Author Archives: Griffin Hoins - 2023 NPS

About Griffin Hoins - 2023 NPS

2023 NPS

Kalaupapa National Historical Park Part 2

Sunset with the NPS boat Kala 2
Riding my bike around the settlement.

You can tell Kalaupapa is nearing a transition. As a park designed around supporting the Hansen’s disease patients, with only 4 of them left in the settlement, there is of course talk about what will happen to this place after they are gone. There are many stakeholders already at the table: National Park Service, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, and Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources. Whatever happens, the science being done by the marine program is invaluable and the continuity of marine resource management should be an essential aspect of the future mission. A quarter of Kalaupapa National Historical Park exists underwater. This park is one of four in the Pacific West Region that include coral reefs within their boundary, and therefore, was included under the 2000 U.S. Coral Reef Initiative. Reef-building corals, which are sensitive to environmental degradation, are a good indicator of overall health for the nearshore marine ecosystem. Doing this internship in a summer of record-breaking climate extremes, I feel it is imperative now more than ever to maintain these long-term monitoring datasets to understand how climate change is impacting our marine ecosystems and underwater resources.

Underwater at Kalaupapa.

Kelly Moore, marine ecologist is back in the settlement and Dr. Sheila McKenna, marine ecologist and program lead for the Pacific Island Inventory and Monitoring Network has arrived in Kalaupapa. I will be joining them and Glauco Puig-Santana the biological technician, for the yearly benthic surveys and fish counts. These surveys are conducted at parks in Guam, American Samoa, the Big Island, and here. The 17 years of data from Kalaupapa has shown that the nearshore fish communities are some of the healthiest in the main Hawaiian Islands, with the second highest fish biomass of the Islands found around Kalaupapa. Also, Kalaupapa corals may be more resilient to climate change as seen from 2015 data when there was a Pacific-wide coral bleaching event from increased seawater temperatures. Corals at Kalaupapa experienced little to no bleaching compared to corals at Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park on the Big Island which experienced mass bleaching and die-offs.

I am excited to start diving here but Kalaupapa is very remote and resources are limited, so safety is of paramount importance. We spend a day going over the Job Hazard Analysis, Diver Emergency Evacuation Plan, Standard Operating Procedures, and the general protocol for doing the I&M surveys. Every day before we do any diving, we will also conduct a GAR (Green, Amber, Red- a sort of shorthand for risk during operations) as a risk assessment tool.

Unfortunately, now that the team is assembled, the weather doesn’t want to cooperate. The forecast is looking pretty windy the whole week and next week it will be gusting 40 knots with a small craft advisory. Hoping the forecast will change, we plan to start diving at sites on the settlement side of the peninsula, the leeward side.

I ride my bike down to the Natural Resources Management offices at Bay View Homes to meet the team at 6 a.m. and do the GAR. We load up gear and tanks and head down to the pier where the NPS boat, the Kala 2 is moored offshore. Even though we are working on the leeward side, I soon realize this doesn’t mean calm conditions. We are immediately in some big ocean rollers as we motor to the west end of the park. It’s a lot to take in, the wind, the rocking of the boat, the massive green cliffs behind us, and the deep blue-colored water all around. Tossed around on board, it’s a relief to get underwater, much more peaceful.

Kelly and Sheila stoked to do some diving.

I had just gotten used to the gorgonians, sea fans, and reef fish of the Caribbean so this unique giant volcanic boulder habitat feels alien. I see unicornfish with bright orange scalpels and streamers on their tail, manini, surgeonfish, bullethead parrotfish, and wedgetail triggerfish. Little bouquets of cauliflower coral decorate the massive boulders. Their color varies from creamy yellow to brown to fluorescent pink. If you peek closely at the corals you will see the Hawkseye fish, eels, and inverts hiding between its branches. There are other corals that are bone white, and you can usually find the crown of thorns sea star in the vicinity responsible for devouring it.

I dive with Sheila and Glauco first and just observe the survey. There are 15 fixed sites that are surveyed every year and marked with a start and end pin. Once we find the start pin, Sheila starts the survey and swims the transect IDing and measuring all fish she encounters on the line transect. In the meantime, Glauco is stationing the sonde to collect water quality at depth for 10 minutes before releasing it to the surface to collect another 10 minutes worth of water quality at the surface. Data includes water salinity, pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen. At some sites, we also bring syringes to collect water samples at depth to look at nutrient levels. After Sheila has completed her fish survey, Glauco will take benthic photoquadrats every meter along the transect which will later be analyzed to determine bottom cover.

Once we are on the surface, if it is a water quality site where we collected water at depth, we will also collect surface samples with a Niskin bottle. Then we filter the surface and deep samples to later be analyzed for nutrient levels. Something that would be better suited for a lab environment, I chuckle as I filter samples on a violently heaving boat with spray whipping me in the face and waves breaking over the bow.

After the first dive, we take lunch closer to the settlement and out of the wind. We do another dive closer to the point of the peninsula, still on the leeward side. I take the benthic photos this time. On this dive, we see a male Hawaiian monk seal just sitting on the bottom, he makes a low, guttural, growling vocalization. Hopefully, Kirby Parnell will pick it up on her soundtrap that we deployed last week. The seal gives us the side eye occasionally but seems uninterested until he comes and visits us on our safety stop. He cruises below us and checks us out, so cool.

The next day, it is still very windy and we attempt to go around the point but we don’t make it very far. Too many waves over the bow, it’s just a little too hectic, so we turn around to do our last sites on the leeward side. More beautiful giant amphitheaters of rock and boulder. Sheila gave me a little fish ID lecture and I start to learn some species and look out for them like the endemic Macropharyngodon Geoffroy or Thalassoma duperrey. I really like seeing the different colorful life stages of the Hawaiian Hogfish and the yellowtail wrasse!

When we wake up today the wind isn’t too bad and there is no small craft advisory so this may be our only chance to get to some of the sites on the windward, eastern side of the park.

We take off from the pier in the early morning. The morning sun makes for some amazing lighting and shadow on the pali as we cruise offshore and look towards the lighthouse and cliffs. We make it past our turn-back point from yesterday and continue through to barf boulevard. The northern point of the peninsula catches the brunt of big swell but also bounces it back offshore from the solid basalt shoreline, creating a fun avenue of backwash that has led to being christened barf boulevard, it’s not for those who get seasick easily. We pound through that, Kelly, expertly operating Kala 2 in some fun conditions. The north shore of Molokai is a sight to behold from the water. Totally awe-inspiring. We’ve made it through some of the worst water so why not continue on to the eastern extent of the park and survey sites? We move towards Waikolu Valley and Okala Island. Behind Okala is Huelo islet, a tiny vertical sea stack fully covered in loulu palm. A beautiful native Hawaiian fan palm, this is the only natural occurrence of the palm left in the wild. The palm used to cover the islands’ coastlines and one can look at Huelo to get a glimpse of a Hawaii coastline before humans and rats. Glauco tells me the palms survive here because the cliffs are too steep for rats to climb. We are graced with some tropicbirds, white with a long tail. The pali is overwhelming this close, a little to the east, the cliffs rise to 3000’.

North shore Molokai.
Kelly and Glauco plan the next dive with Waikolu Valley in the background.

Sheila, Glauco, and I do a dive survey, and afterward for a little relief from the wind while we run water samples, Kelly drives us back to Waikolu where we will be protected by a headland. On the way, we run the channel between the headland and Okala island, Kelly says “We should show Grif the cave, don’t know if we’ll get another chance, are you up for a little snorkel?” The cave is spitting with the swell, sucking in and out. Glauco jumps in with me and shows me the way. An arch runs through the whole island, in the middle is a pocket of air where we can surface. I’m losing it, this place is so cool. You can see the sandy bottom, 80’ below. On either side of the arch, blue light is coming through. My ears are popping as the cave breathes in and out. I am ecstatic.

As we are doing water quality in the lee, we are graced by a pod of Spinner dolphins as they flip around with the beautiful backdrop of Waikolu and swim under our boat. We finish up three sites for the day and as we cruise back to the other side I look back at the pali. Truly, an unforgettable day.

Spinner dolphins.
Thank you, Kelly and Glauco.

I feel honored to dive with this crew. Logistics and resources are a hassle out here and I’m an extra on this team, so I really appreciate the effort to take me out and give me the opportunity to experience the science being done here in this incredible environment.

In the end, the rest of the time Sheila is in Kalaupapa there is a small craft advisory so no more boat operations. We only get one more day to survey the east side, but without Sheila, so no fish survey, just benthic and water quality at three more sites. The weather is rough today (surprise surprise) and it makes for some exciting filtering at barf boulevard. We hit a site at the most northern end of the peninsula which might be one of my favorite sites. You can see the wave action smashing the shore above while we are surveying down in the boulder field. I see three giant trevally zoom past near the surface. When we finish up for the day and are returning to the settlement side, we motor past a large shark, skimming the surface near where we had dived earlier. Kelly and Glacuo said it looked like a good-sized Tiger shark. I would have loved to have seen that shark underwater!

This chub photobombed me.

Kelly and Glauco are an impressive team of two running all things marine at Kalaupapa as well as taking on many other responsibilities in the park and community. I am blown away by their work ethic and humbled by the generosity shown to me during my stay at Kalaupapa. I hope they get some more help soon so they can continue doing an amazing job monitoring and managing the underwater resources.

For the rest of my time in Kalaupapa, I get to learn a little more about the history. A brief tour of the cultural resources office and its many artifacts; archaeological items like Hawaiian fishing weights, adzes, and poi pounders. As well as more modern artifacts and items significant to the history of Hansen’s disease at Kalaupapa.

Glauco, Hannah (Glauco’s partner), Sheila, and I get a day to ride our bikes around the peninsula. I upgraded my bike to the Huffy with white rims and a basket. A little rough on the rocky path with the single-speed beach cruiser but it didn’t get a flat tire. A pretty wild landscape, wind frothing up the blue water, clouds moving quickly through the sky, columnar jointed basalt covered in tidepools, and the remnants of lava tubes honeycombing the shore creating caves, arches, and tunnels. Glauco shares how on this side of the peninsula, rock walls were built to create wind turbulence behind them, helping collect moisture from the constant wind to grow sweet potatoes by the Native Hawaiians. We enjoy a snorkel in the tidepools protected from the swell and Glauco shows us how to collect sea salt from the tidepools.

Glauco invites us all to a nice family dinner, invasive species surf and turf, Tahitian prawns, and axis deer tacos. Hannah makes a breadfruit dish and lilikoi ice cream, what a treat. Rosemary lemonade made from plants in the settlement.

Family dinner with Hannah, Sheila, Kirby, Glauco and Kevin.

I get one last snorkel in and feel lucky to spot three octopuses and a queen nenue, a chub that is bright yellow instead of its usual grey, a rare coloration. An auspicious fish for sure. I will miss riding my bike at night while tons of axis deer bark and gallop past, sweating using Glauco’s blunt machete to open coconuts, the excitement when I see Snickers bars are back in stock at the general store, eating the sweetest papaya and mangoes, talking to the sisters of St. Francis, playing volleyball and pickleball with the community and definitely watching the monk seals roll around, sneeze and be weird in the nearshore.

However, this isn’t going to be my last time in Kalaupapa as I thought it would be. I am excited to hop over to Kaloko-Honokōhau on the Big Island for a week, but my plans after that fell through and Kelly was kind enough to invite me back to Kalaupapa to help out with their Inventory and Monitoring stream survey in Waikolu Valley. So, I am looking forward to coming back.

Thank you so much, Kelly and Glauco for being so welcoming, kind, and generous. And thank you always to the Submerged Resources Center and the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society.


Kalaupapa National Historical Park Part 1

Kalaupapa peninsula.

My first stop on Oahu is Foodland so I can get a poke bowl. I am on my way to Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai. I thought I was prepared by previous interns on what to expect from the flight in, but it is jaw-dropping. The north shore of Molokai is made up of towering sea cliffs, some of the tallest in the world– 2000’ straight to the water. At the base of the cliffs is a small sea-level peninsula jutting out into the Pacific, my destination, the Kalaupapa peninsula. On the flight, I can see a small settlement on the more protected western side, and at the northern end a lighthouse and runway. The Pacific Ocean batters the basalt shoreline and the constant easterlies keep the climate comfortable. Glauco Puig-Santana, the NPS biological technician meets me at the airstrip. I get the rundown on how life works here in Kalaupapa. We drive slowly around the settlement where I will be staying for the next three weeks.  

Kalaupapa has a storied history. The peninsula was inhabited by Native Hawaiians for at least 800 years. There is evidence of settlement everywhere. Ahupua’as, heiaus, and taro terraces demonstrate the deep connection with the land and these sites remain some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the Hawaiian islands.

This is only part of the history. In the 1800s, leprosy, or Hansen’s disease was spreading throughout the Hawaiian Islands. A mysterious and feared disease, it was ravaging the population of Hawaii, and the government saw only one option, to isolate people with the disease to stop its spread.

Kalaupapa is remote and inaccessible. Cut off from ‘topside’ Molokai by the pali (cliffs), there is just one switchback trail connecting the peninsula to the rest of the island and to travel here by water is not much easier. Difficult to get to and at the same time, difficult to leave. In 1865, legislation was passed and approved to acquire Kalaupapa as the location for the forced segregation of Hansen’s disease patients. The Native Hawaiians still living on the land were displaced, and in 1866 the first group of 12 patients was literally dropped off, with no help or plan for how they were going to sustain themselves.

Over the next 100 years, more than 8,000 Hansen’s disease patients died at Kalaupapa. The forced isolation tore families apart and children were separated from their parents. The lack of respect for these people is a demonstration of humans’ great capacity for darkness when we lose compassion and are overcome by fear. However, at Kalaupapa, one can reflect on people’s capacity for lightness as well. There were those who came to Kalaupapa despite the fear of the disease, kokua or helpers, who chose to go into isolation with their family members and build a functioning society. Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope came to Kalaupapa and worked to create decent living conditions and promote dignity. A community was created and existed for the next 100 years.

I think it’s ironic that we now know this mysterious disease that terrified people of the ages is the least contagious of all known communicable diseases. You must spend prolonged time, months to years with someone with the disease to contract it. On top of that, 95% of the population has a natural immunity to Hansen’s disease.

A cure was discovered in 1941 but it wasn’t until 1969 that the isolation ban was lifted. Patients then had the option to stay or leave, and for those who stayed, the community as it stands today was shaped around their needs and the best way to support them. Kalaupapa operates a little differently than most national parks. The NPS administers the site alongside the Hawaii Department of Health. The primary mission is to protect the lifestyle and privacy of the patient community.

There are only four patients left living in the settlement. The rest of the community is made up of DOH and NPS employees. A total of about 60 people work here, but over my three weeks, I only see a handful of people each day.

Cemetery on the way into the settlement.

The settlement is quiet, on the drive from the airstrip Glauco and I pass tall coconut and date palms and hundreds of grave markers. The settlement nowadays has a church, general store, post office, community hall, and residences. Life is lived at a slower pace here and treading lightly is important.

Glauco shows me to the old nurse’s quarters, a wood-framed house with a lanai where I will be living. He generously welcomes me with a fruit basket of mango, papaya, soursop, avocado, and mountain apples.

I am in Kalaupapa to help the marine program complete their Inventory and Monitoring benthic surveys. A quarter of the park is underwater and it is a spectacular volcanic boulder habitat that supports some of the healthiest nearshore fish communities in the main Hawaiian islands. However, this first week, Kelly Moore the park ecologist is off-island, so I won’t be diving until she gets back. This means that I get to explore some of the other natural resources teams’ responsibilities.

Hawaiian monk seal.

My time at Kalaupapa overlaps with Kirby Parnell, a Ph.D. student from UH Manoa, studying Hawaiian monk seal vocalizations. Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago and extremely endangered with a population of only about 1600 individuals. The beaches at Kalaupapa are one of the most important pupping beaches in the main Hawaiian Islands, if not the most important. The NPS works with NOAA to monitor the seals under National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Permit# 22677.

Glauco, Kirby, and I spend our days surveying for monk seals, IDing them from afar with binoculars as they bask on the black basalt rocks or nap on the beach. It has been a low year for seal pups, there have only been 6 pups born here this year as compared to 12 last year. I watch the moms and pups float upside down in the shallow pools or sleep with their heads underwater, blowing bubbles. It is very cute. There are three newly weened pups which means we will be tagging them and vaccinating them this week. Tags include flipper tags and a PIT tag. The vaccination is for morbillivirus.

Kirby is also here to deploy a sound trap underwater that will be recording sounds for the next month or so and will pick up seal vocalizations in the area.

Looking for monk seals.

We get a chance to tag our first weened pup today. Ultimately, we want to stress the seal as little as possible so we go over the plan meticulously. Glauco will be restraining the seal, I will be helping restrain the rear, and Kirby will be tagging and vaccinating. We sneak up on the pup sleeping in the sand and work quickly and efficiently. The seal definitely doesn’t appreciate it as she snorts, snarls, and tries to bite Glauco. All goes to plan though and we are finished in a few minutes and can leave the seal alone.

Black sand beach.

Today, I have the sweetest papaya for breakfast. Glauco and I head over to the black sand beach to patrol for sea turtle tracks. We do this most days. The surveys are in partnership with the State Department of Land and Natural Resources. Unfortunately, it has been a couple years since any turtle has nested here but it is still important to keep checking just in case.

Afterward, Glauco and I go to the old, rusty single-pump gas station and wait in line to fill up. The station is open once or twice a week for a few hours so it’s not uncommon for everyone to get their allotted fuel of six gallons when they can. We fill up the vehicles and the cans for the boat.

Kalaupapa has a Remote Automatic Weather Station (RAWS) that monitors atmospheric conditions. One day, Glauco and I head out to replace some of the instruments that are due for servicing. The station measures wind speed, precipitation, temperature, humidity, and solar radiation. The weather data collected is used in wildland fire management, climatology, resource management, etc. The data from the station has shown that average and maximum air temperatures at Kalaupapa since 1993 have increased. Also, 2022 was the second driest year on record since 1993.

Another project going on in the park is marine debris collection. We head out past the cattle guard and Kauhako crater. There are more archaeological sites and we drive through a non-native forest full of non-native axis deer to Kalawao on the eastern side of the peninsula. The original settlement was here, but it eventually moved because this side is more inhospitable, with more wind and rain. All that is left are two churches and a graveyard. I get my first look down the eastern side of Molokai and its breathtaking– green valleys dropping into the blue water, and sea stacks offshore. For our marine debris collection, we find a beach on the eastern side. We collect a good amount of debris on the rugged basalt coastline. Of course a lot of Styrofoam and fishing floats. We collect and categorize it and the data is shared with NOAA.

During my time on the peninsula, Glauco lends me a beach cruiser to ride around. I like roaming, collecting mangoes or tamarind from the trees, and taking new roads to get back home. Glauco and I go help Uncle Johnny harvest his banana trees one day. I make sure to stop in the general store when it is open to say hi to some of the residents and get my daily allotted candy bar. While the food is only for residents, visitors can purchase one candy bar/day.

The settlement.
Very excited to catch this dragon fruit blooming. The flowers bloom once a year from sunset to sunrise. Loved seeing the giant white blossoms in the moonlight but unfortunately there were no bats or moths to pollinate them.

After a week, it’s time for me to get some more groceries so Glauco and I wake up early on Friday to hike up the Pali trail. The trail goes to topside and is a couple miles of switchbacks with about 1500′ elevation gain. On “topside,” I make it to a market in town to pick up some groceries which I will hike back down to the settlement.

On the trail back down to the settlement. I carried the eggs in my hands so they wouldn’t break in my backpack.

My time on Kalaupapa has been amazing and I haven’t even started diving yet. I’m really looking forward to the next adventure exploring the 25% of the park that is underwater. Please check back for the next blog where I will be helping out with the Pacific Island Inventory and Monitoring Network benthic surveys.

Thank you Glauco for hosting me this entire week and going above and beyond to make my first week in Kalaupapa amazing. And of course, thank you to the Submerged Resources Center and the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society for making this experience possible with your support.

Sunrise over Kalaupapa.
Sunset with sleeping monk seal.

Treating coral disease at Buck Island Reef National Monument – Saint Croix, USVI

Symmetrical Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa) at Buck Island Brain Garden.

Kristen Ewen, biologist and natural resources program manager on Saint Croix, picks me up from the seaplane terminal. It’s afternoon on a Tuesday so we’re going straight to Sion Farm and park housing so I can get settled in. I will start work with the NPS divers tomorrow. I get a glimpse of the colonial Danish neo-classical architecture of Christiansted, pastel-hued buildings, thick walls to keep them cooler, and arcaded covered sidewalks. The NPS office is in the historic Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse. Christiansted was the capital of the Danish West Indies and Saint Croix was booming in the late 1700s because of sugar cane and slave labor. On the drive to Sion Farm, Kristen tells me about some of the work that is going on in the natural resources department. They just finished up a long week of mangrove restoration. The season has begun for the Buck Island sea turtle nesting program and I may get the chance to join one night for a survey. I will mainly be working with the divers doing coral disease treatment around Buck Island, and at the end of the week we will join The Nature Conservancy divers to help with their coral restoration in the park. How cool!

Historic Christiansted: Customs House in front with the steeple building and the Danish West India & Guinea Company Warehouse in the background.

On Wednesday I meet Rachel Brennan and Rico Diaz, the biological technicians, and Katie Owens and Nicole Rotelle, the two University of Miami interns. I will be working with these four divers for the next week and a half, treating corals at Buck Island Reef National Monument for Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), a lethal affliction that affects over 20 coral species. Caribbean corals are afflicted by a variety of different coral diseases, including white plague, white band, and black band to name a few. SCTLD is of particular concern because while the other diseases can be virulent, they are not nearly as lethal, have as wide of a range, or have as rapid a transmission rate. A coral colony with SCTLD can develop multiple lesions that rapidly spread across their tissues at a rate of more than one inch/day, leaving behind a stark white coral skeleton. Corals die over the course of weeks to months. The mortality rate is 99% for some coral species it infects. SCTLD first appeared in Florida in 2014. Since then, it has spread throughout the Caribbean and appeared at Buck Island Reef National Monument in 2021. Many aspects of the disease are still unknown. There has been an upwards of 60% decline in coral cover on some reefs due to SCTLD.

Heavily diseased brain corals at Buck Island, the coral in the middle has black band disease as well as SCTLD.

The NPS divers are working tirelessly to halt the progress of SCTLD and minimize its impact in the park. Their primary focus is preventing diseased coral colonies from dying by applying an antibiotic paste. This treatment has proved to halt the progression of the disease and boasts up to a 75% effectiveness rate on some coral species. So far, the NPS divers have treated 6, 818 corals!

Turtle at Brain Garden.

I could write quite a lot about why the loss of corals is significant. However, I’ll just keep it short and sweet. Everything is connected. If coral reefs die, humans die. We are not separate from our environment. We rely on the ecological services provided by ecosystems like coral reefs. I understand how it’s hard for people to understand the ecological crisis going on underwater. It is out of sight and out of mind for most people. There is no smoke in the air, it doesn’t appear to be affecting your day-to-day. That’s why it’s important to share the science and educate. I wrote last week that the water temperature in the Keys was over 90 degrees. Well, this week it is over 100 degrees, many reefs are experiencing mass bleaching and it isn’t even the hottest part of the season.  

It may seem like an insurmountable problem and our positive actions seem so minuscule in the grand scheme of things, but I do wholly believe that everyone’s tiny individual efforts can and will add up to change our future. So let’s start by saving the corals we can save.

Yay! A relatively healthy and large brain coral!

At the NPS office, we collect our treatment gear, pile into the truck, and head to Green Cay and the park boat Le Tigre. Most of the trips out to Buck are in some pretty good swell. Saint Croix is constantly windy as the easterlies or trade winds are usually ripping through here. On our journey out to Buck, we are heading almost directly east, so right into the wind and waves. Turtle watch is important since a lot of turtles are in the area and especially at this time in the season they will be mating on the surface. We skirt around the east of the island and enter the northern lagoon that is protected by a barrier reef.

Okay, I know I’ve said every location so far has had amazing visibility but this one might take the cake. This lagoon is a popular snorkeling and diving site, and where the NPS has been doing the most coral treatment. The site we are focused on today is called Brain Garden. I dive with Rico so he can show me how best to apply the paste and identify the disease. The antibiotic paste is a mixture of amoxicillin and Base2B, which resembles coral mucus. The paste is applied on active lesions creating a barrier between the dead skeleton and live tissue. It is applied underwater with caulking guns. Most corals we will treat at this site will be brain coral species as they are susceptible to SCTLD. It is pretty clear when you find active lesions. On a coral colony, you can see live tissue and then a defined edge where tissue transitions to a bone-white skeleton. You can tell it is a fresh lesion because the bare skeleton has yet to be colonized by algae. Soon, algae will start growing where there is no live coral anymore.

Nicole applying the antibiotic paste.
Brain Garden.

I just imagine I’m on the bake off and I’m piping something for Paul Hollywood, so it must be perfect. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it seems. We’re in shallow water and the sea state is rough from the constant wind. This means we’re getting pulled back and forth through the water with the wave action. The paste will immediately be lifted off the coral with the current if it isn’t applied with pressure. My first attempt leaves a lot to be desired. I’m getting pummeled by the swell and damselfish are bothering me and poking at the paste that is streaming from the coral. Okay, not great but pretty quickly I get the hang of it. We treat until we run out of paste, focusing on corals that have the majority of their tissue left, but I can’t help but give some of these devastated colonies a little line of protection to potentially give them a chance at survival.

For me, this dive is devastating. Coming from a land of old-growth forests, some of our most important habitats, where trees are 1000s of years old, I can’t help but see this as the loss of old growth at Buck Island. These brain corals grow at about 3.5 mm/year. When you see colonies that are 6 feet in diameter, do the math- they’re old. Brain corals can live up to 900 years. Here, they are being wiped out in months. SCTLD only arrived in 2021 and a lot of these elders around me are completely gone. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I know nature is resilient, and maybe even brain corals will rebound here but still, it is hard to wrap my head around the loss.

Hopefully, these two huge corals on the left fare better than their neighbor.

The next day, we are on the outside of the barrier reef on the north bar. It’s another tricky day of applying paste to brain corals with the constant swell running over the reef. Though it is also the first time I’ve seen large elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, since being in the Caribbean. Some beautiful, giant, branching elkhorn. They’ve been hit by their own diseases, a big one in the 80s that wiped out 90% of the population. Then of course, while their branching structure provides amazing habitat, it doesn’t do well in hurricanes. The good news is that they are relatively fast-growing, compared to the brain corals and SCTLD does not affect them. I love watching the schools of blue tangs, the colorful stoplight parrotfish, the queen triggerfish, and the sea whips swaying back and forth in the current.

Tonight, I join the sea turtle nesting program on their beach patrols of Buck Island. Leatherbacks, Hawksbill, and Greens all nest on Buck. Globally, sea turtle populations have declined by at least 95% since the 15th century because of overexploitation. Here on Buck Island, Kristen and her team are working for the recovery of nesting sea turtles. The program is one of the longest-running sea turtle programs in the world, with over three decades of monitoring and rigorous data collection to assess the status of populations. On the island, endangered Hawksbill sea turtles have made a dramatic recovery, going from 12 nesting females in 1987 to over 500 more recently.

It’s a half night tonight so we are only going out from 6pm to around 11pm. We see some Green sea turtles mating at the surface on the way out. The team starts with a day patrol, checking out tracks to gauge turtle activity since the last visit. As we move down the beach, a line is drawn in the sand above the high tide line to keep track of old tracks surveyed and any new tracks that appear. These guys are experts at deducing activity from the turtle tracks. I learn Hawksbills make comma swishes with their flippers and Greens, look more like tire treads as they push together with their flippers moving through the sand. On this patrol, we don’t find any new nests, but Kristen’s team excavates an old nest and recovers two hatchlings still alive that are released into the water. Now it’s dark and we are using red lights to survey the beach. A couple of hours later, on the north beach, an old Hawksbill momma comes up to nest. Since she is not tagged the team is going to wait for her to dig her nest and then tag her. It takes her a while to find a suitable spot. We sit quietly in the dark. Once she starts laying, it’s lights on and all action. I guess turtles go into a trance-like state when they’re laying so they aren’t phased by the activity. Data is collected, she is tagged, measured and a biopsy is collected. I’m useless at this point because the turtle team has got it down, so I just get to enjoy the beautiful endangered prehistoric creature. She finishes laying, covers her nest, camouflages it, and heads back out to sea. Congratulations turtle momma!

On our way back to the boat we find another Hawksbill who had just laid and is heading back out to sea. So cool! I’ve never done anything with turtles before, so this whole experience was very exciting for me. Kristen and her team of interns and community youth are legendary and such hard workers, coming out multiple days a week 6pm to 6am taking care of nesting sea turtles on Buck Island. Thanks for letting me tag along.

Old hawksbill sea turtle laying eggs while Kristen and her team collect data.
Sam Orndorff, one of the Nature Conservancy coral scientists.

Nearing the end of my time on Saint Croix, I get the chance to join The Nature Conservancy (TNC) coral team for a joint coral fragmenting mission with the NPS. TNC has partnered with the national park to do coral restoration at Buck Island. One of the freedivers I met over the weekend, Alex Gussing, Coral Conservation Coordinator for TNC, explains the project. They have pieces of Acropora palmata growing on tables at their nursery in the lagoon at Buck Island. We will be taking those larger pieces and fragmenting them into small pieces with a bandsaw on board the boat. These fragments from the same genotype will be glued to a cement dome. What TNC has found is that the small fragments with the cut edges grow more quickly and after a couple of months all of the little fragments will have fused together. Basically speeding up coral growth and boosting restoration, these corals can then be placed back on the reef. They are also experimenting with different sizes of fragments to see what works the best. It’s a full day on the boat with a cool crew doing cool work. I get to try a range of jobs from gluing the fragments to the cones, using the bandsaw to fragment, and then swimming the fragmented coral cones back out to the nursery site. I will be interested to check back in a couple of months to see how the fragments are doing in the nursery. Thank you TNC for inviting me out to join you!

TNC crew fragmenting Acropora with a bandsaw and gluing the fragments to a cone.

Finally it’s my last day of coral treatment with NPS here on Saint Croix. We take the park boat Kestrel out and visit a new site for me. Since it’s in about 40 feet of water, there are some different species than the ones we’ve been treating in the shallow lagoon. A lot of big star coral colonies, another species highly affected by SCTLD.

BUIS has been a busy 10 days full of coral conservation work–all new experiences for me. I am inspired by the coral heroes in the NPS and TNC who are working hard to protect threatened ecosystems on Saint Croix and in the Caribbean. It has been a pleasure to work with and learn from so many amazing ocean advocates in my time at Dry Tortugas, Saint John, and Saint Croix. I’m sad to leave the Caribbean but am excited to travel halfway across the world to my next national park on Molokai, Hawaii. Thanks again Kristen, Rachel, Rico, Katie, and Nicole for including me in your dive work at Buck Island. And of course, big thanks to the OWUSS and the SRC.

Brain coral.

Virgin Islands National Park – Saint John, USVI

View from Saint John.

I walk off the plane on Saint Thomas, into the hot air, and am excited to see how hilly the island is. A welcome change from the flatness of the last two weeks in Florida. I will be spending the next three weeks in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI); a place I know almost nothing about but am excited to learn all I can about the culture, people, and incredible national parks located here. My first stop is the Virgin Islands National Park (VIIS) on Saint John. I have eight and a half days, unfortunately, because of Carnival, holidays, and the work week schedule which means I only have three and a half days with the NPS staff. Add the fact that their dive boats are out of commission and it’s clear I definitely arrived at an inopportune time, so I would like to thank Thomas Kelley for going out of his way to make sure with the little time there was that I got a great sampling of the work they are doing in the park. The rest of my time on the island I explore the awesome national park trails.

Mary Creek from Annaberg plantation.

It just so happens that I am on the same flight as Lee Richter who lives on Saint John. Lee and I catch the taxi to Red Hook and hop on the next ferry to Cruz Bay. Saint John is the smallest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands and the least populated. 60% of the island is national parkland which I think is pretty cool. Lee generously offers to drop me off at the Inn at Tamarind Court in Cruz Bay which is where I will be staying for the next couple of days before my park housing is finalized. Lee has a perfect island-style blue beater car, no AC, just windows down. We head uphill out of town to where the NPS Resource Management office is located. From up on the hill, you can see the many islands peppering the surrounding waters, half of them being the British Virgin Islands. The wind is a constant down here and I am jealous of all the sailboats I see cruising around. Lee gives me a quick peek at the beautiful white sand beaches on the north shore and provides some locals tips on where I should go hiking. He’s been more than helpful, and I don’t want to take too much of his time because he still hasn’t seen his wife or pup. He drops me off back in Cruz Bay. The roof over my room gets pummeled by mangoes all night. I go look for the ripe ones to eat.

It will be a couple days before I meet my point of contact Thomas Kelley, the Natural Resources Manager at VIIS. He is off the island until the 5th and July 4th is of course a national holiday. However, this means I get to experience some of Carnival on Saint John. July 3rd is Emancipation Day and a holiday in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It commemorates the day in 1848 when a enslaved people rebelled on Saint Croix demanding freedom, and the overwhelmed Danish governor declared their emancipation. The evening is filled with musical performances by West Indian artists. The old Jamaican band Third World did an amazing rendition of Con Te Partiro by Bocelli.

I meet up with Sarah Von Hoene, the 2021 NPS intern who lives on Saint Thomas and works in coral restoration with the University of the Virgin Islands. July 4th is the culmination of Carnival festivities. I watch the whole parade which takes more than five hours. Steel pan bands, Mocko Jumbies, trucks rigged with massive sets of speakers blasting Soca music. I eat some salted fish, a local dish, from Gwen’s place. She also gives me some conch soup which is very tasty but I feel guilty about it since I know their populations are in trouble and the fishery is not managed well.

On Wednesday I connect with the two VIIS biological technicians– Karl Teague and Basil Bsisu. We drive to Annaberg, along the north shore. At Annaberg, we check the culverts between the mangrove wetlands and the ocean because they were only relatively recently cleared of storm debris from the hurricanes in 2017 and they want to know if they are still functioning. Something I start to notice on Saint John is that everything is in some form of recovery from the hurricanes of 2017. Two category 5 hurricanes struck Saint John within a two-week period in September 2017. Reefs and corals were wiped out, most trees were toppled over and denuded of all their leaves and some people were without power for months. The recovery has been long and arduous. The largest red mangrove wetland on Saint John is at Annaberg. An endangered species, it was nearly wiped out by the hurricanes, so while checking the function of the culverts may seem like a menial task, it is all part of the island’s recovery and restoration.

I learn from Karl that the park doesn’t have much biological diving work right now, but he shares some of his ideas for conch surveys and mesophotic reef surveys that he hopes could be implemented in the future. Before we head back to the office, we swing by the NPS maintenance area to check in with Peter Laurencin, the park mechanic. Peter has a quick wit and also has his hands full right now. The VIIS has four boats to use for dive operations and unluckily, all four of them are out of commission.

Outboard troubles at the Maintenance area.
Outboard woes.

I finally get to meet Thomas Kelley and he plans for me to see as many different aspects of park operations as possible in the short time I have left on the island. I learn that most of their diving consists of maintenance diving. There are a ton of moorings in the park that need constant maintenance so there is a lot of splicing work and shackle swap outs. However, not having access to a boat this week limits the diving we can do. That means I get to tag along with the biological technicians and see some of the other data they collect– whether it’s Sargassum surveys or water quality sampling.

Thomas gets me set up with a vehicle and park housing which is amazing. Even though Saint John is a small island, my house is almost the farthest you can drive from Cruz Bay at 12 miles. The trip still takes almost 45 minutes because of the switchbacks and steepness of the roads. It takes some quick learning to drive a left-hand drive car on the left-hand side of the road and try not to be squashed by the water trucks and taxis on the blind corners. I pick up groceries in town at Dolphin Market. People warned me about food prices in the USVI but I am still shocked.

I take Centerline Road out of Cruz Bay to Coral Bay before heading even more south to Mandahl where my house is located, right on a salt pond with Grootpan Bay on the other side of the pond. I didn’t expect such a drastic change in environment, but here on the south side, it is rugged, dry, and shrubby with cactuses. I’m excited to finally see more of the island. I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable in Cruz Bay, seeing a little too much ignorance and disrespect from visitors to this beautiful place. Yes, it may be a US territory but that doesn’t mean you should come in and try to change it to fit your culture or comfort level. The lack of awareness or care was unfortunate so it’s good to get out and see some other parts of the island.

Coral Bay.
Europa Bay.

Today, Lee is leading a Fish ID training for the NPS divers to prepare for NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) later in the summer. NCRMP is a monitoring program designed to support the conservation of coral reef ecosystems. Lee, Thomas, Basil, Karl, and the park intern Enzo Newhard, and I swim out from shore at Annaberg and drop on the reef to look for fish. I’m quite impressed with the visibility. For this practice session, Lee will point out a fish on the reef and we will write down what we think it is and our estimate of size before he confirms what the fish is. I’m happy that I get a couple of the obvious ones, Queen Angelfish, Blue Tang, Gray Angelfish, Nassau Grouper, and Bluehead Wrasse. However, I’m sorry to say that most of the fish I do not guess correctly. When it gets to the parrotfish or gobies or damselfish, I struggle a lot. The second dive is more practice for an actual NCRMP survey and since I will not be in Saint John for the survey I just keep practicing my fish ID and taking photos. Also, I had no idea that a conch has such human-like eyes. After the dive day, I head out to Lameshur Bay, for a little afternoon hike out to Europa Bay. I enjoy the air plants settling on everything, seeing the native Plumeria and its sweet-smelling flowers, and my new favorite cactus, the Turks head cactus.

Lee points out a fish for the NPS crew to identify.
Adult Gray Angelfish and Nassau Grouper.
Sharknose Goby?
Trunk Bay.

Basil generously comes in on a Friday (his day off) to take me on one of their Sargassum surveys. We’re collecting data so that in the future if something needs to be done about the Sargassum on the beaches, the park has collected enough data to support their decision for taking some sort of action. This could be the case if an abundance of Sargassum is consistently affecting beachgoers and swimmers at a popular beach. It ends up being a nice tour of all the pretty NPS beaches on the island (which Saint John has a lot of). We first cruise the north shore, where the most popular tourist beaches are: Hawksnest Bay, Trunk Bay, and Maho Bay. I think my favorite beaches might be Little Cinnamon Bay and Francis Bay. After the north shore, we head east and check out Hurricane Hole and Haulover. North Haulover is the first beach we find significant Sargassum clogging the beach and water, though there are no visitors on the beach. We eat mangoes whenever we find a tree and I try Stinking Toe, a fruit from the West Indian Locust Tree, which despite its terrible name I thoroughly enjoy. It ends up having a creamy banana flavor.

Basil conducting a Sargassum survey at Francis Bay.
A lot of Sargassum on Haulover beach.

On our tour of the island beaches, Basil and I talk about some current issues facing the park on Saint John. Lack of community involvement, residents misplaced fear of land grabbing by the NPS, local people getting priced out, and rich people trying to buy and develop more. It’s a complex situation.

After the beach cruise, I visit some of the sugar mill plantation ruins which are all over the island and park. Most of the sites have the remains of the windmill used to crush the cane and the room where the juice was concentrated through heating and evaporation in kettles and then left to crystalize. Molasses and rum were other products produced at the plantations. Saint John was the site of one of the earliest and longest slave revolts in the Americas. In 1733, Breffu an enslaved woman from Ghana led the rebellion against the plantations and the enslaved controlled the island for nearly eight months before French troops from Martinique were brought in with enough firepower and soldiers to end the rebellion. It took 114 more years for slavery to be abolished in the Danish West Indies.

Windmill at Catherineberg.
Reef Bay sugar mill was the last operating mill on Saint John.

Lee invites me out on an awesome night hike to Ram’s head, another great park hike, with his partner and friends. The island is beautiful and standing on the headland at night you can just make out the glow of Saint Croix far to the south. The next morning we all go to Kiddel Bay for a dive. The bay has craggy, canyon-like formations. Lee takes us through some sweet swim-throughs with colorful sponges and tunicates. Later on in the dive, he beckons me over to point out the cutest fish I have ever seen. It looks like a hovering little polka-dotted box, the size of a pee. It’s a juvenile smooth trunkfish. Lee is leaving tomorrow to go back to Dry Tortugas to work with the SFCN on their coral surveys. I can’t thank him enough for all of his help and for sharing a bit of his home with me while I’ve been on Saint John.

Kiddel Bay.
Fish tornado in a swim through.

I attempt a big park loop hike from Lameshur Bay out to Reef Bay and L’esperance. I get caught out in the rain and absolutely soaked to the bone. I go to the petroglyphs, carved by the Taino between 600 and 1500. I love the fat raindrops on the pool of water and contemplating the ancient culture that sat in this same spot and carved these unique images. I decide to bushwhack up the gut above the waterfall and then regret it pretty quickly. It is still raining, the boulders are deadly slippery, the pools are filling up with water and there are plenty of spiky plants like the catch n’ keep, that tear at my clothing. I end up turning around and still sodden, I squish my way back to Lameshur and my house. I do eventually get back to this hike another day and accomplish the loop from the jungle to the beach and back up into the jungle. I love identifying all of the new trees I’ve discovered like the Sandbox, Bay Rum, Kapok, and Turpentine trees. It’s wild to imagine the island in the 1800s when it was stripped of native vegetation and covered in sugar cane fields.

View from the gut above the petroglyphs.

Today, Sunday, Thomas set me up to dive with the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation (CORE) at Annaberg. CORE is a non-profit partner of the park that has set up an experimental coral gardening nursery site. We are going to go check on it and clean it of algae since if left unchecked the algae can smother the small coral fragments. I learn from CORE members about the difficulties of supporting the growth of fragmented coral and how this is CORE’s first attempt. There is a lot of trial and error, like what is the best structure and material to grow coral on. CORE is growing the genus Acropora which is one of the fastest-growing corals in the Caribbean and as its highly branching it is an important complex habitat for many other species. It has been devastated in the US Virgin Islands by disease and hurricanes.

Tiny juvenile filefish hanging out with Acropora fragment.

One last dive today, I get a taste of some of the work diving they do here as Karl, Enzo and I head to Annaberg to use lift bags to bring an outboard and center console off the reef. I have never used a lift bag before so it is interesting to see the process and help clean up the park as well.

My time on Saint John is short and sweet. Before I fly out today, Thomas has me go out with Basil and Karl to collect water at the main north shore beaches for water quality sampling. I am so grateful to Thomas for introducing me to a range of park work in the short amount of time I had here. I really appreciate all the effort to share the awesome work your team has going on. Everyone was so welcoming and I appreciate Karl, Basil and Lee going out of their way to share their work, time, and stories. A beautiful and unique park, I hope more people get to experience and appreciate this national park. Now, I’m on a short flight just 20 minutes south to check out diving on Saint Croix. 

Saint John.

Wrangling lobsters with the South Florida Caribbean Network – Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson.
Caribbean Spiny Lobster.

It’s like stepping outside into hot orange juice. The Florida humidity is thick and muggy. I’ve spent time in humid places before but for some reason, I feel like I’m going to melt here.

I’m in Florida to join the South Florida Caribbean Network (SFCN) dive team; A group of NPS scientists who inventory and monitor natural resources in Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, and the US Virgin Islands.

Dr. Mike Feeley of the SFCN has invited me out on their 10-day trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) to conduct lobster surveys. The SFCN has long-term data on coral reefs, seagrasses, and fishes in the Florida and Caribbean parks, but these lobster surveys are a new addition to their dataset, and this is the first year they are surveying in the Dry Tortugas.

The Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is one of the most economically important fisheries in Florida. Dry Tortugas has been a no-take zone for lobster since 1974, today the lobster is under substantial recreational and commercial fishing pressure, including within park boundaries further north in the Keys at Biscayne National Park. The SFCN is hoping to gather data on population density, size, and biological condition of adult Caribbean spiny lobsters. The data collected by the SFCN will then be used to inform park managers of the status of spiny lobsters within their park boundaries and evaluate any potential management actions.

My first day in Florida and immediately I connect with the SFCN crew in Miami, catching a ride with Mike Feeley and Lee Richter as they trailer the 27-foot power cat, Twin Vee, down the Keys. Rob Waara and the two SFCN University of Miami interns Allison Kreyer and Davis Richmond are provisioning for our journey, and we will all meet up in Key West.

It is my first time in the Keys. Atlantic Ocean on one side and Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico on the other. I notice the painted fish murals, oversized marine creature sculptures, and abundance of anything fishing related. We make a stop at Denny’s café and I get to experience my first real Cubano and café con leche. We then drive the 7-mile bridge and I keep an eye out for the mini deer that inhabit Big Pine Key.

There are thousands of lobster pots lining the road on the way down. Lee explains how they have a “mini-season” where for two days at the end of July before the commercial and recreational fishery opens, the Keys are overrun with upwards of 50,000 people looking to catch lobster. This blows my mind. How could this ever be sustainable? Lee describes how the Keys are situated at this perfect location for lobster recruitment. Larval lobster get sucked up from the rest of the Caribbean by the Gulf Stream and settle in the good juvenile habitat in Florida Bay which is protected from lobstering. Then, as they get older, they migrate out to the deeper reefs. This is one reason why it will be interesting to compare data from Biscayne (legal to lobster in some parts) and Dry Tortugas (illegal to lobster). 5 hours later we arrive in Key West with its pastel-hued wooden Victorian/Caribbean-style houses.

The crew is staying at the Naval base at Trumbo Point where the park boat M/V Fort Jefferson is docked. I had planned to stay with them, but my US passport isn’t acceptable identification and I’m not allowed on base. Mike helps me find a decently priced place in Key West right off Duvall St. A bit of a hassle but the free happy hour wine at the hotel makes up for it. We go out for pizza dinner as a crew. The next morning after another few hours of trouble, Mike manages to get me on base, and once onboard the Fort Jefferson, we shove off, heading 70 miles west out into the Gulf to the Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson is a 110-foot park boat used to transport staff and supplies between Dry Tortugas and Key West. It will be our home for this trip, the mothership. We are towing the 27′ Twin Vee behind, she will be the runabout during the dive days. Brian Lariviere is the one-man captain and crew on this voyage.

It takes us four hours to make the crossing to the Tortugas. After leaving Key West there is the occasional mangrove-covered key and then nothing on the horizon but a brown booby chasing flying fish disturbed by our wake. Davis spots it first, a lighthouse on Loggerhead Key and then the low-lying unnatural structure on Garden Key. Fort Jefferson itself, a 19th-century brick-work fort. The channel circles around the west side of the key and we dock on the south. NPS folks lounge in the shade, ready to catch dock lines; boys fish off the pier, frigatebirds, and terns are circling overhead and it is hot. Rob Waara and I get in the water with our scuba gear to complete the open water portion of my Blue Card certification. I’m in swim trunks and a rash guard, it feels unnatural coming from diving in the Pacific Northwest. We submerge and immediately see a lemon shark. It’s a quick dive, I complete the tasks and climb up the ladder on the Twin Vee. “Dude, how’d you miss the Goliath?” Rob asks with a grin. “What!?” I jump back in with my mask. Sure enough, a goliath grouper is just hanging out right under the Twin Vee. I’m frothing, this place is rad.

It’s day one of surveys and Lee gives us the briefing. The SFCN wants to hit more than 100 sites in the next 10 days. The sites are randomly selected and they can be anywhere there is potential lobster habitat. This means some sites are 80 ft. deep with towering, complex structures while other sites are in 10 feet of water with low relief hardbottom and rubble. On each dive, we will be surveying two side-by-side 15m diameter plots. Each diver is responsible for searching for lobsters in their half of the circle and collecting abiotic data such as rugosity and percent cover of substrate for the whole survey area. Once a lobster is found, we estimate its size before we try to capture it with a tickle stick and net. We learn later in the week that this works best with help from your dive buddy. If we successfully capture the lobster, we can collect actual measurements of the carapace and more biological data such as if it’s a female with eggs.

Davis catching a lobster.

These first couple of days we are joined by DRTO divers Karli Hollister and Amelia Lynch. Since there are eight of us, we split the crew between two boats. I am in the Munson, the DRTO dive boat, with Lee, Karli, and Davis. We head to Pulaski shoal to find some lobsters. I submerge and am immediately distracted by all of the fish, gorgonians, and sponges. For the last couple of years all my diving has taken place in the Pacific Northwest so I’m feeling a little spoiled to be diving with no weight, no dry suit, and the ability to see more than five feet in front of my face.

Luckily on this first dive, we find a lobster and all get the chance to practice capturing it. I learn that with the tickle stick, you want to get it behind the lobster and give them some gentle pressure on their tail so they slowly walk forward out of their hidey-hole, and then you can get the net behind them. If you’re too aggressive they may take off backwards with their powerful tail and you might not get the chance to catch them again as they move deeper into their cave.

It’s a daily fun surprise to see what kind of habitat we’re going to get as we explore all over the park. We’re out on the water from about 9 to 4 every day. While the Munson crew is cruising with six to eight dives, the Twin Vee crew is busier, getting in ten dives a day. Some days I catch a couple lobsters, other days I don’t see a single one.

It’s so difficult for me to not get distracted by all the fish on our dives. I feel lucky to have Lee, the fish expert, to answer all my questions. You can almost count on having a friendly red grouper every dive hanging out and checking out what’s going on, trying to eat the juvenile lobsters you’re trying to measure. The SFCN crew tells me that I won’t see big fish like the ones here down in the Virgin Islands.

On our second day, Lee and I have an incredible site with dense coral coverage, which also makes it difficult to search. We’re upside down, peaking under the ledges and shining our lights deep into the caverns. Lee points out a beautiful spotted spiny lobster (Panulirus guttatus) which we are also counting in our data. They are much harder to spot as they always seem to be as deep as possible in their cave and holding onto the ceiling.

Mike showing off his catch.

Day four and we’re hitting our stride and have a couple of logistical successes. Brian fixed the water maker on board the Fort Jefferson, and the Makai, the other research vessel supporting the DRTO divers is rafted up to Fort Jefferson; she has an air compressor on board and fills all of our tanks with Nitrox which will help us hit more of our deep sites.  

Sunrise at the fort.
Another amazing sunrise.

On day five, Karli and Amelia go back to Key West, and Mike, Rob, Lee, Davis, Allison and I are all on the Twin Vee for the rest of the trip. The Munson crew is now in the big leagues. Mike gives us the morning briefing, dive plan, and point of contact on DRTO and Davis gives us the weather. As a PNW boy, these tropical storms are fascinating to me. You can see the thunderheads form when you’re out on the water and today we got a good one. Halfway through our dive day an ominous wall of darkness and rain in the east forms and starts heading towards us and the fort. Mike checks the live weather forecasting and sees a blob of red and lightning bolts. “That’s not good” he says, and we speed back to the fort watching a waterspout form and touch down in the distance. So crazy. We make it back to the dock as the wind picks up and the lightning and thunder arrive. I love the color of the dark sky and the churned-up green water, no longer that tropical blue.

Water spout next to Fort Jefferson.

After a full day of dives, when we return to the dock, Rob and Allison usually go fill tanks while the rest of us organize data sheets, rinse gear, and prepare for the next day. In the later afternoon, only NPS staff and campers are left on the island and this is when I get to wander the Fort and snorkel the moat wall.  

Fort Jefferson was built between 1846 and 1875 to protect the shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean. Supply and subsidence problems and the Civil War delayed construction and the fort was never completed.

Rob and Davis transporting tanks.

I would say Dry Tortugas is inhospitable for humans. Any place where you must bring in fuel to run generators in order to run AC for people to survive is a harsh environment. I feel like I’m always getting too much sun and not enough water. It’s even too hot to fill SCUBA tanks in the middle of the day as the air compressor will overheat.

I wander the different levels of the fort imagining the massive undertaking and slave labor it took to lay each one of these bricks. While it’s too hot for me, some of nature has found its niche and a way to survive. I love the Buttonwood trees that fill the inside of the fort, they’re so gnarled, I wonder how old they are. Right next door is Bush Key with its constant cacophony that is hard to ignore; the only significant nesting colony of sooty terns and brown noddies in the continental US. After dark, Brian loans us interns a blacklight and we go hunt for scorpions in the bricks of the fort. Allison and I also go for a night snorkel around Garden Key and the moat wall to see basket stars and octopus. Brian set up an outdoor shower on the deck. There is something really special about taking a cold shower in the warm night air with the stars, loud birds, boat generator, and flashes of lightning all around in the distance.

Allison and I snorkeling around looking for the Goliath groupers.

It’s day seven and Brian gets us going with his good morning playlist. We’ve gotten into a good rhythm; we will get nine dives a day on the Twin Vee and the weather is behaving. We have multiple days of glass out on the water which means the 90-degree air temperature is that much hotter and it’s a relief to jump into the 86-degree water. The Twin Vee bumps the tunes on the surface intervals, I made the mistake of changing the channel from the Dave Matthews Band while Mike was enjoying them, he was shocked (sorry Mike). Snacks also become very important. I look forward to the Wickle pickles on my sandwiches and the frozen peanut butter m&m’s for when we finish the day.

Loggerhead Key.

“Let’s get them bugs!” becomes our mantra. I really enjoy the dives on the west side of Loggerhead Key. There are some deep, murky dives with big rocky formations. It becomes known as Mordor. You see lots of fish and the occasional Goliath grouper. It is sad to see the massive coral heads covered in algae and biofilm. Mike points out brain corals, 100s of years of growth now dead, wiped out by coral disease just within the last few years.

Lee and Mike on a surface interval.

Day nine and Mike and I have our most lobster-heavy dive of the trip. Bug City is on a rock wall. The outside edge of our cylinder plot was around 65 feet deep where the wall hit the sand and then the other edge of the cylinder was in 35 feet of water. It’s murky and the wall is full of caves that you can’t see the end of. In total, Mike and I find 12 lobsters on this dive. It was exhilarating. Mike found a large lobster molt that we brought back to the surface and added to our other mascot, Larry the lobster, created by Lee from the foil of our sandwiches. A fisherman gives Brian a bucket full of yellowtail and Brian generously shares his fish with us. Lee and Rob filet, while the Goliath groupers and Lemon sharks come to snack at the cleaning station. We have a nice big family dinner. All week we have been sharing dinner duties. Davis, Rob and Allison make a mean Thanksgiving dinner and Brinner (breakfast dinner). Lee does burritos and Mike ‘cheffed’ it up with his first red curry. Tonight Rob makes an awesome ceviche and Brian uses his Ninja to fry up some fish with a mix of TJ’s hippie chick seasonings. The big lobster molt is our center dining piece.

Family dinner pictured L to R: Josh Marano, Lee Richter, Davis Richmond, Mike Feeley, Allison Kreyer, Rob Waara & Brain Lariviere
Brian surveying his kingdom on the way back to Key West.

I catch one last sunset from the top of the fort; watch the tarpon patrol the outside of the moat wall, the Frigatebirds coasting overhead, the sooty terns serenading with their cacophony of voices. In total, we dived 106 sites and recorded 131 lobsters. At first glance, the lobster population density looks similar to Biscayne, but the lobsters in the Dry Tortugas appear to be a much larger average size. We’ll see after the data is analyzed. This is an amazing national park and one I didn’t even know existed before I got this internship. To be able to work with the SFCN and conduct surveys that will have an impact on lobster management in the future has been a dream. Such a solid team of professional, hard-working divers who also know how to keep it light and fun. Mike, thank you so much for inviting me on this trip and to take part in some of the amazing work you do in the national parks. Rob, Lee, Davis and Allison, thank you for taking me into your dive family. I had so much fun working and learning from all of you. Thank you Brian for your hospitality and letting us take over your boat for ten days. And thank you OWUSS and the SRC for providing the support to make all of this happen. I had the most amazing time in the Dry Tortugas National Park and I can’t wait to keep exploring the Caribbean! Check back for the next blog as I head to St. John in the US Virgin Islands.

As I am writing this, I’m thinking about the fragility and the resiliency of this amazing ecosystem. A week after I was at Dry Tortugas the Florida Keys recorded their highest sea temperature on record with multiple days in a row of water temperatures above 90 degrees.

Lee and Mike catching the mother of all lobsters.

Getting situated with the Submerged Resources Center in Denver, Colorado

It’s my second week of the NPS internship and I’m in Colorado to prep for my adventures. I visit the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) to get outfitted with the dive gear I will need for the different parks and to get my certifications and training in order to be qualified as an NPS diver.

The SRC is located near Denver, Colorado. For some background, the SRC started as a group of archaeologists in the late 70s working for the Park Service who became divers in order to access and protect submerged archeological sites such as Native American traces in the southwest which had been inundated by the creation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. After the completion of the project, the Park Service saw the value in having a talented group of underwater archaeologists who could document and interpret cultural resources in parks around the country; so, the SRC was formed.

The SRC is one of the most experienced, skilled, and technically adept dive teams in the NPS system. They work everywhere from backcountry lakes to Pacific atolls, basically anywhere parks with underwater resources are in need of assistance with discovery, documentation, and management.

Upon arrival, I am of course nervous to meet everybody. This team devotes a lot of time and resources to one intern each year and that kind of generosity is overwhelming for me. On top of that, I will basically be living with the boss for the entire time. I get picked up at the Denver airport by Dave Conlin – he’s driving a speedy blue Audi and immediately puts me at ease. He is easygoing, easy to talk to, and obviously proud of the work he and his team accomplishes. Dave and his wife Michelle are gracious hosts and make me feel at home at their house, which is located at the base of the Flatirons in Boulder. We enjoy a night out at a brew pub for a burger and beer and end up talking about skiing.

On Monday, I head into the SRC office with Dave. The office is lined with some of Brett Seymour’s photography, shipwreck maps, and historical books on shipbuilding, sea battles, and ancient cultures. To be honest, my original dream job before going down the biological route was to be an underwater archaeologist. So, I am very excited to be here and to potentially work with this team at some time over the next few months. I get to meet Brett Seymour, Deputy Chief of the SRC, photographer, and my other internship coordinator as well as Jim Nimz, dive operations specialist, and archaeologists David Morgan and Matt Hanks. Later in the week I meet archaeologist, Anne Wright (a fellow crew member on the tall ship Adventuress!). Everyone is extremely friendly, welcoming, and just plain excited for me. They are a tight-knit family, their jokes are quick and light-hearted.

Brett Seymour showing me some of his photogrammetry work.
Matt Hanks (L) and David Morgan (R).

My first task is working with Jim Nimz to get kitted out. I love putting together a pile of awesome dive gear. Rashguards, a 3mm and 5mm wetsuit, and a drysuit will hopefully cover all the water temperatures I’m going to experience. Jim then throws in a bunch of NPS SRC swag to wear on my internship. Dave also generously puts together a save-a-dive kit for me from McGuckin’s hardware so I will be prepared for anything whether it be in the middle of the Pacific or the Caribbean. Thanks to tips from previous interns I bought a luggage scale and have gotten my dive bag to weigh almost exactly 50lbs. I will check that and then take a backpack and a small waterproof bag as a carry-on. I think I packed pretty well, but this is still more than I have ever traveled with before.

Just some of the awesome swag and gear I got loaded up within Denver!

Next up is the Blue Card exam, a test all NPS divers must take. Jim organizes my swim test in the pool. It humbles me. I’ve never been an especially strong swimmer; I have little body fat and frankly – sink like a stone. Add to that, the elevation of Denver compared to my sea-level home and I am immediately winded. While the swims are terrible, I enjoy the bailout, and ditch and recovery skills. For the bailout, you put all your dive gear in your arms, jump into the pool, sink to the bottom and put all of your gear on. For the ditch and recovery, you take everything off while on the bottom of the pool, including your mask and regulator, turn off the air on your cylinder, swim away a bit and then come back; turn your air back on and put on all of your gear.

My last duty before I leave Colorado is to renew my First Aid and CPR training. Jim provides a DAN Diving First Aid course for me. Thank you, Jim, for taking care of all my training this week.

Hiking in the Flatirons.

My time in Colorado is coming to an end and I want to express how grateful I am to the SRC. Thank you for creating and supporting the coolest internship in the world. I am blown away by your generosity and I am humbled by your encouragement. I hope to see more of you this summer. Thank you to the long line of accomplished NPS interns who came before me and left a strong legacy. Your successes have provided the infrastructure for us new interns to be invited back year after year to dive programs in the NPS. Thanks to all of you past interns I got to meet before my internship who shared their experiences and excitement. Hailey Shchepanik, Sarah Von Hoene, Shannon Brown, Shaun Wolfe, and Pike Spector. And thank you so much Dave and Michelle for the hospitality this week and for including me in all your family and neighbor dinner parties. You made me feel like part of your family. It made me happy to throw the ball for your cute cocker spaniel, Maya, even though she never brought the ball back. And I enjoyed all the movie nights- especially the feel-good classic we watched.

Dinner with Michelle and Dave.

I am so excited to visit some unique places in this world that I never would have gotten the chance to see without this internship. I am starting off my adventure in Florida to work with an inventory and monitoring dive team from the Caribbean region who is heading to the Dry Tortugas to count some lobsters! Stay tuned for more adventures!



Hello! My name is Griffin Hoins and I am honored to have been selected as the 2023 Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® National Park Service Research Intern!

Me, diving in the Puget Sound.

For almost 50 years OWUSS has been supporting young divers as they discover the diversity of opportunities that exist within the underwater field through scholarships and internships. The NPS research internship is sponsored and supported by the Submerged Resources Center which uses its network of connections with other NPS dive programs to craft an itinerary for one lucky intern to experience diving in the US national parks. I will engage with and learn from dive professionals: researchers, biologists, photographers, public safety divers, and archaeologists across the country. I cannot express how excited I am for my summer. I will be blogging about my experiences, so please follow along to hear about some of our amazing parks, and the work being done by the NPS dive community to preserve and protect our cultural and natural resources.

A little background on me, I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by large trees, tall mountains, and the Pacific Ocean on a small island in Washington state. My childhood was made up of hiking and camping with my mom in Olympic National Park, exploring tidepools, sailing around the San Juan Islands with my grandparents, crabbing and clamming for dinner, and swimming on summer nights in a sea of bioluminescent plankton. At the time I was oblivious to the effect that my environment was having on me. Now looking back, it is clear how my upbringing shaped me and directed me on a path centered on the ocean.

Home on Marrowstone island.

It is the end of winter when I get the news that I have been selected as the NPS intern. I am absolutely elated, and I ride that high through an unusually warm Washington Spring as I prepare to start my adventure in New York City.

I fly from Seattle and get situated by getting a pumpernickel bagel, bacon, egg, and cheese and sitting under the Chrysler building, my favorite building in New York.

My first stop on this intern journey is New York City for the annual OWUSS awards weekend. Every year the society brings together new scholars, interns, alumni, and supporters for a celebration of the previous year’s recipients and their achievements. It is the time to introduce the 2023 cohort, and meet the ocean champions connected to OWUSS. On top of that, the weekend is followed by World Oceans Week where we are invited to attend events and lectures held at the Explorer’s Club as part of the “Blue Generation” an initiative to engage younger people in ocean issues and foster the next generation of stewards for our Blue Planet.

The first event of the weekend is a dinner at The Explorer’s Club. On my way to the hotel to get ready, Shaun Wolfe, one of my OWUSS coordinators, reaches out to meet up in person. With him is Hailey Shchepanik – Shaun was the NPS intern in 2017 and Hailey is the 2022 intern. They welcome me into the family graciously and their enthusiasm gets me hyped for my summer as they swap stories until it’s time to get ready for dinner.

I will be spending most of my time this upcoming week at the Explorer’s Club. The club itself is a mix between a natural history museum and an upper east side 19th-century mansion. Once a home with an impressive art collection, it is now the headquarters of the Explorer’s Club and its many artifacts from historic adventures and expeditions. The club has supported scientific expeditions since 1904 and members have been the first to reach the North Pole, South Pole, climb Mt. Everest, descend into the Mariana Trench, and walk on the moon, to name just some small firsts. You could say I’m very excited to be included in that cadre. There are many famous expedition artifacts, books, and art as well as taxidermized animals lining the club walls but the first item that sticks out to me is Roy Chapman Andrews’s whip from his dinosaur egg expedition to the Gobi Desert. Roy Chapman Andrews was a famous explorer and was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, but before his more famous adventures, he was invited as the naturalist on an expedition to the Alaskan Arctic to collect a Bowhead whale. The expedition ship he sailed on was the Adventuress and she was built in 1913 in East Boothbay, Maine. She is also still sailing to this day, and I’ve been lucky to be a deckhand and marine educator on board the ship in the Salish Sea for the last couple of years!

At the dinner, it is immediately apparent that all of us new scholars and interns have stumbled into something truly remarkable, a society of extraordinary ocean heroes and advocates. You can tell OWUSS has a strong legacy through the voluntary involvement of so many previous scholars and interns who are here to support the scholarship society and its future. I am honored and grateful to join such a community.

The following day I dress up and enjoy the final presentations from the 2022 interns and scholars. It is exciting to listen to everyone’s incredible stories and watch the scholar’s year-end films. Hailey gives a brilliant recap of her time with the NPS, and it is difficult to not get even more excited for the upcoming months.

Congratulations to the 2022 scholars and interns, well done, and to the 2023 scholars and interns I cannot wait to follow along on your upcoming experiences.  

NPS interns: Me, Hailey Shchepanik (2022), Sarah Von Hoene (2021), Shaun Wolfe (2017)
2023 OWUSS Scholars & Interns

The awards weekend wraps up on Sunday and we immediately roll into events for Blue Generation. OWUSS scholars and interns join other young ocean stewards from all over the world with backgrounds ranging from shark research to marine policy.  

We start out the week with a lecture from a UN senior legal officer about ocean governance. We talk about the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Treaty which sets up a procedure for the establishment of large-scale marine protected areas in the high seas. It was adopted by the UN in mid-June and is a big deal because until now, there has never been any international law governing the high seas. Throughout the week we also cover topics like ecotourism, successful grant writing, and the blue economy.

One of my favorite talks of the week is from Sylvia Earle and John Vermilye on the rights of nature and protecting the ocean through criminal law. Sylvia Earle talks about ecocide and changing our habits and ethics so that we prioritize ocean health which is undeniably linked to our own health and survival. Also, shifting the burden of proof so that instead of ocean supporters having to prove that protection is possible, industry supporters must prove that exploitation is environmentally safe, and the ecological impact is acceptable. She shares a powerful short film about deep sea mining, called Deep Trouble, which I highly recommend watching.

Blue Generation with Sylvia Earle

While we are having these positive discussions in the Explorer’s Club, outside New York is experiencing the worst air pollution in recorded history from wildfires in Canada in June. It is hard to wrap my head around how massive and out of control the issues seem to be. There are people out there who want to start tearing up the deep sea and we clearly have enough going on being in the middle of a climate catastrophe. What can I do to make a difference?

I’m privileged to have a choice and I am also here about to embark on an internship that will have me flying across the country, massively increasing my carbon footprint because of the number of flights I will be taking. Is it hypocritical to call myself an environmentalist and then take 15 flights over a few months? I feel conflicted and confused, but I think a good first step is acknowledging that my lifestyle choices have consequences. I will continue to critically reflect and keep searching for how I can best be a power for change.

So many great memories this week with the Blue Generation; wandering the American Museum of Natural History, going on the field trip to ‘Rocking the Boat’ a youth empowerment non-profit organization building wooden boats in the Bronx, and going out in New York for some Salsa dancing. Thank you, Christina Janulis, for organizing the Blue Generation Oceans Week.

We finished off our Blue Generation week by attending the UN for World Oceans Day. That afternoon back at the Explorer’s Club I had a funny interaction. Out on the patio at the Explorer’s Club, Titouan Bernicot waved me over to say hi, and who did he happen to be talking to but Alex Honnold, the climbing icon, who was there to record a podcast. Alex introduced himself and I had to laugh a little. It felt like a wild dream to be hanging out with all sorts of legends this week.

It is a whirlwind of a week and I am sad to be leaving all of the incredible people and new friends as we go off on our separate adventures. I am hopeful for the future knowing they are all out there making a difference as ocean stewards.

I would like to thank OWUSS and the SRC for their support and a massive thank you to Claire Mullaney and Shaun Wolfe as my internship coordinators for starting me off on the right foot. Next stop, Colorado.

Bye-bye, New York.