Category Archives: Current Internships

An Unexpected Return: Coral Reef Monitoring in Virgin Islands National Park

One of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve received during my internship so far is to “maintain a rigid state of flexibility.” The cleverly paradoxical phrase, told to me by Brian Lariviere, serves as a reminder to wholeheartedly embrace a mindset centered around adaptability. It was a particularly useful piece of advice for the last two weeks, as I made an unexpected return to the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). This time, instead of flying to St. Croix, I ventured to St. John — home of Virgin Islands National Park. 

I was immediately intrigued by the USVI when I visited St. Croix for my first internship project — reef surveys for the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP). Nostalgia hit me as soon as I landed, and I found myself reminiscing about my island days on Koh Tao. I missed the slowness of island time. I missed palm trees. That feeling of constantly being sticky from humidity? Surprisingly enough, I missed that, too. The two weeks on St. Croix passed quickly, though, and I didn’t have a chance to explore the other U.S. islands — St. John and St. Thomas. When I left at the end of June, I didn’t know when I would return. Soon, I hoped, but it wasn’t initially in the cards for the remainder of my internship. 

five people on bow of boat in front of sandy beach smiling

The St. Croix NCRMP crew (from left): Jeff Miller, me, Kaya Carrión, Kristen Ewen, and Mike Feeley

The opportunity to return to the cluster of Caribbean islands arose when I was working with the NPS South Florida Caribbean Network (SFCN) crew during a recent project in Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO). Coral biologist Jeff Miller and marine biotechnician Lee Richter mentioned a need for more divers to complete NCRMP surveys around St. John and I was already trained and eager to return to the USVI. It didn’t take long until I was testing my “rigid state of flexibility” by rebooking flights, changing car and Airbnb reservations, and preparing to leave DRTO a little earlier than expected. 

 


 

A few days later, I departed DRTO on the MV Fort Jefferson with the SFCN crew — Jeff, Lee, marine biologist Rob Waara, and intern Brandy Arnette. After the five-hour cruise back to Key West, we quickly shifted into scramble mode. The SFCN crew was trying not to exceed a 10-hour workday, but they’d already lost half of that to the ship journey alone. We still needed to unload gear and transfer it to our two vehicles, pull the SFCN boat out of the water (it had been towed by Fort Jeff), load it onto the trailer, and then drive up to Miami to store the boat. It was going to be a long day no matter what. To make matters more eventful, a torrential thunderstorm rolled through as we were transferring gear from the ship to the cars, leaving all of us soaked to the bone by the time we started the four-hour drive to Miami. I rode along with Lee and Rob in the truck pulling the SFCN boat. Traffic was surprisingly clear up the Keys and we were having a grand ol’ time, rapping to 90s hip hop and reflecting on the last week in DRTO. We were making good time — that is until Rob glanced at the boat trailer in the rearview mirror and announced, “looks like we’ve got a flat.”

Photo of boat on a trailer with two people standing next to it on the side of a road

Lee (left) and Rob (right) assess the damage.

Two men, one bending over and one kneeling, holding and inspecting a damaged car tire on the side of a road

“What could possibly be wrong?”

Up-close photo of a damage car tire.

I associate the word “shredding” with surfing, sensitive documents, and skateboarding — preferably not tires.

Fixing a flat tire on a loaded boat trailer is no joke. Two jacks, both raised to their max, provided barely enough lift to remove the shredded tire and replace it with the spare. Still wet from the rainstorm and now covered in dirt and grease, I think it’s safe to say that all three of us were pretty done with the day at that point. Despite our fatigue, with some coffee, snacks, and more 90s hip hop, we were able to finish the day in relatively good spirits (and without any further mishaps) and make it back to our respective homes for the night.

A day and a half later I found myself staring out a plane window, taking in the views of St. Thomas. Steep, rugged hills ran east to west across the island and colorful houses stood scattered throughout the hillside. The bright orange-red flowers of flamboyant trees provided further contrast against the island’s bright green foliage. Paired with the warm sunshine, turquoise waters, and pervasive humidity, it was a true slice of Caribbean paradise. I spent a bit of time on the island to catch up with friends, but my final destination was six miles across the water on the neighboring island of St. John. 


St. John’s white-sand beaches and warm blue waters caught the public eye in the 1930s, causing the tourist industry to take off on the sleepy paradisial island. By the 1960s, Virgin Islands National Park had been established, encompassing 60% of St. John and nine square miles of offshore waters. Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument protects an additional 20 square miles of open water and coral reefs around the island. Above water and below, Virgin Islands NP is a tropical wonderland, absolutely teeming with natural beauty and cultural history. 

The house I stayed in had a fantastic view of the main harbor in Cruz Bay.

Wonderland turned to wasteland on September 6th, 2017 — the first day of Hurricane Irma’s violent ravage directly through the USVI. For six days, Irma’s raging Category 5 winds and torrential rains ripped roofs from buildings, sunk boats, and washed away roads. After six days of Irma’s destructive spree, St. John’s landscape was not only in ruins, it was denuded of greenery. If a tree miraculously still stood, the leaves had blown away, altering the overall hue of the island from a lush green to a flat brown. Whatever remained was further battered by Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 storm that roared through only a week later. 

The damage was unquantifiable. People, infrastructure, forests, mangroves, coral reefs — everything suffered from the twin hurricanes’ devastating blows. Within the national park alone, 25 NPS facilities were markedly damaged or destroyed, including employee housing. Sections of shoreline around the island were significantly eroded. 90 vessels sunk or washed aground within the park’s waters and the coral reefs were smothered by loose sediment and debris. Additionally, the brute force of the hurricanes dislodged entire coral colonies — some of which weigh hundreds, if not thousands of pounds — and ripped apart corals that were hundreds of years old, killing them overnight. 

The national park’s reefs were in the very early stages of hurricane recovery when Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) was first spotted within park boundaries in 2019. SCTLD is a rapid, lethal waterborne disease known to infect at least 20 scleractinian (i.e. hard) coral species. It’s exactly what you don’t want to show up when a coral reef has only just started to stabilize after a devastating natural disaster. The resulting compounding damage has severely stressed the national park’s reefs over the last few years. 


Monitoring and surveying efforts are essential to understanding how Virgin Islands NP’s valuable reef ecosystems are responding in the wake of such severe stressors. For two weeks, I set out with Jeff, Lee, Natural Resources Manager Thomas Kelley, and Park Dive Officer Devon Tyson to conduct NCRMP surveys around St. John. NCRMP was established in order to collect data on reef composition, fish biodiversity, and coral cover. In the USVI, it’s a collaborative effort between NPS, NOAA, and the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). The data collected from NCRMP provide collaborators with a comprehensive picture of Caribbean reef condition and are used to inform policymakers and researchers. 

Procedurally, the surveys were identical to what I did in St. Croix back in June. Not only that, we were working off of the same boat, Eddie Boy, and it was my third time working with Jeff and Lee. I still had lots to learn about the park and plenty to explore, but it was nice to be familiar with the workflow and some parts of my new environment. Plus, I always learned a lot and had a great time with the SFCN crew. 

Within a few hours of arriving at the park, we were out on the water and back to the NCRMP grind. Like the St. Croix surveys, our assigned sites were randomly selected GPS points based off of benthic maps. There was supposed to be hard bottom (suitable foundation for coral) at each site, but occasionally we’d dive down and see fields of seagrass or barren patches of sand. In that case, we’d head back up, climb onto the boat, and take off to the next site. Those dives aside, we managed to drop onto some super interesting patches of reef. We went all over — from shallow (sometimes too shallow) sites in protected bays to 90 ft. sites on the mid-shelf reef. This was an exciting aspect of NCRMP dives — you never knew what you were going to survey. 

View of ocean with multiple sailboats in the water

A view of the busy St. John marina as we ventured out for the day.

We covered quite a bit of ground (or should I say water?) doing NCRMP surveys. We saw St. John from practically every angle. As we boated from site to site, long-time St. John residents Thomas and Jeff regaled me with facts and stories about the island’s history, the establishment of the park, and some of the ongoing park issues, like removing large pieces of debris and boats that sank during hurricanes Irma and Maria. The conversations were eye-opening but short-lived, because before we knew it, we were at another survey site. We geared up, rolled off the boat (Jeff did an occasional flip), and descended underwater once again. The surveys were fast and intense. I was doing fish assessments, which entailed recording all observed fish species, their quantity, and their sizes. Once I finished recording fish data, I also recorded data about the benthic habitat, like the percentage of coral cover and whether or not any coral disease was present. Since SCTLD hit this area of the USVI a while ago, a lot of coral colonies were in the later stages of the disease or had already been killed. But, long-term monitoring efforts like NCRMP help track further spread of SCTLD and inform researchers about which reef sections around the island are most heavily affected.

Man laying facedown on a boat

Long days on the boat meant finding creative ways to sneak in a power nap. I preferred laying on the pile of warm aluminum tanks at the bow of the boat, but Lee opted for this comfortable (?) spot.

An important balance: filling out data sheets and fulfilling caloric needs.

The weather was splendid for the majority of our dive days, but it was the middle of hurricane season, so a storm here and there was to be expected. One night, I tossed and turned in bed while I listened to the wind howl and rain hammer on the roof as a small tropical storm came through. By the morning, the weather hadn’t totally cleared up, but the team was determined to try to survey a few sites — weather permitting. Jeff and Devon selected survey sites that were relatively close to the marina and we headed out on the choppy waters. We had just arrived at the first site when the rain and winds picked up and surface visibility became a concern. Our best bet was to wait it out for a bit and see if the conditions resolved. We checked the weather radars and snacked until the weather cleared up enough for divers to jump in.

A stormy day on St. John.

During the storm, Jeff (left) and Devon (right) kept an eye on the weather radar while we waited it out on the boat.

NCRMP dive days kept everyone busy. Devon, our boat captain, was always plugging site coordinates into the boat GPS, navigating to the next site, or keeping an eye out for surfacing divers while surveys were underway. For us divers, having a small crew meant that oftentimes all four of us were needed for each dive. If we went to a site that only needed one of the two assessments done (benthic or fish), two people would stay topside and provide support to the divers doing the survey by helping them with their gear and handing them the necessary equipment before they jumped in. A short 20-30 minutes later, the divers would surface and we would boat over to them, help pull their gear onto the boat, and get their take on the site condition and anything interesting they saw. Even if a site was algae-covered and generally non-exciting, Jeff, Lee, and Thomas would jokingly marvel at the end of the dive. “That’s some fantastic pavement down there,” Jeff sarcastically enthused. “Just incredible.” “Pavement” was the term for flat rocky hardbottom, often with a thin layer of sand and sparse coral coverage. Not the most thrilling, but still important to survey!

A brief detour on the boat ride back to the marina — one of the park’s channel marker buoys broke free and washed ashore on one of the beaches. We carefully boated close to shore and Jeff retrieved the stranded buoy.

Thomas (left) and Jeff (right) get the rogue buoy onto the boat.


In addition to monitoring projects such as NCRMP, NPS biologists are hoping to pursue more direct mitigation efforts in order to preserve and rescue select coral species that are threatened and/or highly susceptible to SCTLD. Last year, a proposal was submitted to collect samples of target coral species (ones known to be endangered and susceptible to SCTLD) within five NPS boundaries in the South Florida/Caribbean region. Once collected, the samples would be analyzed for their genotype (i.e. their unique genetic makeup). Having this data would open many doors for coral rescue and conservation efforts and provide insight into which coral species are more or less resilient to disease and other environmental stressors. 

Just last month, samples of pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) were taken from colonies in DRTO to be genotyped and preserved at a Florida museum. Pillar coral is a rare species that is currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. It is quite susceptible to SCTLD and has nearly been wiped out from Florida’s coral reefs. During all of my dives around St. John, I only encountered the species once. I remember Thomas enthusiastically beckoning me over to the small pinkish-tan colony protruding from the reef. Pillar coral is a hard coral, but during the day its polyps extend and sway in the water, giving it a soft and fuzzy appearance (it’s pretty cute if you ask me). I inspected the colony closely and watched the polyp tentacles grasping for tiny critters in the water while Thomas flagged down Jeff and Lee so they could also see the rare species. Once we surfaced from our dive, it was quite the topic of conversation. 

Interestingly, the pillar coral samples taken from DRTO came from a newly discovered colony within the park and could have a unique genetic makeup. An increase in pillar coral genetic diversity may improve the chances of successful restoration efforts in the future. Scientists could facilitate reproduction between colonies with greater disease resiliency and potentially replant samples back onto the reef. In places like Virgin Islands National Park, this type of mitigation may be necessary in order to help the coral reefs survive after such impactful disease and hurricane damage. 


I finished up my two weeks on St. John feeling thankful to have been involved in another round of critically important reef monitoring efforts. On top of that, I was inspired by the resiliency of the Virgin Islands National Park employees and the St. John community. The island has been through some immensely difficult challenges over the last few years, to say the least. Despite that, there’s a communal sense of perseverance that I really respected. 

Thank you to OWUSS, the SRC, and everyone else who helped make my trip the Virgin Islands National Park a success. I definitely couldn’t have pulled it off without the generous help finding accommodation from Lee and Devon. Thank you both! Thomas and Jeff — it was a pleasure diving with and learning from you both. And to all of the Virgin Islands NP staff who welcomed me, thank you for being such kind and supportive hosts. I hope to return soon. Now, it’s time to leave the Caribbean for real and check out the West Coast. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be writing from Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Until next time!

Off to the West Coast!

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Off-the-Grid and Off-the-Wall: Dry Tortugas National Park

“Prison or paradise? It’s up to you.” My eyes return to the blunt words as I peruse an old document titled, “Living/Working in Fort Jefferson”. The anonymously-written precautionary article, dated back to 1988, is pinned to a bulletin board in the galley of the Motor Vessel (MV) Fort Jefferson. However, the article doesn’t refer to living/working on the 110-ft. National Park Service (NPS) transport vessel. Rather, it discusses the realities of accepting an NPS position at Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO), my next internship destination. What am I getting into? I nervously wonder as the ship makes its way across the calm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Not many people get an opportunity to live in a 19th-century brick fort on a subtropical key.” It comes with some trade-offs, though, particularly communication and transportation difficulties.

It’s a wild feeling to stand on top of Fort Jefferson and see ocean as far as the eye can see in all 360 degrees.

DRTO has quite literally been paradise for some, prison for others. There’s no denying its incredible beauty — white sand beaches, picturesque sunsets, and captivating underwater features. The 100 square mile park, located 70 miles west off Key West, FL, is primarily underwater — seven small islands are scattered throughout the park, collectively adding up to only 143 acres (less than a quarter of a square mile). The other 99.75 square miles are open ocean and vibrant coral reefs. The park’s remoteness alone is confining, nevermind the diminutive acreage of land one can roam. However, the park’s minute size hasn’t prevented it from garnering a rich history and cultural significance. The second-largest island, Garden Key, is home to Fort Jefferson (yes, the same name is that ship that services the park) — a hexagonal fort built out of 16 million red bricks, making it the largest all-masonry structure in the United States. The fort was originally built in the mid-1800s as a harbor and outpost for ships passing through the Gulf of Florida and Straits of Mexico. During the Civil War, it served as a tool to blockade Southern shipping and detain over 2,500 prisoners.

A 300-pound rifled Parrott cannon sits atop Fort Jefferson. Rather than firing rounded cannonballs, rifled cannons shot pointed projectiles with much better accuracy.

In the lower left corner you can see the distinct grooved skeleton of a coral. When the fort was initially built, sand and coral were mixed into concrete and used as building material.

The fort was abandoned by the Army in 1875 and designated by President Roosevelt as Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935. After an expansion in the 1980s, Congress officially redesignated the area as Dry Tortugas National Park.

The only way — one bridge crosses the fort’s moat (previously inhabited by a crocodile!).

The sun illuminates the archways of the fort.

Fort Jefferson is quite a masonry feat.

Nowadays, DRTO is known for its dazzling coral reefs, rich bird activity, and submerged historic shipwrecks. Until recently, the park was also the only remaining section of Florida’s coral reef system free from Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) — a water-borne, highly lethal infectious disease known to affect over 20 species of hard corals (I discuss the disease more in this blog post). Unfortunately, crisis arose in May 2021. During a routine survey, NPS divers observed the telltale white lesions indicative of SCTLD on 11 coral colonies within the park. DRTO responded quickly, forming a Coral Response Team of biologists to focus solely on coral monitoring and disease treatment. This week, I’m planning to assist the team as they work to slow the spread of the disease. 

A shallow seagrass field alongside the fort.

— 

With little to no internet access, cell service, and stores on DRTO, the logistical preparations involved in staying there are complex. Brett Seymour and Jim Nimz, both from the Submerged Resources Center (SRC), are joining me on this week’s trip. Together, we spend two days in Key West ironing out logistics and gathering the last supplies needed before we leave. The most time-consuming errand by far is the trip to the Publix grocery store. We need to buy everything we want to eat for the next two weeks. For someone like me — a snack-a-holic with a high metabolism who is practically incapable of resisting food-related cravings — this is anxiety-inducing. Brett’s wife, Elizabeth, has kindly organized meal-prepped dinners for us to bring, which reduces some of the grocery shopping pressure. I do my best to cover all the remaining bases — chips, chocolate, candy, coffee, soda, and sandwich fixings. Oh, and some apples and lettuce, too. Fruits and vegetables are important.

We trailered the SRC’s boat, Cal Cummings, from Biscayne National Park down to Key West.

A small portion of our food haul prior to heading to Dry Tortugas. There were many, many more carts.

Sunset in Key West — taken from my hotel room as I finished packing and using the internet while I had it.

The next morning, we convene at the Naval Air Station where MV Fort Jefferson is docked. The last few cases of gear and food are packed onto the ship by Captain Tim and Brian Lariviere, the ship’s boat engineer. I’m particularly excited to see some familiar faces when we arrive at the dock — Jeff Miller and Lee Richter from the South Florida/Caribbean Network (SFCN) are here! Jeff, Lee, and I worked together during my first internship project in St. Croix, USVI. We catch up with each other and I meet their co-workers, marine biologist Rob Waara and intern Brandy Arnette. The SFCN crew will be conducting benthic reef surveys and staying on Loggerhead Key, the largest island in the park. There are only two houses on the 49-acre island, both of which run solely off of solar power. The only other structures on the island are the Loggerhead Lighthouse and a small boathouse that’s literally split in half (i.e. unquestionably uninhabitable). It is the true epitome of a remote subtropical island paradise — or prison, if that’s not your thing. 

From left to right: Lee, Cameron, Elizabeth, and Chase prepare a game of Settlers of Catan in the galley of the MV Fort Jeff. I wish I could say I won, but Lee crushed us all.

Five hours go by on the ship. After a game of Settlers of Catan and a valiant attempt to catch up on blog writing (followed by a much-needed nap), I get restless. I’m pacing and glancing out the windows when a low-lying, dark stretch of land slowly appears on the horizon. The closer we get, the more I’m able to make out the features of the fort — the iconic red bricks, two-tiered casemates on all six walls, cannons lining the top, and a surrounding moat (currently dysfunctional due to Hurricane Irma damage). In short, it is like nothing I have ever seen before. During the first half an hour of unloading gear and touring the living quarters, I get a familiar feeling — the simultaneous rush of excitement, confusion, curiosity, and anxiety. Culture shock at its finest. I wouldn’t have ever expected to get such a feeling from visiting a national park, but DRTO is truly a park unlike any other. Within 30 minutes, the overwhelm settles and I unpack in my temporary home, a renovated apartment on the second floor of the fort. 

That tiny strip of black on the horizon? Welcome to Dry Tortugas National Park!

I thought my three boxes of food was a lot, but not compared to how much food is required to feed Brett’s family of four with two teenage boys!

As soon as I finish unpacking, I hear a knock on the door. “If you’re free, could you take some photos for us?” Lead park ranger Curtis Hall explains that he’s helping with Coral Camp, a youth program for aspiring marine scientists. He would love some photos of the camp experience and has heard through the grapevine that I’ve come with a decent camera setup. I’m stoked at the chance to explore, so I grab my camera bag and meet the group at the dock to head over to Loggerhead Key. I spend the next few hours photographing the campers as they learn how to track turtles and identify nests on the beach, snorkel the reefs, and explore the island. It’s my first time using the SRC’s underwater camera rig, and while I’m happy with my topside shots, the underwater shots are whacky. Instead of filling out the entire frame, the photos are small and circular. I can’t figure out what the cause of the peculiar framing is, but I try to work around it. When I get back to Garden Key in the evening and mention the issue to Brett, he quickly identifies the problem. Of the two lenses I have for the Nikon D800, I used the shorter of the two, which isn’t long enough to fill out the underwater camera housing. A rookie mistake, but I’m learning. I’m thankful to have Brett around as I get comfortable with the new camera.

The Loggerhead Lighthouse was built in 1858 to aid vessels navigating through the shallow waters around Loggerhead Key and Garden Key.

 

Sometimes the best way to learn is to just be thrown in. Curtis was eager to get a photo of the entire Coral Camp group underwater, but with a new-to-me camera setup and novice photography skills, it was much harder than I anticipated. Determined to produce a decent final product, I compromised and had half of the group sit on the wall of the fort’s moat. While I didn’t get any spectacular shots, it was a useful chance to improve my split shot skills.

 

 

 

 

Loggerhead Key: An isolated island paradise.

This is what happens when you don’t use the right lens in your underwater camera housing!

— 

What I’m really looking forward to is diving with the coral response team, but I learn upon arrival that I won’t be able to for at least a few days. Due to the combination of Covid-related housing rules and a recently damaged bathroom in one of the apartments, there’s a housing shortage on DRTO. Most of the biotechs are staying in Key West until there’s available park housing. Since the coral response team isn’t diving and I’m itching to get in the water, I convince the SFCN crew to let me join them on their survey dives for the next couple of days. Dad jokes and one-liners quickly recommence once I’m back on the boat with Jeff and Lee. Paired with Rob’s entertaining DJ skills and Brandy’s easygoing sense of humor, it’s a fun time on the water with this group. Plus, they have snacks galore on the boat. Cheese balls and cheesy jokes?! The SFCN crew knows how to speak my language. 

Rob Waara dances and wears shirts inside out like no one is watching.

This is what I get for accidentally leaving my rash guard on SFCN’s boat… I didn’t believe it when Jeff told me he got it on (apparently it took three people). Can’t argue with that photographic proof, though!

As mentioned earlier, SFCN is completing benthic surveys of the DRTO reefs. They’ve been monitoring and surveying these reefs for decades, so there’s a well-established protocol in place. The surveying process involves two teams — a setup team to prepare each site and a survey team to collect and record data. I’m jumping in with the setup team, Lee and Brandy. Our tasks are seemingly straightforward: descend on a site, find the site’s metal transect pins that are nailed into the benthic substrate, and run transect tapes from one pin to another. Once we’ve laid out all of the transects, Jeff and Rob will conduct the surveys and record data. 

Brandy and Lee finish running transect tapes across a survey site.

Finding the pins is the real challenge. We have laminated photographs with notes about each site, including the distances between pins and the compass bearings from the origin pin (placed in the center of the site) to the others. Sometimes the photographs include a distinct feature that leads us straight to the pin. Other times, the photos aren’t so helpful and we spend minutes swimming back and forth over the reef until someone waves or yells (Lee’s rebreather hoses channel sound quite effectively, so it’s easy to hear when he’s found a pin). Once we spot the pins, we roll out the transect tapes. At some sites, Lee replaces old Hobo data loggers — small submersible devices that collect water temperature data. From this data, researchers can assess the frequency of water temperature trends, particularly warm and cold water events suspected to cause stress to coral reef ecosystems. We make fairly quick work of the sites, although a lightning storm rolls through, forcing us to quickly head back to Loggerhead and hide out while it passes. All in a day’s work here at DRTO! 

The DRTO reefs are some of the healthier aggregate reefs I’ve seen in a while.

Lee uses photos and notes to determine which direction will lead him to the next transect pin.

After finishing our survey sites for the day, Jeff takes us on another dive to see something special: this massive Orbicella colony.

Jeff measures the diameter of the Orbicella colony. After consulting with another coral expert, he tells me that this colony is at least 200 years old. “This is what we need to protect,” he emphasizes.

Jeff and Brandy inspect the Orbicella colony.

Jeff points to a SCTLD lesion on a much smaller coral right next to the huge Orbicella colony. This will become a high-priority site for the coral response team. If they can treat the lesions, they may be able to prevent further spread of the disease onto any neighboring corals.

The SFCN crew drops me off at Garden Key at the end of the day and I eat dinner with Brett, his family, and Jim. While I’ve been diving with the SFCN crew the last couple of days, Brett and Jim have stayed busy surveying the DRTO reefs the “techy” way: with a high-resolution underwater camera system called the Sea Array. The large contraption consists of three cameras, a propulsion system, control panel, and sub-sea GPS navigation system. Essentially, the Sea Array uses photogrammetry technology to merge tens of thousands of digital images into a 3D visualization of underwater resources, like shipwrecks or coral reefs (if you’re interested in learning more about how the Sea Array, I encourage you to check out this engaging storymap). I’m eager to see the Sea Array in action and to continue working on underwater photography, so I ask to join Brett and Jim on the SRC’s boat, Cal Cummings, for a day. They agree, but they warn me that I’ll only be able to dive for about 45 minutes. Once the Sea Array is calibrated and ready to go, Brett and Jim use diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs) to cruise over the reef and complete their surveys. I’m a decent swimmer, but there’s no way I can keep up with them once the DPVs are turned on. On top of that, they use closed-circuit rebreathers, which allow them to dive for hours at a time — much longer than I could dive on my open-circuit system. 

Brett Seymour operates the Sea Array.

Nevertheless, I meet them the next morning and we boat out to one of the reef sites that still needs to be mapped. Brian, the MV Fort Jeff’s boat engineer, is captaining for us. He’s an expert boatman — he can fix an engine in a pinch, and his boats are as organized as a Michelin star chef’s kitchen. “Everything has a place,” he reminds me as he neatly tucks my scuba gear into a corner — a much better spot than the middle of the boat deck. Mise en place – everything in its place — is especially important on the boat today, seeing as the Sea Array alone takes up a third of the boat deck. Along with it are three large buoys that we place on the outskirts of the survey site. The buoys use GPS to track the Sea Array while underwater and relay location information to the Sea Array operator and the boat. We drop the buoys, carefully lower the Sea Array into the water, and make our way to a sandy patch on the seafloor where Jim and Brett set up. I start snapping away on the camera, and once the Sea Array is ready to go, Brett cruises over the reef a few times so I can take more photos. I’m trying to be better about taking lots of photos during these moments. “If there’s space on the SD card, why not use it?” Multiple photographers have reiterated this to me. It feels indulgent to hold the shutter button down and hear the click, click, click continue on, but you never know what exact moment will give you “the shot”. 

It’s difficult to convey just how large the Sea Array is.

Brett and Jim prepare the Sea Array for a reef survey. It’s not a quick task by any means — one site survey can take between three and four hours.

As the Sea Array cruises over this coral reef, it is capturing tens of thousands of images of the sea floor, which are compiled to create a highly detailed 3D map of the reef in its current state.

— 

On my last day, the coral response team makes it back to the park, and they’re ready to dive. I’m bummed to be leaving right after they arrive, but one day is still plenty of time to treat some corals. I’m spending the day with Karli Hollister, Rachel Johns, and Clayton Pollock. They have a priority list of sites that need SCTLD treatment. Tackling the disease is difficult due to its rapidly spreading nature, but by isolating diseased colonies there is a chance to halt disease progression. To do so, we use a mix of amoxicillin and Coral Cure Base2b, a specialized paste designed to adhere to coral. Rachel, a coral biologist and lead of the coral response team, shows me how to mix the paste and explains the application procedure. The Base2b paste adheres to coral skeletons, not living tissue. For it to adhere effectively, it must be applied directly to the lesion lines where the disease has already killed the coral’s tissue. Then, the amoxicillin antibiotic is slowly released into the coral.

An up-close shot of the antibiotic paste used to treat SCTLD. The white section is skeleton, but the top portion of the coral is still alive and could potentially be saved.

Karli Hollister (left) and Rachel Johns (right) work together to treat the lesions of a coral infected with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.

The antibiotic paste must be worked into the lesion line where the already killed coral and healthy coral meet. When applied well, the paste can isolate the diseased portion from the healthy bit.

Karli Hollister treats an infected coral.

—-

By the end of my stay in DRTO, I’ve had the lucky opportunity to work with not one, but three different dive teams while in the park. Individually, each team has their own focus — from novel and large-scale photogrammetry efforts, to continued long-term reef surveying and monitoring, to targeted coral intervention and disease treatment. Collectively, however, each project shares the same overarching goal: to understand, preserve, and protect the valuable and unique underwater gardens of Dry Tortugas National Park.

In the 1850s, a ship filled with barrels of powder cement sank off of Loggerhead Key. As the wooden barrels degraded, the cement was activated by the water exposure and set in place underwater. You can snorkel and see dozens of these cement “barrels” in rows, the same formation they were on the ship.

A lush thicket of Acropora prolifera totally blew me away during my DRTO snorkeling adventures. So healthy, and so much of it!

Whether you’re diving deep or snorkeling in the shallows of DRTO, there is always something interesting to see.

Dry Tortugas isn’t the easiest place to live, but everyone (and everything!) there seems to find a way to be resourceful and thrive.

If I wrote about all the memorable moments I’ve had in Dry Tortugas, this post would easily become twice as long. So many people helped to make this an unforgettable experience. As always, a huge thank you to OWUSS and the SRC for making this trip possible. To the entire staff at DRTO — your dedication and passion are positively infectious. Thank you for making me feel welcome and sharing your work, stories, and time with me. I hope to see you all again one day! SFCN crew — thanks for the laughs, the snacks, and for making me feel like a part of your team once again. Always an honor to be on a boat with you fine folks. And to Brett, Elizabeth, and Jim — thank you for being exceedingly willing to feed me, help me, and go out of your way to maximize my opportunities during my internship. It has been a privilege to spend the last 10 days in such an incredible place with such wonderful people. 

 

My last Dry Tortugas sunset — for now!

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Learning a New Craft and Experiencing the Keys: Week Two in Biscayne National Park 

The national parks have always captivated me. How could they not? The inspirational views, the wildness, the vastness they never fail to mesmerize. Beyond their charismatic looks, the parks represent something special to the American people and the rest of the world. Their establishment and continued protection stem from the embodiment of an idea the idea that our country, especially its natural, historical, and cultural resources, belongs to each and every one of us. The national parks and monuments exist because American citizens before us believed in the unlimited value of natural places and were committed to preserving them “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” (National Park Service, 2021). 

To fulfill the mission of the National Park Service (NPS) requires an incomprehensible amount of organization, communication, collaboration, and plain ol’ get-your-hands-dirty work. As necessary as it is for me to shed light on the underwater research being conducted throughout the parks, I believe it’s equally important to acknowledge the countless individuals who serve as stewards for the NPS, working day in and day out to care for the resources on NPS lands and educate others about their significance. For every day of my internship, I’ve been lucky to work with NPS employees and collaborators who carry this responsibility with grace, assiduity, and enthusiasm. They are driven beyond belief and true motivators. As I start another week of my internship, my motivation and enthusiasm for serving the greater mission of the NPS only grow. 

— 

Now that the women’s Wounded Veterans In Parks (WVIP) project has ended, I’m heading back to Homestead, FL with Annie and Susanna. We’re continuing work in Biscayne National Park, but this week Annie and Susanna will shift back to SRC archeological projects, and I’ll jump in with the park’s natural resources team. After a fairly easy drive, free from too much Florida Keys traffic, we arrive at our Airbnb. The rest of the SRC team is here, and two archeologists from the NPS’s Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC). I’m eager to spend a week with this crew, as I’ve only talked to most of the SRC folks in passing at the Denver office. 

To everyone’s delight, the next day is a day off for the entire team. I’m certainly looking forward to buckling down with my laptop and getting caught up on a long list of logistical and administrative to-do’s. Before I get too sucked into my list, Brett offers to talk through his preferred workflow for importing, organizing, and editing photos in Adobe Lightroom (Adobe’s complex photo editing program). I’ve been hoping for this! I quickly accept. Lightroom overwhelms me, and the idea of weeding through 400 photos from last week’s WVIP project seems especially daunting (turns out, 400 photos are nothing for a weeklong project). 

Brett and I sit at the computer desk with my SD card from last week’s project and jump into the nitty-gritty. Susanna sneaks in as well and joins the conversation. In the span of three hours, the SRC photography power duo gives me a comprehensive lesson on how to organize photo libraries, edit images, and most importantly, how to tell stories in an underwater environment. Brett points out certain things about the composition, framing, and lighting of my photos that could turn an okay shot into an eye-catching, compelling image. I try to play it cool as he and Susanna compliment some of my photos in the mix. Knowing what they’re capable of as photographers, it means a lot to hear their words of encouragement. In the end, Susanna suggests that they ship out a complete rig from the Denver office for me to use a Nikon D800 with Aquatica housing and Ikelite strobes. I’m elated! They’re trusting me with a very expensive setup, and I’ll be able to take it to all of my upcoming destinations. 

Underwater housing for camera on desk

The Nikon D800 underwater setup. It’s a beast!

It’s an overwhelming experience, one I can’t really believe I’m living even as it’s happening. At the beginning of this internship, I expected writing to be my primary form of communicating underwater science to blog readers, friends, and family. Now, I’m learning an entirely new way to communicate science and ongoing research efforts. Little by little, Adobe Lightroom starts to seem more like a playground than a corn maze (albeit still confusing), and I find myself imagining shots that I hope to capture one day. 

After the day off, it’s back to early morning starts and busy dive days. The entire crew empties out of the house and carpools to Biscayne NP. Verdant palm fields and stagnant canals stretch alongside the flat, stick-straight road as we drive into the park. The land-based section of Biscayne is fairly small, so I quickly run into the natural resources team. For the next two days, I’ll be assisting Morgan Wagner and Jade Reinhart with Reef Visual Census (RVC) surveys (the same type of surveys I did in St. Croix). Morgan is a biological science technician and Jade is a University of Miami student working as a park research assistant. We get to know each other as we load up the boat, a 27-ft. Boston Whaler, with an assortment of gear: a lionfish canister and spears (just in case we encounter the invasive species on our dives), marine debris bags, clipboards and datasheets, and a camera to take photos at each survey site. 

Woman in boat writing

Morgan preps datasheets on the way to a survey site

A brief refresher on the RVC surveys: these surveys provide information on fish biodiversity, coral coverage, and reef distribution. We’ll be focusing solely on fish assessments this week, which includes recording all of the fish species we observe at a given site, along with their sizes and total abundance. After we load the boat, Morgan, Jade, and I don our personal flotation devices (PFDs) and headphones and jet to our first site. It’s a humid, sunny day, and I nearly give myself whiplash looking around at all of the different keys and mangroves scattered throughout the water. Morgan points out Adams Key, which used to be home to the old Cocolobo Club, a destination for a handful of presidents and many of the rich and politically connected. She continues the history lesson along the way. “That rock over there? Pirates used to tie their sails down behind it, which tilted the boat so others couldn’t see it. Then they’d jump out and ambush other boaters.” Thankfully, we make it to our sites pirate-free. 

Selfie of woman in sunglasses and hat

Necessary gear for being out on the water all day: Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a PFD. The headphones are a nice way to muffle the wind and engine noise while we’re in transit.

Not every site is exciting. Sometimes they’re dominated by seagrass, or they’re mostly sandbeds with a few lonely corals and rocks. But, occasionally there’s a surprise. We drop down on the third site for the day and I kneel in the sand, recording a few small gobies and damselfish I see in front of me. Then, there’s a sudden movement in the corner of my eye. I glance up, only to be nearly smacked in the face by the caudal fin of a lemon shark! The shark swiftly disappears into the distance, and I’m left wide-eyed and laughing at the scare. It’s a fun element of being underwater. You never know what might emerge from the blue!

Women on bow of boat lifting rope

Jade fixes the boat’s anchor line with a new knot.

Storms move in during the afternoon, so we find ourselves dodging lightning and storm clouds as we make our way back to the park. Once we return, another surprise! While we were out doing RVC surveys, the SRC and SEAC crews were on their own boats, one of which is for anomaly jumping. High-resolution magnetic surveys are conducted throughout the park’s waters to identify anomalies areas with the presence of iron on the seafloor. The magnetometers used to conduct the surveys are incapable of discerning derelict traps or other garbage from potentially historical submerged shipwrecks, though. Therefore, the SRC archeologists dive at each anomaly site to determine whether it’s an area of historical significance or not. Most of the time it’s just a piece of garbage, but we find out once we dock our boat that the crew came across an airplane wreck today! Everyone is in great spirits as we unload the boats, rinse gear, and call it a day. 

Morgan, Jade, and I have another successful day of RVC surveys, and the following day I am placed with another crew of park biotechs and interns. Gabrielle Cabral, Zoe Dallaert, Cate Gelston, and John Ricisak, a collaborator from the Miami Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, are heading out to collect illegal lobster, spider crab, and stone crab traps in Biscayne Bay. There are seasons for trapping each of these crustaceans, but at this time of year, the remaining traps in the water are illegal. To find them, we scout from the boat and search the water’s surface for floating buoys. Once we spot one, we drive over and use a long hook to grab the buoy line and pull the trap out of the water. These traps are heavy around 50 pounds so it’s easier when two of us grab the slimy, algae-covered rope and hoist each trap up together. After pulling up the trap, we open it up and free any creatures who have been stuck, careful not to grab them in order to keep our fingers intact. John tells us that stone crabs can easily cut off a finger with their large claw.

Boat with two people on it and ocean

Gabby and Zoe prepare to hook the buoy line of a derelict lobster/crab trap.

Pulling up a trap. We’ve already collected quite a few by mid-morning!

“What’s in this one?”

Lobsters and crabs wait to be freed back into Biscayne Bay

It’s a messy business, and we’re all quickly coated in green algae and murky brown slime from handling the traps. Regardless, it’s fulfilling work, and by the mid-afternoon there are towering piles of traps on the boat, making it nearly impossible to get to the bow. Offloading the boat takes a while with so many traps, and we then have to load them up into an NPS truck so they can be taken to the dump. The park just got a beautiful new truck, and the bed is literally spotless. Not for long, though! We manage to barely fit all of the traps from the day into the bed of the truck, and then spend quite a while rinsing down the truck to return it to its new, shiny condition. Park service equipment is put through a lot, but everyone tries their best to take good care of what they use.

All in all, this week is an exciting way to experience more of the Florida Keys, continue to explore Biscayne NP, and get to know the SRC crew. Although my fieldwork is separate from theirs, living together offers a unique opportunity to talk to everyone and to learn more about their jobs as underwater archeologists. Not only that, but I get to observe how their field crew operates together, something that I find particularly interesting as I jump into multiple crews throughout the park system. With field crews, everything suddenly becomes very close-knit, from conversations to physical spaces. In our case, the Airbnb is simultaneously operating as a gear locker, office space, and living space. The coffee table is covered in books about disappeared wrecks and reports of underwater historical and cultural resources. Gear bags and pelican cases take up an entire corner of the living room, and there are dive booties and miscellaneous gear drying on the patio furniture in the backyard. “Work” is always around, but people find ways to sit back at the end of the day and relax. AJ strums his guitar in the evenings on the back patio. David and I get wrapped up in conversations over coffee about travel, life, and his boisterous kids. In the evenings, Matt and Dave watch TV, switching between The Office and various movies. We go out for dinner a few nights, too, grabbing barbecue from a local joint in town and going out on another evening to celebrate Matt’s birthday. As eager as I am to head to my next destination, Dry Tortugas National Park, I’m going to miss hanging out with the SRC crew. 

To everyone who made my week a success, thank you. Morgan, Jade, Gabrielle, Zoe, and Cate thanks for letting me come along and showing me the Biscayne experience. You are all rockstars! A massive thank you to the entire SRC crew for truly making me feel like part of the team and for supporting my ambitions and hopes for this internship. Brett and Susanna, I cannot thank you enough for teaching me, encouraging me, and most of all, entrusting me with an SRC camera rig. I’m determined to break into the world of underwater photography now, and I couldn’t do it without the support from OWUSS and the SRC. I hope that I can hone my skills in the coming weeks and use them to share the beauty of the national parks and the scientific research and work being done within them. 

 

References:

  1. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior. (June 2021). What We Do (U.S. National Park Service).  https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/index.htm#:~:text=Follow%20Us-,Our%20Mission,of%20this%20and%20future%20generations.
     
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One fish, two fish…175 fish?!

Along with tracking individual stoplight parrotfish, Sparisoma viride, our team has been busy conducting behavioral observations and getting GPS tracks of four other species of parrotfish for a total of 175 fish follows! It has been interesting to see how these species’ behaviors differ. While striped parrotfish (Scarus iseri) pay little attention to other males and do not defend their space on the reef regularly, other species, like the redband parrotfish (Sparisoma aurofrenatum), interact with conspecific males by flaring their dorsal fins as if to say, “this is my area, stay out!”

The redband parrotfish, Sparisoma aurofrenatum, will flash its fins at intruders instead of chasing them away like other parrotfishes.

One of Josh’s goals for the summer is to get a better idea about how terminal phase stoplight parrotfish interact with other conspecific males to defend their territory on the reef. During multiple dives, Josh and I followed male stoplight parrotfish and categorize the type and the duration of interactions with both terminal and initial phase fish. While males regularly chase smaller “floater” males (i.e., fish that do not possess a territory) out of their territory, it appears that males of similar size that share territory boundaries interact less often and less aggressively. . This “dear enemy” effect has been observed in several other species, but never documented in parrotfishes! Males will often interact with females in their territories. These interactions are usually brief and appear to be over feeding spots. However, on occasion we would see males chase females completely out of their territories, suggesting that maybe these females were not part of their harem.

Collecting “dear enemy” data on parrotfishes
Photo Credit: Joshua Manning

In his previous work, Josh found that males of some species partition reef space into non-overlapping territories but share space with other parrotfish species. As part of Josh’s dissertation work, we wanted to observe how fishes interact within shared spaces. During days we were not diving, our team donned snorkel gear and headed to Invisibles and Aquarius to simultaneously track parrotfishes. During these tracks, I would follow a male stoplight parrotfish around the reef site while Josh followed a male queen parrotfish. For most of the follows, our fish generally did not interact much, often swimming by without paying any mind to the other. Occasionally, however, the two fishes would swim toward the same patch of the reef to graze. It was a moment of excitement for us on the surface – sometimes we would be so focused on following the fish and seeing which species got to graze at the coveted lunch spot that we would forget about the other person on the surface!

A terminal phase queen parrotfish, Scarus vetula, after briefly grazing on the benthic substrate continues swimming to find its next snack!

Josh hopes that these data will help us to better understand the drivers behind territory maintenance and space use in parrotfishes, which may have implications for the makeup of the underlying benthic community. This in turn could provide important insights into coral reef management to restore and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

The team is all smiles after wrapping up a great field season!

This summer has been packed full of field work both above and below the surface and I was able to learn a lot about the role of parrotfishes on coral reef ecosystems! I am so grateful that I was able to experience Bonaire for the first time with this amazing group of researchers. Thank you to Our World Underwater Scholarship Society and the American Academy of Underwater Sciences for providing me with the opportunity to be the 2021 Mitchell Internship, and to Josh Manning and the members of the McCoy lab at Florida State University for being such great hosts!

 

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All Women, All Week: Marine Debris Removal in Biscayne National Park

two scuba divers looking at a derelict lobster trap underwater Biscayne National Park is a coastal haven of mangrove forests, coral reefs, and historical submerged shipwrecks. The 173,000-acre park in South Florida is 95% underwater, so marine debris removal is a priority for Biscayne’s natural resources team. This week’s project objective is to remove as much marine debris from the park as possible. The term “marine debris” encompasses a plethora of objects that are discarded in the ocean. Soda cans, car tires, monofilament fishing line, toilets (yes, toilets), nets, plastic bags, you name it. They’re tossed into the sea and can cause significant damage to coral reefs and marine life. Many of these items take decades, or even centuries, to degrade. When these harmful objects are left in marine ecosystems, they accumulate and pollute the ocean more and more each year.

This week’s project is extremely unique, and I can’t wait to get started. For one, the team consists entirely of women. Not only that, but five of the team members are military veterans from the Wounded American Veterans Experience Scuba (WAVES) program. The non-profit is a partner organization to the NPS Wounded Veterans In Parks (WVIP) program, which provides opportunities for veterans to volunteer with parks or programs like the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) and work alongside NPS divers on specific resource or maintenance projects. In addition to supporting the mission of the NPS, scuba diving offers countless therapeutic benefits due to the properties of an aquatic environment 一 the feeling of weightlessness, limited audio input, and less force of gravity. For military veterans, the freeing and relaxing nature of diving can further facilitate recovery from a number of service-induced injuries, from amputation to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I’m excited to participate in such a unique experience for the veterans, and I’m particularly thrilled that we’re working as an all-female team. Personally, I’ve never done anything scuba-related with a fully female group. Most of my scuba instructors were men, and in my experience, men far outnumber women in the professional diving industry. Similarly, female representation in the armed services is small. Working in male-dominated work environments can have its challenges, especially when the job is fairly physically demanding. I’m hopeful that during the upcoming week, the women involved in the project will be able to work without feeling the need to “keep up with the guys”, an all-too-common pressure that many women feel in the workplace, especially in the armed forces.

The crew for the week! From left: Karen, Ashley, Annie, Abbie, myself, Linsay, Jess, Char, and Esme. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern

My internship schedule is packed until October, with the exception of a single week of downtime between my recent project in St. Croix and my upcoming assignment in Biscayne. I fly back home to Colorado for the off days. It’s a much-needed opportunity to catch up on writing, organize my photos, and repack for the next leg of my journey.

Come Saturday morning, I head to the airport to hop on a flight to Miami. I’m back in the groove of traveling (or so I think…), so I cruise through security and arrive at the terminal with plenty of time to spare. First, I sit down to reorganize my backpack. Airport security has a tendency to be suspicious of the wide-angle lens that fits on my underwater camera housing, so I typically pack the lens in the top of my bag before going through security and rearrange it prior to boarding my flight. After I reorganize, I grab breakfast, fill up my water bottle, and head to the gate.

The flight is nearly four hours long, so I’m planning to work after we take off. I fidget in my seat until the seat belt sign turns off. My morning cup of coffee has kicked in and all I want to do is put my headphones on, zone out, and catch up on blog writing. Eagerly, I jump up and reach for the laptop case in my backpack.

Strange. I can’t feel it. I dig deeper in the seemingly bottomless bag. It’s a laptop case, so it takes up a decent amount of space. At least, it does when it’s in the bag, which I quickly realize it is not. I immediately start mentally backtracking my steps. Within seconds, I know where my laptop is. It’s on the floor, next to a seat in the terminal. Gate B43. Well, it might be. Who knows at this point.

I’ve NEVER done this before. Sure, I’ve left the bathroom without picking up my cell phone, but I’ve always been quick to realize my mistake and turn around to grab it. Unfortunately, there is no option to turn around in this scenario. I’m rattled, but the situation is out of my control. I sit back into my seat, remind myself that it could be worse, and try to shake it off. I’ll handle it when I land.

Ultimately, there’s not much I can do to “handle” the lost laptop scenario. I file a report with lost and found and will just have to wait and see. Thankfully, the SRC crew is more than supportive when they hear about my predicament. SRC Chief, Dave Conlin, generously offers me the use of his personal laptop for as long as I need, and Matt Hanks, one of the team’s archaeologists, says he’ll check the lost and found in Denver when he flies out to meet us in a few days (the SRC men will be working on archaeological projects in Biscayne while we’re doing the WVIP project). It’s reassuring to feel like no matter what happens to the computer, I’m in good hands.

It’s Monday morning, and I’m piling into a packed-to-the-brim Suburban with Annie Wright, an SRC archaeologist, and Susanna Pershern, an SRC photographer. Annie is the project lead, and Susanna is documenting the project. Susanna and I are dive buddies for the week, so I’m looking forward to watching and learning from her. I wasn’t able to work on underwater photography much during my last project in St. Croix, but this week I’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn, practice, and hone my underwater photography skills. Having access to a professional makes for an even better situation!

Car and stacks of equipment next to the car

After loading the car, we drive to Key Largo and meet the women from the WAVES group. There are five veterans: Linsay, Abbie, Char, Esme, and Karen. Accompanying the group is Ashley, a WAVES scuba instructor, and Jess Keller, a former SRC archaeologist who now works at the University of Miami. At first, introductions are polite and somewhat reserved. I get the sense that everyone’s a bit nervous but simultaneously excited. I sure am! Our ten-woman group will be living together in an apartment above Quiescence Dive Services and diving together off a charter boat from Horizon Divers for the week. In other words, we’re going to be together A LOT. In my experience, I’ve found that there’s always an initial “sussing out” period when you join a fieldwork crew, especially when you don’t know anyone. You have to get a sense of everyone’s personalities, how they work, what their quirks are, etc… Usually, by day two or three, walls tend to fall down and people open up with each other more.

sunset and palm tree

The initial plan is to start diving on Tuesday, but a small tropical storm rolls through on Monday and continues into Tuesday, making the waters too rough for diving. The unexpected dry day is a good chance to prep my camera gear and get to know the group a little better. The veterans seem to be clicking with each other quickly, and I find myself being drawn into their conversations. There’s an unspoken sense of comradery between them that’s noticeable as they talk about their backgrounds, struggles, successes, and goals. They’re all incredibly eager to get in the water, and I can’t help but feel energized myself from the enthusiasm in the air.

On Wednesday, we’re able to go diving! The early risers, Char and Ashley, get up first and start the coffee. By 6:45, the apartment is bustling as everyone eats breakfast, makes lunch, and grabs essential items for the day. We load up the cars and shuttle down to the marina, where we meet our entirely female boat crew: Captain Dani, and mates Chelsea and Megan. The charter boat makes for a very relaxed run out to the dive sites. It’s spacious, comfortable, and moves with ease through the water (that’s all thanks to Captain Dani). It even has a head (boat toilet)! I try to remind myself that this will not be the norm for the rest of my internship. I’m used to schlepping tanks around, loading equipment onto the boat, and helping with mooring and docking, but because we’re on a charter boat, the captain and crew handle everything. I try to make good use of the extra time by experimenting with the camera and writing notes for my blog.

Captain Dani, left, and mate Megan.

Once we reach our first dive site, another boat appears with two more women aboard. Shelby Moneysmith and Vanessa McDonough are the SE Regional Dive Officer and Fishery and Wildlife Biologist, respectively, at Biscayne NP. They’re going to be meeting us at each dive site to assist with debris removal. Once they moor their boat to ours, Shelby and Vanessa don their snorkels, jump in the water, and swim over to our boat. They’re ecstatic to be participating in the project and give us a brief on the dive sites we’ll be visiting for the day.

Vanessa and Shelby met us every day to help with debris removal.

The team gets off to a fantastic start collecting debris. We’re on the lookout for monofilament lines, cans and bottles, fishing equipment, and whatever other debris we encounter during the dives. As we come across debris, each diver has a mesh bag that they can store it in for the duration of the dive. Larger objects, like derelict lobster traps, can be sent directly to the surface with lift bags. A lift bag is a piece of diving equipment designed to lift heavy objects from the seafloor. They’re made with airtight fabric and can be clipped to objects and subsequently filled with air from a diver’s second stage, pulling the object to the surface. Once a piece of debris reaches the surface, one of the boat captains drives over and pulls the object from the water. On the smaller side of things, monofilament fishing line is particularly important to find and remove. The small yet strong line can easily slice through soft corals and wrap around other marine creatures, like turtles and fish.

Jess Keller inflates a lift bag to pull a large pile of rope to the ocean surface.

 

Project leader, Annie Wright, pulls a monofilament fishing line up from the reef.

While the rest of the group is collecting debris, Susanna and I follow with our cameras. I desperately want to start snapping miraculous photos off the bat, but I quickly realize that this craft is going to take a LOT of practice. Thankfully, Susanna is patient with me and takes the time to give me suggestions underwater and answer my questions topside. At first, I feel flustered and clunky with the camera rig underwater. I’m not sure what to do with the strobe lights, how to manually adjust the camera settings correctly, or what to focus on in the first place. It’s overwhelming, but I quickly come to enjoy the challenges this new practice presents. Until recently, I had never been a fan of bringing a camera with me underwater. It always seemed impossible for me to adequately capture the colors, the activity, and the vastness of the underwater world. But, one of the biggest challenges of working in marine science is trying to effectively communicate issues and convey ecological change, and visual communication is an essential part of doing just that. So, I’m determined to do my best and figure it out.

It took me a few days to understand how to use camera strobes effectively. This was the first photo that was lit the way I envisioned!

Midway through the first day of diving, another boat appears on the horizon and moors up behind us. Pedro Ramos, the Superintendent for Everglade, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas National Park, has been escorted out on the water by SRC Chief Dave Conlin and David Morgan, another SRC archaeologist. Like Vanessa and Shelby, Pedro dons a snorkel and swims aboard for a few minutes. He’s excited to meet the veterans and expresses his support and encouragement for the vets and the project.

As I talk to the vets more and listen to them converse with Pedro, I come to understand that having a mission is especially motivating to them. It makes sense, considering that they come from careers where everything is mission-oriented and objective-driven. To go out each day with the intention of locating and removing as much marine debris as possible gives all of us a sense of purpose, and an even more enjoyable sense of accomplishment when the day is over and there are trash cans full of debris on the boat.

The week progresses smoothly. I’ve abandoned any hope of retrieving my laptop from the Denver airport, but towards the end of the project, I’m not even thinking about it much since we’re having so much fun. I’m much busier both underwater and above water now that I’m working on photography. During each dive I scout around, looking for the veterans and snapping pictures of them pulling monofilament line off of corals and stuffing old glass bottles into their bags. Once we’re back home, I have to rinse the camera housing in freshwater, pull out the batteries to charge them (admittedly I forget this step a couple of times), and upload and organize the day’s photos on the computer. It requires quite an attention to detail, but I’m starting to find a rhythm.

Linsay and Abbie collect debris, stirring up some of the sediment on the seafloor

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It’s Friday afternoon, and the boat cruises back to the marina. I pull my phone out and am surprised to see that I have service (coverage is spotty on the water). Emails are coming through, and one catches my eye. It’s from the Denver airport lost and found. I’m not expecting any miraculous recovery updates, since it’s been nearly a week since I left the laptop in the terminal. But, to my disbelief and overwhelming joy, the email reads, “Lost article located…”. LOCATED! Absolutely giddy with relief and excitement, I run to the bow of the boat, where everyone is relaxing after the long day of diving. “They found my laptop!” I exclaim. Susanna jumps up, as excited as I am. “No way!” The rest of the team yells a collective “hooray!” as I dance around. Could this week get any better?!

—–

By the end of the week, it’s as if all of the women on the team have known each other for ages. We’ve laughed, cried, learned, and grown together. We’ve made an impact in Biscayne, and I think the project as a whole has made an impact on everyone involved. Overall, we collected 587 pounds of marine debris, from tiny lead weights to cumbersome derelict lobster traps. Just the monofilament line alone is enough to stretch across three football fields. On the photography side of things, I snapped nearly 500 photos during the project! I’m extremely happy to have made strides with my photography skills. It’s a lot harder than I anticipated, but the process of understanding the lights, camera, and my subjects in order to capture what I envision is totally addicting.

Our friends from the National Park Foundation joined us for a few days on the boat

There are so many people and organizations who made this week happen. The project wouldn’t have been possible in the first place without funding from the National Park Foundation and support from the SRC who created and manage the NPS WVIP program. Additional support came from the Women Divers Hall of Fame, an organization that recognizes women leaders and innovators in the diving community. To everyone involved, thank you. I truly hope it is the first of many all-female WVIP projects. I’d also like to thank Susanna Pershern for her patience, guidance, and encouragement as I work to improve as an underwater photographer. And of course, thank you to OWUSS and the SRC for making it possible for me to participate.

Next week, I’m staying in Biscayne National Park and working with the natural resources team on various projects. Check back in a bit for another week of adventures!

 

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Diving into the DAN Internship

The second half of my internship here at DAN has been packed to the brim with events. I have been able to complete my pilot study on the hydration status of scuba divers. In this observational study, I collected urine samples from divers pre- and post-dive and compared them to control samples with no dive in between. I then analyzed these samples for urine-specific gravity and osmolality in order to see how hydrated divers are entering and exiting a dive. I compared these changes to any changes that would normally occur during the day. I obtained great data from divers here at DAN, but the majority of the data came from our trip to West Palm Beach, Florida, for Lobster Mini Season. Here, we joined charters to take measurements on divers including urine samples, neurocognitive performance, subjective fatigue, skin conductivity, electrocardiograms, and more.

Here is a picture of me on the Pura Vida charter analyzing pre-dive urine samples while the divers are in the water.

We not only took measurements during this trip, but we also got to dive! Our first day on the road consisted of stopping in Charleston, South Carolina, to dive the Cooper River, where we hunted for prehistoric shark teeth and fossils. Our next stop we didn’t dive at, but we got to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. We then stopped in Blue Grotto in North Florida to dive the crystal-clear cavern on our way down. Finally, we also dove on the beautiful reefs in West Palm, which are some of the best that the Atlantic side of Florida has to offer.

Shark teeth I found in the Cooper River.

Above the Voyager pool at the Georgia Aquarium that houses whale sharks, manta rays, and many more species of fish and aquatic life.

At the bottom of the 100-foot cavern of Blue Grotto.

Myself and two other interns descending on the reefs of West Palm Beach.

Another project that I have been involved with recently is serving as a research subject at the Duke Hyperbaric Medical Center. I am involved in a study that is looking to see if a ketogenic diet is protective against oxygen toxicity in divers. For this study, I will enter their hyperbaric chamber two times; one time on a ketogenic diet and one time on a normal diet. For each round, I will be breathing 100% oxygen at a depth of 35 feet of sea water while hooked up to an electroencephalogram, electrocardiogram, IV line, electrodermal activity sensors, and expired gas monitors while peddling on an underwater ergometer and playing a flight simulation game. I will do this task for two hours each round, or until I show symptoms of oxygen toxicity. Another study that I have already completed is looking to see how we can automate the detection of venous gas emboli in divers. For this study, a Doppler device was used to listen to my heart sounds and the information is being used to train a device to listen for bubbles in the vasculature.

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Final Weeks at REEF

We are officially in the last two weeks of the internship and I am not ready for it to end. This last month has been full of outreach events, diving, and surveying. Earlier this month was Rock the Dock, a REEF tradition held at a beloved local bar. It’s a cookout, hangout, and outreach event all at once, with free t-shirts included. What else could you ask for? We had a booth which included a nerf gun shooting gallery called Reef Protectors. The goal of the game is to shoot only the lionfish, leaving the other fish intact. Helping little kids with this game was fun and dangerous. I almost took a nerf dart to the face! All of the proceeds made by the bar, Sharkey’s, during Rock the Dock go back to REEF which is just one example of how much people care here in the Keys.  

Helping future Reef Protectors shoot lionfish at Rock the Dock

We’ve also had some great groups visit us this month. West Coast Connections, Road Scholars, and Road Less Traveled are all education groups that take like-minded people from across the country and bring them on adventures to different areas. We got to be a part of their journey to the Keys, giving them presentations on Fish ID, Invasive Species, and Florida Keys Ecology while they were here. West Coast Connections spent the most time with us, which was a ton of fun. All the kids were in high school and interested in marine science, so we got to foster that love by taking them snorkeling on local reefs and kayaking through the mangroves at Pennekamp State Park. I loved working with the group for a full week and getting to see them grow as they learned how to ID fish and then saw those fish in their habitats on the reef. I will never get tired of how excited kids get when seeing fish that they know!

Teaching West Coast Connections some Florida Keys ecology before we kayak through the mangroves

I will also never get tired of the diving down here. Most of the dives that I have completed have been on shallow, high profile reefs. I’ve slowly been collecting a life list of fishes that I have seen. Most recently, I saw the Greater Soapfish which has been on my list forever! Unfortunately for my friends, as I learn the smaller fish, like Gobies and Blennies, I have been spending more time staring at the sand for entire dives. Most dive shops know to let us go unguided now. While everyone else is looking for the Eagle Rays and turtles, the REEF group is trying to find the Goldspot Gobies and Redlip Blennies, fish that are only a couple inches long maximum. Next week we are planning to dive another well-known wreck down here, the Eagle, which I am so excited for! This summer was my first experience with wreck diving, and now I can’t get enough. I love exploring deep wrecks and feeling like we are the only people in the ocean when we are down there.

Right after I saw a Soapfish!

We are planning to make the most of the last two weeks here, with as much diving as possible, a trip down to Key West, and even more education events. I am not ready to leave the Keys or the family that I have found down here, so I will continue working in Key Largo for an organization called MarineLab, a marine science education organization. I am so excited for the next step of my Keys adventure and owe it all to REEF and OWUSS!

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Seagrass sampling using quadrats in Estero Bay, FL.

At Florida Gulf Coast University there were a few ongoing research projects I helped with including seagrass collection. I joined a grad student and some undergrads on a day of seagrass sampling out in Estero Bay right behind the Vester Marine Station. The sampling was your basic randomized quadrat counts. I had done seagrass sampling before but either in freezing northern California water or in 1-3m deep sites without scuba gear. So sampling in sites of 1.5m max depth in a warm bay was a nice change. We worked really fast and managed to do (an almost record) 20 sites by the afternoon. 

Amanda Ho collecting halimeda algae off the east coast of Florida.

 

Our next dive training session was done on Florida’s Eastern Coast at a reef site called Ant Mounds off Deerfield Beach. Here is where I did my first ever nitrox dive with a 32% oxygen mix. We analyzed our tanks and calculated our dive based on dive tables to hone our skills from the e-learning. On the first dive, we once again collected halimeda and dictyota samples followed by on-boat processing. Then we switched our tanks and did a nice fun dive along the southern portion of the reef. This site had dozens of barrel sponges and a visiting loggerhead sea turtle.

Our last day of diving was probably my favorite, despite having to wake up at 3:00 in the morning for it. Although I set 15 alarms, none went off, but somehow, I miraculously awoke at 3:20 in the morning. We all successfully met at the dock shortly after 4:00 in. the. morning. to load up the vessel and depart on a 3 hour boat ride to the first sampling site 80 miles off the coast of Ft. Myers, FL. Thankfully, the conditions were smooth and it was surprisingly relaxing to be so far from land.

 

 

A Mako shark adorned with sargassum spotted 80 miles offshore in the gulf c/o Alex Donnenfeld.

Once there, a few went on a tech dive to evaluate a potential site for red tide research, while me and my buddies snorkeled around the boat looking at small schools of fish and a curious barracuda in stunningly crystal clear blue water. We made our way back to the tech divers once they surfaced only to see they had made a new friend: an unwavering, adequately-sized, silky shark. We definitely needed a bigger boat. A little further from that initial point we noticed another dorsal fin in the water which turned out to be a mako shark. I was stoked; I’d only ever seen nurse or black-tip sharks until then. 

 

 

Amanda Ho deploying a sediment trap.

After gawking for the requisite amount of time, we carried on with research. We took YSI and CTD readings, along with water samples at 6 sites in the gulf. The data would be sent to Fish and Wildlife for an ongoing red tide monitoring project. At the final site, we geared up our tanks to deploy sediment traps at an artificial reef consisting of cement structures. After 14 hours at sea we got back to the marina at 7:00 pm only to begin the long process of unloading and washing the boat.

 

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The Adventure So Far

I began my internship here at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation a little over six weeks ago but thinking back on everything I have done so far it feels like I have been here for years. My weeks at REEF have been jam-packed with activities and learning experiences, and they have also been full of fun with the best coworkers anyone could ask for! My journey here started with an unexpected complication when I dropped a fridge on my leg the day that I left for the Keys, and I was anxious about starting this new chapter of my life straight from the hospital. The second that I met my housemates/coworkers, all my stress disappeared. My fellow interns, Hailey and Maddie, are the sweetest, friendliest people I’ve ever met and getting to go through this internship with them so far has been an unbelievable amount of fun!

Our first few weeks here were orientation and a steep learning curve. Originally, we were supposed to go straight into the water but the weather was rough when we first got here, with waves at an average of 3-4 ft, so we weren’t able to go snorkeling and diving until week 3. On the bright side, the time that we lost in the water we made up for exploring our new home (and I didn’t have to plastic wrap my stitches which is always a bonus)! The former interns before us left a Keys Scavenger Hunt, which included going to their favorite café in Islamorada (the adjacent Key), wandering through an artist village featuring a giant lobster statue, and finding a plant nursery complete with chickens, a bunny, and dogs! Not all the lessons were as fun as this, but they were all equally important. A large part of orientation was learning our educational presentations by heart that cover our four main programs, and I am now an expert on lionfish/invasive species, Florida Keys Ecology, and our fish ID program!


Me, Hailey, and Maddie in front of the giant lobster at the artist village

Speaking of fish ID, survey trips are definitely my favorite part of this internship, even if it is so hard to choose. Our first survey trip was unsupervised, with just the three of us Marine Conservation Interns, and it was a challenge. If I can take any lesson from this internship so far, I will say that mistakes are far easier to learn from than getting things right on the first try, and this snorkel trip was a great example of this. The waves were rough and so was the current and holding onto our dive slates was more of a struggle than I thought it would be. Since then, we have all discovered our favorite survey set-ups, which is apparently a rite of passage here. I am now a level-2 surveyor and hope to achieve at least ten surveys before leaving!

Our first survey trip!

The diving here is incredible too! Only Maddie and I came into this internship with our certifications, but Hailey completed the last of her check-out dives this weekend which promises many group dives ahead. So far, I have only completed six dives, but all of them were unique and special. I have dived shallow wrecks at night, high profile reefs, and a deep wreck, which was exciting and a little terrifying. Below is a picture of my supervisor and I on our way to dive Spiegel Grove.

Something that I was most looking forward to this summer was our Ocean Explorers Summer Camp, which we are wrapping up this week. Even though it was a little exhausting (kids have so much energy!) I am so sad that it is over. I loved being able to introduce kids to my favorite parts of the ocean. Even though I only got three days with them, it was so special! I was able to take them snorkeling, kayaking, seine-netting, and many other fun activities. Our first week of camp was ages 8-10 and the second was 7-13. Working with a variety of age groups gave me different but equally fun experiences. I knew that I had a passion for educational outreach but working at camp confirmed this!

Giving my first official educational outreach presentation

While I don’t want to think of this internship ever ending, I am so excited for the next six weeks! I know that they will be just as fun-packed and educational as the last half, with new experiences and adventures. I am hoping to make it down to Key West with my roommates to see a sunset and go on a tour of all the best Key Lime Pie in the area (and maybe see a Key Deer!). I can’t wait to spend more time in the water now that the weather has started to calm down a little! More updates and pictures to come!

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AAUS Somers 2021 – Part 1

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

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

Test tube containing a turf sample.

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

Amanda Ho sporting the new inside-out wetsuit trend.

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

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

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

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