I would like to write a short thank you to Scott Pawlowski, the museum curator at Pearl Harbor National Memorial. It looked like I wasn’t going to be able to visit Pearl Harbor on my internship, but Scott was kind enough to take two days out of his busy schedule to set me up with some awesome experiences around the memorial. I have visited the park in the past, so it was great to get the insider NPS perspective from Scott who shared his knowledge and passion. The NPS works alongside the US Navy to preserve and interpret the historical site associated with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On my visit, Scott introduced me to a Chief Master Diver John Hopkins with the Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1, the Navy’s premier diving and salvage force. Imagine Navy SEAL caliber divers who are also trained in commercial deep-sea salvage operations. A type of diving that I cannot even begin to imagine. Next, Scott showed me a bit of his world, a behind-the-scenes look at the museum and archival collection. On that day someone donated some potential artifacts from USS Oklahoma which is exciting because not many artifacts exist from that ship. USS Oklahoma was lost at the attack on Pearl Harbor. Every item Scott pulled out, whether a Japanese hat box or a fragment from USS Arizona had a poignant story linked to it and I loved hearing that history.
On my second day, I was able to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, USS Missouri, USS Bowfin, and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. At the end of the day, I joined a tour of Ford Island to also visit the Utah and Oklahoma memorials. Too much to experience and learn about in a lifetime let alone all in one day. Nonetheless, a powerful day of learning and contemplation. Scott, thank you for going out of your way to show me a snapshot of operations at the park. I appreciate the effort and I wish I could have spent more time.
Now, I am leaving Hawaii after almost a month and a half and am on my way to Channel Islands National Park.
I’m back in Kalaupapa! My plan to head to the National Park of American Samoa after Kaloko fell through leaving me with an open schedule for the next week. Kelly Moore and Glauco Puig-Santana were kind enough to invite me back to the peninsula and join them for the yearly Pacific Island Inventory and Monitoring Network stream surveys in the easternmost valley of the park. Waikolu Stream is isolated, extremely beautiful, and relatively untouched. The entire watershed is protected within park boundaries, a critical habitat for some of Hawaii’s unique endemic freshwater species. Since 2009, the network has monitored fish, invertebrates, stream flow, and water quality in Waikolu. In 2021, scientists took this data to the state of Hawaii to prove that too much water was being diverted from the upper valley for agriculture on topside Molokai, resulting in a large section of the stream drying out in the summer. The state eventually approved new instream flow standards to return water back to Waikolu and sustain the stream’s endemic biodiversity. Pretty cool to see data collected by the park inform management and ultimately conservation. I am very excited to join the survey team, do some backcountry camping, and work in a freshwater habitat.
The team is made up of Kelly, Glauco, and two interns Addisen Antonucci and Noah Hunt who fly in from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We were also supposed to be joined by Anne Farahi, the lead aquatic biological technician who usually collects all the freshwater fish data. Unfortunately, she cannot make it, so we will continue with the surveys without any fish data this year. While Glauco organized most of the equipment already for our trip, we spend a day packaging up all the camping gear, food, survey instruments, and personal gear which we put in dry bags and coolers. We load all the gear into a cargo net that will be flown out to our campsite by helicopter.
Our hike out to Waikolu is only a mile along the beach, but it’s all on basalt cobble and boulders that tend to roll no matter how big they are. We are all wearing hard hats because we are walking right under a massive sea cliff that has consistent rockfalls. You can feel the energy of the ocean as it sucks the cobble off the beach with every outgoing wave.
The mouth of Waikolu is framed by tall sea cliffs on either side. We hop across the stream and set up camp in a nice flat spot tucked up against the headland. It is likely a built terrace from early settlers because, of course, native Hawaiians lived in this valley. We will see evidence of rock walls and terraces all the way up the valley. Long before the state was diverting freshwater from this stream, Native Hawaiians were diverting it for their taro patches. This was also the original source of fresh water for people sent to Kalaupapa. The community gets its water from another valley nowadays, but the old, rusted water pipes are still present running along the beach. At first glance, one would assume the valley is untouched but of course, people have been altering this area for as long as they have been here. It is still absolutely breathtaking, and I have to take a second every now and then just to look up and admire our surroundings. We set up camp and make sure to really stake everything down because the wind whips through here.
After we set up camp, we hike a short way up the stream to our first survey site. There are more than 15 sites from the mouth of the stream to about 3 miles up the valley. At each site, we are surveying hihiwai (snails), mapping stream habitat type, estimating substrate size, testing water quality, and measuring the flow of the stream.
We follow an overgrown trail, weaving our way through the jungle foliage, the sun streaming down through the canopy, and the deeply spined green cliffs peaking through. Glauco points out shampoo ginger and the white ginger flowers that we pick and suck on for a bit of nectar. He navigates us to the site with a GPS and then runs a 30m transect tape the length of the stream. The stream is small and gentle, usually only a foot or two deep. A volunteer taro has found a spot to live. I join Kelly to learn how we are going to be surveying the hihiwai. As soon as I dip my masked face underwater, I am taken aback by the number of creatures. The crystal clear, cold water is filled with colorful gobies, hihiwai, and prawns.
Kelly and I get to work ‘snailing’. To conduct these surveys, 10 spots are selected randomly along the entire 30 meters. At each spot, a 1/16m^2 quadrat is placed in the stream and Kelly with her mask and snorkel sticks her head underwater to find all of the hihiwai in the quadrat, pop them off the rocks, and hand them to me. I measure the diameter of the hihiwai with calipers and return them to a spot in the stream where they can reattach before getting swept away by the flow or eaten by a prawn. We measure all adults and count all spat in the quadrat and in an opposing quadrat we count all eggs. The eggs look like little sesame seeds attached to the rock. The hihiwai are endemic to Hawaiian streams and have really beautiful speckled shells.
After learning how to snail with Kelly, I join Addisen to learn how we estimate substrate size or what we call ‘pebbling’. At the beginning, the middle, and the end of the 30 m transect, we run another tape perpendicular across the stream, measure the width of the stream, and then divide to get 20 distinct equally spaced points. At each point, we will reach into the stream and measure the longest diameter of the rock under that point. It can be anything from a 5mm pebble to a 500cm boulder. As we pebble, we also use a densiometer to collect riparian canopy cover.
While snailing and pebbling are going on, Glauco is using a stream tracker to measure water velocity. He is looking for laminar flow to get accurate measurements. At some sites, we are also doing water quality, just like we did on the dive surveys. We have the sonde device that measures pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen, etc. and we also take water samples to be processed for dissolved nutrients later.
Back at camp Glauco makes rice and beans and veggies for dinner and we sit around in our camp chairs and enjoy the sunset. I sleep with my rainfly off because it’s beautiful and I’m hopeful it won’t rain. Well, I end up getting soaked and I scramble to get my rainfly on in the middle of the night when it starts to pour.
I get an exceptional view of the pali when I wake up and unzip my tent. I have coffee and oatmeal and load up for our daily hike up the valley. We bring our wetsuits, snorkel gear, felt-soled neoprene booties, flow-meter instruments, water quality testing gear, pebbling tools, and the three-pong sling if we have extra time to catch some invasive Tahitian prawns.
We follow the trail through the kukui tree grove, past the strawberry guava trees, the ginger fields, and the hao. The first two stream crossings I attempt to keep my feet dry. By the third, I have given up and accept that my shoes and feet will be wet all day.
We come upon a giant mango tree obviously planted from a previous habitation. It’s hard to imagine what this valley used to look like before all the non-native plants moved in. The guava has especially taken over, it’s almost a guava forest monoculture. And there is fruit everywhere, it litters the jungle floor, rotten and fermenting, squishing under our feet. Even the stream is full of it and I watch the prawns nibble on it. I’m not really complaining though because I think I end up eating more than 10 guava a day.
Working on the stream is peaceful. It’s fun putting on a wetsuit in the middle of the jungle and sliding through the pools and riffles. If we complete the sites for the day and have some extra time, I’ll snorkel around and look at the gobies and Glauco will spear prawns. The gobies are called ‘o’opu. Most of the species are endemic and some are extreme climbers, known to climb 420ft waterfalls. I watch them suction from rock to rock and hang out in the rapids.
Back at camp, Kelly and I do a little snorkel out towards the channel between Okala Island and the headland. We startle a turtle napping in a naturally carved bowl in the rock. After another filling and delicious dinner, we do dishes in the stream. I enjoy my evening bath at the mouth of the stream, looking up the valley and at the stars and out at the crashing waves.
We are checking off sites as we move farther up the valley each day. I spend the next few days pebbling with Addisen. We do about 3 sites a day. Next to the trail, we see rock walls and terraces from earlier times. At lunchtime, I gnaw on a block of cheese and eat guava. As we hike through the jungle, I’m nervous when going through the muddy pig wallows because of leptospirosis. I’ve gotten it before on the Napali coast on Kauai and it was absolutely awful.
Today, we are going to our farthest site, above the dam that the state put in, about three miles up the valley. It is exciting that at our highest site above the dams, we are still finding hihiwai. It is crazy to think about the journey these snails have been on to get here. The hihiwai are anadramous. Eggs will hatch in the stream, larvae will wash out into the ocean, and after about a year they will begin their journey back up the stream. Truly remarkable. Also, since there are no invasive Tahitian prawns above the dams, we finally see some of the native shrimp. The sad thing is that it feels like we’ve finally left our jungle paradise. The dam and tunnel infrastructure is unsightly and the people working on it have left trash everywhere. The abundance of fish we found below the dams is not here. On our trip back to camp, Noah and Glauco harvest some taro root and leaves to cook up for dinner. We all knew taro had to be cooked to remove the oxalate crystals but we clearly didn’t cook it long enough because we ate some and we all got tingly throats. The irony of us haoles failing to cook taro properly and paying the price is not lost on me.
I had an incredible week working with this crew to survey the beautiful, fragile Waikolu stream. I loved doing fieldwork that included camping and hiking in the jungle. I hope that the data we collected can be used to continue to protect the endemic species that call this place home. Now, a brief stopover on O’ahu and Pearl Harbor before I head to my final internship destination, Channel Islands National Park.
Thanks one last time to Kelly and Glauco for being the most gracious hosts and allowing me to work with them at Kalaupapa for almost a month! I had a wonderful time and learned so much. Thank you SRC and OWUSS for supporting me on my journey.
On July 19th I began the second half of my journey as the 2023 American Academy of Underwater Science (AAUS) Mitchell Scientific Diving Research Intern for the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS). After departing the Florida Keys I headed back home to switch out my gear and prepare for field work in Central America.
I began by flying from Boston to Miami—I did not expect to be back in Florida so soon. After around three hours of delays due to lighting strikes, I was finally able to board the plane. Once the plane was fully boarded, we were all informed by the pilot that “the plane needs a new lifeboat, and we would not be able to take off until they found one” … what happened to the first lifeboat still remains a mystery.
Finally, I made it to Panama City, Panama where I met up with my team at the hotel.
The next morning, we headed out to a smaller airport near by to catch our passenger plane to the town of Bocas Del Toro. This flight lasted less than an hour, but had some beautiful views of the Panamanian countryside.
Upon departing the plane, we were greeted by a kind man who sang to us as we waited for our bags—I later found out that he has been there since Bobbie started working in Bocas Del Toro back in 2019!
About half of our luggage was coolers that would hold the water samples we collect in the field on our return to the states—apparently customs and airport security were not fans the many large coolers we were taking into a foreign country, but it all worked out. We then loaded all of our suitcases into a taxicab truck—which I would come to learn is the only style of taxi in Bocas Del Toro.
We spent the next five weeks living at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) research station just outside of town.
The station houses many different research teams and even some classes. There were teams researching corals, frogs, and even bats! Living at the station was an incredible experience—even if we were woken up by the resident howler monkeys at 4am.
The station also housed a ton of local wildlife!
The station had a supply of boats that would shuttle us to our coral reef sites, but we did not always need them. All the coral reefs we worked at while in Bocas were very shallow, and quite close to the research station. We often used kayaks or simply swam over to the sites to conduct our field work for the day.
Most days were started by a visit to one of our sites to either conduct a feeding trial (find out more about this in my first blog!), or surveys of the sponge community.
A large focus while we were in Panama was these surveys. We assembled a surveyors grid at each of our sites for ease of analysis. The method is adapted from land surveying techniques. First, we measured the volume of three specific species within the grid which were the same species we used in our sponge feeding trials.
Once we measured the three species, we did a general percent coverage survey. The purpose of this survey was to quantify what organisms make up the reef community at each of our sites.
Did you know that some sponges and anemones can be affected by bleaching events? We also conducted surveys of incidences of bleached or partially bleached sponges and anemones at our sites following a major heat stress event. I had been warned the water would be colder in Panama than in the Florida Keys but we knew something was wrong when the bay behind the research station felt like hot bathwater and not a cool dip in the sea!
There was no shortage of lab work either… especially since the lab was the only place in the station with air conditioning. Lab activities ranged from measuring weight and displacement volume for sponge samples to operating the spectrophotometer for analysis of chlorophyll concentrations within the sponge tissue.
It is surreal that I have reached the end of my internship. The summer flew by so fast—but I guess that can happen when you are underwater for 4+ hours a day. I would like to thank the AAUS and OWUSS for this incredible internship experience and a huge thanks to my host Bobbie Renfro and Florida State University. I also want to thank the entire staff of the Keys Marine Lab and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas Del Toro for hosting us throughout this summer. I look forward to presenting my adventure through the 2023 AAUS Mitchell Scientific Diving Research Internship at the 2024 annual meeting.
On my stopover on Oahu, I meet up with Shaun Wolfe, 2017 OWUSS NPS intern, who graciously hosts me for the night. We paddle up Kahawai Nui, do a little waterfall hike, and volunteer for a Maui fire relief donation center. He sends me off to the Big Island and my next national park destination, Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. I fly into Kona, pick up my rental car, and head to my hostel. I will be meeting the park divers tomorrow morning at the office.
Kaloko-Honokōhau is a cultural and natural park focused on preserving ancient Hawaiian culture. The park protects two fishponds, a fish trap, burial sites, settlement ruins, and the marine nearshore. Nowadays, the park feels like a refuge encircled by development. A relatively small area, it is surrounded on three sides, a resort to the north, an industrial complex to the east, and a busy working harbor to the south. The reason this area is protected is because a group of Hawaiian elders in the 70s recognized the importance of preserving the area and its historic land use, and had a desire to perpetuate native Hawaiian heritage and culture. They approached Congress with a proposal and plan for management, and the park was created.
Currently, the resource management team is working to monitor the nearshore marine environment, restore the ancient fishponds, and re-establish native Hawaiian plants. Another major focus is allowing the native Hawaiian community to reconnect with traditional practices.
I meet Kaile’a Annandale, biological technician (but basically acting marine ecologist since she is running the entire marine program), and Lily Gavagan, a summer dive intern from UH Hilo. I’m jumping right into diving with them, so I get the rundown of what we’re doing as we drive to the park to pick up the boat and Jackson Letchworth, terrestrial biologist and boat driver for the day.
The park is conducting its yearly benthic surveys at sites in park waters to monitor the status of the marine environment. It is important to have robust data to track trends and better inform management of the resources. This is especially important here where they are surrounded by urbanization, and in the past have dealt with pollutants and wastewater entering the nearshore from coastal development. The method for data collection is a bit different from other surveys I have taken part in this summer. Kaile’a uses a really cool technology called photogrammetry, where photos taken of the reef are stitched together to create high-definition, 3-dimensional maps of the survey site. A versatile tool: data collection is precise, fast, and non-invasive. There is a lot less human error. For coral reef monitoring you can overlay years of data to track changes. You can compare the coral growth rate at a site, how a disease has impacted the reef, or how the coral may be recovering. You can get precise quantification of surface area, surface relief, and volume. It can also just be a nice visualization of the reef.
We launch the boat from the Honokōhau Harbor which is full of dive boats and fishing boats, both charters and commercial. At the mouth of the busy harbor, we are greeted by a pod of spinner dolphins. This body of water, dubbed Kona Lake is in the lee of the Big Island, with generally calm conditions so it’s very different than diving at Kalaupapa.
It’s my first dive all summer where there is pretty decent coral coverage. I’m impressed but when I surface and tell Kaile’a, she has a different perspective after diving here for many years. As I talked about in my last blog, there was a coral bleaching event here in 2015 that led to a massive die-off of coral, especially cauliflower coral. The cauliflower coral is highly susceptible to heat stress and bleaching and hasn’t recovered in West Hawai’i. There are healthy-looking Porites species though, and a lot of small and juvenile fish since they have plenty of habitat for hiding.
Just like Kalaupapa, there are rebar pins denoting the start and end of transects. However, these pins are much harder to find in the canopy of coral. We actually take a reem of photos with us underwater to orient ourselves. The photos are of the pins from each cardinal direction. Kaile’a is an expert at finding them, I just get massively turned around. Then it’s a fun puzzle after we finish the site to navigate to the next site underwater with just the bearing and distance from the site we just finished.
When we find the right pins, Lily swims the transect tape out 10 m. She then swims two passes over the transect counting urchin species including wana, collector urchins, and rock-boring urchins that are within a half meter on either side of the tape. In the meantime, Kaile’a and I are laying out the corners of the rectangular survey site, 2 meters from the center. The photogrammetry program will pick up the scales which will orient the 3-D model with known lengths. Kaile’a swims the rectangular site taking many photos of the bottom to get a lot of overlap which is necessary for good resolution. We get two dives in, haul the boat out, rinse it down, and finish the day.
Our next day has no diving but Kaile’a takes us to explore some of the terrestrial aspects of the park. When you look around Kaloko-Honokōhau, you wonder why Native Hawaiians would have settled here. The a’a lava that makes up the landscape is sharp, inhospitable, and seemingly barren. The secret lies in the presence of cool, brackish water pools that form in the lava fields near the ocean called anchialine pools. Anchialine pools are fed by subsurface groundwater and seawater which means they will rise and lower with the tides. Some will disappear entirely if the tide is low enough. These pools provided enough fresh water to support settlement here. Anchialine pools are only really found on the west coast of Hawai‘i Island. There is a small red shrimp endemic to these pools that has a lifespan of 15 years!
Native Hawaiians possessed in-depth knowledge of their natural environment and demonstrated great ingenuity in adapting to this seemingly inhospitable environment rather than trying to dominate it. Hawaiians oriented their land-sea use patterns to the water cycle. Their land divisions, called ahupua’a extended from the mountain to the sea. The regions are all connected. The ahupua’a provided everything the people needed to live off the land; resources from the sea, the lowlands, and the uplands. I think it is a wild coincidence that Kaile’a learned her ancestors are from the Kaloko ahupua’a and here she is in the present day stewarding the same land.
Kaile’a drives us down to the Kaloko Fishpond. Fishponds are a simple yet highly efficient form of fish farming. The two fishponds in the park were once the largest along the Kona coast and Kaloko pond was supposedly a favorite of King Kamehameha I.
To make a fishpond wall, stones are dry-stacked without the use of mortar to enclose the mouth of a small bay. The porous lava rock allows seawater to circulate and freshwater springs trickle in from the land, to create brackish conditions. Ponds were either stocked with juvenile wild-caught fish—such as striped mullet and milkfish, or the fish enter naturally through sluice gates. The gates allowed small fish to pass in and out but trapped those that lingered in the pond and grew too large. Fishponds ensured a dependable food source.
Fishponds fell into disuse as colonization altered life on the islands. Now the park is working to repair the stone wall and rehabilitate the pond in collaboration with a local community group. Today, there is a university class here and we will all be clearing invasive pickleweed. Restoration efforts are underway to once again enable Kaloko fishpond to be managed and used for aquaculture. Although the restoration team has a long-term vision of harvesting fish from the pond and improving food security for the community, the work is also about reconnecting with culture and the land through traditional resource management. Kaile’a points out the freshwater springs all around the fishpond, cold, clear freshwater. It’s nice seeing collaboration between the federal government and indigenous communities to accomplish a shared vision of preserving culture, tradition, and resources.
Unfortunately, around the park, more groundwater is being captured and pumped by development. With the excess extraction of freshwater, anchialine pools and the fishpond are becoming too saline to support the brackish species that depend on them.
Back to diving the next day, I start my day off with a bullet coffee with local Kona beans. Jackson and I talk about how the park decides which plants to focus their restoration efforts on: native plants that were here before Polynesians arrived, or culturally significant plants like taro and breadfruit (ulu) that were brought here by the waves of Polynesians but are non-native. Definitely interesting to think about. We launch the boat in the harbor and head out for my last day of diving with the team. I really want to see Laverne today. She is the resident tiger shark that roams this area and divers and boaters often see her, sometimes even in the boat harbor. Unfortunately, she doesn’t make an appearance, but we catch our stride as a dive team and get 5 sites completed on one tank by navigating between them underwater. I’m definitely the weak link because I don’t think Kaile’a or Lily actually breathe when they’re underwater. A good dive day, I’m happy I could help this team get some more dive surveys in this season.
A short but amazing week here at Kaloko-Honokōhau. It was a pleasure diving with such a solid crew of kind and hard-working individuals. Thank you Kaile’a, Lily, and Jackson for being so great and sharing your park with me! I loved my time at Kaloko and I really look forward to coming back and exploring more of the Big Island someday. Thank you Submerged Resources Center and the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As my internship wraps up, things have been very busy here at REEF. It is crazy how fast this summer flew by but I am happy to say my time with organization is not over, as I have accepted a position as the next Education and Outreach Fellow. By the time you are reading this blog, I will have made an over 3,000 mile drive across the country back to the Keys to start this new role and will be helping prep for the annual Florida Keys Lionfish Derby & Festival!
Through my undergraduate honors thesis, I did extensive research on the marketing strategies for lionfish and the opportunities for different local communities to benefit from lionfish removal, which led to me learning about the lionfish jewelry business, started by women in Belize. At REEF I had the opportunity not only to make my own jewelry, but to lead a workshop for the community teaching them about how the lionfish invasions began, why these species are dangerous for reef ecosystems, and to make their own unique jewelry. Along with REEF programs and classes, each intern is given the time and freedom to work on our own personal project (or for most interns projects) and this workshop was one of mine! It was great to see how excited each of the attendees was when their piece was complete, knowing that they had created something that was sustainable, personal, and educational! In addition to this project, I have been working on a presentation to show college students how to access and use our database for their thesis work, have been working on my fish ID skills and advanced to a Level 3 surveyor in the Tropical Western Atlantic Region, and have been helping collect images of Atlantic Goliath Groupers (Epinephelus itajara) for the Grouper Spotter citizen science project.
My friends and coworkers at REEF, Katie and Alexis, showing off their new jewelry from my workshop!
Of all of the students I got to work with this summer, my favorite was those from Camp Open S.E.A.S. This group is an annual summer camp for adaptive divers who traveled from all over the country to dive in Key Largo and volunteer with many of the marine conservation non-profits in the Upper Keys. As part of our Volunteer Fish Survey Project, I got to teach the students about the characteristics and behaviors of the most common and interesting fish we would see. After that we were each paired with one of the adaptive students that we got to lead on a fish survey dive. Seeing how happy my buddy Eli was when he finally got in the water and we started pointing out fish we had learned in the classroom was one of the highlights of my internship.
Our awesome team with the students and leaders from Camp Open S.E.A.S. Camp leader Rosemary taught everyone basic sign language so we could communicate with the deaf students before I taught them hand signals for the fish we would see during our dives.
Over my summer with REEF I have learned so much about the non-profit and marine conservation fields and have discovered my love for educating others about the ocean. I have had the chance to explore much of the Upper Keys and Miami areas both in and out of the water, and am excited to continue doing so over the next year. I am so grateful for all of my coworkers at REEF and for the support of everyone at OWUSS for making this possible.
On May 13th, I began my journey as the 2023 American Academy of Underwater Science (AAUS) Mitchell Scientific Diving Research Intern for the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) by boarding a flight from New Hampshire to Miami with the final destination of the Keys Marine Lab in Layton, Florida. With only a handful of warm water dives under my belt—warm water to me is anything above 55 degrees Fahrenheit—Florida was definitely foreign territory for me.
I will spend my summer focusing on coral reef sponge ecology research with PhD candidate Bobbie Renfro of Florida State University and her team. Bobbie is studying the effects of nutrient pollution on the sponges that live on coral reefs. Sponges play many super important roles in coral reef ecosystems! Sponges act as a form of glue, holding all the reef together, preventing erosion and helping living corals stay attached to the reef. Without sponges, reefs would not be anywhere near as storm resistant as they are. Sponges also are the habitat for tons of coral reef critters like brittle stars and snapping shrimps. One of the most important roles of sponges on the reef is their ability to filter the water. Sponges are able to create a strong current throughout their canal systems that actively pumps dirty water in and clean water out—acting essentially as a Britta filter.
After I picked up my comically large number of bags, I met Bobbie and her other undergraduate assistant Sydney. We drove from the Miami airport down to Long Key, and I got to take my first look at where I will be staying for the next 8 weeks. I got to move into the “Bay House” which was located off to the side of the Keys Marine Lab Facility looking out over Florida Bay! But my first day was not over yet, we headed down to the dock—sunlight was far gone at this point—to finish a portion of Sydney’s thesis project. The extent of my involvement of this was mainly holding up light so Bobbie and Sydney could see what they were doing in the water below, but I was excited to get started right away.
The day after was my first dive day in the Keys. I was very happy to shed my dry suit and 25-pound weight belt in exchange for a thin dive skin and 8 pounds. The water was almost double the temperature than back home for me! The majority of our dive work took place at one of our four coral reef sites, with half having poor water quality and the other half having good water quality to allow us to make explicit comparison of how nutrient pollution in the poor-quality water affected the sponge communities.
I completed four separate dives on my first day, mainly focusing on collecting samples for future projects. But not every day looked like this. We had a wide variety of projects we could be working on any given day.
The most prominent project was the “Feeding Trials” where we essentially looked at the filtration rates of different sponge species at all four of our sites. These involved two divers in the water setting up incubation chambers. Sponges were placed into these chambers, then we would extract samples at various time increments. The third team member was topside receiving, sorting, and filtering the samples. Each feeding trial involved five sponge individuals and one control. Approximately six feeding trials were conducted at each of our four sites total. This produces a lot of water samples!
We also went on surveying dives where we measured certain sponge species within a permanently marked surveyors’ grid that Bobbie established at each site since 2019 and has surveyed annually since. How did we measure them? A lot of fancy underwater geometry.
Sponge Restoration with I.CARE
Every Wednesday we got to work with our restoration partners at Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education (I.CARE) and Key Dives to train recreational divers on sponge restoration. We head to the Key Dives shop early on Wednesdays where we would setup to give a presentation to recreational divers on everything you need to know about coral reefs and sponges! After the presentation, we gave a demonstration on the specific sponge transplantation techniques we would be using. After the demo, we would take the divers out to one of our restoration sites where they get to transplant sponges to the reef! We monitored the scientific integrity of the restoration work while I.CARE and Key Dives staff monitored the safety of the divers.
The First Coral Reef Sponge Nursery in the Florida Keys!
One of the most ambitious projects we worked on was the assemblage of the first coral reef sponge nursery! We worked with Mote Marine Laboratory to set up this nursery at Mote’s Coral Nursery in Islamorada, Florida. First off, to set up the nursery we needed to collect hundreds of sponge samples to adequately stock it.
The nursery setup took place in one day and involved approximately 15 divers total from Keys dives, ICARE and Mote Marine Lab.
This project had so many moving pieces and seeing it all come together was incredible! I can’t wait to see how much the sponges grow over the next six months – Bobbie will calculate their growth in December and send me an update!
Out of the water and into the lab
After we finished up our dive activities, we head back to the Keys Marine Lab to unload the boat and clean our dive gear. Once the boat is cleared, we head to the lab to start processing our samples. We almost always have a large number of water samples that need to be frozen—this often involves a decent bit of Tetris in the communal lab freezers. Just as the diving activities differ each day, so does the lab work. On feeding trial days, the lab activities often involved weighing and calculating displacement volume of the sponges used for trials. Periodically throughout our time in the keys we took chlorophyll samples. This involved us collecting approximately four liters of water from one of our sites and pushing them through a filter which we would save at the end to analyze its contents. The chlorophyl in the water comes from the photosynthetic plankton and can affect how much light reaches the sponges.
Once we finished lab work, the days not over yet! Once we got back to the Bay house, we often had to start the setup process for our dive projects the next day. The night before each feeding trial we had to collect all the tubes we would need the next day and label them all—we needed about 100 tubes total for one feeding trial. We also needed to make sure all the feeding trial containers, filters, syringes, and everything else was washed with DI water and ready to go. If we have ICARE restoration the next day, we would prep the sponges that were being out planted by attaching them to small pieces of coral rubble.
In total, in my 53 days in the keys I completed 72 scientific dives throughout the upper and middle Florida Keys. But my summer is not over yet! After a brief break, I am headed to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas Del Toro, Panama for the second half of my internship. I look forward to sharing my research adventures from Panama!
Hello everyone and welcome to my internship blog! My name is Carolyn and I am thrilled to have been selected as the 2023 Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® Dr. Jamie L. King Reef Environmental Education Foundation Marine Conservation Intern.
At REEF we like to say that working for a non-profit means you wear “lots of different hats.” Each day looks a little different than the one before- one day I am hunting for lionfish, the next I am teaching a Fish ID at the local visitor’s center and the one after that I am developing a curriculum to make our database more accessible to students. Of all of the experiences I have had at REEF so far, my favorite has been any time I get to interact with the community and share the work we are doing. REEF’s main focus is citizen science, and through the classes I teach, my main goal is to convince the audience that they can be a “scientist” and help contribute to an important database regardless of their background. Seeing the way one of our new surveyor’s face lights up when they are able to take what they learned in the classroom and recognize the species they are seeing is one of the greatest feelings as an educator. A couple of weeks ago I was leading a virtual workshop for a zoo summer camp, similar to one I attended for many years back in elementary school. Being on the presenter’s side of it was truly a full circle moment for me, and I hope that those kids felt as inspired to save the ocean as I did when I was in their shoes.
Below are photos of a few of the many species I have spotted during fish ID surveys! After a recent trip to Blue Heron Bridge, a dive site in West Palm Beach known for its diversity of marine life, my survey sighting lifelist has surpassed 100 species!
With REEF I have also had the opportunity to continue studying invasive lionfish. Over my last 2 years of school I completed both my honors thesis and major capstone research on lionfish in Utila, Honduras, so I often joke about how these fish have taken over my life. Even with the completion of those projects, I wasn’t ready to be done with lionfish quite yet and it has been interesting to compare the education, removal, and marketing strategies in the Keys versus in Honduras. Through the Invasive Species Program I have had the opportunity to lead presentations giving an overview on the lionfish invasion, dissected lionfish to explain their adaptations to students, and even gotten permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to hunt for lionfish in Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs).
My internship city of Key Largo could not be more different than where I started my journey just 2 months ago at the annual OWUSS weekend in New York City. About 48 hours after graduating from college and moving out of my apartment in San Diego, I was on a plane across the country to get started on one of my greatest adventures yet. In three short days in the Big Apple, I was welcomed into the OWUSS community, met some of the most inspirational people in the diving and marine conservation field, was blown away by the presentations from last year’s scholars and interns, and even got to make a side trip to Broadway to see my favorite actor perform! Even after a couple months I am still having a hard time believing I am a part of this organization. From the moment I walked into the Explorers Club I felt like a bit of an imposter- there I was newly graduated from college and surrounded by artifacts from many of history’s greatest explorers. Being in the presence of so much history and of so many members of OWUSS gave me a glimpse of what I would like to accomplish in the future and I cannot wait to return to New York next year to share my internship experience.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.