fills my cup” — there is nothing quite like breathing underwater and being immersed in the ocean. It provides a sense of peace and perspective that has always been difficult for me to find above water. As soon as I descend, my senses settle with the quiet calm and I focus solely on the present moment. I can’t quite explain it, but I soak up the time underwater as we continue to survey the reefs. The more time I spend diving around St. Croix and working with the NCRMP team, however, the more I’m faced with an unsettling, somber realization.

At face value, this job may seem like a vacation of sorts, a lucky chance to spend two weeks on a Caribbean island and dive to my heart’s delight. However, for marine biologists (especially those working in the Caribbean), diving every day is not equivalent to a carefree vacation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Everyone involved in the NCRMP project comes from a marine science background. We all choose this field (or it chooses us, some might say), and from my perspective, everyone is incredibly passionate about what they do. That being said, having a deeper knowledge of coral reef ecosystems inarguably makes it more emotionally taxing to dive amongst the reefs because we cannot help but see what is happening — they’re dying. They’re being wiped out by diseases and bleached by warming waters. It’s impossible for someone who studies these delicate ecosystems to be ignorant of the ghostly white, ever-growing presence of bleached corals and the algae-covered skeletons that were once vibrant and thriving. Personally, I find it consuming my thoughts as I spend my second week on St. Croix. I feel a self-imposed pressure to make these blog posts lighthearted and cheery, but I also believe that the SCTLD outbreak in the Caribbean is a crisis, and it is incumbent upon me to write about the somber reality of being a marine biologist in this day and age. 

Brain coral with SCTLD damage

SCTLD takes over a brain coral. The white side has been killed by the disease. Photo credit: Dan Mele

In the last decade, Caribbean reefs have experienced unprecedented declines due to overwhelming stressors, from warming waters, to increased hurricane damage, to novel infectious diseases. These phenomena are global, but within the realm of the Caribbean, specifically, we’ve seen the rise of a new disease in particular. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has been wreaking havoc on the Caribbean reefs since it first appeared off the coast of Florida in 2014. SCTLD is a highly lethal, infectious disease known to affect over 20 species of hard corals, and it can quickly turn a diverse, bustling reef into a graveyard. The disease spreads rapidly — it can kill a hard coral within a month (note, some of these corals can be hundreds of years old) and spreads easily through the water column. 

Marine biologists have to deal with disease — it’s part of being a biologist. But SCTLD in particular is hitting hard, and not just underwater. Emotionally, it’s taking a toll on researchers and field techs in a way that I didn’t fully understand until coming to St. Croix. For one, it’s an unavoidable topic. It’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds because, frankly, it’s everywhere. Site after site, we jump into the water, descend to the seafloor, and witness the damage. Some corals show the early signs of infection: splotchy white lesions, indicating recently dead areas caused by SCTLD. Other coral bodies have been killed completely, leaving behind colorless, stiff skeletons. At a handful of dive sites, I can’t help but feel as though I’m floating through a mass graveyard, arriving too late to save anything and bearing witness to incomprehensible damage.

Scuba diver with SCTLD-infected coral in the foreground

A diver looks on at an infected coral. Photo credit: Dan Mele

After a long day, Jeff and I have a conversation about SCTLD as we’re driving the boat back to the marina. Jeff is a coral disease expert and has studied coral reefs since the mid-80’s. He’s been diving the reefs around the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1997 (nearly as long as I’ve been alive). I can’t even fathom how many hours he’s spent underwater, and for the last 25 years he’s been a firsthand witness to the Caribbean reefs’ changes. There’s a mixed emotional response from him as we talk about SCTLD and the state of the reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands — a cocktail of exasperation, frustration, and sadness. I share these feelings with Jeff, and I find myself constantly wondering why other people don’t feel the same intense emotional response that Jeff and I do when we talk about the ocean and the future of coral reefs. We’re watching a natural disaster unfold before our eyes. Why aren’t more people talking about it? Why aren’t more people doing something about it? Where’s the sense of urgency?

I’ve lived in the foothills of Colorado for the last five years. Last summer, I watched three forest fires sweep through my local mountains within a week. When night fell, I would look west and see the glowing red and orange hues of flames dance and pulse on the mountainside. During the day, a dense cloud of smoke and ash hung in the sky. The fires were raging for weeks, forcing people out of their homes and destroying much loved recreational areas and trails. But, as soon as the fires appeared, the community was there. There were so many people driving into the mountains to try and help firefighters that public statements had to be released to tell people to stay home. There were fundraisers. There were donation events. There were news articles and updates every day. The community was watching the mountains they loved burn down, and they wanted to do whatever they could to fix it. 

I have to think that if the reefs around St. Croix were forests, and coral diseases like SCTLD were forest fires, the general public would be up in arms, donating money to rescue groups and rallying the community to help out however possible. If only they could see the reefs with their own eyes and understand SCTLD’s overwhelming presence, they would understand. Because this ecosystem lies beneath the waves and out of everyday view, though, many people struggle to understand that the same level of destruction that a forest fire imparts on a forest is happening to the coral reefs right this very second. 

Pillar coral with white lesions from SCTLD

SCTLD initially forms small white lesions on coral before eventually spreading over the entire structure. Photo credit: Dan Mele

This unfortunate reality is largely a result of barriers — barriers in communication and barriers in knowledge and understanding. A world-class photographer with a top-of-the-line camera system can take photos of SCTLD underwater. It’s taking photos that emotionally captivate and engage viewers that’s necessary, but challenging. Social science suggests that people consume information that aligns with their personal experience and worldview — in other words, people tend to care about the things that directly relate to their own lives. However, the majority of the population does not scuba dive. There’s a notable portion of the global population that has never even seen the ocean, let alone been in it. This leaves people like me, Jeff, and other marine biologists with a rather daunting challenge: conveying the urgency and significance of a massive problem like SCTLD to people who aren’t directly affected by it, and as a result, don’t really care. 

I’m always one to take on a challenge, but I can’t help feeling frustrated by how hard it seems to bridge the communication barrier between marine biologists and the general public. Sometimes our efforts seem like those of Greek legend Sisyphus, the man who was condemned by the gods to live out his eternal life rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down once he reached the hilltop. Realistically, we cannot fully erase the damage that SCTLD has done. As Jeff reminds our crew throughout the week, “you’re never going to see these reefs look like this ever again in your lifetime”. Despite that potential truth, as I work with the dedicated organizations and people involved in the NCRMP project, I am motivated by the fact that all of us still believe that the boulder is worth pushing. More so, they consistently push as hard as they can, day in and day out. They recognize that every bit of time, effort, and action matters when it comes to facing issues like climate change and SCTLD, and there’s an unspoken agreement amongst us as we move through the project: knowing that you can’t completely solve a problem does not mean that you shouldn’t continue to make the situation better. 

Close-up photo of a brain coral with a small white lesion from SCTLD

A close-up of an infected brain coral. Photo credit: Dan Mele

NOAA and the NPS are both driving forces in preserving and protecting areas like the Virgin Islands coral reefs, funding research efforts, and communicating the significance of protected areas to the public. They make missions like NCRMP possible. There’s also the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), which has established a successful coral restoration program, where broken pieces of coral are collected from the reefs, grown and multiplied in their coral nursery, and planted back on the reef. All of the UVI grad students and lab techs involved in NCRMP are also heavily involved in the coral restoration program, and I can tell you that it’s in great hands. Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy operates a coral laboratory and nursery on St. Croix, and has partnered with leading coral science organizations to tackle the Caribbean reef crisis with novel technologies and experimental techniques. Collectively, these organizations continue to do what they can to mitigate damage to ocean ecosystems, rebuild what’s been lost, and encourage further conservation efforts. 

As I pack my bags and prepare to depart from St. Croix, I continue to reflect on my experiences over the last two weeks. One of my primary goals when I began this internship was to share what I learn along the way in a thought-provoking, engaging manner — I want to close the communication gap between those with their boots on the ground and people who aren’t directly exposed to the ongoing issues and efforts in the national parks. This project has motivated me even more to do just that. Thank you to everyone from the NCRMP mission for welcoming me onto the team, sharing your thoughts and stories with me, and helping make the first project of my internship a success. Additionally, a big thanks to Dan Mele for allowing use of his photography in this post. Next stop: Biscayne National Park!

five people on the bow of a boat

Last day of NCRMP celebrations! From left: Jeff, me, Kaya, Kristen, and Mike

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Scientific surveys, seasickness, and surprises in St. Croix

The journey begins! The first destination for my internship is St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’ve never been to any of the Virgin Islands, so prior to leaving Colorado, I take some time to research the region and brief myself on its history. The largest of the four U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix measures in at 82 square miles. Reading this, I expect it to seem absolutely massive in comparison to the eight square mile island on which I lived in Thailand! Additionally, St. Croix is home to not one, but three national park sites: Buck Island Reef National Monument, Christianstead National Historic Site, and Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve. On land, there are 18th century buildings scattered throughout the Christianstead waterfront, the oldest being Fort Christiansvaern, built in 1738. The five historical structures provide a glimpse into aspects of government on St. Croix during Danish sovereignty, from the colonial administration, to the international slave trade, to the military and naval establishments. 

Downtown historic church

The historic buildings in downtown Christianstead offer a glimpse into St. Croix’s history and culture.

Danish Customs House

The Danish Customs House in downtown Christianstead

Underwater lies Buck Island Reef National Monument, the first designated Marine Protected Area (MPA) within the U.S. National Park Service. It wraps around two-thirds of St. Croix, and was dubbed by President Kennedy in 1961 as “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea”. Kennedy recognized the scientific, educational, and aesthetic importance of the area, and created the national monument in the hope of preserving its beauty and rich biodiversity for the benefit of the American people. Sadly, the reef has faced a number of challenges in recent decades. Invasive lionfish, hurricanes, disease, and coral bleaching events have all taken their toll. Currently, the biggest threat is Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), a lethal coral disease that has been spreading rampantly throughout Caribbean reefs since 2014. I’ve come across the disease before (during my thesis fieldwork in Cozumel, Mexico), and I’m nervous to see the extent of the damage around St. Croix.   

My two week assignment is to assist with the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP), a biannual survey that aims to assess ecological reef conditions such as fish species/composition/size, benthic cover (i.e. which substrates and organisms are present on the seafloor), and coral density/size/condition. Ultimately, the information gathered from NCRMP provides geographic and ecological context to inform and supplement local reef monitoring efforts, and aids general studies of tropical reef ecosystems. NCRMP covers a huge region, including Florida, Puerto Rico, USVI, and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Galveston, Texas. The goal, for our current purposes, is to assess approximately 150 sites around St. Croix during the next two weeks. Typically, the NCRMP team surveys closer to 250 sites, but we’re working with a skeleton crew this year due to travel restrictions for NOAA personnel who are normally involved. Still, there are around 20 people working on the surveys this year, coming from a handful of different agencies: NPS, NOAA, the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR). 

St. Croix Site Map

All of the sites to be surveyed around St. Croix and Buck Island are identified with a black dot. We will try to get to as many sites as possible in the next two weeks.

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It’s Saturday morning and I finish packing my bags, careful to weigh them so I don’t exceed the 50 pound limit per bag at the airport. I have a good feeling that the portable luggage scale I purchased is going to come in handy for the next few months. I try as best I can to cut the weight down, but I’m traveling for almost four months and need all my dive gear, running gear, underwater photography equipment, and of course, snacks. I end up with two 50 lb. bags to check and one carry-on that weighs around 25 lbs. Of course, I’m not thrilled by the thought of carrying my own bodyweight in luggage, but I reconcile my unease with the thoughts that  I’ll be both extra-prepared and have stronger shoulders by the end of the trip!

Luggage packed

I’ve had many people offer to “carry my luggage” for the duration of my internship. If only I could take someone up on it!

I have an overnight stay in Miami before my flight to St. Croix, and I’m incredibly thankful to have some help finding a place to crash for the night. Steve Barnett, the President of OWUSS, graciously connects me with Kenny Broad, an OWUSS scholar from the early 90’s. Kenny is now an accomplished cave diver, National Geographic Explorer, and professor with the University of Miami. He’s based in Miami and kindly offers me his guesthouse for the night, which I gladly accept. 

Plane window view

I snagged the window seat on my flight to Miami and caught some gorgeous views.

After a restful night in glorious air conditioning (thanks again, Kenny!), I head back to Miami International Airport to catch my flight to St. Croix. I know that NPS Dive Officer Mike Feeley, my point-of-contact for this project, is on the same flight as me, so I send him a slightly anxious text before boarding. “Hey Mike, just in case I have bad phone service when I land at STX, I’m wearing a grey hoodie w/ black pants and a blue backpack. Will find you at baggage claim. See you in a bit!” Mike texts back with a description of his outfit, but I’ve already been told that he’s quite tall, which ends up being the easiest way to track him down once we land in St. Croix. His height and broad frame sticks out amongst the sea of travelers, and the NPS hat he’s sporting confirms my suspicions that he’s the guy I need to find. Mike is a good-natured, pop music loving fish biologist/ecologist with extensive experience working in the Caribbean. We chat in the airport while we wait for our bags, and are soon greeted by the rest of the NPS crew, Jeff Miller and Lee Richter. Jeff is a coral biologist/disease specialist who’s worked with NPS for decades. Initially, he seems fairly straight-faced, but I’m quick to learn that he has an endless bank of puns and dad jokes that make him and everyone around him chuckle throughout the day. He’s also an impressive athlete, and is the first known person to swim 23 miles unassisted around St. John (one of the smaller Virgin Islands). Similarly, NPS marine biotechnician Lee Richter is an avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast with a seemingly endless supply of energy. Mike, Jeff, and Lee all work for the NPS South Florida/Caribbean Inventory and Monitoring Network, so they’ve spent a lot of time with each other, both underwater and above. They catch up with each other in the car, and Lee and Jeff are more than happy to give me tips on where to run as soon as I express my hope to continue training for some upcoming endurance races after I’ve completed the internship. 

The crew gives me a small tour of St. Croix, starting with the most important locale: the grocery store. (If you haven’t caught on, food plays something of an outsized role in my life.) Groceries are expensive here (welcome to island life), but they have most of the items you’d find in a grocery store stateside. We stock up on supplies and fill the bed of the truck with water, toilet paper, snacks, rotisserie chicken, and barbecue sauce (Jeff needs little more than chicken, barbecue sauce, and pita chips to fulfill his caloric needs). After the grocery store, we head to the condos we’ll be staying at. As we drive across the island, I remember my days on Koh Tao, and can’t help but compare the two islands in my mind. Koh Tao has roaming stray dogs, while St. Croix has free-ranging chickens everywhere. People drive on the left side of the road on both islands, but cars seem to be preferred over motorbikes here. As I continue to make mental note of the obvious differences, I feel an immediate, familiar calm to be back on “island time”. Once we arrive at the condos, I unpack my gear, chat with my roommate, and prep my dive bag for the next day. We’ll be diving first thing in the morning, and I can’t wait to jump in the water.

Groceries in the pickup

Dive gear and sustenance. What else do you need?

It’s Monday morning, the first day of NCRMP! Before heading out on the boats, the entire team meets for a project briefing at the NPS headquarters in town, located in part of the Christianstead National Historic Site, the Old Danish Customs House. The building was originally completed in the early 1840s, but underwent a complete restoration in 2010 after hurricane damage rendered it unusable. These days the first and second floors are dedicated to NPS park management. We all gather in the building and I eagerly meet more of the team. Most of the group consists of graduate students who are part of the Marine and Environmental Science program at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). They have a collective “quirky scientist” sense of humor that I love, but I embarrassingly can’t keep up with the banter. They’re obviously deeply knowledgeable about Caribbean corals and fish, and they throw around scientific names and references with such ease that it makes my head spin. Despite being a little overwhelmed, I’m thrilled to be surrounded by so many people who work in marine science—the atmosphere is filled with excitement and anticipation. We go over safety and logistical information, split off into three different boats, and start throwing gear in the trucks. 

Find Your Park sign at NPS HQ

 

Eddie Boy

Jeff and Kristen start loading up Eddie Boy, our ride for the next two weeks.

To my dismay, I’m told I have to stay out of the water because my dive-physical paperwork hasn’t yet been sent from the doctor’s office to the NPS. Trying to make the best of it, I plan to use the day topside as an opportunity to review survey protocols and study up on local fish and coral identification. I’m on the NPS boat, Eddie Boy, with Mike, Jeff, Alex Gutting, and Kristen Ewen. Alex and Kristen are both alumni from the graduate program at UVI, and continue to pursue coral reef research and fieldwork. Kristen is a Biological Science Technician and Dive Safety Officer for the St. Croix park, and shows a level of dedication to her work that I find quite impressive. She has wrangled rats (it’s a constant battle to keep them off of Buck Island), saved turtles, and helped rebuild coral nurseries around the island. Alex has also been pivotal in the island’s coral restoration efforts, and currently works for the Nature Conservatory as St. Croix’s Coral Conservation Coordinator. They’re both laid-back, proactive, and extremely knowledgeable about the local underwater ecosystem. I’m eager to learn from them and, more especially, to dive together. 

Alex setting up gear

Alex assembles her dive kit on the boat

After shuffling tanks and gear from truck to boat, our team takes off. The run to the first dive site goes quickly, but I soon notice things going wrong. A headache develops. My stomach starts to turn. I’m incapable of taking my eyes off the horizon without the feeling of nausea. The familiar, yet dreaded, feeling of seasickness begins to set in. 

I’ve dealt with seasickness before, but normally it subsides as soon as I jump in the water and head underwater. Today, however, I’m stuck on the boat for the day, and I have no other option but to fight it topside. Ultimately, I lose the battle. For the next few hours, I alternate between leaning overboard to provide food to the fishes, and laying in a corner of the boat deck with my eyes closed, listening to the rest of the crew jump in and out of the water. Thankfully, everyone is sympathetic. I feel significantly better once we get back to land. We spend the drive home exchanging war stories. In an attempt to mitigate my self-consciousness, Jeff tells a story about another intern. “This poor intern,” he starts, “we pick her up on her first day and take her to this local restaurant, great spot we think, and we all have dinner. The next day the food poisoning kicks in and we have to take turns jumping off the boat and swimming downstream for a few minutes to get everything out between dives. Just terrible.” I take a moment to appreciate the fact that I only had to deal with vomiting, and not other forms of GI distress. We stop at the store to stock up on Dramamine, and I cross my fingers for a more successful day tomorrow. 

Seasickness stinks

My favorite spot on the boat for the first two days of the project.

To my dismay, Tuesday isn’t much better. The waters around St. Croix are normally choppy, but even the most seasoned divers are getting sick today. Eight-foot swells knock the boat back and forth all day long. I manage to make it in for the first dive, but even with a healthy dose of the anti-seasickness pills, I’m not able to keep it together for the whole day. Back to the floor of the boat for me. 

The first two days are mentally challenging. Seasickness isn’t something you can just will away, even when you try your hardest. Once your inner ear starts disagreeing with your eyesight, the brain reacts with a burst of stress hormones, and suddenly you’re incapacitated—physiologically convinced that you’re in the spin cycle of a washing machine. I find it especially difficult to deal with seasickness when other people around me don’t have it. In this case, it makes sense that I am the sole victim, seeing as I haven’t been on a boat in the last year, while my crewmates spend many of their workdays out at sea. Despite knowing this, it’s tough to spend the first two days of the internship I’ve anticipated for over a year feeling absolutely awful and, to that end, incapable of diving or helping the crew. Is this how it’s going to be all summer? Am I not cut out for this? Anxious thoughts preoccupy my mind for much of Tuesday. I’m supposed to be working and contributing, not sitting on the sidelines. I worry that my crewmates are starting to question my abilities as much as I’m questioning myself. Desperately hoping to get past this, I try to draw from my ultrarunning experience and focus on problem-solving. What can I control? How can I fix this, going forward? 

On Wednesday, I’m determined to avoid getting seasick. I take one Dramamine in the morning (apparently three is overkill and makes things worse, as I learned yesterday), followed by a larger breakfast than usual. I bring lots of food and water for the boat, and I learn that the weather is supposed to be better today. At long last, I get to experience a full day of diving on St. Croix. Finally! We celebrate my revival and a day of calmer weather, and Mike begins to lead me through training. 

I can finally dive!

By the middle of the week, I’m up and about on the boat (and MUCH happier) thanks to the wonders of Dramamine.

NCRMP surveys are focused on two main types of data collection: fish surveys and benthic surveys. There are two people per team, and both assessments are required at most sites. One person stays on the surface to drive the boat, and the other four divers drop down to conduct the surveys. I’ll be doing fish surveys for the whole project, which involves recording all the fish species seen at a site. We take note of fish counts and sizes first. Next, we do a quick environmental assessment, which provides details on the type of site and the condition (anything from sand patches with dominant seagrass cover to aggregate reefs with healthy corals). Meanwhile, the benthic team assesses coral cover on the seafloor by laying out a transect tape and documenting which coral, algae, or seagrass species are touching the tape. These surveys typically take about 25-35 minutes, so there’s a lot of jumping in and out of the water all day. On a good day, we can hit six or seven sites. 

Kristen and Kaya

The crew: Kristen (left) and Kaya (right), both sporting their underwater themed leggings.

Jeff Miller

Jeff, ready to jump in.

Mike Feeley

Mike awaits the go ahead from Kristen to jump in. The dive flag buoy gets tied down underwater and helps the boat driver locate the team when they finish a dive.

It takes me a few dives to get used to the routine. Despite having watched everyone on the boat execute dives and discuss protocols for the first two days, I’m anxious about correctly executing the dive as I buckle the straps of my fins and sit on the side of the boat, ready to back roll off when we are on site. Because we need to survey specific coordinates for each dive site, everyone has to be ready to roll into the water as soon as the boat hits its GPS waypoint and the driver says, “Go divers, go”. There’s no lingering at the surface, as the current can quickly take you away from the designated site. Instead, we do a negative descent, an entry technique that involves squeezing all the air out of our BC before we jump in so that we start sinking as soon as we hit the water. I haven’t done this sort of entry much in the past, so it’s jarring to jump overboard and begin free falling through the water within seconds. I notice my heart rate shoot up during the first few descents, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to practice the entry method. Once we fall to the seafloor my heart rate calms, and I am back in my element.

Collecting data underwater

Kristen catches me in the middle of a survey as I record fish numbers and sizes. The red and white fish in the photo are squirrelfish. (photo credit: Kristen Ewen)

Clipboard underwater

Essential data collection equipment – clipboard, data sheet, and a pencil.

By Thursday, I’m elated that I haven’t experienced any further seasickness. Finally, I begin to feel like I’m hitting my stride. The crew is settling into a rhythm as well, and we all seem to have ways to boost morale and keep the collective energy up. Mike is the DJ of the boat (I push for 70’s rock, but today’s top hits win out) and Jeff provides clever puns and one-liners throughout the day. I bring along chips, gummy bears, or cookies to share every day. “Ah, the health food aisle,” Mike jokes when he finds me in the junk food section of the grocery store as we make our daily stop on the way to the marina. We have a long day, so snacks are crucial. Our sites are on the other side of the island, so we have to nearly circumnavigate the whole of the island. The run to the first site takes an hour and a half, but it’s a great chance to see the less populated and more wild areas. When I see the unpopulated Jurassic Park-esque green cliffs on the south side of the island, I wonder what it must’ve been like to discover the island in its original state, untouched by people. 

Ocean view from the boat

One of the UVI boats cruises back to shore at the end of a workday.

The untouched side of St. Croix

Untouched green cliffs on the south side of the island.

The day is going smoothly until Jeff notices that the dual engines aren’t moving in unison when he steers. I scan over the engines and realize that, to our collective panic, the steering system has broken. I’m able to grab the bolts that broke off before the ocean sweeps them away, and Jeff and Mike manage to fit one bolt back into place. It’s enough of a temporary fix for us to get back to the marina, but we have to cut our dive day short. 

Mike fixing boat

Mike works on a temporary fix for the boat’s steering system.

On Friday, Jeff has made dozens of calls to try and get Eddie Boy fixed, but a mechanic can’t look at it until mid-afternoon. Luckily, the NPS has another boat in the marina that we can use for the day. Kestrel is a small boat, with a firm “three points of contact” rule when it’s moving. It also has less cover, so most of us don our wetsuits pretty early in the day, as being doused with saltwater on the way to the first dive site is a given. It’s a beautiful day for diving until mid-afternoon, when a storm rolls in and gives us a heck of a return ride. I’m amazed that one pill in the morning can make eight-foot swells and churning waves somewhat fun—the joys of modern medicine! By the end of the day, however, and after a week full of unexpected ups and downs, the crew is ready for the weekend. Personally, I’m excited to catch up on writing, go trail running on the east end of the island, and to spend some time with the rest of the team I’ve yet to hang out with.

Landscape of St. Croix

I love the bright greens and blues of the island and its surrounding waters.

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Bon Bini na Boneiru!

As the 2021 American Academy of Arts and Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Mitchell Scientific Diving Intern for the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS), I will be assisting Ph.D. candidate Josh Manning with his dissertation research, along with other members of the McCoy Lab at Florida State University, Ph.D. candidate Ethan Cissell and undergraduate student Lena Kury! Josh’s research focuses on how parrotfish territoriality affects patterns of grazing intensity on the coral reefs of Bonaire. Parrotfishes are important grazers that use their beak-like teeth to scrape at the substrate, which helps to keep algae in check and creates bare space for juvenile corals to settle and grow. After several field seasons on the reefs of Bonaire, Josh noticed that males of some species, particularly the stoplight parrotfish Sparisoma viride, swim within well-defined territories and will chase off other males that enter these areas. This summer, we are recording the behaviors of several parrotfish species to better understand how these territories are defended and how they influence other aspects of parrotfish behavior.

After countless Zoom meetings working out travel logistics during a pandemic, three flights, multiple Covid-19 tests, and one last quarantine on Bonaire, our team was finally cleared to start conducting research! During our first few days of diving, we explored a few dive sites on the Northern leeward coast of the island, familiarized ourselves with everyone’s equipment, and ensured that we were weighted correctly so that we could practice proper buoyancy. As we descended onto the reef at Karpata, a historically well-studied site, I was instantly overwhelmed by the diverse species of corals thriving on the reef!  With reef-building coral species like Orbicella annularis providing small hiding spaces for creatures of all sizes, it was not surprising to see a diverse assemblage of fish species. We were even lucky enough to find a green sea turtle, resting on top of soft corals!

A graysby rests on Orbicella annularis, a foundational species of coral found on the reefs of Bonaire.

The view from the entry point at a popular dive site, Karpata.

After everyone felt comfortable in the water, it was time to get to work! A large portion of Josh’s research involves observing parrotfish behaviors, so we spent the next day practicing our fish identification skills! Parrotfishes are protogynous hermaphrodites that transition from an initial female phase to a terminal male phase based on social cues. These phases can have incredibly distinct colorations, so it is important to be able to differentiate when fishes are the opposite sex, or an entirely different species! While we will mostly be following terminal phase males this summer, it is important that we can also identify initial phase fish within each territory. This may help us to understand if males defend their territories from neighboring fishes to protect their preferred grazing spots, their mating opportunities, or a combination of the two!

Stoplight parrotfish coloration changes drastically from the initial phase female (top photo) to the terminal phase male (bottom photo).

On our first day of data collection, we dove at one of Josh’s predetermined study sites, Invisibles, to record the behaviors of the stoplight parrotfish S. viride. During these dives, Josh identified a fish to observe for 30 minutes, while Ethan and I counted the number of initial phase fishes present within its territory. Josh would then signal to Lena, who was snorkeling at the surface with a handheld GPS receiver, to begin tracking the movements of the fish. At first, it was really difficult to determine how many initial phase fish were in each territory – if only they would just stay still! This became easier with time, and soon I was able to enjoy watching the fish from afar as they were grazing the reef substrate, visiting cleaning stations, and defending their territories from intruders.

After a few days at Invisibles, we moved on to tracking S. viride at our second dive site, Aquarius. This time, I was in charge of GPS tracking as the top-side snorkeler. Viewing these fish from above made it much easier to discern the boundaries of each territory, and when intruding fish were attempting to sneak into the territories. While it is tricky to keep up with a fish that is chasing another male out of its territory, especially when swimming against the winds on top of a flotation device, it has become my favorite part of tracking the stoplight parrotfish! These chases help us determine the true boundaries of each fish’s territory, so that we can better understand the impacts of their grazing!

While Josh observes parrotfish behavior underwater, I snorkel with a GPS receiver to record fish movement and identify territory boundaries.
Photo credit: Lena Kury

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The Buoyancy of Purpose

Hi there, and welcome! I’m Sarah Von Hoene, your 2021 National Park Service (NPS) Intern for the Our-World Underwater Scholarship Society. I’ve been following a childhood dream of becoming a marine ecologist since I was a kid, playing on the sandy beaches of Virginia. A few years ago, however, I began to tweak that dream a bit. I learned about a small unit of the NPS called the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) — a group of highly trained scuba divers, archeologists, and underwater photographers who use scientific and operational diving to document, interpret, and preserve underwater natural resources within the national parks. Upon the revelation of the existence of the SRC, I suddenly had a new focus: to not only become a marine ecologist, but to dive with the NPS. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the SRC and OWUSS, that dream is finally coming true. As I spend the upcoming months traveling and working throughout the national parks, it’s my ultimate goal to help fulfill the SRC’s mission of promoting understanding, appreciation, and preservation of the national parks’ underwater resources, so I hope you’ll stay tuned as my adventure unfolds. 

I originally applied for this internship once before, in 2016. I was living on the tiny island of Koh Tao, Thailand, where I had taken all of my scuba certification courses and was working as a divemaster for a local scuba shop. I completed my first two years of undergraduate classes online while abroad, then moved back to the states to pursue a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado. Luckily enough, I found a professor at CU who taught a coral reef ecology course that I jumped at the chance to take. Before I knew it, I was completing a thesis and doing fieldwork in Cozumel, Mexico. After graduating, I decided to try again and submit another application for the NPS/OWUSS internship.

I submitted my application in January 2020 and tried to put it out of my mind for the subsequent months (patience is not a strong suit of mine, especially in these types of potentially-life-changing scenarios). A typical evening in early March, however, turned into an ecstatic celebration after I checked my emails and noticed one message with “Congratulations!” in the header. I couldn’t believe it when I read the email. I had been selected for the internship! I shared the news with family and friends over the next few days and tried to wrap my mind around the fact that I was about to start the adventure of my dreams. 

The NPS arrowhead logo embroidered on a drysuit. There’s a pretty amazing sense of pride that comes along with wearing NPS dive gear!

Cue ominous music…because little did I know that a global pandemic was about to dramatically interfere with my plans. On the same day that I received the congratulatory email, the World Health Organization officially dubbed the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. It quickly became apparent that the internship would not be possible in 2020. Thankfully, OWUSS offered me a deferral, which I happily accepted. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do for the next year, but I knew with certainty that the opportunity was worth the wait.  

Over the course of the next year, both OWUSS and the SRC were amazing at welcoming and supporting me, despite not being able to meet in person (or go anywhere). The scholarship society organized virtual meet-ups and lectures by former interns and scholars, and Dave Conlin, the Chief of the SRC, helped organize a project on marine soundscapes that I worked on remotely. It only took a few phone conversations and emails with the OWUSS and SRC teams to realize that I was entering into a close-knit, highly-esteemed group of scientists, divers, and explorers. 

By the time May 2021 came around, Covid had settled down enough for us to plan for an intense summer of travel. Before I knew it, I was driving to the SRC office in Lakewood, CO, meeting the team, and gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime. 

I aspire to collect as many scuba diving-related stickers as the SRC has on display. This crew has clearly been around the block.

It’s hard to explain all the feelings I had during my first meeting and training week with the SRC. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome quite a bit in the past, and I was expecting it to come out in full force at the beginning of my internship. Having worked in the industry, I have a few hundred dives under my belt, but I found the diving undertaken by the SRC team to be truly next level. Like, they eat snacks underwater because they do six-hour dives kind of next-level (apparently Clif bars are great because they don’t crumble underwater. Who knew?). To my immense surprise and relief, I felt very at ease as soon as I met the team. The SRC staff is small (only nine people), but every single person greeted me with friendliness, support, and genuine excitement. I felt like they believed in me and my ability to serve as their ambassador for the coming months, and in that, to consider myself a true member of their team. For a week, I drove home from their office, day after day, feeling the buoyancy of purpose, like I was finally doing what I was meant to be doing. Those drives, with the windows down, music up, and my mind buzzing with excitement and anticipation, will be a fond memory of mine for years to come. 

The SRC dive gear locker is practically famous amongst interns, which is fair considering that Jim Nimz, the Diving Operations Specialist, keeps the room in tip-top shape and full of any dive gear you could think of.

During that week, the SRC covered all the logistical bases, and more. I underwent a thorough dive physical to make sure I was fit to dive, I took a CPR/first aid/oxygen-provider refresher course and exam, and I went through a long list of swim and dives skills that are part of the NPS Blue Card Exam. This exam included a written test, too, but for me, it was a breeze compared to some of the physical skills. Well, one skill in particular. The biggest beast of all was a 25-yard underwater swim, done on only one breath and without any fins. I honestly can’t remember how many times I attempted it before finally making it the entire way. At least six tries! Jim, the SRC’s Dive Operations Specialist, laughed when he saw my glaring, frustrated face after another unsuccessful attempt. “You can read that face from across the pool,” he chuckled as I leaned on the edge of the pool, annoyed with myself. Eventually, through a bit of grit and determination, I was able to complete the test. Thankfully, the other skills were manageable, although there was an added challenge of doing them while getting used to the new dive gear the SRC provided me. 

The SRC provided me with wetsuits, rashguards, a save-a-dive kit, and all other necessary scuba gear for my upcoming adventures.

By the end of the week, I was Blue Card certified, nitrox certified, stocked up on all the dive gear I could possibly need, and ready for nearly four months of travel. According to my current itinerary, I’ll be traveling until October, and working on projects in at least six different national parks. As I mentally prepare for it all to begin, I’m feeling focused, excited, and ready to do my best work. More than anything, however, I’m feeling thankful. Thank you to OWUSS and the SRC for putting your trust in me and supporting me on this epic journey. And of course, a huge thank you to my partner, Jerrod, and my friends and family for helping me chase my dreams and pursue my passions. There will be many stories to tell and experiences to share, so stay tuned for more insights into my experience. For now, I’m off to St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands for the next two weeks! Wish me luck!

My new favorite hat, and one last run at home before a summer of travel! 

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OWUSS is Back! Virtual Event Series coming soon.

OWUSS Virtual Event Series June 3-5, 2021

The Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society has some good news to share! We are emerging from our year-long COVID hiatus and will celebrate our Scholars and Interns with a virtual event series June 3-5, 2021. It is more important than ever that we celebrate success while we recognize the challenging times we are all facing.

Scholar and Intern Symposiums – June 3 & 4

Similar to the morning symposiums we traditionally held at The Explorers Club, the first two days of the event will feature the final presentations of our returning 2019 Rolex Scholars and Society Interns. This is a chance to hear a bit more in-depth about what they did during their scholarship and internship experiences.
 

Awards Ceremony – June 5

The awards ceremony will celebrate the returning class of Scholars and Interns as well as announce the new 2021 Rolex Scholars and Society Interns. This year the ceremony will feature the world premieres of the year-end films for the 2019 Rolex Scholars, the announcement of the DAN Rolex Diver of the Year, the introduction of the 2021 Society Interns, and the awards presentation of the new 2021 Rolex Scholars.
 

Plan Ahead

To maximize the number of viewers from around the world, the initial viewing for each event will air at the following days and times:

Scholar Symposium – Thursday, June 3
Intern Symposium – Friday, June 4
Awards Ceremony – Saturday, June 5

 

  • 4pm EDT – New York
  • 3pm CDT – Chicago
  • 1pm PDT – Los Angeles
  • 9pm BST – London
  • 10pm CEST – Berlin
  • 6am AEST – Sydney (June 4, 5, and 6)

Visit the Event Page for More Details

Visit owuscholarship.org/2021Event for links to the events plus more details.

Also, keep watching your email as well as the Society website (www.owuscholarship.org), and social media sites — Facebook and Instagram.

Return to the Field

With a new cadre of Scholars and Interns, the Society is working with hosts and sponsors to safely introduce our new Scholars and Interns to the field. The decision to reinstate scholarship and internship activities for this year was not taken lightly. The Society recognizes the ongoing seriousness and continually changing nature of the pandemic. With input from all three scholarship regions and the internship program, the Board has agreed to move forward cautiously with, as always, the safety, health and well-being of the Scholars and Interns of utmost concern. 
Given the differing travel and stay-at-home restrictions, vaccination schedules, and COVID protocols for North America, Europe, and Australasia, there is expected to be considerable variability and flexibility to the schedules and experiences for the Scholars and Interns. Our coordination teams will do everything they can to ensure the recipients maximize the available opportunities.

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OWUSS and DAN Announce New Internships for 2021

The Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® (OWUSS) and Divers Alert Network® (DAN®) are pleased to announce two new internships for 2021. Applications are now being accepted for the Dr. Glen H. Egstrom DAN Diver’s Health and Safety Internship and the DAN Diver’s Safety Internship.

The Dr. Glen H. Egstrom DAN Diver’s Health and Safety Internship is named in honor of one of the Society’s founding directors. Dr. Egstrom was an avid diver and brilliant scientist who dedicated a significant portion of his career to diving safety by improving diver and instructor training, diving equipment, fitness to dive, diver conditioning, and underwater performance. This internship, with a special focus on the health and safety of divers, will be flexibly tailored to the recipient’s interests based upon the available experiences and research being conducted at DAN. The selected intern will have the opportunity to participate in continuing education courses, gain a deeper understanding of diving physiology and current diving research worldwide, learn to prepare, plan, and conduct scientific experiments, and learn techniques of physiological data acquisition and analysis. The intern will be interacting with divers during field research events, collecting physiological data, and communicating DAN Research endeavors to the diving community at large.

The DAN Diver’s Safety Internship will expose the recipient to DAN’s risk mitigation and dive safety resources and initiatives. The selected intern will have the opportunity to participate in continuing education courses, learn about pressure vessels such as hyperbaric chambers and scuba cylinders through training materials, seminars, and field trips, and participate in DAN’s safety and training programs by assisting in field assessments of hyperbaric chambers and other related facilities. This internship will be personalized to meet the specific interests and personal goals of the individual selected for the internship within the scope of DAN’s projects as noted above.

The deadline for applications is January 15, 2021.

For more information, visit OWUScholarship.org/Internships.

About the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society: The Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization founded in 1974 and dedicated to the promotion of educational activities associated with the underwater world with the intention of fostering and developing the future stewards of our planet. Its educational outreach has historically been directed at college-aged individuals planning careers in such fields as oceanography, marine biology, maritime archaeology, film making, or medicine. 

About Divers Alert Network: The world’s most recognized and respected dive safety organization, Divers Alert Network (DAN) has remained committed to the health and well-being of divers for 40 years. The organization’s research, medical services and global-response programs create an extensive network that supports divers with vital services such as injury prevention, educational programs and lifesaving evacuations. Every year, hundreds of thousands of divers around the world look to DAN as their dive safety organization.

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Virtual Online Memorial Event for Dr. Glen Egstrom

You’re Invited to Dr. Glen H. Egstrom’s Virtual Online Memorial Event*

Access Link: https://youtu.be/NKUyZBOhY0o

Sunday, July 12, 2020
1:00pm PDT/4:00pm EDT – 2:00pm PDT/5:00pm EDT

Premiering the Tribute Movie – “A Life Well Lived”

The family of Dr. Glen H. Egstrom humbly invites you to a virtual, online
memorial to celebrate his life and contributions. “A Life Well Lived” movie
tribute by Emmy award winning filmmaker Adam Ravetch will be premiered.

Scheduled Remarks

• Opening Remarks    James A. Corry
Director Emeritus, Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®

 • Adam B. Ravetch    “A Life Well Lived”

 • Mark V. Bensen
Nonprofit and Philanthropy Consultant
1974 Rolex Scholar, Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®

 • The Egstrom Children 
Gail Egstrom Clarke
Eric “Buck” Egstrom
Karen J. Egstrom

 • Elvin W. D. Leech, MBE
Chairman, Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®

• Donna W. Egstrom

• Closing Remarks    James A. Corry

View Glen Egstrom’s Written Tribute: Dr. Glen H. Egstrom

Memorial gifts towards the Dr. Glen H. Egstrom Diving Safety Internship can be made here.
You can designate the Egstrom Internship as you are completing your donation.
Please use “Add special instructions to the seller” to do this.

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Glen H. Egstrom, Ph.D., Biography

Glen H. Egstrom, Ph.D.

Founding Director, Past Chairman of the Board, and Director Emeritus

October 16, 1928 – October 7, 2019

“A Life Well Lived”

October 16, 1928 dawned as just another day in America.  Just a week earlier, the New York Yankees had swept the St. Louis Cardinals 4-0 to win the World Series.  American troops had been home from the trenches and battlefields of World War I for about ten years. Calvin Coolidge was the President of the United States, and though Americans had no clue what was about to befall them, the start of the Great Depression was just one year away.

However, this date was going to be very memorable for any number of folks who lived in Jamestown, North Dakota, a little town perched at the confluence of the James and Pipestem Rivers–population 8,000.  Jamestown was founded in 1872 to support a major Northern Pacific Railway repair yard near its James River rail crossing.  Known as the “Pride of the Prairie,” Jamestown is home to the National Buffalo Museum.

This date started unremarkably for electrician Milford Egstrom and his wife, Emily, who managed the Jamestown Bus Terminal and provided 24/7 taxi dispatching for the town; but by the end of the day, their lives would be changed forever with the arrival of their first child, Glen Howard Ole Axel Egstrom.  The extra middle names, Ole and Axel, were airplane pilots and best friends of Milford but were quickly jettisoned by Glen in young adulthood!  The entire family was delighted with Glen’s arrival, and his eight-year-old aunt, Norma Deloris Egstrom, was especially pleased.  Within 15 years, Glen and his family would have cause to be very proud of his “Aunt Norma” who grew up to become the famous singer and actress, the inimitable Miss Peggy Lee!

Glen grew up hunting and fishing the lands and waterways surrounding Jamestown, especially the James River and its associated James Reservoir, a 12 mile stretch of three interlocking lakes that had been formed by the Jamestown Dam.  Glen became a standout high school athlete in football, basketball, and baseball, garnering all-state honors.  Glen, an accomplished swimmer, also became a very popular local lifeguard.    

After high school, Glen headed for the University of North Dakota (UND) intending to play collegiate football.  During his freshman year, he severely damaged a knee.  The university brought a renowned orthopedic surgeon from the Minneapolis Lakers into North Dakota to repair Glen’s knee, but he never played football again and turned his attention to becoming a serious basketball athlete.  In the Spring of his sophomore year, Glen was taking a physical education class and was paired in a game of badminton with Donna Wehmhoefer. They soon started dating and were married shortly after their college graduation in 1950.

The newly married Egstroms headed to Tracy, California, where they both had obtained teaching positions in the local middle school.  They started their new jobs at the end of the Summer in 1950 just a couple of months after the start of the Korean Conflict. It took only until the Spring of 1951 for the Jamestown draft board to catch up with Glen and draft him into the U. S. Army.

Glen graduated as a Private from boot camp, during which he received Trainee of the Week honors from Major General Robert B. McClure.  He was sent immediately to the first Antiaircraft Artillery Officer Candidate School (OCS) and graduated with an officer’s commission and orders to Korea to serve as a platoon leader with the 3rd Infantry Division supervising field artillery. A few months after arriving in Korea, Glen was detailed to the U. S. Air Force 6147th Tactical Air Control Squadron and flew 28 combat missions as a Forward Air Controller in a T-6 aircraft providing close air support, aerial observation, and artillery spotting.  

While Glen was in Korea, Donna moved to Los Angeles and took a position as a Los Angeles County social worker.  1LT Glen Egstrom was released from Korea, placed on inactive duty and joined Donna on October 16, 1953 in Los Angeles.  Ultimately, he was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve with the rank of Major on July 26, 1965.   Glen decompressed from the stresses of war by heading to the Los Angeles beaches every day to surf and play beach volleyball.  In January, 1954, he enrolled in a Master’s program at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) and was quickly hired as a teaching assistant (TA).  Within a short period of time, Glen became a player/coach on the UCLA Men’s Volleyball Team eligible, because he had not played volleyball at UND.  In 1956, armed with $25 of university funding and uniforms he borrowed from the UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball team, Glen lead his team to Seattle where they won the national collegiate volleyball championship. 

Glen completed his Master’s degree at UCLA in 1957 and while he continued to be employed as a TA at UCLA, completed his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1961 and was subsequently hired as an assistant professor of kinesiology at UCLA.    

During this time, Glen continued to love any activity related to the water and kept up the ocean swimming and surfing in Southern California while teaching at UCLA.   His foray into scuba diving was particularly interesting.  Aunt Peggy Lee was married for a brief period to actor Dewey Martin, who obtained some of the first regulators and scuba equipment that Jacques-Yves Cousteau sent into America via René Bussoz of Rene’s Sporting Goods in Westwood, California. These self-contained underwater breathing units he called “Aqua-Lungs.”  Dewey’s contract with the movie studio prohibited him from any dangerous activities, including scuba diving, and “Uncle Dewey” gave his double-hose regulator and twin cylinders to Glen in 1957.  While all this was happening, Glen and Donna were busy growing their family with the addition of daughter Gail (1954), son Eric known as “Buck” (1957), and daughter Karen (1961).  All three were quickly introduced to their parents’ love of the water and two became certified divers.  Gail qualified as a scuba instructor, Karen shared Glen’s love of sailing, and Buck became incredibly skilled at surfing and foil surfing.

Glen had become the faculty sponsor for the UCLA Skin and Scuba Club and asked the Los Angeles County Scuba program, considered to be the first scuba training program in the United States, to conduct a basic certification course at UCLA.  Once certified as a diver, Glen undertook the arduous Los Angeles County Underwater Instructor Certification Course in 1964 to become a certified instructor and graduated with the Outstanding Candidate Award.  He served as its President 1967-1970.  In 1964, Glen was appointed the UCLA Diving Officer, a position he held until 1992.   Glen was notorious throughout the diving community for his nine-month scuba instructor training course (ITC) at UCLA.  One observer of his ITC was quoted as saying, “Egstrom ain’t training scuba instructors; he’s training university diving officers!”  His scientific and recreational diver training program at UCLA was highly acclaimed, graduating hundreds of divers and instructors who themselves continue to make considerable contributions as part of Glen’s legacy.

In 1966, Glen became a member, instructor and instructor trainer with the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and maintained his membership for life.  Glen served as NAUI’s president from 1970-1975 and held a variety of leadership/advisory positions from 1970-1995.

During this period, Glen served as a reserve deputy sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, their Diving Safety Officer, and an active member of the Sheriff’s Reserve Marine Company 218. Glen retired in 2004 with the rank of Captain.

Over the years, Glen provided exemplary leadership to many other organizations, especially during their formative years.  Organizations such as the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), American College of Sports Medicine, Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics, Divers Alert Network (DAN) , Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, Marine Technology Society,  National Spa and Pool Institute (NSPI) and the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society (UHMS) all benefitted from Glen’s leadership and counsel.  The organization to which he was most committed was the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® which he helped found.  To this special group, he provided enduring leadership and instilled within it his lifelong commitment to “investing in people.”  His natural leadership gifts allowed Glen to create, build, and serve communities that continue to help people safely experience the underwater world.  

Glen was the ultimate “people collector,” and anyone invited to his Mar Vista dining table was thrilled to be part of so many loving, thoughtful, and provocative discussions that often lasted late into the evening.  Many were additionally thrilled to have been invited to dive with Glen earlier in the day–only to discover that dinner was dependent upon what they harvested from the sea!

The reader is encouraged to read the reference material below to appreciate Glen’s voluminous awards and publications, but he was especially proud of his collaboration with his good friend, Arthur J. Bachrach, PhD, in their publication of the definitive work, Stress and Performance in Diving.  One of his greatest joys was conducting humorous and famously creative seafood cooking workshops with Dr. Bachrach.

Glen retired from UCLA in 1994 and was awarded the status of Professor Emeritus – Kinesiology in the Department of Physiological Sciences.

It is difficult to fully explain anyone’s life and contributions, especially a life so wonderfully complex and multidimensional as Glen’s.  Though deeply committed to family and friends, Glen had a singular mission in life– to introduce, share, and teach people to safely explore the underwater world he so loved and to train others how to instruct and safely conduct those same in-water activities. This personal mission helped focus his considerable talents with a clarity and passion few others ever achieve.

At Glen’s core was a huge and generous heart called to service; first in Korea as an Army officer and later, to serve so many important communities including his family, friends, academic colleagues, fellow diving instructors, his students, and indeed all those he believed had potential to make a real difference in the world. He had a primal instinct to keep those around him safe, especially those he identified as needing special help to become confident in the water.  He spent a lifetime working to understand and solve problems associated with diving fitness, performance, and safety.  He tested, analyzed, developed, innovated, and reported on nearly every aspect of how diving/aquatic equipment and aquatic facilities and locations could be made safer.  He worked tirelessly to make aquatic instruction of all varieties and the creation and review of safety standards a more scientific, professional, disciplined, and rigorous undertaking. 

Throughout his life, Glen loved being a member of a team and simply being underwater.  As he traveled the world teaching, learning, and exploring, he retained his fascination with nature and the wonders of our place in that world which he had nurtured in those boyhood explorations of the James River. To his students and colleagues, he often voiced his awe of the human capacity to create and to evolve.  He lived his life with courage and passion, and all of humankind’s explorations of the aquatic world are forever safer because of Glen’s contributions and body of work. 

Those who experienced Glen’s exemplary leadership, many of whom built their careers under his tutelage and mentorship, share a powerful image of this man in his element.  He is standing in the breaking surf, in full scuba gear, a speargun in one hand, and a “diver down” float in the other—looking over his shoulder with that familiar, compelling expression that said, “You comin’?  Follow me!” 

In honor of Dr. Egstrom, the board of directors of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® voted unanimously on June 5, 2020 to establish the “Dr. Glen H. Egstrom Diving Safety Internship.”

The Egstrom family is grateful for the outpouring of tributes to Glen and expressions of sympathy to the family.  They also appreciate memorial gifts to the Dr. Glen H. Egstrom Diving Safety Internship administered by the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®.

REFERENCES

International Legends of Diving – Glen Egstrom Bio

Journal of Diving History – Glen Egstrom Tribute by Dan Orr

Xray Magazine – Glen Egstrom Tribute

Los Angeles Times – Glen Egstrom Obituary

 

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Since we are unable to get together in New York City this year, we hope you will join us for our virtual event.

Saturday, June 6th,
4pm EDT – New York
3pm CDT – Chicago
1pm PDT – Los Angeles
9pm BST – London
10pm CEST – Berlin
6am AEST (Sunday, June 7th) – Sydney

We’ll have video messages from our returning 2019 Scholars and Interns.
We will also check in with some of our alumni to see what they have been working on, and we’ll hear from Dr. Joe MacInnis who will provide us with some inspirational words.

We will wrap up the presentation with an announcement of the new Society Interns and Rolex Scholars who will start their experiences in 2021.

If you are unable to join us at the scheduled time, the event video will be available following the event.

https://youtu.be/01PNRBkw3s8 

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