Category Archives: News

Backscatter Digital Shootout Event

My dive instructor gifted me my first underwater camera setup a little over two years ago when he retired. During those two years, with the help of the backscatter staff in Monterey, I saw my photography slowly get better and better. However, during my time at the digital shootout, I saw my photography skills increase more in two weeks than in those entire two years. Not only that but I got the chance to learn videography surrounded by experts. I had never approached videography before but one of my professional goals is to work in wildlife filmmaking so I knew this was my chance to get started. Something that would have taken me months to learn, such as post-production skills, took me days to get the hang of with the help of the shootout staff. Not only did I get to learn and improve my technical skills in both photography and videography, but I was able to work on my creative skills as well. With the help of wildlife filmmaker Cristian Dimitrius, I learned how to follow and capture marine life in a way that tells a story to the audience. I was taught how to connect viewers to the underwater world and elicit an emotional response to the stories these animals are telling us. By the end of the shootout, I had produced some of my best wide-angle and macro images and completed my first short film.

Another massive learning experience was the equipment. Between the Backscatter, Isotta, and Nauticam crew, there was an impressive array of cameras, accessories, lights, and pretty much anything a photographer’s heart desires. As someone who had been working in stills up until now, it was incredible to get to try out some top-notch video rigs. I got the chance to try different operating systems, video lighting setups, tripods, different housing brands, and even some professional cinema gear such as external monitors. All these experiences allowed me to understand the behind-the-scenes of what it really takes to produce a good video. These experiences also helped me to realize my own preferences in terms of gear. Often times as photographers and videographers we will spend days or even months researching the best gear. But what works for one person might not work for another. Getting the chance to try out an array of professional equipment is a rare opportunity and something very special to the Digital Shootout. Using what I learned from trying many different setups I will be able to tailor my next rig to exactly fit my own needs.

I dove, I attended classes, I edited, I had the time of my life and after two weeks, it was time to say goodbye to Little Cayman. I was devastated to leave. If I could stay there floating in those turquoise waters forever, I would. Reflecting on how the Digital Shootout has changed me, before this experience I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was scared to approach topics like video because of the steep learning curve and I just didnt know where to start. I had no idea how to get started with different types of gear systems, post production, storytelling, and advanced photography techniques. But thanks to the support of the Shootout staff I gained confidence in my own ability to learn. Through the classes, one on one support, and encouragement of those around me I now feel like I posses the tools needed to continue to advance my photography and videography skills outside of the digital shootout. The shootout gave me the determination to continue on with my learning and to not be scared of trying something new.

I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn from some of the best photographers and filmmakers in the industry, meet some incredible people, and have been given the honor of carrying on the legacy of Paul L. Schutt as the first Paul L. Schutt Underwater photography intern. I intend to continue on with my ambitions to become a wildlife filmmaker through more training, experimentation, and hard work. I would like to extend a huge thank you to the Backscatter crew for not only putting on such an incredible event but for inviting me into their community, and supporting the next generation of photographers and filmmakers through this internship.

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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 (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0163190). 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!

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Sacrifice and Unfinished Scrapbooks — Pearl Harbor National Memorial

 

Eight Navy battleships sat in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, their captains and crew members unaware of what was to come early that Sunday morning. The men aboard started the day as they always did – with breakfast, morning duties, maybe a shower and a shave. Perhaps they were preparing for church service. Little did they know that a Japanese strike force consisting of 353 aircraft and 61 ships was headed to the harbor to launch a surprise attack that would become one of the deadliest events in U.S. history. Little did they know that many of them would die that day. 

The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,403 U.S. citizens and wounded nearly 1,200 more in the span of a mere hour and 15 minutes. Of the eight Navy battleships anchored in the harbor, four of them sank – all were damaged. The USS Arizona was the most irreparably damaged ship out of the fleet, exploding violently after being hit by Japanese torpedo bombers. When the ship exploded and sank, over 1,000 crewmen and officers were pulled down to their watery graves with her. 

The 608-foot-long USS Arizona battleship remains sunken in Pearl Harbor. In 1962, the USS Arizona Memorial was constructed over the hull of the sunken ship and dedicated by the Pacific War Memorial Commission. The site serves as a national historic landmark, a poignant memorial, and a place for education and introspection. The National Park Service (NPS) operates the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (PERL), working in conjunction with the U.S. Navy to preserve and interpret the historical and cultural resources that are associated with Pearl Harbor and the December 7th, 1941 attack. To cap off an already incredible summer and internship experience, I headed to my last destination — Pearl Harbor — to experience the park and dive the USS Arizona wreck. 


As I stepped aboard the small Cessna 208 that would fly me from Kalaupapa National Historical Park to Honolulu, I tried to prepare for the shift I knew I would inevitably face once I landed. I had grown somewhat accustomed to the remoteness and quietness of the Kalaupapa settlement. I hadn’t driven a car over 30 mph for a month and a half, let alone experienced traffic or a busy restaurant. I was very much looking forward to being back in the city, but it’s momentarily jarring to go from a remote place with limited resources to a bustling city with anything your heart may desire. Dan Brown, my PERL point-of-contact, had already anticipated this fact when he picked me up from the Honolulu airport. With keen interest, he asked me about my previous internship destinations as we drove to a Starbucks for breakfast. We chatted jovially until we walked into the coffee shop and I fell silent, staring in overwhelm at the display case and drink menu. It was going to take me a minute to get used to having diverse food options again.

Kelly Moore, the park dive officer at Kalaupapa, made me a beautiful fresh lei before I took off for Honolulu. Thank you, Kelly!

Caffeinated, fed, and eager for what the day would bring, Dan and I drove to the NPS dive locker at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The plan was to dive the USS Arizona that morning and switch out the two buoys that mark the bow and stern of the shipwreck. We were in a bit of a time crunch (Dan had afternoon obligations), so after chatting with Scott Pawlowski, PERL Museum Curator, we quickly put our equipment together and headed to the park visitor center.


A Navy-operated boat shuttle takes visitors to and from the USS Arizona Memorial every 15 minutes for most of the day, but Dan and I were lucky to hop on the last boat before the Navy crew went on a lunch break. As we stepped onto the memorial, the last batch of visitors departed on the boat shuttle. For 45 minutes or so, we had the space to ourselves. I was mentally prepared to artfully dodge visitors while quietly snapping photographs in the background — still a great opportunity, but not quite the same as being there alone. Having the site practically to myself meant that I could take my time experiencing the memorial, paying my respects, and doing my best to capture its symbolic architecture and historical significance. I was extremely grateful for the stroke of luck.

Dan and I got top-notch service on the empty boat shuttle out to the USS Arizona Memorial.

We walked into the USS Arizona Memorial’s entry room and stillness struck me. Despite a steady breeze gradually picking up from the northeast, the air felt calm and quiet. With no other visitors on site, it was practically silent. I stepped lightly, moving slowly across the memorial. The natural flow of the space leads visitors from the entry room to the assembly hall – the main open-air section of the memorial. The memorial’s architect, Alfred Preis, subtly incorporated a number of symbolic features into the structure’s design, particularly in the assembly hall. Seven large “windows” run along each side of the room, a nod to the date of the Pearl Harbor attacks – December 7th. Seven more windows are cut into the assembly hall ceiling to make a total of 21 windows, representative of the customary 21-gun military salute.

An American flag flies over the USS Arizona shipwreck and memorial.

The memorial was built directly over the USS Arizona wreckage. On one side of the memorial is gun turret 3, one of the most visible protruding parts of the shipwreck. On the other side of the memorial, you can see the USS Missouri — one of the WWII-era battleships that is still seaworthy. Also visible are the large white mooring quays the run along the coast. These concrete quays were used to secure the battleships along Battleship Row when the December 7th attack occurred. Aside from the USS Arizona and USS Utah shipwrecks, the mooring quays are the only structures that remain from the Pearl Harbor attack.

The USS Missouri in the distance. The large white structures are the concrete mooring quays.

The mooring quay for the USS Arizona.

Memorial visitors can peer over the railing and see rusty remnants of the USS Arizona shipwreck protruding from the harbor water.

On the far end of the memorial is a rectangular, cut-out section of the floor, which allows visitors to look into the water below. The wreckage of the USS Arizona rests just under the surface. According to Dan, this feature of the memorial was created to give survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack an intimate space to connect with their fallen comrades. Many visitors drop flowers in the water as a way of paying their respects to those who remain entombed in the wreckage. 

I found myself staring over the railing and into the water below for quite a while. I knew that before too long I would be in the water myself, on one of the most significant dives of my career so far.

The natural flow of the memorial leads you over the resting shipwreck and into the shrine room, home of the Remembrance Wall.

The shrine room, the last room of the memorial, quietly demands reflection and reverence. For in it is the Remembrance Wall — a marble wall with the engraved names of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on the USS Arizona. It is a collective headstone for all who passed when the ship sank. In addition, two marble placards in front of the wall are engraved with the names of USS Arizona survivors who have since been interred with their fallen comrades. Each year, on December 7th, the Navy and NPS conduct a memorial service and ceremonious internment of recently deceased USS Arizona survivors. 

The Remembrance Wall is a headstone for brothers, husbands, sons, and friends. For many who have visited the memorial over the years, there is a particular name that sticks out amongst the towering columns of first initials, last names, and military ranks. That name is not just indicative of a man who died during the fall of the USS Arizona — it is the name of someone they shared life with, someone they had memories of. Someone they loved.

The Remembrance Wall. At the base of the stairs you can see the two placards that are continuously updated with the names of USS Ariona survivors who are interred with their fallen comrades.

1,177 men, lost in one day.

Memorial architect, Alfred Preis, designed the Tree of Life sculpture to inspire contemplation of life, loss, and renewal.

It’s difficult to see a number — 1,177 — and truly comprehend how many people that equates to. The Remembrance Wall helped me visualize the immense loss of life that took place on December 7th, 1941.

Dan Brown walks through the opposing doorway on the other side of the USS Arizona memorial. To have the memorial to ourselves for an hour was absolutely surreal.


I was captivated by the memorial, but there was even more to be experienced underwater. It was time to switch gears. I carefully placed my camera in its underwater housing and Dan and I began setting up our dive gear on the dock. We didn’t have a ton of time, so we made the decision to hold off on replacing the marker buoys. I think Dan sensed how much I wanted to focus on photographing the wreck, too. I appreciated how accommodating he was, especially when we jumped in, descended, and I realized that my strobes weren’t flashing. We popped back up to the dock and I performed the careful operation of opening the camera housing and fiddling with the strobe connection wire, my arms wrapped in towels so I wouldn’t drip a single bead of water into the housing. Once everything was sealed and operational, we jumped back in and slowly descended once again.

The diver down flag informed passing boats, memorial visitors, and tour guides that Dan and I were diving on the USS Arizona.

Visitors began to populate the memorial by the time Dan and I started our dive.

I had been told to expect low visibility for the dive, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could, in fact, see further than my hand in the harbor’s murky green water. Dan led the way and I followed, stopping every few feet to take photos and process what I was looking at. I was diving on the USS Arizona shipwreck — something very few people have had the opportunity to do. I moved slower than I ever have on a dive, scanning every bit of the wreckage and looking for artifacts underneath the layers of algae and sediment.

In the same way that the NPS protects the hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone and the petrified wood in Petrified Forest National Park, the NPS closely monitors and protects the USS Arizona and the artifacts that remain on the wreck. It’s no easy feat — they are tasked with preserving, protecting, and interpreting this monumental collection of historical and cultural resources and leaving it unimpaired for future generations. The more time I spent in the park, the more I was impressed by how well the NPS has done just this. By preserving the USS Arizona and its associated artifacts, they have kept the story of Pearl Harbor alive.

One of the USS Arizona’s mooring cleats remains on the deck of the ship.

It was haunting to see old pitchers, bottles, and pots scattered across the deck of the wreck.

As I explored the wreckage, thoughts on the significance of sacrifice and the price of peace weighed heavily on my mind. I’ve been diving on shipwrecks before, but the USS Arizona is different. It isn’t just a shipwreck — it’s a mass grave. It is a physical touchstone of one the deadliest events to happen in U.S. history. Even more striking to me is the fact that the ship has been there, laying in the depths of Pearl Harbor, since 1941. My parents weren’t even alive by then. Pots from the ship’s galley lay untouched on the ship’s deck. Soda bottles. Shoe soles. Multiple staircases descend from the main deck into the depths of the wreck, railings still intact. As Dan and I explored it all, I distinctly remember noticing how quiet it was — hauntingly so. The reality of what I was exploring hit me when Dan pointed out the original teak decking of the USS Arizona, still clearly visible under a thin layer of sediment and debris. How many men were standing on this deck when Japanese torpedo bombers started firing from above?

The ship’s original teak decking.

Dan Brown writes notes as we pass over an encrusted cooking pot on the ship’s deck.

Slowly, we made our way around the perimeter of the ship and to the bow. Dan was a fantastic guide, stopping to show me artifacts and features of the ship. At one point, he pointed to a small stream of brown bubbles rising up from a hole in the ship. 80 years after sinking, the USS Arizona continues to slowly leak oil. Some refer to the patches of oil that leak from the ship as “black tears”.

If you look closely, you can see the brown tinge of the oily bubbles as they slowly ascend to the surface.

A glass bottle and debris intermixed with small patches of coral. The shipwreck acts as an artificial reef, providing corals with a substrate to grow on and serving as protective habitat for many fishes and marine creatures

An anemone reaches out from the tip of the ship wreckage, filter-feeding in the water.

The end of an amazing dive is always bittersweet. On one hand, you don’t want to go back to the surface — you want to keep diving! On the other, the moment where everyone surfaces and can finally speak to each other is always exciting. Sometimes there’s so much to talk about, you don’t know where to start. Sometimes you’re at a loss for words, which is where I found myself as we climbed back onto the dock. Before we knew it, though, visitors were walking by and asking us what we were doing (“we’re going to be asked what we’re doing at least a dozen times”, Dan warned me earlier that morning). Talking to the memorial visitors knocked me out of my momentary speechlessness, and Dan and I remarked on the artifacts we noticed and the great visibility — “one of the top five dives I’ve done here,” Dan enthusiastically noted.

Dan Brown makes his way over the three 14-inch guns at the bow of the USS Arizona.

These guns are nearly 60 feet long — in low visibility, it’s nearly impossible to capture their grandiose presence.

A shift in perspective.


The following day was for topside exploring and seeing more of PERL. Dan and Scott Pawlowski invited me to come snorkeling with them on the north side of the island, an area I was eager to explore. One of my roommates, RB, was also new to Oahu and keen to join us. Dan picked us up mid-morning and we drove up the north shore to Three Tables beach, passing lush forests, food stands, and busy surf beaches along the way. We met Scott at the beach and chatted for a while before swimming out to the reef.

Beach views on the north shore of Oahu.

After the snorkeling excursion, RB and I drove to the PERL visitor center and picked up passes for the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona Memorial. RB hadn’t been to the memorial yet, and I wanted to get a few more shots while I had the chance. As much as I appreciated having the memorial to myself the other day, it was also a special experience to spend time there with other visitors.

From there, we took a shuttle bus to the USS Missouri. The highly decorated battleship is most well-known as the site of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Nowadays, the ship has been turned into a museum of sorts — every few feet, there are informational displays that tell the story of the USS Missouri. We spent a while on the ship, peering into the many rooms onboard and reading about the battleship’s extensive history.

Approaching the USS Missouri.

It was a good thing I had a wide angle lens with me. This ship is huge!

The USS Missouri — tour guide for scale.


On my last day in Hawaii, Scott and I met at the PERL visitor center for a tour of Ford Island and the PERL memorials that aren’t open for public access (Ford Island is still an active military base, hence the inaccessibility). Our first stop was the USS Utah Memorial. As I walked down the memorial’s white dock and looked at the vast landscape ahead, I couldn’t help but picture what the horizon must’ve looked like on that fateful day in 1941. Planes must’ve been flying overhead from every direction, relentlessly bombing whatever was below. In the case of the USS Utah, torpedoes struck the ship and caused it to quickly capsize. Most of the crew made it out alive, but 58 of the men onboard were killed in action. 

The USS Utah lies next to Ford Island. 58 of the ship’s crewmen were killed when the battleship was torpedoed and sank.

The second-greatest loss of life at Pearl Harbor occurred on the USS Oklahoma, affectionally referred to as “the Okie” by its crewmembers. The USS Oklahoma sank quickly on December 7th, 1941 — less than 15 minutes after the first torpedo hit Battleship Row. Within minutes, hundreds of men found themselves trapped under the decks, flipping upside down as water rose all around them. 32 men were retrieved from the wreckage in the next two days. 429 of their comrades never made it out.

The USS Oklahoma Memorial was designed with the U.S. Navy’s tradition of “manning the rails” in mind. The rows of white granite columns stand tall, emblematic of when Navy crews line the ship railings in dress whites when they return to port. On each of the 429 columns is the name of a crewman who was lost with the USS Oklahoma.

Each granite column of the USS Oklahoma Memorial has the name of a crewman who was lost on the ship during the Pearl Harbor attack.

NPS routinely takes standardized photos of each column of the USS Oklahoma Memorial, which helps them monitor wear and tear and perform repairs when needed. Over the years, the granite can crack and degrade from the salty air and sunshine.


Every part of my PERL experience had its own respective impact. Photographing the USS Arizona Memorial and spending time in the shrine room helped me comprehend the mass loss of life that took place during the attack. Diving on the USS Arizona itself put the scale of the event into perspective. Viewing the other memorials gave me an appreciation for all the time, money, and effort that has gone into making PERL the educational and historic site that it is today. However, I don’t think I emotionally processed what happened at Pearl Harbor until I was in the depths of the museum collections building with Scott.

The museum collections building has rooms and rooms of artifacts, documents, and memorabilia that are related to Pearl Harbor and the 1941 attack.

Being the museum curator, Scott knows the story behind practically every artifact in the collection and has even stayed in touch with many of the families and individuals who have donated items. We took our time in each room as he showed me WWII-era swords with handles made out of shark skin and combat medic hats, rusty but still intact. Every piece had a story, and oftentimes Scott could tell me about the individual who brought the item in, where it was from, and exactly how it was discovered.

Scott presents a WWII combat medic’s hat.

This Japanese hatbox belonged to a soldier who died in the Pearl Harbor attacks. Years later, his widow actually came to Pearl Harbor and was able to visit the collections building and see the hatbox for herself. Scott said there wasn’t a dry eye in the room that day.

We continued to work our way into the collections, moving from larger artifacts to smaller items, like medals and papers. I could’ve easily spent hours sifting through the pages and pages of carefully preserved newspapers. Seeing the old pages and dates put into perspective just how suddenly the month of the Pearl Harbor attack went from a typical December to a month of immense loss, grief, and trauma for the entire United States.

I could’ve easily spent hours sifting through the pages and pages of old newspapers in the PERL museum collections building.

Carefully stored and preserved uniform pieces.

The last items Scott pulled out were old leather-bound photo albums, purchased by sailors when they arrived at new ports and filled with old photographs of their families, friends, and travels. As Scott carefully flipped through the pages with gloved hands, I was hit with a staggering wave of emotion. On December 7th, 1941, in less than two hours, the lives of so many men just like the ones in the photo albums ended. In a sudden and tragic moment of sacrifice, their lives became unfinished scrapbooks and uniforms that would never be worn again.

Walter F. Staff’s photo album from his time on the USS Oklahoma.

The sailors’ photo albums were filled with photos of their friends, families, and the new places they traveled to during their deployments.

Flipping through the pages of sailors’ photo albums provided insight into their travels and the memorable events they partook in along the way.

“Wow!”


Going to Pearl Harbor at the tail end of my internship and thinking about how precious life is – and how quickly it can be lost – reminded me just how important it is to embrace each day you get to live, especially if you’re lucky enough to spend those days doing what you love. I left Pearl Harbor feeling incredibly reflective and indescribably grateful to all those who made it possible for me to experience the national memorial in such an intimate way. A huge thank you to Dan Brown and Scott Pawlowski for generously sharing your time and showing me the historical and cultural resources of Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Thanks to Shaun Wolfe for finding me great accommodation while I was on Oahu, and to OWUSS and the NPS SRC team for providing unwavering support throughout my internship.

Lastly, thank you to those who have followed along with my journey and provided encouragement and kind words along the way — it has meant so much to me. If you’d like to read my final thoughts and reflections from my internship experience, keep an eye out for my final report. I hope you will continue to follow the journeys of future interns and support the efforts of OWUSS and NPS. There is no question that this experience has monumentally changed my life, in ways that I probably cannot comprehend quite yet. I look forward to taking what I have learned this summer and continuing to preserve, study, and document the incredible underwater resources of Earth’s oceans. 

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The Kalaupapa Chronicles Continue

Two weeks into my stay at Kalaupapa National Historical Park, I had already trekked through the Hawaiian backcountry, participated in survey dives around the peninsula, and assisted with helicopter operations in the park (read about all of those adventures in my previous two posts). Little did I know at the time, that was only the beginning of my Kalaupapa experience. The initial plan was to spend three weeks in Kalaupapa and then travel to American Samoa for another three weeks. However, American Samoa was only just beginning to allow people on and off the island, and it seemed risky at best to board a flight there (I was told I may not be able to get out if the government changed travel regulations again). 

Thankfully, Kelly Moore — park dive officer and marine ecologist — was able to finagle a few more weeks of housing for me in Kalaupapa. What was initially a three-week stay turned into a six-week stay — and it did not disappoint! I was lucky to participate in a number of projects that the Kalaupapa Natural Resources Division manages throughout the year: helping with the annual Barge Day, providing annual maintenance to the park’s weather monitoring station, surveying endangered Hawaiian monk seal populations, and even getting my Wilderness First Responder certification. 


BARGE DAY

Barge Day is Kalaupapa’s “Christmas 2.0”. Once a year, a monstrous shipping barge arrives at the park, carrying an entire year’s worth of non-perishable goods, fuel, building supplies, vehicles, and other large pieces of cargo, appliances, and machinery. Barge Day was originally scheduled for the first Saturday I was in Kalaupapa, but weather and other logistical issues delayed the barge’s arrival until a few weeks into my stay. When we received word that the barge was, in fact, arriving after weeks of being postponed, a rush of anticipation and excitement filled the air. New cars, fresh crates of soda and beer, and materials for the construction of a new dive locker were on the way!

On the morning of Barge Day, I biked across town to the natural resources office, energized and eager to witness the barge’s arrival. I noticed that sections of the road had been blocked off and residents had placed camping chairs out along the shoreline so they could watch as the huge vessel slowly made its way to the settlement. What started as a speck on the horizon eventually grew into the clear outline of a barge, and after a few hours, it was docked and ready to be unloaded.

The barge delivers crates, shipping containers, and boxes of non-perishable goods and materials, along with new cars and other pieces of machinery that are used in the park.

Unloading quickly began, and the settlement turned into a bustling hive of activity. Workers on forklifts zoomed around, dropping containers, pallets, and boxes along the side of the road for inspection. Kelly and I volunteered to help with inventory checks, so our tasks involved identifying each order and confirming that the correct type and quantity of each item made it to the settlement. We stayed busy for most of the afternoon, but got to enjoy some special treats throughout the day, like shaved ice and a delicious lunch. All in all, it was a fun community event to be involved in, and I was particularly happy to meet some of the residents that I had yet to interact with. It seemed like everyone came out to witness the event!

A pack of forklift operators gather, ready to move the next pile of unloaded goods.


WEATHER STATION MAINTENANCE

Average temperatures on the Pacific Islands are on the rise, and Hawaii has experienced a statewide decline in rainfall over the past two decades that is predicted to continue. Such climate projections come from models that are developed from existing weather data. All Pacific Island Network (PACN) parks have weather stations to help facilitate real-time tracking of weather conditions and provide data for climate modelers. 

One of Kalaupapa’s weather stations is on the east side of the peninsula in Makapulapai, just off a dirt road that runs along the coast. The tower of weather instruments and wires stands tall in a brush-filled field with the cliffside in the background. On the station is an anemometer to measure wind speed/direction, a rain collection vessel to measure precipitation, and other sensors to quantify relative humidity, solar radiation, and temperature among other parameters. One morning, Glauco, Kelly, and I packed up the truck and drove across the peninsula to do annual maintenance on the station. 

Kelly and Glauco trek through the bushes to reach the weather station.

Inside the weather station’s control panel is a computer that stores all the data collected by the station’s many instruments.

Tagging along for some of the land-based work that Kelly and Glauco conducted in Kalaupapa provided a lot of insight into just how many ways natural resources are monitored, surveyed, and managed within the park. Marine fish surveys are equally as important as freshwater invertebrate surveys, and monitoring the monk seal population in the park is just as valuable as monitoring the park’s weather trends. To truly gain a comprehensive picture of the state of Kalaupapa’s natural resources (or any ecosystem), one must consider the interconnected nature of ecosystems. By assessing as many ecosystem components as possible, we come closer to better understanding the many ecological relationships at play and the inevitable impacts of ecological change

After extracting the data and doing a system update, we needed to change out some parts. The tall tower on the station can be lowered to make for easy maintenance.

Glauco runs a new wire down to the tower’s control panel.


SEAL SEARCHING

There’s always that one character in an animated children’s movie that’s undeniably adorable (think minions from Despicable Me). They always have huge eyes and chubby cheeks and are usually made into stuffed animals because every small child wants to hug them (and because of consumerism, but that’s a different topic). Well, Hawaiian monk seals are Kalaupapa’s version of that movie character. 

Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered seal species in the world. Endemic to the Hawaiian islands, the doe-eyed marine mammals are heavily protected by Hawaiian state laws, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammals Protection Act. Many of them make their way to the beaches of Kalaupapa NHP each year to pup and haul out (i.e. rest), and oftentimes the pups will return once they’ve matured. NPS and NOAA work together to monitor the seals, track and record new births, and vaccinate the seals against morbillivirus — a virus similar to canine distemper.

Glauco uses binoculars to read the ID tag on the fin of a sleeping monk seal. Monitoring and photos were conducted under NMFS Permit #22677.

I joined Glauco and Kelly on seal monitoring beach walks a few times during my visit to Kalaupapa. During my first one, I struggled to spot the seals as they lay stretched out and sleeping on the beach. From a distance, they look a lot like rocks. Over time, I became better at distinguishing their unique shape and light gray stomachs from afar. We walked along the beach, keeping our eyes peeled for seals. If we spotted one, the next step was to identify the seal and see if they needed vaccinations. Monk seal pups don’t have antibodies to protect them against morbillivirus, so pups are vaccinated in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading and having substantial impacts on the population.

Glauco uses a commercial hair lightener to write a seal’s ID number on its back. This makes for easier identification in the future. Monitoring and photos were conducted under NMFS Permit #22677. 

Here, Kelly preps a vaccine syringe, which is administered from a distance using a tranquilizer pole.

These seal monitoring and management efforts are part of NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Plan, which aims to conserve monk seal habitat, reduce mortality factors such as disease, develop education and outreach programs focused on minimizing human disturbances, and facilitate seal monitoring during pupping and hauling out events. With only an estimated 1,400 individuals in the population, there is concern about whether the genetic diversity of the population can be maintained in the long term. Hopefully, the efforts of NOAA, NPS, and other partnering organizations will help assure the long-term viability of the monk seal species in the wild.

Most of the seals were heavy sleepers. We could ID them, photograph them, and apply the hair lightener without them waking up. We just had to cross our fingers that they wouldn’t roll over on their backs before the hair lightener had taken effect. Monitoring and photos were conducted under NMFS Permit #22677.

When doing monk seal surveys, it was important to keep a distance and avoid disturbing the animals. If the seals are severely frightened, they may not return to the area. Monitoring and photos were conducted under NMFS Permit #2267.

Knowing that there was so much marine life and activity going on underwater motivated me to snorkel and free dive as much as I could in the evenings and on the weekends. Camera rig and snorkel gear in hand, I’d jump into the water and venture out to see what was going on under the waves. I hoped to see one of the seals underwater and get some photos (from a safe distance), but it seemed like every time I had the camera with me the seals were nowhere to be found. Still, I’d stay busy taking photos of rays, lobsters, and the colorful corals scattered across the reef.

On one of my last days in Kalaupapa, I was swimming back to the wharf after snorkeling for a while and saw a grey figure move swiftly out of the corner of my eye. After weeks of snorkeling around Kalaupapa, I found myself underwater with a monk seal! The encounter was short-lived, but I quickly held up my camera to take a photo of it in the distance. The seal was gone before I knew it, although I immediately checked my camera and found that I had taken one single photo of it looking at me. I’m no wildlife photographer, but the experience made my day after so many weeks of wondering if I would have such an encounter. 

Lots of my evenings in Kalaupapa were spent enjoying the sunset from the beach and snorkeling with the camera.

Can you see it? A monk seal cautiously swims by me in the Kalaupapa wharf.


WILDERNESS FIRST RESPONDER

One of the most exciting parts of my time in Kalaupapa was getting my Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification. The WFR course provides definitive medical training for those who work or recreate in remote, low-resource outdoor environments — and Kalaupapa is the epitome of such an environment. Kelly organized for a WFR instructor to come to the settlement and teach the course to about a dozen NPS and DOH employees, and I was lucky to jump in and take the course as well.

During my last 10 days in Kalaupapa, my coworkers and I learned how to handle a plethora of medical scenarios, from minor health issues to life-threatening medical emergencies. Someone’s blood sugar crashed while they were hiking? Solved with fast-absorbing sugar, fluids, and calories. Someone was in a car crash and fractured their femur? Time to make a traction splint and get them to the hospital ASAP. We covered snake bites, hypothermia, heart attacks, heat stroke, you name it. Each day involved hours of classroom lectures with hands-on exercises and surprise scenarios mixed in throughout the day. We never knew when we would hear someone yelling outside and have to grab our backpacks, rush outdoors, assess the scene, and put the skills we were learning in class to the test. Matt May, owner of 4Points Expeditions and our WFR instructor, brought along bruise paint and stick on wounds to make the scenarios slightly more realistic. Acting ability was a huge component of making a practice scenario realistic, too. In retrospect, I got as much practice keeping a straight face during scenarios as I did learning to tie splints and wrap bandages correctly — and I’m definitely better at tying splints.

A scenario victim waiting for extraction. If someone has a fractured femur, they won’t be doing any walking out of the accident scene.

On the last day of the WFR course we had our final scenario. Matt recruited community members to help him stage an accident scene somewhere on the peninsula, and our crew was told to open an envelope in the classroom at exactly 18:00 (doing the scenario in the dark made for an added challenge). Everyone paced around nervously in the minutes leading up to the big reveal, backpacks and headlamps at the ready. When it was time, we opened the envelope and read the scenario: two hikers had been reported missing after not returning from a day hike on the east side of the peninsula. We needed to conduct a search, locate the individuals, and provide any care they may require.

The operation went off without a hitch. We drove to the area where the hikers were last seen, conducted a search, and located the injured victims (plot twist — there ended up being five). Matt forewarned us that the final scenario could take hours for groups to complete, but in less than two hours we had extracted all the victims and were back at the cars. To our delight, Matt told us that we were one of the best groups he’d worked with. Go team NPS and DOH!

Teamwork is critical when handling emergency medical situations in the remote backcountry. In this case, there was one person to record notes, one to hold the victim’s head (in case of spinal injury), and one to see to the victim’s injuries.

Matt (center) assesses the well-crafted litter that our crew built during the final WFR course scenario.

 


SAYING FAREWELL

I’ve struggled to write something that fully encapsulates my six weeks in Kalaupapa. Like all national parks, Kalaupapa NHP has an incredible story behind it — a story of resilience, perseverance, and the power of the human spirit. This place, which was once overshadowed by dark realities of exile and disease, now serves as a site for preservation, education, and refuge for those who have called the peninsula home for decades. Living there demands reflection — for the challenges that come with living there today are nothing in comparison to what those who lived there before endured.

I learned a lot about myself in the last six weeks, and I learned even more about community. My fondest memories of Kalaupapa are not the ones where I got the camera shot I hoped for or saw something thrilling underwater. Rather, I remember when long-time Kalaupapa resident Johnny chased Kelly across town just to give her fresh mangoes from the tree in his yard because he knew how much she loved them. I remember how Glauco would give me a kind smile and words of encouragement when I was having a tough day, and I remember hiking all over the peninsula with Kelly, talking about life and work and relationships and everything in between. The moments of togetherness — sharing meals, snorkeling together, and going out of the way to help each other out  — are the moments I’ll remember.

Thank you to the entire community for welcoming me to the settlement, sharing your lives (and food) with me, and teaching me so much about Kalaupapa — what it once was and what it is now. I am incredibly thankful to have been able to spend as much time as I did on the peninsula, and it wouldn’t have been the same without everyone’s kindness, compassion, and generosity. Kelly and Glauco, I couldn’t have asked for better hosts and coworkers. And of course, a big thank you to OWUSS and the SRC for supporting me on this wild ride. Aloha, and until next time!

 

 

I will remember these Kalaupapa sunsets and evening walks with friends for a long time to come.

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Trading Dive Fins for Hiking Boots in Waikolu Valley

       

I was bushwhacking through the Hawaiian jungle, clothes still wet from the day before. The sweet yet pungent smell of fermenting guava permeated the humid air, and my boots squished as I stepped on one of the overly ripe yellow fruits littered on the ground. As I trudged, I looked closely at the overgrown trees and bushes, occasionally plucking a white ginger flower and sucking the sweet nectar from its stem. Slowly, the sound of running water grew louder and louder. We were almost there. 

It was my second week in Kalaupapa National Historical Park, and I was taking a break from dive operations and marine surveys. This week, I was helping the NPS Inventory & Monitoring (I&M) Pacific Island Network (PACN) with freshwater stream surveys in the steep forested Waikolu Valley. I&M has monitored Waikolu Valley’s water quality and freshwater habitats since 2006. Freshwater ecosystems are quite vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts (eg. land-use change, invasive species, eutrophication (i.e. excessive nutrient richness), and temperature changes). Collecting data provides insight into long-term trends in water nutrient levels and population dynamics of freshwater fish and invertebrates, some of which are endemic species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. 

A view into Waikolu Valley from the mouth of the stream, where freshwater meets the ocean.

The opportunity to work with the I&M crew for a week meant trading out my fins for hiking boots and my Halcyon BC for a Kelty 50 liter pack. We were heading into the backcountry. I looked forward to the opportunity to see Kalaupapa from a different perspective. I didn’t have much idea of what to expect for the week, but I knew that I was in good hands. Glauco, the Biological Science Technician at Kalaupapa, also works with the I&M crew and had done the Waikolu Valley surveys many times before. Joining us was Anne Farahi, the Lead Aquatic Biological Science Technician, and two additional I&M technicians, John Benner and Esaac Mazengia. 

Glauco, Anne, and Esaac work on packing and prepping equipment in the office. With the unpredictable weather in Waikolu Valley, waterproof bags and sealed plastic crates are essential to keep things dry.

Rather than packing all of our gear, food, and surveying equipment out to our campsite, we had most of our belongings dropped off via helicopter. Kalaupapa NHP occasionally uses helicopters to complete park operations, and this week, they were used for gear drop off and to remove several massive super sacks of marine debris from one of the park’s beaches. On the first day of the project, Glauco and I hiked down to the beach with the debris and waited for the chopper to meet us. When it approached, Glauco caught the strap hanging from the chopper and secured a sack. Within seconds, the chopper lifted the sack and flew away to the other side of the peninsula. After a few repetitions, the beach was finally waste-free. Afterward, the rest of our crew — Anne, Esaac, and John — met us and we began the trek across the rock and pebble-dominated beach to our campsite at the mouth of the Waikolu Valley. 

Glauco, dressed in bright yellow to make him more visible for the helicopter pilot, watches the chopper fly in to pick up the large white super sacks of marine debris.

After heli-ops, we set out on our hike across the very rocky beach to Waikolu Valley. I only faceplanted once!

—  

The next morning, I awoke to the rhythmic sounds of waves crashing ashore and the slow trickle of sunlight into the valley. My 40-degree sleeping bag was plenty to keep me comfortable overnight, and I relished the warm air as I rolled out of my tent — a much more enjoyable experience than waking up shivering in the Colorado mountains (the backpacking experience I’m used to). I emerged from my tent and began my morning routine: breakfast, packing my daypack (and shaking the ants off of it), and getting dressed for a day in the forest and streams. By 8 a.m., we started our hike up into the valley. 

Our gorgeous campsite at the mouth of Waikolu Valley. In the mornings and evenings, we’d watch as wild goats played on the red cliffs.

The hikes to our survey sites were the epitome of bushwhacking

I already knew that Kalaupapa was rich with living resources. In the settlement, there were banana and mango trees on practically every corner. The sweetest, juiciest oranges could be plucked from trees on the outskirts of town, and on the avocado trees were some of the largest Haas avocados I had ever seen. On top of that, Kelly had shown me how to process coconuts to collect their meat and milk, and Glauco had shared his freshly caught venison with me during my first week in the settlement. Still, as we hiked through the Waikolu backcountry, Glauco and Anne opened my eyes to even more that Kalaupapa had to offer. Red ginger plants lined the trail and produced a fragrant, soapy liquid when their pinecone-shaped bulbs were squeezed — a perfect alternative for hand soap or shampoo in the Hawaiian backcountry. White ginger quickly became my favorite, as it reminded me of the honeysuckle bushes in my childhood neighborhood. The ginger roots, scuffed down to the yellow by wild pig and goat hooves and our own boots, peeked out of the ground as we walked through the forest. It seemed like everywhere I turned, there was something edible to be found. Coffee plants, guava and strawberry guava, taro, kukui nuts, bamboo, tea plants — they were all growing happily in the forest. 

John (left) and Esaac (right) try a Jamaican vervain flower. They really do taste like shiitake mushrooms!

The smell of fermenting guava will forever be ingrained in my sensory memory. It was great to pull one off a tree for a midday snack, though.

Glauco passes by an ancient mango tree alongside the trail.

Anne had done enough surveys in Waikolu to know each survey site by sight, and Glauco had a GPS to use for secondary confirmation that we were surveying the correct spots. Since I had never been in the Waikolu Valley before, I never really knew exactly where we were going or how long it would take to get there. In the mornings, the unawareness was nice — the hikes felt exciting and exploratory. Once we reached a survey site, the five of us would drop our bags on the side of the stream and get to work. We had a number of surveys to do at each site. Some were to assess water conditions, such as nutrient levels and streamflow. Other surveys involved assessing the Hihiwai population — Hawaiian freshwater stream snails. 

Glauco (left) and Esaac (right) use a FlowTracker to measure the water velocity of the stream. The FlowTracker is a highly precise tool that requires careful handling and lots of focus.

The lives that these tiny freshwater snails live are remarkable. Eggs about the size of sesame seeds are deposited by adult snails onto the sides of rocks in the freshwater stream, where they remain until they hatch. Once hatched, the larvae are quickly washed downstream and into the open ocean. Months go by as the larvae grow, and after about a year the young snails begin the pilgrimage of a lifetime — a march, in single file order, upstream and back into the valley. Their strong muscular foot allows them to cling to rocks and withstand the force of waterfalls as they move into the current of the stream. 

At each survey site, we would stretch a transect tape 30 meters downstream. Then, we would conduct surveys at certain points along the site transect.

John (left) and I conduct snail counts and measurements. John would hold a small square quadrat down on the stream bed and remove any snails he found in the quadrat. Then, I would measure each one and record the data. The trickiest part was placing the snails back in the stream. If they weren’t secured properly, the rushing water would quickly flip them over, leaving them susceptible to crayfish predation.

John conducts a pebble measuring assessment. Sometimes we were measuring large boulders or bedrock instead, as pictured here.

In addition to the snail population, we surveyed the freshwater fish populations at each site. In Hawaii, there are only five native species of freshwater fish. All five species are gobies — adorable little fish with huge upward-pointing eyes that spend most of their time resting on the bottom of the stream and looking for food. Between the fish, snails, and the crayfish that also called the stream home, there was a lot going on in such a relatively small amount of water. 

 

John holds a crayfish from the stream. These guys were curious — they loved climbing on our shoes or nibbling at our hands while we were working in the stream.

 

After each day of site surveys, we would pack up around 16:30 and trek back down to the mouth of the valley. As magical and enchanting as the morning hikes were, the afternoon hikes back to camp often made me feel like I was a character in Jumanji, trapped in the jungle and trying to find my way out. Mostly, I was just ready for dinner. Before I knew it, though, we’d get back to the campsite just in time to watch the sky turn pink and orange as the sun went down. And of course, dinner was always fantastic. 

Anne works her way through a very overgrown section of trail.

I’m not sure how a car got so far up into the valley — needless to say, it never got back out.

Jurassic Park vibes, anyone?

When it rains, beautiful waterfalls pop up all over the steep sides of the valley.

Sunset views from camp.

— 

The end of the week brought mixed feelings. I would’ve loved to stay at the campsite for a few more days — it truly was one of the best spots I had ever camped. At the same time, I desperately longed to put on dry clothes and shoes. Thankfully, the crew’s collective energy helped me push through the last day of surveys. After checking off four more sites, we packed our bags and trekked back across the beach. All in all, the week of surveys was a success. A huge thank you to Anne Farahi for leading our crew and sharing her immense knowledge of Hawaiian aquatic ecosystems with me. To John and Esaac — thanks for sharing your snacks (I’m a Belvita convert now), keeping the jokes flowing, and being awesome crewmates. Glauco — your venison mac n’ cheese is one of the best camp dinners I’ve ever had. Thank you for showing me all the incredible resources of Kalaupapa and for keeping crew morale high with great food and evening card games. Great crews make for great field projects, and I was lucky to be able to work with such fine folks during the week in Waikolu. 

Packing out after the end of a successful week of surveys. Falling rocks were a hazard as we crossed the beach, hence the hard hats.

Gotta end things with a crew selfie!

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Gaining Perspective in Kalaupapa National Historical Park

In some way or another, Covid-19 brought isolation into all of our lives. It’s been begrudgingly endured by some, greatly appreciated by others — but entirely unavoidable for everyone. I handled it much like everyone else probably (?) did… with some good days, when I reveled in the quiet comfort of my home, and some bad days, when I stared out the windows of my house feeling as though I was trapped in a fishbowl with my life on pause. Despite all the ups and downs, I hoped that experiencing so many months of pared-down social life would somehow benefit me when I began my internship. After all, I was scheduled to travel to some of the most remote national parks on the map. 

Kalaupapa National Historical Park is one of those parks. On the Hawaiian island of Molokai, the Kalaupapa Peninsula sits at the base of a 2,000 ft. sea cliff wall (“pali” in Hawaiian), separating it from the rest of the island. “Topside” Molokai is only accessible from Kalaupapa via boat, aircraft, or a steep 2.5 mile hike or mule ride up the sea cliffs. The history of the area is replete with vibrant Hawaiian culture and beautiful, bountiful land. However, due to its remote geography, Kalaupapa Peninsula’s history also has a dark side — one involving exile, disease, and forced isolation. 

An aerial view of the Kalaupapa settlement.

In the mid 1800s, Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy, spread to the Hawaiian islands. With no treatment for the rapidly spreading disease, King Kamehameha V took drastic measures: the establishment of an isolation site on Kalaupapa Peninsula. Thousands of leprosy patients, primarily native Hawaiians, were ripped away from their lives and banished to the remote peninsula. After being dropped off on the rocky shores, the sick and exiled were left to their own devices. Facilities were minimal, resources were limited, and isolation was never-ending. 

One of Kalaupapa’s iconic viewpoints. This shoreline was where some leprosy patients were dropped off by boats in the mid-1800s.

By 1969, leprosy treatments were developed and patients were no longer contagious. After over 100 years, mandatory isolation laws were lifted and residents could choose whether or not to remain in Kalaupapa, which became a National Historical Park in 1980. Currently, there are less than 10 remaining patients in the Kalaupapa Settlement. State Department of Health and NPS employees make up the rest of the settlement’s population, which is typically around 80-100 residents. However, the park is particularly quiet nowadays, with closer to 35-40 residents. Due to current federal and state Covid regulations, visitors have not been allowed into Kalaupapa for over 18 months, and residents are not allowed to host visiting friends and family. As I packed my bags in the Virgin Islands and prepared to fly to Kalaupapa, I felt lucky to have the opportunity to work in the park, especially in the midst of the pandemic. 

The main road from the airport into the Kalaupapa settlement.

— 

After a full day of flying, I landed in Honolulu at 6:30 p.m. local time — 12:30 a.m. in the Virgin Islands. Sleep was brief (thanks, jet lag), and I rose early the next morning to start what I expected to be a hectic day. First, I dropped off my bags at a cargo transport company. The planes that fly passengers into Kalaupapa are small Cessnas, so I didn’t want to risk showing up for the flight with my 100+ pounds of luggage and not being able to load everything. After that, I rushed to the other side of town for a Covid test, which was required to enter Kalaupapa Settlement. My last errand before flying into the park was to visit the grocery store. Kalaupapa has a tiny grocery store, but it’s fairly limited and meant for residents only. Stocking up at Safeway before my flight was the best option. At this point in my travels, I was pretty tired of lugging around heavy bags and needed to watch my budget a bit more closely. I stuck to “backpacker style” ingredients in order to keep things light and cheap — beans, rice, tuna packs, you get the idea.

Errands were completed and I caught my flight to Kalaupapa with no issues. I had never been on such a small plane, nor one with so few people — just four humans and one dog. Jet lag was hitting hard, but the excitement I felt as we flew over Oahu and Molokai provided enough of an energy boost to keep me from falling asleep during the short flight. Slowly, the signature green sea cliffs that line the Kalaupapa Peninsula came into view, and I looked on in awe as the plane descended into the park. 

Onboard a Cessna 208 — much smaller than the planes I usually fly in.

When I landed at the airport — a quaint open air shelter and single landing strip — I was greeted by park dive officer / marine ecologist Kelly Moore and biological science technician Glauco Puig-Santana. After thanking them for picking up my three cases of gear and luggage that had been dropped off at the airport earlier, we drove into town to the NPS Natural Resources office. Glauco pointed out some of the buildings as we drove through town — the multiple churches, the patient care facility, and the post office, to name a few (admittedly there aren’t too many more). Once we arrived at the office, we immediately started discussing logistics, rules, and the diving plan for the week. 

A morning rainbow above town from my front yard.

The first order of business during my stay was to help Kelly and Glauco complete long-term sub-tidal monitoring surveys and water quality sampling of fixed and temporary sites around the peninsula. At each site, we were to first deploy a YSI water quality meter — it would be placed at depth for the first 10 minutes of the sample, then sent to the surface to collect an additional 10 minutes of data. During each dive, we would mark a 25 meter transect with a tape measure and take photos of the benthic substrate at each meter. For temporary sites, an additional rugosity survey needed to be done. This involved laying out a metal chain marked with meter measurements along the transect line and shaping it to the contours of the benthic substrate. If a site had a large number of boulders, that would equate to a higher rugosity measurement than a site that was purely sand or flat rock. Collectively, all of this data helps provide insight into the health of the reefs and water. The data are also used for identifying any significant ecological changes over time. 

A critical part of surveying involves assessing water quality. This YSI water quality monitor is weighed down at the survey site to collect data at depth, then sent up to the surface to collect a second round of data.

Kelly Moore takes benthic photos along the transect line of one of our survey sites. The long rod attached to the camera ensures that there is a standardized distance between the camera lens and the benthic substrate.

A number of people had expressed their excitement when they heard I would be working with Kelly. It took me very little time with her to realize that she is a powerhouse of a worker and a wonderful, genuine person. Our other team member, Glauco, is a jack of all trades who was constantly darting between dive ops, helicopter ops, visiting the patients in the care home, and helping with whatever odd things came up around the settlement. For such a small team, they got things done. They had a good rhythm — ideal when your team is normally only two people strong. I was eager to help, but their routine was so dialed in that it was initially challenging to know how to best assist. As the days progressed, we developed a steady flow to each morning. We’d load survey and dive equipment into the truck, make the necessary calls to initiate our dive plan and confirm that the hyperbaric chamber nearby was operational, and sit down for a group discussion and safety briefing. 

Glauco and Kelly go over dive sites and operation plans in the morning.

The isolated nature of Kalaupapa impacts every aspect of daily operations in the park, especially when dive operations are ongoing. Safety briefings are part of any NPS dive operation, but they were especially detailed in Kalaupapa, and for good reason. There are no medical services on-site, little cell service, and very few, if any, other boaters in the nearby waters. If anything were to happen while we were out, we would have to depend primarily on radio communication, which isn’t 100% reliable in the area. 

The steep sea cliffs towering over the settlement don’t exactly help when you’re trying to get cell service in Kalaupapa.

Once we talked through all things safety-related and confirmed that we were feeling good to dive, we drove down to the wharf where the NPS boat was moored. Because of the frequent swell and wave action, it usually wasn’t possible to tie up to the wharf without seriously risking damage to the boat. The best alternative was mooring the boat farther out in the water. This also meant taking an early morning plunge and swimming out to the boat, then driving it up to the wharf to load our gear. On particularly “swelly” days, we used large bins to float equipment out to the boat, pushing them in front of us as we swam. It sounds a bit ridiculous (and looked very ridiculous), but the NPS boat was to be protected at all costs!

The NPS has one boat in Kalaupapa NHP. It is treated like royalty! In such a remote area, it’s critically important to take good care of what you have — you don’t know how long it’ll take to get a replacement if something breaks.

Gear set up and ready to go on the boat — and with a stunning view in the background.

Before Kalaupapa, I had never been diving in the North Pacific. Honestly, I hadn’t done much diving in water below 80 degrees (I’m spoiled, I know). After our first day of surveys, I learned that staying warm throughout a day of Kalaupapa diving meant layering up with a long sleeve rash guard and leggings, a 5 mm wetsuit, and a hood. It was chilly, yes, but I welcomed the new dive experiences. After months of diving in the Caribbean, I was surprised to see so many different fish species and such a vastly different underwater environment. The seafloor was composed primarily of bedrock and massive boulders, along with scattered cauliflower and antler corals. Unicornfish, trumpetfish, and bright yellow tangs caught my eye as we worked underwater. I couldn’t help but feel thankful that I didn’t have to identify, count, and measure each one. As much as I enjoyed all the Caribbean fish surveys I’d done earlier in the summer, I greatly appreciated the change of pace. 

A batch of colorful cauliflower coral in the light.

A small school of chubs — “nenue” in Hawaiian — swim by. Sometimes you’ll see a bright yellow chub intermixed with the grey ones — the result of a recessive trait. Hawaiians believe the rare yellow chubs (referred to as queen nenue) are good luck.

A Crown-of-Thorns starfish overtakes a cauliflower coral.

The scenery both above and below water was absolutely amazing in Kalaupapa.

— 

When we weren’t diving, Kelly and Glauco were eager to help me feel at home and show me all that Kalaupapa had to offer. There weren’t many people around and we were certainly isolated, but there was a strong sense of community in the tiny settlement. By my second day, my fridge was stocked with groceries and freshly picked fruit from Kelly and a large bag of deliciously marinated venison from Glauco (the deer on the settlement are an invasive species, so the community consumes the by-products of permitted animal control efforts). In the evenings, people would get together for walks on the beach, snorkeling, or volleyball. Covid made it slightly more difficult to do things in groups, but everyone seemed to find a way to stay connected and keep spirits up. 

An evening past time: cracking coconuts! Kelly (left) uses a machete to whack off the outer husk, and Sydney (right) stabs the coconut onto a rebar pole in the ground to pry off the rest of the shell.

Getting to the actual coconut is not an easy task!

Another Kalaupapa activity: exploring the other side of the peninsula with Kelly and her water-loving dog, Thule.

I did my best to watch the sunset every evening.

As I adjusted to my new environment, I found myself constantly thinking of Kalaupapa’s storied history. It’s impossible to ignore when you’re there. Cemeteries, monuments, and memorials dispersed throughout the settlement encourage one to take a pause and think about the significance of the area. As Kelly pointed out during one of our evening hikes, the isolation of being in Kalaupapa during Covid could be difficult at times. But, it was incomparable to what the thousands of leprosy patients before us experienced. Each day, whether I was watching the sunset on the beach or enjoying the stunning views of the lush green cliffside, I appreciated the fact that I was in the patch of Hawaiian paradise by choice — a luxury that so many before me were not afforded. Curious to continue learning about and experiencing the park, I prepared for my next Kalaupapa adventure: freshwater stream surveys in Waikolu Valley. 

Father Damien is known for his dedication and devotion to the patients on Kalaupapa. He arrived on the island in 1873 and built houses, planted trees, organized schools, and most of all, provided hope, care, and support to those exiled to the remote peninsula.

A number of cemeteries have been established around the peninsula.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

“What could possibly be wrong?”

Up-close photo of a damage car tire.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

View of ocean with multiple sailboats in the water

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

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

Man laying facedown on a boat

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

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

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

A stormy day on St. John.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Off to the West Coast!

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Diving into the DAN Internship

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

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

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

Shark teeth I found in the Cooper River.

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

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

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

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

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Divers Alert Network Research Internship Kick-Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smaller chamber at Bluestone Quarry.

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OWUSS is Back! Virtual Event Series coming soon.

OWUSS Virtual Event Series June 3-5, 2021

The Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society has some good news to share! We are emerging from our year-long COVID hiatus and will celebrate our Scholars and Interns with a virtual event series June 3-5, 2021. It is more important than ever that we celebrate success while we recognize the challenging times we are all facing.

Scholar and Intern Symposiums – June 3 & 4

Similar to the morning symposiums we traditionally held at The Explorers Club, the first two days of the event will feature the final presentations of our returning 2019 Rolex Scholars and Society Interns. This is a chance to hear a bit more in-depth about what they did during their scholarship and internship experiences.
 

Awards Ceremony – June 5

The awards ceremony will celebrate the returning class of Scholars and Interns as well as announce the new 2021 Rolex Scholars and Society Interns. This year the ceremony will feature the world premieres of the year-end films for the 2019 Rolex Scholars, the announcement of the DAN Rolex Diver of the Year, the introduction of the 2021 Society Interns, and the awards presentation of the new 2021 Rolex Scholars.
 

Plan Ahead

To maximize the number of viewers from around the world, the initial viewing for each event will air at the following days and times:

Scholar Symposium – Thursday, June 3
Intern Symposium – Friday, June 4
Awards Ceremony – Saturday, June 5

 

  • 4pm EDT – New York
  • 3pm CDT – Chicago
  • 1pm PDT – Los Angeles
  • 9pm BST – London
  • 10pm CEST – Berlin
  • 6am AEST – Sydney (June 4, 5, and 6)

Visit the Event Page for More Details

Visit owuscholarship.org/2021Event for links to the events plus more details.

Also, keep watching your email as well as the Society website (www.owuscholarship.org), and social media sites — Facebook and Instagram.

Return to the Field

With a new cadre of Scholars and Interns, the Society is working with hosts and sponsors to safely introduce our new Scholars and Interns to the field. The decision to reinstate scholarship and internship activities for this year was not taken lightly. The Society recognizes the ongoing seriousness and continually changing nature of the pandemic. With input from all three scholarship regions and the internship program, the Board has agreed to move forward cautiously with, as always, the safety, health and well-being of the Scholars and Interns of utmost concern. 
Given the differing travel and stay-at-home restrictions, vaccination schedules, and COVID protocols for North America, Europe, and Australasia, there is expected to be considerable variability and flexibility to the schedules and experiences for the Scholars and Interns. Our coordination teams will do everything they can to ensure the recipients maximize the available opportunities.

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