Category Archives: 2017 National Park Service

Discovering the Heat-Resistant Reefs of Ofu Island at the National Park of American Samoa

“Don’t mind the lizards, watch out for mean dogs, and don’t drink the water. Those are my three biggest island tips,” Tori tells me as we are preparing to go to the grocery store. “I wasn’t sweating it about the lizards, but good to know about the dogs!” I respond. Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa has a rash of stray dogs. As cute as they may look (they generally do not look cute), they are wild animals and fairly ferocious.

Tori picked me up from the airport last night, and I was instructed in an email to look for a “blonde woman that is extremely tall, she will stand out.” Sure enough, in a sea of Samoans, Tori stands out. She has adjusted to the island after 7 months of working at NPSA and embraced many of the traditions here. As a native Ohioan, she has a wholesome flavor to her and is probably the most hard science/technically focused of the team.

The shoreline of Olosega Island.

After a short drive, we enter a chaotically arranged grocery store and Tori excitedly exclaims, “Zucchinis! I haven’t seen zucchinis since I’ve been here!” As beautiful as American Samoa is, it’s geographically closer to New Zealand than the mainland US. Being that far away creates challenges for trade, and particularly for produce since very little is grown in Polynesia.

We are shopping for our upcoming trip to Ofu Island in the Manua islands. Ofu is about 75 miles away from Tutuila, where the National Park Service (NPS) is based out of. We will be flying out tomorrow on a small 12-passenger plane. There are about 150 people that live on Ofu and about 200 that live on Olesega, which is connected to Ofu via a narrow, 100m long bridge. Needless to say, provisions are hard to come by on the island. Once we pack up the car, we head to park headquarters to ready our coolers for the morning.

Our destination is in Manua. Here are the beautiful islands of Ofu and Olosega.

After Tori introduces me to some of the park staff, I meet Bert Fuiava, Park Diving Officer and acting Marine Ecologist at the National Park of American Samoa (NPSA). Bert is a massive man. In the words of the acting NPSA superintendent, Daniel George, “Bert’s arm is the size of my leg!” Bert’s muscular exterior belies his fun-loving personality. Though he works extremely hard, he is the biggest prankster on the NPSA team and embodies the “no worries” island attitude.

After I meet Bert, I meet Ian Moffitt. Ian and I connected virtually many years ago. Truth be told, I have applied to work at NPSA multiple times over the years. Being from Los Angeles himself, Ian and I have a mutual contact that connected me with him years back. After occasional internet chats, it is great to actually meet him in person. “Want to come help me out with some boat stuff real quick?” he asks me.

(L-R) Bert Fuiava, myself, and Daniel George at park headquarters.

Soon enough, we are at the NPSA boat yard. Ian shows me around and I get to work gathering equipment for Ofu and doing a bit of housekeeping. Unfortunately, Ian isn’t coming with us to Ofu, so this may be one of my only opportunities to talk with him. Ian’s been in American Samoa for almost 3 years- the longest of any of the pelongis (non-Samoans) on the NPSA team. He tells me about the benefits and challenges of his stay on the island and how his career has progressed at NPSA. Without Ian, NPSA would have trouble continuing their dive program. His mechanical knowledge is a precious resource, as he keeps all the park boats up and running. We also talk about our hometown of Los Angeles a bit as well. I don’t always have a hunger to be around people that grew up in the environment I did, but it is really nice every now and then. Ian is such a solid guy. He is constantly working and hyper focused, but knows how to have fun and isn’t so serious that he can’t crack a joke every now and then.

Tutuila is one of the hubs of the tuna industry in the Pacific. The scene of locals preparing nets for massive international fishing vessels is common in Pago Pago.

Tori, a few of her friends, and I are lathering up in bug spray at Tisa’s. Tisa and her husband, who oddly goes by the name of “Candyman” run Tisa’s Barefoot Bar. It’s a bar/restaurant that makes from scratch or catches nearly everything they serve- including fresh fish and piña coladas. While Tisa’s food and drink was the draw for us, I was more interested in their Marine Protected Area (MPA). Tisa and Candyman manage the MPA that lies directly in front of their business. “Their giant clams are the biggest I’ve seen on the island,” Tori tells me.

I ask Candyman how they deal with poachers. He tells me that it’s usually easy because they can see them walking on the beach or snorkeling on the surface, but lately it’s been tough. “There are no scuba shops on the island, but people are still getting scuba gear here. They go out at night for the clams and they are hard to see underwater. I’ve been kayaking out though and dropping some rocks in the water when I see lights!” Though this sort of management would never be considered acceptable in the developed world, it is working here and quite an inspiration to me.

“So apparently there’s a matai on our plane,” Tori tells us as we are loading up the van in the morning. Matai’s are high-ranking Samoan chiefs. Having a matai on your plane means that you and your luggage will not get priority and may or may not make it to your destination. Normally, this isn’t a huge deal. However, there is only one flight a week to Ofu. Even though we sent most of our heaviest equipment via boat last night, not having our gear (or even worse, crew) for the week would be devastating.

Ofu’s corals have quite the reputation and it’s easy to see why!

Once we get driving, Daniel lightens the mood. He says, “someone described these planes to me the other day as a ‘flying busses,’ which is comforting…how high do these planes go?” Bert responds, “4000 feet I think.” “Ok, good. If it was 5000, it might be a problem, but I feel totally fine hoping out of the plane at 4000 feet if it comes down to it.”

This is the essence of Daniel. Daniel has spent most of his life on the Pacific coast of the lower 48 and currently heads an Inventory and Monitoring team based out of Pinnacles National Park in California. He perfectly walks the line between being professional and having fun. As such, he is quite popular with his team. Daniel is also one of those people that is probably the smartest person in any given room that he walks into. He is an avid birder that leads his team by example with a strong work ethic and is probably the funniest person I’ve met all summer.

The plane coming down on the runway at Ofu Island.

Once we get to the airport and grab a quick breakfast, we board the plane with the matai without a hitch. After unsuccessfully looking for whales outside my window for 30 minutes, we arrive on Ofu and head to “the lodge.”

The bridge that connects Olosega and Ofu.

The lodge is a 1-minute walk from the airport (note that the airport is just an airstrip and an open structure). It’s odd to not have to find transportation to my destination from an airport, but really convenient. The lodge sits right by the coast and next door to the NPS visitor’s center on Ofu. A married island couple named Ben and Deb run the lodge. They each spent significant amounts of time stateside and can communicate and connect well with their guests.

Elsa and Jason Bordelon inspecting a prized delicacy on the island- coconut crab.

We quickly put away our food in the breezy kitchen of the lodge to a reggae soundtrack and start putting together gear for the day. While we are gathering up the equipment we need, I hear 3 year old Elsa Bordelon exclaim, “best day ever!” as she looks out on the ocean. Elsa is the really the star of the trip. She is the daughter of Jason Bordelon, Chief of Interpretation. Jason and I bond quickly as he also spent several years on the west end of Catalina Island and likes to surf. Between Elsa and work, Jason is staying pretty busy on Ofu. Elsa is a free spirit if there ever was one and makes the whole crew laugh throughout the week.

There is a small store on Olosega where residents can buy mostly canned goods. Chicken is also available in zip loc bags.

Once we are ready to go into the field, Bert, Tori, and I hop in the truck with the Ofu NPS team- Brian and Boy. Ofu is of particular interest to the scientific community because of what happens in its nearshore “pools,” where seawater gets held up at low tide and the interaction with the open ocean is limited. These pools heat up to above 90 F, which is much hotter than corals should be able to withstand. Yet, the corals in the pools are thriving. Why is this? What makes these corals different? Does this provide us hope in the face of a warming ocean?

NPS is continually working with Stanford and Old Dominion University to answer these questions. This week, we are taking water quality samples (just like I did at KALA) as part of the Inventory and Monitoring process that goes on in the Pacific, as well as looking at coral reef plots that partnering universities are researching. The latter exercise involves us finding corals that the university has tagged in the warm pools, retagging them (the tags get covered in encrusting algae very quickly), and taking photos so that all involved parties can analyze how quickly the coral is growing, bleaching, or receding. The idea is to find which corals are growing well in the warm pools and why that is.

Massive, bouldery Porites corals make up the majority of the coral cover on the island.

As we are taking our water quality samples, Bert is teaching Boy and Brian how to do it so that they can help with the study when the Tutuila-based team isn’t on Ofu. After we go to several sites and finish all of the water quality samples we need to take on Ofu, we call it a day and head back to the lodge.

It’s a warm afternoon on Ofu and Tori and I are swatting mosquitos off ourselves. We are on day 3 of our Ofu mission. I’m getting the hang of searching for tagged corals. It’s been very challenging because the tags are small to begin with and are often completely fouled or missing. We are struggling with certain tags more than others and start to see a pattern of which ones are missing. This helps us determine where we need to make new sites versus where we should actually spend effort looking for tags.

Bert inspects one of our new tags, they are never this obvious when you come back to them in 6 months time.

After our second site of the day, Bert shouts out, “Sione!” Sione is my name in Samoan and has become my nickname on Ofu. “Let me see how you husk a coconut!” I told Bert that I can husk coconuts- which is true. There is a perfect husking stick at this site. The thing is, I haven’t had a perfect husking stick to husk a coconut on in 4 years. It should be easier, but because I’m out of practice and have been husking coconuts with a pocket knife all summer, I struggle a little. About 8 minutes later, I’ve husked my coconut. “I’ll show you the Samoan way!” Bert says, as he proceeds to husk a coconut in about 20 seconds and we all laugh.

Tori records data about the corals and the number of our new tag to makes sure it all makes sense for both NPS staff and collaborating universities.

As day turns into night, we are all cooking dinner. I look at the food Daniel brought, which is only rice, beans, and quinoa. I have to ask him. I turn to Daniel and say, “are you vegetarian?” I am hoping for a fellow vegetarian in American Samoa. Despite how every single person I’ve met who has been to American Samoa has told me how difficult it is to be vegetarian here, it’s actually not too hard. However Daniel is not a vegetarian, “I’m mostly vegetarian, but I’ll slam an animal every now and then if I need to.” I can’t help but crack up at that statement. Slam an animal?! That has to be one of the funniest ways he could have put it.

Coral nurseries like this are common in Ofu.

Though Daniel is hilarious, what I admire about him most is his commitment to his values. The reason he brought so little food with packaging to Ofu was because knows that what is brought to Ofu gets put into a “dump” (a hole in the ground) on Ofu and often will end up in the ocean or burned. In order to reduce his footprint on the island, he brought food that has the least amount of packaging possible. This is what a leader should be doing.

Daniel dives in to get a photo.

My scuba boot tan is pretty spectacular right now. After 5 days of surveying, the back of my legs are extremely tan and the skin under my boot line is not. Today, we are also doing some video surveys along our transect lines. The way it works in-water is Bert and I set up the transect tape at each site, then Tori swims along the tape taking video. The video is analyzed later and compared to past videos. NPS is specifically looking at coral cover and coral health from previous survey to this survey.

Healthy corals mean healthy fish!

Additionally, we are taking a cow bile mixture with us today in case we see any crown of thorns sea stars (COTS). COTS are native to Samoan waters, but they are what I like to call “coral reef lawnmowers.” They are ravenous coral eaters and don’t really have natural predators. It’s difficult for humans to remove them as well since their bodies are covered in venomous spines. As such, having multiple COTS in a small area can spell death for that entire section of reef. NPS uses cow bile to kill COTS. It is inserted into the COTS through a syringe and will disintegrate the COTS within 24 hours without harming any other marine life.

The white “scar” on the coral on the left side of this structure was caused by the COTS that ate it, cryptically hanging out under the overhang. COTS are generally much more active at night than during the day.

After our first site, we head to a site where we’ve been seeing COTS throughout the week. I take my camera in the water. Tori, Brian, Boy, and I look for COTS while Bert holds the cow bile mixture. After about an hour of work, we inject 10 COTS. American Samoa experienced a massive COTS outbreak many years ago and it has been the primary objective of NPSA to manage the outbreak until this year when it was deemed managed. All in all, they killed over 26,000 COTS.

A more conspicuous COTS. They really do live up their name, don’t they?! Crown of thorns?

This is even more impressive when considering the logistical challenges of American Samoa. There are no dive shops nor places to get boat parts in American Samoa, and shipping to and from the territory is unreliable at best. That being said, the fact that Brian and Boy can accomplish the things they accomplish is even more impressive. They are the only two NPS employees on Ofu.

Throughout the week, I’ve gotten to know Brian and Boy pretty well. Brian is a clear communicator who has infinite curiosity and an open mind about his new island home (he’s been on Ofu for about 3 months). He is supported by his wonderful bohemian wife, Rebecca- a California surfer with the most caring heart. Boy is a local. Born and raised in Manua, his local knowledge helps fill in the culture and local ecology knowledge gaps for Brian. Boy is also one of the hardest workers I’ve met this summer.

Bert injects a COTS with cow bile as Brian looks on.

After a long day of surveying and COTS management, we head back to the lodge. Jason and his family have ordered dinner tonight as a special treat and the dinner is a locally speared fish. Daniel and I start to talk about the experience of a speared fish and Daniel says, “yeah, I imagine that the fish probably tells his friends ‘hard pass’ in regard to being speared.”

Later on, Daniel and I team up again. This time, it’s to take down some of the locals in a game of billiards, and by take down I mean that our goal is solely to keep our dignity in tact after we leave the pool table. We proclaim ourselves “Team Pelongi.” As Team Pelongi gets the game started, I miss an easy shot. Daniel jokes, “oh nooo! Your whole family is embarrassed and they’re not even here!” I end up laughing so hard, it’s difficult to finish the game. I never get tired of Daniel’s humor.

Marine debris is an issue even in the remote waters of Ofu.

Today is our last day in Ofu. The mission for today is removing some marine debris that we spotted a few days ago at one of our sites. There is a huge fishing net wrapped around a dead coral head. It likely killed that coral head along with countless others. It’s hard to say if it also killed other, larger animals in the ocean, but marine debris does that more often than not.

The team works to free the net.

Once we are at the site, we find the debris and begin moving it. Boy brings a machete, which makes the process surprisingly quick. Within 2 minutes, the net is ready to be removed. My job is to document the whole thing, but by the time I’m ready to shoot, they have almost removed the net! Once the net is removed, the team drags it onto shore and into the truck.

Run Forrest, run! Boy leads the charge taking the net back up onto the beach.

After the removal and some fun snorkeling, we go over to Boy’s family’s land to harvest some young coconuts. Brian picked some would-be trash and turned it into a pole to knock coconuts off of trees. Once we have 7 or 8, Boy starts giving us a lesson. “You see? Like this,” as Boy flicks a coconut to show us how to tell if it’s good or not. Then he starts flaking off the top of the coconut with his machete. I ask him I can do my own, because I’ve always wanted to try. He agrees and I start hacking away to get the perfect drinking hole in the top. The process is really fun for a beginner but also a little more difficult than it looks. How do the locals have such pinpoint accuracy with their machetes?

I leave American Samoa tomorrow, so I need to finish editing all of my photos and get my last good byes in. My first stop is the NPSA office. After many hours of editing, I say my goodbyes to Jason and Bert. “Sione! This is for you,” Bert says giving me a NPSA shirt. I thank Bert for hosting me, all of his hospitality, and showing me the ropes on Ofu. I also tell him to come visit me in California when he and his family go to their second home on the west coast.

Later that evening, Ian and Paolo (another NPSA employee) come over to hang out with Tori and I. Ian brings up something I said after meeting him last week, “We’d been talking for no longer than 5 minutes, and then I’m walking out the door to help someone and I hear you say ‘thanks Ian, you’re so cool and thoughtful!’” Paolo lets out a laugh, “cool and thoughtful! HA! That is classic!” Ian puts things into context, “I was kind of stressed and didn’t even notice when you said it. Then I was like, wait, did he just say that?! Was that a joke?! Ha ha ha.” For the rest of the night, “cool and thoughtful” becomes our phrase of choice. “I hope that ‘cool and thoughtful’ becomes my legacy at NPSA,” I laugh.

Boy reaches to play with an octopus on Ofu.

I had a blast with Paolo and Ian. It’s really fun to be around two California guys so far from home. Unfortunately, I say my goodbyes to them and Tori when Daniel picks me up for my flight. Daniel is my last goodbye. I tell him that I am going to contact him when I get up to Pinnacles one of these days and that I think he makes an excellent Superintendent.

American Samoa is one of the most remote and unique places in the National Park Service. It was such a privilege to be able to go to NPSA, and particularly Ofu. It was the perfect end to my summer tour- a beautiful landscape and equally beautiful seascapes with the best crew I could ever ask for. I was also happy with my own effort and work at NPSA, which is a great feeling to have. I would say that I feel like I finished on a very high note, but truth be told, I’m not finished. In 36 hours, I’ll be in Washington D.C…



Reflecting on Horrors of the Past on the Shipwrecks of Valor in the Pacific National Historic Monument

I’ve been on O’ahu for a few days. I arrived over the weekend and yesterday was a holiday, so I haven’t gotten in touch with the National Park Service team here yet. I’m strangely thankful for the break. It’s provided me much needed time for photo editing, blogging, and getting in expense reports. O’ahu has also felt like a second homecoming of sorts. I have many friends on the island, some of which I’ve been able to visit and some of which I’ve been staying with. By the time 11AM rolls around on Tuesday, my park work starts to begin. My phone whistles at me through the heat of the Hawai’ian fall.

Hi Shaun, can you get to the park by 2 PM?

A little bit of extra time on O’ahu allowed me to get out to Makapu’u lighthouse.

It’s Scott Pawlowski, Park Diving Officer at Valor in the Pacific National Historic Monument (VALR). VALR is most well-known for being the home of the USS Arizona, a US Navy battleship that was bombed and consequently sunk by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It is also home to the USS Utah and Oklahoma Memorials, both of which suffered similar fates on that day. The significance of the attack is that it signaled the entrance of the US into World War II. The USS Arizona is the most symbolic physical entity our country has to pay homage to victims of that attack, but it also represents the soldiers lost throughout the war. Needless to say, this park experience is much different than going into the grandiose valley of Yosemite.

The USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor is a shipwreck and a grave site.

I’m meeting Scott to go over my schedule for the week and get oriented to the resources and operations in the park. Pearl Harbor is still an active military base. The park is just on the outskirts of the base, so security at the front gate is tight. The guard sees me decked out in National Park Service (NPS) gear and asks, “Shaun Wolfe?” I tell him, “that’s me!” He lets me through and directs me over to Scott who is mid-conversation with a ticket booth employee. “Shaun, Shaun, good to see you finally! Sorry we couldn’t get you over here earlier. We’ll have to make some stops along the way, but let’s head up to the conference room.” Sure enough, Scott is either stopped by park staff or has to poke his head in a door almost every 10 steps. He is a busy man. VALR is one of the smallest parks I’ve ever seen but they have an exceedingly high visitation rate – approaching 2 million visitors a year –  and co-manage the park with the military. This puts quite a bit on everyone’s plate.

The far room of the memorial has names of all deceased USS Arizona soldiers carved into marble.

Up in the conference room, Scott gives me the lay of the land and starts letting me know what my opportunities will be. The dive program is getting audited on Thursday under the jurisdiction of Steve Sellers. Steve is a diving legend. He is a past president of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (the authority for all scientific diving) and the Diving Safety Officer at East Carolina University for nearly 20 years. He is now the Diving Safety Officer for NPS and is based out of Denver along side the Submerged Resources Center in Colorado. I missed him while I was there and jump at the opportunity to join the audit on Thursday. Saturday we are diving the USS Utah for sure, and possibly the USS Arizona as well. Sunday I will tour the park and the USS Missouri outside of the park (a WWII era ship which is still seaworthy and docked on the base).

Scott is a solid guy. He has a very endearing goofiness to him but can flip over to military-like seriousness when needed (this happens often given the park he works in). He is from coastal Washington (but don’t ask him to jump in cold water!), doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and is pretty intent on giving me as many opportunities as possible in the park, which I genuinely appreciate.

I was able to snap this photo between crowd rushes. This is the inside of the memorial. It feels strange being back here after 18 years away.

While we are waiting to hop on board the Navy boat that ferrys guests out to the Arizona Memorial, I notice that the diving here will be very different to the other diving I’ve done in Hawai’i. First and foremost, I haven’t dove a wreck all summer. Moreover, the visibility is much worse and the bottom will be silty in the harbor. Another thing that comes from being in a harbor is protection. “I haven’t had to worry about ocean conditions in 12 years,” Scott tells me.

We motor out to the memorial and I put my phone on silent and remove my hat. The USS Arizona is parallel to and just underneath the memorial. The memorial is a white rectangular structure that has a concave roof with lots of cut outs in it. Stepping into the memorial, the crowd goes silent. It’s quite the juxtaposition to the boisterous nature of the large crowds onshore. The USS Arizona is not only a shipwreck and a memorial to the dead soldiers, but it is a grave site. 1,177 men died on board when the ship was attacked and remain within the Arizona’s submerged hull. The memorial is a place of quite reflection, learning, and mourning.

Visitors view the ship from the memorial.

As we pass through the main hall, visitors gaze upon the deck of the USS Arizona. The ship itself is oriented exactly how it would have been above water. The hull sits perfectly on the seafloor and the deck is parallel to the surface. The deck is very shallow. Though it is hard to make out exactly what you are looking at because of the cloudy water. One salvaged gun turret stands above the water and provides a more visually relatable image for guests and interpretive displays give the visitors a better sense of the ship’s structure. There is a sheen on the water caused by oil that is still leaking for different compartments on the ship.

Visitors have a limited view of the ship, though it is better at low tide (seen here). Notice the oil sheen and black oil spots on the surface.

Heading to the back of the memorial is a separate room with all of the names of those who died on the ship engraved into a marble wall. Two things strike me in this room. One is the sheer amount of soldiers that died that day. Two is the list of veterans that survived the attack from the USS Arizona that have chosen to be buried on the ship. Scott and the dive team help run a program in conjunction with the military to put the remains of USS Arizona survivors in the hull of the ship to rest with their fallen comrades.

The Tree of Life shines light on a list of the soldiers that died long after the attack that have been cremated and buried inside the ship with their fallen comrades.

On our way back to the boat, we come across a cut out in the floor of the memorial, directly above the deck of the USS Arizona. “This was put in for the survivors that come back. It is a place where they can spend a more intimate moment with their crew members on the ship,” Scott tells me in a low voice. While the memorial is certainly set up to teach and cater to visitors, it was made for the survivors.

This space was built for survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona to have a more intimate connection with their fallen crew members.

Once we are back on shore, Scott shows me around the onshore grounds of the park. The interpretive work the park is doing in the way of signage, image displays, and exhibits is some of the best I’ve seen anywhere. “We want people to understand what happened and be able to put themselves in the shoes of the soldiers that day,” he says. As we move closer to a 3D map of O’ahu showing all the places on the island that were attacked, he tells me, “we also want them to understand that this really wasn’t an attack on Pearl Harbor, it was an attack on Hawai’i.” The Japanese sought to knock out as many of our naval and aerial resources as possible on the island, which are spread out between the coastline and the island’s interior.

The viewshed at Valor in the Pacific.

After a few more displays, Scott stops and looks up. Pointing to the horizon, he articulates that the horizon and the landscape around the memorial is a park resource as well. “Outside of a few piers, one low-lying bridge, and some houses, this landscape hasn’t changed much since 1944. Between our displays of where the planes came from and the view of the landscape here, we hope our visitors can imagine what happened on December 7th.”

As I say my goodbye to Scott, I comment on the uniqueness of VALR, “this is one of the only National Parks that I have ever been to where visitors come almost exclusively for the cultural resources of the park.” When most of us think National Parks, we think of massive mountains and big valleys filled with streams and wild animals. VALR is on a military base near a big city. It has murky water and no wildlife that visitors can see. People come here to learn about World War II in the Pacific and to pay their respects to the dead.

Sunset over the windward side of the island.

“Don’t be afraid of the red,” Steve Sellers says as he goes over the audit of the VALR dive program with Scott. “It’s all minor paperwork and data entry, easy fix,” he assures. Steve conducts audits of all 25(ish) park diving programs every three years to ensure that all national standards are met. Scott has brought me to the park to see the audit so that I can understand the nuts and bolts of running a dive program. The majority of the audit comes in the way of paperwork and making sure the information in the computerized diving management system is up to date. The Park Diving Officer, the Regional Diving Officer, Diving Control Board, and the park divers themselves all play a role in updating the system and keeping the program safe. I think the most interesting part of the dive program that I learn about during the audit is how these stakeholders form a check and balance system. Steve interacts with divers on the park dive team individually as well to get their take on the program and make recommendations about the program at a park, regional, or national level.

Steve Sellers (right) inspects some gear at VALR with Scott (left).

“I haven’t seen anything that makes me question the safety of your program,” Steve concludes. Scott knew almost everything that needed to get done before Steve came in thanks to the self-audit all Park Diving Officers are required to do in advance of Steve’s arrival. Even so, he is relieved to hear the news. The audit is really less of an intimidating, harsh consequential meeting. It’s more of a conversation about making the program safer and being in full compliance with national standards. This atmosphere, in my estimation, makes for a much more productive audit, stronger working relationships, and safer diving within NPS.

The USS Utah Memorial is smaller than the USS Arizona Memorial and closed to the public due to its location on the base.

I’m eating a larger bowl of oatmeal than normal this morning. I also woke up earlier to make sure all my gear is ready to go. Today is my day in the field, the day I get to dive the USS Utah and the USS Arizona. It is a privilege to dive each. Only the National Park Service and military divers are allowed to dive the ships. My dive buddy is Dan Brown. Dan works in concessions for the park, working out partnerships between groups that want to work with or in the park. He is also a member of the park dive team.

Subsurface on the USS Utah.

After a dive safety briefing and orientation, we drive over to the USS Utah. The Utah is laying on it’s side and the deck partially breaches the surface. Our plan is to swim along the deck at different depths to see as much as we can. We scale down the slippery algae covered rocks of the shoreline and descend upon the bow. The water is murky (about 10-12 feet of visibility) and the bottom is fine silt, which is easily disturbed and can make visibility much worse.

The ship itself is quite the site. There are so many open hatches on the deck. Some of them have ladders that run down below and others are so dark I can’t light them up enough to see what’s there. We continue swimming along and see gun turrets and some sort of crane on deck. Everything on the ship is covered in impressive sessile life, mostly tunicates and sponges.

A broken mast on the deck of the USS Utah.

Due to the orientation of the ship, it’s size (200 feet + smaller than the USS Arizona), and the damage it sustained during the attack, it can be hard at times to remember I am looking at a ship. Parts of the ship are so mangled that they look more like an indiscernible metal heap. As we make the swim back to the bow, we cruise the shallowest part of the deck. This is the part of the ship with the most in-tact features and best lighting. I can start creating an image in my head of what the ship really looked like and what life may have been like on board.

Open rooms like this helped me understand the USS Utah better.

Our next dive is on the USS Arizona. I once asked Susanna Pershern, photographer at the Submerged Resources Center, what her favorite wreck was to dive. She told me, “the HMS Fowey at Biscayne [National Park], it’s in-tact, historic…it’s beautiful.” Puzzled by this, I inquired, “what about the Arizona?” She smiled and said, “the Arizona is in a class of its own, you can’t compare other wrecks to it!”

Getting into the water at the USS Arizona can be tricky. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself, as the focus should be on the fallen. However, it’s impossible to control the curiosity of visitors when they see divers getting in the water.

Needless to say, I was excited. If Susanna, who has logged hundreds (if not thousands) of wreck dives says this is thee wreck, it must be pretty special. Of course it feels strange to say that I’m excited or that the diving the wreck is cool. In reality, the wreck is anything but “cool.” It represents one of the greatest tragedies in US history and is symbolic of World War II- the deadliest event in the history of the world.

Swimming between the USS Arizona and the memorial structure.

“You’re going to be the brightest, shiniest thing around when we get out there. The key is to maintain a low profile without ignoring the guests. We don’t want the focus to be on us, we want it to be on the soldiers that are on the Arizona,” Scott briefs me as we prepare to board the Navy passenger ferry that takes guests out to the Arizona Memorial.

Once we arrive to the memorial, we wait for all the other guests to get off the ferry and we stage our gear in our own gated corner of the floating dock. Dan and I stealthily swim under the memorial and descend onto one of the Arizona’s four gun turrets near its stern.

Because the USS Arizona sits perfectly centered on it’s hull in a harbor with little ocean movement, the deck is flat and holds many historical items (in addition to pennies, cell phones, and other items visitors drop that the park divers clean up). We find some of these items right away. An old shoe, a mason jar, a hair tonic bottle, old broken bowls. These items humanize the wreck. I’m looking at items that likely belonged to or were used by soldiers on the ship. What if a lieutenant used that bottle of hair tonic on December 7th thinking it was going to be another mundane day in the harbor?

We then descend on the starboard side of the ship and find a few portholes in the hull. Some of the portholes still have their glass windows. I can’t see through these portholes as they are significantly fouled. The glass got blown out of other portholes, which are about 8” in diameter. I can look into these and my powerful camera lights reveal surprisingly in-tact rooms. In the first room we look into, there is a table and an a sink, perfectly in place. In the next room, there is a clothing hanger, likely undisturbed since December 7th. It is both chilling and spectacular. I imagine how normal that day was until it wasn’t. They must have been so unprepared and unsuspecting, just going about their morning routine as usual. Seeing these rooms is one of the most powerful experiences I have had all summer.

The portholes of the USS Arizona.

Swimming further towards the bow, we pass the most in-tact gun turret on the ship, holding three giant 14″ guns. I swim along the guns to see get an idea of how long they are. I swim, and swim, and swim. The guns are nearly 20ft long, much longer than the water allows me to see all at once.

Sometimes you have to improvise! I didn’t have the light and extra diver I needed to get this shot, so I took my strobe out and held it in my hand. I couldn’t get my hand out of the shot as these portholes are only as big as my camera dome, but a bad shot is better than no shot! This allowed me to peer into the rooms within the USS Arizona.

Finally at the bow, we pass by the most damaged parts of the ship. Where the aerial bomb exploded in a gun powder magazine and ultimately sunk the ship. I begin to think about what my grandfather must have felt like on that day. Did he know that the attack meant that he would be serving on a Navy ship at the battle of Okinawa and change his life forever? How did my grandmother feel knowing his fate might be the same as the men that went down with the USS Arizona?

This is all a tip of the hat to the National Park Service staff. Their mission here is to maintain these “resources” (ie. the ship and it’s contents) in context. In doing that, they have allowed me to see a story from the past. Though truthfully, seeing the ship from underwater something very few people will ever get to do. Most people have to access the story through the videos and exhibits that the park has put up. While these are excellent interpretation displays, there is no substitute for seeing the ship underwater.

Open hatches on the USS Arizona often reveal staircases.

Back on the dock, we are putting our gear away and appease many guests by answering “what are you guys looking for down there?” many times over. We take the Navy ferry back to shore where I say mahalo and goodbye to Dan for coming in on a Saturday to dive with me.

I also say goodbye to Scott. I thank him for allowing me to dive at both sites. I wouldn’t have been able to dive without him and his team did not need to dive otherwise today. Furthermore, I sincerely enjoyed my time with Scott. He’s a great person to work with. He keeps his crew loose and laughing, yet also efficient and professional. “I’ll make sure I get you tickets to the USS Missouri for tomorrow plus anything else you’d want to do around here,” Scott says to me as I hop in my red Smartcar.

Filling this car with my dive gear, camera equipment, and personal belongings was quite the feat. Photo credit: Natalie Shahbol.

It’s my last day in O’ahu and I’m going to be a full blow tourist at Valor in the Pacific National Monument and the USS Missouri. I arrive at the park to grab my comp tickets thanks to Scott. After seeing the film about the USS Arizona and touring the memorial another time, I hop on the bus to go to the Missouri.

The spot on the USS Missouri where the Japanese surrendered to the US to end WWII in the Pacific.

On June 22, 1998, I was 7 and ½ years old on a surfboard in Waikiki, O’ahu and the USS Missouri was being towed into Pearl Harbor. The USS Missouri is one of the most decorated battleships in American history and its main deck is where the Japanese surrendered at the end of WWII. As such, my parents remember this as a special moment and my mom brought it up on the phone with me many times this last month, knowing I’d be going to O’ahu. Of course, I didn’t understand any of the historical significance at that age. I only remember thinking the accompanying fire department boats that were spraying water high in the air were awesome. Now at 26 years old, I know that my relationship to the Missouri is about to change dramatically.

Inside officer’s quarters in the USS Missouri.

The first thing that stikes me about the Missouri is its size. It’s extremely tall and almost 900 feet long. Dan Brown advised me to block off 6-8 hours to tour the ship. Once I get on board, it’s easy to see why. Several decks of the ship have been turned into a museum, jam packed with displays and information. Every single room is an exhibit- officers’ quarters, kitchens, lounges, etc. Though the USS Missouri isn’t managed by the National Park Service, it compliments the USS Arizona, as the ships represent the beginning and end of WWII in the Pacific. Furthermore, after diving on the USS Arizona, the USS Missouri shows me what the Arizona was like in its heyday.

The guns and teak decking I saw on the Arizona come alive for me on the Missouri. The rooms I saw through the portholes in the Arizona’s hull are perfectly on display in the Missouri. With the entirety of the USS Missouri decorated as if it were underway with Navy soldiers on board (including sounds like thousands of people eating in the dining hall), I really begin to absorb the life that the young men on WWII battleships had.

Two things left a lasting impression on me after my visit to the USS Missouri. The first is the realities of war and how we talk about it as a country. Often times WWII is looked back on via triumphant and exuberant vignettes, like tanks rolling down the streets of a freshly-liberated Paris while young women are screaming praises at our soldiers. In reality, the war was the peak of human brutality. My grandfathers never spoke about the war. After going through some exhibits on the Missouri, it was easy to understand why. Soldiers were in constant and oppressive fear about being attacked. In battle, they often saw their best friends blown up. If they got to say goodbye, it was often to disfigured body parts.

The second takeaway for me was the kamikaze exhibits. The exhibit have photos of Japanese kamikazes and letters from each back to their loved ones sent before their kamikaze mission. Some of their personal belongings were on display as well, mostly those recovered after their terminal mission. They were all so young. I tried to put myself in their shoes, being 18 years old knowing I was going to die on my next mission. I tried to put myself in the shoes of their loved ones, knowing they were going to lose their son, husband, or sibling. Many of these kamikaze pilots carried a Japanese flag with them on their mission that was covered in written good luck phrases. My jaw dropped when I saw this. My grandfather had a Japanese flag that was badly damaged and looked just like this. What exactly did he see in battle? What experiences did he have that he was so unwilling to speak about? I couldn’t help but imagine the horrors he saw when I saw that flag in the exhibit.

As I am scarfing down some pad thai at my final O’ahu dinner with 3 friends from Catalina Island that live on the island, I begin to reflect on my time here. Valor in the Pacific is an incredibly unique National Park Service unit. From the way visitation works, to the responsibilities of the staff, to the globally historic importance of the park, to collaborating with the military and others, I have never visited a place like it. I came to the park mostly excited to dive the USS Arizona and the USS Utah. It is a privilege to be able to do so and one that very few people will ever have. However, my experience was shaped by the introspective moments I had reflecting on our country’s past. This is the goal of the team at VALR. This is how they want their visitors to feel after they come to the park. It was an honor to work with the team here and if my experience is any indication, they are accomplishing exactly what they set out to do.

Catalina boys! (L-R) Ricky Nichols, Ben Castillo, Myself, and Bryan Silver. Ben and Bryan were gracious enough to let me stay with them for a few days and even took me out sailing!


Marine Monitoring at the Beautiful and Haunting Kalaupapa National Historic Park

It’s two o’clock in the morning at my house in Santa Barbara, CA. All of my housemates are asleep as I milk the last bit of internet I will have for the next week while I’m on the R/V Sea Ranger with Channel Islands National Park (CHIS). I’m trying to book my flight into Kalaupapa National Historic Park (KALA) on the island of Molokai after having no internet at back to back to back stops.

Seems simple enough, there is only one airport listed on the island. I book a flight to O’ahu and then a second over to Molokai and a sense of relief kicks in. I can now peacefully catch 4 hours of sleep and drive to CHIS headquarters.

One of the first sites you see at Kalaupapa is this art piece done by a patient that has since passed.

6 days later and I’m at my mom’s house in Los Angeles checking my email. I see an email from Eric Brown, the Marine Biologist at KALA.

Shaun, you will want to book your flight to KALA (LUP airport code) rather than topside Molokai (MKK) also known as Hoolehua. Otherwise you will have to hike the trail with your dive gear. Not an easy task.

Apparently there is more than one airport on Molokai after all. Several phone calls later, I get on the line with Makani Kai airlines. “You know not just anyone can fly to Kalaupapa. What are you doing there? Who is your sponsor?” the airline representative asks me. I give him the information he needs and 12 hours later, I’m on an 8 passenger plane flying over the highest sea cliffs in the world on the north shore of Molokai.

The view from the plane coming into KALA is the stuff dreams are made of.

One of the airline employees based at KALA comes to open the side door, “Ooooh! Looks like we’ve got all the kids on the school bus today!” He proceeds to say hi to almost everyone on the plane. I didn’t have a chance to thoroughly research KALA before I came due to lack of internet. I can tell it is smaller than I thought it was.

Taken from the front row, the planes going into KALA are small-9 people including the pilot!

“You must be Shaun!” Eric picks me out of a very small “crowd” coming off of the plane. I can tell Eric has been in Hawai’i for a long time. His grey hair contrasts with his dark tan and his mismatched flip-flops scream, or rather mumble, that he is an easy going guy.

We hop in his truck and he shows me around “the settlement,” or Kalaupapa. KALA is located on a small northern peninsula of Molokai. The history behind its current form is that it was founded as a place to send people that had contracted Hansen’s disease. Hansen’s disease is more commonly referred to as leprosy, but as this name brings many negative connotations for the remaining patients at KALA, I will refrain from using it in the blog.

No one really knows why these holes are in the floor inside of the original Catholic church at KALA. Many believe it was for the afflicted to drain fluid from open wounds that they often had.

When Hansen’s disease hit Hawai’i in the 19th century, King Kamehameha V exiled all afflicted to KALA. More often than not these were children, younger than 12 years old. Children are the most susceptible to contracting the disease. They would be ripped from their families and sent to die at KALA since there was no cure. Their families would frequently disown them as well. Hansen’s disease was thought to be genetic and it was taboo to associate with someone who had the disease.

If families wanted to visit their children, it would happen here. Families would be with armed guards on the left and children would be on the right. There was a chain link fence that ran down the middle of this table before Hansen’s disease was cured.

If the families did want to visit, they would do so accompanied by armed guards and speak to their children through a chainlink fence in a small room. Remnants of this intense segregation between patients and everyone else is all over KALA. KALA staff had their own seating sections in any shared space, all staff housing units were fenced in and patients could not enter. During this time, over 8,000 people died at KALA. Many graves are marked, but many more are not. In the 1940’s, a cure was discovered. The remaining patients at KALA were given a choice: stay at KALA and have all of your living and health costs covered forever, or leave and be on your own. Most decided to stay. Not only was the price right, but the community at KALA was the only family they’d known. As a society, we came to find out that Hansen’s disease is one of the least communicable diseases in the world and only 4-5% of the human population is even susceptible.

Here in the social hall, the kokua (helpers of patients) sat in the back section, separate from the patients in the from.

Today, KALA is very small. There are about 10 patients and 80 NPS or state employees that live in the settlement. You must be sponsored by a settlement resident to enter. Though small, it is semi-self sufficient by necessity as the settlement isn’t connected to the rest of the island by road. There is a small store (emphasis on small), gas station, hospital/care center, and garden.

Over 8,000 people have died at Kalaupapa, most of which have been buried in unmarked fields.

As I am getting settled into my new abode, Eric invites me over for dinner, “I’m vegan, special needs child if you will, so there won’t be any meat. Hope you don’t mind!” This is actually music to my ears. My diet is mostly vegan as well and it’s nice to not be a burden on the person cooking for you sometimes.

Eric at dinner with his cat that doubles as a neck pillow.

After consuming a massive stir fry, Eric takes me to the backyard. “You like apple bananas? These are ready to go and I can’t eat them all,” he says pointing up to a banana tree. I tell him that bananas would be great, especially since I don’t have food in the settlement yet.

Banana trees only fruit once and grow incredibly quickly. To get the bananas off a tree, you simply cut down the tree. Some equate banana trees to weeds that produce delicious fruit. However, I’ve never actually seen one being cut down. Eric uses what is essentially a butter knife. “You can use anything really, the trunks are real soft, it doesn’t take much!”

I am still surprised that these big trees come down so easily.

After we mind the banana resin (a stain nightmare for clothing) and grab the bananas, we game plan for the next day. “You need to go get food tomorrow. You’ll have to hike up the trail topside. It takes about an hour each way and you gain a little more than 2000 ft in elevation. Do you have a good backpack?” Eric asks me. “Yeah, I’m all set on a backpack. I just need to know where the trail is,” I tell him. “Ok, that won’t be too hard. Once you’re up there though, you’ll need to get into town. Do you know how to drive stick?” Ahhh, manual transmissions come back to bite me again. This is probably the one skill that I’ve gone the longest without learning when it comes to useful travel skills. “Regrettably, no” I respond. “That’s ok, I believe there is a bus that goes into town now too!”

The hunt for groceries starts at 5:30 AM. After choosing the wrong trail twice, I’m on the right one and half way through my switchbacks up the sea cliffs. “Hey bruddah, howsit?” a local says as he passes me. I haven’t heard “howsit” in a while, I must be back in Hawai’i!

Morning light hits the KALA cliffs.

I get to the top of the trail, hop on the bus, and get into town. Kaunakakai is a funny town. There aren’t many people, but there is always traffic because every car stops in the middle of the road to talk to their friends on the street. It feels like a glimpse into what the rest of Hawai’i was 70 years ago.

Downtown Kaunakakai feels like my grandfather’s Hawai’i.

After I buy what I need, wait for a few hours, and hop on the bus back to the trailhead, I’m on my way back down. There is an abundance of strawberry guava on the trail and I pick as much of it as I can without slowing down. I’ve never even seen it until now and it is so much better than normal guava.

We have a transect laid out on the ground and I am taking photos with a camera on the side of the transect. “This is exactly it! Keep you’re a constant distance from the ground using your monopod. We will analyze all the photos post-hoc (later) to figure out bottom composition and coral cover,” Eric informs me.

What we are doing is part of a long-term inventory and monitoring project in the park. Eric has a few sites that he goes back to year after year and a few others that are randomly chosen every year. We will be doing benthic surveys using the camera at each of these sites. This portion is my responsibility, while Eric does fish surveys. Once those tasks are complete, we will measure rugosity of our site (how complex the sea floor structure is). Topside, we will be taking water samples and using mechanical equipment to measure specific water quality parameters.

What Kalaupapa lacks in phone service, it makes up for in views.

All of these measurements give a complete picture of how healthy a site is and why it might be that way. More rugose sites (more complex structure) tend to have more fish. Sites with worse water quality will have less coral. These types can only come through long-term projects. One observation could be an anomaly. If the data is the same year after year, we know that it isn’t an anomaly. Furthermore, if the data is changing, we need to look at why and what can be done about it. Why is there better coral growth at this site this year? Is it because of a management practice put in place by the park?

Eric Brown takes a water quality sample with a niskin bottle.

Eric, more than anyone, understands the importance of this. He is a true scientist, whose mantra is “data or die!” He has the motivation of someone half his age. His determination to get the data is exactly what is needed at KALA, where he is on his own and doesn’t really have a “staff” underneath him. He’s a data cowboy of sorts, on a wild frontier where he works with whatever equipment he can get. He is the marine team here and it’s because of him this study has been happening.

“Our truck has good drainage, eh?” a park employee says as he points to the eroded truck bed. The constant exposure to salt at KALA is brutal for the vehicles. Eric washes the truck with freshwater after every dive day, but the space between the bottom of the tuck bed and the side walls is completely gone.

Laurene filtering sea water for a sample.

We load up the truck with all of our gear for the day and head out. Laurene, a park intern from France, is coming out with us today since her focus is mostly on water quality. This is her second tour in Hawai’i after working in O’ahu last summer. She is entering the natural science field after a stint in business management and is pretty giddy about it. Though she gets sea sick, she has an infectious laugh that keeps the crew in good spirits.

“This is going to a beautiful site baby! I can just tell!” Eric exclaims as we pull up to our dive site. We grab our gear and descend on a very boulder-y site with sporadic coral and excellent visibility. Things go smoothly underwater and we work through small kinks here and there. I see a couple umilo (blue fin trevalley), which I immediately anoint as my second favorite fish (the first being the Hawai’ian state marine fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’a).

One of the only boats we saw all week. There isn’t much traffic at our survey sites.

Back on the boat, we take several water quality samples to send to USGS, who partners with NPS and analyze the samples in a lab. We also use a sonde to measure local water quality. This machine has three probes that measure temperature, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and many other water quality indicators.

Though visibility is incredible around KALA, the ocean is generally not calm. As we begin to take big swells, it becomes harder and harder to take water quality samples and filter our samples into small bottles. Especially since we are working from the bow- the place on the boat that experiences the most movement.

The sea cliffs around KALA are majestic and top 3,000 feet.

Eric then drops an empty sample bottle with a big swell. As we hear the bottle hit the deck, he shouts, “just how I planned it! Constant supervision!” We quickly finish our sampling after that and one more survey dive to call it a day.

After two more days of diving, today we may have time for one fun dive. We have spent the last two days diving on the far side of the peninsula around a few small off shore islands. One of the islands has a crack in it that starts at the surface and goes all the way to the bottom of the ocean at 80 ft. “The crack is huge, it’s like a giant swim-thru arch that you could drive a double decker bus through,” Eric tells me. He lets me bring my camera on board today as well, knowing we might squeeze a dive in at that site.

I was hoping to dive the arch all week. I’m so grateful that Eric allowed it!

After two survey dives, we eat lunch and decide that we have enough time to do the arch. When I get in the water, I almost have to put a hand over my regulator to keep it from falling out of my mouth. My jaw drops at the majesty of this arch. It is massive and so unique. I have never seen anything like it. I feel like I’m entering an underwater holy palace in a fantasy world.

Perhaps the craziest thing about the arch is the air pocket inside. Here you can see the entrance to the arch and above it, the air pocket.

After swimming as fast as possible to get in front of the other diver with me, I take some shots to try to use him as a way to scale the arch. It’s tough since he doesn’t really know this is my plan and I’m quite a distance from him. We then decide to surface in the airpocket at the top of the arch. The air pocket is inside the island and does not connect to the ambient air outside. This is my first experience surfacing inside of a giant rock before. It’s so bizarre. I take my regulator out and try to take a breath. Bad move. Let’s just say the air in there is not the best.

Best to keep your regulator in- the air in here isn’t fun to breathe.

We then swim back down and out the other side of the arch where Eric picks us up. I am elated. I have done a lot of incredible diving this summer, but this dive is on a very short list of dives that have blown my mind.

It’s the famous Friday night movie night at KALA tonight. I accompany Eric and his wife to see Gaurdians of the Galaxy 2 at Tim’s place. Tim is the chef for the remaining Hansen’s disease patients. A bunch of people from the community come and bring a plethora of delicious food- mostly vegan to include Eric in the festivities. Tim is the ideal host. He goes above and beyond for his guests and never stresses out about it. I have spent most of my days on the boat, so I haven’t gotten to experience much before now. However, this is a glimpse of the community at KALA. It is a tight-knit group where everyone knows everyone and everyone contributes. I can see why Eric has stayed here so long.

It’s my last night in the settlement before Eric, Laurene, and I go into the backcountry to do stream surveys next week. I can hear a large and blissful crowd inside a large well-lit historical hall. It’s the banquet for the annual KALA fishing tournament.

Not a bad venue to kick off the fishing tournament.

There is a NOAA team at KALA as well that helped put on the fishing tournament. I was lucky enough to see their speech at the start of the tournament, in which they tried to get the fishermen to use barbless hooks. I was really impressed at the stance that the team took and the rhetoric they were using with the locals.

“These hooks, they still catch fish. Hooking a turtle is illegal. We aren’t going to report you guys, that isn’t our goal. Please tell us though, it is important that we know when a turtle is hooked. If you use the barbless hooks, it’s so much easier to unhook a turtle or a seal. I use these hooks, all these guys (points behind to photos of fishermen with 100 lbs + fish) used these hooks. You’ll still catch fish and the marine life will be happier.”  

– NOAA Representative from the Barbless Hook team

They offered free barbless hooks and a special prize to the fishermen who caught the biggest fish on a barbless hook. Ultimately they got a couple fishermen to switch over to barbless. While their method isn’t inspiring rapid change, it is inspiring change and they have an extremely good relationship with the locals. In my mind, they are doing outstanding work and maximizing their effectiveness in their situation.

Eric Brown with the biggest catch of the tournament, a 35 lbs ulua.

The banquet concludes with a massive meal of all the fish from the tournament and local Hawai’ian food like poi (mashed taro to the point of liquid). As I chat with some KALA residents and take in the Hawai’ian music played with a ukulele, spoons, and a traditional instrument, I reflect on an incredible week of diving and a big week of backcountry hiking and surveying awaiting me next week.

At the banquet, special prizes were given out to fishermen using the barbless hooks.

To be continued…


Searching for Conch and Finding Passion


It’s 10 AM on St. Croix and I’m about halfway through husking a coconut in the morning breeze when I get a call from Zandy Hillis-Starr (Resource Manager for the National Park Service in St. Croix). “Hi Shaun, where are you?” I know this doesn’t bode well for me. “I have Jen and the NOAA team here waiting on you for a checkout dive.” Yikes! Due to some miscommunication, I had been given the wrong time the night before. Luckily my dive gear is ready to go. “I’ll be there in 15,” I say.

15 minutes later, Jennifer Doerr and Ron Hill from NOAA’s Galveston, Texas office greet me at the boat. With them is Hannah, an intern grad student from Nova Southeastern University. Thankfully for me, they aren’t upset that I set them back this morning. Clayton Pollock (Park Diving Officer) is also there and begins to review boat safety with us. “The fuel gauge is precise, but not always accurate,” he warns. We all laugh and thank him for allowing us to use the well-maintained park boats for the week.

Iguanas make the best dive buddies! Though this one might need a smaller BCD…

Our mission for the week is to tag and measure conch. Conch are a prized snail to eat throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Their beautiful shells are commonly sold in shops. Unfortunately for them, they are snails. Therefore, it is easy for both humans and marine organisms alike to capture them due to their slow moving nature. “I feel bad for the conch, everything eats these guys, especially octopus. Juvenile conch are too easy for them. They really don’t stand a chance,” Jen remarks. On the human side of things, regulations have been put in place on St. Croix, but enforcement has been proven difficult. Jen and Ron have dedicated themselves to tracking these conch for years in hopes of understanding their life cycle and aggregation patterns better. This information can be eventually applied to a management decision, which could bolster the future of conchs in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Conchs are the cows of the sea. They move slow, generally live in herds, and graze in underwater pastures” -Jen Doerr

Ron begins explaining the circular search pattern we will use to find conch underwater. As we get talking, it is apparent Ron has been at this for many, many years. Ron is a jolly guy with a slight southern twang in his voice, though he has lived all over the world- from Indonesia to Puerto Rico. His laugh is contagious and famous throughout NOAA’s dive team. “We are only tagging a couple conch and then measuring the rest. Jen will be topside support and putting the actual acoustic tags on the conch,” Ron tells me. NOAA has put in acoustic receivers all over the seafloor around St. Croix’s north shore. Anytime a tagged conch comes within a given distance of the receivers, the receiver logs the time that the conch passed by.

The black canister is a hydrophone. This is what allows all involved parties to track conch, among other things.

The checkout dive involves a couple of skills and then practicing the conch tagging protocol. We don’t find any conch, but I do find Ron’s fins peculiar. I’ve never seen anything like them. They are called Force Fins. Your foot sits on top of a thin plastic/rubber sheet that is forked at the end and there is a little foot box on top of that. “The military used to use these things, you can really move with them!” Ron says. They make my Jet Fins look like 18-wheelers. I watched Ron get good speed with them, but I still can’t believe that they work.

I didn’t get a great shot of Ron’s fins, but you can kind of see them here as he runs a search pattern with Hannah.

Back at the dock, Hannah is rinsing gear. “Wow, this water really has a nice spread to it,” she says. “It is pretty light and fluffy, isn’t it,” I respond. “Light and fluffy?! I’ve never heard anyone describe water as light and fluffy, but that’s pretty accurate,” Jen laughs.

Inside the small but mighty Fort Christiansted.

Since we finished early today, I decide to check out Fort Christiansted- a historical fort that Danes built when Denmark ruled the islands. Though small, the fort has excellent informational displays throughout its halls and helped inform my understanding of the island’s history. Before the U.S. Virgin Islands, the islands were known as the Danish West Indies. Denmark took control of the islands in the early 1700’s. Slave labor powered lucrative sugar cane and rum industries on St. Croix, which helped Denmark out financial slump in the mid 1700’s. The fort provided two services. First, it provided some security in case of a slave-led rebellion. Second, it protected the island/Denmark’s financial assets from sea-faring attacks. As time progressed and Denmark outlawed slavery, the island was less productive financially. In 1916, the U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark for $25 million, which coincidentally coincided with the establishment of the National Park Service… (more on this next blog)

For the first time in 3 days, the wind is low and the swell is down. These conditions give us the opportunity to dive around Buck Island Reef National Monument. “This must be a very romantic area,” Ron remarks. We see mating turtles for the fourth time in three days leaving the marina. Turtle mating season is in full effect and the National Park Service turtle team has been seeing nesting turtles every night on Buck Island.

Maintaining proper buoyancy while taking data and measuring conchs can be a challenge!

As we pull into the scuba shop to pick up more scuba cylinders, I see Laura Palma, an intern that I worked with on a turtle grazing project last week. When we get to Buck Island, I see a guy named Mike that I’d met a few nights back in town. In the water, I see my new housemate Brennan. “How do you know everyone?!” Jen asks me. “I guess this island is smaller than I thought!” I reply. After a mere week and a half on St. Croix, I can’t go anywhere without running into people I know. I’m certainly not an introvert, but the small, friendly community Clayton told me about has proven very true.

The diving at Buck Island is spectacular as it gets for sea grass diving. “Conch are the cows of the sea. They move slow, generally live in herds, and graze in underwater pastures,” Jen tells me. More often than not, sea grass diving can be fairly murky. However, Buck Island’s sea grass beds have clear, warm, bright blue water and more importantly, lots of conch. Up until this point, we’d been diving at Salt River and seeing only queen conch- the most colorful and prized conch (for their shells). At Buck Island, we finally started to see milk conch (more prized for eating). Ron hands me the first milk conch we see and signals for me to bring it back up to the boat.

Ron and Hannah measure a conch near Buck Island.

“Ohh!! A milky!” Jen lights up when she sees our new friend. Jen is an impressive person. Growing up in the mountains of Idaho, she is a strong female mountain woman that muscled her way through the male-dominated fisheries industry to get to where she is now. Her work ethic is an inspiration to the NOAA team and myself.

As Jen measures the conch and preps a tag to secure to the spires on the shell, it hits me. The dedication and passion of this team in unbelievable. They travel over 2000 miles each way every year (for decades in Ron’s case) to protect snails that they otherwise have no relationship to. These are not conch near their home in Texas that mainland fishermen are taking. Rarely have I seen a team so passionate about marine organisms that are so far away from their home base.

“Carrots and peanut butter again?!” Jen asks. “It may not be light and fluffy, but it is a backpacker’s delight!” I say, as the joke of light and fluffy has carried on through the week. I’ve had carrots and peanut butter everyday as part of my snack for the entire summer due to the transport-friendly nature of both foods.

Hannah “pulls a Seth.” Seth Kendall, a former Pennington Marine Science Center Intern that I worked with on Catalina Island, used to put his face in the water off the side of the boat to check the dive site location. His legacy lives on in St. Croix after I showed the NOAA crew how to do it.

Lunchtime on the water at Buck Island is incredible. The water is still and crystal clear. You can see every fish and coral head from the boat. Luckily, we get some time to jump in and snorkel for conch. “I think this might be a dive. It’s definitely looking like a dive to me!” Ron says. Ron has the enthusiasm of someone half his age when it comes to diving and is always pushing to dive, even if the water is only 10 feet deep. “Pretty sure you can do this on snorkel guys,” Jen laughs, as conditions couldn’t be better for snorkeling.

Buck Island speaks for itself.

“Anyone want some elixir?” Hannah asks, referring to her homemade baby shampoo-based anti-fog for scuba masks. “You mean Hannah’s Spit®?” I quip as she laughs. The running joke of the week is that Hannah’s anti-fog is really just her spit (divers most commonly use spit for anti-fog) that she has bottled up and brought on board to try to sell us on. Hannah is a warm, wholesome, hard-working Minnesotan who is as good of a team mate as you could ever ask for. Though when I say she is warm, I mean that both figuratively and literally- she lives in a perpetual state of sunburn in the Virgin Islands thanks to her fair Scandinavian complexion.

Hannah puts a conch back after measuring.

As soon as I hit the water, a small bar jack swims right underneath my stomach. I swim out a little further, and the bar jack keeps with me. When I dive down, the bar jack dives down with me and grabs a snack off the reef. This little fish stays with me for over an hour in the water and swims what was likely about one mile underneath my stomach. I feel ownership over this little fish. I make sure to never leave the fish behind and chase off potential predators like barracuda to protect my bar jack. After I see a school of cuttlefish, a giant bar jack leading two nurse sharks through the reef system, and lots of parrotfish, I drop the bar jack off with its school under the boat and get on board.

Not having my camera this time was a tough pill to swallow for me. I am a fish person. I love fish and care about them as much as I do mammals. It is incredibly difficult to get people to have this type of relationship with fish. Having an image to capture this experience would really help bring these little fish to life and get people to care about fish not just for the purpose of eating, but for the purpose of having more fish in a healthier ocean.

It’s my last day to dive in St. Croix since I’m flying out in two days. Everyone that I have ever met that has been to St. Croix has told me to dive the famous dive site called “The Wall” at Cane Bay. I have texted everyone I know on the island (which is a surprisingly large rolodex at this stage) nearly every afternoon of my stay trying to find a dive buddy for The Wall. Unfortunately, it seems that diving after a long day of work can be a hard sell. Today is no different.

The flare of the conch, which is what Ron is measuring here, is how we can estimate the age of a conch.

“I think I’m just going to go and hopefully someone needs a dive buddy there,” I tell my housemate as I hop in the car and head for Cane Bay. I decide not to bring my camera. Some friends of mine have told me that it is not safe to leave things in your car at Cane Bay. Since I’m unsure of the area and whom I’ll be diving with, I decide it will be safer to not bring the camera. I don’t want to be marked as a target and I want to be able to respond to an emergency if I end up diving with a freshly-certified diver.

Sure enough, Eric from Pittsburgh is trying to dive The Wall when I pull in. Luckily for me, he’s logged a few dives at the wall and knows the site well. Unluckily for me, the area is much safer than I thought it would be, Eric is a rescue diver, and I don’t have my camera.

The Wall is breathtaking. It lives up to all it is billed to be. You descend onto a horse from a merry-go-round that is planted on the sea floor. 20 meters further is a wall- a seemingly infinite drop off, where the sea floor goes from 60 feet to several thousand. We see turtles, sharks, the healthiest coral I’ve seen all summer, and an incredible diversity of fish.

I may not have gotten any photos at the wall, but I did find these sea stars in a flying-v pattern at Buck Island!

When we come in, I say bye to Eric from Pittsburgh and say hi to Madelyn Roycroft (California Polytechnic San Luis Obisbo grad student from last blog) and her team. Cane Bay is about a 45 minute drive from Christiansted, where I am based. This is truly a small island. “I think I’m going to try to get out to Point Udall (the most eastern point in the United States) this weekend for sunrise if you guys would be interested!” I tell them. Hannah Rempel, a member of Madelyn’s research team jumps at the opportunity, “I’m a morning person- absolutely!”

I leave after making tentative plans with them and get a message from Clayton. “Hey Shaun, just wanted to check in. I think we got to hang out a bit when you first got here but I haven’t seen you much since. What are your plans before you leave? Let’s hang out.” I am genuinely happy to hear from Clayton. I had heard so much about Clayton and the entire NPS team on St. Croix before the summer from previous Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® National Park Service Interns. In the little time that I have spent with them, they made quite the impression on me. They are one of the hardest working, most professional, and most fun units I’ve met this summer. However, they are in turtle season. Therefore, I haven’t seen them much since they are in full-noctural mode, on a 6 PM to 6 AM schedule.

Music plays loudly inside of a beautiful courtyard laced with the smell of Mexican food from the restaurant inside. It is my last night in St. Croix and I decided to watch my friend Jeff Jung (mentioned last blog, St. Croix resident and former high school classmate of mine) and his girlfriend fire dance. The heat from the torches is sweltering, but I decide to get as close as possible to get some photos. I’m sweating uncontrollably for the entire performance, but looking at the photos as they are shot keeps me motivated. A woman then comes out with a single fireball and spins it wildly, creating a trail of fire across the deep blue sky. It’s a mesmerizing effect, but I remain focused on getting the shots I want. The creative process of finding the right settings, angles, and light to create the vision in my head is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and rewarding experiences I have ever had. It’s what keeps me going as a photographer.

After the performance, I say my goodbyes to Jeff, his girlfriend, and all of their friends that I have come to know over the past two weeks. I don’t stay too late though, because I have one more goodbye to say. I hop in the car and drive over to Jen’s hotel. I thank Jen for giving me the opportunity to dive with her and the team for the week. The conversation turns, as we discuss the rollercoaster of life and the wild places that call each of us. As passionate as Jen is about the conch in the Caribbean, nothing makes her feel more at home than the snowy mountains around Idaho and Wyoming. She has lived quite a few places and loves Galveston, but the mountains hold a special spot in her heart. I really connected with her on this, as Catalina Island feels that way to me. In my internship summer, it has proven true time and time again- as incredible as the work is and as passionate as I am about photography and marine conservation, establishing a relationship with the people I work with is equally as rewarding.

Jeff and I, reunited 3,500 miles away after 10 years. Contrary to popular belief, those are raindrops, not tears on my shirt.

It’s what I like to call “dark o’clock” in Christiansted. I am never up at this hour, but I’m meeting with a research team from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at 5AM to go to Point Udall for sunrise. Hannah’s excitement was contagious enough to convince the rest of the team to come too. “I’ve done this for three years in a row on St. Croix, so I had to come!” Madelyn states.

Sunrise over the most eastern point in the United States.

Upon arrival at Point Udall, I’m still half asleep and the sun is still below the horizon. We all hop out and take photos of the beautiful landscape capped off by Buck Island sitting in the background. Just as a beautiful pink cloud rises above the island behind us, the sun starts to rise from the ocean and shoot out beautiful orange rays in the sky. I am not a “morning person” and 4 hours of sleep certainly doesn’t help, but watching the sunrise at Point Udall reminded me that getting up early for the outdoors is always worth it.

The beach near Point Udall was fun to explore and full of ideal turtle nesting grounds.

“I love these passion fruits! Thank you so much Clayton!” a local woman says as she takes a bag of passion fruit from Clayton. Clayton and I are having lunch right before I catch a flight to St. Thomas as customers in the restaurant say hi to him intermittently. After living on the island for nearly a decade, Clayton seems to know everyone. We chat for a while over a few arepas and I thank him for everything he did for me on St. Croix. I would have been in serious trouble without him. “You know you have a place to stay out west with a STOCKED fridge, if you are ever insane enough to go to colder waters,” I say as my parting message to Clayton. “Be careful of what you wish for, we just might take you up on that!” he responds. I sincerely hope he does.

The scene in the restaurant is representative of both the St. Croix and National Park Service communities- tight-knit and friendly. I came to St. Croix as unprepared as I could be, and ended up having a wonderful experience working with some amazing people. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, and the flexibility required of me during my first week is a skill I’d need to utilize at my next stop in St. John.

The seaplane I’ll be taking to St. John!


St. Croix: Going with Plan “B” and Laying Down My Roots

After a few sites, Alex and Laura hop in to move some cinder blocks that mark sites. They do this with their fins off and run on the bottom of the ocean with the blocks in hand. It is quite a site and Laura is particularly excited to get some photos of herself running the blocks around. I descend with them. I set up my strobes and turn my camera on. I set my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, then go to press the trigger. Nothing happens. I check to make sure I have everything set properly and try again. Nothing. I check the battery, which was at ¾ to start the day. It’s dead! I’m shocked, these batteries usually last 3-4 days and this is the second day I’ve used this battery. I’m disappointed that I can’t get any shots of Alex and Laura running with the cinder blocks on the ocean floor and feel like I let them down. I take some GoPro video instead, but it’s certainly not as good.At the St. Croix airport, the baggage claim clicks and clacks while tour companies try to sell tourists on overpriced day trips and Jeep rentals. I’m awaiting my bags and finally starting to adjust to the humidity in the Caribbean. “Shaun?” someone says behind me. I turn around and see a short-haired, scruffy guy, average build. “That’s me! You must be Clayton.” Sure enough, it is Clayton Pollock, Park Dive Officer in St. Croix. “Mikey Kent [Park Diving Officer at Dry Tortugas National Park] told me not to say hi to you and instead to grab you by the neck and give you a kiss, I think we skip that and just tell him I did,” I say to Clayton. He laughs and says, “ahhh, Mikey, got to love him! Yeah, thanks for not doing that ha ha ha.”

NBA legend Tim Duncan is perhaps the most famous Crucian of all time. Needless to say, Crucians are very proud of him. He's the first thing you see upon landing in the airport and tributes like this are found throughout the island.

NBA legend Tim Duncan is perhaps the most famous Crucian of all time. Needless to say, Crucians are very proud of him. He’s the first thing you see upon landing in the airport and tributes like this are found throughout the island.

We toss my gear into an old Chevy Blazer. “So where to? Are we going to the Tamarind Reef Hotel?” Clayton asks me. “Actually, I need internet,” I tell him. I knew my connectivity in the Dry Tortugas was going to be limited, but I didn’t realize that meant no connectivity at all. I thought I would be able to work my accommodation out for St. Croix at Dry Tortugas, but that (obviously) did not happen. “Ok, we can do that. Also did you get my email? The lionfish project you were supposed to work on this week cancelled,” Clayton says. This is where Jeff Miller, Virgin Islands resident and National Park Service legend would tell me, “welcome to the Virgin Islands!”

Clayton gives me a tour of St. Croix as we navigate around the island’s abundant pot holes. He points to some housing projects, “So use common sense, but this place is definitely not somewhere you want to be at night.” He also gives me some advice on the local culture, “everyone says good morning/afternoon/evening when they see each other. It’s not uncommon for someone to stop into a store with no plans of purchasing goods just to say hi.”

Denmark owned the US Virgin Islands until 1916 and much of that colonial architecture still exists in varying conditions. Here is a beautiful colonial building in downtown Christiansted.

Denmark owned the US Virgin Islands until 1916 and much of that colonial architecture still exists in varying conditions. Here is a beautiful colonial building in downtown Christiansted.

After a few phone calls and looking on the internet at the park headquarters in downtown Christiansted, we find a hotel since there are no hostels on St. Croix. It’s the cheapest spot in town- $125 per night for a single without a kitchen. Not my definition of pocket change to be sure.

Clayton takes me over to the hotel and hangs out with me in the air conditioned room while I get settled in. “So…tomorrow?” I ask him. Throughout my internship so far, I generally don’t get briefed on what I’m doing until the night before or day of. I like to think of myself as a free spirit, so this works well for me. “I’d like to get you out with some researchers from the University of Florida that are working on a seagrass project. Let’s give them a call.” Clayton dials Alex Gulick, a Ph.D. student at UF. “Good afternoon!” Clayton says. Clayton is very laid back and is one of the funnier people I’ve met this summer, but right now he is in professional mode. Alex seems caught off guard, “ummmm, hi?” she responds. Clayton informs her that I can either be an extra set of hands for the project or be the photographer for the day. Alex waits to make a decision. “No worries, I’ll be ready either way,” I say, “but if you see Alex tonight, just let me know.” Clayton responds, “full disclosure- I’m seeing Alex, so I will be seeing her tonight.”

Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix in 1986 and devastated the island. Many buildings and places never recovered and can be seedy places to hang around.

Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix in 1986 and devastated the island. Many buildings and places never recovered and can be seedy places to hang around.

Once Clayton leaves, it’s time for me to get my bearings on St. Croix. The cost of the hotel meant I couldn’t rent a car. The nearest grocery store is many miles away and the cost of eating out in St. Croix is really high. My options are limited. In fact, I only have one option for groceries- the local liquor store.

The walk to the store is short, but I am definitely getting the proverbial “mad dog” from some of the locals. The Crucians (local islanders) in front of the store make a concerted effort to stare me down as I walked in. The air in the store is stagnant. I get the feeling that neither the man behind the counter nor the food on the shelves have moved positions in 25 years. “Good evening!” I say. Without moving his head, he gives me the smallest eyebrow nod…so maybe this isn’t exactly the friendly culture that Clayton told me about. Regardless, they have food. The plan was to get bread for sandwiches, but the few loaves they have are really moldy. So I grab 3 cans of beans, hot sauce, all spice, oatmeal, peanut butter, and a few mangos- ingredients to make a surprisingly delicious backpacker feast without a kitchen.

Alex arrives at my hotel with her two interns, Ashley and Laura, to pick me up in a champagne colored pick-up truck. I hop in the front with Ashley and Alex. “Put in me in gear Ash!” Alex exclaims as rain begins to tap dance on the roof. Ash’s responsibility in the truck is to shift the gears for Alex. The truck is a tight squeeze with all of our gear and 4 people, so the gear shifter is right between Ash’s legs.

Later on, the tables turned. Here's Alex ready to shift gears for Ash.

Later on, the tables turned. Here’s Alex ready to shift gears for Ash.

We get to the boat and begin to load up alongside many iguanas. Alex’s dissertation research is focused on the effects that turtle grazing has on seagrass communities. To study this, she is monitoring both grazed and ungrazed seagrass sites, as well as creating grazed sites by cutting seagrass to mimic turtle grazing. To account for variation between sites, Alex constantly records temperature data and takes sediment cores, both of which may affect seagrass growth. In order to monitor grazing sites, she sets up underwater cameras intermittently. “I was wondering why we weren’t seeing turtles at some of the sites until last week. We saw a big 10-foot tiger shark cruise our camera, that freaked everyone out a bit. Looks like I know what’s happening to the turtles!” Laura lights up, “I’m hoping we see it out there one of these days!” Alex puts things into perspective, “We have a bet going. I owe these guys dinner if we see it, but we won’t. Clayton has logged over a thousand dives in that area and has never seen a tiger there.”

I start up some small talk getting to know everyone. Ash and Laura are both from Florida. “I’m from Oregon,” Alex states. Hearing this, I can think of only one response, “west coast, best coast!” Alex laughs, “Yes! You must be from California.” I chuckle and ask, “is it really that obvious?” Over the course of my time in the Caribbean, I find that it is that obvious from my demeanor, style, and speech. I get called out for using words such as “burly” and “rad” that aren’t used nearly as much elsewhere apparently. The west coast is a small community when it comes to marine science, and it turns out that Alex and I have many mutual friends, including OWUSS’s own Jenna Walker. Alex is really laid back, almost a bit happy-go-lucky, and admits that she’s “the biggest wimp ever” when it comes to cold water after leaving Oregon many years ago.

Alex (left) and Laura use scissors to artificially recreate turtle grazing on a study plot.

Excuse me ladies, can you please keep the sand on the seafloor? Sand in the water column was a challenge on this day for me. Meanwhile, Alex (left) and Laura use scissors to artificially recreate turtle grazing on a study plot.

Once we are at the research site, my job is to take photos documenting the process and to sediment cores back to the boat. Photographing work in seagrass beds is difficult. The sediment composition ranges from sand to silt and gets stirred up really easily. With lots of sediment in the water, a good photo can turn into a bad photo within seconds. Between dives, everyone tells me really funny stories about Clayton and Alex recalls the phone conversation she had with him about me yesterday. “He called and said, ‘good afternoon!’ and I was so confused! I was thinking, hi…honey… He gets really awkward sometimes when he puts on his professional face,” she says as we all laugh.

After a few sites, Alex and Laura hop in to move some cinder blocks that mark sites. They do this with their fins off and run on the bottom of the ocean with the blocks in hand. It is quite a site and Laura is particularly excited to get some photos of herself running the blocks around. I descend with them. I set up my strobes and turn my camera on. I set my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, then go to press the trigger. Nothing happens. I check to make sure I have everything set properly and try again. Nothing. I check the battery, which was at ¾ to start the day. It’s dead! I’m shocked, these batteries usually last 3-4 days and this is the second day I’ve used this battery. I’m disappointed that I can’t get any shots of Alex and Laura running with the cinder blocks on the ocean floor and feel like I let them down. I take some GoPro video instead, but it’s certainly not as good.

Back at the dock, a friend of the crew meets us as we pull in. He says hi to everyone as we tie up and asks about our day. Then he looks at me. “You look familiar,” he says. In my head, I’m thinking that he really doesn’t look familiar, but Alex looks at me and says, “well, he is from LA!” After some talking, we realize that we were in the same class at a high school in LA for 2 years before I transferred out. “Jeff Jung! Yeah, of course I remember you! That is wild!” I haven’t seen Jeff in 10 years, we haven’t even keep up on social media. He’s been living out on St. Croix for a few years working for a sailing-based tourism company after feeling burned out on the rat race of the biotech world. “So…Taco Tuesday?!” Jeff asks the group. Everyone is up for it, and we take off for Maria’s, the only taco place on the north side (or perhaps all) of St. Croix.

I ride with Jeff to Maria’s and catch up. Jeff has established quite the life for himself on St. Croix and found a nice community. He’s a really warm person that makes you feel like he’s been your friend forever, which is impossible to not appreciate. He’s an incredibly positive and upbeat person as well, and has an open mind when it comes to trying new things, like fire dancing and couples yoga.

Spoiler alert! Lots more fire dancing photos to come, but here is Jeff and his lovely girlfriend, Kristen, combine two of their favorite activities- yoga and fire dancing.

Spoiler alert! Lots more fire dancing photos to come, but here is Jeff and his lovely girlfriend, Kristen, combine two of their favorite activities- yoga and fire dancing.

After a delicious meal at the restaurant, I get a call from Clayton. “Hey buddy, I think we have found a spot for you in park housing, but it’s far from where you’re working and you’ll need a rental car.” This is welcome news. Park housing is about $70 per night cheaper, including my rental car cost. The rest of the night I do the less glamorous responsibilities of this internship- turning in expense reports, blogging, editing photos, prepping camera gear, and working out logistics for the next two parks I’m visiting- while enjoying a surprisingly delicious bowl of all spice-hot sauce-black beans. St. Croix has been pretty slow for me so far. At my first two stops, the stream of work has been constant. The slower pace of St. Croix is strangely uncomfortable. I feel like I’m being irresponsible almost- like I should be doing work in the field, but I’m not. Furthermore, because I’m not working with a team this week in St. Croix, it feels a little bit isolated. I’m not surrounded by people all the time and the park staff is gearing up for turtle season, so they haven’t been able to hang out with me. It’s not a bad thing, but I would like to find a bit of a community on St. Croix.

It’s 7:00 AM and it’s pouring rain. St. Croix is quite a rainy place. It rains about 8 times everyday for about 20 minutes each time. However, today and tomorrow are supposed to be particularly stormy. Today I’m supposed to be diving with a professor from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) named Bernard to do some lionfish tagging. Bernard told me that the captain will decide by 8 whether we will be going out and we will leave by 8:30. Timing is everything this morning, because I’m moving into park housing today. Clayton is coming to pick up my gear that I’m not using today and storing it at park housing. I’m checking out of my hotel, taking a taxi to meet Bernard, and then picking up a rental car after the day of diving.

At 8:15 AM, I still haven’t heard anything from Bernard. I check in with him and he says that the captain hasn’t decided, but if we go, we are still leaving at 8:30. I hold off a little longer, and then check out. I begin unloading my camera and dive gear at the dock at 8:40, still unsure of whether we are leaving. Just as I close the trunk of the taxi, my phone whistles at me. “Sorry Shaun, but we are cancelling today. Weather is too rough, don’t want to risk it.”

I get right back in the cab and head to the rental car storefront. “What’s the cheapest car you have?” I ask. After a few touches of the keyboard, the man behind the counter says to me with a thick islander accent, “right now, I can’t get you a car mon.” Luckily, there is another rental car place nearby. I throw all my camera and dive gear over my shoulder and go to the next rental car place where I get a tiny, but ideal Toyota Yaris. My first stop before heading to my new abode is park headquarters to pick up my things. Driving in downtown Christiansted can be challenging. Almost all of the streets are one-way, many intersections have no stoplights or stop signs, and everyone drives on the left-hand side of the road even though the driver’s side of the cars is on the left.

Keep Left! The rental cars come with a surprisingly useful sticker on the window as a reminder.

Keep Left! The rental cars come with a surprisingly useful sticker on the window as a reminder.

“What are you up to the rest of the day? Nothing?” Zandy Hillis-Starr asks me at park headquarters. I was going to get some computer work done, but I didn’t have hard and fast plans. “We can’t have you resting on your laurels! Let me make some calls.” The first time I met Zandy, she looks at me and says unexcitedly, “you do the blog thing, don’t you. You better not put me in it!” Zandy, I tried, but you wrote yourself into the blog today. Zandy is well-organized in an old school way as she shows me her rolodex and paper calendar. If anyone has seen it all, it’s her. She grew up on St. Croix and has worked for the park for over 30 years.

One thing that Zandy asked me to do was get a photo of "the bulletin board." USPS used to be downstairs at park headquarters and had a bulletin board on the wall. When they left, the inside of the wall was exposed. Turns out many colonial buildings in St. Croix are built using coral.

One thing that Zandy asked me to do was get a photo of “the bulletin board.” USPS used to be downstairs at park headquarters and had a bulletin board on the wall. When they left, the inside of the wall was exposed. Turns out many colonial buildings in St. Croix are built using coral.

After a few phone calls, Zandy sets up a two-tank recreational dive the next day for me. She’s sending me out to get photos of divers at Salt River, which is an area under park jurisdiction. She also tells me, “You should dive the pier at Frederiksted tonight, you might see frog fish and seahorses, plus the pilings are covered in colorful organisms.” I thank Zandy for her help and advice, and take off for the grocery store.

Park headquarters is situated across the street from Fort Christiansted. The fort was built primarily to smother slave rebellions and secondarily to protect the cash cow (in the form of sugar and rum production) that was St. Croix for the Danish government.

Park headquarters is situated across the street from Fort Christiansted. The fort was built primarily to smother slave rebellions and secondarily to protect the cash cow (in the form of sugar and rum production) that was St. Croix for the Danish government.

Clayton told me the best grocery store on the island is Plaza Extra. Fortunately, it’s right next to park housing. Entering Plaza Extra is a fairly overwhelming experience. It is a massive store, slightly smaller than Costco, with much less open space and far fewer visual references. There are at least two, often three places in the store for the same item. If you see an item you want, you may want to hold off because there may be a larger selection on several other isles. The store is really a microcosm of life on the island; it’s inconvenient, poorly organized, and fairly hectic, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone and most everyone is happy to be there.

Once I get to park housing, I look at the paper that has my house assignment on it, “house 2, room 2.” None of the houses are numbered, so I take a guess that the second house in is mine. My key works to unlock the door, and I look for my room. None of the rooms are numbered either. I leave my things in a room that looks mostly unoccupied. Eventually, my housemate Devon comes in.

Devon is a tall, blonde woman who is as quirky as her collection of tattoos. She is an intern for the carpentry team, which is park of the National Park Service’s Historical Preservation team. I’m impressed with Devon’s attitude and mental fortitude. She works 5 AM to 5 PM on top of a scorching hot roof as the only woman on a team of salty carpenters. She enjoys a bag of popcorn and a La Croix everyday after work and loves dogs and goats. We chat for a bit before I have to pack up and head to Frederiksted for my night dive at the pier. Since I do not have phone service (meaning no GPS) on St. Croix, I have leave particularly early in case I get lost.

It's alive!!! The pilings at the Frederiksted pier are teeming with life and color.

It’s alive!!! The pilings at the Frederiksted pier are teeming with life and color.

Frederiksted is a curious place. As I walk around, young crucian men blast hip hop and burn out their tires on their lowered Honda Civics. The buildings in Frederiksted are either immaculate or derelict, there are very few that don’t fit into this category. Hurricane Hugo devastated St. Croix in 1986 and much of the island never recovered.

I was shooting this structure near the pier when this spotted moray eel wanted some face time with the camera. Truth be told, I never saw the aspiring model until I uploaded my photos to my computer.

I was shooting this structure near the pier when this spotted moray eel wanted some face time with the camera. Truth be told, I never saw the aspiring model until I uploaded my photos to my computer.

After a lengthy dive brief at the dive shop, we hop off the pier and turn on our lights. The pilings are beautiful. Bright yellows, blues, reds, and oranges. Almost everything we see would require using a macro lens, which I do not have. I’ve learned to just enjoy things underwater even if I can’t get the shot. About halfway through the dive, we see a frogfish. I nearly screamed in my regulator. I’ve always wanted to see a frogfish. Their pectoral fins are reminiscent of a frog’s front arms, equipped with tiny hands and all. They can use these fins to “walk” on the seafloor or down a piling, which is exactly what this fish does while I’m watching it. It is unbelievable and rare to see. It’s like seeing evolution right before your eyes. The fish literally just walks right down a piling in front of me. The rest of the dive is filled with octopus, fish, and more bright colors, but I will always remember the frogfish.

Without a macro lens (used for close up shots), getting this photo in-camera is impossible. This is a heavily cropped version of a photo that included nearly the entire piling. Even though I was about 8 inches from the fish, a wide angle lens has a giant field of view.

Frogfish! Notice the little hand-like pectoral fins this fish has. Without a macro lens (used for close up shots), getting this photo in-camera is impossible. This is a heavily cropped version of a photo that included nearly the entire piling. Even though I was about 8 inches from the fish, a wide angle lens has a giant field of view.

“We’re going to try to get to Salt River! Weather is a bit rough out there.” The scuba shop manager says to me. I’ve heard this story on St. Croix before. Another day of rough weather means there is no guarantee I’ll go to the wall at Salt River, which is what Zandy sent me out to do.

Less than ideal conditions at Salt River translated to mostly black and white photos to help cover up turbidity in the water.

Less than ideal conditions at Salt River translated to mostly black and white photos to help cover up turbidity in the water.

There are only two other divers going out today, so I don’t have a lot of divers to shoot. We decide to give Salt River a shot. We keel pretty hard on the water, taking the 7-foot swells directly off of our starboard side. Once we are at Salt River, the visibility isn’t ideal, as the big swell stirs up sand and the rain pushes sediment from the land into the ocean.

Capturing the grandiosity of the wall was an impossible and frustrating aspiration for me. This is as close as I came.

Capturing the grandiosity of the wall was an impossible and frustrating aspiration for me. This is as close as I came.

Reduced visibility makes photographing the wall that we are diving particularly challenging. It’s impossible to show the wall’s grandiosity since I can’t see it, with or without my camera. Furthermore, since this is a guided dive and we are not going to come close to our no-decompression limit, we are constantly on the move. It was difficult to get in front of the group. To get a good photograph of divers, you generally want to be in front of them; shooting them head on and from slightly below. I can’t swim fast enough with the camera to get in front of the divers and set my shot up. This dive was a frustrating photographic experience for me. I’m still coming off the high of Dry Tortugas National Park, where I was really happy with some of the photos I got. I feel like I let Zandy and the dive shop down by not getting any shots I was particularly proud of.

The barge is home to many vertebrates as well as colorful invertebrates, seen here.

The barge is home to many vertebrates as well as colorful invertebrates, seen here.

Our next dive is at a wrecked barge close to Christiansted. The owners of the barge asked the government of the Virgin Islands if they could sink the barge and turn it into an artificial reef. The government was going to charge them a lot of money to do so and told them to leave St. Croix if they weren’t going to pay the fine. Coincidentally, on their way out of St. Croix the barge “accidentally” sunk.

This turtle flew by us so fast as we descended. Swimming towards it was ambitious at best. I was lucky to get any shots off.

This turtle flew by us so fast as we descended. Swimming towards it was ambitious at best. I was lucky to get any shots off.

We descend onto the barge and I immediately see stingray, a green turtle, two reef sharks, and a school of fish. What do I shoot first?! I whip the strobes into position and do my best to set my exposure while swimming as fast as possible towards the speedy turtle. After shooting the stingray, we swim down to the barge, which is covered in reef sharks that aren’t too nervous about crusing divers.

Because many dive shops cull lionfish in the area and leave them for the reef sharks, the sharks started to display semi-aggressive behavior when I sat around them for the while, expecting food from me. They were flexing the pectoral fins downward as I was trying to get as many pictures as possible. Because they were swimmingly quickly so close to the bottom and I was slightly nervous (for the first time after diving with many, many sharks), it was difficult to shoot them.

Night falls. The air is heavy with humidity and drink glasses are clinking as tiny ripples lap against the boardwalk of Christiansted. I’m out with Devon and the construction crew when I see Jeff and his girlfriend, “Shaun!! Get over here!” he calls out to me. We catch up and I meet his crew of St. Croix friends. It’s the first time on the island I’ve seen and felt a sense of community. A small group of friends from all over the US that seemingly all work in tourism or yoga. They are genuinely happy to have me around as much as I’m genuinely happy to be there, and waste no time integrating me right into the group.

“So if we see a turtle, we make the decision whether to relocate the nest or not. I generally error on the side of not relocating them. Turtles have been turtles for thousands of years and know way more about nesting than I do” Clayton tells the group. If turtle nests (which contain turtle eggs) are in a spot prone to erosion and can be swept out to sea, the turtle team will encourage the turtle to move spots or carefully relocate the eggs. It’s not an easy decision, because relocating a nest lowers the hatch success rate considerably. “It’s the first night of turtle season, we aren’t going see a turtle, no way! I will buy you all ice cream if we do,” Tessa Code chimes in (more on her next blog). I jokingly fire back, “not with that attitude!” Nathaniel Holloway then speaks up, “do we have all of our packs? Everyone has a red light? We have all the radios?” The turtle interns all assure him we have the gear we need as the sun goes down and our vessel casts off for Buck Island.

The NPS team gets ready for a opening night of the turtle season on Buck Island. From left to right: Clayton Pollock, Alex Gulick, Nate Halloway, Tessa Code.

The NPS team gets ready for a opening night of the turtle season on Buck Island. From left to right: Clayton Pollock, Alex Gulick, Nate Holloway, Tessa Code.

On the island, I notice Clayton is wearing a different pair of Crocs than he normally wears. They are dark and lined with some suede-like material on the outside. “These are my suit and tie crocs, I keep it classy on Buck Island!” The NPS team then splits into teams and begins walking the beach. We drag our feet into the sand to create a visual reference line. If a turtle comes onto the beach, there will be a break in the line. Places in which we cannot put a line, we put up “knock downs,” or sticks that a turtle would have to knock down to nest in that location. I’m walking around with Clayton and Nathaniel’s team.

The team draws out a line in the sand to help create a visual reference for a potential turtle nest.

The team draws out a line in the sand to help create a visual reference for a potential turtle nest.

Nathaniel is a big, tanned man who sports a man bun. I get the feeling it would take quite a bit to irk him. He speaks with a low, calm voice and never hesitates to interject his quick-witted sense of humor into conversation. Nathaniel and Clayton have a hilarious relationship. It’s a “bromance,” in the most classical sense. They constantly compliment each other on their clothing, jokingly wink or blow kisses at each other when they pass by in hallways, and finish each other’s sentences. On the beach, they stop the interns and me periodically to offer some turtle wisdom. “Sometimes they get way back into this vegetation and are almost impossible to see,” Nathaniel starts. “Stop and smell around, turtles stink,” Clayton says. “Exactly! Great point Clay!” Nathaniel responds as they both chuckle.

Once the lines are drawn and knock downs are put up, it’s time to monitor the beach for turtles. Teams monitor the beach so that every stretch of the beach is covered every 45 minutes (if not a shorter period). We walk the beach under millions of stars and the milky way band just starting to show. All the while, I’m nearly falling asleep. The turtle team is on a 6PM to 6AM work schedule. I have been on the exact opposite schedule the entire summer. Luckily, this is only a half night of turtling for me. When we are not walking the beach, we are waiting on the dock for a radio call about a turtle sighting. Since it’s the first night of turtle season, we all get to go to a turtle if we see one.

Being on Buck Island at night was a special experience, but I got my tail handed to me on the late night shift. Transitioning from a day-time work schedule to a night-time work schedule in one day was tough.

Being on Buck Island at night was a special experience, but I got my tail handed to me on the late night shift. Transitioning from a day-time work schedule to a night-time work schedule in one day was tough.

The night ends with Tessa not owning us ice cream. We didn’t see a turtle, but it was a great experience to see how turtling is done. I came away from the experience with a much higher respect for “turtlers.” The job is as mentally demanding as it is physically with a brutal work schedule. My work schedule doesn’t get any easier tomorrow.

“Are those tanks full? The caps are off and the feel a little light to me,” I ask Sarah Heidmann as I analyze nitrox cylinders for our day of diving. “I hope so, I dropped them off early yesterday and they knew we needed fills,” she states nervously. I connect a pressure gauge to the cylinders. Sure enough, they are empty.

“Hi Nicky, we are going to be running late. Sorry for that, we are just getting the cylinders filled right now,” Sarah is on the phone with our boat captain for the day- a local fisherman named Nicky. As we are waiting for the cylinders to fill, Sarah and I get talking. She is finishing up her master’s degree at UVI and has been put in charge of the project we are working on. We are picking up acoustic receivers that track mutton snapper. The university catches mutton snapper, inserts an acoustic tag into their stomach, and that tag then sends a signal to these receivers every time a tagged fish is near. This data will inform the research team about where the fish spawn and aggregate, highlighting important geographic regions to protect.

Sarah is from the San Francisco Bay area, so of course we know some of the same people, being that the west coast marine science community is apparently bite-sized. “Brynn Fredrickson?! Yes! We were dive buddies under Jenna Walker at the Oregon Coast Aquarium!” Turns out Sarah knows Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society’s own Jenna Walker and Brynn, my friend and colleague at my Catalina Island home.

This is certainly a nervous smile from me around Molasses Pier. Also pictured (L-R): Nicky, Sarah Heidmann, Kristen Ewen, Elizabeth Smith.

This is certainly a nervous smile from me around Molasses Pier. Also pictured (L-R): Nicky, Sarah Heidmann, Kristen Ewen, Elizabeth Smith.

We pull into an open-air market that smells strongly of both fish and mango, where we meet two other UVI students helping out for the day. Their names are Liz and Kristen. Both are originally from the states but seem very at home on the islands. Between the three UVI ladies, there is a strong synergy, a wealth of dive knowledge, and a lot of blonde hair.

“Where is our fisherman…” Sarah ponders for a minute as we pass by a pile of dead fish on ice staring us down. We see a truck with a trailered boat behind it. There’s Nicky. He is a Puerto Rican by birth but has been living on St. Croix for many decades. “Just go straight up this hill,” as he points in many vague directions, “I’ll meet you at Molasses Pier!” Needless to say, those directions weren’t the best. Fortunately, Sarah has data service on her phone and brings up Google Maps. “Well, Molasses Pier doesn’t exist on here,” she tells me as I’m driving up one of several straight hills in the area.

We end up taking the “scenic route” and arrive at Molasses Pier. It’s in a highly industrial area on the south side of the island. There is no actual pier. It looks more like some cinder blocks fell into the bay and the local fishermen said, “great! We’ve always needed a boat ramp here!” Molasses Pier is the sketchiest place I’ve been all summer. It’s desolate and industrial. I equate it to Tattoine in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. You can’t see them, but you know the Tuscan Raiders are in caves watching you, ready to rob you. All the while, you are hoping a big local fisherman chases them off for you, Obi-Wan Kenobi style.

We could use the protection of Fort Christiansted at the pier.

We could use the protection of Fort Christiansted (pictured) at the pier.

“You launch from here often?” I ask Nicky. “No, never, I hate launching from here. They like to vandalize your things here. Leave your car doors unlocked and take everything out. They are going to break into your car and you don’t want a broken window.” Comforting, especially since I have a rental car with a stereo in it.

On the water, the diving is unlike any I’ve ever done. We are doing deep “bounce dives,” where we will descend to 80-120 feet to retrieve an acoustic receiver. The dives are no longer than about 7 minutes. Conditions vary constantly throughout the day. One minute it’s calm and sunny and the next we are taking on 6 foot swells and the rain is pouring down.

The real highlight though is Nicky. He is quite the character and I’m never really sure if he knows what he’s doing or not. His behavior indicates that he has things really under control and knows his boat well. His stories, and there are an infinite number of them, tell a different tale. “Last time I saw the [the local hyperbaric chamber operator], they said, ‘you?! Again?!’” Not exactly what you want to hear as a diver. However, his stories definitely made the day fly by during my surface intervals. From getting cruised by a cargo ship while he was underwater on a dive, to being left behind by a dive boat and swimming 5 miles back to shore, to taking his 25-foot 180-horsepower boat to Puerto Rico to handline for wahoo and tuna, there is never a dull moment with Nicky. “My sons and I wear this bike tube on our fingers, otherwise the fishing line can take off a finger!” he says as he shows me how he brings in 150-pound fish by handlining. Most of his stories involved his family members, and he took us on as if we were one of them.

Since I couldn't take my camera on Nicky's boat, here's another shot of the Fort. The Fort isn't mentioned much in my blog, but it is quite the site. I didn't know about the Danish rule over the islands until I got there, and the fort was a huge part of that learning experience.

Since I couldn’t take my camera on Nicky’s boat, here’s another shot of the Fort. The Fort isn’t mentioned much in my blog, but it is quite the site. I didn’t know about the Danish rule over the islands until I got there, and the fort was a huge part of that learning experience.

After we pick up 16 receivers, we are done for the day and head back to Molasses Pier. “Woah! Speed bump!” Nicky brings the boat to a quick stop. “The fishermen call turtles speed bumps because you have to slow down when you see one!” We see a few more “speed bumps” and arrive back at the Molasses Pier to be greeted by Nicky’s family. To no one’s surprise, they have all come down to help trailer the boat and offer a little bit more protection from potential criminals in the area. They are as warm as Nicky and help us load our cars as well (luckily, mine still had the stereo in it).

That evening, I decide to meet up with Sarah, Liz, and Kristen. They are with Madeline Roycroft, a Ph.D. student at California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo (SLO), and her undergraduate assistants Ali and Maurice. Madeline is a southerner at heart but looks like she has integrated into the California lifestyle well, sporting Chaco sandals and Patagonia clothing. Her outspoken and extroverted undergraduates provide a ying to her more reserved yang. The UVI ladies and Madeline’s group have found a community on the island amongst themselves and get along fabulously.

Between my old friend Jeff, Clayton and NPS, the UVI ladies, and the SLO team, I am beginning to start to feel at home at St. Croix. It feels much less isolated than it did earlier in the week. The more people I meet around the island, the smaller it begins to feel, and I enjoy that. I’m also learning to enjoy my off time. I get so eager to cram in as much NPS work as possible during my short summer that I can forget to enjoy the wild places I get to travel to. St. Croix has taught me how to slow down and given me the most independence of any stop this summer. Week one could best be summed up as “unexpected,” but as I continue to settle into life in the Virgin Islands, I’m looking forward to working with the NOAA conch tagging team next week and continuing to lay down roots here.


Dry Tortugas National Park: Hitting My Stride with SFCN

“Goooooooood morning divers!! Great day for a day man!” Mikey Kent, Park Diving Officer for Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) greets us. Perhaps no one in the National Park Service experience has a more pervasive reputation than Mikey Kent. He has medium length salty blonde hair, is covered in nautical tattoos, and probably has never had a bad day in his life. He is always doing something- playing, working, or both. And as someone once told me, “Mikey has never met anyone he didn’t already know for 30 years.”

"I've been told I need to work on my professionalism." No Mikey, never change. Photo credit: Mike Feeley

“I’ve been told I need to work on my professionalism.” No Mikey, never change. Photo credit: Mike Feeley

I am prepping dive gear, snacks, and underwater clipboards for the dive team I’m with for the day. Mikey meanders his was through the Fort Jeff greeting each person he sees (Fort Jefferson is the full name of the boat, but it is known as Fort Jeff to distinguish the boat from the actual fort with the same name). “J Mills, you are looking extra sharp today my man!” J Mills is Mikey’s nickname for Jeff Miller. Jeff is a coral biology and disease specialist on the South Florida Caribbean Network (SFCN) monitoring team that I am with at DRTO. He is quick witted, sports board shorts covered in sumo wrestlers, and states, “it goes without saying, so I’ll say it again, my unpredictability is my predictability.”

Jeff puts 110% effort into his sun protection.

Jeff “J Mills” Miller puts 110% effort into his sun protection.

I’ve been diving with Jeff for two days finding metal rods that mark coral survey sites underwater. The goal is to find all of the pins, layout a transect tape (underwater measuring tape) connecting the pins, and survey coral species and disease that are within a meter of the tape on each side. Once SFCN has the data, they inform the park’s decisions on how to properly manage their natural resources (in this case, marine environment/life). The trick is that the pins can be difficult to find. The tops of the pins- about the size and shape of a half dollar- protrude from the coral reef by as little as 3 centimeters and are often overgrown with coral and algae. Looking for these pins with “J Mills” (who has over 7,000 dives to his name) may be the most humbling experience I’ve ever had underwater. Jeff finds pins without a compass that take me and the other divers 20 minutes to find.

During the surveys, we are looking for coral diseases such as this.

During the surveys, we are looking for coral diseases such as this.

“You coming sailing tonight?!” Mikey asks me. “Wouldn’t miss it, I”ll be there!” I respond as I am passing the day’s lunch cooler, cylinders (SCUBA tanks), and cameras down to my team’s boat, which is side-tied to the Fort Jeff. One final gear check and we cast off to conduct coral surveys at “Santa’s Village”- a reef site in the far north of the park.

It all started 2 days ago when Mike Feeley, Andy Davis, Kelly O’Connell, and Jeff picked me up from a rented Submerged Resources Center (SRC) house near Biscayne National Park. I was told about the SFCN team from many people before I actually met them. I think the best summary came from Bert Ho of the SRC, “they’re a great team of guys who know their stuff, you’ll love ‘em.”

Mike Feeley is the team lead at SFCN and greets me in the truck. Mike is a tall, barrel-chested man with a deep voice. He has a Michigan heart but a Miami aesthetic. He’s also perhaps the most even-keeled person I’ve ever met and keeps his team steady. We meet Lee Richter and Rob Waara in Key Largo and I get in their truck.

“Are those guys going to lunch at Subway?! Wow! I can’t believe they are doing that, Subway is god-awful. We are going to Chad’s Deli, their portabello sandwich is out of this world! You definitely lucked out in the lunch department,” Rob tells me. “We need to stop at Office Depot first to get some Cheese Balls.” Lee interjects, “most important item in the truck! Though it is a little concerning you can’t get them at a grocery store.” Lee and Rob are a funny duo that work very well together. Rob is the Dive Officer for SFCN. He commutes about an hour and a half to work so that he can live on an island, speaks very quickly, and has a soft spot for Recess Peanut Butter Cups. Lee is in his late 20’s. Him and Rob love to kiteboard. Lee is kind of guy you’d like your daughter to date. He is always smiling, loves The Life Aquatic, and is exceedingly patient as I come to find out.

"To my surprise, they actually do have cheese in them!" Lee indulges in some Cheese Balls.

“To my surprise, they actually do have cheese in them!” Lee indulges in some Cheese Balls.

“If we are doing portabellos, we need to call them in, they take 20 minutes to cook,” Rob warns us. Lee tries to call the deli, but can’t get through. While Rob parks the truck with the trailer, Lee and I put in the food order. “If it looks like it’s going to take a while, forget the portabello,” Rob tells us. Lee decides Rob is probably exaggerating and orders the portabello sandwich for Rob. We wait…and wait…and wait. All the while, Rob is both very bored in the car and increasingly worried that we are running later and later with each passing moment. So he calls Lee after about 5 minutes. “Hey Rob, yeah we put in the order. It’s coming, we’ll be out there soon buddy.” He calls again. He texts. He calls again. “I love Rob, he’s a brother to me. But it’s exactly that- he’s a brother to me,” Lee laughs without expressing even the faintest frustration.

“I wasn’t exaggerating! I don’t know how they cook those portabellos, they take forever but man are they delicious!” Rob says back on the road. We get down to Key West where the Fort Jeff is docked on a Coast Guard/Navy base. After unloading food, gear, and smaller boats onto a bigger boat, we go to dinner in Key West.

Loading smaller boats onto bigger boats.

Loading smaller boats onto bigger boats.

Key West is a funny place. It reminds me a bit of the port town of Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean. It is a small salty community where most residents’ skin looks like leather from decades of saltwater and sun and you can’t go down a grocery aisle without hearing about so-and-so’s kid who is off sailing to Grenada. We’re going to dinner that night in a “kind of sketchy” place near Key West, according to Mike.

The restaurant is on Stock Island, a “kind of sketchy” place according to Mike Feeley. It’s right on the water and hosts a strange mix of salty leather-skins and tourists inside. Before we enter, we see the most intricate and impressive truck I’ve ever seen (albeit in the trashiest way). It is covered in plastic sea creatures and seascapes have been painted all over the exterior.

The trashiest, but most impressive truck I've ever seen.

The trashiest, but most impressive truck I’ve ever seen.

In the restaurant, we meet Benjamin “Ben Jammin’” D’Avanzo. Benjamin is a “buoy boy,” he installs and maintains buoys for NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. He sports a blonde Mohawk, dives in tights with rainbow unicorns on them, and enjoys fine vegan cheeses. I share some jokes and get to know the SFCN team over dinner. We call it a night fairly early to get ready for the next day’s voyage, though it’s not exactly an early start.

Benjammin' in his rainbow unicorn dive tights.

Ben Jammin’ in his rainbow unicorn dive tights.

9:00 AM casually rolls around and we cast off for DRTO. I’ve never seen so many islands in my life. Coming out of Key West, there are endless sandy islands skirted with green mangroves.

Looking through a cannon opening at Fort Jefferson. The moat below used to be home to a crocodile.

Looking through a cannon opening at Fort Jefferson. The moat below used to be home to a crocodile.

After a 5 hour tour, we arrive to the real Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. The fort is a massive work of masonry. Constructed in around the time of the Civil War, it is a large brick hexagon surrounded by a moat that used to have a crocodile in it. We tie up and I head out for a check out dive with Rob and Kelly O’Connell. Kelly is SFCN’s intern and a master’s student at the University of Miami. She loves coral biology, packs lunches for everyone on the boat, and gets sunburnt easily.

“Well, it’s day 3 of the hostage crisis,” Mike says as the Caribbean sunrise shines through the tinted windows of the Fort Jeff. I’ve been working with Elissa Connolly-Randazzo quite a bit so far. I also worked with Elissa at Biscayne National Park. Elissa is a spunky Jersey girl who has a personality that enabled her to thrive as the only female volunteer with the SFCN crew for years. She previously lived at DRTO as an intern and has a more intimate knowledge of the park than Ben, Kelly, or myself.

The M/V Fort Jefferson (Fort Jeff) in front of the Fort Jefferson. This is a toughie!

The M/V Fort Jefferson (Fort Jeff) in front of the Fort Jefferson. This is a toughie!

Underwater, I am starting finding my groove searching for survey pins. Elissa and I are mostly meeting our goal of setting up all transect tapes at each site we go to for Rob, Jeff, and Ben to survey. After setting our personal record of finding all pins and setting up a site in 35 minutes (including a safety stop!), we get back to the Fort Jeff at Fort Jefferson (getting it yet? Neither am I, don’t worry).

“The groupers are under the boat! I see 3 of them! No, 4! I mean 5!” Elissa says excitedly. I stop putting away gear and go look. 5 goliath groupers are under the Fort Jeff. I’ve only seen 1 or 2 at a time under the dock and the boat. Growing up to 8’ long and weighing up to 600 pounds, they are the biggest finfish in the region. I’ve been wanting to jump in the water with them and take some photos since I arrived.

The goliath groupers were a welcome sight for me. Here's one going in for a light snack under the Fort Jeff.

The goliath groupers were a welcome sight for me. Here’s one going in for a light snack under the Fort Jeff.

“Mike, can I jump in and take some shots of the groupers?” I ask, with nothing to lose. “If the ship’s crew is ok with it, sure!” Mike responds. I run to find the crew, get cleared to free dive, and grab my camera.

Elissa and I plan our entrance strategy, and enter the water under the pier. We talk at the surface near the groupers. “I not going to lie, I’m a little nervous. These fish are way bigger than me,” Elissa tells me. “We’ll see how they react, but try to get face to face with one if you can and I’ll do what I can to get the shot,” I tell her. I take a big breath in and dive down. Elissa gets pretty close to a grouper, but I have to get even closer since I have a wide-angle lens on my camera. I exhale quickly at the surface and look at the shots that I just took. They are awful. I set my exposure for the sunny spot between the pier and the boat. Elissa and the fish are in the shadow of the boat. The photos are completely black. “Did you get it?!” Elissa asks anxiously. “…We are going to have to do that one again,” I tell her.

Elissa was really patient with me as I tried to get the right shot. Even though we weren't limited on how long we could be in the water, we were limited on how long we could stay under since we were free diving.

Elissa was really patient with me as I tried to get the right shot. Even though we weren’t limited on how long we could be in the water, we were limited on how long we could stay under since we were free diving.

What follows is a religious experience. The sunlight gleams through the pier onto Elissa and the groupers as we become completely calm with the giants below the surface. Everything is quiet except for the swooshing of the groupers’ cadual fins (tails), the shutter of my camera, and the boat rocking in the wind chop at the surface.

These photos are important to me. The goliath grouper has been protected for quite some time in Florida, but there is pressure now from the fishing industry to remove protection. Though populations have recovered wonderfully in certain areas, the population as a whole has not. Goliath’s are slow growing fish that are extremely susceptible to overfishing. Photos that humanize the fish and bring a living, breathing, beautiful animal to people that may not otherwise see them can sometimes turn the tide in a debate like this. While I don’t have any expectation that my photos will be the catalyst, I hope that they can play a part.

After swimming underneath the Fort Jeff, I came upon this giant.

Sometimes your best shots are unplanned. After swimming underneath the Fort Jeff, I came upon this giant, pointed the camera up, and just reacted.

After shooting the goliath’s for a while, we go towards the stearn of the ship. There is a big school of silversides (small baitfish) under the pier. I imagine a shot in my head and dive down. I use my strobes (flash) for the shot. They create an extreme reflection off of the fish and it looks like thousands of small strobes flashing back into my camera. The photos are horrible. I dive down again and turn off the strobes. That looks bad too and I can’t get close enough to the school with the wide angle lens to capture them. I try again, strobes on but placed differently. No dice. After about my 20th dive, I get pretty frustrated. I can’t create the shot I am imagining. I decide to try something new. I turn the strobes to flash at my own ears, behind the camera, to diffuse the light more. I dive down to the seafloor and shoot the school from the bottom up. The school moves closer to me when I’m at the bottom. My strobes fire and I swim to the surface. Finally, I get the shots I was thinking of.

This baitball of silversides was frustrating and, eventually, rewarding to shoot. I was really happy with this shot.

This baitball of silversides was frustrating and, eventually, rewarding to shoot. I was really happy with this shot.

“Hey, how’d the photos turn out?!” Curtis Hall, Park Ranger at DRTO, asks me. “You have some time right now? I can show you!” I say. He invites me up to his place. It is a beautiful apartment inside of the fort that is marked by a giant arch over the living room/kitchen. As we go through the photos, Curtis seems pretty happy with my work. “It’s a learning process for me. It’s all still really new and it’s a lot of guess work, but I’m pretty happy with some of these,” I tell him. As we get talking about my internship, he asks me what I’d like to do after I graduate. I tell him I’d like to work in media and/or scientific diving. I express my concern to him about the former, “I don’t know that I could make any money in media.” He replies, “With these photos, I think you could!” Hearing that sort of encouragement from an NPS employee was pretty special and gave me a little bit of validation to the thought that I am progressing behind the camera. I may be far from becoming an expert, but at least I’m better than I was last week, and that is exciting for me.

Knowing that the park valued my photos and could use them made me feel pretty fantastic.

Knowing that the park valued my photos and could use them made me feel pretty fantastic.

“Day 5 of the hostage crisis.” Today is different. We are diving a site called “LH-4,” meaning it is near Loggerhead Key- a small sand island near the Fort Jefferson that is home to a large lighthouse, many nesting turtles, and not much else. LH-4 is special because there is a photogrammetry site there. Jeff asks me to bring my camera on the boat today. “You know, you don’t have to twist my arm about it Jeff,” I respond jokingly.

Jeff and Rob brief me on the photogrammetry project. There is a rectangular plot we will set up underwater. Then, in a lawnmower-like fashion, we will swim up and down the plot, taking as many overlapping photos as possible from both birds-eye and side profile views. Once we have the images, they will go into a software program that will stitch them together and build a 3D model of the reef. Rebuilding the model each time they visit the site and comparing it with previous models will enable SFCN determine the health and growth of the reef over time.

Rob photographing the photogrammetry site.

Rob photographing the photogrammetry site.

I start the lawnmower up and about 600 photos later, I’ve completely covered the reef. Since I completed my task, I start taking photos of corals and everyone else working. Once we get topside, Jeff states, “that was a tough dive for me, I was really having a hard time with my buoyancy down there.” He then jokingly gleams at me, “you need to delete those photos of me, I looked like crap down there!”

I'm a man of my word Jeff! Here's a different shot of J Mills- the man, the myth, the legend.

I’m a man of my word Jeff! Here’s a different shot of J Mills- the man, the myth, the legend.

We return to the Fort Jeff, put away our gear, and none other than Mikey Kent strolls through the main cabin, “ anyone trying to float tonight?” It took me a second to realize what he was saying. “Are you sailing tonight?” I ask. “It’s Dry Tortugas National Park man! Of course we are going sailing!” Mikey responds.

Mikey, Ben, and I head out to Mikey’s small catamaran that he brought over on the Fort Jeff from Key West. “You learn the basics of sailing and then it’s kind of like, you see whatever makes the boat move and go with that,” Mikey tells me. We push off and head away from the island. The wind is calm and it is nearing sunset. The boat is so light that even the slightest bit of wind gets the boat moving pretty quickly. We cruise over the shallow waters upshore of the Fort Jefferson and see nurse sharks chasing each other (it is mating season!). “Time to get into sunset position boys,” Mikey states as he maneuvers the rudder with his foot. We sail around the fort while Mikey tells us about the time he sailed to Cuba from Key West in this boat. “I was trying to grow out a mustache for Cuba for 5 weeks. My mom called me home and I had to shave it. Momma’s house, momma’s rules…5 weeks though! It killed me!” Mikey’s story soundtracks a beautiful sunset. Pinks and oranges light up the water and sky just beyond the brick walls of the fort. “I messed up! I should have brought my camera, it’s calm enough that it would have been safe on deck in a dry bag,” I tell Mikey and Ben. “You didn’t mess up man, you’re on a sailboat!” Mikey states. I agree and remember a quote from one of my favorite photographers, “some of my best photos are the ones I never took with a camera.”

I may not have got the shot from the sailboat, but sunsets at Dry Tortugas can be pretty special.

I may not have got the shot from the sailboat, but sunsets at Dry Tortugas can be pretty special.

“Day 6 of the hostage crisis,” Mike states in his morning brief. Today I’m switching boats with Kelly. My new dive buddy is Andy Davis, a Brazilian with the faintest accent I’ve ever heard an English-speaking Brazilian have. Mike and Lee are also on my new boat, the “mini v,” which is the smaller of the two SFCN boats.“We have strong knees and shoulders on the mini v,” Mike warns. It’s a 19-foot catamaran and much less spacious and stable than the boat I was on for the first five days. “Have fun trying to get ready on that little boat with all those big guys!” Kelly teases me.

After spending quite a bit of time topside on the mini v, I find that it is a little slower and a lot wetter than the big boat. While I am on the surface, so is Andy. It’s the first time I’ve spoken with him at length. He has lived in the US Virgin Islands or Florida for the past 10 years or so, but still has a strong connection back home in Brazil. His sense of humor is subtle, and he should pride himself on his carefully crafted one-liners.

Resting my knees and shoulders on the "mini v." Photo credit: Andy Davis.

Resting my knees and shoulders on the “mini v.” Photo credit: Andy Davis.

It takes one dive for Andy and I to get dialed in to how each work underwater. Things run smoothly and we are finding pins really quickly. We also begin downloading information underwater from “hobos”- a device that stays submerged at a survey site permanently and measures water temperature over many years.

Andy measures rugosity- a measure of how complex the reef structure is.

Andy measures rugosity- a measure of how complex the reef structure is.

After I cook a stir-fry dinner for the SFCN team, I go with Kelly to a potluck hosted by the DRTO staff and interns. It’s at a picnic table situated in front of a large opening in the fort’s second story looking over the sunset. I meet 4 humans, 2 birds, and 1 dog. The humans are Megan, Tracey, and Yung, three of the interns at DRTO, and Kayla, a DRTO biologist. “This bird is awesome, and this one will bite your face off,” Kayla warns me as she dawns a parrot on her shoulder and one on her fingers. As Kayla intermittently flips the bird on her fingers upside down, I ask Tracey where he’s from. He tells me rural Pennsylvania, “we had days off of school for the beginning of deer season.” We laugh and try to guess what Mikey is saying as we see his boat flying on the water in front of a gorgeous sunset. I look towards the fort’s lighthouse and see incredible colors on the horizon. “Thank you guys for having me and I’d love to stay longer, but I need to go shoot the lighthouse!” I run out of the potluck through the archways of the fort, grab my camera, run up the spiral staircase, and then down the sandy path the lines the roof of the fort. The colors are fading fast. I mostly missed it. I’m kicking myself for not getting there earlier.

Wandering through the arches within the walls of Fort Jefferson.

Wandering through the arches within the walls of Fort Jefferson.

I’ve been weathering strong winds for four straight nights on top of the fort trying to get the perfect shot of the lighthouse. There are incredible lightning storms that form every night on the horizon behind the lighthouse. They are so far in the distance and happen at such irregular intervals that I haven’t been able to capture that moment yet. The lighthouse is my Moby Dick at the fort so far. It’s the most obvious thing to shoot, and perhaps the easiest, which makes it the hardest thing to make interesting.

“Day 7 of the hostage crisis.” The crew is noticeably more tired at this point in the trip. Spirits are still high, but the mood is slightly heavier. I step outside the Fort Jeff to start getting my gear ready. It’s pouring rain. Mike and Rob are outside as well getting their rebreather gear together while having a spirited debate about diving operations. I decide to go back into the ship as Lee is looking outside. “They’re like two parents sometimes, they’ll be laughing about this in 10 minutes,” he says.

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, Rob and Mike come in with smiles on their face. “We’re going to try to do a shorter day today,” Mike tells the SFCN crew. “…And, it’s grill night! I’m grilling fish, steaks, chicken, portabello mushrooms, vegetables, corn, you name it, I’m grilling it!” Rob announces. Though this is welcome news to the crew, though the reaction is a little muffled by the lethargy in the room.

I didn't write about it, but this jelly was incredibly hard to photograph for me. I took about 30 photos before it ascended further than I wanted to go. This was the only useable shot.

I didn’t write about it, but this jelly was incredibly hard to photograph for me. I was so excited to see one and took about 30 photos before it ascended further than I wanted to go. This was the only useable shot.

The mini v takes off for a shorter, but challenging diving day. We dive a site that hasn’t been visited in many years. Some of the survey pins are missing and it takes a lot longer to do out work. But as Andy and I reach our safety stop, we see a silky shark.

Andy hammers in new survey pins to replace the missing ones.

Andy hammers in new survey pins to replace the missing ones.

Two hours later, Mike and Lee ascend from their dive absolutely elated. “That was incredible,” Mike starts telling us. “I heard you screaming at me through your rebreather and I couldn’t figure out what you wanted! And then I saw it, a manta doing summersaults only a meter away from us!” Lee continues. “Did you get the shot?! I saw you with the iPad” Mike asks. “I tried, but it asked me for the password to sign in and I didn’t want to mess with it, so I just enjoyed the experience,” Lee says. We all let out a collective sigh, but are really excited. As Mike sums it up, “it’s one of those ocean moments you’ll never forget.” However, as it always is with the SFCN team, Lee doesn’t get off the hook so easily. Once the rest of the team hears the story, it becomes a running joke. “I saw a [insert animal name here]! Shaun, you should totally put that in your blog! Oh…except Lee didn’t get a picture of it…”

Since I don't have a photo of a manta to put here, I'll just put a picture of Lee!

Since I don’t have a photo of a manta to put here, I’ll just put a picture of Lee!

We return to the Fort Jeff and are greeted by Chef Rob. He’s laid out quite the feast to grill. While he’s grilling, Mike and Mikey take off for a sail. As team lead, Mike takes the brunt of the work for SFCN, so the crew is really supportive of him going out and having some fun. Everyone digs into the mahi mahi and mashed potatoes to the sound of 1970’s era pop music- Steely Dan, America, and Carroll King. Smiles and laughter fill the room when Jeff loudly states, “can’t have potatoes without BBQ sauce!” All the while, Lee is doing his best Rob impression by saying Rob’s favorite exclamation, “whoa!”

J Mills, Mikey, and Benjammin' hang out after Chef Rob's feast.

J Mills, Mikey, and Ben Jammin’ hang out after Chef Rob’s feast.

As the sun goes down, we all talk about how happy Mike is going to be when he gets back from sailing. Not only is he sailing rather than working, but he’s with Mikey. You’d have to be in a pretty sour mood to not have fun with Mikey.

About 10 minutes later, a soaking wet Mike Feeley comes into the Fort Jeff, grinning from ear to ear. “We were flying out there, a lot of good runs!” Mike recalls. “Man, we almost lost me! I was holding onto the rudder while my body was skipping like a pebble and DMF (Mikey’s name for Mike) uses some big man strength and pulls me on board! It was awesome!” Mikey says as we all crack up at the story. Mike and Mikey dig in to the food as well and we all enjoy a wonderful night together.

The grounds of Fort Jefferson used to bustling with 400 some soldiers and held many more buildings that have since fallen or burned down.

The grounds of Fort Jefferson used to bustling with 400 some soldiers and held many more buildings that have since fallen or burned down.

Some incredible diving and Mike’s sailing adventure breathe new life into the crew. After two more days of coral surveys, we have finished everything that SFCN set out to do. On this morning, Mike tells us “the goal is to be back by about 2:30, so we can pack up and help load the back deck.” We are going to Tortugas Bank, a reef just past the park boundary that starts in 90 feet of water and goes down to 130 feet. Mikey Kent yells out as we start loading the boat, “what are we doing today boys? Banging tanks and blowing bubbles?!”

Ben doing a backflip in front of Loggerhead Key.

Ben doing a backflip in front of Loggerhead Key.

Jeff, Ben, Mike, and Andy drop in first. Rob is at the helm while we live boat from the surface. “Dolphins!” someone shouts. “I really wish someone had a nice camera so we could capture this magical moment at sea,” Rob says as he looks at me sarcastically. As I am scrambling to get my snorkel gear on and camera ready, the pod leaves as quickly as they came. A similar moment happened earlier in the trip when Elissa and I saw a sailfish that came right up to the boat. It hung around for no more than 2 seconds. Earlier in the trip I would have been pretty hard on myself for not getting the shot, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t get every photo and am (mostly) at peace with that.

The reefs around Dry Tortugas can be covered in macroalgae or be partially diseased. This was a nice patch to find!

The reefs around Dry Tortugas can be covered in macroalgae or be partially diseased. This was a nice patch to find!

The divers surface and Jeff says “the structure is beautiful, but that was a pristine reef 20 years ago and very little of it is left.” Since the reef wasn’t as Jeff remembered it and the visibility wasn’t as good as we were hoping for, we decide to do our second dive at a survey site that Andy and I dove on. The structure around the site looked really cool but we didn’t have time to explore it before. Once we arrive, I buddy up with Lee.

Lee having some fun during a safety stop.

Lee having some fun during a safety stop.

We descend onto swim-through arches and caves all around us. Visibility isn’t excellent, but the topography and fish are amazing. I find myself scrambling on dives like this to get the photos I want while keeping up with the other divers. I feel like I am winging it with the photos in order to not hold up the group, but I really don’t have the time I need to set up the shots. That being said, I don’t let it stop me from enjoying the dive.

Lee explores the caves of our dive site.

Lee explores the caves of our dive site in his dive tights.

Our next stop is Loggerhead Key. It’s a bigger island than Garden Key, where the fort is, and is home to a big historic lighthouse. “Wow, we haven’t had visibility like this all week!” Mike says as we get to dock. I dry the big glass dome that holds my camera lens to try my hand at the ever-famous “over-under” shot, where half the photo is underwater and half is above water. I walk in the ocean from the beach carefully, remembering the warning Chris Milbern (2016 OWUSS Rolex Scholar) gave me, “if your dome is wet, your over-unders will be covered in water droplets.”

Trying my hand at an over-under at Loggerhead Key.

Trying my hand at an over-under at Loggerhead Key.

After a few over-unders, I go below the pier to take some photos of the schools of fish there and then hop out. Mike told us we had enough time to walk the island end to end, so I decide to do exactly that. I start at the lighthouse, take some photos, and then walk up the beach. “Loggerhead Key is the best thing this park has to offer on land.” Mikey has been saying this since we got to DRTO. As amazing as the fort is, Loggerhead is truly special. It’s exactly what you imagine when you imagine paradise- a small sand island with a few coconut trees and skirted by bright blue, crystal clear water.

As I walk around the island, I notice two other things. The first is the amount of turtle nests. The DRTO natural resource team marks current nests on the island and there are hundreds. The second is the amount of trash washed up on the beach. Loggerhead key isn’t close to anything. It may not be as remote as some islands in the pacific or near the poles, but you certainly aren’t going to get on your kayak and paddle over there on a Sunday afternoon. Most of the trash is plastic, which looks exactly like the jellyfish that many turtles eat. The juxtaposition of the plastic near the turtle nests was heart breaking. I put as much trash in my bag as I could going back to the boat.

Trash washes ashore at Loggerhead Key. Pesticide like Raid and plastic are incredibly harmful to turtles and other marine life that surrounds the island.

Trash washes ashore at Loggerhead Key. Pesticide like Raid and plastic are incredibly harmful to turtles and other marine life that surrounds the island.

Back on the boat, Lee, Ben, and I revel in the 1990’s music channel on our boat’s satellite radio. We sing along to 90’s classics while the rest of the team comes back to the boat. “I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend!” we sing along to Third Eye Blind’s hit as we go back to the fort.

Soon after, dinnertime rolls around on the boat. “Whoa! Mustache! You know what? I am going to join you, I like this idea,” Lee states after seeing my newly-shaved mustache. “Last night on the boat is a special occasion that calls for some facial hair festivities,” I tell him. We all begin recalling funny jokes from the trip and bring up memories. Before I go to bed, Mikey tells me, “you have to leave that mustache for when you go to St. Croix!”

It’s 9 PM in Miami’s Wynnwood art’s district. The walls are covered in street art, traffic moves slowly while cars stop to talk to friends on the street, and loud music plays from every corner. “You know, they were never worried about you once,” Kelly tells me. “Plus, they gave you a nickname. I think they liked you,” she continues. Mike started saying my name in a peculiar (and hilarious) way early in the week. It was like he was lifting really heavy weight that he needed my help with before he got crushed. It caught on, and the whole crew began saying my name like that. “It’s from a movie, about some guys from the IRA I think,” Mike told me.

The SFCN crew really made me feel like part of their team. They didn’t lower their expectations for me or constantly check in to make sure I was doing ok. They just expected I would carry my weight from day one like everyone else. They teased me just as they did everyone. Maybe it was because I spent so much time with them in close quarters, but I really bonded with this group of people. I had stumbled at Biscayne- struggling a bit with new gear and a fast-paced schedule. At DRTO, I felt like I hit my stride. I was a little sad to leave, but I knew I was going to work with SFCN again in two weeks on St. John.

The next morning, Kelly graciously took me to the airport after housing me for the night. We said our goodbyes, or “see you in two weeks,” and I left for the next adventure- St. Croix.

SFCN and the crew of the Fort Jeff. Front (L-R): Andy Davis, Me. Back (L-R): Kelly O'Connell, Brian LaVerne, Lee Richter, Rob Waara, Mikey Kent, Benjamin D'Avanzo, Mike Feeley, Jeff Miller, and Captain Tim.

SFCN and the crew of the Fort Jeff. Front (L-R): Andy Davis, Me with a mustache. Back (L-R): Kelly O’Connell, Brian LaVerne, Lee Richter, Rob Waara, Mikey Kent, Benjamin D’Avanzo, Mike Feeley, Jeff Miller, and Captain Tim.


Biscayne National Park: Bumps in the Road

“Oh, hey!! Hi Shaun! Where are you?! Carousel 26? Ok, I’m at 23.” I try to interject, “I could meet you-” Jeneva Wright of the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) continues, “I’ll see you in a minute, running towards you now!” I’ve never met Jeneva, but I soon see a brunette woman with black-framed glasses, briskly jogging with a rolling bag. She’s going up the stream of a roaring river of weary travelers. She’s on the phone with someone else, “Tell them we’ll be there in 30 seconds! Tell them you’ll move if we aren’t there!” That must be Jeneva- she gives me a subtle head nod and now I’m joining her in the brisk upstream jogging.

We hop in a red SUV with a Louisiana license plate. The windows are rolled down. The South Florida humidity is in full effect, but since the sun is down it’s pretty comfortable. Jeneva starts chatting with the driver and introduces me. Enter Arlice Marionneaux, Biscayne National Park Intern. She is a tall and lean free spirit who is finishing up her Master’s degree at the University of West Florida. The three of us chat for a while getting to know one another as Arlice graciously drives us to the Submerged Resources Center house through a lightning storm.

The SRC house is a fairly spacious 2 bedroom mid-century house that the SRC team has rented out for their time at Biscayne. It is about 10PM, which is the unspoken bedtime for the house. The SRC team is excited to see us, but a bit groggy. Matt Hanks, a self described “closet ginger” (he has freckles and a red beard) and dirt bike aficionado, is the first to make conversation with me. Matt is my roommate in the house. Just like me, he is from California, loves salty popcorn, and is an expert in using an underwater magnetometer. Ok, I’m joking on that last point (he is an expert, but I have no experience with one). Matt and I stay up for a while longer hanging out in our room. I’m not sure if he was humoring me and my excitement or he actually wanted to stay up, but I appreciated it either way.

6:30 AM, time to wake up. 6:30 generally seems early to me, but today it feels particularly early since I woke up at 2:30 AM PST to catch my flight yesterday. “I emptied the bucket this morning, so we should be good for the day,” Matt says. Air conditioning is a way of life in South Florida and ours leaks slowly into the house.

“I got the saddest but most adorable note from Juan (the property’s handyman). It said ‘I’ve been working hard to come over and fix the ac, but my gout has been flaring up, I have been having trouble with my arthritis, my dentures broke, but I should be over soon to fix it. Trying, Juan,’” Jeneva tells us.

Jeneva then lays out the decision I have to make for the day: I could stay on-shore and take a tour of the facilities with some of the Biscayne staff and get settled into the house or I could go on the boat with the SRC staff towing the magnetometer looking for potential shipwreck pieces on the seafloor. Easy choice.

Me trying to get the shot and stay out of the sun! Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Me trying to get the shot and stay out of the sun! The buff on my face also doubles as mosquito protection. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Matt and the SRC team give me some food for breakfast and lunch, I pack my things and prep for a day on the boat. While Jeneva is briefing the SEAC team (Southeast Archeological Center, more on them later) and the SRC team, I realize that I’ve never met anyone that embodies “bright eyed and bushy tailed” more than Jeneva. As project lead, her positivity and open communication keep her team pushing hard. She assigns me to be on the Cal Cummings (SRC’s flagship) with Matt and Susanna Pershern. I am quietly elated. I haven’t gotten to talk to Susanna much, but I am eager to get to know her. She is a photographer and as someone that hopes to focus the internship on imaging, I saw her as a potential mentor and friend.

Josh Marano, Archaeologist at Biscayne National Park, with a magnetometer on the Cal Cummings.

Josh Marano, Archaeologist at Biscayne National Park, with a magnetometer on the Cal Cummings. Photo credit: Jeneva Wright, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

We fire up the “behemoth” SRC truck (a 3.5 ton extended cab dueley) and arrive at Biscayne National Park. The name “behemoth” was given to the truck by SRC team member, Bert Ho. Bert is from Tenessee, works on the water but hates beaches, and half-jokingly ends most of his sentences with “no one listened, but you all will soon realize that Bert is always right. Hey Shaun, put that in your blog!” (you made it Bert!) He is a quirky, but brilliant guy that can find solutions where others see problems.

Once at Biscayne, the mosquitos give us their morning blessings as we load the boat and I get a quick tour of the facility. Soon enough, we are under way, navigating through the mangrove-laced keys. When we arrived at the clear, coral-ridden waters of the southeast portion of the park, Matt starts the survey.

Boaters beware! Going outside these buoys that mark the channels between Biscayne Bay and the rest of the park could result in your boat becoming a nice hat for a coral reef.

Boaters beware! Going outside these buoys that mark the channels between Biscayne Bay and the rest of the park could result in your boat becoming a nice hat for a coral reef.

The survey involves towing the magnetometer behind the boat and then driving the boat at an idle speed in a very long zipper pattern. The magnetometer looks like a torpedo and senses electromagnetic fields that metal pieces have on the seafloor. It sounds easy enough, but keeping the boat in a straight line laid out by a GPS system can be a challenge- especially if you are in conversation. “I can’t drive if I’m talking, I’ll get off the survey line, never fails, “ Susanna tells me.

While Matt is driving the survey line, he tells me the story of the Guerrero and the Nimble, the ships that the SRC team is looking for at Biscayne National Park. The Guerrero was a Spanish pirate slave ship that forcibly took people from Africa and likely pillaged human cargo from other slave ships leaving Africa. The ship then set sail for Cuba. As it was passing through the Florida Straits, it was spotted by the British navy ship Nimble. The Nimble was looking for slave ships, since the slave trade was outlawed in both Britain and the US (though slavery was still legal in the US). As the Nimble fired warning shots ordering the Guerrero to stop for inspection, the Guerrero fired back. After a long cannon-filled fight, the Guerrero put up a latern in the middle of the night (signaling surrender), knowing that the British navy would honor maritime law. The Nimble ceased firing that night and the Guerrero ran, beginning a five-hour chase in poor weather. The Nimble was built for speed, and caught up to the Guerrero. The Guerrero was reckless in trying to escape and hit a reef at full speed. The collision tore the hull in half and toppled the masts. 41 of the 561 Africans on board drowned. The Nimble tried to slow itself, but ultimately ran aground onto a reef as well. The Africans that survived were either sold as slaves in Cuba or held in poor conditions in Key West, Florida until they were eventually shipped to Liberia years later (which was not their home country).

We are trying to locate these shipwrecks using the magnetometer to find metal pieces that may have been left behind. When the magnetometer gets a reading of metal on the seafloor (called an anomaly), we log a GPS point so that a dive team can investigate it. Throughout the day I get to know Matt better and get a chance to connect with Susanna. Susanna oozes artist. She can be reserved, but is overwhelmingly emotionally intelligent and caring. She practices her (minimal) French all day in hopes of learning it and warns me, “never bring a banana on the boat.” We also enjoy a laugh over her favorite internet music video spoof for the sparking water brand La Croix.

Susanna Pershern never goes anywhere without a La Croix sparkling water.

Susanna Pershern never goes anywhere without a La Croix sparkling water.

We arrive at the park to be greeted by a Biscayne intern named Andie Dowell, a bubbly Californian has her heart set on getting a PhD and eating strawberry ice cream. SEAC, SRC, Andie, and I load the boats for a day of anomaly jumping.

“Anomaly jumping,” as the SRC team calls it, is a blitzkrieg operation. Everything and everyone is constantly in motion. The captain yells out distances to the anomaly “100! 80! 60…” and is echoed the crew. Buoys are dropping, divers/snorkelers are jumping in, and we go onto the next anomaly before divers are pulled from the water. We spend no more than 20 minutes at any anomaly site. Most anomalies are junk metal, metal rods marking old biological survey sites, or derelict lobster traps. Perhaps the liveliest person on board of a lively boat is Jessica (Jess) Keller of the SRC team. Jess is a sparkplug of a woman and has the best sunglasses tan of anyone I know. She and I jump together quite a bit throughout the day.

Rachel Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network team member, throwing a buoy to mark an anomaly.

Rachael Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network team member, throwing a buoy to mark an anomaly.

I also jump with Eric Bezemek from SEAC. Eric is a tall and comical Midwesterner who loves the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. We develop team chemistry early on and have our hearts set on finding a cannonball and dub our team name “The Cannonballers.” We didn’t end up finding a cannonball, but we did find an outrageous number of derelict traps, to which we’d come to the surface and exclaim in our best Admiral Akbar voice, “it’s a trap!”

Sometimes I try to lighten the mood with a little algae crown. Ironically the algae I'm wearing is in the same genus of the most invasive algae we have in California. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Sometimes I try to lighten the mood with a little algae crown. Ironically the algae I’m wearing is in the same genus of the most invasive algae we have in California. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

At the end of the day, we completed 31 anomalies (1 shy of the SRC record). When we pull in to the dock, there were a bunch of lionfish remains in the water. “Looks like they went out for lionfish, fish tacos tonight! You’ll be doing that soon enough,” Eric tells me.

Eric Bezemek looks closely at the GPS to find the anomaly buoy drop point.

Eric Bezemek looks closely at the GPS to find the anomaly buoy drop point.

The sun goes down and our doorbell is ringing every 10 minutes or so. Matt caught some fish earlier in the month that he is grilling up and team SEAC and a few Biscayne folks are joining in the festivities. Charlie Sproul from SEAC, a hospitable southerner with a proper drawl and a strange fear of visiting Australia, talks about what he brought to dinner. “My wife makes the best cheesey grits. That’s grits with sharp cheddar you know. Grits with gouda is grits with gouda, not cheesey grits, very different things.”

I get a call a few minutes into the lively discussion on sweet tea- it’s Claire Mullaney, the REEF intern of Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society ®. “Hi Shaun! I’m here, but I don’t know which house is yours!” REEF is based about 40 minutes south of Biscayne and we’d been speaking about meeting during the summer since the OWUSS banquet in New York City this past April. I find Claire and introduce her to the group. She already knows Jess- they met at an Indiana University alumni event.

With sizzling fish on the grill outside, everyone inside recognizes that Andie and I (the Californians) know the least about Southern culture. Charlie decides to start with the basics. “Sweet tea is sweet tea, ain’t nothing like it. There’s unsweetened tea with sugar and then there’s sweet tea, and they don’t even taste remotely the same.”

It’s 6:00 AM and the entire SRC house is (mostly) awake. No one is complaining but I know no one wanted to wake up this early. I am apologizing profusely because I’m diving with the Biscayne NPS dive team today and they start earlier than the SRC team. With a turn of the key, the behemoth is on the road. “Wait, I don’t have my phone,” I realize. Most days, it wouldn’t matter, but I’m not with SRC today and they may need to contact me. “No problem, we’ll go back,” Jeneva states. My mistake puts the team behind 15 minutes and makes me late to my first day with the Biscayne dive team. When you have to jump over 1,000 anomalies, every minute counts. Plus, how could I forget something so rudimentary to all millennials? This is not the impression I wanted to make on the SRC or the Biscayne team.

Shelby Moneysmith not only has the coolest name in the National Park Service, but is one of the coolest people you will ever meet.

Shelby Moneysmith not only has the coolest name in the National Park Service, but is one of the coolest people you will ever meet.

The first person to greet me at the dock is Shelby Moneysmith- a blonde, salty, and charismatic woman who is beloved by everyone that has every worked with her. Shelby, Mike (Biscayne NPS diver), and Vanessa (the head of Natural Resources at Biscayne) brief Elissa (a volunteer to remember for a future blog!) and myself on the day’s operations. Elissa and I are assigned to lionfish removal, which means using a short Hawai’ian sling to spear lionfish in the park.

Shelby Moneysmith recording data during a coral survey.

Shelby Moneysmith recording data during a coral survey.

The first 3 dives are fairly shallow and we don’t see any lionfish. That being said, the fauna is amazing and the coral is the healthiest I’ve seen in the park. I see lobsters, moray eels, octopus, and a nassau grouper (a rare find in the park!). The fourth dive we went deeper and all of us were going for lionfish. Vanessa and Mike go first. They shoot 21 lionfish. So naturally, Shelby, Elissa, and I are dead set on getting at least 22.

Once you shoot a lionfish, you, you have to be careful of its venomous spines. Game bags are lined with PVC pipe to help the hunter slide the fish into the bag without accidentally touching the spines.

Once you shoot a lionfish, you, you have to be careful of its venomous spines. Game bags are lined with PVC pipe to help the hunter slide the fish into the bag without accidentally touching the spines.

We descend on a small coral colony covered in lionfish. I have never speared lionfish before or had any success with a Hawai’ian sling. Vanessa warned me that the smaller fish are much harder to spear and Shelby admittedly doubted whether I’d be able to get the hang of the sling. However, my confidence builds quickly when my second fish is only 9 centimeters long. After a quick 11 lionfish rampage, we don’t find many others. We chalk it up to Vanessa and Mike stealing them all. Either way, we left the ecosystem in a better state than we found it and it was a win all around.

Filling cylinders with Jess Keller. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Filling cylinders with Jess Keller. Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

“So, exciting day…” Jeneva says, foreshadowing big news during our daily debrief. Before she can continue, Jess exclaims, “it was awesome! Last jump of the day after a whole lot of nothing, we found a shipwreck!” Jeneva interjected and clarified, “There is no way that we can say it is the Guerrero, but it is certainly historic.”

The one day I’m not with the SRC team, they find something! I am pretty disappointed that I didn’t get to partake in the finding and the post-finding elation, but I am happy for the team. This is why they are here and historic findings provide a boost of motivation and breathe new life into them.

Perfect front roll technique- hand over the mask! Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

Perfect front roll technique- hand over the mask! Photo credit: Susanna Pershern, Submerged Resources Center, National Park Service.

It’s the morning time. Jeneva has her coffee, Susanna is packing away her daily La Croix, and I’m eating a big bowl of oatmeal. Claire is over to get briefed before heading out with us today to jump anomalies. Matt is particularly giddy this morning because it would be the first in-water day for him since the start of the project. That giddiness carries into the field. “That was definitely a bellyflop!” Matt says. He and I have some fun practicing useless but fun (and still safe, mom) water entries, such as the front roll, while finding anomalies.

Matt Hanks goes in for the bellyflop.

Matt Hanks goes in for the bellyflop.

In the evening, Jeneva and I go to the screening of the documentary about the Guerrero at park headquarters. The screening is an in-house NPS community event. It provides a chance for park employees that aren’t working on the project to see what it is all about and ask questions. The screening is held in the visitor center, which is lined with incredible historic artifacts retrieved from shipwrecks in the park. The under-the-sea themed building smelled like pizza and Mediterranean couscous while laughter and hardy conversations filled the room all night.

Once we get home, Jeneva starts working on her computer. The entire SRC team works extremely hard and no one outworks Jeneva. “You guys, I’m dying. I have so much work to do, can I please have a little colada?” Jeneva asks Jess. Jeneva has an addiction to coladas, a tiny Cuban sugary expresso shot that apparently have the same effect as 10 Red Bulls. Jeneva has been known to go overboard with the coladas, so the SRC team has a half-jokingly (but half-not-jokingly) banned Jeneva from coladas. “Well…” it seems she has caught Jess in a moment of weakness when Matt interrupts, “absolutely not! Jess, you aren’t going to give her any!” he says with a smile on his face. Then Jess plays bad cop, “No Jeneva, the coladas are staying in the fridge.” “Really?! Please! You guys, please!” Jeneva says with the smallest tear in her eye. “Oh look at her, we have to give her one- but just one!” Matt and Jess eventually agree.

Ahhh, this morning is an off day. That means I can finally catch up on my computer work. “I would go diving off of Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary if I were you, we are all going to be couch potatoes today,” Jeneva tells me.

A few calls later and Claire picks me up. So much for my computer work! We are off to dive a wreck and a beautiful coral reef…except traffic had other plans for us. Red brake lights line highway 1. The normal 30 minute drive to Key Largo takes about 2 hours with the incoming Fourth of July traffic. Luckily the shop was more than happy to put us on a later dive, though it meant forgoing the wreck dive.

A school of goatfish cruises by me on a dive in the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary of the Florida Keys.

A school of goatfish cruises by me on a dive in the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary of the Florida Keys.

In the water, Claire and I opt to stay away from the herds of divers on the reef. She preforms fish surveys for REEF while I try my hand at underwater photography. Susanna was kind enough to give me some tips on shooting in the clear and warm waters of South Florida before I left the house. “Expose for the water first, get it to be the deep blue that you want,” she told me. Patches of brilliant and healthy coral, schools of brightly colored tropical fish, and some megafauna as well (shark and a turtle!) act as my subjects. The camera is giant, cumbersome, and a little heavy. It is a more advanced system than I have ever used, topside or underwater. I felt like a baby using silverware for the first time when I used it in a pool in Colorado. In the ocean, it feels much more natural and easier to handle.

After a wonderful ocean-side dinner, I say my final goodbye to Claire and we wish each other well until we meet again at the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society annual banquet in New York City next spring.

6:30 AM arrives and I awake to the sound of my vibraphone alarm tone on my phone. Another day of anomaly jumping and the prospect of finding something. I begin packing my dive gear and realize I don’t know where my secondary computer is. In the chaos of trying to find it, I forget my lunch and water at the house and only realize it once we get to the park. “No big deal. It’s a self-punishing mistake really,” Susanna says. Luckily, Andie was gracious enough to jump over to her house and grab some extra food and water for me. I beat myself up over this mistake though. This is my second mistake with the SRC team. I want to prove that I am field ready, that I have the capacity to contribute and be a team member. How am I going to do that when I can’t even remember water for the day? It seems like I’m proving to be pretty unprepared as much as the team tells me otherwise.

“Hi Shelby! Can I bring my camera out today?” I ask. “Do it! We’ll make space!” Shelby responds. Today we are doing 3 survey dives and a lionfish dive. We drop into our first dive and I start taking photos of Shelby immediately. Vanessa approaches us and shows us her slate. “Way too rough, quadrat won’t stay put, can’t do a survey here.”

New plan. We head to deeper water to do two lionfish dives. Shelby and I go first this time around and hope to outdo Mike and Vanessa to make up for our earlier blunder. Except, my magic from my first lionfish dive is gone. We drop down on a nice reef full of lionfish. After spearing the first fish I see, I have several frustrating misses. It takes me multiple attempts to get some of the fish throughout the dive. Luckily, Shelby spears many and we come to the surface with 11.

Shelby Moneysmith with a nice lionfish on her spear, helping us to a resounding win for the day over Mike and Vanessa.

Shelby Moneysmith with a nice lionfish on her spear, helping us to a resounding win for the day over Mike and Vanessa.

The next dive, I take my camera down. As soon as we get on the lionfish, I start taking photos. Shelby hunting under ledges, swimming with a lionfish on her spear, bagging lionfish. Any shot I can get, I take. I remember Brett’s words of advice, “I’ve never kicked myself for taking too many photos on a dive.” Every time I jump in the water with the camera, I can feel my comfort level going up exponentially controlling and using the system. I am still at the beginning stages of novice-hood, so every dive teaches me a lot about the camera.

Speared! Shelby swimming a lionfish back to the game bag.

Speared! Shelby swimming a lionfish back to the game bag.

I then hand Shelby the camera after making sure the exposure is properly set so she can get a couple shots of me hunting. We come to the surface with 8 fish this dive. Our 19 best Vanessa and Mike’s 13, and we are pretty happy about it. After weighing the fish back on shore, Mike filets a few. I take some home to the SRC crew and cook lionfish tacos that night for SRC, SEAC, and Arlice making sure to whip up some of the famous Catalina Island fish taco special sauce- a recipe I learned from my old friend Nate Erlandson on the island. Everyone indulges in the catch of the day and eats until they can’t.

"An iPhone is about as fancy as I get with cameras, I have no idea what I'm doing." Well Shelby, your shots turned out pretty well! Photo credit: Shelby Moneysmith, National Park Service.

“An iPhone is about as fancy as I get with cameras, I have no idea what I’m doing.” Well Shelby, your shots turned out pretty well! Photo credit: Shelby Moneysmith, National Park Service.

My time at Biscayne taught me a lot. Biscayne NPS, SEAC, SRC, and all of the interns couldn’t have been more kind and patient with me. They stood by me as I took my lumps, but this first stop was exactly that- taking a lot of lumps. I never felt completely in rhythm at Biscayne. It was an incredible experience and I met some amazing people, but I leave my first stop feeling like I could have done better. Maybe that is what first stops are for. Maybe I needed to work out the kinks. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. A lot of people helped me to get to this point and I feel like I owe it to them, the National Park Service, and to myself, to do better. As I pack my things for my next stop in the Dry Tortugas, I think about how I can improve with a new crew, a new system, and a new location. While I’m proud of what I accomplished at Biscayne, I am looking forward to progressing further between the brick walls of Fort Jefferson at  Dry Tortugas National Park.

Most of the archaeology team from Biscayne. Front (L-R): Rachael Kangas, Claire Mullaney, Jeneva Wright, Jess Keller. Middle (L-R): Susanna Pershern, Me, Charlie Sproul, Matt Hanks. Rear (L-R): Josh Marano, Eric Bezemek. Photo credit: Rachael Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network.

Most of the archaeology team from Biscayne. Front (L-R): Rachael Kangas, Claire Mullaney, Jeneva Wright, Jess Keller. Middle (L-R): Susanna Pershern, Me, Charlie Sproul, Matt Hanks. Rear (L-R): Josh Marano, Eric Bezemek. Photo credit: Rachael Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network.


Finding Family at OWUSS and the National Park Service

Hi all! Let me introduce myself. I am Shaun Wolfe, the 2017 National Park Service Intern for Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®. I am 26 years old, from Los Angeles, California, and have spent the last 10 years on Catalina Island seasonally. Currently, I am a master’s candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. I am focusing on Coastal Marine Resources Management and Strategic Environmental Communication. I have a particular interest in marine conservation and using images to tell stories. In the professional world, I have worked in outdoor recreation, S.C.U.B.A. diving, and aquariums. When I’m not in class, underwater, or behind the camera, I enjoy traveling, playing the drums, and surfing the waves of the California coast.

I would like to preface this first blog with this: most of the photos below were unplanned and taken with an iPhone. Excuse the poor quality, next blog will be different!

It’s 3:00 in the afternoon in sunny Santa Barbara, California. Palm trees shake with the sea breeze on UCSB’s campus as they gaze towards Channel Islands National Park. I am walking down the shadowy stairwells of the Bren School when my creepy, but comical, ghostly ringtone plays. “Dave!!! I’ve been meaning to call you and catch up!” It’s my biggest mentor and one of my best friends, Dave Chan. Dave is an incredibly talented diver, loves Star Wars, and serves as the Director of Marine Science at the Pennington Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. He was the first person to take a chance on me in the underwater world when he hired me as an intern and has taught me much of what I know about diving, animal husbandry, and life in general. “You’ll never guess who I just got off the phone with!” he says as I begin to think who it could be. “Brett Seymour of the National Park Service (NPS)! They are down to you and one other person! I wouldn’t let them off the phone until they were sold on you,” Dave exclaims.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I applied to be the National Park Service Intern with Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® (OWUSS) after some encouragement from Kelly Moore, the Park Dive Officer at Channel Islands National Park. I applied because it was too good of an opportunity to not apply for, but I never thought I would hear back after sending in my application. Soon enough, all of my other references- Jose Bacallao, Sean Hastings, and Allison Horst- each contacted me and said they had been called.

I am trying my best to not get my hopes up. I still have a 50% chance of not getting the internship. That being said, I have already told most of my classmates about the news. Then, in my biogeochemistry lecture, I get the email stating I have been chosen to be the 2017 OWUSS NPS Intern. I can’t help but text the good news to my friends in the lecture hall. As soon as class gets out, I am swarmed by an outpouring of love, support, and congratulations from my classmates and administrators (particularly Dee White).

Two months later, I’m boarding my JetBlue flight to New York City holding a garment bag with a blue suit inside. I have never flown with a suit (or owned one for that matter) in my life, but this trip calls for fancy attire. I am coming to New York for the annual OWUSS banquet. After enjoying a cold sparkling water on board my red-eye flight, I take the A train into Manhattan, grab brunch with an old friend, and prepare for the night ahead.

At 5:45 PM, I meet the 2016 and 2017 OWUSS interns and internships staff in the lobby and we travel as a large herd to the event. When I arrive at the venue, I am greeted by my supervisors and mentors for the summer- Dave Conlin (a marine archaeologist) and Brett Seymour (a photographer and videographer). They are a perfect pair. Dave is the funny uncle who cracks jokes while meandering effortlessly from group to group in the room. Brett is a hip and stylish creative who is passionate, humble, and speaks with purpose. “Pretty awesome isn’t it? You’re part of the family now,” Dave tells me as we look out on the skyline. I spend the rest of the evening getting to know the OWUSS scholars, interns, and staff.

In the morning, I catch a rideshare to the Explorer’s Club with Claire Mullaney, the 2017 OWUSS Dr. Jamie L. King REEF Marine Conservation Intern. Claire is passionate about marine conservation, gets cold if the temperature is below about 85F, and has made it a life goal to make people want to visit the Midwest.

I admittedly didn’t know nearly enough about the Explorer’s Club when I applied to be a member months prior. The club and its members have been at the forefront of exploration around the globe (and solar system) since 1904. It’s headquarters are in a brownstone building in Manhattan and hold secrets and treasures from decades of exploration. I was in awe of the artifacts in the building- original blood-stained expedition maps from the first polar and eastern expeditions, game trophies from early western safaris to Africa, and Robert Peary’s sled he took on his first expedition to the North Pole. Walking the halls of the club is a humbling experience. Seeing photos of other members such as Teddy Roosevelt, Buzz Aldren, and Sir Edmund Hillary is enough to make anyone feel unworthy.

That evening we are treated to a formal dinner at the New York Yacht Club. The Yacht Club is an unbelievable venue. The walls of its ballroom are covered with models of hulls of boats that have partaken in the America’s Cup sailing race. Ornately decorated marble structures and dark wooden railings line the balconies. As I stroll around room, I see some nameplates that immediately pop out to me- David Doubilet, Jennifer Hayes, and Cristina Zenato.

I mention those names to Dave and Brett. “They are all good friends of mine, would you like to meet them?” Dave asks. I was shocked. These are heroes of mine, truly inspirational figures. They are all incredibly humble and I am taken aback by how willing they are to offer their help to me. Though I navigate the conversations fairly well, I have a moment of awe when David Doubilet, my favorite underwater photographer, uses me as an audience to test out his best Irish accent.

I had to ask David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes for a photo after meeting them. This was taken post-Irish accent. So much photography experience in one photo! From L-R: Brett Seymour, Jennifer Hayes, David Doubilet, me.

I had to ask David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes for a photo after meeting them. This was taken post-Irish accent. So much photography experience in one photo! From L-R: Brett Seymour, Jennifer Hayes, David Doubilet, me. Photo credit: Elizabeth Seymour.

Later on I speak to Chris Milbern, the 2016 OWUSS Rolex Scholar. Chris’ story is inspiring to me. He came into his scholarship year with concerns similar to mine, particularly about getting up to speed with a camera underwater. I approach him and ask if he’d be willing to send me some reference materials that he used when he was learning about underwater photography. To that he replies, “Well, you live in Southern California, right? Can you come to Palm Springs?”

“Is that you at the gate? Black car? Ok, just come straight on in, we are the house right at the first bend.” It’s the coolest day of the week at 98F in Palm Springs, California. Chris Milbern and his girlfriend Vera are just moving into their new house in the desert, but still offered to host me for the day. “Every camera system is totally different, but at least this will give idea of what you’re dealing with,” Chris tells me as he shows me the components to his system.

Chris takes me through the entire photographic process, from building an underwater camera rig to setting up the shot you want to making the shot happen. “The biggest thing is that you want it to look natural,” he states. Once Chris and I wrap up, I spend some time bonding with him and Vera. Turns out, Chris and I have more in common than diving. We have a common mentor in Mike Anghera (my original Diving Safety Officer), we lose our keys too frequently, and we both love stickers. I leave Palm Springs with two new friends and thank two of the most unreasonably kind people I’ve ever met.

Before I start visiting National Parks, I make a stop at the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) headquarters in Lakewood, Colorado (just outside of Denver). I land and am greeted by Dave and Brett, each with a rolling waterproof carry on bag in hand. “I love this truck. If you take care of them, they last forever. I think it will be good past 250,000 miles,” Dave tells me as we get into his Toyota Tacoma. On the way to his house, I tell Dave how much I appreciate him and Brett choosing me for the internship. “I haven’t always had people willing to help me and I’ve failed many times, not being able to get a job in the field,” I tell him. “It’s all about passing it forward. That’s why we are here,” Dave replies.

We arrive to Dave’s house, where I will be spending the weekend. It is situated in a quaint neighborhood that backs up to the Flatiron mountains in Boulder, Colorado. Dave and his wife, Michelle, graciously offered to put me up for the weekend at their place. The first person to greet us when we walk in is his dog Luc. Luc is a brown spaniel that loves chasing balls, has gorgeous brown eyes, and has the energy of about 20 dogs. Later that evening, I get to know Michelle. Michelle is a sporty, short haired woman who loves Ben Stiller films and is full of incredible stories. “We were at the US embassy Thailand. He didn’t have any identification on him, but we ended up getting a new passport and going out with the ambassador to a party that night!” she tells me about a guy she used to travel with in her younger days.

I spend most of the weekend at SRC headquarters. It is a sight to behold. The halls are lined with Brett’s photography and an original Mark IV US Navy diving suit greets you when you enter. The SRC diver locker, otherwise known as the “armory,” is filled with enough dive gear to make even the saltiest diver’s jaw drop- everything is top-of-the-line, from photography equipment to closed-circuit rebreathers. The thing that caught my eye more than anything else though, was how every piece of gear is labeled “National Park Service” or has the NPS arrowhead logo on it. The whole place just oozes with cool.

Brett gets to work pretty quickly giving me my gear for the summer. Exposure gear, dive gear, and photography gear. I try my best to keep up with everything he tells me about my new gear while also trying to manage my excitement. I can’t lie though, being handed a wetsuit that says “National Park Service” on it made me feel really cool.

The next day, Brett and I spend some time in a local dive shop pool. He wants to give me a chance to get the camera in the water. I am nervous and using all new equipment. When we get the camera in the water, it was much heavier than I expected and I have trouble keeping my trim (orientation in the water column) and buoyancy consistent. After fidgeting around with the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and strobe power for a while, I get to the point where I am taking acceptable (albeit poor) photos. “That was good. The thing about underwater photography is, it’s simple. If you’re photos are too dark, open up the aperture a little bit,” Brett tells me. That simple advice stuck with me and was really comforting to hear as a novice.

That night, I go out to “Salt,” a hip and delicious restaurant that his home to many bearded men and decorated with distressed wood. Dave, Michelle, and I exchange travel stories and Dave tells me about when he was a ski bum in his 20’s. It is the perfect send off before I would leave for summer. Brett, Dave, and Michelle made me feel at home and brought me into their family.

The last stop I have to make before beginning my summer is to see Kelly Moore at Channel Islands National Park to finish my Blue Card certification (the certification needed to dive with NPS). Kelly is a true California beach gal who grew up on Catalina Island. She greets me that morning with a bright smile and asks, “have you ever seen the landing dock at Anacapa Island? No? Well, it’s the most exciting dive entry you’ll ever have!” Sure enough, I come to find out that the drop of about 10-15 ft between the dock and the water puts the “giant” in giant stride. On our first dive Kelly has me navigate to a giant swim-through arch underwater. It is surreal. I had never been to a swim-through arch before. I swam through it on my back, looking towards the surface, watching my exhaled bubbles climb the walls of the rocky arch.

Kelly Moore hops off the dock at Anacapa. This was originally a video, hence the strange cropping, but it was too big to upload to the blog!

Kelly Moore hops off the dock at Anacapa. This was originally a video, hence the strange cropping, but it was too big to upload to the blog!

After spending some time on the surface to watch a live-broadcast underwater educational segment (part of the Channel Islands Live program), Kelly asks me if I want to do another dive. “Last one off the loading dock is a rotten egg!” I respond. We explore some sea caves on the second dive and visit the memorial site of an NPS diver that passed away underwater in the cove. Near the caves, multiple California sea lions dance with us and buzz our heads, coming as close as just a few inches at times. When we get back to the mainland, I thank Kelly again for encouraging me to apply in the first place. She expresses her excitement for me and the journey ahead, “can you smuggle me in your suitcase?” she says jokingly.

My time with Kelly at Channel Islands reflected my time in Denver, Palm Springs, and New York City. Everyone has been exceedingly willing to help me and give me a chance, for which I am eternally grateful. Dave, Brett, Chris, and the entire OWUSS community have made me feel like part of the family. It is a tight-knit group, much like NPS, and one that I’m honored to be a part of. Seeing the camaraderie within OWUSS makes me all the more excited to begin my journey of exploring the National Parks this summer and joining the NPS family.