Brett and I made it back to Denver on Friday, July 29th. In Wisconsin, plans had changed and my visit to Kalaupapa had been pushed back, leaving an opening in my schedule for the following two weeks. Graciously, the Conlin’s and their ever-energetic dog Luc agreed to house me while we sorted things out in the meantime.
Brett reached out to a few parks and fortunately Crater Lake National Park (CRLA) had a monitoring project they could plug me into for that time. Only problem was that diving in Crater Lake necessitated the use of a dry suit, as water temperatures can get into the low 50’s/high 40’s. For my non-diver readers, a dry suit is different than a wet suit in that it maintains a pocket of air inside the suit with its tight wrist and neck seals, allowing the diver to remain dry and stay warm. However, this adds an additional pocket of air for a diver to worry about throughout the dive and thus requires additional training to use. Since I have never used a dry suit before, I spent two days with Dave learning about the intricacies of diving dry and practicing the new skills in the local pool. Dave said I picked it up quickly and looked great in the water, clearing me to dive dry at Crater Lake.
That Wednesday, I caught a flight out of Denver to Medford, Oregon. After figuring out my first-ever car rental and stopping at the grocery store to pick up some food for the upcoming week, I got on the road and made my way to CRLA. On both sides tall conifers towered overhead, intermittently opening up to spectacular views of neighbouring cliff faces and distant mountains. I had never been to the Pacific Northwest so I was reveling in the new eye-catching landscape surrounding me.
After pulling over at every lookout on the highway to stop and gawk at the majestic scenery, I finally made it to the Crater Lake Science and Learning Center. There I met up with David Morris who gave me a quick tour around the facilities and showed me the nearby residence where I would be staying for my time at CRLA. He also informed me about the Bybee Fire that was burning on the west side of the park, closing the West Rim Drive and a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. While Park Headquarters had been placed under a Level 1 Fire Evacuation Notice, he told me that it merely meant “Be Ready” for a potential evacuation and that if an evacuation was necessary we would have plenty of notice. With that, I unpacked my bags and settled in.
The following day, I made my way down to the Ranger Station to find Aquatic Ecologists Scott Girdner and Mark Buktenica. As we were going over the plan for my time in the park, we realized that my gear had most recently been used in Lake Superior, another body of freshwater, and were thus worried about the potential for the introduction of invasive species. That being said, my dive gear had to be decontaminated to kill any little organisms trying to hitch a ride to Crater Lake. Unfortunately, that put me out of diving for the day, but that didn’t stop me from joining them out on the water. With my gear soaking in a salt bath, Mark, Scott, and I, along with seasonals Kristin Beam and Sarah Moffit, set out for a busy day on the lake.
The Lake crew has possibly one of the best commutes to work on the planet. Leaving from the office, we took a 40-minute drive along the East Rim. At the first bend in the road, I let out an audible gasp as the lake emerged from a gap in the trees. Tucked away at the base of the caldera, a large crater formed by the collapse of a volcano, sat a serenely smooth body of water. The lake was nothing like I could have imagined. It was so resplendent, so vast; yet in an instant it disappeared behind the rock face. In a wild game of hide-and-seek, the lake would come in and out of view as we made our way to the Cleetwood trailhead. This mile-long trail serves as the only route to access the shore of the lake. So with our bags in tow, we hiked down, each switchback more picturesque than the last, until we had descended 1,000 feet and reached the water. Then we all hopped aboard the Nueston, the park’s primary research vessel, and motored over to the boathouse on Wizard Island to gas up and grab the dive gear.
Out on the water, I could not stop marveling at the lake’s deep sapphire color. Soon the running joke of the trip became my dumbfounded response to “What do you think of the lake?” All I could mutter was “It’s just so blue.” The color comes in part due to the fact that there is very little particulate matter suspended in the water. Isolated from any surrounding rivers or streams, the lake’s primary input is precipitation. With no incoming streams to bring in sediments, organic materials, or chemical pollutants, Crater Lake is known for it’s exceptional clarity. With an average Secchi disk clarity reading of 30 meters or about 100 feet, it is by far the best visibility in any of the parks I have visited or will visit for my internship. In fact, the water is so clear and so clean that you can drink it. Anytime you wanted water, you would just dip your Nalgene into the lake and take a sip. It’s quite tasty too!
Even though my dive gear was being decontaminated back at the office, we stuck to the plan and began the benthic surveys to look for newts and crayfish in the lake. The surveys were 10-minute time-constrained surveys in which one would swim along, turn over rocks, and count the number of each species. Mark and Kristin were up first, diving in to do their surveys at 60 feet. Obviously feeling bummed by having to sit the day out and extremely eager to get in the water, I jumped in anyway with just my bathing suit to see what it was like. Though, initially quite shocking, it was tolerable for a few minutes. But after my toes starting going numb, I hopped out. While we waited for them to complete their dive, Scott and Sarah filled me in on the background on Crater Lake’s unique aquatic ecosystem.
Back in the early 1900’s, in order to bring greater recreation to the lake, six species of fish were stocked in the lake. However, the fish populations soon crashed due to a lack of prey. Thus, the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) was introduced in 1914 as food for the stocked fish. Nowadays, almost 100 years later, crayfish populations are booming and they have drastically expanded their territory along the shoreline. Unfortunately for the native Mozama newt (Taricha granulosa mazamae), a subspecies of rough-skinned newt only found in Crater Lake, the crayfish have proven to be aggressive competitors for both habitat and food. In fact, in areas of the lake were crayfish are present, the densities of benthic invertebrates, like the aquatic insects that compose the majority of the newts’ diet, have been found to be reduced by as much 80%. Additionally, in a series of experiments performed by the Park Service, crayfish were observed directly preying on the newts.
So every year for the past ten years, the Lake crew has performed these surveys to monitor the distribution and relative population dynamics of these two species. In addition to the depth surveys Mark and Kristin completed that first day, the Lake crew also does surface snorkel surveys every half-mile along the shoreline and we would be starting that the following week.
With the weekend off, one of the first where I wasn’t either working or travelling, I decided to spend some time getting to know Oregon. I spent Saturday exploring the park, driving the rim, stopping at the overlooks, and going on a few hikes. On Sunday, I went on a leisurely three-hour drive through beautiful Oregon up to Eugene to visit my friend Pat Lyons, my professor from my semester abroad in the Caribbean where I studied tropical marine biology. It was amazing to get to catch up with him and hear about his next move to a college down in LA and tell him all about my internship and what I’ve been up to.
On Monday, Mark and Scott were stuck in the office doing paper work, but Kristin, Sarah, and I spent the day out on the lake. Up first we had to check the crayfish traps. Another component to the Lake crew’s crayfish monitoring efforts is a tagging program. Every week a trap full of crayfish is pulled up from a depth of 50 meters and each is tagged with a fluorescent tag. The crayfish are re-released at depth and at the end of the summer a multi-depth trapping effort will be made to see how the crayfish move along the lake bottom. When we pulled up the trap, we counted a season record of 63 crayfish! Two of them had previously been tagged earlier in the year, but the remaining crayfish were injected with the pink elastomer tag. I even got to inject a few dozen myself!
In the afternoon, we began the surface snorkel surveys. Wearing a dry suit (and a thick onesie underneath) made the water much more tolerable. On the first site, maybe 20 rocks in, I saw my first one. A newt. With a few more newt sightings and zero crayfish, I was feeling happy after the first site. The second site was the same. Go newts! I thought. But by the third site, the handful of newts had disappeared completely, and dozens of crayfish took their place. The next five sites, each had more crayfish than the last. We were only eights sites in and I was beginning to see how severe and how dismal the outcome was looking for the newts.
The next day, we recruited the likes of Fish Biologist Dave Herring and his seasonal Bull Trout Crew, consisting of Ian Ralston, Kevin Howells, and Joe Lemanski, as well as Botanist Jesse Sikora. With a total of 10 people, we were able to split up into two boats and divide the sites up to get them done quicker. A majority of the sites were even worse in terms of crayfish than the day before. Numbers were often in the hundreds and newts were few and far between. Occasionally, there would be a site here and there that would have none of either, but while it did mean less counting, it was by no means a good sign. After dropping Dave and Jesse off at Cleetwood trail to head back home for the night, we met up with the other boat and learned they had had a similar experience.
That night, the Bull Trout and Lake crews joined up for a campout on Wizard Island. Scott, Mark, and Sarah prepared a delicious elk stir-fry for us to enjoy as we sat on the docks laughing in good company. As the sun began to set, some of us hiked up to the top to get a better view. All I can say is Crater Lake did not disappoint.
But perhaps the best view came after the sun went down and the moon came out. With barely any light pollution, the stars at CRLA were beyond breathtaking. Yet to add icing to the cake, it just so happened that the Perseid meteor shower was beginning to pick up. So as we lay in our sleeping bags on the dock listening to the quiet lapping of the water with hundreds of stars shining overhead, a few meteors streaked across the night sky. I watched for hours before finally falling asleep.
The following day, it only took us an hour to crank out the last seven sites of the surface snorkel surveys. After finishing them up, we decided, since we spent all that time decontaminating my gear, to do another set of diving surveys. So I joined Scott and Mark to document the surveying process and just enjoy my dive in Crater Lake. At the site, we saw both newts and crayfish. In fact, we saw a newt in the claws of a crayfish. We swooped in just in time to save the little guy!
Diving is always a whole other world for me, but I must say diving in Crater Lake was on a completely new indescribable level. Thank you to Mark and Scott for inviting me into your diving operations and giving me the diving experience of a lifetime. And thank you to the entire Lake crew team for sharing with me the magic of Crater Lake!
Until next time!