Category Archives: Internship Journeys

Exploring the Salish Sea: An Incredible Journey Through My AAUS Scientific Diver Certification at SPMC

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the valuable collaboration between OWUSS, AAUS and the AAUS Foundation, which has provided me with this incredible opportunity to achieve one of my personal goals and dreams: obtaining my Scientific Diver certification. This experience has been truly invaluable, providing me with essential skills and knowledge for my academic and personal journey. Moreover, it has allowed me to connect with scientists who have enriched my learning experience. I am sincerely grateful for this opportunity and the support that has made this achievement possible.

Scientific Diving Training at Shannon Point Marine Center

On June 10, 2023, at 5:00 a.m., I was already at the airport parking lot. I remember seeing the half-moon while eagerly waiting to enter the waiting room. I felt happy, nervous, and excited for the scientific diving training at Shannon Point Marine Center (SPMC).

Finally, I arrived in Seattle at 1:40 p.m. I was on so many flights crossing the sky in such a short time! I feel blessed and privileged to be amidst all this movement, but at the same time, I am aware of the significant environmental impact of flights. Reflecting on this, I have decided to make more conscious choices and seek sustainable options to offset and reduce my carbon footprint, thus contributing to the care of our planet.
At 4:13 p.m., I found myself on a small bus heading north, eventually making my way to Shannon Point Marine Center. My destination would be the last stop at the Ferry station, where I met with Western Washington University (WWU) Diving Safety Officer, Capt. Nathan T. Schwarck, M.S., and Morgan Eisenlord a Cornell University Ph.D. candidate working at SPMC. They warmly welcomed me with dinner that evening, and a delicious American breakfast of blueberry waffles the next morning.

During this breakfast, I finally met the three people with whom I had been exchanging emails about the diving goals for this internship. The third person was Dr. Derek Smith, the Laboratory Manager and Research Assistant Professor, who was the President of AAUS in 2020-2021. A few days later, I met two more members of the team, National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) fellows Mary Schneider and Olivia Faris, who would join me on this thrilling scientific diving certification adventure. Together, we would experience the excitement of daily scientific diver training and research.

Part 1: Practical Diving Skills

Our first task in scientific diving training after checking out gear from the dive locker was to head to the pool! We swam 400 yards in under 12 minutes, covered 25 yards in a single breath, did the 10 minute tread water, and practiced transporting a person 25 yards in the water. To my surprise, I was the first to finish the swim test, completing it in just 7 minutes and 38 seconds.

Following the pool tests, we continued our training at Rosario Beach, in front of the Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory. Here we practiced first aid and navigation skills in open water. We also received theoretical and practical training at the SPMC classrooms on first aid and reviewed AAUS knowledge. The Divers Alert Network First Aid for Professional Divers (DFA Pro) training covered CPR, AED, oxygen administration, neurological examination, diving safety, underwater theory, and marine life injuries.

Finally, before diving into the cold waters of the Salish Sea and starting our data collection for the project, Nate and Derek took us to the Western Washington University Lakewood facility on Lake Whatcom for a gentle introduction to the cold waters, where we had the chance to practice navigation and buoyancy skills once again -without the typical limited visibility and strong currents of the Salish Sea.

Part 2: Above the water – Life & Academic Workshops at SPMC

Throughout my time at SPMC, I’ve been blessed with incredible opportunities. From attending classes and engaging in informative talks to embarking on scientific expeditions and outreach events, it has been an enriching journey. All of this became possible through SPMC’s REU program, generously supported by the National Science Foundation. This program offers 8 undergraduate students the chance to participate in supervised research under esteemed faculty mentors. Through this program, I had the pleasure of meeting Olivia and Mary, both selected participants, who are now on their way to obtaining their scientific diving certification alongside me; and the other REU students who are in the same boat, “sailing with us.”

The experience has been nothing short of amazing. You know, home is wherever you find yourself, and I truly feel like we’ve become a big family, enjoying the summer, having fun, and learning together. I deeply appreciate the warm welcome I received during my time here, and it’s heartwarming to see how we all learn and grow through our own experiments.

I want to give a big thank you hug to Dr. Brian Bingham the director Director of the Marine and Coastal Sciences Program and all the faculty staff at SPMC. They are amazing people and scientists, and they have made our summer here truly special. The effort, time, and love they put into running this REU program is incredible. For me, it has been an incredibly enriching experience in every way – personally, professionally, and academically.

Part 3: Conducting underwater Sea Star Wasting Disease surveys in the amazing Salish Sea

Sea star wasting disease (SSWD) is a devastating syndrome that affects various species of sea stars, causing rapid tissue deterioration and death. First seen in the 1970s, the outbreaks have become more severe and widespread over the years. This devastating disease led to significant die-offs, affecting marine ecosystems and biodiversity. The 2013-2014 outbreak was particularly massive, impacting over 20 sea star species from Mexico to Alaska, making it the largest recorded marine outbreak for a non-commercial species. A field study was conducted in 2014-2015 on the short-term population impacts of SSWD in subtidal sea star species in the Salish Sea ( Nine years later, we wanted to investigate the long-term effects of SSWD on subtidal populations by resurveying the historic strip transect sites in the San Juan Islands.

After completing our diving training, we were eager to begin the underwater surveys. Mary, Olivia, and I were filled with excitement. Currently, we’re working alongside other skilled scientific divers, using two different methodologies, strip transects and roving transects, to collect essential data and assess the seastar population.

So far, we’ve gathered data from 11 monitoring sites, with a few more to go. Throughout our dives, we’ve only encountered about 6-7 of the elusive Pycnopodia helianthoides among the entire team of 6 divers. This species is commonly known as the sunflower star and has become rare due to the devastating sea star wasting syndrome outbreak in 2013. Their population declined by about ~90%, with approximately 5 billion stars lost along Pacific coast of North America. They are now considered critically endangered by the IUCN. However, there’s hope as scientists have successfully bred them in captivity, with plans to reintroduce them into the wild and restore their numbers. For example, the University of Washington scientist Jason Hodin, Ph.D is the Friday Harbor Labs scientist who is working on captive breeding and outplanting of the Sunflower Star Pycnopidia helianthoides.

In addition to all of this, by the end of this internship, I will not only obtain the AAUS Scientific Diver certification but also PADI Advanced and Rescue Diver certifications. None of this would be possible without the support of OWUSS and Nate and Derek, who are providing us with this incredible opportunity.

Big thank you!

Meeting all these wonderful people – the best diving crew, undergoing the best diving training I could have ever imagined, and using top-notch gear that makes me feel fully prepared for diving in this area. I feel incredibly fortunate to dive in the breathtaking channels, island sounds, and beaches of the Salish Sea. Being part of this project and diving at each of these sites has been an incredible experience. During these surveys, I’ve encountered myriad of beautiful creatures like the giant pink sea star, giant sunflower star, giant Pacific octopus, Wolf eels, white plumose anemones, numerous sea cucumbers, and much more.

I am truly grateful to Nate and Derek – you guys are awesome! You made this scientific diving training absolutely amazing. I couldn’t have asked for better instructors. I feel incredibly fortunate to have taken classes with you. I will really miss you both! Thank you for selecting me and believing in me. I’m also thrilled to keep working together on future projects.

And thank you so much, Morgan. You are an incredible research scientist and a great human being. Thank you for your time, wisdom, and true passion and involvement in this project.

All of you are an inspiration to me, both in my personal, professional, and academic career!


Sharing the Underwater World with the Community

Hello everyone and welcome to my internship blog! My name is Carolyn and I am thrilled to have been selected as the 2023 Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® Dr. Jamie L. King Reef Environmental Education Foundation Marine Conservation Intern.

At REEF we like to say that working for a non-profit means you wear “lots of different hats.” Each day looks a little different than the one before- one day I am hunting for lionfish, the next I am teaching a Fish ID at the local visitor’s center and the one after that I am developing a curriculum to make our database more accessible to students. Of all of the experiences I have had at REEF so far, my favorite has been any time I get to interact with the community and share the work we are doing. REEF’s main focus is citizen science, and through the classes I teach, my main goal is to convince the audience that they can be a “scientist” and help contribute to an important database regardless of their background. Seeing the way one of our new surveyor’s face lights up when they are able to take what they learned in the classroom and recognize the species they are seeing is one of the greatest feelings as an educator. A couple of weeks ago I was leading a virtual workshop for a zoo summer camp, similar to one I attended for many years back in elementary school. Being on the presenter’s side of it was truly a full circle moment for me, and I hope that those kids felt as inspired to save the ocean as I did when I was in their shoes.   

Performing a REEF fish ID survey with a group of students. 

Photo Credits: Madalyn Mussey
The REEF Intern and fellow team at our monthly community "Fish & friends" event.

Below are photos of a few of the many species I have spotted during fish ID surveys! After a recent trip to Blue Heron Bridge, a dive site in West Palm Beach known for its diversity of marine life, my survey sighting lifelist has surpassed 100 species!

With REEF I have also had the opportunity to continue studying invasive lionfish. Over my last 2 years of school I completed both my honors thesis and major capstone research on lionfish in Utila, Honduras, so I often joke about how these fish have taken over my life. Even with the completion of those projects, I wasn’t ready to be done with lionfish quite yet and it has been interesting to compare the education, removal, and marketing strategies in the Keys versus in Honduras. Through the Invasive Species Program I have had the opportunity to lead presentations giving an overview on the lionfish invasion, dissected lionfish to explain their adaptations to students, and even gotten permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to hunt for lionfish in Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs).  

Using a Hawaiian sling and zookeeper to remove invasive lionfish from the reefs.

Photo Credits: Madalyn Mussey
Madalyn and I with 2 lionfive we removed from the SPAs.

My internship city of Key Largo could not be more different than where I started my journey just 2 months ago at the annual OWUSS weekend in New York City. About 48 hours after graduating from college and moving out of my apartment in San Diego, I was on a plane across the country to get started on one of my greatest adventures yet. In three short days in the Big Apple, I was welcomed into the OWUSS community, met some of the most inspirational people in the diving and marine conservation field, was blown away by the presentations from last year’s scholars and interns, and even got to make a side trip to Broadway to see my favorite actor perform! Even after a couple months I am still having a hard time believing I am a part of this organization. From the moment I walked into the Explorers Club I felt like a bit of an imposter- there I was newly graduated from college and surrounded by artifacts from many of history’s greatest explorers. Being in the presence of so much history and of so many members of OWUSS gave me a glimpse of what I would like to accomplish in the future and I cannot wait to return to New York next year to share my internship experience.

The internship crew at the 2023 OWUSS Awards Weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turtle at Brain Garden.

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

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

Yay! A relatively healthy and large brain coral!

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

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

Nicole applying the antibiotic paste.
Brain Garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brain coral.

Virgin Islands National Park – Saint John, USVI

View from Saint John.

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

Mary Creek from Annaberg plantation.

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

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

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

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

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

Outboard troubles at the Maintenance area.
Outboard woes.

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

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

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

Coral Bay.
Europa Bay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiddel Bay.
Fish tornado in a swim through.

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

View from the gut above the petroglyphs.

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

Tiny juvenile filefish hanging out with Acropora fragment.

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

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

Saint John.

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

Fort Jefferson.
Caribbean Spiny Lobster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis catching a lobster.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike showing off his catch.

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

Sunrise at the fort.
Another amazing sunrise.

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

Water spout next to Fort Jefferson.

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

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

Rob and Davis transporting tanks.

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

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

Allison and I snorkeling around looking for the Goliath groupers.

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

Loggerhead Key.

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

Lee and Mike on a surface interval.

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

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

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

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

Lee and Mike catching the mother of all lobsters.

Diving Under Waves: The tale of a Mexican Girl embraced by OWUSS

Hola! My name is Jessica Pantoja, and I am from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. I am thrilled to introduce myself as the 2023 Dr. Lee H. Somers American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Scientific Diving Intern by the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society.

Un poquito más sobre mí / A little background about me:

Growing up in one of Mexico’s largest cities, my passion for the marine world blossomed during family camping trips to coastal destinations like Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Mazatlán, and Colima. These experiences became the driving force behind my present-day fascination with coastal life, surfing, and marine sciences.

Driven by curiosity and a desire to explore the underwater world, I made a firm decision to undertake a Bachelor’s in Oceanology at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), where the Facultad de Ciencias Marinas (FCM) offered the perfect platform for my ambitions. Looking back, it has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made! And now, I’m incredibly excited and thrilled to begin my Master’s in Coastal Oceanography at the same esteemed institution where I have been accepted, under the guidance of Dr. Gabriela Montaño Moctezuma from Instituto de Investigaciones Oceanológicas (IIO, UABC), and Dr. Nur Arafeh Dalmau from Stanford University.
I can’t wait to dive into this thrilling new chapter of my academic journey. Embarking me on an epic adventure, studying, exploring, and diving into the crucial connection between fisherman cooperatives and kelp forest conservation in the Baja California Peninsula.

De la ciudad a la costa: My marine journey

So… I’m a girl with big dreams, and I’m absolutely determined to turn those dreams into reality. Even before starting my undergraduate studies, I knew I had to take the SCUBA diving course offered by the FCM every year. (Of course, Sylvia Earle played a significant role in inspiring all of this). And guess what? I did it!

Studying scuba diving with Professor Roberto Calderón Campos (FCM, Diving Safety Officer) was truly special. He received his scientific diving training from Dr. Robert Given, a prominent pioneer in this field and former president of AAUS (1983-1985). Learning from someone with such experience, dedication, and valuable contributions in the field of scientific diving was a real privilege. I am immensely grateful for the strong relationship my professor, Roberto Calderón, had with James Stewart (first Diving Safety Officer of Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Dr. Robert Givens, and Dr. Pilmanis, who came to share their knowledge with him and his students at the FCM. Now I realize that the training and knowledge I received at the FCM are part of my teacher’s pioneering journey’s legacy.

After becoming an Open Water Diver, new opportunities emerged, allowing me to participate in various diving projects in Baja California, with a strong focus on the enchanting kelp forests and seagrass habitats. These experiences included engaging in monitoring campaigns, collecting samples for mesocosm experiments, installing and maintaining oceanographic sensors, and conducting video and photography transects – each moment was truly amazing.

During my thesis work, I had an unforgettable diving adventure guided by Dr. Jose Miguel Sandoval Gil, a researcher at the IIO, UABC. I focused on quantifying the carbon fixation capacity of surfgrass (Phyllospadix spp.) meadows in Todos Santos Island, a Biosphere Reserve in Baja California, Mexico. Diving and surfing in those meadows were definitely the highlights of my days.

This remarkable journey of research, diving, surfing, and actively participating in beach conservation campaigns with my colleagues from “Nosotras y el Mar ( has kindled a profound passion within me to safeguard and protect the marine world.

I can believe it, llegó el día! – OWUSS award ceremony

June 1, 2023 –New York City, here I come!

Prior to my exciting journey to New York, I celebrated completing my dissertation thesis with an incredible surf trip in Chile (the land of Cochayuyo, the kelp seaweed). Thus, from the majestic waves of that country, I embarked on my first stop in this intern adventure finding myself amid the towering and impressive buildings of New York City, Attending the OWUSS award ceremony, I was honored to formalize my acceptance as the 2023 Dr. Lee H. Somers American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Scientific Diving Intern for the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society.

This annual weekend event brings together passionate ocean enthusiasts, fostering connections among old friends and cultivating new friendships. There were so many amazing people that weekend, including past scholars, interns, volunteers, and coordinators. I will never forget the warm embrace of the OWUSS community, as they surrounded us, the new scholars and interns, with amazing support. Meeting the dedicated individuals behind OWUSS, who invest their time and energy to create these amazing scholarship and internship opportunities, was truly an awe-inspiring experience to me! I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of this family.

Los tres mosqueteros mexicanos: Ana, Yann y Jess
2023 Interns – OWUSS Family

Furthermore, after the thrilling OWUSS awards weekend, we were honored with an invitation to participate in World Oceans Week. This week-long event featured various engaging activities and enlightening lecture sessions at the Explorer’s Club, as part of the “Blue Generation” initiative. The Explorer’s Club is a prestigious organization promoting exploration and scientific research. Founded in 1904, it brings together distinguished explorers, scientists, and adventurers to share knowledge about the natural world and foster collaboration. As if that weren’t enough, we finished off our Blue Generation week by attending the UN for World Oceans Day.

I felt truly moved to see so many incredible women leading conservation programs and projects worldwide, empowering themselves in their roles. It was an inspiring experience for me, a Mexican girl with a desire to take on leadership roles in marine sciences and conservation in Mexico.

I left New York feeling incredibly inspired for my internship and my future, and also filled with joy for having made many truly wonderful friends along the way.

I want to express my sincere gratitude to OWUSS family and The Explorers Club for this amazing start. I’m also immensely grateful to Claire Mullaney and Jenna Clos, my internship coordinators, for providing me with a best support to begin this remarkable experience.

Am I dreaming? – Embarking on a Scientific Diving Internship

June 10, 2023 – Heading to Washington, Anacortes.

As you already know, I have a deep passion for surfing! It’s how I love to describe my life, using surfing metaphors to express my journey. And now, being part of the scientific scuba diving program of AAUS feels just like the anticipation of a great swell on the coast and experiencing one of the best surf sessions of my life.

The American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) is a prestigious organization dedicated to promoting safe and effective scientific diving. It facilitates collaboration among researchers, educators, and diving experts while upholding rigorous standards for underwater research. AAUS plays a vital role in advancing marine sciences and environmental conservation through its member institutions.

Thanks to the support of OWUSS and AAUS, now I’m receiving training and scientific scuba diving certification at Shannon Point Marine Center (SPMC), Western Washington University (WWU), an esteemed organizational member of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS). Alongside incredible Dive Safety Officers (DSOs) Derek Smith and Nathan Schwarck, I’m eager to dive into the experiences and learning that await me this summer. This summer will mark my first time in the United States, and what better way to experience it than by diving headfirst into this scientific diving adventure!

I am particularly excited about being involved in the Seastar Wasting Disease monitoring program, guided by the exceptional Morgan Eisenlord. Working alongside fellow students from the REU program, we have the privilege of conducting supervised research with faculty advisors. This collaborative effort is made possible through the support of the National Science Foundation, which has been instrumental in fostering meaningful research experiences at Shannon Point Marine Center since 1990.

Coming soon: More on this project and my underwater adventure in Anacortes, Salish Sea! Stay tuned for my next blog post!

Thank you very much!

I want to express my sincere gratitude to Our World Underwater Scholarship Society, American Academy of Underwater Sciences, AAUS Foundation, Shannon Point Marine Center, Western Washington University, Heather Albright and my advisors Derek Smith and Nathan Schwarck for making this wonderful opportunity a reality.

Undoubtedly, life would not be the same without our loved ones surrounding us. They make this journey of life even more special. I extend my heartfelt appreciation to Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Facultad de Ciencias Marinas, and Instituto de Investigaciones Oceanológicas. A special thanks to fellow labs (@entremareasbc) (@botanicamarinaiio). Baja California’s beauty and its people have supported my journey as an Oceanologist and surfer.


Getting situated with the Submerged Resources Center in Denver, Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking in the Flatirons.

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

Dinner with Michelle and Dave.

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



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

Me, diving in the Puget Sound.

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

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

Home on Marrowstone island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Generation with Sylvia Earle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye-bye, New York.

The Benefits of Working and Living in Durham

     While most of my time in Durham was spent at DAN conducting research and learning about hyperbaric medicine, I want to share my appreciation for the non-work opportunities that arose from this internship. A majority of our free time was spent diving, but I tried to make time for a few activities outside of the dive community as well. Having never lived in the South, I was a bit nervous about the climate, culture, and food associated with North Carolina, but it all quickly grew on me (except maybe for the humidity, haha!). By the time I had to depart in September, I was sad to go.

     First, North Carolina is full of quaint towns and hiking destinations to visit for a weekend. My first weekend trip was to the Outer Banks, where my girlfriend and I explored by hiking, surfing, and stargazing. The water was warm, the people were friendly, and the food was wonderful. Our Airbnb hosts showed us around town and offered all sorts of suggestions for seeing the less touristy aspects of the Outer Banks. I gained an appreciation for the barrier islands, wetlands,  and peanut farms present all along eastern North Carolina.

Picture 1: The Scuppernong River Wetlands 

Picture 2: A Stormy Day in the Outer Banks

Next, I went on a hiking trip to the Appalachian Mountains. I made it to the top of Mount Mitchell (where I coincidentally ran into the parents of another DAN intern). Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi and was a challenging hike from the trailhead where I started. Along the trail were spectacular mountain views, fresh blueberries, and lush rainforest. I ended up staying in the town of Asheville which offered awesome breweries, live music, and a hipster culture I did not expect to find in the South. Overall, taking two road trips across North Carolina was a great way to see the diversity of this wonderful state!


Picture 3: The Road up Mount Mitchell


Picture 4: Fresh Appalachian Blueberries!

Back at home in Durham, there were plenty of options for day trips. I went hiking or mountain biking almost every day after work which was a great way to stay active and explore the local outdoorsy scene. My two favorite spots near Durham were Brumley forest which offers bike trails and Eno River State park which has phenomenal hiking trails along the creek. I may have gotten caught in severe thunderstorms a few times, but it was all part of the experience! When I was feeling a little more ambitious I would head up to Hanging Rock State Park (about 2 hours from DAN), where the terrain is more rugged but the hiking options are plentiful. 


Picture 5: The Brumley Forest


Picture 6: Hiking at Hanging Rock State Park

Along with the other interns, I also tried to absorb the unique cultural, food, and entertainment options in Durham. DAN was generous enough to provide their interns with a food budget, so I had the opportunity to explore cuisines I had never tried before. Of course, I had lots of shrimp with grits, but other foods not available at home in California include crawfish, catfish, fried sushi, chicken & waffles, and Southern BBQ. But more importantly, we made an effort to try all sorts of international cuisine including Indian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Ethiopian, Spanish, Pakistani, and Thai food. Coming from a family that lacks enthusiasm for adventurous eating, I found this to be an unintended yet valuable part of the internship. The DAN internship is obviously not intended to be cultural in purpose, but I am very grateful for the unique experiences I was provided through DAN and OWUSS outside of a strictly academic environment. I hope to travel back to Durham at some point and would be happy to provide some recommendations for anyone who plans on visiting!


Picture 7: The 2022 DAN Interns Enjoying Traditional Tapas


Growth as a Researcher, Diver, and Instructor

As a research intern at Divers Alert Network, there is an opportunity to learn at every corner. In my time with the research team, I received incredible mentorship as a young scientist to hone my data collection, analysis, and knowledge translation skills. Going into the internship, I knew the quality of research DAN produces, so I was eager to learn as much as I could from the team. But the amount I learned exceeded all expectations.

In addition to DAN’s commitment to training me to be a better scientist, I was provided with a wealth of opportunities for continuing education, allowing me to increase my capacity to act as a steward and leader in the diving field.

I am proud to now hold certifications as a Professional Scuba Inspector/Professional Cylinder Inspectors (PSI/PCI) Visual Cylinder Inspector, Oxygen Cylinder Cleaning Technician and Valve Repair Technician. This course consisted of didactic learning portions and tank and valve disassembly, as well as a tour of a facility where compressed gas cylinders are made. We were incredibly fortunate to have the CEO of PSI/PCI, Mark Gresham, to lead us through learning the intricacies of ensuring safety when working with compressed gas.

I am using a specially designed light and picking tool to peek into a scuba cylinder to inspect the integrity of the walls

A photo showing the thickness of a typical scuba cylinder wall in relation to the shoulder.

As research interns, we were also given the opportunity to participate in a regulator clinic at the headquarters of Dive Rite. This was a first for many of us, to open up such a critical part of our life-support equipment. The experience gave me a better understanding of the system and while it was complex in some sense, it could be broken down into a relatively simple system.

Beth Jones and I taking apart the second stage of a regulator as a part of a regulator clinic at Dive Rite.

During my time at DAN, I also became certified as an instructor for the Divers Alert Network First Aid for Professional Divers (DFA Pro) Course. For the course, we were guided through general first aid, emergency oxygen, CPR, neurological assessment and first aid for hazardous marine life injuries. These skills were first taught at the provider level with the help of our instructors Christine Tamburri and Wally Endres from Risk Mitigation and Safety Services.

This course gave us the foundations and knowledge to apply to our DFA Pro instructor training, which was done with the help of Jim Gunderson, the director of training at DAN. Working with Jim, we were able to better understand the teaching methodology DAN employs to provide some of the most robust training in CPR and first aid available while making it applicable to divers.

Some of the training materials used for the DAN DFA Pro Course.

Each of these certifications has aided in my professional development immensely, as I am able to bring them back to my home dive shop. I am excited to teach new students about the importance of first aid training for divers. I also have gained a deeper understanding of how my equipment works when diving and am therefore better equipped to solve problems above and below the water.