Category Archives: 2011 National Park Service

Biscayne National Park-The First Week, a.k.a. Why Diving in South Florida is Highly “Weather Dependant.”

After my first few days in Biscayne National Park, I am getting a true taste of what it is like to live and work in South Florida. After stocking up on groceries for my time here, I remember pondering how wonderful it was that I could find mangos, papayas, passion fruits, dragon fruits, and many other tropical delights at the local fruit stand. Unfortunately, being in the tropics comes at a much higher cost then mosquito bites and sunburn. All the tropical fruit in the world seems insignificant when a potential hurricane starts making its way towards you.

On Monday morning I met up with Shelby Moneysmith, the Park Dive Officer and Biological Science Technician, and Dr. Vanessa MacDonough, Fishery and Wildlife Biologist at the park. After getting a tour of the park’s facilities, I headed out on the water with park divers Anthony DiSilvestro and Meghan Balling to monitor the short stretches of available coastline on Elliot Key for sea turtle nests, followed by a couple of dives searching for lionfish. This is about as different as it gets from the Dry Tortugas, for being only 180 miles away (as the crow flies). Biscayne is on the mainland of Florida. You can drive for 10 minutes and be at a grocery store. The shore here is densely populated with mangroves, and near shore waters are often the color of tea, due to tannins released by the decaying vegetation. The smell of mangroves is also distinctive—pungent and organic, you can’t really ignore it, just learn to love it! Not only are there dense mangrove communities, but dense human communities abound nearby as well. Visitors from all over south Florida, including Miami, visit the park, and there is clearly much more human impact out here than in the deserted islands of the Dry Tortugas. Propeller scars in the sea grass, anchor damage on coral reefs, and marine debris are all telling signs of challenges facing park managers. Sensitive and endangered organisms like Manatees, sea turtles, and Elkhorn corals all rely on habitats found within the park, and the difficulties of managing human use of the park and maintaining these habitats in pristine condition are immense.

One of the most obvious challenges the park faces is the significant amount of marine debris that washes ashore here, due to winds and currents. The first time I saw one of the sea turtle beaches I was appalled by the amount of trash these turtles must haul themselves through to nest. Not only that, but the beaches here are lined with craggy, sharp beach rock that can be murderous to human feet. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for a turtle that gets stuck at low tide to crawl back to the water. These are not the powdery soft beaches of the Tortugas. Although there are small numbers of turtles that nest here, despite the harsh conditions, park resource managers have seen a significant decline in nests and an increase in false crawls. It is important for all of us to remember that our waste has a global effect—not only can it end up on turtle beaches and prevent them from nesting, it can end up in the ocean and entangle, poison, choke or otherwise harm wildlife and habitats. The debris that washes up on the shore of Biscayne represents a global epidemic of mismanaged waste, and we all need to do out part to reduce our impact.

Unfortunately, our day was cut short by the looming threat of Hurricane Irene, which on Monday (August 22) appeared as though it might be heading for the east coast of southern Florida. At this point it was only a Tropical Storm, but park managers wanted to play it safe to ensure the safety of park facilities and give the park’s employees enough time to deal with preparing their homes in case the storm hit. We spent the next couple of days battening down the park—taking all the boats out of the water and securing them on their trailers, tidying loose debris and equipment around the exteriors of all the park buildings, and putting up hurricane shutters. I stocked up on water, ice, and food in case we lost power in park housing. By Wednesday(August 24), we were all in a suspended state, waiting to see where Irene would go. I spent the week helping crews prepare for the hurricane, and assisting in the office as needed. The park is currently preparing for a public comment session on the draft General Management Plan (GMP), which will dictate management priorities in the park for the next couple of decades, and I helped out with the creation of a presentation about marine reserves to be used in the public meetings (for more information about the draft GMP, see It was really interesting and informative to get a behind the scenes look what goes into preparing for public meetings, and to see all the different potential alternatives for zoning of the park in the future.

Thankfully, Hurricane Irene headed away from Florida and up the coast on a northern trajectory, although this was quite unfortunate for the northeastern states. By Friday morning we had all the boats back in the water, and were able to go out diving! Anthony, Katie Johnson (Park Biologist), and I went out to search for lionfish. We didn’t have very much luck, and the visibility was awful due to the high winds and thunderstorms all week, but I was just happy to get back in the water. If the weather holds out, I can look forward to lots of diving next week!


Turtle Work with USGS in Dry Tortugas National Park

I spent the last 10 days living aboard the M.V. Fort Jefferson, the Park Service’s supply boat to Dry Tortugas National Park, with a turtle research group from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). They come out to the Tortugas several times a year in the summer months to monitor and tag sea turtles in the area. They are seeking nesting females and adults and juveniles of both sexes. To find them, the team walks nesting beaches at night to locate females hauling up to lay their eggs, and searches shallow foraging grounds for juveniles and adults.

Our hosts aboard the M.V. Fort Jefferson were Captains Blue and Janie Douglass, and John Spade. Janie made sure that we all stayed well fed and had plenty of delicious leftovers for our nightly 4am fridge raids! The turtle team consisted of 9 researchers, students, and volunteers, all associated with USGS or University of Florida.

The project lead, Dr. Kristen Hart, is a research ecologist with USGS who has been studying sea turtles in the Tortugas for 4 years. She has been able to track individual turtles for more then 800 days with satellite tags to see where they go during different seasons. Sea turtles are highly migratory, and may traverse thousands of miles per year. Satellite tags are the best way of learning where they go and when, so that effective management strategies can be implemented and critical habitat protected for these endangered marine reptiles. Kristen has been able to determine that the turtles tagged in the Dry Tortugas travel as far as 800 km from the small island group into the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas, or to Cuba. In addition, Kristen deploys acoustic tags whose signals are picked up by receivers scattered throughout the park to learn more about local movements and habitat use on a finer scale.

Our ten-day cruise was filled with long nights patrolling for turtles on the nesting beaches, and afternoons on the water trying to catch foraging turtles. While walking the beach at night might not sound difficult, doing it from sunset until 4 am definitely wears you out after a few days! Each night, we would set up our gear and a big circle of beanbags on the beaches of Loggerhead and/or East Keys, and take turns patrolling the shoreline every half hour. I loved walking the beaches at night; the moon has been bright and the skies have been mostly clear, with lightning flashing on the distant horizon (except for two nights when we had to cut things short due to lighting storms that came too close). In between walks, we would talk, read, do crossword puzzles, play cards, or nap. I found that mastering the art of beanbag chair napping was critical to a good night on the beach!

When a turtle was seen, we would wait for her to complete the nesting process before approaching her, to make sure that she wasn’t interrupted before having the chance to successfully nest. Often, turtles will crawl up on the beach and dig a few pits without nesting, and then head back to the sea. On their way back to the water, the team would corral the turtle to keep her in one place while they collected biometric data and attached tags. They collected standard body measurements, a blood sample, tissue biopsies, and inserted PIT tags (stands for Passive Integrated Transponder, a small scannable device-like what you put in a dog or cat in case they get lost) and attached flipper tags. Then the team attached either satellite or acoustic tags, waited for the adhesive to dry, and released the turtle to continue its journey back to the sea.

Two nights we found Loggerhead hatchlings crawling to the sea while doing patrols. I can’t describe the feeling of surprise when I saw a tiny hatchling scampering into the surf directly in front of me while patrolling the beach for 300+ lb nesting females. To imagine these minute creatures, just hatched out of a golf-ball sized egg, growing up over the next few decades to become the huge turtles that crawl onto the beaches to lay their eggs is truly awe-inspiring. Not only do these hatchlings face natural threats, from nest inundation to predators, they now are confronted with a barrage of man-made challenges that dramatically reduce their chances of surviving to adulthood. Lights on nesting beaches, rats, cats, and other non-native predators that consume eggs and hatchlings, beach erosion, the veritable obstacle course of fishing gears strewn throughout the world’s oceans, poachers, boat strikes, disease, spilled oil, climate change, plastic pollution—any one of these things can spell disaster for a sea turtle. With Loggerhead nests declining more than 40% on index beaches in Florida from 1998-2006 (for more information check out Decreasing Annual Nest Counts in Globally Important Loggerhead Sea Turtle Populations by Witherington et al. 2009), clearly Florida’s turtles are not able to hold up to such a treacherous environment. That is why work like Kristen’s is so important—the genetic and immunological information found in the blood, biological indicators from isotope analysis of the tissue samples, growth rates and body condition information from the biometric measurements, and spatial data from the PIT, flipper, acoustic and satellite tags enables natural resource managers to make the most informed management decisions possible with respect to managing sea turtle populations.

As only nesting females come ashore, turtles are also captured using the rodeo technique to get a more representative sampling of the population, including males and females who aren’t nesting this year. Rodeo catching of turtles is quite a thing to watch. We took the Carretta, a 26 foot boat that Kristen had built specifically for her research, out to shallow foraging areas where there are tons of turtles that are easily visible in the clear water. We would get a turtle in our sites and approach it from the proper angle so that the jumpers could leap from the boat onto the turtle and grab onto it as it surfaced. The boat has a tall tower with a console where the captain had the best vantage point for finding turtles and avoiding submerged hazards like shallow coral heads, and a specially built leaning post on the bow that the rodeo jumpers could hang onto. In addition, the boat has a 48 inch wide door in the side to haul in the hugest of turtles. Once the jumpers caught a turtle, the boat would swing up beside them to pull the turtle in through the door and start working it up. The team collected all the same data as they did for the nesters and applied tags. We caught some absolutely enormous turtles, including the biggest male rodeo capture in the history of the project.

To catch juveniles the team took the Livingston, a small skiff, into the shallow waters around the fort and dip-netted the youngsters to collect measurements, blood, and biopsies and attach flipper, and sometimes acoustic, tags. The majority of the juveniles captured on this trip were recaptures—they had been caught and marked in prior years. This is excellent because Kristen can track their growth rates over time and determine the site fidelity and survival rate for this population.

This is a group of extraordinarily dedicated researchers. We would walk the beaches every night starting at sundown, and wouldn’t return to our mother ship until at least 4 am. After scarfing down leftovers and all eight of us waiting for our turn to shower, it was easily 5 am before most of us got to bed. The next day we would be up by noon at the latest for breakfast/lunch, and then out to the field for rodeo or dip netting of juveniles. Then we would all sit down for one of Janie’s excellent dinners, followed by dessert every night (you need all those calories, at least that’s what we would tell ourselves!) before heading back out for more beach walks. The team worked great together, and there was never a lack of laughs or interesting conversations. When they got a turtle, the team operated like a well-oiled machine; everyone knew what had to be done and what their role was.

I was also able to get some diving in during our time on the M.V. Fort Jefferson. Kristen’s acoustic receivers had to be retrieved to download the data and replace the batteries, so John Spade and I reinstalled them in their custom built augured ports. I was the a backup diver while Blue and John did maintenance work on some of the mooring buoys in the park, and then Kayla and I got to jump in to search for Lionfish and take photos. These were my first boat-based dives in the park, and being out in the blue water was awesome. I have spent the last few years in the highly productive, and often green, northern Gulf of California, which is incomparable to the clear, warm water of Florida. The sites we dove were rocky pinnacles rising out of the sandy bottom, and were covered in hard and soft corals, sponges, and sea fans. I saw some big groupers, hogfish, and jacks, although I somehow have yet to see a Goliath Grouper! I have been pretty diligent about wearing my 3 mm wetsuit every time I get in the water to avoid sunburn and to minimize the risk of jellyfish stings, but I have actually been too warm! That is a first for me.

-All photos of turtles taken at night were captured using ambient moonlight and/or low-power red lights to minimize disturbance to the turtles. NO flash was used at night on nesting beaches.
-All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC MTP #11-176) under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles.


Last Days at Fort Jefferson

A few days ago, I tagged along with Tracy Zeigler, (Fisheries Biologist for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks) as she observed a group of sea grass researchers on research dives. They are conducting an ongoing project to monitor sea grass abundance and cover of other benthic organisms in the region, and on this trip they also installed buoys to mark transects that they will return to next year. They had been in the Tortugas for a couple of days, based on a 45-foot liveaboard out of Key West called the Explorer II. The group is from Florida International University, and included Kirk Gastrich, staff biologist in Dr. Mike Heithan’s lab, Jenn Sweatman, PhD Student, Elizabeth “Z” Lacey, PhD candidate, Justin Campbell, PhD candidate, and Rachel Decker, a research assistant in the Fourqurean Lab. They were extremely friendly and it was great to observe them in action. The captain of the liveaboard, Bernie Altmeier, has been captaining boats specifically for research cruises for years up and down the eastern seaboard. Tracy and I snorkeled alongside the divers on their shallow dives to observe their methodology, and they were great about having me shooting them paparazzi-style (check out the photos of them in action below). A big thank you goes out to the team for being so welcoming!

After shuttling Jeff Reckner and Zach Gibson to Loggerhead key, where they are working on preservation of the historic buildings on the island, Kayla and I had some time to go snorkeling and explore the shallows in the park, looking for lionfish and good photo spots. We met up with the Spree, a diving liveaboard out of Texas, and snorkeled alongside their divers on the Windjammer site, the wreck of Avanti, then parted ways to find some other shallow sites in the area. We ended up at some beautiful, clear and calm areas with lots of coral and fish.

After a week and half of being up at sunrise and working in the field all day, I finally had a chance to hop on one of the guided tours of Fort Jefferson offered by the crew of the ferry Yankee Freedom II. Our guide, Chelsea Barattini, was very enthusiastic despite the blazing heat, and clearly has a genuine interest in the history of the fort. She shared lots of interesting anecdotes about the construction, historical uses and one of the fort’s well-known prisoners, Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd was imprisoned at the fort for sympathizing with the confederacy during the Civil War, but was pardoned after his work during the Yellow Fever outbreak that devastated the fort’s population in the mid 1860s. I decided to take the seaplane through Key West Seaplane Adventures back to Key West on Monday, where I will meet up with the M.V. Fort Jefferson and a group of sea turtle researchers led by USGS Biologist Kristen Hart for the next 10 days. The flight was awesome; seeing the Dry Tortugas from the air really put their diminutive size and extreme isolation into perspective. It is a very different experience from taking the ferry, and if you ever have the opportunity I highly recommend flying!

Now I am sitting in a café in Key West, while a thunderstorm booms outside. Tonight begins the next part of my adventure!


Sea Turtles and Underwater Photography in Dry Tortugas National Park

I am loving the Dry Tortugas! I have spent the last week and a half focusing on getting to know the current NPS staff at the park, monitoring nesting turtle activity, exploring Fort Jefferson, and of course, getting in the water!

The current crew out at the park has been extremely welcoming and friendly. Employees here work on an alternating schedule, so generally only half the staff is here at any point in time, thus I haven’t met everyone who works out here. The current crew includes: Elizabeth Ross, the acting site supervisor who maintains order among the many facets of the park, Kim Pepper, John Chelko, and Sharon Hutkowski, Park Rangers who ensure enforcement of laws within the park, Tracy Ziegler, Fisheries Biologist who coordinates research activities, Drew “Tree” Gottshall, Allen “Zam” Zamrock, Brion Schaner, and Patrick Moran who work hard to maintain the fort, boats and other facilitates, Jeff Reckner and Zach Gibson, who work on restoration projects, Julie Marcero, Juli Niswander, Judy and John Simmons, the volunteers who interface with visitors, run tours and help out with whatever needs to be done, and Kayla Nimmo, Biological Technician as previously mentioned. I am spending the week as a volunteer under Kayla’s direction, assisting with natural resource management projects.

Most of the people who work here stay at the fort for 1-2 weeks at a time, then take a few days off back in the Keys. It is a 2.5-hour commute via ferry from Key West, so committing to a job out here is not to be taken lightly. NPS employees live at the fort with very limited communication outside the park, in close quarters to each other, reliant on a desalination unit for water, and have to bring in all their food and supplies. Clearly, these people are a dedicated group. They are all committed to keeping the park in working order so that visitors can come and experience the history and natural beauty of this spectacular island group. Tourists come every day from Key West on the ferry, Yankee Freedom, or by seaplane, as well as in personal boats. They can take a historical tour, snorkel, kayak, fish, and explore the fort by foot, or SCUBA dive if they come via dive boat. For such a small place there is a lot to do, with opportunities both topside and underwater.

Aside from a few campers, the majority of the tourists leave in the mid-afternoon, so in the evenings the fort is eerily quite. When I stop to think about how far we are from Key West and that we are surrounded by a huge expanse of open ocean, it makes me feel like I have fallen off the face of the earth. Then I wake up to a boatful of tourists disembarking the next day, and it snaps me back to reality! I like this contrast.

Map of the Dry Tortugas

I have been accompanying Kayla on her daily trips to monitor turtle nesting activity on East and Loggerhead Keys, and once to Bush Key, where both Green and Loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs. East Key is a tiny, sandy cay, and the turtles that nest there apparently have no lack of energy and indecisiveness. I have had some previous experience monitoring turtle nests, but these nesting tracks are particularly remarkable to me in that they are very long and complex—not your typical crawl to the top of the beach and back. Turtles also nest on Loggerhead Key, which is larger and has a lighthouse and a few historic residences that are sometimes occupied by Park Service personnel. Only a small number of turtles nest every year on Bush Key, which could practically be swum to from the fort, although it is off limits to visitors to minimize impacts on sensitive vegetation, and the Brown Noddies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and Sooty, Roseate and Bridled Terns that nest on the island. During nesting season as many as 10,000 Brown Noddies and 100,000 Sooty Terns come to Bush Key to nest!

The number of nesting turtles this year is very low in comparison to prior years—about half of what is typically expected. Monitoring nesting sea turtle activity is crucial to tracking the population health of these enigmatic and endangered species, and the previous baseline of data has enabled park researchers to see the dramatic decline in nests this year. Apparently the nesting populations of Green Turtles normally fluctuate quite a bit, but the low numbers of nesting Loggerheads this year is a concern to park researchers. A year after the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, monitoring these nesting sites gives researchers insight into how populations of turtles in this region may be affected.

Sea turtle nest monitoring consists of walking the nesting beaches every day or every other day and marking all the new tracks with their dates and likelihood of nesting. Often sea turtles will haul themselves out of the water and all the way across the beach just to turn right back around without nesting—this is called a false crawl. They may even dig a few pits without laying eggs. A real nest is obvious, due to its size, shape, and the amount of sand flung back over it in the end of the nesting process to disguise the nest from predators. In about 52 days, the nests hatch if they are successful, and the hatchlings make their way to the sea under the cover of darkness. A minimum of three days after that, Kayla excavates the nests whenever possible to determine their success. Nest digging is no easy task—it can be backbreaking work with nests buried more than shoulder-deep, which must be dug with care to avoid collapse. The empty shells are examined and inventoried to monitor predation rates, un-hatched eggs are noted and any straggling hatchlings are collected for release that night. A few days ago we found one Green and seven Loggerhead hatchlings that were still buried in their nests and released them later that evening. The importance of nest monitoring cannot be understated; it is one of the few glimpses we get into the life cycle of sea turtles, and provides researchers and managers with critical information for protecting these species. While we cannot know how many of these hatchlings survive to adulthood, at least knowing when and where nesting occurs and the success of particular nesting areas enables managers to protect critical habitat such as the Dry Tortugas.

The most exciting part of the past week was definitely getting underwater with the camera for the first time. I joined Kayla on a couple of dives to search for and eradicate invasive lionfish. Lionfish are a Pacific species, and they have no natural predators in the Atlantic. Without natural predators to keep their population in check, they are able to consume an inordinate number of native reef fish and outcompete native fish for food, thus have a devastating effect on local reef habitats. They were first spotted in Atlantic waters off of Biscayne Bay in 1992 (thought to have escaped from an aquarium tank that was broken in Hurricane Andrew), then spread north and eventually throughout the Atlantic, from Massachusetts to Venezuela. In the park, visitors are requested to report any sightings to park officials so that they can be removed before they can cause any more harm. Kayla knew of a particular lionfish that had eluded capture several times before, so we went out in search of it on our first dive. She found it quickly and skillfully speared it, ensuring that this fish and any of its potential offspring would not be able to degrade the reef systems here. We continued to search for more lionfish among the pilings of the old south coaling dock (a relic from the days when the Fort was used as a Naval refueling station), and I experimented using the camera. I was actually quite surprised at how difficult it was! I figured I would be good at multitasking due to my previous scientific diving experience, but it was definitely a challenge at first. I have been in the water with the camera every day since, and think I am starting to learn what works and what doesn’t. The winds that dominated my first few days here have died down and now the water is as smooth as glass, a rare treat in the open ocean! I have been photographing as much as possible –check out the pictures and let me know what you think!


Arrival at Dry Tortugas National Park

This week I arrived in paradise. Its other name? The Dry Tortugas, a group of seven, small, low-laying, sandy islands west of the Florida Keys. It is home to Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the United States, and critical habitat for nesting sea turtles, migratory sea birds, and endangered corals. To top it off, the waters are a crystalline aquamarine, the beaches are soft white sand, and the sky is as big as it gets. Like I said, paradise.

I left my new friends at the SRC early last Wednesday morning and was in Key West, Florida, by the afternoon. Kayla Nimmo, a biological technician for the South Florida Natural Resources Center, met me at the airport. She works on a variety of natural resource projects at Dry Tortugas National Park, which include monitoring sea turtles, seabirds, vegetation, reef fish, and corals, among other things. Thursday, bright and early, we boarded the ferry Yankee Freedom and were at Fort Jefferson by 10:30 am. I spent the day getting reacquainted with the fort and the current activities at the park, and accompanied Kayla to East Key in the late afternoon to monitor nesting activity of Green Turtles (more about that in upcoming blog entries). I visited Dry Tortugas National Park once before in 2007, and have wanted to return ever since. I am so thrilled to be spending the next three weeks here!

This place is magical for photographers, wildlife enthusiasts, divers, snorkelers, history buffs, and anyone who can appreciate the beauty of being on small, sandy islands that are literally in the middle of the ocean. These islands are located on the edge of the natural shipping passage where the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the western Caribbean Sea meet, 70 miles from Key West and about 90 miles from Cuba. It is the only moorage between the Rio Grande and Chesapeake Bay that is large enough to contain a battleship fleet. This strategic position inspired the construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key to protect the trade routes to the southeastern United States. The project began in 1846, but was never fully completed. Today, the fort is slowly succumbing to the erosive powers of nature and time; however, the Park is committed to preserving the fort for future generations. Current conservation efforts involve bringing in teams of masons to repair the crumbling brick walls. The fort, which is now frequented by visitors and provides housing to National Park Service staff, was used as a military prison until the late 19th century. Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson, was designated a National Park in 1992 and covers 100 square miles (only 0.15 sq. miles of that is terrestrial). Underwater, one can find beautiful reefs and lots of shipwrecks–shallow shoals and hurricanes caused ships to wreck in this area throughout history.

It is not simply the remoteness and history of the Tortugas that is so awe-inspiring. The quality of light is so different from anywhere I have been on the mainland. The air, while humid, is refreshed by ocean winds that bring in dramatic cloud formations, which change colors throughout the day like a mood ring on a teenage girl. The white sand, which can be blindingly bright at midday, turns a deep gold as the sun’s rays illuminate it late in the afternoon. The ephemeral nature of the islands themselves is fascinating; in fact, several islands have been swept away by storms since the discovery of the Dry Tortugas by Ponce de Leon in 1513. And the water—Oh that water! It is the type of water that makes you believe in mermaids and Atlantis–like peering into another world with lenses made of turquoise glass. This is a truly awe-inspiring place.

Three weeks in paradise—not a bad start to the summer! I can’t wait to get to know everyone here and explore the park, both topside and underwater. My days will be filled with turtle monitoring, diving, snorkeling, photography, exploring, and learning the history of this one-of-a-kind landmark surrounded by some of the most pristine coral reefs in the United States. Hint: underwater photos coming soon!

To learn more about Dry Tortugas National Park, please visit


Blue Card Certification and Testing Out the CAMERA!!

Getting here was the easy part—now for the true test of whether or not I am worthy of being a National Park Service diver! In addition to extensive medical testing (I have been poked, scanned, monitored, and beeped at in five different doctor’s offices) and a written exam, I needed to demonstrate my physical fitness and dive skills in order to obtain my Blue Card, which is required to dive through the NPS. This afternoon I joined the SRC divers (excluding some divers who are away on assignment) and headed to the local recreation center to do our swim tests and demonstrate safety skills. I quickly learned that being a mile up in elevation and getting over a cold make long-distance swimming much more challenging! I have been living at sea level for the past few years and swam regularly in the ocean—but this was a completely different workout. Nevertheless, I made it within the required time for all the swim tests including underwater, assisted and unassisted swims.

Next it was time for us to complete the required skills under the direction of Steve Sellers, the National Dive Safety Officer. We ditched and donned our equipment at the bottom of the pool, practiced out of air and unconscious diver rescue scenarios, and many other skills. It was a great to practice all these skills and have them fresh in my mind before embarking on this journey, just in case I am ever present in an emergency. Diving is an inherently risky activity, and one can never be too prepared for unexpected situations.

After completing all the Blue Card skills, Susanna had me practice setting up the camera in its underwater housing and with strobes. We leak tested it in the pool and I took my first shots! Granted, they were not masterpieces, but the mere act of pressing the shutter lever filled me with excitement and confidence. We had some trouble synching the camera with the strobes, but back at the office we got the whole setup working perfectly. I can’t wait to take it out in the ocean! I hope that the shots I take on this trip will be able to inspire all who see them to explore the submerged parks and care for all the spectacular submerged resources we have in the US, and the world.

Practicing the assembly of the underwater camera system to leak test it in the pool at the Green Mountain Recreation Center in Lakewood, CO.


Orientation to the National Park Service

I have just finished my first week as the 2011 Our World Underwater Scholarship Society’s National Park Service Submerged Resources Center Intern—try saying that seven times fast! The flight from San Jose, CA to Denver, CO, was very scenic. After a quick stop in Los Angeles, part of the route took us along the Colorado River, over the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead, which were spectacular to see from the air. I arrived in breathtaking Denver, Colorado, through dense cloud cover over jagged peaks and lush valleys that reminded me that I was no longer in the arid Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, which had been home for the past three years.

John Bright and Susanna Pershern from the Submerged Resource Center greeted me at the airport in a huge Chevy Suburban that would be entrusted to me for the week to get around town (possibly more for the amusement of my SRC officemates to watch me park it every morning then anything else!). Susanna is a photographer for the SRC, and would be orienting me to the camera gear that I am so graciously being lent for this internship. John is an MA student in Underwater Archeology at East Carolina University, and has been working with the SRC on park projects and his thesis research in North Carolina through the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP). They were both extremely welcoming and friendly, as was the rest of the SRC staff when we arrived back at the National Park Service Intermountain Regional Office in Lakewood, where the SRC office is located. There I met Steve Sellers, the National Dive Safety Officer who kindly hosted me during my stay in Denver, and Desiree Sousha, the program administrator who is helping with many of the logistical aspects of my internship, such as booking travel plans. Finally, I met Dave Conlin, the SRC Chief, and Sami Seeb, one of the underwater archeologists at the Center. Having been in contact with them for the last few months, it was great to meet them in person and I could tell that they are as excited for my upcoming adventure as I am! Together they are helping me plan my journey through the submerged National Parks.

If you were unaware, the National Park system includes submerged lands in addition to the terrestrial parks that many of us are so familiar with, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. These submerged parks are located throughout the US and its territories, and range from tropical reefs to frigid kelp forests and alpine lakes. In addition to their natural beauty and biological resources, many of these sites contain cultural resources as well, such as shipwrecks and remnants of human settlement. The SRC was born out of a large-scale inventory of cultural resources in dams in the southwestern United States (if you are interested in the history of the SRC, or underwater archeology and cave diving, I would strongly encourage you to read Submerged by Daniel Lenihan, the founder of what is now the SRC). The Center works with submerged parks across the nation to survey, inventory, and document submerged resources. Their projects vary widely in scope, and include the mapping of the USS Arizona, which was sunk by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th 1941, and 3-D filming of pristine coral reefs in the Dry Tortugas off of Florida.

My internship, which is supported by the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society and the National Park Service, provides me with an incredible opportunity to travel throughout the United States to SCUBA dive at a variety of submerged parks within the National Park system. On of my main responsibilities is this blog, and I am looking forward to sharing all my adventures with you! As I have a strong background in photography and one of my ultimate goals is to be an underwater photographer, they are even providing me with an awesome underwater camera system to document my experience. I am so thrilled to have this opportunity, and at the same time humbled by the extraordinary generosity of the OWUSS and NPS-SRC in giving me this chance to pursue my dreams. Thank you, and I hope to make you all proud!