Category Archives: Current Internships

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. 

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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?!

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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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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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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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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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Divers Alert Network Research Internship Kick-Off

My time here at Divers Alert Network started with meeting and learning about the different departments including research, medical, marketing, and operations. We spent a few days taking a research field operator workshop, learning how to operate the various devices we use in data collection. The other interns and I then got briefed on the projects we would be working on over the summer and began doing literature review on them.

One project we started for the summer includes a neurocognitive battery test designed to measure mental fatigue in divers. This test involves a series of 10 “brain” games designed to test working memory, reaction time, dexterity, etc. Another project involves assessing the hydration status of divers by collecting urine samples pre- and post-dive and measuring markers such as specific gravity and osmolality.

Some of DAN’s ongoing projects that we jumped in on include an ultrasound comparison study where we take ultrasounds of divers with three devices to see if they all give comparable results. One is a larger ultrasound device with a computer, one a smaller ultrasound device that can hook up to an iPad or iPhone, and one a small doppler device that records sounds. Another project we jumped in on is the cardiac study where ECG leads are hooked up to divers to measure the electrical activity of their heart before, during, and after a dive.

We decided to clean out the DAN library as we try to make all of the diving-related literature virtually accessible.

This is a picture from our field operator workshop when David Le from UNC came to talk to us about the physics of ultrasound and how we can use it to manipulate microbubbles.

Here is a picture of my heart under the Vivid q ultrasound computer after a dive. We were able to see small venous gas emboli flowing through the right side of my heart. These bubbles are produced when inert gas comes out of solution during a high to low pressure change and can get lodged in the body and produce symptoms of decompression sickness. Most of the time they are benign. These gas bubbles are the reason divers do safety stops at shallow depths so they can decompress.

This picture is from our first ultrasound comparison weekend at Mystery Lake in NC (credit Dr. David Charash).

We have also done some fun dives at quarries around the area including Fantasy Lake and Blue Stone Quarry.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, we found an old American flag during a dive under a bunch of silt and thought it was only right to haul it back to the surface.

We have gotten to tour two hyperbaric chambers so far where divers become patients when they are struck with decompression illnesses. These chambers are used to treat a variety of other diseases and conditions, too. During the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society annual conference, we learned about how these chambers operate and recompress divers to various depths and on various gas mixes.

Duke University’s hyperbaric chambers. There are 7 chambers here that house patients, hyperbaric technicians, and research participants.

Smaller chamber at Bluestone Quarry.

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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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Bon Bini na Boneiru!

As the 2021 American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Mitchell Scientific Diving Intern for the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS), I will be assisting Ph.D. candidate Josh Manning with his dissertation research, along with other members of the McCoy Lab at Florida State University, Ph.D. candidate Ethan Cissell and undergraduate student Lena Kury! Josh’s research focuses on how parrotfish territoriality affects patterns of grazing intensity on the coral reefs of Bonaire. Parrotfishes are important grazers that use their beak-like teeth to scrape at the substrate, which helps to keep algae in check and creates bare space for juvenile corals to settle and grow. After several field seasons on the reefs of Bonaire, Josh noticed that males of some species, particularly the stoplight parrotfish Sparisoma viride, swim within well-defined territories and will chase off other males that enter these areas. This summer, we are recording the behaviors of several parrotfish species to better understand how these territories are defended and how they influence other aspects of parrotfish behavior.

After countless Zoom meetings working out travel logistics during a pandemic, three flights, multiple Covid-19 tests, and one last quarantine on Bonaire, our team was finally cleared to start conducting research! During our first few days of diving, we explored a few dive sites on the Northern leeward coast of the island, familiarized ourselves with everyone’s equipment, and ensured that we were weighted correctly so that we could practice proper buoyancy. As we descended onto the reef at Karpata, a historically well-studied site, I was instantly overwhelmed by the diverse species of corals thriving on the reef!  With reef-building coral species like Orbicella annularis providing small hiding spaces for creatures of all sizes, it was not surprising to see a diverse assemblage of fish species. We were even lucky enough to find a green sea turtle, resting on top of soft corals!

A graysby rests on Orbicella annularis, a foundational species of coral found on the reefs of Bonaire.

The view from the entry point at a popular dive site, Karpata.

After everyone felt comfortable in the water, it was time to get to work! A large portion of Josh’s research involves observing parrotfish behaviors, so we spent the next day practicing our fish identification skills! Parrotfishes are protogynous hermaphrodites that transition from an initial female phase to a terminal male phase based on social cues. These phases can have incredibly distinct colorations, so it is important to be able to differentiate when fishes are the opposite sex, or an entirely different species! While we will mostly be following terminal phase males this summer, it is important that we can also identify initial phase fish within each territory. This may help us to understand if males defend their territories from neighboring fishes to protect their preferred grazing spots, their mating opportunities, or a combination of the two!

Stoplight parrotfish coloration changes drastically from the initial phase female (top photo) to the terminal phase male (bottom photo).

On our first day of data collection, we dove at one of Josh’s predetermined study sites, Invisibles, to record the behaviors of the stoplight parrotfish S. viride. During these dives, Josh identified a fish to observe for 30 minutes, while Ethan and I counted the number of initial phase fishes present within its territory. Josh would then signal to Lena, who was snorkeling at the surface with a handheld GPS receiver, to begin tracking the movements of the fish. At first, it was really difficult to determine how many initial phase fish were in each territory – if only they would just stay still! This became easier with time, and soon I was able to enjoy watching the fish from afar as they were grazing the reef substrate, visiting cleaning stations, and defending their territories from intruders.

After a few days at Invisibles, we moved on to tracking S. viride at our second dive site, Aquarius. This time, I was in charge of GPS tracking as the top-side snorkeler. Viewing these fish from above made it much easier to discern the boundaries of each territory, and when intruding fish were attempting to sneak into the territories. While it is tricky to keep up with a fish that is chasing another male out of its territory, especially when swimming against the winds on top of a flotation device, it has become my favorite part of tracking the stoplight parrotfish! These chases help us determine the true boundaries of each fish’s territory, so that we can better understand the impacts of their grazing!

While Josh observes parrotfish behavior underwater, I snorkel with a GPS receiver to record fish movement and identify territory boundaries.
Photo credit: Lena Kury

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