Category Archives: 2021 National Park Service

Sarah Von Hoene

If Coral Reefs Were Forests

NPS boat heading to sea from marina

Between long dive days, spending free time with the crew, and exploring the island, week two on St. Croix passes quickly. We continue conducting fish and benthic surveys for the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) during the day, and the evenings become focused on data entry. On a good day we conduct around seven site assessments, and each site assessment needs to be entered into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) online data system. Data entry can be tedious, especially when survey sites are particularly fishy (lots of fish species and measurements to enter), but it’s fun with the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and National Park Service (NPS) crews. On some nights, I hang out with the NPS guys. We all banter while Jeff prepares his nightly chicken and barbeque sauce dinner, and I bounce between checking out Lee and Mike’s underwater photos and entering data on my laptop. Other nights, I meet with the UVI group and finish data entry while listening to music, watching movies, and comparing our days on the different boats.

As the project continues, I find myself more and more elated to be diving again, especially after 2020, the year of jarring isolation. Scuba diving on a daily basis “fills my cup” — there is nothing quite like breathing underwater and being immersed in the ocean. It provides a sense of peace and perspective that has always been difficult for me to find above water. As soon as I descend, my senses settle with the quiet calm and I focus solely on the present moment. I can’t quite explain it, but I soak up the time underwater as we continue to survey the reefs. The more time I spend diving around St. Croix and working with the NCRMP team, however, the more I’m faced with an unsettling, somber realization.

At face value, this job may seem like a vacation of sorts, a lucky chance to spend two weeks on a Caribbean island and dive to my heart’s delight. However, for marine biologists (especially those working in the Caribbean), diving every day is not equivalent to a carefree vacation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Everyone involved in the NCRMP project comes from a marine science background. We all choose this field (or it chooses us, some might say), and from my perspective, everyone is incredibly passionate about what they do. That being said, having a deeper knowledge of coral reef ecosystems inarguably makes it more emotionally taxing to dive amongst the reefs because we cannot help but see what is happening — they’re dying. They’re being wiped out by diseases and bleached by warming waters. It’s impossible for someone who studies these delicate ecosystems to be ignorant of the ghostly white, ever-growing presence of bleached corals and the algae-covered skeletons that were once vibrant and thriving. Personally, I find it consuming my thoughts as I spend my second week on St. Croix. I feel a self-imposed pressure to make these blog posts lighthearted and cheery, but I also believe that the SCTLD outbreak in the Caribbean is a crisis, and it is incumbent upon me to write about the somber reality of being a marine biologist in this day and age. 

Brain coral with SCTLD damage

SCTLD takes over a brain coral. The white side has been killed by the disease. Photo credit: Dan Mele

In the last decade, Caribbean reefs have experienced unprecedented declines due to overwhelming stressors, from warming waters, to increased hurricane damage, to novel infectious diseases. These phenomena are global, but within the realm of the Caribbean, specifically, we’ve seen the rise of a new disease in particular. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has been wreaking havoc on the Caribbean reefs since it first appeared off the coast of Florida in 2014. SCTLD is a highly lethal, infectious disease known to affect over 20 species of hard corals, and it can quickly turn a diverse, bustling reef into a graveyard. The disease spreads rapidly — it can kill a hard coral within a month (note, some of these corals can be hundreds of years old) and spreads easily through the water column. 

Marine biologists have to deal with disease — it’s part of being a biologist. But SCTLD in particular is hitting hard, and not just underwater. Emotionally, it’s taking a toll on researchers and field techs in a way that I didn’t fully understand until coming to St. Croix. For one, it’s an unavoidable topic. It’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds because, frankly, it’s everywhere. Site after site, we jump into the water, descend to the seafloor, and witness the damage. Some corals show the early signs of infection: splotchy white lesions, indicating recently dead areas caused by SCTLD. Other coral bodies have been killed completely, leaving behind colorless, stiff skeletons. At a handful of dive sites, I can’t help but feel as though I’m floating through a mass graveyard, arriving too late to save anything and bearing witness to incomprehensible damage.

Scuba diver with SCTLD-infected coral in the foreground

A diver looks on at an infected coral. Photo credit: Dan Mele

After a long day, Jeff and I have a conversation about SCTLD as we’re driving the boat back to the marina. Jeff is a coral disease expert and has studied coral reefs since the mid-80’s. He’s been diving the reefs around the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1997 (nearly as long as I’ve been alive). I can’t even fathom how many hours he’s spent underwater, and for the last 25 years he’s been a firsthand witness to the Caribbean reefs’ changes. There’s a mixed emotional response from him as we talk about SCTLD and the state of the reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands — a cocktail of exasperation, frustration, and sadness. I share these feelings with Jeff, and I find myself constantly wondering why other people don’t feel the same intense emotional response that Jeff and I do when we talk about the ocean and the future of coral reefs. We’re watching a natural disaster unfold before our eyes. Why aren’t more people talking about it? Why aren’t more people doing something about it? Where’s the sense of urgency?

I’ve lived in the foothills of Colorado for the last five years. Last summer, I watched three forest fires sweep through my local mountains within a week. When night fell, I would look west and see the glowing red and orange hues of flames dance and pulse on the mountainside. During the day, a dense cloud of smoke and ash hung in the sky. The fires were raging for weeks, forcing people out of their homes and destroying much loved recreational areas and trails. But, as soon as the fires appeared, the community was there. There were so many people driving into the mountains to try and help firefighters that public statements had to be released to tell people to stay home. There were fundraisers. There were donation events. There were news articles and updates every day. The community was watching the mountains they loved burn down, and they wanted to do whatever they could to fix it. 

I have to think that if the reefs around St. Croix were forests, and coral diseases like SCTLD were forest fires, the general public would be up in arms, donating money to rescue groups and rallying the community to help out however possible. If only they could see the reefs with their own eyes and understand SCTLD’s overwhelming presence, they would understand. Because this ecosystem lies beneath the waves and out of everyday view, though, many people struggle to understand that the same level of destruction that a forest fire imparts on a forest is happening to the coral reefs right this very second. 

Pillar coral with white lesions from SCTLD

SCTLD initially forms small white lesions on coral before eventually spreading over the entire structure. Photo credit: Dan Mele

This unfortunate reality is largely a result of barriers — barriers in communication and barriers in knowledge and understanding. A world-class photographer with a top-of-the-line camera system can take photos of SCTLD underwater. It’s taking photos that emotionally captivate and engage viewers that’s necessary, but challenging. Social science suggests that people consume information that aligns with their personal experience and worldview — in other words, people tend to care about the things that directly relate to their own lives. However, the majority of the population does not scuba dive. There’s a notable portion of the global population that has never even seen the ocean, let alone been in it. This leaves people like me, Jeff, and other marine biologists with a rather daunting challenge: conveying the urgency and significance of a massive problem like SCTLD to people who aren’t directly affected by it, and as a result, don’t really care. 

I’m always one to take on a challenge, but I can’t help feeling frustrated by how hard it seems to bridge the communication barrier between marine biologists and the general public. Sometimes our efforts seem like those of Greek legend Sisyphus, the man who was condemned by the gods to live out his eternal life rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down once he reached the hilltop. Realistically, we cannot fully erase the damage that SCTLD has done. As Jeff reminds our crew throughout the week, “you’re never going to see these reefs look like this ever again in your lifetime”. Despite that potential truth, as I work with the dedicated organizations and people involved in the NCRMP project, I am motivated by the fact that all of us still believe that the boulder is worth pushing. More so, they consistently push as hard as they can, day in and day out. They recognize that every bit of time, effort, and action matters when it comes to facing issues like climate change and SCTLD, and there’s an unspoken agreement amongst us as we move through the project: knowing that you can’t completely solve a problem does not mean that you shouldn’t continue to make the situation better. 

Close-up photo of a brain coral with a small white lesion from SCTLD

A close-up of an infected brain coral. Photo credit: Dan Mele

NOAA and the NPS are both driving forces in preserving and protecting areas like the Virgin Islands coral reefs, funding research efforts, and communicating the significance of protected areas to the public. They make missions like NCRMP possible. There’s also the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), which has established a successful coral restoration program, where broken pieces of coral are collected from the reefs, grown and multiplied in their coral nursery, and planted back on the reef. All of the UVI grad students and lab techs involved in NCRMP are also heavily involved in the coral restoration program, and I can tell you that it’s in great hands. Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy operates a coral laboratory and nursery on St. Croix, and has partnered with leading coral science organizations to tackle the Caribbean reef crisis with novel technologies and experimental techniques. Collectively, these organizations continue to do what they can to mitigate damage to ocean ecosystems, rebuild what’s been lost, and encourage further conservation efforts. 

As I pack my bags and prepare to depart from St. Croix, I continue to reflect on my experiences over the last two weeks. One of my primary goals when I began this internship was to share what I learn along the way in a thought-provoking, engaging manner — I want to close the communication gap between those with their boots on the ground and people who aren’t directly exposed to the ongoing issues and efforts in the national parks. This project has motivated me even more to do just that. Thank you to everyone from the NCRMP mission for welcoming me onto the team, sharing your thoughts and stories with me, and helping make the first project of my internship a success. Additionally, a big thanks to Dan Mele for allowing use of his photography in this post. Next stop: Biscayne National Park!

five people on the bow of a boat

Last day of NCRMP celebrations! From left: Jeff, me, Kaya, Kristen, and Mike

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Scientific surveys, seasickness, and surprises in St. Croix

The journey begins! The first destination for my internship is St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’ve never been to any of the Virgin Islands, so prior to leaving Colorado, I take some time to research the region and brief myself on its history. The largest of the four U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix measures in at 82 square miles. Reading this, I expect it to seem absolutely massive in comparison to the eight square mile island on which I lived in Thailand! Additionally, St. Croix is home to not one, but three national park sites: Buck Island Reef National Monument, Christianstead National Historic Site, and Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve. On land, there are 18th century buildings scattered throughout the Christianstead waterfront, the oldest being Fort Christiansvaern, built in 1738. The five historical structures provide a glimpse into aspects of government on St. Croix during Danish sovereignty, from the colonial administration, to the international slave trade, to the military and naval establishments. 

Downtown historic church

The historic buildings in downtown Christianstead offer a glimpse into St. Croix’s history and culture.

Danish Customs House

The Danish Customs House in downtown Christianstead

Underwater lies Buck Island Reef National Monument, the first designated Marine Protected Area (MPA) within the U.S. National Park Service. It wraps around two-thirds of St. Croix, and was dubbed by President Kennedy in 1961 as “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea”. Kennedy recognized the scientific, educational, and aesthetic importance of the area, and created the national monument in the hope of preserving its beauty and rich biodiversity for the benefit of the American people. Sadly, the reef has faced a number of challenges in recent decades. Invasive lionfish, hurricanes, disease, and coral bleaching events have all taken their toll. Currently, the biggest threat is Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), a lethal coral disease that has been spreading rampantly throughout Caribbean reefs since 2014. I’ve come across the disease before (during my thesis fieldwork in Cozumel, Mexico), and I’m nervous to see the extent of the damage around St. Croix.   

My two week assignment is to assist with the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP), a biannual survey that aims to assess ecological reef conditions such as fish species/composition/size, benthic cover (i.e. which substrates and organisms are present on the seafloor), and coral density/size/condition. Ultimately, the information gathered from NCRMP provides geographic and ecological context to inform and supplement local reef monitoring efforts, and aids general studies of tropical reef ecosystems. NCRMP covers a huge region, including Florida, Puerto Rico, USVI, and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Galveston, Texas. The goal, for our current purposes, is to assess approximately 150 sites around St. Croix during the next two weeks. Typically, the NCRMP team surveys closer to 250 sites, but we’re working with a skeleton crew this year due to travel restrictions for NOAA personnel who are normally involved. Still, there are around 20 people working on the surveys this year, coming from a handful of different agencies: NPS, NOAA, the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR). 

St. Croix Site Map

All of the sites to be surveyed around St. Croix and Buck Island are identified with a black dot. We will try to get to as many sites as possible in the next two weeks.

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It’s Saturday morning and I finish packing my bags, careful to weigh them so I don’t exceed the 50 pound limit per bag at the airport. I have a good feeling that the portable luggage scale I purchased is going to come in handy for the next few months. I try as best I can to cut the weight down, but I’m traveling for almost four months and need all my dive gear, running gear, underwater photography equipment, and of course, snacks. I end up with two 50 lb. bags to check and one carry-on that weighs around 25 lbs. Of course, I’m not thrilled by the thought of carrying my own bodyweight in luggage, but I reconcile my unease with the thoughts that  I’ll be both extra-prepared and have stronger shoulders by the end of the trip!

Luggage packed

I’ve had many people offer to “carry my luggage” for the duration of my internship. If only I could take someone up on it!

I have an overnight stay in Miami before my flight to St. Croix, and I’m incredibly thankful to have some help finding a place to crash for the night. Steve Barnett, the President of OWUSS, graciously connects me with Kenny Broad, an OWUSS scholar from the early 90’s. Kenny is now an accomplished cave diver, National Geographic Explorer, and professor with the University of Miami. He’s based in Miami and kindly offers me his guesthouse for the night, which I gladly accept. 

Plane window view

I snagged the window seat on my flight to Miami and caught some gorgeous views.

After a restful night in glorious air conditioning (thanks again, Kenny!), I head back to Miami International Airport to catch my flight to St. Croix. I know that NPS Dive Officer Mike Feeley, my point-of-contact for this project, is on the same flight as me, so I send him a slightly anxious text before boarding. “Hey Mike, just in case I have bad phone service when I land at STX, I’m wearing a grey hoodie w/ black pants and a blue backpack. Will find you at baggage claim. See you in a bit!” Mike texts back with a description of his outfit, but I’ve already been told that he’s quite tall, which ends up being the easiest way to track him down once we land in St. Croix. His height and broad frame sticks out amongst the sea of travelers, and the NPS hat he’s sporting confirms my suspicions that he’s the guy I need to find. Mike is a good-natured, pop music loving fish biologist/ecologist with extensive experience working in the Caribbean. We chat in the airport while we wait for our bags, and are soon greeted by the rest of the NPS crew, Jeff Miller and Lee Richter. Jeff is a coral biologist/disease specialist who’s worked with NPS for decades. Initially, he seems fairly straight-faced, but I’m quick to learn that he has an endless bank of puns and dad jokes that make him and everyone around him chuckle throughout the day. He’s also an impressive athlete, and is the first known person to swim 23 miles unassisted around St. John (one of the smaller Virgin Islands). Similarly, NPS marine biotechnician Lee Richter is an avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast with a seemingly endless supply of energy. Mike, Jeff, and Lee all work for the NPS South Florida/Caribbean Inventory and Monitoring Network, so they’ve spent a lot of time with each other, both underwater and above. They catch up with each other in the car, and Lee and Jeff are more than happy to give me tips on where to run as soon as I express my hope to continue training for some upcoming endurance races after I’ve completed the internship. 

The crew gives me a small tour of St. Croix, starting with the most important locale: the grocery store. (If you haven’t caught on, food plays something of an outsized role in my life.) Groceries are expensive here (welcome to island life), but they have most of the items you’d find in a grocery store stateside. We stock up on supplies and fill the bed of the truck with water, toilet paper, snacks, rotisserie chicken, and barbecue sauce (Jeff needs little more than chicken, barbecue sauce, and pita chips to fulfill his caloric needs). After the grocery store, we head to the condos we’ll be staying at. As we drive across the island, I remember my days on Koh Tao, and can’t help but compare the two islands in my mind. Koh Tao has roaming stray dogs, while St. Croix has free-ranging chickens everywhere. People drive on the left side of the road on both islands, but cars seem to be preferred over motorbikes here. As I continue to make mental note of the obvious differences, I feel an immediate, familiar calm to be back on “island time”. Once we arrive at the condos, I unpack my gear, chat with my roommate, and prep my dive bag for the next day. We’ll be diving first thing in the morning, and I can’t wait to jump in the water.

Groceries in the pickup

Dive gear and sustenance. What else do you need?

It’s Monday morning, the first day of NCRMP! Before heading out on the boats, the entire team meets for a project briefing at the NPS headquarters in town, located in part of the Christianstead National Historic Site, the Old Danish Customs House. The building was originally completed in the early 1840s, but underwent a complete restoration in 2010 after hurricane damage rendered it unusable. These days the first and second floors are dedicated to NPS park management. We all gather in the building and I eagerly meet more of the team. Most of the group consists of graduate students who are part of the Marine and Environmental Science program at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). They have a collective “quirky scientist” sense of humor that I love, but I embarrassingly can’t keep up with the banter. They’re obviously deeply knowledgeable about Caribbean corals and fish, and they throw around scientific names and references with such ease that it makes my head spin. Despite being a little overwhelmed, I’m thrilled to be surrounded by so many people who work in marine science—the atmosphere is filled with excitement and anticipation. We go over safety and logistical information, split off into three different boats, and start throwing gear in the trucks. 

Find Your Park sign at NPS HQ

 

Eddie Boy

Jeff and Kristen start loading up Eddie Boy, our ride for the next two weeks.

To my dismay, I’m told I have to stay out of the water because my dive-physical paperwork hasn’t yet been sent from the doctor’s office to the NPS. Trying to make the best of it, I plan to use the day topside as an opportunity to review survey protocols and study up on local fish and coral identification. I’m on the NPS boat, Eddie Boy, with Mike, Jeff, Alex Gutting, and Kristen Ewen. Alex and Kristen are both alumni from the graduate program at UVI, and continue to pursue coral reef research and fieldwork. Kristen is a Biological Science Technician and Dive Safety Officer for the St. Croix park, and shows a level of dedication to her work that I find quite impressive. She has wrangled rats (it’s a constant battle to keep them off of Buck Island), saved turtles, and helped rebuild coral nurseries around the island. Alex has also been pivotal in the island’s coral restoration efforts, and currently works for the Nature Conservatory as St. Croix’s Coral Conservation Coordinator. They’re both laid-back, proactive, and extremely knowledgeable about the local underwater ecosystem. I’m eager to learn from them and, more especially, to dive together. 

Alex setting up gear

Alex assembles her dive kit on the boat

After shuffling tanks and gear from truck to boat, our team takes off. The run to the first dive site goes quickly, but I soon notice things going wrong. A headache develops. My stomach starts to turn. I’m incapable of taking my eyes off the horizon without the feeling of nausea. The familiar, yet dreaded, feeling of seasickness begins to set in. 

I’ve dealt with seasickness before, but normally it subsides as soon as I jump in the water and head underwater. Today, however, I’m stuck on the boat for the day, and I have no other option but to fight it topside. Ultimately, I lose the battle. For the next few hours, I alternate between leaning overboard to provide food to the fishes, and laying in a corner of the boat deck with my eyes closed, listening to the rest of the crew jump in and out of the water. Thankfully, everyone is sympathetic. I feel significantly better once we get back to land. We spend the drive home exchanging war stories. In an attempt to mitigate my self-consciousness, Jeff tells a story about another intern. “This poor intern,” he starts, “we pick her up on her first day and take her to this local restaurant, great spot we think, and we all have dinner. The next day the food poisoning kicks in and we have to take turns jumping off the boat and swimming downstream for a few minutes to get everything out between dives. Just terrible.” I take a moment to appreciate the fact that I only had to deal with vomiting, and not other forms of GI distress. We stop at the store to stock up on Dramamine, and I cross my fingers for a more successful day tomorrow. 

Seasickness stinks

My favorite spot on the boat for the first two days of the project.

To my dismay, Tuesday isn’t much better. The waters around St. Croix are normally choppy, but even the most seasoned divers are getting sick today. Eight-foot swells knock the boat back and forth all day long. I manage to make it in for the first dive, but even with a healthy dose of the anti-seasickness pills, I’m not able to keep it together for the whole day. Back to the floor of the boat for me. 

The first two days are mentally challenging. Seasickness isn’t something you can just will away, even when you try your hardest. Once your inner ear starts disagreeing with your eyesight, the brain reacts with a burst of stress hormones, and suddenly you’re incapacitated—physiologically convinced that you’re in the spin cycle of a washing machine. I find it especially difficult to deal with seasickness when other people around me don’t have it. In this case, it makes sense that I am the sole victim, seeing as I haven’t been on a boat in the last year, while my crewmates spend many of their workdays out at sea. Despite knowing this, it’s tough to spend the first two days of the internship I’ve anticipated for over a year feeling absolutely awful and, to that end, incapable of diving or helping the crew. Is this how it’s going to be all summer? Am I not cut out for this? Anxious thoughts preoccupy my mind for much of Tuesday. I’m supposed to be working and contributing, not sitting on the sidelines. I worry that my crewmates are starting to question my abilities as much as I’m questioning myself. Desperately hoping to get past this, I try to draw from my ultrarunning experience and focus on problem-solving. What can I control? How can I fix this, going forward? 

On Wednesday, I’m determined to avoid getting seasick. I take one Dramamine in the morning (apparently three is overkill and makes things worse, as I learned yesterday), followed by a larger breakfast than usual. I bring lots of food and water for the boat, and I learn that the weather is supposed to be better today. At long last, I get to experience a full day of diving on St. Croix. Finally! We celebrate my revival and a day of calmer weather, and Mike begins to lead me through training. 

I can finally dive!

By the middle of the week, I’m up and about on the boat (and MUCH happier) thanks to the wonders of Dramamine.

NCRMP surveys are focused on two main types of data collection: fish surveys and benthic surveys. There are two people per team, and both assessments are required at most sites. One person stays on the surface to drive the boat, and the other four divers drop down to conduct the surveys. I’ll be doing fish surveys for the whole project, which involves recording all the fish species seen at a site. We take note of fish counts and sizes first. Next, we do a quick environmental assessment, which provides details on the type of site and the condition (anything from sand patches with dominant seagrass cover to aggregate reefs with healthy corals). Meanwhile, the benthic team assesses coral cover on the seafloor by laying out a transect tape and documenting which coral, algae, or seagrass species are touching the tape. These surveys typically take about 25-35 minutes, so there’s a lot of jumping in and out of the water all day. On a good day, we can hit six or seven sites. 

Kristen and Kaya

The crew: Kristen (left) and Kaya (right), both sporting their underwater themed leggings.

Jeff Miller

Jeff, ready to jump in.

Mike Feeley

Mike awaits the go ahead from Kristen to jump in. The dive flag buoy gets tied down underwater and helps the boat driver locate the team when they finish a dive.

It takes me a few dives to get used to the routine. Despite having watched everyone on the boat execute dives and discuss protocols for the first two days, I’m anxious about correctly executing the dive as I buckle the straps of my fins and sit on the side of the boat, ready to back roll off when we are on site. Because we need to survey specific coordinates for each dive site, everyone has to be ready to roll into the water as soon as the boat hits its GPS waypoint and the driver says, “Go divers, go”. There’s no lingering at the surface, as the current can quickly take you away from the designated site. Instead, we do a negative descent, an entry technique that involves squeezing all the air out of our BC before we jump in so that we start sinking as soon as we hit the water. I haven’t done this sort of entry much in the past, so it’s jarring to jump overboard and begin free falling through the water within seconds. I notice my heart rate shoot up during the first few descents, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to practice the entry method. Once we fall to the seafloor my heart rate calms, and I am back in my element.

Collecting data underwater

Kristen catches me in the middle of a survey as I record fish numbers and sizes. The red and white fish in the photo are squirrelfish. (photo credit: Kristen Ewen)

Clipboard underwater

Essential data collection equipment – clipboard, data sheet, and a pencil.

By Thursday, I’m elated that I haven’t experienced any further seasickness. Finally, I begin to feel like I’m hitting my stride. The crew is settling into a rhythm as well, and we all seem to have ways to boost morale and keep the collective energy up. Mike is the DJ of the boat (I push for 70’s rock, but today’s top hits win out) and Jeff provides clever puns and one-liners throughout the day. I bring along chips, gummy bears, or cookies to share every day. “Ah, the health food aisle,” Mike jokes when he finds me in the junk food section of the grocery store as we make our daily stop on the way to the marina. We have a long day, so snacks are crucial. Our sites are on the other side of the island, so we have to nearly circumnavigate the whole of the island. The run to the first site takes an hour and a half, but it’s a great chance to see the less populated and more wild areas. When I see the unpopulated Jurassic Park-esque green cliffs on the south side of the island, I wonder what it must’ve been like to discover the island in its original state, untouched by people. 

Ocean view from the boat

One of the UVI boats cruises back to shore at the end of a workday.

The untouched side of St. Croix

Untouched green cliffs on the south side of the island.

The day is going smoothly until Jeff notices that the dual engines aren’t moving in unison when he steers. I scan over the engines and realize that, to our collective panic, the steering system has broken. I’m able to grab the bolts that broke off before the ocean sweeps them away, and Jeff and Mike manage to fit one bolt back into place. It’s enough of a temporary fix for us to get back to the marina, but we have to cut our dive day short. 

Mike fixing boat

Mike works on a temporary fix for the boat’s steering system.

On Friday, Jeff has made dozens of calls to try and get Eddie Boy fixed, but a mechanic can’t look at it until mid-afternoon. Luckily, the NPS has another boat in the marina that we can use for the day. Kestrel is a small boat, with a firm “three points of contact” rule when it’s moving. It also has less cover, so most of us don our wetsuits pretty early in the day, as being doused with saltwater on the way to the first dive site is a given. It’s a beautiful day for diving until mid-afternoon, when a storm rolls in and gives us a heck of a return ride. I’m amazed that one pill in the morning can make eight-foot swells and churning waves somewhat fun—the joys of modern medicine! By the end of the day, however, and after a week full of unexpected ups and downs, the crew is ready for the weekend. Personally, I’m excited to catch up on writing, go trail running on the east end of the island, and to spend some time with the rest of the team I’ve yet to hang out with.

Landscape of St. Croix

I love the bright greens and blues of the island and its surrounding waters.

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The Buoyancy of Purpose

Hi there, and welcome! I’m Sarah Von Hoene, your 2021 National Park Service (NPS) Intern for the Our-World Underwater Scholarship Society. I’ve been following a childhood dream of becoming a marine ecologist since I was a kid, playing on the sandy beaches of Virginia. A few years ago, however, I began to tweak that dream a bit. I learned about a small unit of the NPS called the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) — a group of highly trained scuba divers, archeologists, and underwater photographers who use scientific and operational diving to document, interpret, and preserve underwater natural resources within the national parks. Upon the revelation of the existence of the SRC, I suddenly had a new focus: to not only become a marine ecologist, but to dive with the NPS. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the SRC and OWUSS, that dream is finally coming true. As I spend the upcoming months traveling and working throughout the national parks, it’s my ultimate goal to help fulfill the SRC’s mission of promoting understanding, appreciation, and preservation of the national parks’ underwater resources, so I hope you’ll stay tuned as my adventure unfolds. 

I originally applied for this internship once before, in 2016. I was living on the tiny island of Koh Tao, Thailand, where I had taken all of my scuba certification courses and was working as a divemaster for a local scuba shop. I completed my first two years of undergraduate classes online while abroad, then moved back to the states to pursue a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado. Luckily enough, I found a professor at CU who taught a coral reef ecology course that I jumped at the chance to take. Before I knew it, I was completing a thesis and doing fieldwork in Cozumel, Mexico. After graduating, I decided to try again and submit another application for the NPS/OWUSS internship.

I submitted my application in January 2020 and tried to put it out of my mind for the subsequent months (patience is not a strong suit of mine, especially in these types of potentially-life-changing scenarios). A typical evening in early March, however, turned into an ecstatic celebration after I checked my emails and noticed one message with “Congratulations!” in the header. I couldn’t believe it when I read the email. I had been selected for the internship! I shared the news with family and friends over the next few days and tried to wrap my mind around the fact that I was about to start the adventure of my dreams. 

The NPS arrowhead logo embroidered on a drysuit. There’s a pretty amazing sense of pride that comes along with wearing NPS dive gear!

Cue ominous music…because little did I know that a global pandemic was about to dramatically interfere with my plans. On the same day that I received the congratulatory email, the World Health Organization officially dubbed the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. It quickly became apparent that the internship would not be possible in 2020. Thankfully, OWUSS offered me a deferral, which I happily accepted. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do for the next year, but I knew with certainty that the opportunity was worth the wait.  

Over the course of the next year, both OWUSS and the SRC were amazing at welcoming and supporting me, despite not being able to meet in person (or go anywhere). The scholarship society organized virtual meet-ups and lectures by former interns and scholars, and Dave Conlin, the Chief of the SRC, helped organize a project on marine soundscapes that I worked on remotely. It only took a few phone conversations and emails with the OWUSS and SRC teams to realize that I was entering into a close-knit, highly-esteemed group of scientists, divers, and explorers. 

By the time May 2021 came around, Covid had settled down enough for us to plan for an intense summer of travel. Before I knew it, I was driving to the SRC office in Lakewood, CO, meeting the team, and gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime. 

I aspire to collect as many scuba diving-related stickers as the SRC has on display. This crew has clearly been around the block.

It’s hard to explain all the feelings I had during my first meeting and training week with the SRC. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome quite a bit in the past, and I was expecting it to come out in full force at the beginning of my internship. Having worked in the industry, I have a few hundred dives under my belt, but I found the diving undertaken by the SRC team to be truly next level. Like, they eat snacks underwater because they do six-hour dives kind of next-level (apparently Clif bars are great because they don’t crumble underwater. Who knew?). To my immense surprise and relief, I felt very at ease as soon as I met the team. The SRC staff is small (only nine people), but every single person greeted me with friendliness, support, and genuine excitement. I felt like they believed in me and my ability to serve as their ambassador for the coming months, and in that, to consider myself a true member of their team. For a week, I drove home from their office, day after day, feeling the buoyancy of purpose, like I was finally doing what I was meant to be doing. Those drives, with the windows down, music up, and my mind buzzing with excitement and anticipation, will be a fond memory of mine for years to come. 

The SRC dive gear locker is practically famous amongst interns, which is fair considering that Jim Nimz, the Diving Operations Specialist, keeps the room in tip-top shape and full of any dive gear you could think of.

During that week, the SRC covered all the logistical bases, and more. I underwent a thorough dive physical to make sure I was fit to dive, I took a CPR/first aid/oxygen-provider refresher course and exam, and I went through a long list of swim and dives skills that are part of the NPS Blue Card Exam. This exam included a written test, too, but for me, it was a breeze compared to some of the physical skills. Well, one skill in particular. The biggest beast of all was a 25-yard underwater swim, done on only one breath and without any fins. I honestly can’t remember how many times I attempted it before finally making it the entire way. At least six tries! Jim, the SRC’s Dive Operations Specialist, laughed when he saw my glaring, frustrated face after another unsuccessful attempt. “You can read that face from across the pool,” he chuckled as I leaned on the edge of the pool, annoyed with myself. Eventually, through a bit of grit and determination, I was able to complete the test. Thankfully, the other skills were manageable, although there was an added challenge of doing them while getting used to the new dive gear the SRC provided me. 

The SRC provided me with wetsuits, rashguards, a save-a-dive kit, and all other necessary scuba gear for my upcoming adventures.

By the end of the week, I was Blue Card certified, nitrox certified, stocked up on all the dive gear I could possibly need, and ready for nearly four months of travel. According to my current itinerary, I’ll be traveling until October, and working on projects in at least six different national parks. As I mentally prepare for it all to begin, I’m feeling focused, excited, and ready to do my best work. More than anything, however, I’m feeling thankful. Thank you to OWUSS and the SRC for putting your trust in me and supporting me on this epic journey. And of course, a huge thank you to my partner, Jerrod, and my friends and family for helping me chase my dreams and pursue my passions. There will be many stories to tell and experiences to share, so stay tuned for more insights into my experience. For now, I’m off to St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands for the next two weeks! Wish me luck!

My new favorite hat, and one last run at home before a summer of travel! 

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