The Benefits of Working and Living in Durham

     While most of my time in Durham was spent at DAN conducting research and learning about hyperbaric medicine, I want to share my appreciation for the non-work opportunities that arose from this internship. A majority of our free time was spent diving, but I tried to make time for a few activities outside of the dive community as well. Having never lived in the South, I was a bit nervous about the climate, culture, and food associated with North Carolina, but it all quickly grew on me (except maybe for the humidity, haha!). By the time I had to depart in September, I was sad to go.

     First, North Carolina is full of quaint towns and hiking destinations to visit for a weekend. My first weekend trip was to the Outer Banks, where my girlfriend and I explored by hiking, surfing, and stargazing. The water was warm, the people were friendly, and the food was wonderful. Our Airbnb hosts showed us around town and offered all sorts of suggestions for seeing the less touristy aspects of the Outer Banks. I gained an appreciation for the barrier islands, wetlands,  and peanut farms present all along eastern North Carolina.

Picture 1: The Scuppernong River Wetlands 

Picture 2: A Stormy Day in the Outer Banks

Next, I went on a hiking trip to the Appalachian Mountains. I made it to the top of Mount Mitchell (where I coincidentally ran into the parents of another DAN intern). Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi and was a challenging hike from the trailhead where I started. Along the trail were spectacular mountain views, fresh blueberries, and lush rainforest. I ended up staying in the town of Asheville which offered awesome breweries, live music, and a hipster culture I did not expect to find in the South. Overall, taking two road trips across North Carolina was a great way to see the diversity of this wonderful state!

 

Picture 3: The Road up Mount Mitchell

 

Picture 4: Fresh Appalachian Blueberries!

Back at home in Durham, there were plenty of options for day trips. I went hiking or mountain biking almost every day after work which was a great way to stay active and explore the local outdoorsy scene. My two favorite spots near Durham were Brumley forest which offers bike trails and Eno River State park which has phenomenal hiking trails along the creek. I may have gotten caught in severe thunderstorms a few times, but it was all part of the experience! When I was feeling a little more ambitious I would head up to Hanging Rock State Park (about 2 hours from DAN), where the terrain is more rugged but the hiking options are plentiful. 

 

Picture 5: The Brumley Forest

 

Picture 6: Hiking at Hanging Rock State Park

Along with the other interns, I also tried to absorb the unique cultural, food, and entertainment options in Durham. DAN was generous enough to provide their interns with a food budget, so I had the opportunity to explore cuisines I had never tried before. Of course, I had lots of shrimp with grits, but other foods not available at home in California include crawfish, catfish, fried sushi, chicken & waffles, and Southern BBQ. But more importantly, we made an effort to try all sorts of international cuisine including Indian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Ethiopian, Spanish, Pakistani, and Thai food. Coming from a family that lacks enthusiasm for adventurous eating, I found this to be an unintended yet valuable part of the internship. The DAN internship is obviously not intended to be cultural in purpose, but I am very grateful for the unique experiences I was provided through DAN and OWUSS outside of a strictly academic environment. I hope to travel back to Durham at some point and would be happy to provide some recommendations for anyone who plans on visiting!

 

Picture 7: The 2022 DAN Interns Enjoying Traditional Tapas

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Growth as a Researcher, Diver, and Instructor

As a research intern at Diver’s Alert Network, there is an opportunity to learn at every corner. In my time with the research team, I received incredible mentorship as a young scientist to hone my data collection, analysis, and knowledge translation skills. Going into the internship, I knew the quality of research DAN produces, so I was eager to learn as much as I could from the team. But the amount I learned exceeded all expectations.

In addition to DAN’s commitment to training me to be a better scientist, I was provided with a wealth of opportunities for continuing education, allowing me to increase my capacity to act as a steward and leader in the diving field.

I am proud to now hold certifications as a Professional Scuba Inspector/Professional Cylinder Inspectors (PSI/PCI) Visual Cylinder Inspector, Oxygen Cylinder Cleaning Technician and Valve Repair Technician. This course consisted of didactic learning portions and tank and valve disassembly, as well as a tour of a facility where compressed gas cylinders are made. We were incredibly fortunate to have the CEO of PSI/PCI, Mark Gresham, to lead us through learning the intricacies of ensuring safety when working with compressed gas.

I am using a specially designed light and picking tool to peek into a scuba cylinder to inspect the integrity of the walls

A photo showing the thickness of a typical scuba cylinder wall in relation to the shoulder.

As research interns, we were also given the opportunity to participate in a regulator clinic at the headquarters of Dive Rite. This was a first for many of us, to open up such a critical part of our life-support equipment. The experience gave me a better understanding of the system and while it was complex in some sense, it could be broken down into a relatively simple system.

Beth Jones and I taking apart the second stage of a regulator as a part of a regulator clinic at Dive Rite.

During my time at DAN, I also became certified as an instructor for the Diver’s Alert Network First Aid for Professional Divers (DFA Pro) Course. For the course, we were guided through general first aid, emergency oxygen, CPR, neurological assessment and first aid for hazardous marine life injuries. These skills were first taught at the provider level with the help of our instructors Christine Tamburri and Wally Endres from Risk Mitigation and Safety Services.

This course gave us the foundations and knowledge to apply to our DFA Pro instructor training, which was done with the help of Jim Gunderson, the director of training at DAN. Working with Jim, we were able to better understand the teaching methodology DAN employs to provide some of the most robust training in CPR and first aid available while making it applicable to divers.

Some of the training materials used for the DAN DFA Pro Course.

Each of these certifications has aided in my professional development immensely, as I am able to bring them back to my home dive shop. I am excited to teach new students about the importance of first aid training for divers. I also have gained a deeper understanding of how my equipment works when diving and am therefore better equipped to solve problems above and below the water.

 

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The Tahoe Experience

My phone camera doesn’t quite capture the view I take in with my own eyes– the glass-like aqua blue water, the sweeping mountains lined with pine trees trailing all the way down to shore, the boulders bigger than cars that rest partially submerged– but looking back at my photos, I’m reminded of the fond memories I made here. The past month of my life revolving around Lake Tahoe was truly something spectacular, and I know I’ll be back someday to enjoy the beautiful scenery once again. 

Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe. Photo credit: Brant Allen

The second leg of my internship was based at the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC), located in Incline Village, Nevada. I arrived a week before field work began but jumped right into the action as I was settling in. There was quite a bit of preparation to be done for the underwater surveys that I would be helping with. The Asian clam, a non-native species to Lake Tahoe, was first reported by TERC researchers in the south-eastern shore of the lake back in 2002, likely from an accidental introduction from a visiting boat. Since then, they have been spotted in other areas of the lake, including Sand Harbor. The main concern for their appearance in the lake is the algae that follows them. In densely populated areas of clams, this green algae builds up along the bottom due to the nutrients released by these shellfish. Large plumes grow, cloud up the water, and eventually end up washing up to shore. Lake Tahoe is known for its picturesque, clear blue water and scenic shorelines, but the Asian clam may soon alter these idyllic features if left unchecked. And this was why I was jumping in. 

Invasive Asian clams (Corbicula fluminea) blanketed by green algae. Photo credit: Brandon Berry

My task was to help capture underwater data with the TERC Dive Field Team as part of a multi-year clam-population study at Sand Harbor, located on the eastern shore of the lake. One of the team members, Erik Young, was a fellow AAUS scientific diving trainee with me at Bodega Marine Lab (BML) earlier this summer. The other three members– Katie Senft, Brandon Berry, and Brant Allen– were seasoned clam-collectors and showed me and Erik the ropes for the study. For two weeks, we got up early to hop on the R/V Bob Richards at the Tahoe City Marina and travel across the lake. Some of our survey sites were shallow enough to snorkel along, but the deepest areas we surveyed were at about 35 feet. We slipped into our wetsuits, staged our gear, and stepped off the boat with our minnow traps, which we used to scoop up the sand and filter out for clams. 

My mornings began at the field station in Tahoe City. Photo credit: Yuen Azu

Katie Senft (left) and me (right) collecting clams with our minnow traps. Photo credit: Brandon Berry

Holding up a bag of clams. Photo credit: Katie Senft

The first week was the perfect temperature for our dives. It was hot enough at the surface for us to stay comfortably warm underwater for over half an hour. However, a fire was burning southwest of Lake Tahoe and was carrying over smoke and colder temperatures. On top of this, I had unfortunately caught swimmer’s ear and had to take a couple of days off to heal up. It was agonizing to miss out, but I was able to rejoin the group for the last few days and finish our mission. 

A smoked-out view of the lake from the Mosquito Fire. Photo credit: Yuen Azu

My research dives at the lake had concluded, but the clam survey was far from over. It was now time to count and measure every single clam that we had collected. Dressed in a lab coat with calipers in hand, I went through jars and jars of our preserved bivalves and took careful notes of their measurements. The raw data sheets had to be transferred to the computer, so when I got tired of measuring I switched over to data entry. With the help of the others, we were able to get through most of the samples in four days, before my time at TERC was up.

Measuring clams back at the TERC laboratory. Photo credit: Yuen Azu

The last official week of my internship was spent learning how to dive with a drysuit. Emerald Bay, the southern region of Lake Tahoe, was my training ground. The State Parks Dive Team had generously included UC Davis divers for their refresher course on underwater surveying, and Jason Herum, my instructor and main BML contact, was in charge of teaching the Altitude Diving course. Over three days, we learned about the precautions needed to dive over 1000 feet above sea level and I went on six drysuit dives. 

Donned in a drysuit for the first time. Photo credit: Sydney Salley

Drysuits, as opposed to wetsuits, are water-proof and require air from your tank to be added as you dive. With the added complications of an extra air space, you’ll need to be trained and certified to use one. It was strange to have to return to buoyancy-control basics, a skill that had become natural to me over the years. As I waded into the water in my hot-pink rental for the first time, I pressed the inflator valve on my chest to add some air inside the water-proof suit. The deflator valve was located just below my left shoulder, and I had opened it almost all the way to allow air to vent out whenever I lifted my arm. Jason and I swam not too far from shore and descended to the sandy bottom at about 10 feet. I practiced adding enough air to my suit to hover above the bottom, then letting out the air so we could kneel. I lifted my left elbow up gently and a string of bubbles escaped out of the deflator valve – Jason called the motion ‘the chicken-wing’. Next, we practiced a technique to right yourself if the air moves to your feet and causes you to go upside-down. After moving into a head-first position, Jason tucked in his upper-half and rolled forward into an upright position. I copied, with mild success. After practicing the new drills in the shallows for a while, we headed down the steep slope further off-shore so I could work on adjusting the air in my suit as we descended. It was the first time I felt the thermocline– a depth in the water column that was much colder than above– while diving in Tahoe. 

For the next few days, I dove alongside my friends and instructors from BML, exploring several old wrecks and continuing to hone my buoyancy. The morning of our last dive, Jason gave me and the other two drysuit trainees a new task: we were to lead the dives as a trio. Up until that point, we had been following Jason underwater. We floated at the surface for a few minutes to hash out a plan and then descended. Once we were on our way however, we realized our discussion was not detailed enough. We hadn’t picked out an actual lead among the three of us, nor had we decided how long we were staying in the shallower area to review our drysuit skills before descending further for the rest of our dive. With the limitations of hand signals to communicate, we struggled to coordinate. Immediately after surfacing we debriefed on the issues we had. Our second and final dive that day was to redeem ourselves, and this time, we were much more explicit and careful with our dive plan. It was a serene dive as we descended upon a sunken boat not too far from shore. We had all vastly improved on our buoyancy control and seamlessly executed our plan. As I surfaced this time, I was elated that it went so well, but it was dawning on me that it was my last internship dive. My final day in Lake Tahoe had proved to be an important lesson on dive planning, and so I finished my internship with a drysuit certificate and a healthy dose of humility. 

My fellow dive-mates Erik Young (left) and Sydney Salley (middle) getting into our drysuits. Photo credit: John Harreld

Emerald Bay dive site. Photo credit: Yuen Azu

Although my time as the OWUSS/AAUS Dr. Lee. H. Somers Intern has come to an end, it has opened up a world of opportunities that I am excited to explore next. With just a semester left of my undergraduate education, I am hoping to find a research position that involves lots of diving within the next year. From there, I’ll gain more experience to prepare me for graduate school and a career in marine biological research. There were so many people that I met these past few months that impacted my experience, not just those explicitly mentioned in my blog. To all those whom I learned from, learned with, and/or shared any of the incredible experiences I had, I am deeply grateful that our paths crossed. 

I also cannot go without saying thank you to my wonderful family on the west coast who all made me feel right at home, and to my friends and immediate family for their support. My deepest gratitude goes towards The AAUS Foundation, which made this internship possible in conjunction with the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. Finally, I have to thank my OWUSS family and my hosts at UC Davis for making sure my internship was a blast! 

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It’s ‘Harbour’ not ‘Harbor’: Red Bay National Historical Site

Almost a year has passed since I started compiling my application for the OWUSS NPS internship. Although an organization I had known of and been watching for several years, I never had the “right” qualifications to apply. I knew 2022 would be my chance – I had finally formally completed my Rescue diver training, maintained active scientific diver status over the past several years, and would be graduating shortly, leaving summer open for new adventures and opportunities in learning. 

During my first meeting with Dave Conlin (internship supervisor and Chief of the NPS Submerged Resources Center) and Brett Seymour (Deputy Chief), we wondered aloud if I could take advantage of my Canadian heritage and connect with our friendly neighbors to the north – the Parks Canada Underwater Archeology Team. After exchanging several emails, I soon learned they would have several projects ongoing this summer across Canada, from Lake Superior to the Canadian Arctic and eastern Labrador (did you know this is the only dive team within Parks Canada?). I was beyond thrilled when Jonathan Moore (Senior Underwater Archeologist) put me in touch with Brandy Lockhart (Underwater Archeologist and project lead), putting the pieces of the puzzle together for me to join them in Red Bay, Labrador, at the Red Bay National Historic Site/UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Overlooking Red Bay on the southeastern shore of Labrador. Photo: Todd Stakenvicius

The Parks Canada logo (the Canadian NPS equivalent) features our national animal, the beaver

A historic preservation area dedicated to the excavation and documentation of a 16th-century Basque whaling station, including several transatlantic whaling ships, Red Bay draws thousands of visitors each year (a sizable feat considering its current population of approximately 150 and remote location on the southeastern shore of Labrador). To my surprise, this park was the most challenging place to organize travel throughout my internship. It took five planes, two days, and both car and ship travel to get here (one way) from my hometown in northern Ontario. I was ecstatic to be sent on this “international” project, representing NPS on my home turf, and would be joining Parks Canada aboard the RV David Thompson for two weeks, as part of their regularly scheduled site assessment of several shipwrecks that were excavated in the 1980s and later reburied in situ to preserve the remaining structure. 

The quiet town of Red Bay, made up of a few hundred people with homes scattered along the shoreline

RV ‘David Thompson’, a mid-shore scientific research and survey vessel, used for underwater archaeology work with Parks Canada (including the surveys of HMS ‘Erebus’ and HMS ‘Terror’ – two Franklin Expedition ships lost in Northern Canadian waters).

Over 70 years (from the 1540s to early 1600s), over 2,500 Basque sailors, perhaps Europe’s most ancient people, crossed the Atlantic annually, from Spain and France to the Strait of Belle Isle. Here, they established a major whaling port where Right and Bowhead whales were hunted, harvested, and processed to render oil used primarily in European lamps. Over 25,000 animals were killed in these extensive efforts. Today, these whales are some of the most endangered large whale species worldwide. 

The excavation of Red Bay Basque whaling ships were carried out by Parks Canada in 1980s and was featured on the July 1985 cover of ‘National Geographic Magazine’

Well preserved remnants of Basque clothing can be seen in the town’s museum, alongside whale bones, coins, oil barrels, and timbers from the 16th century

Our mission was to conduct a UNESCO-mandated 5-year site assessment, focusing our efforts on one of the most extensively studied shipwrecks in the Red Bay harbour, the well-preserved wreck of the presumed San Juan. In her prime, this 30-meter ship would have held over 70 sailors but eventually sank, in 1565, with over 1,000 barrels of whale oil on board. Underwater, we would inspect the protective tarp (laid atop the reburial mound in the 1980s), follow up with several repairs and replacements of damaged areas (repairing tears, burying exposed timbers), and ROV imaging of the current condition of the site. This was no easy feat, considering the tarps (weighing over 300 pounds each) are held down by a hundred or more sandbags and tens of heavy tires. Combined with unpredictable and likely unfavourable weather and a short-handed crew due to illness, we had our work cut out for us!

A scale model of the presumed ‘San Juan’, excavated in 1979-1985. Nowadays, Basque shipbuilders are using archaeological data to reconstruct the ‘San Juan’, using traditional methods to produce a functional, life sized replica

Preparing the protective tarp for preservation of the reburial mound which covers the remaining wreckage. At over 300 pounds each, moving and preparing the tarps is a group effort.

Remote operated vehicles (ROVs) are used to document the site, providing videos and images for future reference

The presumed ‘San Juan’ is covered by a protective tarp, secured in place with tires, sandbags, and cold tolerant zip ties. It has lasted 40 years before requiring replacement

Before getting to work, I was given a general lay of the land and an introduction to the unique gear configuration used by the Parks Canada Underwater Archeology Team. The bulkiest setup and coldest water I’ve encountered to date, I was warned to anticipate -2° to +2°C seas (translating to 28° to 34°F) and more weight, tanks, and hoses than I knew what to do with. Any trepidation about water temperatures and new gear was overshadowed by my excitement to dive in increasingly extreme, unfamiliar environments and cushioned by memories of feeling invigorated and comfortable with cold water diving in the past. 

A quick shore dive to try out the new gear, familiarize myself with the environment, and demonstrate several emergency drills before getting to work

Parks Canada Underwater Archeology Technician, Joe Boucher, gave me a thorough introduction to our gear, demonstrating how to assemble/disassemble/adjust/use each piece, from our full face masks to bailout and emergency air block. We do a shallow water check-out dive and I am pleasantly surprised by the water temperature at 4°C. What I do not expect, though, or at least underestimate, is how exceedingly frustrating it is to be donning and doffing a full face mask, pulling and pushing the small adjustment tabs that secure the mask in place…while wearing bulky three finger “lobster” gloves. Fine motor skills and cold water mix poorly at the best of times, and I spend several minutes underwater trying to replace and reseal the mask properly. Finally, I find myself searching for alternatives to adjust the awkward back strap and try adopting the “full fist” approach, levering my knuckle under the tab until it releases with greater ease. A sign of relief comes, and I finish feeling confident and ready for the days of work ahead.

Getting ready for dives is also often a group effort, connecting underwater communication wires, checking air, and securing gear before diving in. Underwater Archeolgist John Ratcliffe (thanks!) connecting my communication line.

My first time aboard a large research vessel, the captain and First Mate of the RV David Thompson, Simon and Dave, showed me the ins and outs of ship life, from the galley (and, more importantly, the snack cupboards) to the engine room and emergency protocols. I quickly became accustomed to ship life, although I didn’t get a chance to test my sea legs (since we were firmly anchored within the shelter of Red Bay and the local wharf for most of the project). On board, the field team is in excellent hands, with the kind, experienced, welcoming, and friendly crew keeping us well-fed and entertained over group dinners – sharing stories about ship time around the world and memories from home. I have to admit, it is nice to be back on Canadian soil for a moment, to share stories of places we all know and love (and not have to Google the locations and names of cities/landmarks that come up in casual conversation as I sometimes did while in the US). On occasions, after a day in the field, we are treated to a spectacular Thanksgiving dinner (Canadian Thanksgiving is the second Monday of October), homemade corn hole tournaments, visits to the museum, and spontaneous hikes, keeping evenings lively even after long days.

Tying off at the wharf gives us a greater working space, rolling up 25 m tarps, filling tanks, sorting gear, and prepping for field work

Enjoying a game of corn hole during evenings, custom made by Brandon (energetic and all around jokester Deck Hand), affixed with Parks Canada logos and all

An absolutely fantastic Thanksgiving dinner put together by the ships chef, Jim, and an opportunity to get the entire ship together for a shared meal. One of my favourite evenings of the project

Walking around Saddle Island – the home base for Basque whaling operations, containing a number of former tryworks sites, cooperages, broken ceramic roofing tiles (indicating the locations of Basque buildings), and a cemetery.

Physically demanding work, we prepare the heavy tarps, fill sandbags, prep gear, and lower it all to the site. Once we lay eyes underwater, we are struck by damage that is beyond that of previous reports. We must continually pivot, improvise, and brainstorm new ways to complete and prioritize the tasks at hand. I admire the team’s unique ability to develop a cohesive plan that incorporates the perspectives of each member, coming from various backgrounds, such as science divers, archeologists, and commercial divers. By continually calling into question, “how can we do this more efficiently, with less physical effort, and more streamline”, the project progresses over several breakthroughs in trial, error, and strategizing. 

New tasks underwater require new tools, from crow bars and sandbags to steel bars and thick tarps

After initial excavation and reburial, several timbers from the ship were marked as samples, to track how the degradation and decay of timbers varies above and below the protective tarp.

Making progress – (right) old tarp damaged by anchors, glaciers, or weather, and (left) new tarp replacing damaged areas

Each dive brings a new task, from flipping tires and dispersing sandbags to taking photographs, documenting site condition, and rolling out new tarps. After a few days, I am excited by the growing level of comfort I have in this new environment and feel that I can effectively participate in and contribute to each task (and am also very grateful to Brandy for throwing me in the water whenever possible!). By the end of the project, I have gained many new skills and perspectives, and we are successful in stabilizing the site for further follow-up and repair next year.

The icing on the cake of a summer that could not have been any sweeter – my time in Red Bay proved to be a highlight and valuable addition to my time as the NPS Dive Program intern. Thank you, to the Parks Canada Underwater Archeology Team, for the incredibly warm welcome and the opportunity to learn from you by making space for me in this project (and also for giving me an excuse to put the “u” back in harbour and favourite after 5 months of blog writing in the US). I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know and work alongside each of you in such a uniquely beautiful, fascinating, and remote region of our country.

Of course, this excellent collaboration and internship as a whole would not be possible without the decades of impressive work done by the NPS Submerged Resource Center and NPS Dive Program (garnering a well respected international reputation) and the overwhelming support that Dave Conlin and Brett Seymour provide to the OWUSS intern each year. Thank you Dave, Brett, and the SRC team for your confidence in me and continued support. I would like to thank the growing family of NPS OWUSS alumni (made up of excellent divers, researchers, photographers, conservationists, and, now, new friends), who have connected with me, shared valuable advice, and paved the way to make my internship an overwhelming success (a.k.a made my life a whole lot easier!!), and each member of the NPS team who generously hosted me throughout the summer.

Throughout my journey, I have met many NPS employees and collaborators (thank you for following along!) that I see as role models, with exemplary skills as divers, boat operators, and team leaders (however, it is their dedication, passion for the work, and willingness to support learning opportunities for young people that shines brightest).  I have seen and contributed to diving as a tool for not only resource management but also visitor protection, interpretation, training, maintenance, and facilities needs – and some of the most ‘unusual’ dives have shifted my perspective in the most impactful ways.

In truth, this is neither the beginning nor the end of my grand adventure. In part, it is a series of small steps in the exploration of self discovery, expanding comfort zones, and eagerness to learn that has brought me here. However, my perception of diving has been fundamentally changed, showing me it is feasible as a career, and giving me some of the tools I need to propel myself forward. Some of the seemingly most underrated aspects of the internship are ones that drove home the deepest shifts in my ideas of what my future goals are and what my career might look like. And that has made a lasting difference.

The Our World Underwater Scholarship Society is a web of global connections, shaped by countless volunteers and leaders in the underwater world, that has connected me to numerous organizations that I will continue to be involved with long after my time as an intern is complete. I look forward to taking more advanced tech diving courses, exploring more extreme (cold!) environments, and collaborating with new networks within The Explorer’s Club, The Women Divers Hall of Fame, and others. I share the spotlight with everyone who has contributed their time, knowledge, advice, and support on this journey and look forward to presenting this work at the 49th Annual OWUSS New York City weekend next year. 


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The end?: Department of Interior Washington DC

Going into the internship, I knew that many OWUSS NPS interns get the opportunity to present their whirlwind adventures in learning and diving to various NPS Associate and Deputy Directors at the Department of Interior office in Washington, DC. Of course, this means that the presentation is typically scheduled as the last Hoorah – the final destination once an intern has collected their share of experience, memories, perspective, and photographs from parks across the country.

To say that this week crept up on me is a bit of an understatement, and I found myself having to do a double-take once landing in DC. This can’t really be ‘the end,’… can it? I’m just getting good at this! After five or so consecutive weeks (and many months prior) of park hopping, flinging myself into new field teams, new states, and new environments, I am here now, swapping my well-worn NPS SRC field shirt for an ironed button-up, ready to show off the NPS Dive Program to decision makers who hold the future of this program in their hands.

Lincoln Memorial, National Mall, Washington, D.C.

I ease into the week with some sightseeing, having never visited Washington, DC, before. With the generous help and friendly company of Daryl Avery, NPS Branch Chief for Occupational Safety and Health, together, we walk through the National Mall and Memorial Parks – home to the country’s most iconic monuments commemorating historical events that shaped the nation. While the monuments can be appreciated by any passerby (and details read via interpretive signage or a quick Google search), they truly come to life with the help of Interpretive Rangers placed throughout the National Mall grounds. I was grateful to encounter many knowledgeable Rangers who shed light on the history of these significant events and individuals and their architectural design and construction – revealing small details one would likely miss without a trained eye. An educational and enjoyable day for myself and Daryl (featuring a delicious meal at the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill) and an excellent orientation to the city center, during which I noted additional points of interest to visit during downtime throughout the week.

WWII Memorial, National Mall. Interpretive Ranger Adam Cochran provides an excellent overview of each detail of the monument, greatly enhancing my visit.

View from the top of the Washington Monument, National Mall.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, National Mall. Powerful quotes line the walls – Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, National Mall.

The following day, I grab a hearty breakfast, settle into my new accommodations, and do one last presentation run-through before heading to the Department of Interior office to meet with Daryl and Michael May, NPS Chief of Office of Risk Management. After filing through security, affixing the necessary visitors pass to my collar, and a short tour of the facilities (including a beautiful display of artwork lining the halls – often attracting tourist groups), it comes time to do what I was brought here for… and I eagerly await the opportunity to share my experience with the NPS Executive team.

A 30-minute presentation passes quickly in a small board room, flipping through slide after slide of NPS Dive Program highlights, history, project goals, and accomplishments. Presenting to both divers and non-divers alike, I am relieved to see many encouraging nods and note-writing in the crowd, leading to positive feedback and curious questions in the discussion that follows. While preparing this presentation, I was taken aback by the fact that across 23 NPS dive programs (and 120 individual divers), over 6,500 dives were conducted in 2021 alone. Across seven National Parks, I worked directly with over 40 NPS divers, speaking to the scope of experience that interns gain in such a short timeframe. Bringing fresh eyes, a global perspective, curiosity, a strong diving foundation, and an eagerness to experience applied science, diving, and monitoring outside of academia, I gained a holistic perspective of the NPS dive program. I can honestly say that the multidisciplinary scope and rigorous safety protocols are unmatched by any other dive program or team I have previously been a part of.

A trip to DC would not be complete without visiting several of the impressive museums (often free for visitors), and as such, I filled my spare time with trips to the Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Acknowledging that it is possible to spend multiple days at each museum, I found myself returning to the National Museum of African American History & Culture on several occasions, opting to focus each visit floor by floor (organized in temporal increments from 1400 to the present day), making for a more comprehensive and impactful experience. During the week, I also had the opportunity to meet several NOAA Ocean Exploration employees, including Jeremy Weirich, Director, and Adrienne Copeland, PhD, Grants Program Manager, further enriching my experience in the nation’s capital.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture

Inside the National Museum of African American History & Culture. NPS Submerged Resources Center played an instrumental role in uncovering the remains of the Sao Jose (a Portuguese slave ship), in collaboration with Diving with a Purpose, George Washington University, and Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Museum of Natural History, Oceans Hall

Museum of Natural History

Reflecting on my experiences thus far, I feel empowered. Seeing first-hand the resources dedicated to underwater exploration and monitoring gives me hope – for education, preservation, and understanding of the underwater world, which makes up 70% of our planet. I am proud to stand in DC, representing the NPS Dive Program and sharing just a small glimpse into the work they do. As my time in Washington, DC, comes to a close, I am relieved that it is not yet the final chapter of my internship. Drawing on international connections and collaborating with underwater archeology teams around the globe, the NPS SRC team has connected me with Parks Canada for one last project. I am incredibly excited to represent NPS on my home turf in a few short days. Stay tuned as the OWUSS NPS intern goes international!

Thank you Daryl Avery (and Michael May) for hosting me in DC

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Feels Like Home: Crater Lake National Park

Having spent the last several years away from North America, I often worry about losing my “Canadian blood.” Is the antifreeze that naturally runs through my veins wearing thin? I have not spent an entire winter in the great white North since 2016 (my second year of undergrad), and I have been quite successful in avoiding the 7-8 months of snow and 1-2 months of -40C that my hometown is gifted with each year. But by now, I am due for another round of cold weather adventures – and I am tremendously excited to dive into the crisp, clear blue of Crater Lake.

Crater Lake National Park. Photo: Nate Akers

I land in Medford, Oregon, greeted by the airport shuttle bus driver who will take me to the off-site rental car office. Over small talk, he tells me that summer has passed (as of three days ago). He speaks to the steep, sudden decline in temperature (from 90 degrees and sunny last week to 60 degrees and rainy the next). But really, his outfit screams the same nonverbal story. Shorts, flip flops, and a breezy T-shirt… in 50-degree overcast skies. I recognize this familiar homage and resistance towards acknowledging that another short-but-sweet summer has passed. Just a few more days of shorts… before the layers come out and a long winter ensues. He jokes that my arrival has triggered a cold spell that will last throughout the week. That was music to my ears. It sure feels good to feel like home.

Sunset from the scenic Rim Drive during my first evening at the park

A historic stone cabin, towering ponderosa pines, and a lively group of seasonal NPS employees set the stage for my stay at the park. I am immediately impressed by the amount and diversity of natural resource management work happening within the park, from trails, to backcountry, streams, botany, and lakes – I am given a small glimpse into each of these programs throughout my stay.

Our goals for the week are varied but begin with site assessments of one of the lake’s most mysterious underwater landmarks – referred to as the Fumaroles. Cut deep and cylindrical into thousands of years of accumulated peat; they are long-standing natural formations and tunneling depressions in the benthos, of unknown origin and mechanism. What causes these formations? How have they maintained their form over thousands of years? Surely these exist elsewhere, but where? With the hope of garnering insight and scientific advice from other regions around the globe, the NPS Submerged Resources Center will visit Crater Lake next year to document and model in unmatched detail the anatomy of these strange formations, using cutting-edge, in-house-developed, 3D photogrammetry technology.

The “Fumaroles.” Crystal clear waters and mysterious formations amidst ancient peat.

Not long into our first dive, I am met, face to face, with Crater Lake’s most wanted aquatic criminal – a member of the introduced crayfish population. Diving alongside NPS Aquatic Ecologist Scott Girdner, former NPS Aquatic Ecologist Mark Buktenica (and continued NPS volunteer diver), and Fisheries Biologist Joshua Sprague, we conduct benthic aquatic invertebrate surveys as part of an annual monitoring program to quantify the impact of invasive crayfish on the declining endemic newt population. In particular, these surveys aim to evaluate how food availability is altered in areas that crayfish occupy – and park ecologists have indeed detected a dramatic reduction over time. Previous mesocosm studies conducted within the park also identified changes in the behavior of endemic newts in the presence of crayfish (such as the inability to coexist and being driven out of rocky sheltered habitats and induced stress response – driving newts to the surface to gulp air where they are preyed upon by introduced invasive fish).

An invasive crayfish, introduced into Crater Lake over 50 years ago, and threat to endemic newt populations

Aquatic Ecologist Mark Buktenica and Fisheries Biologist Joshua Sprague using an underwater vacuum to collect benthic invertebrates within a 1 meter transect

A compelling example of the reduction of food availability in areas before (left) and after (right) the introduction of invasive crayfish, based on benthic sampling

A topic of interest to me, and the theme of my Master’s thesis work, invasive species are ubiquitous in the present day. Within Crater Lake, Rainbow Trout, Kokanee Salmon, and crayfish have been introduced for tourism purposes – to provide recreational fishing opportunities for visitors. However, over 50 years later, we are beginning to see the repercussions of these actions, and the endemic newt population of Crater Lake is in peril. Once past a certain threshold, an invasive species is almost impossible to eradicate. It is likely a question of when, not if, the newt population will be extinct within the park, with unknown consequences regarding ecosystem health and function. Nowadays, many teams within the Crater Lake natural resource staff work to prevent other invasive species from becoming established – hoping to keep these areas pristine, natural, and native.

Every effort is made to prevent further introduction of new invasive species (including a complete ban on recreational swimming accessories – from goggles to paddle boards), in order to preserve native plants and aquatic organisms

Scott Girdner and Mark Buktenica lead the way for us aquatic interns and seasonal employees, with a combined total of 64 years of experience in and on Crater Lake. Highly attuned to changes in this unique environment, this impressive body of knowledge has been generated year after year, dive after dive, since the 1950s. A testament to the success of the NPS dive program on the ability to cultivate detailed knowledge of natural resources within the park to inform their protection and preservation. This is one of the only parks I visited this summer with such long-term knowledge contained within a single, or couple, of individuals. Knowledge, however, that is free for the asking, as Mark and Scott generously provide mini lectures on the boat before embarking on each new task, contributing to a short but highly successful and educational visit.

Topside view of dive operations

Aquatic Ecologist Scott Girdner and I conducting a shore transect to monitor the growth of filamentous algae booms, a recent occurrence in Crater Lake under changing environmental conditions

Over the week, not only does the dive team work as surveyors of natural resources (from “bug sucking” to crater exploring), but also underwater mooring repairmen, off-road tractor drivers, construction (and deconstruction) workers, weather station mechanics, backcountry hikers, and boat operators. Entering the workforce as a young professional, I aspire to cultivate such a well-rounded skill set, and the ability to contribute to each aspect of these field days, perhaps one day leading a team of interns, students, and employees with a built wealth of knowledge.

NPS Aquatic Ecologist Scott Girdner and Mark Buktenica installing a new solar panel on the weather monitoring station

Overlooking Wizard Island, volcanic cone and crater

Beyond the mesmerizing mystery that is the cold depths of Crater Lake, my time at this park stands out for the community of seasonal employees I met at Sleepy Hollows. Thank you, all, for welcoming me into the park, sharing your perspective, friendship, and personal journeys with me. A special mention to Nate Akers for introducing me to the crew during bonfires, games nights, and Christmas-in-September celebrations, and Hamilton Hasty for showing me hidden gems within the park. Thank you to Scott, Mark, and Josh, for hosting me, answering my many questions, and letting me in on one of perhaps the best-kept secrets of the National Park Service Dive Program. It is not only the rarity of this experience that lingers with me, but the evolving desire to continue cold water diving in even more remote and even colder parts of the globe.

Countless hikes line the rim of Crater Lake

As my internship nears completion, the significance of this opportunity, in terms of personal and professional development and the support I have received from those around me, is at the forefront of my mind. My advice? If given an opportunity so rare, so unique, and so beautifully mysterious as to dive and work in places not even your highly skilled, well-traveled, and internationally acclaimed supervisors have (those same folks who are cracking open doors for you to get into these excellent parks, with the support of the entire NPS diving program)… Run, don’t walk! Send in an application to OWUSS and NPS, share your story and your curiosities, and see how far it takes you. Whomever the next National Park Service Dive Program intern may be, I look forward to welcoming you into the NPS and OWUSS network with open arms, just as those before have done for me.

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Knee deep: Curecanti National Recreation Area

Carefully stepping off the boat’s bow ramp, I am nearly ready for our first dive of the day. Instantly, I feel the ground collapse beneath me, sucking me down slowly until I am knee-deep in muck. Hmm – should have seen that one coming. However, the sinkhole does provide a surprisingly stable position to put on the final pieces of my dive gear. I think to myself, we will have to swim away from this spot to start our dive because I have definitely silted up this entire area. I make a mental note to remember basic low-vis dive etiquette.

The public marina at Curecanti National Recreational Area, where we launch the NPS Park Ranger vessel for dives

This week I am diving with the excellent team at Curecanti National Recreational Area. Before my arrival, Melissa Post, Law Enforcement Ranger, host, and dive buddy for the week, warns me, “there’s not much to see in Blue Mesa” (the reservoir we will be diving within the park). Nevertheless, I am curious to see what Curecanti has to offer and look forward to making the short road trip from Denver. As a rule, I tend to avoid looking at images of my destination before I arrive. Really, it is in order to be able to go into a new experience, whether it be a new country, hike, campsite, or city, with minimal expectations or preconceived ideas on how it should look. I arrive at the park as day turns to dusk, pleasantly surprised by the scenic winding roads decorated with cliffs, rivers, mountains, and meadows.

Overlooking Blue Mesa from NPS on site housing – caught in its finest form as I arrive from Denver

Roadside views en route to the park

Underwater is a different story. If there were much to be seen here, well, I wouldn’t have seen it anyway. Quite literally, there is not much seeing to be done underwater – unless it is about a foot in front of your face! Joined by Jessica Frey, NPS Wildlife Technician (and topside support Spencer Reese from the Maintenance team), the four of us spent the next few days together refreshing skills, scoping out suitable dive sites for training, and practicing underwater searches. I enjoyed the challenge of diving in limited visibility. It reminded me of my training as a scientific diver at Cape Breton University in 2018. Snowy weather, an ill-fitting wetsuit in 50-degree seas, low vis, silty bottom, and the fact that we had to precisely locate and change out water quality loggers at fixed sites made for challenging conditions. Gradually refamiliarizing myself with dry suit diving (after receiving training in British Columbia in 2020), this week marks the transition into the cold water portion of my internship. Although I am sad to leave the fish and friends of the tropical Pacific behind, the blow is softened by the next great adventure.

Selecting our dive site alongside the scenic Dillion Pinnacles

Whereas spirits are usually high during dives at the other parks I’ve visited, a day of diving for the team at Curecanti often means something more somber. As a public safety dive team, employees and volunteers are recruited when a visitor is having either a bad – or very, very bad, day. From emergency rescues and body recovery to wreckage removal of planes, boats, ATVs, and other odds and ends, no two dive operations here are alike. In addition to dry suits and scuba tanks, rescue operations require innovative troubleshooting and often feature the help of massive lift bags and customized cranes. Melissa and Jess take me through several search patterns above and below the water, describing their pros, cons, coverage, and suitability for various missions. Although we follow standardized search protocols (such as a windshield-wiper or jackstay), rarely do these searches look as good underwater as they do on paper. Even in an environment seemingly as homogenous as Blue Mesa, a few jutting rocks or sunken logs can catch lines, pulling you off course and jeopardizing the efficacy and coverage of the search. Nowadays, with the help of State Parks and a multi-beam sonar, the Curecanti dive team can narrow down the location of search items before getting in the water – helping to streamline the effort and increase the chances of a successful operation.

Diving in Curecanti is rarely glamorous work but provides a necessary service, keeping the reservoir free from environmental pollutants and providing closure to those affected by recreational boating accidents and mishaps. Truly honorable work, it ignites an inspiration within me to seek opportunities where I can use my unique set of skills as a diver to contribute more to the community in ways beyond basic natural resource monitoring and scientific communication. Day-to-day, each employee at Curecanti fills multiple roles, as the demands and priorities of recreational areas differ significantly and may be more multidisciplinary than National Parks. On occasion, a quick radio call prompts Melissa to change out of field clothes back into Ranger uniform, seamlessly transitioning from boat operator to law enforcement officer at the drop (or swap) of a hat.

Curecanti National Recreational Area hub for Park Rangers, maintenance, and natural and cultural resources

Not without its hiccups (a leaky seal here, vanishing boat keys into a black hole there), the week flies by, and I finish our last dive feeling more confident in my dry suit skills. Now, I am ready to take on colder sites and more complex tasks underwater. Any ruffle in dive operations this week has been amalgamated into a revised mental checklist (to be flipped through before each upcoming cold-water dive), and the chance to whip out my spiffy save a dive tool kit (expertly put together by NPS SRC Chief, Dave Conlin, backed by decades of dive knowledge – a priceless item if ever to be packaged up and put on shelves).

My dive kit gets a bit bulkier these days with the added dry suit, warm undergarments, and weight harness

It was an absolute pleasure to join your team, Melissa, Jess, and Spencer, in the field each day. Visiting Curecanti was a valuable addition to my internship, made memorable by our time both above and below water. Traveling back to Colorado also meant the chance to reconnect with the SRC crew – which I hadn’t seen since the start of my internship (and a quick trip to Jason’s deli in true Lakewood fashion), and time at my home-away-from-home in Boulder, with Michelle, Dave, and Maya the dog, tucking in comfortably for the weekend and catching up over shared meals at a local eatery.

It puts a great smile on my face to think about the enormous cheerleading team I have within the NPS Dive Program, supporting and following along with me during this internship. At each park, I am surrounded by people who love what they’re doing and where they are doing it – and the energy is contagious. Before this internship, I saw diving as likely a bonus, not a focus of a future career. How could I ever get so lucky as to do this every day? However, I can clearly see, that diving is a necessary tool we need to quantify, evaluate, monitor, and discover the valuable submerged resources, including those hidden within the US National Park Service’s impressive range.

All smiles during a dive with Melissa Post, Curecanti National Recreational Area Law Enforcement Ranger and fantastic host – thank you!

 

 

 

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Full circle: Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Double-check gear. Double-check directions. Check for traffic, confirm the meeting place, and eat a hearty breakfast. My first (and only) assignment at the park begins at 0900 this morning, and I want to be fully prepared. I arrive at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Pass and ID office to meet Scott Pawlowski, Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources of World War II Valor in the Pacific National Memorial – to receive my sponsored pass to the military base that houses NPS offices, dive lockers, and cultural resource collections. After a quick introduction, I can see time is of the essence (with an average of 4,000 visitors per day and the end of the fiscal year approaching, everyone’s got their hands full, even more so than usual or at other parks I’ve visited). Knowing I’ll need a form of ID to secure my pass, I ask Scott if I should use my passport instead of a driver’s license… since I am not a US citizen. I quickly realize that is the wrong question to be asking when trying to access a high-security, active US naval base. Next thing you know, we were headed straight out the door in search of Plan B. Access Denied!

I stand by during a few quick phone calls and await further instructions. A handful of nervous minutes pass, but Scott relays a new plan. After several pivots, dive operations are still a go. I meet my dive buddies, NPS diver, PERL volunteer, and 2017 OWUSS AAUS intern Erika Sawicki and NPS Interpretive Guide Billy Crowe, at the visitors center, past the tourist ferry, and through to the “employees only” gated dock. Curious eyes watch as we launch the small NPS vessel destined for one of the nation’s most important war memorials, shipwrecks, and mass graves – USS Arizona.

My first glimpse of the USS Arizona memorial from the NPS vessel

Once we arrive at the memorial, while trying to be as inconspicuous as one can possibly be with flashy gear and clanking scuba tanks, Erika and Billy set the stage for our dive. Unrolling a well-used map from his bag, Billy gives me a hushed orientation to the ship, pointing out key features, the location of artifacts, and mapping our path underwater. The anticipation builds, and we wait for the perfect moment to slip underwater during the brief break between ferry arrivals. Knowing that only a handful of individuals are trained and permitted to dive this site each year and the significance of not only the remaining wreckage but of the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor creates an atmosphere unlike any other dive I’ve done. It makes sense – this dive is unlike any other dive I’ve ever done– or ever will do for that matter.

Moments before our dive on the USS Arizona, the memorial full of curious and contemplative visitors in the background

The attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the entry of the US into World War II. The wreckage of USS Arizona is a sacred site, home to the remains of 1,177 crew members who did not escape her fiery fate, forever buried at sea. Nowadays, dive operations are limited to preservation and documentation, in respect to those who have lost their lives and loved ones left behind in this tragedy.

Inside the memorial, stands a list of victims during the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor

During the start of our 90-minute dive, Erika points out a rope. Seemingly innocuous at first, I suddenly remember that this is the line that guides NPS divers during the interment of survivors who choose to return to the vessel after their passing. We descend into the empty turret, the bottom slow to emerge in limited visibility – this is one of the most powerful moments of the dive. It is here that crew members are reunited with their fallen comrades. In the more than 80 years that have passed since the attack, full lives have been lived in the wake, for the nearly 300 survivors. In the devastation of broken families, lost brothers, and national grief, USS Arizona is a place of reunion and remembrance in the present day.

We swim past artifacts scattered aboard the ship’s deck: boots, bowls, and personal belongings frozen in time. We peer into several blown-out portholes on the side of the ship, silted furniture still sits in place, providing context and scale, and a sullen personality to her remaining structure. Having never been on a ship of this size, I find it hard to imagine what everyday life would have looked like onboard. I wonder what these rooms were used for, who they belonged to, or if personal mementos once decorated its walls. Scanning the wreck, swimming under the hundreds of visitors above only feet about us, we round the bow, peering through large holes in the vessel where the anchor chain would have been attached, illuminated with sunlight. Although present, I am surprised at how little marine life occupies the outer walls and deck of the ship (although a few fish manage to pull my attention at times before returning to the task at hand). I snap back to see Erika floating upside down, carefully positioning herself headfirst in a stairway. I follow suit once she emerges and notice small globules of oil gathered on the overhead covering ­– evidence of the steady stream of oil that has been leaking since the first moments of the attack. We disperse slightly and take in a few last silent moments while collecting personal items accidentally dropped overboard by tourists. We quietly tuck away into the NPS vessel upon surfacing, and slowly cruise back to the visitor’s center. Between conversation, I’m left to digest this experience, seeing first-hand what the majority of the population will only ever see through a TV screen.

Three 14 inch guns stand strong among the wreck of USS Arizona

A few remaining artifacts scatter the deck of USS Arizona, including bowls and kitchenware

The sole of a WWII era shoe sitting atop the deck

A watchful porcupine fish peering between the pillars which support the memorial directly above the ship

The next day, a tour of USS Missouri fills in a handful of knowledge gaps and questions I have after yesterday’s dive. For the first time during the internship, I feel like a tourist (thank you, Scott, for organizing tickets for USS Bowfin, USS Missouri, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum for me). Blending in with visitors, I start the day with a walking tour of USS Missouri, which covers general boat specs (including firepower), and its role in the end of WWII as the site of the surrender ceremony of Japan on September 2nd, 1945. Now a historical museum, I am excited to explore below deck. Meandering each hallway of USS Missouri gave me a glimpse into just how well equipped and surprisingly spacious these ships were (although I’m sure no one was saying that when 3,000 crew members were on board). I walk past offices, dorm rooms, officers’ quarters, cafeterias, bakeries, dentist facilities, and post offices. In 30 minutes, I likely barely scratch the surface of the true scale of the ship; however, I quickly realize these are essentially floating cities. The well-staged rooms bring life to the ship, furnished in true mid-1900s fashion, and through this lens, I see the silt-covered, monochromatic remains of USS Arizona in a new light.

Approaching USS Missouri, now a historical museum

On deck of USS Missouri overlooking Pearl Harbor

Officers quarters below deck of USS Missouri

Undeniably a US tragedy, the impact of the attack on the American people, and Pearl Harbor had ripple a ripple effect globally. I wonder how many Canadians have ever had the chance to dive on USS Arizona? To experience history “first-hand” is a remarkable opportunity, and one that leaves a lasting impression. At Pearl Harbor National Memorial, history comes full circle, with historic vessels triggering both the beginning and the end of the US involvement in WWII side by side. The conditions of the vessels perhaps symbolic, the rusting remains of Arizona, heavy with the weight of war, and the polished Missouri leading the way forward, in peace and reconciliation.

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Resilient reefs: National Park of American Samoa

In 1917, Alfred Mayer, pioneering marine biologist and zoologist of the Carnegie Institute, began what is now the world’s oldest continuously monitored coral reef transect. Ahead of his time, he performed one of the first robust quantitative reef surveys, with his most notable effort and lasting legacy being the Aua reef transect in Pago Pago harbor, American Samoa.

Healthy shallow reefs line the Pago Pago harbour on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa

Inspiring modern-day scientists to continue in his footsteps, Dr. Alison Green and Dr. Charles Birkeland (who I had the great pleasure of working with and meeting during my Master’s at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) spearheaded regular surveys of the historical transect, through to its 100th anniversary, and into the present day. Remarkably, these reefs continue to thrive despite being subject to rapid development (as American Samoa transformed from a sustenance to market economy, developing major ports, industrial fishing, large-scale dredging, and wastewater disposal within the main harbor). 1995 surveys revealed that approximately 95% of the corals had been severely degraded following these activities. However, over time, the outer reef within the harbor has flourished. It now hosts an even greater abundance of corals than the pristine community observed by Meyers in 1917 – a truly resilient reef.

A silver plaque marks the world’s longest continuously monitored coral reef transect – a photo that I shared with colleagues back at KAUST, including Dr. Alison Green, who contributed to the areas continued monitoring over several decades

With the guidance and friendly company of my colleague, Valentine Vaeoso (and permission of the local village), I was able to visit this historical site (located only steps away from the main road), do my own informal survey of the area, and take in perhaps one of the only places in the world where you can have a roadside pizza delivered while snorkeling one of the most spectacular shallow reefs sites I’ve laid eyes on.

Underwater, you would never guess that you are only meters from the nearby village, roads, construction sites, and super markets

With field operations up and running, Marine Ecologist Dr. Eric Brown, Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt, and NPS Intern Valentine Vaeoso and I set off for a week and a half of fieldwork in fulfillment of the annual Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys. Developed by Dr. Eric Brown during his Ph.D. dissertation, this standardized protocol is now widely used throughout the Pacific National Parks. A highly experienced ecologist and meticulous teacher, I was excited to work alongside Eric on this project and learn more about his path through academia into the National Park Service.

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown, Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt, and I, immediately before a survey dive, in front of the steep walls of Pola island

In a nutshell, the Pacific Island Inventory & Monitoring Network subtidal surveys are comprised of four key aspects which monitor marine Vital Signs (i.e., indicators of physical, chemical, biological processes, and factors selected to represent the overall health of natural resources): fish surveys, benthic surveys, rugosity measurements, and water quality. Ian took the lead for fish surveys during each dive, identifying and sizing each individual fish. I followed closely behind, taking benthic photos every meter (an excellent opportunity to continue optimizing buoyancy control in different environmental conditions while carefully navigating fragile shelving corals and deep cuts in the reef). In his element, Eric followed behind, taking rugosity measurements on temporary sites – a tedious task that involves inching along the transect with a small metal chain, laying it across each nook and cranny of the reef, often having to wedge himself under shelves and deep holes (in a bulky rebreather to boot!). Water quality sampling duties were shared by all during surface intervals and involved filtering water samples for nutrient analysis.

Bethic photos are taken at each meter along the transect. Photo: Ian Moffitt

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown deploys a water quality sensor during surveys, alongside an impressive wall of coral

The reefs we surveyed are in generally good health – some showing damage by hurricanes but promising signs of recovery. Although NPSA has a high level of species diversity, it is known to have lower marine biomass compared to other parks, which may be due to fishing pressure, poor water quality in certain areas, the 2009 tsunami that altered reef structure, a Crown-of-Thorns (CoTS) outbreak from 2011–2015, and changes in climate leading to bleaching events. Nevertheless, global anomalies continue to thrive here, such as some of the world’s largest corals (including large Porities corals measuring up to 22 meters across, 8 meters tall, and a circumference of 69 meters). Estimated at between 420–652 years old, it is evident that the islands of American Samoa have ideal conditions that support hearty, long-lived, and resilient corals.

An example of one of the massive corals found in American Samoa. Photo: Wendy Cover/NOAA

Topside, I was treated to several marine-related activities to polish off my time in American Samoa. During our last field day, as we were bringing the research vessels back around west to the main harbor in Pago Pago, we encountered humpback whales! Two adults and one calf cruising the surface. My very first encounter with whales – I had to try my hardest not to squeal with excitement in the presence of these beautiful giants, as we followed the group from a distance while Eric narrated details of their behavior and occurrence in the area.

My first time whale watching during the final day of field work – I did not dare take my eyes off of the horizon

My last dive in American Samoa also treated me to a trip “bucket list” species I had yet to spot – the peculiar Hemitaurichtys polylepis

I also joined many of the NPSA staff for a biweekly paddling practice, during which we used traditional Samoan 6-person canoes to race around the harbor. A passion shared by many and the focus of much friendly competition throughout the year on the island, I was incredibly excited to score a seat on one of these boats and had a blast trying to keep up with the pacers rhythm while simultaneously trying not to tip the deceivingly unstable, narrow, canoe. That afternoon on the water gave me a small glimpse into the pride and camaraderie generated by this culturally significant sport – and I was warmed by the celebratory high fives and echo’s of a job well done by all as we finished practice.

Members of the NPSA team, from the Superintendent Scott Burch, to the Marine, I&M, Interpretation, and Terrestrial crew got together to paddle in traditional 6-person Samoan canoes on the harbour in front of the office

In addition to pristine, larger-than-life reefs, American Samoa is home to some of the best air quality across global population centers. As part of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, the American Samoa Baseline Observatory collects data to address research on three significant challenges: greenhouse gas and carbon cycle feedbacks, changes in clouds, aerosols, surface radiation, and recovery of stratospheric ozone. Sitting atop the scenic northeastern tip of Tutuila Island, at Cape Matatula, the Coconut Point crew (Ian, Norelle, Taylor, Adam, Joe, Alisha, Casey, Max, Monyca, and Bob the Owl) took a trip to the observatory during my last weekend on the island, for a tour hosted by Observatory Operator Gregory Freidman. One of only four facilities worldwide (Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, and the South Pole), these high-tech pieces of equipment aim to generate the best possible information to inform decisions on climate change, weather variability, carbon cycle feedback, and ozone depletion.

A souvenir to take home from NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, the American Samoa Baseline Observatory. A sample of some of the finest air the world has to offer within global population centers

Touring NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory American Samoa Baseline Observatory

Although my visit to NPSA is the longest I will spend in any park this summer, three weeks pass quickly – and I am left with countless reasons to return one day. My first time in the South Pacific Islands left much to explore – including the Manu’a islands, Rose Atoll, the giant Porites, and the neighboring Independent State of Samoa. I look forward to returning in the future and reuniting with new friends, whenever that may be.

The “hassles” of getting to this spectacular park were greatly eased by the support of the NPS team and new friends. Fa’afetai, Taylor, for graciously letting me crash at your new apartment just moments after returning from two years on the mainland. Thank you to Ian and Norelle for making sure I was always well-stocked with groceries, (and to Ian for suffering through a weekend shopping trip as a try to decide which patterned shirt out of hundreds to bring home with me), for Norelle for showing me where to find the best local treats. Thank you Tine for keeping days on the boats lively with tunes and generously upgrading my daily trip to the office from local buses to the open back of your truck, taking in the view on our daily commute. And lastly, thank you to Eric Brown for sharing your experience with me, being the voice of reason during fragmented field days, and hosting me at NPSA.

Against all odds – this team made it into the field! Thank you Tine, Eric, and Ian for welcoming me into your team, showing me around the island, and persevering across all road bumps we encountered to make my time at the park a great success

Thus far, this internship has been a whirlwind of new experiences, through which I have learnt just how capable I am of integrating into a new environment with the added pressure of a short timeframe and varying roles and responsibilities. Each place I will visit, from New York to Hawaii, and everywhere in between, is an entirely new experience for me – made possible by the unwavering support and encouragement of the NPS Submerged Resources Center and OWUSS. If given an opportunity like such, be sure to bring your energy, enthusiasm, and plenty of sunscreen.

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Against all odds: National Park of American Samoa

In the age of Instagram influencers and travel vloggers, it is now easier than ever to share one’s opinion with the virtual masses – critique, praise, compliments, or otherwise. Subsequently, these virtual advertisements and informal ratings often influence where we eat, travel, live, and work. With millions of visitors each year, it is no surprise that the US National Parks have their own archive of online reviews numbering in the thousands.

Mixed amongst glowing reviews about family trips, backcountry getaways, and tropical park paradises are the infamous one-star Google reviews – from visitors who just weren’t having any of it. Forever memorialized by Amber Share, designer, and illustrator, in her best-selling book “Subpar Parks,” she has created eye-catching posters poking fun at the best of the worst – America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors. Arches National Park? Looks nothing like the license plate. Zion National Park? Scenery is distant and impersonal. Sequoia National Park? There are bugs. And they will bite you on your face.

Driven by curiosity, I flip through a copy of Subpar Parks that lives on Marine Ecologist Dr. Eric Brown’s coffee table. I skim directly to the page featuring the National Park of American Samoa to see what I’m up against. “Not worth the hassle”? We will see about that…

Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors. These posters-turned-book poke fun at real one-star Google reviews left by visitors who did not take to the stunning vistas and pristine waters of American Samoa

I arrive in American Samoa with momentum, ready to jump into fieldwork. I am here to join Marine Ecologist Dr. Eric Brown and Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt – with the support of boat operator and NPS intern Valentine Vaeoso for the annual Inventory and Monitoring surveys. Having been on the road now for several months, I feel comfortable in the routine of quickly settling in, integrating into a new field team, and conducting fieldwork daily. On top of it all, I can’t wait to lay my eyes on Tutuila’s spectacular reefs.

Shallow reefs just below the surface in the main harbour of Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, located on Tutuila island

Despite the entire team’s desire to get back in the water and start chipping away at surveys as soon as possible – for the first time in three years, I soon learn that a few pieces of the puzzle still need to be placed before regular field operations can return.

There are several different types of barriers to conducting work in the field. Weather, environment, safety, staffing, supervision, emergency response, planning, equipment, and team expertise all play a role in a successful operation – some of these are out of our control, others accounted for and mitigated through risk assessments and contingency resources. In a perfect storm, the National Park of American Samoa has been hit by a steady flow of setbacks and delays with returning to “normal” work post-pandemic, taking a toll on team morale at times. Right on cue, my first week at the park coincided with some of the biggest waves of the year, a slew of meetings, and a new spurt of volcanic activity centered around the neighboring Manu’a islands – taking dive operations mostly off the table, but giving us extra time to tidy up the back end of the pre-fieldwork to-do list.

Downtime in the office gave me the opportunity to explore the National Park of American Samoa’s impressive visitor’s center

The team focused on safety training and skill refreshers for the first week and a half. Diving on closed circuit rebreathers, Eric and Ian went through several underwater drills and rescue scenarios. At the same time, I buddied on open circuit, familiarizing myself with their gear and rescue procedures while getting used to slinging a 40 L tank of 100% oxygen, which I will breathe during safety stops during repetitive dives in the coming weeks. On the monitoring side, we took several shore dives and snorkels to practice fish identification and sizing, a familiar task to me, albeit in a new ecosystem with plenty of new eye-catching fish to learn.

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown and Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt rehearsing drills for the rescue of a submerged closed circuit rebreather diver

Practicing fish ID on a shallow shore dive

A significant (and crucial) caveat in our ability to conduct fieldwork is the ongoing updating and streamlining of marine emergency response within the park. With a lack of coast guard vessels in the water and the usual Fagasa Bay boat ramp broken (the area from which we will conduct fieldwork) – the NPS team is working to train an in-house Search and Rescue crew, while simultaneously finalizing the logistics of mooring a second safety boat in Fagasa Bay, in order to minimize response time in the event of an emergency.

My role in these efforts was two-fold. We dove to inspect the existing mooring within Fagasa Bay, which was designated to support two small research vessels until a second mooring could be installed in the upcoming months. I also participated in several large-scale search and rescue drills, focused on initiating and responding to marine emergencies – such as boat malfunction and loss of communication. With the entirety of the park’s marine crew onboard, mimicking a typical field day, several of the NPSA terrestrial and maintenance employees took lead on the emergency response and used these drills to refresh their knowledge of emergency communication workflows and boat operating (from trailering and boat launching to kayaking to moored vessels, navigation, man overboard, and towing drills). By the end of the week, the team was operating like a well-oiled machine and drastically improved response time with increasing familiarity and confidence in each situation.

Marine Ecologist Eric Brown and Marine Biological Science Technician Ian Moffitt inspecting the mooring we will use to store two small research vessels while conducting field work over the next couple weeks

In an emergency, the terrestrial/maintenance response team would drive from the office to Fagasa Bay and kayak out of the moored safety vessel, as seen in this drill.

Finally, it came time for the moment we’d been waiting for. Our first survey dive! The cards had finally aligned (not without the hard work of many divisions within the NPSA team, and substantial frenzy of effort by Eric, Ian, and Tine before my arrival). We had made the two-hour journey by boat from the main harbor, Pago Pago, west, around the island to Fagasa, with both research vessels now in position. We were finally set up for the next week and a half of fieldwork. On the boat and underwater, spirits were high. In the wise words of Eric Brown, we were determined to “keep this train wreck moving.”

My uniform underwater. A 40L 100% oxygen tank used during safety stops and an underwater camera for benthic survey images

On the island of Tutuila, in front of the town of Leone, stands Niuavēvē Rock, a centerpiece and beacon of hope for community members and long-time residents. On this islet stands a single aging coconut tree, enduring natural disaster, generation after generation – against all odds. To thrive in such an environment takes strong roots, resilience, and unwavering strength, qualities mirrored by the people of American Samoa.

Niuavēvē Rock. A single palm on a rocky islet represents resilience and strength to the community, surviving over generations against all odds

These islands may not come with the easy conveniences of life on the mainland. Simple tasks may take longer, the comforts of home farther away, and a dose of uncertainty goes hand-in-hand with long-term planning. But all of this comes with the great privilege of knowing and exploring the natural and cultural beauty that encompasses American Samoa, a place where less than 20,000 visitors set foot each year.

The view from Coconut Point, my new home for the second week of my visit

Exploring secluded beaches on weekends with new friends

Thank you to Eric Brown and Claire for hosting me, helping me get settled in, showing me local eateries, and taking me to explore the island by foot during my first week at the park. Thank you to Ian Moffitt, Norelle Moffit, and Taylor Kamansky for adopting me into the Coconut Point family and showing me the pristine beaches and reefs during my first week. I feel incredibly grateful to be welcomed here and visit a region of the globe I would have previously deemed largely inaccessible to me, made possible with the support of the NPS Submerged Resources Center and OWUSS.

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