Category Archives: 2014 National Park Service

The Living Resources of Kalaupapa

Getting from Valor in the Pacific in Oahu to Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Molokai was probably the easiest transit from park to park I’ve had yet! The two islands are only 30 minutes away by air, so with a quick taxi ride to the airport I was on my way to Kalaupapa. The airline was a private charter service, and I got to sit in the cockpit! I’m still very much a child at heart, so it was incredibly exciting.


Once I arrived I met with Eric Brown, the marine ecologist at Kalaupapa and Sly Lee, a marine biological science technician in the park. After a quick tour of the office, Sly took some NOAA researchers and me on a tour of the park. We saw the original settlement, the church where Father Damien preached, the world’s tallest sea cliffs, and the original and still functioning lighthouse. Majestic can’t even begin to describe the natural beauty of the park.


Sly also gave me some background on the park’s history. The settlement was established in the late 1800s as a colony for those with Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy. Native Hawaiians on the peninsula were displaced as the government began the forced exile of those afflicted with leprosy to Kalaupapa, tearing them away from their homes and forcing them into colonies of isolation. This isolation continued until the 1940s, when a cure for leprosy was found, and the government began to ease the isolationist policies. In 1980 Kalaupapa National Historical Park was created to preserve the history of the settlement, and maintain the home of the remaining patients. Today the park is a quiet haven to protect the biological and cultural resources. More importantly, the park also exists to protect and preserve the memories of the patients, who are the last survivors of this terrible legacy.

After I got acquainted with the resources on land, it was time to explore the resources underwater! I quickly put together my underwater camera setup, and enjoyed the unbelievably crystal-clear waters of Kalaupapa. This was my first experience in warm Pacific waters, and I was loving every moment.


My first day in Kalaupapa concluded with community volleyball, a wonderful tradition that happens every Wednesday and Saturday evening. My volleyball skills (or lack thereof) were quite embarrassing, but everyone was encouraging and there to have a good time, regardless of skill level. It was a great way to meet some of the settlement’s 90 residents!

The work week started with the arrival of two University of Hawaii at Hilo researchers, Lindsey Kramer and Kerrie Krosky. Their research involved assessing algae growth and the impact of algal predation from different kinds of marine organisms. The data and research also assessed algal growth on a larger scale in relation to location and causes, such as nutrient runoff from agriculture. I was very impressed by the scope of the research, as well as its implications. For their work here in Kalaupapa we were diving on fixed sites and meticulously collecting algae using an underwater vacuum. Each dive was almost two hours long and required constant attention and concentration, but it was a great challenge to test my scientific diving skills.


Eric (left) and Lindsey collect algae on a fixed site in Kalaupapa.


Luckily diving wasn’t all work and no play- I had a delicious coconut break after a long day of diving! Kalaupapa is home to countless coconut palm trees, as well as mango, banana, papaya, mountain apple, lemon and avocado trees, to name a few. Each day usually featured a healthy and delicious snack break!

Halfway through the week Lindsey, Kerrie, Sly and I joined Carrie Mardorf, the Cultural Resources Program Manager at the park to photograph the Supermoon. We watched the moon rise over the sea cliffs and reflect over the waves. Witnessing special events in nature such as this definitely reminds me how lucky I am!


At the end of the week I joined Eric on a monk seal survey, which involved two hours of hiking along the rocky shoreline to observe and record monk seal activity. Monk seals are an endangered species, and the long-term monitoring helps determine habitat preference and seasonal preference over time in Kalaupapa. Our first hour of hiking yielded no monk seal sightings, but luckily during the second hour we saw two adults and a mother and pup seal! I had observed pinnipeds in the Channel Islands, but this experience impressed upon me the need for research, to preserve pupping areas.


After another rousing game of volleyball on Saturday, the next week began by preparing for a five-day camping expedition to Waikolu Valley to perform stream surveys. Eric, Sly, Randall Watanuki, the park’s maintenance mechanic and boat operator and I were joined by Dave Raikow, an Ecologist with the Pacific Island Network Inventory and Monitoring National Park Service, and Anne Farahi, a Biological Science Technician with the same organization. Our mission for the week was to collect water quality samples, perform fish and snail surveys and monitor the current at fixed and temporary stream sites throughout the valley. This was a great opportunity for me to gain experience in terrestrial research!

Each morning would begin with a briefing on the day’s activities, and then we would begin our hike to the first site of the day. Our route took us through a tropical forest, and the first few days involved bushwhacking our way through the dense clusters of guava, coffee and kukui nut trees. Each morning was a sensory experience as we fought off prickly lantana bushes, inhaled the sour-sweet smell of overripe guava and heard the occasional squeal of a wild pig in the distance. The days were long and physically exhausting, but the view on returning to our campsite each evening never failed to inspire me.

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After our week in Waikolu was over we said farewell to Dave and Anne, and Sly and I went on some photo dives to practice our 3D modeling. I had produced a few models in Pearl Harbor, but was eager to try my hand at modeling corals. Sly gave me some tips on my modeling techniques, and I soon I was cranking out some pretty sweet models! The blend of underwater photography and 3D technology was incredibly appealing to my interests, and I loved learning a new technology. What can I say, I’m a nerd! Click here to check out one of the 3D models.

Another unique experience I had in Kalaupapa was shopping for groceries. Now, that may not sound very exciting, but the nearest grocery store for non-residents is actually on topside Molokai, which is a 3 mile hike up 1,700 feet in elevation. I’m glad I had some practice with hiking while in Waikolu Valley, because it was a tough trek! Not to mention the added weight of groceries on the way down. Still, I’m glad I did the hike if only to say that I had to hike 3 miles up to get groceries!


The view of the peninsula from halfway up the trail.

My third and final week in Kalaupapa was spent diving with Eric, Randall and Sly to pick up coral settlement tiles at various fixed sites around the peninsula. Diving all around the park was a great way to familiarize myself with Pacific diving and see different coral species. There were beautiful hard coral specimens, and I was reminded of the incredible biological resources of the park.


I spent my last few days in Kalaupapa enjoying the beauty of the park and it’s people. I joined Sly and a couple of his friends visiting the park on a salt collection expedition. We walked around the craggy shoreline searching for saltwater ponds that had dried out. We found a couple good-sized ponds, and I collected enough salt for a small souvenir!

My last evening in the park coincided with a volleyball night; there were twice as many people as usual, and I managed to score the winning goal of the last game! After the game we all hung out next door and enjoyed a true Hawaiian luau: great food, live ukelele music and singing. A perfect end to a perfect park visit!


Diving into the Past- Valor of the Pacific

My arrival in Honolulu followed two hours of driving out of Crater Lake, a delayed flight and 5 hours of flight time. Nonetheless, I was transfixed as our plane touched down on Oahu- this was my first time in Hawaii, and I was eager to explore. The sun set behind the mountains as our plane touched down on the tarmac, putting a bow on a perfect arrival.


The view of Pearl Harbor from the plane

Once I collected my bags I met with Scott Pawlowski, the Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources in the park. The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument is dedicated to telling the story of the events at Pearl Harbor, most notably the surprise military attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the US Naval Base on December 7, 1941.The “day that will live in infamy” now lives on in the park in the form of the USS Arizona memorial, the USS Utah memorial and the USS Oklahoma memorial, as well as in other park resources.

Scott and I headed into Honolulu for a late dinner, and discussed my role in the park for that week. When I worked with Brett Seymour of the Submerged Resources Center in Yellowstone and Dry Tortugas, I had watched him utilize a photographic technology called Recap 360, which uses still photographs to produce 3D models. Scott has had experience with the technology, so we determined that with his help I would attempt to produce 3D models of certain features on the USS Utah and USS Arizona.

A few days later, I realized that producing 3D models in Pearl Harbor was easier said than done. The harbor is an estuary, which means that both fresh and salt water mix in the harbor. Large amounts of silt and nutrients accompany the fresh water, resulting in green, murky water. Not the best conditions for taking photos! My subjects were a hatch on the USS Arizona and a gun turret on the USS Utah.

Valor-DUW-140901-141A gun turret on the USS Utah

Valor-DUW-140901-97A gun barrel on the USS Utah

Valor-DUW-140902-102A hatch on the USS Arizona

My first few models were disappointing. The murky water and my novice skills resulted in patchy, half-formed caricatures of the subjects. Luckily Scott was able to diagnose the problem, and with advice from him and Brett I was able to make some progress. In order to capture each and every angle of the subject, the photographer has to utilize a “snail pattern,” photographing from bottom to top in a circular fashion. Each photo must have significant overlap with the preceding and following photograph, and any breaks in the pattern will cause errors with the software.

UntitledAfter two days of unsuccessful modeling, Scott and I set out on my third and final day of diving to model a hatch on the USS Utah. This hatch is particularly significant because survivors of the Attack on Pearl Harbor can choose to have the ship be their final resting place when they pass away, and it is through this hatch that their remains are interred. I was determined to do this model justice as a way to pay my respects to those who serve our country.

The third try was the charm, and with patience, timing and lots of photographs I was able to create a 3D model of the hatch. You can view a video of the model below, or view the model directly by clicking here.

With the diving and imagery done for the week, I decided to explore a bit of Pearl Harbor before my departure to the next park. I hopped on a bus and took a trip to a nearby mall, where I enjoyed some delicious Japanese Ramen at a restaurant that Scott had taken me to earlier in the week. Asian cuisine is king in Hawaii, and I was only too happy to sample the flavor fusions!

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I spent my last day in the park visiting the USS Oklahoma memorial. The ship suffered extreme damage from torpedoes during the attack, and was too damaged to return to duty. The ship was eventually sold for scrap and mercifully sank on it’s way to California. The memorial is located on Ford Island, and has 429 marble posts to mimic the naval tradition of “manning the rails,” a naval tradition whereby crewmen and women gather to salute a distinguished vessel or individual. Walking among the memorial was a somber experience.

As I reflected on the week’s experiences, I realized that Valor in the Pacific was unlike any of the parks I had visited thus far. Being able to dive on shipwrecks that were the final resting place for over a thousand officers and crewmen was an incredibly humbling and reflective experience. The day that will live in infamy will also live on in my memories of this incredible park.



Crayfish Week at Crater Lake

My next stop on my list of parks to visit was Crater Lake National Park, the fifth park I’ve visited this summer. I arrived just in time for Crayfish Week, a week that the Natural Resources- Aquatic Division team devotes to the study of this small but dangerous invasive species.

Crater Lake is an incredibly complex ecological system, made only more complicated by the introduction of crayfish in 1915. The freshwater crustaceans were introduced to provide a food source to trout in Crater Lake, but in recent years the crayfish population has exploded, and now threatens native species such as the endemic Rough-Skinned Newt.


 Wizard Island

The lake is unique in many ways. The 7,700 year old lake was formed by a volcanic eruption, and is the deepest lake in the United States at almost 2,000 feet deep. Known for it’s blue water, the lake also has the highest UV light penetration in the world- higher even than the waters surrounding Antarctica. And because the unpolluted water of Crater Lake is fed only by rain and snowfall, it’s actually good enough to drink! Suffice it to say, Crater Lake is a pretty special place.

Our team for the week consisted of Scott Girdner, a Fisheries Biologist and Limnologist, Drew Denlinger, a Seasonal Biological Technician and Kristin Beem, a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern. Armed with crayfish traps, bait and some elbow grease we set out to catch some crayfish!


 Kristin and Scott pulling up crayfish traps.

Our goal for the week was to catch crayfish at different sites and different depths around the lake. By measuring and noting the length, weight and sex of each crayfish, the team is able to extrapolate the data to determine larger population models. Unfortunately recent population models have not been positive. In 2008 crayfish were present at 50% of monitored shoreline sites- it’s estimated that crayfish are now present at 80% of the sites in 2014.

The presence of invasive species in national parks has unfortunately been a common thread throughout my internship. Between lake trout in Yellowstone, lionfish in Biscayne and Dry Tortugas and now crayfish in Crater Lake, it seems impossible to shake these aquatic invaders. Scott spoke about the difficulty of watching the decline of native species due to the increase of invasive species, saying “It’s easier to prevent the introduction of invasive species like crayfish than it is to deal with them after their introduction.” I did my part to keep the crayfish population down by eating a whole mess of them for dinner! Waste not.



Luckily the mood wasn’t all doom and gloom while at Crater Lake. Being on the water each day and surrounded by the mountains of the caldera was an incredible experience, and each day brought something new. One morning Drew, Kristin and I saw two bald eagles sitting in a nearby tree, and then 30 minutes later we pulled up a newt in one of the crayfish traps! Seeing this lovable newt was a great way to visualize why the the Natural Resources team spends so much time on this research- to protect threatened species like the newt.


A Rough-skinned Newt

I also got to see some other popular features of the lake, including Wizard Island, Phantom Ship (a smaller island) and the Old Man of the Lake, a 30-ft tall tree stump that has been floating around the lake for over a century! The lake’s temperature (cold!) and relatively low productivity has slowed the decomposition process on the log.


On calm days you can see all 30 feet of Old Man! 


Calm water makes gorgeous reflections


The natural beauty of the lake was just astounding. I’m pretty sure Kristin, Scott and Drew got tired of me saying “Wow” so much! Still, it couldn’t be helped, especially when we saw some beautiful waterfalls catching the light just right.

All in all I had a great week assisting the crayfish monitoring research at Crater Lake National Park. Between the glorious views, great people and fascinating research, it was the experience of a lifetime. To all researchers combating invasive species- keep up the good fight!



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Left to Right: Scott, myself, Kristin and Drew


Exploring the Mysteries of the Channel Islands

 My trek to Channel Islands National Park was a testament to the goodwill of strangers. I took the Yankee Freedom II ferry from Dry Tortugas National Park and University of Miami professor Keene Haywood generously gave me a ride to my hotel in Key West. I repacked all of my bags for the airport, and caught a few hours of sleep before heading to the Key West airport.

I arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. with my two carry-ons and three check-in bags in tow. The stunned

Not exactly traveling light!

Not exactly traveling light!

baggage handler took a look at my pile of luggage and hesitantly informed me that passengers were only allowed one check-in bag when flying out of Key West. Whoops! Luckily another airline employee had been camping at Fort Jefferson while I was there, so with a little southern charm and sweet-talking I was able to get all three checked bags on the plane with no extra charge.

Two flights and a bus ride later I arrived in Ventura Harbor, where I met up with Josh Sprague, a Marine Ecologist in the park. He and his housemates all work in the park, and they graciously let me crash at their place, catch up on my laundry and mooch their WiFi. One challenge of this internship is that there’s often no Internet or cell reception in the field, so it puts the onus on me to manage my time wisely and upload blog posts whenever I’m able. Easier said than done!

After a restful Sunday enjoying an afternoon picnic/barbecue, we made our way to Ventura Harbor to begin our 5-day fieldwork aboard the Sea Ranger. I’ve spent more time on a ship or a boat in the last few weeks than I have on land!

The Sea Ranger II

Our team includes David Kushner, the Regional Dive Officer and a Marine Biologist, Kelly Moore, the Park Dive Officer and a Park Ranger, our Captain, Keith Duran, Josh Sprague, a Marine Ecologist, and James Grunden, Jamie McClain, Ben Grime and Ryan Stephenson, who are all Biological Science Technicians.The monitoring program at Channel Islands is the longest ongoing monitoring program in the Park Service, and has been running for 32 years. Our goal for this trip is to perform several types of surveys on permanent sites to assess population growth of various organisms, including kelp, abalone, sea stars, and other ecologically important species.

It took 4-5 hours to get from Ventura Harbor to our first diving stop in Santa Rosa. During that time I was frantically studying the names of Pacific fish species in order to properly identify them for the survey dive. My Caribbean species identification skills are fair, but diving in the Pacific is a whole other ball game! With Kelly and Jaime’s help I was able to cram enough to do some basic identification during the dive.

A copper rockfish.

After our first survey dive at the site, I popped back in with camera in hand to do a video survey. Shooting video expressly for science was new to me, and I enjoyed swimming up and down the 100m transect while collecting footage. The video clips will be used to count urchin populations along the transect line, and then to extrapolate the data to build larger population models.

The diving in Channel Islands was definitely different than the warm waters of Biscayne and Dry Tortugas. For each dive I double layered both a 3mm and 5mm wetsuit to stay warm. I felt a lot like the Michelin Man, but it worked! Each dive was usually at least one hour, and most were closer to an hour and a half long. All were rigorous, whether I was doing video transects, photographing or assisting with surveys. At one point we had to deal with significant surge, which would send us flying to and fro as we attempted to count kelp.

Kelp fronds swaying in the surge.

After diving at Santa Rosa we set out for San Miguel, which is the most remote of the Channel Islands. This meant that the sites were almost untouched, except for a few fishing boats. The island’s remote location also means that it is influenced by different currents, in this case colder water currents. Fortunately the boat was well-equipped to deal with the diving conditions. There was a hot water hose to warm your wetsuit before and after dives, of which I unashamedly took full advantage.

Diving in the relatively untouched conditions gave me an opportunity to see species I’d only seen in aquariums. Octopuses, sheepshead, garibaldi, sea lions: Every time I looked around I’d see something new! I even got to see a nudibranch for the first time, and had my first encounter with a harbor seal who played with my fins.

A heterogenous school of rockfish

A nudibranch

A juvenile octopus

Metridium giganteum, or Giant plumose anemone

Unfortunately, the lush kelp forests we saw in San Miguel weren’t the norm for our trip. Reserves make up only 20% of the Channel Islands, so areas that aren’t protected are open to commercial and recreational fishing. Several of our dive sites were in such unprotected areas, and we saw the effects of fishing firsthand. Many of these sites were “urchin-barren,” meaning that due to a lack of natural predators, urchins had dominated the ecosystem and created a monochromatic, barren landscape.

Seeing this radical difference in marine life between protected and non-protected areas was definitely a shock, and even a little depressing. However it definitely impressed upon me the need for the continuation of long-term monitoring programs, so that parks can better understand the different factors influencing marine ecosystems.

One of the researchers performing a survey along the transect

Another biological factor at play in the park was the emergence of a sea star wasting disease. This new disease has hit Sunflower sea stars extremely hard, wiping out most of the population in the park.  Sunflower sea stars eat urchins, and the lack of this predatory sea star has left the urchin population to grow unchecked. The wasting disease also affects other types of sea stars, as we saw on our trip.

A Bat star (Patiria miniata) affected by the wasting disease

As the trip wound down to the last few days we finished up our research at Santa Cruz. After the day of diving was completed I did a quick three-mile hike on the island with Josh, Ben and Ryan. With so much diving it can be easy to overlook the natural beauty of terrestrial systems, so the hike was a great opportunity to explore the island. The hike, combined with the beautiful sunset, was a great way to reflect on all the things I’d seen thus far.


When I asked Brett and Dave what their favorite park was at the beginning of the summer, they both answered that each one had it’s own unique appeal and that it was impossible to pick a favorite. As I explore parks across the United States, I’m beginning to understand their answer. Each one has its own allure, some mysterious and fascinating pull. Hopefully I’ll be back to explore more of Channel Islands’ mysteries.



The Wonders of Dry Tortugas

I met up with the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) folks at the end of my stay in Biscayne National Park. The SRC and the Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) folks were wrapping up their work documenting several wrecks. The SRC and SEAC had teamed up for their archeological work in Biscayne as well as for our upcoming project in Dry Tortugas. With the completion of their project in Biscayne, we loaded the suburban, hitched up the Cal Cummins and began the drive to Key West!


Our destination in Key West was The Fort Jefferson, a ship stationed at the Key West Coast Guard Station. The name for the ship comes from the fort on Dry Tortugas National Park, which is the Fort Jefferson, so to avoid confusion we referred to the ship as the Fort Jeff. I hadn’t spent much significant time on a ship this large; with three engines and two generators, this was definitely a big ship! The rest of our travel day was spent unloading the vehicles, loading up the Fort Jeff and hitching our boat, the Cal, to the Fort Jeff for towing purposes. I was geeking out by all of the Coast Guard ships at the dock, which were beautifully lit by the sunset.


That night we stayed on the Fort Jeff, and I fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the ship. In the morning we were joined by Dave Conlin, Brett Seymour, and David Morgan of SEAC. With that our numbers were complete, and we began the four-hour trip to Dry Tortugas National Park!


Andres Diaz, the Principal Investigator for the project, outlines tasks and chores for the trip.

Our goal for this project is to survey, stabilize and photograph two wrecks, the Cement Barrel site and the Single Deck site. Both sites had been surveyed and mapped in the mid ’90s, however hurricanes and time have deteriorated the wrecks, necessitating further mapping and documentation.

Our arrival at the park was met by excitement all around- the Dry Tortugas is so remote that it was the first time that some of our company had seen it, myself included. For others it had been years since they’d last visited. After unloading and organizing our gear for the next day we got to explore the park, which felt like stepping back into the past. You could almost hear the call to muster from the grounds!

Fort Jefferson Light

M/V Fort Jefferson at dock in the harbor

The parade grounds of Fort Jefferson

The next day was splashdown day, as we set sail to perform site assessments. The first diving day of each project is generally used to scope out the site and to get a feel for the diving in the park. The weather was a little choppy for our first day of diving, but the dives were spectacular. Because of the park’s inaccessibility the wildlife is able to thrive unmolested, resulting in huge schools of fish congregating over the wrecks. Plus, Dry Tortugas is a wreck mecca, with gorgeous wrecks just minutes from the park.

One of Dave’s pithy sayings is “the weather you have today is the weather you’ll wish you had tomorrow.” That was true for our second day on the water, because the following morning I woke up at three a.m. to the ship rocking back and forth. A squall blew through, and we delayed our diving operations until noon.

Once the weather cleared up we were joined by Jasmine Baloch, an intern at the park and University of Miami graduate student who specializes in lionfish removal. Brett, Jasmine and I hopped aboard the Cal, or the “art boat,” as it was dubbed by the rest of the team. Since we had two boats to use for the project, Brett and I were able to focus on photographic research on the Cal, while the rest of the team did their archeological work on another boat, the Parker. My main task was to be Brett’s dive buddy as he took still images for a reverse photogrammetry program that would create 3D models. After Brett was done I would hop back in the water with Jasmine to photograph the same wreck myself.

A red grouper hides underneath the Single Deck site, one of the wrecks documented for the project.

Over the following few days we were also joined by Kayla Nimmo, a Biological Science Technician at the park, Chris Muina, another lionfish intern and University of Miami graduate student, and Elissa Connolly-Randazzo, a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern. Chris and Elissa made spearing lionfish look easy, and it was great to meet and chat to other young professionals in the marine science field.

Even though I was exhausted at the end of each day, I tried to make the most of my time at the park by watching the sunset or snorkeling in the late afternoon. There was a trio of goliath groupers living underneath the dock, so one evening I went snorkeling with Jess to try to coax them out for a photo. They were only too happy to oblige! Curious, the huge groupers swam right up to us; they had nothing to fear, as the largest one was larger than us!

SRC Archeologist Jessica Keller stares down a Goliath Grouper



And if my experiences thus far weren’t awe-inspiring enough, the highlight of my visit to Dry Tortugas happened the morning of my departure from the island. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and joined Kayla, Jasmine, Chris and their University of Miami advisors to watch sea turtle nesting monitoring on East Key, a small island near the fort. Kayla goes to East Key every three to four days to check on the Loggerhead nests, and the Lionfish and SCA interns monitor the nests as well. By keeping a detailed log of when each nest was laid and by monitoring each nest for tracks, Kayla and the interns are able to know when each nest hatches. After they’re certain that a nest has hatched, they dig up the nest to count the number of eggshells and look for any stragglers that didn’t make it out.

Chris Muina counts turtle eggshells in the early morning on East Key.

Baby Loggerhead turtles emerging from the nest.

It was such an incredible experience to watch Chris, Jasmine and Kayla dig up the baby sea turtles, especially knowing that without their help the remaining stragglers wouldn’t have made it to the ocean. Seeing the turtles emerge from their nests will be a memory I hope to keep forever! That, combined with the gorgeous wrecks in the crystal clear water made Dry Tortugas a magical place to visit.

The sea turtle monitoring program at Dry Tortugas National Park is conducted in accordance with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) marine turtle permit #0187.  All species of marine turtles are either threatened or endangered and it is illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect these or other protected species.  Please contact the primary permit holder, Kayla Nimmo ( with any questions or concerns.


Lionfish, Morays and Manatees, Oh My!

My time in Biscayne National Park began with some rocky travel. First I had to return from Yellowstone National Park, which was an adventure in and of itself. Brett, Koza and I dropped off Brian Skerry in Jackson Hole to catch his flight, and then we made the nine-hour drive back to Denver. By the time we stopped at the office to switch out my drysuit for my wetsuit it was already almost midnight! I got a few hours sleep back at Dave and Michelle’s, then packed up my things and went to the airport.

Two flights, a rental car mix-up and an enormously large headache later I arrived in Biscayne National Park. Being back in the South and hearing cicadas again felt like putting on a comfortable sweater- albeit a hot and humid one! I met my awesome flatmates Jeneva Plumb Wright, an intern with Cultural Resources here in the park, and JT, a fellow southerner doing a three-month maintenance stint in the park. And with that I unpacked, prepped my gear for the next morning and fell asleep.

In the morning I met up with Dave Conlin, who had flown to Biscayne a few days earlier. He was assisting a program called Youth Diving with a Purpose, or YDWP. The program is made up of a diverse group of students from different schools, states and even countries, and all of them gain exposure to underwater archeology through the program. Excited to see their work, I splashed down with Dave Conlin, David Gadsby, an archeologist with the National Park Service, and Chuck Lawson, the Cultural Resource manager at the park, and started photographing the intrepid young archaeologists.


Dave having fun with some seaweed!

The site the YDWP program was working on this year is called Captain Ed’s Wreck.The ship lies in about 20 feet of water, and is about 11 miles offshore. According to Josh Marano, a Biscayne National Park archeologist, the ship was from the mid 19th century, and was a sailing cargo vessel. The name came from a concessionaire captain, Captain Ed, who discovered the site and led snorkel trips there- he notified the Park Service of the site and the wreck still bears his name.

The water was an absolute dream to dive in, especially after diving in the 40 degree Fahrenheit water of Yellowstone Lake. Even more exciting than the lovely water temperature and excellent visibility however, was the excitement of the kids in the Youth Diving with a Purpose program. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and after each dive I was eager to get back in the water to photograph their work. It was a challenge to compose a picture with 20 young archeologists diving around the site, but after a few dives the students fell into a rhythm, and it became easier to isolate them photographically to compose a shot.


The students had a chance to show-off their newfound diving and archeological skills when Brian Carlstrom, the superintendent of the park, visited the site. Dave Conlin acted as tour guide and showed Brian where the masts of the wreck used to be, as well as other archeological points of interest. The students shared their work with the superintendent and wrapped up their last day of diving!


Superintendent Brian Carlstrom (left) gives the “ok” to a student archeologist.

Once YDWP concluded I joined the Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) on their project documenting the Long Reef Cannon Site in the park. The SEAC team included David Morgan, the director of SEAC, Thadra Stanton, the Principal Investigator of the project, Charlie Sproul, a Museum Specialist and Meredith Hardy, an archeologist. The SEAC team was also joined by several members of the SRC, including John Bright, Jessica Keller and Susannah Pershern. Chuck Lawson, Josh Marano and Jeneva Wright of Biscayne National Park also contributed to the project, making it a collaborative effort across different groups of the National Park Service. It was great to see so many different organizations working together!

It was also great to learn more about underwater archeology. Since my main focus is in underwater photography (pun intended) my archeological skills aren’t quite up to snuff. Joining the SEAC/SRC/Biscayne team on this project gave me an opportunity to learn more about the process of documenting an archeological site.

After spending a few days working on the Long Reef Cannon Site I transitioned to working with ongoing projects in Biscayne National Park. One project I was excited to work on was the Lionfish eradication and research project. Lionfish are an invasive species whose population has exploded in the last decade. The invasive fish are voracious eaters, and their fast rate of reproduction makes them a threat to many native reef fish. Each year the park hires interns to conduct research and help eradicate the invasive species; I worked with this year’s grad student interns: Megan Davenport, Michael Hoffman and Kristian Rogers.


My first day with the Lionfish team was a little bumpy; I made the mistake of having coffee on an empty stomach before going diving- mistake number one! The weather was a little stormy, and to top it off my regulator malfunctioned, although thankfully it happened before the dive and not underwater. Hyped up nerves, a rocking boat and intense heat resulted in my first bout of seasickness. Ugh!

                                                                                    The stormy weather while returning to the dock. 

Thankfully we had better weather the next day, and with my newly found “sea legs” I was able to join the lion fish team both on the boat and underwater. Kristian, Mike and Megan definitely made using the speargun look easy- my two attempts went wide. I only hope that the poor fish ended up as another fish’s dinner!


Kristian spearing a large lionfish.

Jeneva and I also had the opportunity to “fillet” some lionfish for dinner. I use the word fillet generously, as it was more like a butchery. Apparently there’s only so much you can learn from a Youtube video!


Jeneva braces herself for the smell.

I also got to spend some time monitoring sea turtle nesting sites in the park. Shelby Moneysmith, the regional Dive Safety Officer and a park biologist, Katie Fisher, a biological technician, and the Fish and Wildlife interns Kelsy Armstrong and Nicole Rodi and I all piled on the boat and went to Elliot Key to look for turtle nests. Looking for turtle nests was like being a detective; we had to interpret the turtle tracks to see if and where the sea turtle laid her eggs. We had a particularly busy day for turtle activity with plenty of false tracks and possible nests.

The high point of my time in Biscayne was a chance manatee encounter while doing sea turtle monitoring. All I needed was for someone to shout “Manatees!” and I was over the side of the boat with my camera. I was actually so excited that I flung my hat, sunglasses and other items all across the boat in my haste to get in the water! It was my first time seeing manatees, and snorkeling with the gentle giants was just amazing. Plus they made great models!


Later in the day we also went on two dives to do reef visual counts, or RVCs. Katie and Shelby explained to me that RVCs had been performed in the park and surrounding area for years, and have been done by different organizations at the local, state and federal level. This has yielded a huge dataset that shows biologists the “big picture” about fish populations in the area. One of the more interesting things we saw on our RVC dives was a beautiful green moray eel, who was  obviously hamming it up for the camera.


Say cheese!

My last adventure in the park was to assist with Lobster Mini-Season, an annual dive derby to catch Caribbean Spiny Lobsters. This was a great opportunity to work with a different side of the park; law enforcement officers, biologists, rangers and volunteers all came together to help assess the mini-season’s impact on the lobster population in the park.


My role was to interview the captain of each boat to find out where, how and how long each boat was  fishing for lobster. It was definitely a hectic experience when we had boats coming in constantly, but I really enjoyed interacting with visitors to the park.

Visiting Biscayne National Park was a rush of different people, projects and experiences. My favorite part of my experience thus far has been meeting the passionate, kind and knowledgeable people that work at each park. If the people I’ve met so far are any indication, then I’m in for a treat as I make my way across the US. Next stop: Dry Tortugas!


Yellowstone 2.0

Our first trip to Yellowstone concluded with some amazing technology. Mark Hardy, co-owner of a company called 3D at Depth, joined us in the park for the last few days of our project. Apparently the inability to pack light holds true for underwater technology as well, as Mark was accompanied by several pelican cases of gear!

3D at Depth specializes in the underwater application of a scanning technology called lidar which illuminates a target with a laser then analyzes the reflected light. The resulting data set is called a “point cloud” image. Whenever the laser hits the subject of interest it creates a point, and then millions of points combine to form the final image.



For the Yellowstone project, our target was a rowboat that had been sunk in front of Lake Hotel in the early 20th century. Although Lidar is still a relatively new technology it is rapidly becoming the industry standard in the architectural and engineering world due to its accuracy.  3D At Depth is perfecting the technology in the subsea, or underwater environment, particularly in the oil and gas industry world wide. The SRC has partnered with 3D At Depth to explore how the technology can be utilized to both map historic shipwrecks and educate the public through 3D models. Because this particular laser scanner was depth rated to 3000 meters (thats 9,842.52 feet!) it was pretty unwieldy and extremely heavy, so getting it off and on the boat was quite a process! YELL-DUW-140625-44YELL-DUW-140625-45YELL-DUW-140625-31

In order to get a 360 degree scan of the rowboat we had to scan nine times each from different angle. This meant that Brett and I would hop in the water, move the scanner, and then surface while the scan was underway. 30 minutes later we’d be back in the water to move the laser again! I broke a new personal record with six dives in one day, although all of them were only to 25′ and relatively short dives. You can check out 3D At Depth profile of the Yellowstone scanning project by clicking the 3D At Depth logo below (opens new window).

3dSubseaLidar-Horizontal-weblogoYELL-DUW-140226-009 0626141315aYELL-DUW-140226-025

After the scanning was complete our work in Yellowstone was done. We packed up the trailer and left it ready for the next trip a week later, and then began the nine-hour trip home. Being back in Denver meant having a week off to relax and prepare for the next Yellowstone trip. The whole Submerged Resources Center Staff was in town (which rarely happens) so it was the perfect opportunity for a staff photo, taken by yours truly. It was a great opportunity to meet everyone, and catch up on different projects that had been ongoing around the country.


Being in Denver also meant I had the opportunity to explore some of the quirkier aspects the city had to offer. Jessica Keller, one of the SRC archaeologists, took me to play a game of underwater hockey. The game is played in eight feet of water, and each player holds a miniature hockey stick to move the puck around the pool and into the opposing team’s goal. After watching a couple YouTube videos I was pretty nervous, as underwater hockey players seemed as competitive and aggressive as real hockey players!  But once I got in the water my nervousness vanished, and I even managed to score two goals! According to the players I was a “natural,” which I thought was pretty funny for such an unusual sport. It must have been all of that club swimming growing up! (Thanks Mom).

Hanging with a Yeti!

Hanging with a Yeti!

After underwater hockey Jess and I went back to her place, where we had some delicious ribs barbecued by SRC archaeologist and grill master John Bright. I’m a recovering vegetarian, and those ribs were the best (and only) I’ve had in seven years! Our food adventures weren’t done there; the next day John and Jess took me to one of their favorite restaurants, the Sherpa House in Golden, Colorado. It was an all-you-can eat Tibetan café, so needless to say I ate all I could!


So with high spirits and a full stomach I was ready for my second trip to Yellowstone. On this project, the SRC was collaborating with National Geographic Magazine and their underwater photographer Brian Skerry to image the geothermal features in Yellowstone Lake. Apparently National Geographic is dedicating an entire issue of the Magazine to Yellowstone National Park in the Fall of 2015 in anticipation of the NPS Centennial anniversary which happens in 2016. Through the SRC’s relationship with Senior Photo Editors at National Geographic they were able to offer up a rarely seen side of Yellowstone, its underwater world, and support this project along with the Park. I researched Brian’s work in college, and even had one of his books signed at the Boston Sea Rovers Film Festival a few months earlier. I was a little worried that I would be too awestruck to speak intelligibly, but luckily he was kind, humble and a great person to learn from. Turns out that earlier in his career he was the recipient of an Our World Underwater Scholarship Society internship as well, which I thought was pretty neat.


Me helping prep Brian’s gear!

The other members of our troop included the SRC’s Deputy Chief and Photographer Brett Seymour, who was on the first Yellowstone trip last week, and Volunteer In Parks (VIP) Jim Koza (known to us simply as Koza) who is a retired NPS’er with nearly 40 years experience running boat and dive operations in and around the NPS. I rounded out the foursome, and after we arrived in Yellowstone Brian started the task of unpacking his nine Pelican cases and prepping his gear.

Saying goodbye to the Mahn!

Saying goodbye to the Mahn!

Koza and I boarded the Robert E. Mahn for an orientation provided by former Lake District Ranger Rick Fey. Rick was a fount of knowledge for all things boat-related, and showed Koza and I the ins and outs of the Mahn. We were taking the boat around the lake when the port engine unexpectedly shut off! Koza maneuvered the boat back to the harbor using only the starboard engine, and then he, Rick and a couple maintenance guys checked out the engine. I didn’t understand all of the lingo about the “outdrive engine,” but at the end of the day we had to find another boat to use. Luckily enough the Maintenance department in the Lake Region generously lent us one of their boats, and we were back in business on the Warwood.

Notice the white knuckles?

Notice the white knuckles?

My role on this trip was to assist Brett and Brian on their dives and act as camera assistant (handing in and retrieving cameras and lights, last minute vacuum seals, etc.), deckhand, and Dive Supervisor. This was a great opportunity, as I was able to pick up all sorts of useful skills, such as tying knots. Koza is an absolute knot guru, and so I learned the clove hitch, square knot, grapevine knot, Prussik knot, bowline, sheepshank, sheetbend, alpine butterfly knot, anchor bend and figure eight knot. Whew! I also got some more practice at driving a boat, as well as “parking” it! It was a little bumpy, but practice makes perfect.

One of the most important things I learned on this trip was to back up my work on an external hard drive. One night while mooching internet at the Ranger station my hard drive suddenly shut down. My pleas to my laptop went unanswered, and my photos from Yellowstone were lost. It was very upsetting to lose the photographs and all my files, but as Brett said, it’s better to have that lesson learned sooner in both my internship and career rather than later! Now I’ve established a nightly back-up to an external hard drive, just in case.

We had some very special guests join us while diving on Yellowstone Lake: Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, and Chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources Dave Hallac both joined us for a morning dive. It was a beautiful day with a calm lake, and their visit was a great opportunity to meet the people running the park! We also had former Chief Ranger and Regional Dive Officer Bob Whaley join us for a day; he started the dive program at Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway in Wisconsin/Minnesota and it was great to hear about his dive programs accomplishment with invasive species on the St. Croix River.


From left to right: Brian Skerry, Dan Wenk, Brett Seymour and Dave Hallac

And of course, I can’t forget the fantastic advice I received from Brian! He encouraged me to get involved in the marine science community, and use photography to tell scientific stories. My favorite thing he said regarding underwater photography was when he said to “take photos that makes that person sitting in a dentist’s chair stop and read the captions.” His advice and encouragement was fantastic motivation to push myself professionally and photographically, and I can’t wait to see where this summer leads me!


Me, Brian, and Brett at a thermal feature in Mary Bay of Yellowstone Lake


Surface support for Brian and Brett



Welcome to Jellystone!

“Welcome to Jellystone!” was our first official welcome into Yellowstone National Park. We rolled in on Monday evening, after a nine-hour drive from Lakewood, Colorado. Our team for this project includes Andres Diaz, an underwater archaeologist, Brett Seymour, an underwater photographer and Deputy Chief, Dave Conlin, the Chief of the Submerged Resources Center and myself.

Tuesday morning dawned bright and early and we started preparations for our two-week project. Brad Ross, the Lake District Ranger gave us a tour of the Bridge Bay Marina, and took us on a short trip on the lake in the Robert E. Mahn, the boat we will be using for our diving operations. We also met Pat Bigelow, a Fisheries Biologist in the park. She outlined some areas of interest for us to survey using the side-scan sonar. The rest of the day was spent preparing the trailer and the boat for operations.


Wednesday was our first day in action, and we woke up to a thin coat of snow covering the dock. We had planned to spend the first half of the morning scanning, and then the afternoon diving, but scanning took up most of the day. Our main focus in Yellowstone is photographing and mapping a natural phenomenon called spires, which are large cylindrical growths formed by bacteria that are 11,000 years old. The spires are found in the north-west area of Lake Yellowstone, and are 10-30 feet high. By scanning the spires with the side-scan sonar we were able to get prices GPS locations for each spire, as well as map the underwater topography of the area. The process for surveying is interesting, however not particularly exciting, as you’re basically driving a boat back and forth in a series of lines as you tow the sonar and collect data. Dave put it best when he said “If you’re doing it right, sonar surveying is boring.” We also scanned some sunken rowboats in front of Lake Hotel which we’ll be photographing and diving near later in our trip. Once our surveying was concluded we brought the boat back to the marina, and wrapped up our day with dinner and some “Moose Tracks” ice cream for dessert. I think they should be called Bison Tracks, but regardless, it’s never too cold for ice cream!



The next day was “splashdown,” as we braced the cold water for a morning dive. I’ve used drysuits in the past, but it’s truly a different beast when you’re diving professionally versus recreationally. For example, who knew that the zipper on your thermal goes on the front!


A new fashion statement?

I tried to prepare mentally, but the 38 degree Fahrenheit water was quite a shock. I had “brain freeze” for a few minutes after we descended, but luckily I was soon distracted by beautiful scenery. We dove in the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which was home to thermal vents both on land and underwater. We came across quite a few “bubblers,” which were small areas of the bottom that were emitting gas bubbles. Even more exciting were the two cavernous holes in the bottom of the lake, which were covered in bright green algae and releasing water at a toasty 48 degree Fahrenheit. We descended into one of the holes, which went about 10 feet below the bottom. It was definitely an otherworldly experience!


Geothermal vents promote algal growth, which blankets construction materials from a destroyed dock. 

We finished up our surveying by scanning some areas of interest provided by Pat Bigelow and the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources department. Lake trout are an invasive species in the lake, and threaten native Cutthroat trout. The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources team records and analyzes the amount of fish caught in certain areas, so we scanned a few locations where they had caught large amounts of the invasive trout. The best part about scanning was I got to try my hand at driving the boat! All went smoothly despite a few navigational hiccups (I blame the wind.)


Andres (left) and Dave pulling up the sonar towfish. 

Once surveying was complete we began focusing more on the photography aspect of our trip. We began diving on the spires, which were a little deeper at around 50 ft. Because the spires are deeper than the geothermal vents, the visibility was quite poor, and any careless fin movement stirred up clouds of silt. It was a great challenge to control buoyancy, not stir up silt, and still get good photos. It took a couple tries, but with some great tips from Brett I finally got a few good shots! One of the humbling aspects of diving among the spires, besides their otherworldly appearance, is the fact that I’m one of approximately 30 people to have seen them in person. The nearest scuba support is in Jackson Hole, and the lack of scuba support combined with the cold water makes diving the spires a nightmare for recreational divers. It makes me feel even more fortunate to have this amazing opportunity!


Me next to the spires! (Photo by Brett Seymour)

We also photographed a number of rowboats in front of Lake Hotel. These rowboats were used to ferry visitors and guests of Lake Hotel, and were sunk in the early 20th century.


Diving in Yellowstone definitely requires a steep learning curve. Some challenges included getting familiar with a drysuit again, dealing with mask flooding, and trying to find the boat anchor in silted out visibility. Oh, and have I mentioned the cold? Every day there’s a new curveball and something else to become familiar with. A lot of people at the park think that what we do is glamorous, and as the photo below shows, it’s anything but!


Diving means every day is a “bad hair day!”

Of course, crazy hair and difficult diving conditions become minor concerns when surfacing from a dive with this view. Good thing I’ll be coming back next week!





Getting Geared Up with the National Park Service

Hi everyone, I’m Yasmeen Smalley, the 2014 National Park Service Submerged Resources Intern! This amazing opportunity stems from the generosity of both the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) and the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society.

My summer adventures began last Saturday when I flew from Boston to the SRC office in Denver, Colorado. I had spent most of the previous night packing frantically, so I arrived in Denver bleary-eyed but excited to meet the people who would be helping and coaching me throughout my travels. Brett Seymour, the Deputy Chief and Photographer at the SRC picked me up at the airport, and we made our way to Boulder, where I would stay with Dave Conlin, the Chief at the SRC, his wife Michelle, and their energetic dog Luke.

Normally all of the SRC staff convenes for a barbecue, but because half of the staff is currently doing work in Florida we had a small get together at Dave and Michelle’s, which was a great way to be welcomed to Colorado.

Since I arrived on a Saturday, we had all of Sunday to explore the natural beauty of the area and for me to get settled in. Since I grew up in Houston, Texas and attended school in Rochester, New York, I’m used to living in a very urban environment. While Denver and Boulder are both cities, they’re very close to beautiful foothills and rock formations, including one called the Flatirons. Being able to drive by these beautiful mountains each day is a wonderful change from skyscrapers and pavement!


Doing a morning hike in the Flatirons!

My first day “on the job” was spent driving around Denver with Brett to different medical appointments; I got a chest x-ray as well as several blood tests, with a physical and audiology test scheduled for later in the week. Being poked and prodded is necessary to ensure safe diving, but it’s certainly not my favorite part of the process! The second half of the day was much more enjoyable- I got to try on gear that I’ll be using in the field! My travels will take me to Yellowstone, Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, and Channel Islands National Park, as well as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Because of the variability of water temperatures in these parks, my exposure suits will range from rash guards to a drysuit.


That neck seal sure is tight!

The rest of my week has followed the same format; medical tests in the morning, and then gearing up in the afternoon. Brett and I also went to a local dive shop to use their pool for some dive tests. My current residence in New England doesn’t allow for much diving during the winter months, so it was good to get in the pool and become familiar with the new gear. Besides a fin floating away during a “ditch and don” exercise, all went smoothly!

The next step was to prepare all of my gear for our two-week trip to Yellowstone. We leave on Monday, and will be loading our gear into a truck and trailer. Due to the equipment-heavy nature of underwater photography and videography, none of the SRC staff can “pack light.” For myself I have a large dive bag, a bag containing my drysuit and thermals, a Pelican case full of camera gear, a dry bag full of my clothes, and a backpack with electronics and personal items. Whew!


My new and improved camera housing! Sweeeet.

Since yesterday was Friday the 13th and a full moon, I decided to take my camera gear and explore some of the Rockies in search of some magical pictures. After a few hours driving around in the dark I found the perfect spot to photograph.

Full Moon   Full Moon

And as if my week wasn’t eventful enough, I had a minor trip to the ER yesterday! While loading gear into the trailer I accidentally dropped a 75 lb tank on two of my fingers, resulting in a small “Tufts” fracture of the tip of my index finger. I’m not superstitious, but fracturing my shutter finger on Friday the 13th definitely makes me a little more wary of things that go bump in the night! Luckily I’ll still be able to dive (I verified this with Dave multiple times in the ER) so I just have to wait for it to heal and use my middle finger for the camera shutter in the meantime.

0613141854 Xray

Hopefully the next couple days go smoothly, and pretty soon I’ll be diving in Yellowstone!

Until then,