Category Archives: Internship Journeys

New places and faces: the start of a grand adventure

It’s mid-March – a late weekday evening. I’ve returned home after a long day in the lab, refining the molecular assay I’ve been working on and troubleshooting for months as part of my Master’s thesis research. I take the evening to catch up with friends and family back home. It’s one of the only times of day I can reach them since they’re 8–10 hours behind my current time zone. Suddenly, my focus shifts as an email appears in my inbox. My jaw drops with a smile, and I immediately call a close friend on campus. She picks up, and I skip the greeting. All I can say is, “I just got a VERY exciting email.” I hadn’t even opened the message yet, but reading the subject line was informative enough. This was the email I’d be waiting for, hoping for, and dreaming of- I was going to be the 2022 National Park Service Research Intern for Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) and the National Park Service (NPS) Submerged Resources Center (SRC). 

Fast forward several months, through a whirlwind of late-night writing sessions, Master’s defense preparations, adjusting my graduation schedule, and soaking up my last bit of time in the Red Sea, I moved home after 2.5 years to squeeze in a short but sweet visit to my hometown, Thunder Bay, Ontario. A week after graduating from KAUST and returning to Canada, I find myself now in the hustle and bustle of New York City. It’s time for a new adventure to begin, and I’m here at the OWUSS 48th annual awards ceremony.

Looking over Lake Superior from my hometown Thunder Bay, Ontario. Even though the OWUSS NPS internship started in 2010, I will be their first Canadian intern.

Since 1974, OWUSS has provided support and opportunities for young people in underwater-related disciplines through scholarships and internships. These one-of-a-kind programs offer the chance to learn from a global network of leaders in the underwater world. Forty-eight years later, the annual awards weekend continues, this year marking the first time in three years that interns, scholars, alumni, board members, sponsors, volunteers, hosts, supervisors, and family come together to celebrate from all over the world. An event full of anticipation, energy, inspiring conversations, and new and familiar faces. It is spent sharing the latest updates from returning scholars and interns and welcoming the new class in preparation for their upcoming experiences. 

Most of the weekend’s events are hosted at The Explorers Club Headquarters. A truly one-of-a-kind venue – containing members and artifacts from numerous “famous firsts,” including the exploration and traverse of The North Pole, The South Pole, Mount Everest, Marianas Trench, and the Moon landing. I find these Headquarters quickly becoming “home base” for the week – even more so than our hotel. The atmosphere here serves to further heighten my excitement for the journey I will embark on over the next several months, during which I will travel to numerous national parks across the continental U.S. and Pacific Islands as a scientific diver. How could it not, when I find myself catching up on emails between presentations by Dr. Sylvia Earle, the United Nations Oceans Affairs team, and explorer Cristina Zenato while sitting next to the Apollo 11 Moon flag and Matthew Henson’s North Pole mittens.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, biologist, oceanographer, explorer, and President of Mission Blue, unveiling the latest updates in the efforts to establish a global network of marine protected areas, through local Hope Spots and raising awareness, access, and support for their conservation.

Conservationist, educator and explorer Cristina Zenato, delivering a powerful and passionate speech on how to inspire ocean stewardship and awareness.

The weekend proceeds with introductions and recognition of 2019, 2021, and 2022 interns and scholars through banquets, symposiums, and workshops. During the Saturday symposium, the audience has the great pleasure of viewing 2021 North American Scholar Jamil Wilson’s video presentation on Diving Through Adversity and 2021 European Scholar Arzucan N. Askin’s video presentation on the Depths of the Anthroposea.

Joining us in the audience is my immediate supervisor, Dave Conlin, Chief of the NPS Submerged Resources Center. He beams quietly while watching 2021 NPS Intern Sarah Von Hoene present her success and experiences last year. Although the spotlight is on the interns tonight, it must be acknowledged and celebrated that without Dave and the SRC team; their years of groundbreaking work in maritime archaeology; their strong working relationships turned deep friendships with NPS employees and collaborators across the country; and their dedicated action to lifting up young aspiring researchers and explorers, this internship would not be possible. For the past 12 years, in partnership with OWUSS, SRC has devoted tremendous time and resources to one individual per year to embark on this journey. Many of the NPS internship alumni are still active in OWUSS today and have launched successful careers in marine exploration, communication, photography, monitoring, and research. However, when praised for his support and achievements, Dave simply states, “I take no credit for my interns’ successes, just pride in their accomplishments.” This heartfelt sentiment is met with cheerful goosebumps. I feel them wash over me, along with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to be placed in such generous and capable hands. I feel honored that NPS SRC and OWUSS have chosen to invest in my personal and professional growth and am inspired see alumni and volunteers continuing to pay it forward by devoting the time, energy, and resources required to keep these long-term programs running.

OWUSS Class of 2022 interns alongside President and 1990 Rolex Scholar Steve Barnett (right) and Chairman Vincent Malkoski (left).

OWUSS NPS Submerged Resources Center interns (left to right: Michael Langhans – 2019, myself – 2022, Sarah Von Hoene – 2021, Shaun Wolfe – 2018) alongside NPS SRC Chief Dave Conlin (center)

For the first time, the OWUSS annual awards weekend now coincides with World Oceans Week, allowing scholars and interns to engage in panel discussions, workshops, presentations, mentoring, and networking events hosted by leading oceans organizations, researchers, and industry professionals. Overarching themes throughout the week include ocean governance, stewardship, and engagement; career coaching and personal branding; adaptive conservation and restoration; and blue economy innovation, to name a few. Thought-provoking points are raised about how the presence/absence of marine life dictates how/where we use/govern the ocean, the importance of quantifying recreational use of marine resources, understanding the political context of the science you are disseminating, the paradox of law without enforcement, and the future importance of interdisciplinary science. Regardless of the speaker, a common conversation emerges – that science is not finished until it is communicated. Reflecting on my experiences as a student and researcher at several universities, I note numerous examples of where academia often stops at 80%. During my time as an NPS intern, I hope to see firsthand how applied marine ecology, archeology, and photography are used to uncover, document, and directly communicate crucial information on natural and cultural resources to policymakers, stakeholders, and the general public. 

World Oceans Week at The Explorers Club Headquarters in NYC. OWUSS interns and scholars joined several workshops and panel discussions, including one on ocean governance, the blue economy, and oceans and climate change led by Valentina Germani and Francois Bailet of the United Nations.

OWUSS interns and scholars were invited to join the in-person United Nations World Oceans Day hosted by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. I joined the event with 2019 OWUSS European Scholar Kim Hildebrandt (center) and 2022 OWUSS European Scholar Hannah Douglas (right).

After a week in NYC, I leave feeling inspired yet disconnected. I can’t help but notice how these concrete jungle walls detach us from the natural world, hindering our connection with nature by negatively impacting our accountability for the state of the environment in our own backyard, muffling our understanding of where our food comes from, and amplifying our reliance on instant communication and gratification within our daily lives. Right on cue, after a fast-paced week, I head to Denver, Colorado – home of the Submerged Resources Center. 

A small team with global reach, one only needs to walk a few steps into the SRC office to gain a sense that this is a remarkable group of individuals working to drive their accomplishments. For more than forty years, the NPS SRC has been operational and recognized as a global leader in maritime archeology. Using an interdisciplinary approach and advanced scientific diving, they serve to locate, document, interpret, and preserve cultural resources and provide advice towards their protection. At their Colorado headquarters, I had the great pleasure of meeting and learning from Brett Seymour (Deputy Chief, A/V specialist), Susana Pershern (A/V specialist), and archeologists Matt Hanks, David Morgan, Anne Wright, and Andrew (AJ) Van Slyke. Millie Mannering, the 2022 OWUSS Australasian scholar, is joining us for a week of basic training and final preparations before setting off on her year-long adventure. As the week unfolds, I recognize each person’s unique journey that has led them to this team. I value the unique opportunity that this internship entails, in addition to my duties as a scientific diver, to gain insight into shaping my own individualized career path as I face the transition from graduate student to young professional. 

NPS Submerged Resources Center Headquarters in Denver, Colorado. The entrance is line with underwater photography, magazine covers, and mementos of exploration.

During our first day at SRC, archeologist AJ Van Slyke introduced us to some of his current work. Our overarching goal for the day was to update a predictive map to inform and identify survey locations in search of the Guererro (a Spanish slave ship wrecked in 1827 near the Florida Keys while engaged in battle with a British anti-slavery ship, the HMS Nimble). Based on a comprehensive report AJ wrote, which compiles literature and historical records detailing the events leading up to and following the wreckage, we play out each version of the accounts step by step – somewhat like a board game. The goal is to identify areas of geographical overlap in each ship’s story; however, interpreting historical information often presents significant barriers, as units of measurement can be described as an “arrows reach” away or reference landmarks that may no longer exist or have a documented location. Combined with the variability and inaccuracies of personal reporting and the combined efforts of excavating, analyzing, and interpreting findings, I can see that SRC has their work cut out for them. Nonetheless, the overwhelming successes of SRC in locating and documenting ships in remote, challenging, and unpredictable environments speaks to their hard work, talent, passion, and ingenuity and serves to bring knowledge to both the local and global community on history that has been lost beneath the surface of our oceans for decades. 

OWUSS 2022 Australasian scholar Millie Mannering and I translating field notes into hand drawn maps of historical shipwrecks.

NPS Submerged Resources Center archeologist AJ Van Slyke and I updating a predictive map in search of the Guererro’s final resting place.

We also joined archeologist Anne Wright for a DAN Diving Emergency Management Provider course, where she took us through several training sessions, including basic Life Support (CPR/First Aid), neurological assessments, emergency oxygen for scuba diving injuries, and first aid for hazardous marine life. Although I have maintained First Aid provider and instructor certifications as a lifeguard over the past years, it was a welcome refresher to prepare Millie, SRC archeologist David Morgan and I for a safe and full summer of diving ahead. 

NPS Submerged Resources Center archeologist Anne Wright leading us through a refresher on Diving Emergency Management, including emergency oxygen for scuba diving injuries.

Lastly, it was time for us to complete the Blue Card certification required to dive with the National Park Service. Deputy Chief Brett Seymour took Millie and I through several unique sets of dive and fitness testing, including gas sharing, rescue tows, NPS bailout (jumping into the water, gear in hand, to be assembled and donned on the pool floor), and NPS ditch and recovery (doffing all equipment underwater, turning air off, swimming away, and returning to don your gear). Although many of these skills are not necessarily meant to mimic “real-life” situations, they gauge a diver’s composure and response to stressors underwater and demonstrate the ability to think critically in unfamiliar situations.

Just over two weeks after my internship has begun, and before I’ve even set foot on my first park, I am astonished by the experiences I’ve had and the new network I am a part of. SRC has given me all the tools I need to succeed and then some, and I leave Denver, dive gear in hand, ready to take the leap and kick start what I’ve been selected to do. I want to thank each member of the SRC for making me feel so welcome and for trusting me to represent this team during my internship. Thank you for being exceptionally friendly faces to greet in the office each day, for sharing your current projects with me, and for the friendly conversation over lunch at your favorite spots. Thank you to Dave and Michelle for opening up your home and family to me, for going above and beyond to provide the comfort of a home away from home, and show me the best of Colorado (including a trip to my very first (!!) U.S National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park). Thank you to my internship coordinators, Shaun Wolfe, and Claire Mullaney, for supporting me in the preparations for this summer. Thank you to past NPS SRC interns I was able to meet (including Garrett Fundakowski – 2016, Shannon Brown – 2018, and interns present in NYC) for your helpful advice and for welcoming me into the NPS OWUSS family with open arms and enough stoke to last a lifetime.

Over the next several months, I look forward to traveling to each new place and each new park, with fresh eyes – eager to listen and learn, and apply my skills where applicable. Over time, I hope that many of you reading this blog will become familiar faces, and I look forward to taking you along on this grand adventure. 

 

 

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Sorry Dolly, 9 to 5 is Boring

My journey as the 2022 American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Mitchell Scientific Diving Intern for the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) began May 16th as I ventured to East Boothbay, Maine. This summer, I am working at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Studies in Dr. Doug Rasher’s Lab where I am assisting Dr. Rasher as well as PhD students Rene Francolini, Dara Yiu and Shane Farrell (2018 Dr. Lee H. Somers AAUS Intern) with a project entitled “Maine-eDNA”. This 5-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation,  involves multiple Maine institutions, and aims to improve our understanding of Maine’s coastal ecosystems using molecular ecological tools. As someone who was born and raised in Maine, I was wicked excited to find out I would be participating in such a crucial project, especially one involving the ever-advancing world of eDNA.

For those who do not know, eDNA stands for environmental DNA and this is a relatively new and upcoming molecular tool in ocean sciences and stands to transform how we monitor and understand global ocean ecosystems. An easy way I learned to understand eDNA, is for instance: if you have any furry or hairy pet, you always end up covered in their hair all the time. Anything that “sheds” off your body will have DNA – your entire genetic code. If you take a sample of dust from your floor, you will certainly find lots of DNA belonging to your furry animal, and plenty of human DNA as well. Of course, you don’t need DNA to know about you and your pets, but you may also find a small amount of DNA belonging to insects or rodents – which would show evidence of critters you may not see often but are secretly living in your house. In any body of water, the same process happens. For example, marine animals such as fish shed scales, mucus, or cells into their environment. So, analyzing eDNA – which is, in this instance, all of the DNA collected from a water sample – can be a powerful “forensics” tool to assess who lives in that habitat. Using eDNA is important because it allows scientists to collect information about the total biodiversity in the ecosystem by metabarcoding all the species (fish, algae, invertebrates, microbes etc.) at a location, as well as tell us about organisms that are too rare, small, or hidden to see with our own eyes.

Image by Liam Whitmore, University of Limerick, CC BY-ND (https://theconversation.com/environmental-dna-how-a-tool-used-to-detect-endangered-wildlife-ended-up-helping-fight-the-covid-19-pandemic-158286). Visual explanation demonstrating the flow of eDNA metabarcoding, which starts with the species from an environmental sample to DNA extraction, and results in a “barcode” for the species found in the sample.

The Rasher lab’s project in the larger Maine-eDNA program, is focused on studying “Species on the Move” within kelp forest (rocky reef) ecosystems across the Gulf of Maine (GoM). Our goals are to track changes in species distribution (i.e. the loss of native species and the arrival of new species to the ecosystem), to study the ecological impacts of changing reef communities, and to develop models that help predict these species geographic range shifts. Now you may be wondering, why are the species moving? As a Mainer, I have grown up seeing the impacts of warming in the GoM, but what many people do not know is that the GoM is warming faster than 96.2% of the world’s oceans (GMRI 2021). Additionally, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) recorded the longest marine heat wave ever last year(2021), which lasted from April through most of August. Long story short, species are on the move in the GoM because of ocean warming and marine heat waves, which directly reduces the survival of kelp (a group of cold-water species that create forests) as well as cause the formation of red algae “turf reefs”.  Kelp and red algae are quite different – the loss of big, complex structures created by kelp may potentially lead to other changes in the flora and fauna on the rocky reefs across the coast. The transformation of kelp forests to reefs dominated by red algae may have consequences for important commercial species, as their larval and juvenile stages depend on kelp forests as refuge from predators.

Modified image from Filbee-Dexter and Wernberg in their article, “Rise of Turfs: A New Battlefront for Globally Declining Kelp Forests”. This depicts the direct (red) and indirect (yellow) drivers of a transition from kelp forest to turf reef (Filbee-Dexter and Wernberg 2018).

How are we collecting data to meet the goals of “Species on the Move” project? Through traditional ecological surveys and experiments in conjunction with eDNA analysis. That is where I come in and I get to be in the field collecting data and participating in lab work. As the title of this blog posts suggests, this summer (and science in general) does not involve an everyday 9 to 5 schedule. Instead, our field days are sometimes from 8 am to 11 pm! Each field day consists of going to one of ten study sites. We try our best to pre-pack the boat with gear, otherwise it is packed the morning of, and we try to leave the dock around 9 am.

Pictured above (left) is the Bigelow vessel stern and in the opening of the trees on land is Bigelow Laboratory!

Pictured above (right) includes the PVC frames for squid pops which I’ll talk about below.

On the way to the dive site, we attach line with buoys to PVC frames, because upon arrival to the site all six frames are deployed overboard in a straight line, spaced 10 m apart. Each frame consists of four “squid pops” which are circular cut outs of dried squid. There are two on the top frame to entice fish to get an estimate of predation intensity and two on the bottom frame for invertebrate (e.g., crab, lobster) predation intensity, which we will later compare between sites that have healthy kelp forests to those where kelp has disappeared. Once all the frames are out, we anchor the boat at the GPS location for the dive site and get ready for the dives. Below is a written dive plan that does a great job at explaining what is required at every dive site. I will do my best to explain each dive 🙂

The first dive includes roving fish surveys, eDNA collection (using the syringes pictured above), and juvenile fish and microhabitat swath surveys. Basically, we take two 50 m transects and swim 100 m total, while collecting roving fish data. I also collect four syringes (totaling 2L) at two locations along the first transect and repeat the same process on the second transect. Then on the way back to the starting point, I assist Dara with juvenile fish swaths by spotting tiny fish for 15 m increments along the transect. All the above is repeated on the third and last for the last 50 m transect.

Me and my eDNA syringes in a kelp forest in northern Maine.

The second dive includes conducting eight quadrat surveys along a 50 m transect. Each quadrat survey includes assessment of percent cover of kelp and other algae found within the 1 m2 PVC frame, stipe counts of brown algae, counts of fish, as well as counts and percent cover of invertebrates (e.g., sponges, barnacles, etc.). In addition, within some of these replicate quadrats we collect metabolomic water samples and collections of microbial communities as part of Shane’s effort to understand how the loss of kelp forests impacts the chemical and microbial microenvironments of the reef. After Shane and Dara take estimates of algae cover, count animals, and collect water, I am responsible for harvesting and collecting all the algae within six quadrats, so that we can calculate an estimate of biomass. This involves collecting all kelp found in the full 1 m2 quadrat as well as collecting all other algae in a 0.25 m2 area of quadrat by hand. By collecting the kelps and algae’s it allows us to get precise measurements of the relative abundances of kelp and red algae species – and ID all the cryptic red algae species – which is important for tracking “species on the move” and for eDNA comparison. Some algae species must be viewed under a microscope in the lab or sent off to a facility to be genetically barcoded, to reveal their identity.

The last dive is used to finish the last quadrat survey, but most likely to collect any leftover gear or more algae.

Left to Right: Me, Dara, and Shane before we entered the water for our third dive of the day!

After the dives, we collect the squid pop frames and head back to Bigelow, but the fun for the day does not end there. Once we get back to the lab, take everything off the boat, and clean/rinse gear, lab work starts! First, all the eDNA water samples are put through a filter and all the DNA from the water sample is then stuck to a piece of filter paper, which we save for analysis later.

Seawater from eDNA syringe in graduated cylinder is poured into the filter seen in background.

Filter paper with DNA from filtered seawater collected from Allen Island.

The last activity of a dive day is sorting, IDing, and weighing all the different algae collected from the quadrats! I took a phycology class my sophomore year of college, but I missed out on the lab portion due to COVID. So, this has been a great experience to apply what knowledge I have and of course learn more about algae! I have become familiar with many of the brown algae like Agarum and Laminaria, green algae like Chaetomorpha and Ulva sp, and red blade algae like Chondrus, Porphyra, Lomentaria, Palmaria, and Euthora. These species I have become very familiar with and I am able to identify them underwater too!

Agarum! Known for its holes which is believed to be an adaptation for fast moving water environments.

Lomentaria! Looks like a cactus 🙂

The filamentous branched and branched red tubes are more difficult to ID by just looking at them, so we usually examine them under the microscope. Dara has been a great resource for algae ID and she typically asks me what I think the algae is based on characteristics rather than telling me what the algae is under the scope. Some characteristics that are important for filamentous algae ID include cortication around the cells and pericentral cells.

Algae sorting!

So far, we have completed our spring survey at 10 dive sites, that range from turf reefs in the south to lush kelp forests in the north. For the following few weeks, I will assist the lab with some molecular work, learn about the process of preparing DNA samples for sequencing, and then prepare for the late summer round of diving. I am eager to share with everyone what I learn in the lab!

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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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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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For the last two weeks of my internship, I shed the title of “scientific diver in training” and became an AAUS Scientific Diver thanks to Diana Steller, Shelby Penn, and my fellow classmates. The first week consisted of lectures on different topics including equipment, cylinders & regulators, species identification, dive emergency & rescue, diving physics, and diving physiology. After expanding our minds in the classroom, we enhanced our skills in the water. We had our checkout dives at Breakwater Cove (where I had my first cold water dive at the beginning of the internship). Then at Hopkins Marine Station, we had our first practice on Reef Check surveys.

Left image- Diana Steller demonstrating how to conduct fish transects with a 2-meter reference, Eliseo Nevarez 

Right image- Tumbling tanks that has red rust on the inside. Thanks to Shelby Penn for showing me how to tumble tanks!

Reef Check helps ensure the long-term sustainability and health of rocky reefs and kelp forests along the coast of California. They monitor rocky reefs inside and outside of California’s marine protected areas. Reef Check also provides scientific data (which is collected by dedicated volunteers) needed to make knowledgeable decisions for the sustainable management and conservation. Reef Check California volunteers are divers, fishermen, kayakers, surfers, and boaters! I am so happy that I had the chance to get involved with Reef Check this summer and for anyone living in California interested in diving and conservation, please volunteer! Check out their website to learn more.

We learned species identification of fish, abalone, crabs, sea stars, slugs/snails, sea cucumbers, urchins, kelp, and other algae. As a dive team, we conducted four different surveys: algae, fish, invertebrates, and uniform point contact (UPC) using 30 meter transect tapes. For algae, we counted individuals (only if they met certain length requirements) and recorded number of stipes for two species: Feather boa and Giant kelp in an area of 2 m across the transect. We also had to keep an eye out for algae species that are invasive including Caulerpa sp., Undaria sp., Sargassum muticum, and Sargassum horneri. For invertebrates, we counted individuals (of certain lengths) and recorded sizes of abalone. For fish, our instructors and trained volunteers counted and sized the fish that they observe in an area 2 m across the transect tape and 2 m off the bottom (30 m x 2 m x 2 m). The goal of UPC is to characterize the habitat so this survey combined cover, substrate, and relief at 30 points along the transect.

Left image- Bull kelp with other algae on a rocky reef.

Top image- All of the students moving the zodiac into the water for our deep dive.

During the second week of the diving course, we camped and practiced more Reef Check surveys at Big Creek State Marine Reserve in Big Sur, California. Big Creek is a 14.51 square mile MPA that was established September 2007. This dive site is the perfect place to obtain our AAUS certification. There was an easy beach entry, a freshwater stream nearby to rinse off our equipment, grassy area for our belongings, and super thick kelp to explore in.

Top image- Students happily rinsing off in the stream after a long dive. 

Left image- View of the beach, bridge, and the mist during a break in between dives.

Right image- Our lovely compressor that we used to fill tanks while camping. 

Our normal day included waking up at the camp site, preparing lunch, walking to the beach, practicing as many surveys and we could on 2 dives, rinsing off in the stream, then continuing with lectures and/or exams. On our last survey day, Dan Abbott from Reef Check came to test us on our species identification skills. We then divided into 3 teams with each diver in charge of one specific survey. Each team had two transect sites to finish and luckily, we all finished them on the last day!

Top- (Left) Beautiful view of our dive entry site and our guardian, a seagull. (Right) Normal view of our swim to the temporary transects. 

Bottom- (Left) Our first snorkel/kelp crawl at Big Creek (Right) More beautiful kelp. 

I couldn’t have wished for a better way to end the AAUS/OWUSS internship. This small group of people (there were only 7 students in our class) have become lifelong friends and dive buddies. From spending time every day with each other for two weeks, we all became very close and helped build one another’s skills and experience. Through difficult and hard times, we supported each other well and lifted each other’s spirits when they were low. Scuba diving is an activity where you trust your dive buddy with your life. This allowed us to build strong relationships and work together perfectly. We trusted each other to finish surveys as a team and most importantly, dive safe. We studied hard to remember the species we needed to know to conduct surveys and we quizzed each other until we all felt comfortable and confident.

Left- Group photo of our wonderful AAUS class + Dan Abbott from Reef Check.

Middle- Fellow student, Lauren Strope, loving the kelp, water, and sun.

Right- Some locals welcoming us back to Moss Landing the day we returned. 

Deepest thanks to Diana Steller, without her there is no way I would’ve obtained four diving certifications, completed Reef Check training, helped on multiple research projects in California and Mexico, and had the time of my life this summer. I’ve learned many lessons about marine science, diving, and life from Diana. Thank you to the people from Moss Landing Marine Labs, San Diego State University, and those who participated in the AAUS Scientific Diving Course for the adventures, shared laughter, and teaching me how to be a better diver, researcher, and person. I can’t wait to see the success of future OWUSS/AAUS interns and to follow in the footsteps of past researchers and scientists. Although this is my final chapter as the OWUSS and AAUS intern, I am looking forward to dive deeper into marine science in the future.

A team (Chase McCoy, Shelby Penn, myself, Diana Steller, Mariana Kneppers) after our last dive at Big Creek.

 

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New Shores – REEF [4]

Bayside view from Sundowner’s, Key Largo. Taken while my parents were visiting near the end of my internship

Eleven weeks – it is strange to think how short my internship with REEF this summer truly was. I knew before arriving how fast the summer would go by, but the ephemeral nature of seasonal positions is always a little surprising. Before I reflect on my time in Key Largo, however, I would like to go back to this past April, when my experience with OWUSS really began.

I was just finishing up my senior year at the University of Kentucky, and I was juggling a lot of activities. The deadline for my senior thesis and poster presentation was coming up, and finals loomed just ahead. I was more than happy to take a break from finals and paper-writing the second weekend of April to travel up to New York City, a stark departure from the rolling hills of central Kentucky. This was to be an exciting weekend for several reasons – I had never been to the Big Apple, and I was about to be inducted as a member of both the Explorer’s Club and the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. On top of this, I was about to meet back up with my friend Liza Hasan, who had recently accepted this years’ AAUS Mitchell Internship. Liza and I became good friends back in 2017 when we both studied abroad in Bonaire, at a research station focusing on tropical marine ecology. We were overjoyed when we found out we had both received internships from OWUSS, knowing how rare and unique of an opportunity this was for each of us. We would also have the chance to see our friend Shannon Brown again (who was the 2018 NPS intern), who was an intern at the Bonaire research station when we were students!

After a redeye flight out of Lexington to Newark, I took in the sights of the big city as I arrived via the bus system. New York was something else – unbelievably tall and expansive, home to countless people accomplishing a million different tasks. This past spring, I visited many big cities for the first time, from New Orleans to Atlanta to San Francisco, but nothing compared to this. The awe I felt simply rolling my luggage down the streets of Midtown Manhattan added to the feeling that I was stepping into an entirely new world with this internship.

The 2019 interns! Photographed at the New York Yacht Club. From Left: Myself, Liza Hasan (AAUS Mitchell), Kyra Jean Cipolla (AAUS Somers), Michael Langhans (NPS), Abbey Dias (DAN)

The weekend would prove to be a whirlwind, what with meeting all the other interns, to official inductions at the top floor of the Radisson, to a night of dancing at 48 Lounge. We made a wild realization that four out of the five 2019 interns had all had Dr. Franziska Elmer as our research mentor at one point (including me and Liza). And this was all the first night! It turned out that Kyra and Abbey had both completed research projects under Dr. Elmer while studying abroad at the School for Field Studies in Turks & Caicos recently, while Liza, Shannon, and I all knew her through the Bonaire program. All of these seemingly random connections painted a beautiful picture of how the OWUSS community functions – it is there, in part, to get qualified young people in touch with the people they need to, in order to forge a path forward in the underwater world. This would become apparent the next day, when we had several socials and formal events at the Explorers Club and New York Yacht Club, respectively. Everyone in the society was incredibly excited to meet us and hear about our ambitions and university studies, as well as introduce us to past OWUSS interns and scholars. Hearing the presentations of each prior intern/scholar and how they were all going on to do amazing things in their fields directly after their experiences was inspiring. Not only that, but it was a challenge to do great things and build upon my own experience with REEF.

Pastel illustration at the Explorers Club

Roosevelt Portrait in the Explorers Club

It was with that challenge that I returned to Kentucky to finish out my undergraduate career and then move on to the Florida Keys. But I had one surprise yet in store – just before leaving for New York, I had sent in an application to work as a Waterfront Assistant at the same field station that Dr. Elmer worked at in Turks & Caicos. Just before finals week hit in late April, I received an email saying I had been offered the job! I was both overjoyed and immediately stress-planning about how this would all work. Coming on as a Waterfront Assistant was contingent upon me completing my Divemaster (DM) certification over the summer, since I would start in Turks & Caicos in late August. Thankfully, REEF would end up being incredibly accommodating and allow me to complete my DM throughout the summer (read more here).

And that brings us back to the present. In the time since my last blog post, my time with REEF mostly consisted of wrapping up my personal project and working as a camp counselor once again. These coincidentally were my favorite aspects of being a REEF intern! The flexibility to pursue one’s own project at the REEF office (while not assisting with office work, lionfish derbies, Fish & Friends seminars, etc.) was exciting, especially because of the support offered by the staff. Two of the remote staff, Janna Nichols and Christy Pattengill-Semmens, were instrumental in helping me put together a Quizlet program, as part of the Learning Resources for the Volunteer Fish Survey Project. David gave me the idea early on to produce PowerPoint slides to help surveyors learn all the Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced fish species of the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA). I ended up using Quizlet instead, and developed lists of all the relevant species for each tier of difficulty, and then matching up photos with the common and species names of each species. Part of what was so exciting about this was that in the process I became much better at identifying TWA fish myself. What made this really rewarding, though, was the knowledge that my work would reach a wide, potentially international audience through the REEF website. Christy and Janna helped me get my Quizlets integrated directly into the website (see here). Not only that, but now REEF staff and volunteers are putting together Quizlets for every other region, making it truly accessible for anybody that wants to learn fish ID of a region anywhere in the world. One of my main goals going into the summer was to make the science that we do in the marine world more accessible, and I could not have been more satisfied with how this turned out.

It was (almost) always a joy working with the kids at Ocean Explorers Camp. Can’t beat a re-creation of the Titanic

As my personal project winded down, my last week at REEF ended up being as a camp counselor again. I never expected to love working with the kids as much as I did, but couldn’t have been happier having another go at Ocean Explorers Camp. This time I went in with a bit of experience under my belt, and made a commitment to do things a bit differently. I made a concerted effort to spend more time getting to know each camper, instead of just a few (as fun as getting chased around by Dakota the first week was!), and in doing so I feel that I connected with the kids pretty well. It was incredible seeing how quickly they could absorb knowledge about the ecology of the Florida Keys, and it gave me a chance to improve my interpretation skills. I have learned that kids in the 8-12 age range are perfectly equipped to learn a ton of information in a short amount of time, but only if you manage to keep their attention for more than a few minutes! A big part of that was figuring out how much each kid already knew about fish, corals, etc., and then not underestimating their knowledge, but instead building on what they already know and were interested in. I was surprised at how quickly I got back in the flow of being a counselor that week, and honestly I could see myself working in some marine education for children again in the future, whether through a job or as a volunteering effort. None of the kids gave me any adorable collages this time around, but I still felt a connection with them and won’t soon forget their unabashed excitement for the underwater world.

Natalie had her turn as the captain! Taken while out on John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s glass bottom boat.

With that final week at REEF completed, my internship now consisted of intensive Divemaster training through the first week of August. I had finished the bulk of my training requirements throughout the summer, on days off and over the weekends, however there were still my final written exams. With some feverish last-minute studying and review of decompression theory, I passed both sections of the written exam! Now it was time to get more time out on the boat and actually leading dives. I had already led a couple dives, covered in my third blog, but it was important to see what it was like leading dives for tourists/locals of various experience levels from morning to close, and then coming right back the next day and doing it all over again. That is how I learned to deal with the random challenges that popped up day-to-day, such as what to do when someone’s gear from the prior day got left at home, or how to lead a dive for a customer who lost their certification cards. On top of that, I was very happy to get the extra experience leading dives/working the boat, since that is what I will be doing for students in Turks & Caicos for the next year. Key Dives was the perfect shop to learn from this summer, largely because it was such a small shop with a tight-knit staff. They all expected the very best of me and pushed me to learn from my mistakes after every dive, even the small ones. If I momentarily lost where the mooring line was and had to ask for a direction, you can bet I was given some constructive criticism about it back on the surface. I had to learn quickly, and ultimately it all paid off. By the end of my DM training, I was very comfortable leading dives, pointing out rare fauna unique to certain sites. I was lucky enough to spot more than ten bonnethead sharks on a dive over a seagrass-heavy area on my very last trip with Key Dives, and the group I was leading was loving it.

Cutting through the crystal blue waters of Islamorada on the Key Dives boat, the horizon is endless

 

Bud n’ Mary’s Marina, where the Key Dives boat departed every day

The Key DIves shop!

With that last day at Key Dives, my internship officially concluded. However, I will soon be taking everything I learned to new shores in Turks & Caicos. I can’t say enough how thankful I am to everyone at REEF for helping make this summer incredibly memorable, as well as vital for my professional development. With newfound experience in everything from K-12 outreach to dive briefing, I am equipped to move forward in the field of marine science as a much improved educator. My time at REEF may be over, but I cannot wait to see the great things that future REEF/OWUSS interns go on to do next year!

The marina behind the Square Grouper restaurant, in Islamorada

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What is a Rhodolith?

By the end of this blog entry, trust me, you will know. From July 15th  to the 25th I had the pleasure of assisting on several different research projects around Catalina Island, California. After packing personal gear, dive gear, an inflatable boat, motor, and research gear from Moss Landing Marine Operations we set off for San Pedro. From San Pedro to Catalina (about a 5-hour drive), we discussed research projects and I grew more and more excited for diving around the island.

Avalon, Catalina Island

A clear day for diving at Avalon!

Diana Steller and Matthew Edwards are co-principal investigators on the main research project titled “Minimizing disturbance impacts by California vessel mooring systems on living rhodolith benthos in Catalina MPAs: an experimental assessment”. The project objectives are: “to identify and experimentally evaluate potential vessel mooring systems that may reduce impacts to rhodolith beds and other sensitive Catalina Island benthic habitats; to identify a suite of efficient field metrics to rigorously monitor integrity and recovery of rhodolith habitats; and to assess productivity and ecosystem functioning of rhodolith beds in order to evaluate restoration potential for recovery of impacted habitat.” (Steller & Edwards, SeaGrant). This involves many hours of scientific diving, lab work, and a few boxes of Oreos for energy.

A round rhodolith!

Scottie loves his greens!

Right on the day we arrived at Two Harbors (Big Fishermen’s Cove), I dove with the Survey Team at Emerald Bay. The Survey Team consisted of Diana Steller (Research Faculty/DSO of MLML and my internship host), Scott Gabara (Ph.D. candidate at San Diego State University and former MLML student), June Shrestha (MLML graduate student), and myself. Throughout the trip, we went to 6 different study sites and conducted benthic surveys inside and outside rhodolith beds.

Each of us had a different task and would attempt to complete them on dives that were a little over an hour long each. June conducted fish surveys and Scott would lay out the transect, identify the benthic substrate, count and identify the associated organisms on top of the rhodoliths within a 20 m transect. Diana and I would work with Scott on the same transect and use a 25 cm x 25 cm quadrat for substrate percent cover and we dug for organisms like snails, sea stars, urchins, and other small creatures. We also obtained sediment cores to collect live and dead rhodoliths to do size frequencies (where we took abundance in each size class and measured the volume).

Getting a rhodolith core isn’t as easy (or clean) as you think…

Scottie surveying the rhodolith bed using a quadrat.

 

Me holding a lovely rhodolith core.

A clean and clear core.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another section of the Rhodolith project involved deploying underwater chambers. There were 10 chambers in total, some located within rhodolith beds and some on top of crushed rhodolith/sand habitat. Inside the chambers were sensors that took measurements of water quality. During chamber surveys, benthic details and cores are taken as well. An additional part of the chamber experiment involved crushing of the rhodoliths with chains to mimic the crushing action of mooring chains. A Tupperware, rigid cylinder, and a spoon were used to collect live rhodoliths in order to bring them back to the lab to find size-frequency for each within and outside rhodolith bed samples.

Some brittle stars wanted to say hello! (Look close and you can see their arms)

Now on to the important part: what is a rhodolith? How does it form a bed? Most people don’t know what rhodoliths are. One day, a local boater on Catalina asked us what we were diving for and we responded “we’re observing rhodolith beds” and he replied that there isn’t much to see there within the bays. But truthfully, a rhodolith bed is a whole new world. If you look up a rhodolith on Wikipedia, you’ll read that rhodoliths are “ colorful, unattached, branching, crustose, benthic marine red algae that resemble coral. Rhodolith beds create biogenic habitat for diverse benthic communities.” This is definitely true plus they deposit calcium carbonate within their cell walls so they form small hard structure just like hard corals do. However, rhodoliths are unlike coral since they don’t attach themselves to any rocky substrate or seabed. That’s why they’re often called tumbleweeds because they roll around the sand and have thin branches. Rhodoliths are autotrophic and produce energy through photosynthesis so they only survive in the photic zone where it’s shallow and light can reach the little rhodoliths.

It wouldn’t be an interesting field season with just one project going on. An interesting project that was unrelated to rhodoliths was Taylor Eddy’s project on spatial variation in spiny lobster foraging preferences. Taylor is studying how spiny lobsters interact with the intertidal habitat and the seasonal variability of these interactions. Specifically, she is looking at how different food resources available in this habitat affects their reproduction and demography (size, sex, and abundance). To do this, she collects lobsters at high tide in the intertidal and subtotal, records the size, sex, and reproductive status of each lobster, and then removes a leg (don’t worry, they grow back!) to get a muscle sample for a diet study. Taylor is a CSUMB and MLML student working on her Master’s thesis and has conducted research on Catalina numerous times. We had to collect lobsters on three transects at night from two sites (Big Fishermen’s Cove and Birdrock). The first collection night, my role was the “runner”. I shined a red light on one end of the transect while two divers (Riley Young of CSUMB and Dillon Dolinar of SDSU) collected as many lobsters as they could with their hands. We could use only red lights because lobsters don’t see the color red which was a new fact to me. Once they collected lobsters, I brought them to the boat where Taylor got her measurements.

Snails love rhodoliths!

A Garibaldi wanted to say hello during our research dive! First time I saw one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were two main tasks that had to be done in the lab: size frequency and core live/dead processing. To do a size-frequency, we 1) separate live rhodoliths into three different size classes 2) count the number of rhodoliths in each size class 3) measure the volume of each size class along with the dry mass of the rhodoliths once they’re entirely dry. We did the same thing with the sediment cores without separating them by size, just by live and dead ones.

Dillon Dolinar (SDSU) happily removing water from a collected core.

 

Samples in their Petri dishes

Darrin Ambat (SDSU) sorting live and dead rhodoliths collected from a core.

Upclose with size-frequency rhodoliths

Dillon and Ehrick placing snails that were tagged at Isthmus Cove.

Charnelle happily sorting live and dead rhodolith from a core.

Freshly tagged snails.

Charnelle Wickliff, a student of California State University Monterey Bay and Moss Landing, has a project with the goal of measuring snail growth and movement between rhodolith beds, rocky reef, and kelp forest. This involved collecting Megastraea sp. from the rhodolith beds, measuring the width, and tagging them with a number using super glue (without gluing your fingers together). The snails were returned to the beds with markers. Charnelle will return to those markers and resample the area to find the snails and reevaluate their growth and movement between habitats.

Fun finds on a dive at Avalon! Plus a snail wanted a picture of itself!

Me measuring the width of one of our lovely snails.

Cat Harbor during an evening hike.

I will definitely miss the fun times, diving, and sunsets at Catalina! Stay tuned for my next blog post on the next chapter of my internship: AAUS Scientific Diving Course!

 

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Under the Sea – REEF [3]

A hulking mass loomed in the deep blue water, far away but not enough to escape the limited visibility. I only noticed it because the instructor, Jason, had motioned excitedly to our group, pointing off in the distance a couple moments before. It generally takes a lot for the instructors at Key Dives to get that excited underwater, so I figured it had to be something great. Sure enough, I soon realized that I was looking at none other than a pair of Goliath Groupers. One would be forgiven for mistaking these colossal fish for submarines cruising through the deep tropical waters. Words cannot describe how small I felt for a moment, witnessing these groupers go about their day around me, inching closer as we hovered transfixed. I had long known about this species but never really understood how awesome it would be to see them in person. While they are not the longest fish I have seen, their sheer weight and size is what makes them mind-boggling. I did not snap any photos because I was taking on a supervisory role that dive (to say nothing of how I forgot my GoPro on the boat), but I will savor the memory forever. All the more exciting was that this sighting occurred while diving the wreck of the Eagle. A Dutch ship built in 1962 that went on to change hands between owners in Israel and the Cayman Islands, it was struck by an electrical fire in 1985 and purchased by Monroe County in the Keys (read more here). Like several wrecks in the Keys, the Eagle was intentionally sunk to transform it into an artificial reef. These reef-wrecks are a huge draw for tourism, and part of the reason I am able to find such fantastic diving in the Florida Keys. We saw these particular goliath groupers after falling, scuba-style, through a huge hole in the side of the Eagle. Since the Eagle rests on its side, this meant positioning carefully over the hole, exhaling, and letting gravity do the work as we descended straight through the wreck, bottoming out near 100 feet deep over the sand.

View from the bow of the Giant Stride, Key Dives’ vessel

I found myself on that unbelievable dive of the Eagle while completing my deep dive scenario for divemaster training. I have not touched all that much on the pure diving aspect of my summer so far in these blogs, and here I wanted to highlight that. For the record, I do not have any photos from my divemaster training since often I am supervising other divers and need to keep my focus on them. For that reason, I have peppered photos from various other dives this past month throughout the post to give an idea of what I have seen in the water! Anyway, for the first several weeks at REEF, all of my diving consisted of fish surveys, from boats run by several different dive shops throughout Key Largo. I wanted to start off slow, because prior to arrival, my only dives since Bonaire (Fall 2017) had been a couple quarry dives in Kentucky last year. While I arrived as a certified Rescue diver and was a very confident diver leaving Bonaire, it had been a long time and I knew I was taking on a big commitment by aiming to complete my divemaster as a REEF intern. I wanted to respect my upcoming training as the considerable challenge I knew it would be, and so I first spent some time in the water getting my “sea legs” back. Being able to brush up on my tropical fish identification while doing so was all the better. By the time I finally arrived at Key Dives (a dive shop in Islamorada, south of Key Largo) in late June to start my training, I felt ready. I knew that this summer I would need to become a much improved diver and educator within a very short amount of time, and I wanted to hit the ground running.

Shortfin pipefish (Cosmocampus elucens), shot while doing a REEF fish survey on Blue Heron Bridge (BHB), West Palm Beach

The four weeks since starting that adventure have made this the summer of a lifetime. My training started out simple with a lot of pool work, mostly knocking out water skills as well as my scuba skills circuit. I have been doing my training alongside another man named Kent, who has been nothing but helpful and supportive as we progressed along. My first experience with the skill circuit was in a nice heated pool at Mike’s house, the owner of Key Dives. I realized then how tightknit the staff at the shop was, both by how willing Mike was to open up his house for me and Kent, but also the fact that Cortney, one of the instructors, offered to come over after hours to help us. I won’t lie: I totally failed that first circuit, but I came out of the pool happy as could be. I knew before even starting that I was not going to have all of my skills down because it had been a while since doing some of them, and to pass the circuit you have to successfully demonstrate all 24 skills relevant to teaching new divers. That said, I only failed a handful of skills, so I knew exactly what to work on going forward. Within a week or so, I had finished the circuit to demonstration quality!

Diving with the other interns at BHB

With the circuit complete, I was now entrusted to demonstrate skills to divers training to get their Open Water certification. And so a few weekends ago, I worked with a father and his young son to get the son certified, and I was able to see him nearly all the way through his open water course, from pool work to checkout dives in a local marina. It was incredibly fulfilling to see the light turn on for the student as he grasped the concept of letting go and breathing through a regulator, and seeing what it was like to glide underwater in the way only scuba diving allows. These checkout dives were in a pretty unique spot too – since seas were rough that day, we dove in Jules’ Undersea Lodge. Jules’ is a local attraction nestled in a marina far from any wave action, and is in fact the only underwater hotel in the United States. Tenants stay the night by diving down about 25 feet and are greeted by a transfixing display of schooling fish attracted by the shelter of the mangroves. At the bottom is a fully furnished hotel room, complete with food and drink brought down to you. While we didn’t get to stay the night ourselves, being able to take our time and see the benthic community was a great time, for both the student and myself.

The only undersea hotel in the United States!

The visibility at Jules’ was less than stellar however, which reminded of my own open water checkout dives done in the summer of 2017 in Falling Rock Park, a quarry in Kentucky. There is something special about learning to dive in such an environment because any stray movements can kick up silt that obscures visibility, from hours to entire days. Being forced to treat the benthic environment with care is a huge benefit for those so new to diving, something that, for me at least, carried over into my dives I would end up doing in warmer waters. Diving here in the tropics is generally very easy – the water is clear and warm, and visibility only gets low when there is a rare strong current, or if you are diving deep areas like wrecks. But carrying over that level of care for the substrate below is just as important here – you never know if your next fin kick could stunt years of growth on a head of coral!

Bridge foundation at BHB. The benthic communities found here are similar to the communities found in the Jules’ Undersea Lodge marina (sponges, hydroids, cnidaria, bivalves)

Back to divemaster, though: after successfully assisting with the training of the open water student, it was time to lead a few dives myself. I previously co-led scientific research dives in Bonaire, but that was on a dive site I knew by heart, and with an experienced buddy that I was very familiar with. Last Friday on the boat with Key Dives, I was tasked with leading a group of three that I had never met and had varying levels of dive experience, out on a site that I had never dived before. The dive briefing itself went very well, however I knew the biggest challenge would simply be navigating an unfamiliar site. After getting dropped at a site with a ripping current and no reef in sight, captain Kenny re-positioned the boat nearby. This time went as smoothly as I could have hoped – I looped in and out of a beautiful patch of spur and groove reef, always aware of where the boat was above me. It was a liberating feeling, knowing that I could do this, and it was gratifying to see the group I was leading having a blast and filming video of sharks and turtles around us.

Yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis) eyeing the camera. Photo by Michael Langhans

Flying gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans) – I was very excited to see one of these fish at BHB!

With a large chunk of my divemaster training behind me now, I have been able to take a breather for a bit and hop in the water for some fun dives. I was very happy to carve out time to dive with Michael, the current OWUSS NPS intern, on Blue Heron Bridge (BHB) in West Palm Beach. Thus, we have continued the time-honored tradition of the NPS and REEF interns meeting up over the summer! Michael has been staying near Biscayne National Park for the better part of July, and we were able to make our schedules match. Over the course of two weekends, Michael, myself, and all the other interns/lead interns at REEF dove BHB together. BHB is regarded as some of the best shore diving in the world, and I must say it was my favorite experience diving so far. I gained an intense appreciation for just how impactful macro photography can be, watching Stacey and Michael spend 30 minutes at a time photographing a pair of frogfish. While I am currently only equipped with an older GoPro, I used that time to really search for the smaller things in the substrate, and was completely blown away by the sheer diversity of life found at BHB. One moment I was watching a frogfish waddle along the sand, and another I was catching a fleeting glimpse of an uncommon blenny species as it darted into an old car rim.

Striated frogfish (Antennarius striatus). Masters of camouflage, we happened to catch this one out in the open! Photo by Stacey Henderson

Banded jawfish, Opistognathus macrognathus. Jawfish are often very cautious of divers and will duck into their holes when threatened. Photo by Michael Langhans

Our BHB dives ended up both being almost two hours long, since the site is so shallow and air lasts for a long time at ten feet. Given the time to relax and study one spot for hours, I would say that was the most content I have ever been on a dive. When Michael and Stacey shared their photos with everyone above-water, I felt as if I had missed an entire level of detail present at the site. Crisp underwater macrophotography tells a story unlike any other: the subtle markings on certain fish become apparent, the shape of the eyes suddenly becomes entrancing, the coloration of the skin gains depth. The dedication that Michael brings to the NPS internship through his photography is hard to miss, and it was in fact part of what inspired me to recently purchase an underwater camera myself! I have featured photos by him and Stacey from Blue Heron Bridge throughout this post, to provide an idea of what I have been seeing the past few weeks.

I finally got the chance to dive with Michael, the OWUSS NPS intern! Keeping the tradition alive. Photo by Stacey Henderson

With some fun dives out of the way, I will be finishing up my divemaster here over the next few weeks, but not before a second round of Ocean Explorer’s summer camp! I am very excited to oversee another group of campers as they learn about the underwater world of the Florida Keys. Since my time at REEF is coming to a close soon, I am also finishing up a few long-term projects related to REEF’s Volunteer Fish Survey Project. Stay tuned to hear more on that front!

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Behind the scenes of dive safety: Hyperbaric chambers and cylinders

“The bends” — or decompression sickness (DCS) — can be a serious dive-related injury that results from inadequate elimination of accumulated inert gases (like nitrogen) from body tissues. The body absorbs more gas from breathing while diving than it does at the surface in attempt to equilibrize gas concentrations in tissue with the increasing ambient pressure of the surroundings. Therefore, to reverse this process and eliminate the accumulated gas, the reduction in ambient pressure must be slow and controlled. For this reason, it is recommended that divers do not exceed an ascent rate of 30 feet/9 meters per minute and they perform a safety stop to wash out as much remaining gas that was accumulated under pressure as possible. In the event of a rapid ascent, inert gases are not properly washed out from the body tissues and the person becomes “bent.”

If a person is suspected to have DCS, they will be sent to the nearest medical facility to be evaluated by a physician, and then DAN will contact the nearest available hyperbaric facility for treatment.

A common misconception about hyperbaric treatment of DCS is that it causes bubbled nitrogen in the body to re-dissolve back into the blood. The real benefit to hyperbaric treatment is that the act of breathing oxygen at increased pressure and concentration creates a pressure gradient. This gradient allows for more effective removal of other gases in the body (like nitrogen) through exhalation and addresses the inflammatory response to aid in healing as well. Hyperbaric medicine is not just for scuba divers, because the benefits of high concentrations of oxygen can be used to treat serious infections and heal wounds resulting from diabetes or radiation treatment, as well as treat other indicated conditions.

The entrance and inside of the chamber “Charlie.” Operating lights are visible hanging from the ceiling because the chamber was originally intended for use as an operating room for open-heart surgeries. Since the invention of the heart and lung machine (at the same time as the chamber was finished), this is no longer needed.

 

 

 

Duke’s hyperbaric medical facility has an interconnected multi-place chamber system, and recently the other DAN interns and I received a tour of the facility from Eric Schinazi, a hyperbaric chamber specialist at Duke. He shared with us the history of the chambers, how they were built, how they’re controlled, and how air is compressed.

The control panel station for all the chambers at Duke. Pressure gauges are visible (large round circles) and are very similar to the pressure gauge on scuba cylinders.

While we were touring the chamber, there was a research project being conducted on oxygen toxicity. We got to peek into the research chamber to see how the research subject was preparing to exercise while breathing compressed gas in the chamber.

Looking into the small pool in the research chamber. The research subject is preparing to exercise on a bike sitting under the water. He is connected to various sets of electrodes and a respirometer for monitoring outside the chamber.

A big thanks to Eric for such a wonderful tour! I hope to stay out of hyperbaric chambers during my diving career, but it was a great experience to learn what hyperbaric treatment involves.

Cylinders:

Speaking of compressed gas, last week DAN employees and interns also had the opportunity to visit the Luxfer aluminum cylinder manufacturer where we learned how the cylinders are made and tested — it was like an episode of “How It’s Made”!

Cylinders are created from one piece of metal and formed into their shape through heating and pressure manipulations. Pictures were not allowed in the factory, so to get an idea of what the process looked like, you can check out this YouTube video of steel cylinders being created. It is generally the same process, except for minor differences between steel and aluminum cylinder production and details unique to each processing factory.

A ruptured cylinder. Cylinders are designed to split like this in the event of an explosion, to avoid fragmenting and shrapnel. This proves how essential it is to take good care of gear.

While at the facility, we also had the opportunity to take a visual cylinder inspection course from Mark Gresham, CEO of PSI-PCI (Professional Scuba/Cylinder Inspectors).

All cylinders need to have a visual inspection at least once per year (and hydrostatic testing every 5 years), but visual inspections should be done more often if there is reason to believe the cylinder may have sustained damage. This could be from dropping a cylinder, running the cylinder dry (because this greatly increases the risk of water getting into the cylinder), heat exposure, or after it’s been stored for a long period of time. In the event of an explosion, cylinders are designed to split down the middle (photo to the left) to avoid fragmenting and shrapnel.

Mark also was very generous to meet with us at DAN earlier this week to continue educating us on Oxygen cleaning and cylinder valve inspection. I took my first valve apart, and then put it back together! Let’s hope it still works!

 

A special thanks to Mark for his generous time and for sharing loads of knowledge with us.

I am very thankful to this opportunity from OWUSS and DAN to gain so much exposure to all the different fields that play a role in making diving functional and safe, as well as the opportunity to learn from people at the top of their fields.

This week underwater:

“Stop polluting our water!”—A message from the fish.

 

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