OAHU – WWII VALOR IN THE PACIFIC NATIONAL MONUMENT

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When I landed in Honolulu on the night of Friday, August 12, it was great to be greeted by the familiar face of SRC Archaeologist Jessica Keller. As we drove to where we’d be staying, Jess and I had a chance to catch up on how things had been going for the past two months. It was clear that I hadn’t been the only one having fun traveling the country and diving. After working with minority youth in Biscayne National Park to document a shipwreck with the Youth Diving With a Purpose program and a trip up to Grand Teton National Park for her EMT-B refresher course, she arrived in Oahu last week to help Brett out with a documentary filming project on the USS Arizona Memorial. When prompted about how her first dive went on the shipwreck that sparked her interest in marine archaeology, she struggled to find the words to describe the experience. Her response made me that much more eager for the week ahead!

The following day, Brett, Jess, and I headed over to Pearl Harbor to get some underwater filming done, but first we needed tanks. As I am not a federal employee, I couldn’t get on to the joint Navy-Air Fore Base where the park gets their tanks, so they dropped me off at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to wander the museum exhibits and displays.

Outside, missiles, bombs, anti-aircraft artillery, and other artifacts were on display along an interpretative walking tour route that paralleled the harbor. I stopped at the Waterfront Submarine Memorial and walked past the anchor from the USS Arizona on my way to the galleries, Road to War and Attack. Timelines and newspaper clippings pieced together the events that lead up to the Attack on Pearl Harbor, while personal possessions, hand-written letters, and other artifacts brought life to those that were there that day and dioramas, photographs, and audio-visual recordings evoked a series of emotions from those of us not present on December 7, 1941. I am really glad that I got the opportunity to walk through the galleries prior to my time out on the memorial in order to gain a deeper understanding of the significance of the work we would be doing that week.

When Brett and Jess arrived with tanks, we met up with Scott Pawlowski, Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources for the monument, and headed over to the USS Arizona Memorial. As we approached the memorial, the American flag fluttered in the wind. Pieces of the ship were visible protruding from the surface of the water. The modern memorial straddled the mid-deck of the USS Arizona, like a bridge, connecting the past with the present. Its sleek white design gave the memorial an air of serenity while still demanding solemn respect.

The USS Arizona Memorial straddles the mid-deck of the ship.

The USS Arizona Memorial straddles the mid-deck of the ship.

Inside, the entry opened up to the assembly room with a series of seven windows on either side, reminding visitors of the date of the attack, and allowing viewers to look out toward the bow or the stern. A viewing well cut through the floor offering a view of the sunken decks that sit just below the surface. At the far end, a marble wall bore the names of the 1,177 sailors and marines who lost their lives on the USS Arizona during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Leis and flower arrangements lined the floor, placed by visitors and family members to offer their respects for the fallen. With nothing to give, I sat on the floor of the shrine and read off each individual name engraved on the wall as my way of paying tribute to the men who lost their lives that day.

The United States flag flies high over the memorial.

The United States flag flies high over the memorial.

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The shrine room.

Drops of oil, considered the tears of the fallen, continue to trickle out of the vessel and leave a colorful slick on the surface under the memorial.

Drops of oil, considered the tears of the fallen, continue to trickle out of the vessel and leave a colorful slick on the surface under the memorial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the dock, we geared up for our dives. Brett and Jess were going to dive the stern of the ship to film some video clips, while Scott was going to lead me around the ship on an orientation dive. With a full-face mask communications system, Scott was able to talk to me as we swam around the ship’s main deck. Below the surface, the water was murky and the visibility was barely 10 feet. When the ship finally emerged into view, I was filled with a reverent sense of awe at seeing the famous vessel up close and underwater, a perspective few people get to experience.

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Brett follows Jess as they head to the stern of the ship, disappearing into the murky water.

The bow of the USS Arizona

The stern of the USS Arizona

Bowls, light bulbs, Coca-Cola bottles, a shoe, and a cooking pot were scattered across the deck. Once used by those who called this vessel home, they sit there today in the same place they have been sitting for 75 years, now overgrown by algae and coral. We peeked into the open portholes, into the rooms of admirals and first class officers, into the past. I could visualize a sailor in his room – the rotary phone on the desk, the open dresser, the mirrored vanity cabinet above the sink – but a thick layer of sediment covered the floor and a fish swam casually in the cabin.

An old shoe sits untouched on the mid-deck, recalling the past and the crew of the USS Arizona.

An old shoe sits untouched on the mid-deck, recalling the past lives of the crew of the USS Arizona.

Peering down into an open hatch on the top deck, it's easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the hundreds of men who called this ship home.

Peering down into an open hatch, it’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the men who called this ship home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Brett peeks into a porthole, illuminating the former sleeping quarters for one of the crew members.

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Corals and various algae have overgrown the old wiring on the deck.

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In some places the floorboards of the deck are still visible, offering a glimpse into the ship’s former condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t help but notice the remarkable juxtaposition between life and death. Home to a plethora of marine life, the USS Arizona has become a part of the natural ecosystem. Fish swam amongst the corals. A seahorse hung on to a sea cucumber for support. Sponges and feather duster worms lined most metal surfaces.

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Smooth seahorse (Hippocampus kudos) & Lion’s Paw Sea Cucumber (Euapta godeffroyi)

Nudibranch (Hypselodoris infucata)

A Nudibranch (Hypselodoris infucata)

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Juvenile Razorfish

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Unknown Sponge

Feather-duster worm (Sabellastarte sp.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we continued to make our way towards the bow of the ship, the forward guns from turret No. I began to materialize. Staring down the three 60-foot barrels as they disappeared back into the muddy water offered a glimpse of the formidable capability of these powerful machines. Further forward, the deck suddenly dropped out and the steel hull peeled back like a banana. Known as the blast peel, this was where the bomb pierced the battleship within the first few minutes of the surprise Japanese air raid. I couldn’t begin to imagine the devastating power it took to rip apart inches of solid steel like paper, but seeing the chasm in the body of the ship and the scattered shrapnel made the tragic events of December 7 more tangible.

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The blast peel.

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Scott swims through the blast zone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite this, I came up from the dive renewed. I felt honored to have been given the opportunity to dive on such an important piece of American history and I was filled with a sense of excitement for the work week ahead.

Looking up at the viewing well from down below

Looking up at the viewing well from down below

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My first dive on the USS Arizona!

Over the course of the week, I got to be a part of the large-scale collaborative research operation coordinated by Brett and Scott. Collectively, they brought together an extremely qualified international team of engineers and scientists and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment in an effort to learn more about the USS Arizona. With the goal of evaluating the condition of the shipwreck, the operation had several components.

Early in the week, eTrac Inc. came out to the memorial in order to map the exterior of the ship. Specializing in hydrographic surveys, Mike and Greg of eTrac Inc. brought out a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) with onboard multibeam and sidescan sonar systems to do the job. From land, Greg maneuvered the small inflatable catamaran with a remote controlled motor. Watching the live feed of the sonar data appear on his computer, Mike guided Greg as he made his passes over the shipwreck, making sure there were no sections of the vessel left unscanned. After post-processing the data, to account for wave action, wind speed, etc., the generated data will be compared to the data from a previous scan in order to see if there have been any major changes in exterior structure of the wreck. While, no visible structural collapses have occurred, the USS Arizona has a slight tilt to port and any change over the last few years could be calculated by comparing the data sets and would be pertinent to know for maintaining the structure and memorial.

 

Preliminary image following post-processing the sonar data. This gives you a great view of the layout of the ship (bow is bottom left). The light yellow area below the red of the forward guns of the No. I turret is approximately where the bomb impacted the ship, exploded, and brought it down.

Preliminary image following post-processing the sonar data. This gives you a great view of the layout of the ship (bow is bottom left). The light yellow area below the red of the forward guns of the No. I turret is approximately where the bomb impacted the ship, exploded, and brought it down.

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Mike and Greg operate a catamaran that carries the sonar equipment with a remote control while Brett films.

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Mike looks at the data collected from the preliminary pass of the shipwreck. Multiple passes are required for the most accurate data.

Dave Conlin flew into town on Wednesday and brought with him two water quality sondes for some sampling both inside and outside the wreck. With significantly different conditions, such as decreased light levels and reduced water flow, the interior of the ship would be expected to have different water chemistry than the exterior of the ship. From this data, underwater archaeologists like Dave and Jess, could estimate the corrosion rate of the structure as a whole as well as note any differences between the interior and the exterior structures. This data is extremely important for the protection of this historic place and will provide information on how best to preserve it so that future generations can continue to visit and pay their respects.

However, in order to first get the sonde inside the ship, Dave enlisted the assistance of Amanda and Sam from Deep Trekker and their portable ROV. About the size of a basketball, Deep Trekker’s ROV could easily fit in some of the open hatches on the main deck. From the dock, Dave and I watched over Sam’s shoulder as she directed the ROV, equipped with a 270-degree camera, towards the shipwreck via a handheld remote control. After a few tries, she managed to maneuver the ROV and sonde down the hatch to the 3rd and a few meters into a passageway. The sonde was then left to collect data for a few days, along with the one on the exterior.

Dave Conlin and Sam with Deep Trekker launch the ROV.

Together, Dave Conlin with the NPS and Sam with Deep Trekker launch an ROV.

Deep Trekker's ROV examines a hatch before descending.

Deep Trekker’s ROV examines the hatch before descending.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, Scott brought USS Arizona survivor Don Stratton and his wife out to the memorial. He is one of the 5 living survivors remaining. Before he walked onto the memorial, he stopped and saluted his fallen crew. Then the crowd parted, let him pass, and erupted in applause. He continued making his way to the shrine room, stopping to salute the ship every few feet. When he entered the shrine room, the memorial fell silent. He scanned the wall of 1,177 names. These names meant more to him than to any of us in the room. They were his crew, his friends, his family.

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Don Stratton, 94, stands alongside the 1,177 names of his shipmates from the USS Arizona who died on Dec. 7, 1941 during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

When he stepped away, we escorted him back to the Ranger Room where he and his wife took a seat and talked for a bit with Brett and I. We talked about the weather, the flight, his kids and grandkids. I described how it felt to dive on his ship and he told me the story of how he survived, climbing hand over hand across a length of rope suspended over the fire to a nearby ship, his body covered in burns. Before he left, Brett explained to him the project the NPS was working on and invited him to come and watch when we were going to send the ROV into the USS Arizona. He was excited for the opportunity to get to see his ship again. As we shook hands, a solemn feeling of honor rushed over me as it finally set in who he was and what the USS Arizona and December 7 means to him. It was absolutely delightful to meet and talk with Don.

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Brett converses with Don Stratton and his wife about the work the NPS is doing here at the USS Arizona.

On Friday, the main attraction arrived to the dock. Specifically for this project, Brett had commissioned the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and Marine Imaging Technology (MITech) team of Evan, Marianne, Billy, and Mike to build a custom ROV to penetrate the USS Arizona. Previous expeditions into the battleship with ROVs had been limited because of the problem that arose from pulling a tether (the wires and cables required for operation) behind the ROV. Imagine walking around your house with the garden hose. Inevitably you have to yank on the hose because it gets caught on the corner of the house. Similar scenario here, other than the yanking can damage the tether and the shipwreck itself. To avoid this issue, the WHOI team designed the first ever self-spooling ROV – meaning an ROV that can carry its tether with it and drop it as it goes, much like a trail of breadcrumbs.

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The custom-built ROV was designed to be self-spooling in the hopes of allowing it to penetrate further into the shipwreck than anyone has ever been or seen before.

Unfortunately, during the in-water test, various technical difficulties presented themselves. Quick fixes on the deck would correct one problem but cause another. The cameras didn’t rotate, the lights didn’t turn on, the thruster wasn’t working, and the buoyancy was not quite right. Finally, after a few rebuilds and more in-water tests, it appeared that the WHOI team would be spending all night attempting to locate and fix the problem.

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Evan rewires the ROV to fix the problem encountered during the first float test.

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Evan and the WHOI / MITech team prepare for the second float test with Brett in the water filming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, the research operation was quite complex. To add icing to the cake, a production team from Story House Media Group was filming all of the week’s proceedings for a PBS documentary they will be producing for the 75th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor which will air on November 23.

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Storyhouse Media Group filming the Park’s research operation for an upcoming PBS documentary.

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Filming the WHOI / MITech team troubleshooting the ROV after the failed float test.

 

Unfortunately, a Kelp Forest Monitoring cruise at Channel Islands National Park had to pull me away mid project. So I never got to see whether or not the ROV got up and running and if Don got to see his ship again. I guess I’ll just have to wait until the documentary comes out…

Sunset on the memorial.

Sunset on the memorial.

I would really like to thank my SRC family – Brett, Jess, and Dave – and Scott Pawlowski for diving with me and sharing with me your passion for the history of the USS Arizona. Thank you also to Brett’s wife, Elizabeth, and their kids, Chase and Cameron, for keeping me updated on all the Olympics happenings I missed while we were at work. And a big thank you to WHOI, eTrac, Deep Trekker, and Story House crews who welcomed my inquiries and got me involved in the entire production. This was truly a unique experience!

Brett and the WHOI team

Brett, Dave and the WHOI / MITech team.

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Oregon – Crater Lake National Park

Brett and I made it back to Denver on Friday, July 29th. In Wisconsin, plans had changed and my visit to Kalaupapa had been pushed back, leaving an opening in my schedule for the following two weeks. Graciously, the Conlin’s and their ever-energetic dog Luc agreed to house me while we sorted things out in the meantime.

Luc and I pose for a picture on our hike at Silver Dollar Lake with Dave and Michelle and their friends.

Luc and I pose for a picture on our hike at Silver Dollar Lake with Dave and Michelle and their friends.

Brett reached out to a few parks and fortunately Crater Lake National Park (CRLA) had a monitoring project they could plug me into for that time. Only problem was that diving in Crater Lake necessitated the use of a dry suit, as water temperatures can get into the low 50’s/high 40’s. For my non-diver readers, a dry suit is different than a wet suit in that it maintains a pocket of air inside the suit with its tight wrist and neck seals, allowing the diver to remain dry and stay warm. However, this adds an additional pocket of air for a diver to worry about throughout the dive and thus requires additional training to use. Since I have never used a dry suit before, I spent two days with Dave learning about the intricacies of diving dry and practicing the new skills in the local pool. Dave said I picked it up quickly and looked great in the water, clearing me to dive dry at Crater Lake.

That Wednesday, I caught a flight out of Denver to Medford, Oregon. After figuring out my first-ever car rental and stopping at the grocery store to pick up some food for the upcoming week, I got on the road and made my way to CRLA. On both sides tall conifers towered overhead, intermittently opening up to spectacular views of neighbouring cliff faces and distant mountains. I had never been to the Pacific Northwest so I was reveling in the new eye-catching landscape surrounding me.

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After pulling over at every lookout on the highway to stop and gawk at the majestic scenery, I finally made it to the Crater Lake Science and Learning Center. There I met up with David Morris who gave me a quick tour around the facilities and showed me the nearby residence where I would be staying for my time at CRLA. He also informed me about the Bybee Fire that was burning on the west side of the park, closing the West Rim Drive and a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. While Park Headquarters had been placed under a Level 1 Fire Evacuation Notice, he told me that it merely meant “Be Ready” for a potential evacuation and that if an evacuation was necessary we would have plenty of notice. With that, I unpacked my bags and settled in.

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The following day, I made my way down to the Ranger Station to find Aquatic Ecologists Scott Girdner and Mark Buktenica. As we were going over the plan for my time in the park, we realized that my gear had most recently been used in Lake Superior, another body of freshwater, and were thus worried about the potential for the introduction of invasive species. That being said, my dive gear had to be decontaminated to kill any little organisms trying to hitch a ride to Crater Lake. Unfortunately, that put me out of diving for the day, but that didn’t stop me from joining them out on the water. With my gear soaking in a salt bath, Mark, Scott, and I, along with seasonals Kristin Beam and Sarah Moffit, set out for a busy day on the lake.

The Lake crew has possibly one of the best commutes to work on the planet. Leaving from the office, we took a 40-minute drive along the East Rim. At the first bend in the road, I let out an audible gasp as the lake emerged from a gap in the trees. Tucked away at the base of the caldera, a large crater formed by the collapse of a volcano, sat a serenely smooth body of water. The lake was nothing like I could have imagined. It was so resplendent, so vast; yet in an instant it disappeared behind the rock face. In a wild game of hide-and-seek, the lake would come in and out of view as we made our way to the Cleetwood trailhead. This mile-long trail serves as the only route to access the shore of the lake. So with our bags in tow, we hiked down, each switchback more picturesque than the last, until we had descended 1,000 feet and reached the water. Then we all hopped aboard the Nueston, the park’s primary research vessel, and motored over to the boathouse on Wizard Island to gas up and grab the dive gear.

Hiking Cleetwood Trail is the last leg of the Lake Crew's scenic daily commute.

Hiking Cleetwood Trail is the last leg of the Lake Crew’s scenic daily commute.

We pass by Phantom Ship, the smaller of the two islands in Crater Lake on our way to the boathouse on Wizard Island.

We pass by Phantom Ship, the smaller of the two islands in Crater Lake on our way to the boathouse on Wizard Island.

The smoke from the Bybee Creek Fire appears to be coming out of the top of Wizard Island.

The smoke from the Bybee Creek Fire appears to be coming out of the top of Wizard Island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out on the water, I could not stop marveling at the lake’s deep sapphire color. Soon the running joke of the trip became my dumbfounded response to “What do you think of the lake?” All I could mutter was “It’s just so blue.” The color comes in part due to the fact that there is very little particulate matter suspended in the water. Isolated from any surrounding rivers or streams, the lake’s primary input is precipitation. With no incoming streams to bring in sediments, organic materials, or chemical pollutants, Crater Lake is known for it’s exceptional clarity. With an average Secchi disk clarity reading of 30 meters or about 100 feet, it is by far the best visibility in any of the parks I have visited or will visit for my internship. In fact, the water is so clear and so clean that you can drink it. Anytime you wanted water, you would just dip your Nalgene into the lake and take a sip. It’s quite tasty too!

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Even though my dive gear was being decontaminated back at the office, we stuck to the plan and began the benthic surveys to look for newts and crayfish in the lake. The surveys were 10-minute time-constrained surveys in which one would swim along, turn over rocks, and count the number of each species. Mark and Kristin were up first, diving in to do their surveys at 60 feet. Obviously feeling bummed by having to sit the day out and extremely eager to get in the water, I jumped in anyway with just my bathing suit to see what it was like. Though, initially quite shocking, it was tolerable for a few minutes. But after my toes starting going numb, I hopped out. While we waited for them to complete their dive, Scott and Sarah filled me in on the background on Crater Lake’s unique aquatic ecosystem.

Back in the early 1900’s, in order to bring greater recreation to the lake, six species of fish were stocked in the lake. However, the fish populations soon crashed due to a lack of prey. Thus, the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) was introduced in 1914 as food for the stocked fish. Nowadays, almost 100 years later, crayfish populations are booming and they have drastically expanded their territory along the shoreline. Unfortunately for the native Mozama newt (Taricha granulosa mazamae), a subspecies of rough-skinned newt only found in Crater Lake, the crayfish have proven to be aggressive competitors for both habitat and food. In fact, in areas of the lake were crayfish are present, the densities of benthic invertebrates, like the aquatic insects that compose the majority of the newts’ diet, have been found to be reduced by as much 80%. Additionally, in a series of experiments performed by the Park Service, crayfish were observed directly preying on the newts.

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So every year for the past ten years, the Lake crew has performed these surveys to monitor the distribution and relative population dynamics of these two species. In addition to the depth surveys Mark and Kristin completed that first day, the Lake crew also does surface snorkel surveys every half-mile along the shoreline and we would be starting that the following week.

A view of Wizard Island and Crater Lake from the Rim Drive.

A view of Wizard Island and Crater Lake from the Rim Drive.

With the weekend off, one of the first where I wasn’t either working or travelling, I decided to spend some time getting to know Oregon. I spent Saturday exploring the park, driving the rim, stopping at the overlooks, and going on a few hikes. On Sunday, I went on a leisurely three-hour drive through beautiful Oregon up to Eugene to visit my friend Pat Lyons, my professor from my semester abroad in the Caribbean where I studied tropical marine biology. It was amazing to get to catch up with him and hear about his next move to a college down in LA and tell him all about my internship and what I’ve been up to.

It was great to catch up with my mentor and friend, Pat Lyons!

It was great to catch up with my mentor and friend, Pat Lyons!

On Monday, Mark and Scott were stuck in the office doing paper work, but Kristin, Sarah, and I spent the day out on the lake. Up first we had to check the crayfish traps. Another component to the Lake crew’s crayfish monitoring efforts is a tagging program. Every week a trap full of crayfish is pulled up from a depth of 50 meters and each is tagged with a fluorescent tag. The crayfish are re-released at depth and at the end of the summer a multi-depth trapping effort will be made to see how the crayfish move along the lake bottom. When we pulled up the trap, we counted a season record of 63 crayfish! Two of them had previously been tagged earlier in the year, but the remaining crayfish were injected with the pink elastomer tag. I even got to inject a few dozen myself!

The fluorescent pink elastomer injection allows the Lake crew to tag the crayfish as a part of their long-term capture-recapture study.

The fluorescent pink elastomer injection allows the Lake crew to tag the crayfish as a part of their long-term capture-recapture study.

Getting my hands dirty injecting the pink elastomer tag into a few dozen of the crayfish we trapped.

Getting my hands dirty injecting the pink elastomer tag into a few dozen of the crayfish we trapped.

Pulled up from a depth of 50m, this bucket full of crayfish are just waiting for their tag.

Pulled up from a depth of 50m, this bucket full of crayfish are just waiting for their tag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon, we began the surface snorkel surveys. Wearing a dry suit (and a thick onesie underneath) made the water much more tolerable. On the first site, maybe 20 rocks in, I saw my first one. A newt. With a few more newt sightings and zero crayfish, I was feeling happy after the first site. The second site was the same. Go newts! I thought. But by the third site, the handful of newts had disappeared completely, and dozens of crayfish took their place. The next five sites, each had more crayfish than the last. We were only eights sites in and I was beginning to see how severe and how dismal the outcome was looking for the newts.

Kristin and Scott call us in after our 10 minute surface snorkel survey.

Kristin and Scott call us in after our 10 minute surface snorkel survey.

The next day, we recruited the likes of Fish Biologist Dave Herring and his seasonal Bull Trout Crew, consisting of Ian Ralston, Kevin Howells, and Joe Lemanski, as well as Botanist Jesse Sikora. With a total of 10 people, we were able to split up into two boats and divide the sites up to get them done quicker. A majority of the sites were even worse in terms of crayfish than the day before. Numbers were often in the hundreds and newts were few and far between. Occasionally, there would be a site here and there that would have none of either, but while it did mean less counting, it was by no means a good sign. After dropping Dave and Jesse off at Cleetwood trail to head back home for the night, we met up with the other boat and learned they had had a similar experience.

Ian flips over a rock during the surface snorkel survey.

Ian flips over a rock during the surface snorkel survey.

Ian scans the cliff face looking for any exposed newts or crayfish as he swims along during the survey.

Ian scans the cliff face looking for any exposed newts or crayfish as he swims along during the survey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, the Bull Trout and Lake crews joined up for a campout on Wizard Island. Scott, Mark, and Sarah prepared a delicious elk stir-fry for us to enjoy as we sat on the docks laughing in good company. As the sun began to set, some of us hiked up to the top to get a better view. All I can say is Crater Lake did not disappoint.

Our sleeping arrangements for our campout on Wizard Island.

Our sleeping arrangements for our campout on Wizard Island.

Hiking up Wizard Island in time for the sunset.

Hiking up Wizard Island in time for the sunset.

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But perhaps the best view came after the sun went down and the moon came out. With barely any light pollution, the stars at CRLA were beyond breathtaking. Yet to add icing to the cake, it just so happened that the Perseid meteor shower was beginning to pick up. So as we lay in our sleeping bags on the dock listening to the quiet lapping of the water with hundreds of stars shining overhead, a few meteors streaked across the night sky. I watched for hours before finally falling asleep.

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The following day, it only took us an hour to crank out the last seven sites of the surface snorkel surveys. After finishing them up, we decided, since we spent all that time decontaminating my gear, to do another set of diving surveys. So I joined Scott and Mark to document the surveying process and just enjoy my dive in Crater Lake. At the site, we saw both newts and crayfish. In fact, we saw a newt in the claws of a crayfish. We swooped in just in time to save the little guy!

Getting ready to go on my first dry suit dive ever and my first dive in Crater Lake.

Suiting up for my dive in Crater Lake.

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Survived my first dry suit dive!

Mark and Scott in the middle of their survey.

At 45 feet, Mark and Scott kick up sediment as they turn over rocks looking for newts and crayfish.

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Mark saves the newt being attacked by the crayfish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diving is always a whole other world for me, but I must say diving in Crater Lake was on a completely new indescribable level. Thank you to Mark and Scott for inviting me into your diving operations and giving me the diving experience of a lifetime. And thank you to the entire Lake crew team for sharing with me the magic of Crater Lake!

Until next time!

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Eat Em’ to Beat Em’

Greetings once more fellow divers. With REEF’s mission being marine conservation through citizen science and education, there are plenty of opportunities to engage the public and raise awareness for several problems our earth’s oceans face. One of the big problems that is seen worldwide is the presence of invasive species. Like unwelcome dinner guests, they come from far away, make a mess, and create a giant problem that must be dealt with. One of the worst offenders is right here in our back yard. The stretch from as far south as Brazil and as far north as New York and New England. They are found all throughout the Caribbean and Gulf and are as harmful as they are pretty. If you read the previous passage and guessed Lionfish, you are correct!

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Originally from the Red Sea and the Indo-pacific region, Lionfish have made themselves quite comfy on our reefs, gobbling up and consuming more than their fair share of native reef fish. Their stomach can enlarge 33 times its normal size, with dense populations consuming 460,000 prey fish/acre/year. Their gluttonous eating habits can reduce fish prey populations by up to 90 %. They can be found in as shallow as a few inches of water, down all the way to 1000 ft.  They become sexually mature in less than a year, and can spawn throughout the year, every 4 days. On top of that, a single egg sack can contain 12,000 to 15,000 eggs, and is carried great distances via ocean currents. If their eating habits and reproductive habits were not bad enough, they are armored like tanks with 13 venomous spines on its back, 1 on each of the pelvic fins, and 3 in its anal fin. While not lethal, the venom is able to give any unsuspecting predator or diver a very painful memory. Altogether, it sometimes seems these guys were manufactured in a lab by some evil genius scientists that had a grudge against coral reefs, or had simply seen one too many creature features during the weekends.

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All hope is not lost. Lionfish have one Achilles fin: they are absolutely delicious. And thus the strategy of eat em’ to beat em’ was born. REEF has been at the forefront of Lionfish management since 2005. Through workshops and educational events, the organization has been working relentlessly to raise awareness of the striped menace, as well as educate divers and community members what they can do to be part of the solution. And the solution is tasty. Solutions such as ceviche, cocoanut crusted, blackened, grilled, the list goes on and on. To really spread the word, as well as remove as many lionfish from the reefs as possible, REEF has been organizing large events known as Lionfish Derbies. At these derbies, teams of 4 compete to see who can catch the most, the biggest, and the smallest, with large cash prizes for the best fish hunters. Not only do these events usually remove hundreds of the harmful species, it also attracts a large group of people who are interested in learning more. Education can be through filleting and preparation, public dissections, and simply answering any and all question people might have.

This summer I was able to help out at 3 official REEF derbies, and 2 sanctioned derbies. Locations included the Gold Coast, Abaco, Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach. My duties ranged from manning the merchandise table, to helping score fish, to filleting. Each was a fantastic time, with the excitement from the quick pace requiring efficiency, good communication, and duty flexibility that reminds one of the excitement and adrenaline from a good roller coaster or drift dive.

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Until next time! Happy diving everyone

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Celebrating World Oceans Day with Coralpalooza!

Howdy one and all! Being part of any organization that emphasizes marine conservation, World Ocean’s day is a big deal. While it is true that world oceans day is every day here at REEF, it’s great to see other conscience divers come together to make a difference. This World Ocean’s Day I had the great fortune to see up close the result of everyone’s team work.

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One of the advantages to living and working in Key Largo is the large quantity of non-profit and marine conservation organizations that exist right around the corner. As an intern, we are encouraged to take time to volunteer at these other organizations. For World Ocean day, I had the privilege of volunteering with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) during their Coralpalooza event.

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CRF focuses on the restoration of coral reefs by actually growing elkhorn and staghorn corals in offshore nurseries. In the nurseries, there are several PVC “trees” that are tethered to the bottom and made buoyant through the use of subsurface floats. On these trees, the corals are hung using monofilament line and allowed to grow. Once they reach a certain size, the coral is then fractured into smaller pieces and tagged. Some of the fragments will be placed back into the nurseries where they will be allowed to grow until they are big enough to repeat the process. Other fragments will be selected to be planted out on select sites on the reefs.

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Coralpalooza attempts to bring a greater recognition to World Ocean’s day, as well as conservation issues facing the earth’s oceans. During the event, I was a member of two teams. On the first team, we worked in the nursery. On the first dive, group leaders cut the large staghorn coral, while the rest of the team tagged all corals selected for out planting, and hung the remaining fragments back on the trees. On the second dive, we preformed some cleaning and maintenance on the trees. Fire coral, other growth, and any biofouling organisms are cleaned off the trees to ensure the best growing conditions. During the afternoon dives, the team worked on using non-toxic epoxy to plant the harvested coral from the nurseries at various reefs in Key Largo. Our site was particularly shallow and the surge was intensive. It was hard work, but very rewarding and extremely fun!

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Having done most of my undergraduate research on oysters and corals, it was refreshing to take a break from fish and work with invertebrates once more. I thoroughly enjoyed my time volunteering with CRF, and am most grateful for hosting the event and allowing myself and many others to make a difference.  I look forward to continue sharing more wonderful experiences with everyone. Best Fishes and happy diving!

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Toughing it out in Paradise

Things are going great as a REEF intern. One of REEF’s current major projects is the study, removal, and public education of the invasive Lionfish. Part of studying invasive lionfish involves various projects such as the impacts of the lionfish derbies and the traveling tendencies of lionfish. One current lionfish project aims to see if lionfish prefer one type of structure over another (Vertical vs. Horizontal). As interns, we are given the opportunity to assist in the project, diving to conduct surveys and collect data. However, the project is not set in Key Largo. In fact, it is not even setup in the United States. The site of the project is in the Sea of Abaco, between Great Abaco and Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas.

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The journey began early one Tuesday, as we drove from Key Largo to Fort Lauderdale. Once there, we took a quick, 1 hour flight over the Great Abaco Island. Once we landed, we transferred to a van and proceeded North. The final leg of the journey involved taking a ferry ride to Green Turtle Cay (pronounced ˈkeɪ/). The first day was mostly travel, some grocery shopping, as well as preparing all arrangements for the next day, such as tanks, weight, boat etc.

On day two, we began work bright and early. We loaded up and headed out to our study sites. For the first 2 or 3 sites, we observed and learned how to lay a transect, inspect the structure, and perform the surveys. We also collected equipment that was being used to monitor select sites. Throughout the day, our survey technique improved. Throughout the day we kept our dive gear on: Reach the site, splash in, conduct the survey, and return to the boat to move on the next site. Dives lasted 5-7 minutes and our max depth was 15 ft. We were tested physically, as we did a succession of multiple quick dives that required entering and exiting the boat in full gear, and mentally, as we faced many heavy rain storms that reduced visibility. Day three was more forgiving as we had clear sunny skies and better visibility. In total, we did 37 dives over the course of 2 days.

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Day four was a bit of a day off. Instead of conducting research, we took time to take the boat out and snorkel various areas. We also had the opportunity to learn how to spear lionfish. Since harvesting any marine animal in the Bahamas on open circuit is illegal, we had to free dive and spear. It was quite the adrenaline rush. You circle the surface, like a shark, waiting to spot the colorful pattern of a lionfish. As soon as you do, you take a series of big drawn out breaths, slowing your heart rate down. You dive down, slowly approaching the unsuspecting invader, aiming the pole spear right behind the gills at a perpendicular angle to the fish. With the shot lined up, you release the spear.

As luck would have it, during our stay in Green Turtle Cay, the 8th annual Abaco Lionfish derby was taking place. The Abaco derby was the first Lionfish Derby back in 2008, and it is still going strong with great participation and results. The derby also gave us a chance to conduct surveys pre and post derby, to see how effective the event was in reducing the Lionfish population in the area.

After 5 days, it was time to head home to analyze the data. While short, the opportunity to help with research was quite the memorable experience. Even though it proved challenging, I loved every minute of it. It may be a hard life some times, but I would not want to be doing anything else. Until next time!

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Wisconsin – Saint Croix River National Scenic Riverway & Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

I landed in Denver the night of July 22nd. Susanna Pershern, the SRC’s Audio/Visual Specialist, graciously picked me up after my late flight and offered to put me up for the night. The next morning, Brett, Susanna, and I packed up the Suburban and the trailer with tanks, dive gear, cameras galore, and enough snack food for a cross-country road trip and headed out on our 15-hour drive to Wisconsin.

We left the majestic Rocky Mountains of Colorado behind as they slowly turned into rolling hills before completely fading away to the flat plains of Nebraska. Since I hadn’t seen either of them in a month, the first few hours were full of conversation as we exchanged stories of our travels over the last few weeks. Somewhere along the freeway in Nebraska, we decided to listen to the book Wake of the Perdido Star by actor Gene Hackman and Dan Lenihan, the founding chief of the SRC. As the sun set, I drifted in and out of sleep to visions of sailing ships, fighting pirates, and a little old town in Massachusetts. We split the trip up by staying a night in Lincoln. But we started the second day of the trip right where we left off with cow pastures out our window and the discovery of treasure on a Caribbean island. The hours passed as the cornfields of Iowa transitioned into the wooded areas and lakes of Wisconsin. By nightfall we had made it to our hotel in Siren, Wisconsin.

The reason Brett, Susanna, and I drove to Wisconsin was to spend a few days working with the kids of Northwest Passage. Northwest Passage offers a variety of services including a comprehensive assessment center as well as intensive residential treatment for children and adolescents struggling with their mental health. Over the past 40 years, Northwest Passage has developed an innovative program that combines both traditional mental health treatments with multiple experiential therapies. One such experiential therapy program is In a New Light, a therapeutic nature photography program aimed at empowering marginalized youth by encouraging artistic expression in tandem with outdoor exploration.

For the past few years, the National Park Service and the SRC have helped fund In a New Light via small grants. However, until this year, no one from the SRC had made it out to visit the Northwest Passage kids. But when Brett first explained to me what it was, I knew I had to jump on the opportunity to see the program for myself, interact with the kids, and experience the transformation. Having grown up with many of my friends struggling with their own mental health issues, I found the goal and mission of Northwest Passage to be remarkable and one that was close to my heart. I fell asleep excited; I looking forward to being a part, however small, of the healing process of these kids.

On our first morning, we met up with Ben Thwaits, director of the program, at the In a New Light gallery. Created with the intention of providing a venue to proudly display the work produced by the kids, the public gallery is impressive to say the least. Inside, breathtaking work from Passage graduates adorned the walls in various collections from different trips they have taken over the years. I was shocked by the quality of work that was hanging on the walls. I found myself wishing I were as good of a photographer so that I could capture moments so perfectly.

 

Along the back wall hung an exhibition entitled “Under the Surface”. The stunning collection was comprised entirely of shots taken by the kids using underwater cameras in the local rivers and lakes. In fact, over the next two days, we would be joining both the boys’ and girls’ field trips to the local Saint Croix Riverway in order to explore the river and take some underwater pictures with them.

Later that morning, Ben took us to the Gordon dam on the St. Croix River where we met up with the Passage girls, their teachers Kelly and Ian, and Toben Lafrancois, a biologist and co-founder and director of the New Light Under the Surface program. After donning our gear, Ben and Toben gathered everyone around for introductions and a safety orientation. Due to recent heavy rains and flooding along parts of the St. Croix, the water was moving faster than usual over the dam and everyone was asked to be cautious and stick with their buddies.

As soon as Ben was done talking, they darted out into the river in pairs. Armed with only a camera and snorkel gear, the girls spent almost five hours in the water taking pictures of mussels, crawfish, freshwater sponges, snails, and the dam. It was amazing to watch the whole process. Some were constantly moving, flitting between subjects, exploring further downstream then back upstream, trying to take lots of pictures in a variety of habitats. Others girls were very patient and would stay in the same spot for a long time trying to get that perfect shot. They weren’t afraid to ask questions or help each other out by offering advice on how to shoot a certain subject.

  

The next day, we took the boys out on the river, about a half-mile downstream, just at the end of some exciting rapids. Initially it seemed as if there weren’t as many typical subjects to photograph, and I was worried that the boys wouldn’t enjoy it as much, but they spent just as long out on the water getting some wonderful shots of fish, grasses, an old dock, and the rapids. The boys even managed to find a plethora of discarded items on the hard bottom including a fishing rod and a tackle box.

Being out on the river with the kids was a blast. I loved working with them and watching them splash about and have fun with their friends while exploring the world, satisfying a curiosity, and building meaningful relationships, reminding me what it’s like to be a kid. And that was the beauty of it all. When they were in the water, they forgot about their issues; they were just kids. You couldn’t tell they were troubled at all. They were normal kids who just needed the time, tools, and encouragement to explore their world, develop relationships, and express themselves. And that is what Northwest Passage is doing for these kids.

On Wednesday, we took three of the Passage guys a few hours north, up to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on the southwestern shore of Lake Superior for the day. Lake Superior is known for its shipwrecks so Ben and Brett were hoping to get the guys snorkeling in a new environment with new subjects, maybe a shipwreck or two, to photograph. We were on our way to a wreck, but the Coast Guard had other plans for us. They had gotten a call for distressed kayakers and they needed all NPS vessels to head to the location to try to get eyes on the kayakers. By the time we got there, another boat had already sighted them and had started guiding them into shore. As we started heading back out for our planned day on the water, the Coast Guard showed up to take control of the situation.

We spent the afternoon snorkeling in a bay next to some photogenic cliffs before heading over to two shipwrecks – the Ottawa and the H.D. Coffinberry. The guys really enjoyed exploring the two shipwrecks, so much so that we had to call them out of the water because it was getting late.

 

When we got back to dock, I went to grab something out of the car when I overheard the three Passage guys gawking about how awesome the day was and that absolutely made my day. It may not seem like a lot, but to hear three young teenage boys say that to each other without being asked by an adult means that they must’ve had a fantastic time out on the water. Ben told me later on that on the drive home the guys could not stop talking about it and that one of the guys seemed really serious about joining the Coast Guard. It’s amazing to think that the events of one day could change a person’s life course and give them a new goal, a new dream to work toward.

On our last day in town, Brett, Susanna, and I went out on Lake Superior with Toben and a Passage graduate to do some basic photographing of the park. David Cooper, our boat operator, brought us to the backside of Devil’s Island where wave action over time has carved out sea caves in the rock face on the north side. We all dove in so that we could take pictures of this magnificent natural façade.

However, about halfway through the planned dive I realized the waterproof battery cover on my camera had opened. Susanna and I immediately called our dive and headed back to the boat to dry my camera. I remember panicking thinking about how I lost all of my pictures and how Brett was going to kill me, but I did everything I could to dry the camera as quickly as possible, so all that was left to do was wait. Thankfully, the following morning, as we were packing up the car to head back to Denver, I put the battery pack back in after leaving it out all night to dry and the camera was working fine. I definitely learned my lesson to upload my pictures every night!

Thanks to Brett and Susanna for allowing me to come along on the road trip to Wisconsin and for taking me on my first cold water dive ever! Another thanks to Ben and Toben for doing what you do for the kids at Northwest Passage. You two are impacting the lives of these kids every day and helping them turn their lives around. It is just remarkable. Lastly, a special thanks goes out to the kids of Northwest Passage who impacted me in an indescribable way.

 

 

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Wait, what kind of fish was that again?

Greetings once again! Even in such a short amount of time, so much has gone on. There is never a dull moment at REEF, with plenty do. Due to the diverse range of work we do as interns, there is plenty to share and talk about.

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REEF’s mission is to educate and enable divers to become active stewards and citizen scientists. Data collected by REEF and its’ members is used by researchers to monitor health and biodiversity of fish species worldwide. REEF provides members with various resources to learn fish identification such as identification books and fish ID webinars. They also provide members with underwater paper and slates to record the species and number of fish seen during a survey. Divers conducting a survey assign each fish species they see an abundance category. The categories are: single (1), few (2-10), many (11-100), or abundant (101+). The data is then uploaded online and added to the vast REEF database.

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As an intern, one of our perks is the opportunity to take a half day during the week to go out on one of the local dive boats and conduct fish surveys. Since the beginning of the internship, I have conducted 19 Surveys and am working on becoming a level 3 surveyor. As a REEF member, there are different levels of surveyors. Everyone starts as a level one (novice) because everyone knows at least one fish. After conducting 2 surveys, and passing a level 2 quiz with 80% or better, a diver can advance to level 2 (Beginner). After 25 surveys and passing the level 3 quiz, a diver becomes a level 3 surveyor (advanced). Level 4 and 5 are expert surveyors and require even more dives and a greater range of knowledge of fish species as well as their phases.

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Fish identification really keeps you on your toes. It requires a lot of time and dedication to learn the many species found in the Water of the Tropical Western Atlantic Region. It also requires a keen eye and patience as fish come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and variations making them hard to identify sometimes. Although large reef fish are cool, there is just something so exciting about finding small blennies and gobies that are the size ones pinky finger. With each dive, my range of fish which I can identify grows and with each survey I get more excited to test my knowledge. The fish ID has even pushed me to start working on improving my underwater photography skills to keep a record of what I see and to double check my survey data. Diving with a purpose also makes diving more enjoyable. I can’t imagine ever being able to go back to just diving and not having a slate in my hands.

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With summer passing by, that means Lionfish Derby season and Kids camps are almost upon us. Looking forward to sharing more wonderful experiences with everyone really soon! Best Fishes and Happy diving
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Greetings everyone!

Hi everyone! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Patrick Peck, I am a Geoenvironemental Studies Major with a Biology minor and GIS certificate. I am currently attending Shippensburg University in South Central Pennsylvania, and expect to graduate this December. My passions are rooted in the outdoors, specifically in exploring and helping protect and conserve our aquatic world. Thanks to OWUSS, I will have the opportunity to do just that. This summer, I will have the honor of being the Dr. Jamie L. King REEF Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) Marine Conservation Intern.

I am deeply grateful for the funding and support of the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. Everyone from the society has been immensely kind and helpful as this journey begins to unfold. I would also like to thank REEF for hosting the internship and giving me the opportunity to work, learn, and dive in the exciting and fun field of marine conservation. As appreciative as I am for this wonderful opportunity, I would also like to thank all those who have helped me get to this point, specifically the staff, faculty, and educators of the Geography and Earth Science Department at my school for preparing me and helping guide me in my academic pursuits, and the Chincoteague Bay Field station where I have begun my foray into Marine Science.

Living in Pennsylvania, the trip to Key Largo is about an 18 hour, 1,200 mile journey. Being a long voyage and summer, one’s first thought is usually road-trip. Unfortunately, during long car rides, I tend to get rather bored after the 5 hour mark. Thus, I took the less exciting train option. Amtrak operates a train from Lorton, Va to Orlando, FL where passengers can park their vehicles in specialized cars in the back, and enjoy the option of napping whenever one pleases toward the front. So after a series of long naps, I arrived in Orlando early one morning, and finished the uneventful journey to Key Largo.

While the trip down was uneventful, the internship has been far from that. In the first week alone, we had the opportunity to go diving and conduct our first fish survey (more on that in the next blog post), kayak through the mangroves at John Pennekamp State Park, dissect a lionfish, and assist in one of our first REEF events, one of the monthly Fish ID presentations. As well as all the fun and excitement of field work, the other interns and myself have been hard at work learning where everything is around the office, how to handle storefront orders and materials, and all the effort and work that goes into working at a non-profit. While REEF does keep us busy, I am so excited to be working all summer with such a fantastic and passionate group of people. I look forward to sharing all of this summer’s adventures so stay tuned for more!

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2016 AAUS Lee Somers Internship – MarEx and Black Gill Shrimp

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The summer is flying by! I have been working at the MarEx aquarium at Skidaway Island a lot since my last blog. I have learned so many things. I have been on reptile duty for a few weeks wihch includes cleaning the filters in the mud turtle, snapping turtle, and diamondback terrapin tanks, as well as providing fresh water for the snakes and lizards. I also get to feed these reptiles on occasion. At the aquarium I also help by cleaning protein skimmers and tanks and by feeding the fish. I went with the MarEx Aquarium to Beach Week on Tybee Island, which is sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Our theme was marine debris education and I created posters, helped design an activity, and played a game to speak to beach-goers about marine debris. It was a lot of fun! The MarEx Aquarium has two loggerhead turtles on display. One of whom is a three year old named Rider and it will be released into the wild soon. I was also able to aid in some sea turtle husbandry this week. I helped take Rider out of the tank and carry it to a small pool outside so that Rider could have a sun bath. The aquarium has UV lights above Rider’s tank, but there is nothing quite like real sunshine! MarEx Aquarium also has weekly summer camps for kids. I was able to go fishing and trawling with the summer camp groups as a volunteer camp counselor. During the fishing trip my group caught: 18 sharks, 2 stingrays and a blue crab! The trawling trip was aboard the Sea Dawg, a MarEx vessel and we caught sharks, crabs, shrimp and various species of fish. I really enjoy spending time teaching children about marine and aquatic organisms.

This summer I have also been working with Dr. Marc Frischer, a SkIO faculty member. One of his graduate students, Ashleigh, is working on black gill shrimp research. She is doing mortality experiments on local shrimp to study black gill. Some shrimp get their gills infected with a ciliate which causes an immune response of producing melanin, thus turning the gills black. I help with daily shrimp counts where we check the shrimp for black gill and feed them. If a shrimp dies, it gets measured and the gills are preserved for future molecular work. I helped Ashleigh break down the first experiment last week, and then went on a collection trawl in order to start the second experiment. I was also able to go on a research cruise with the Frischer lab as well. SkIO has a research vessel called the Savannah and it has a huge A frame and J frame winches for trawling, plankton tows and CTD casts. We spent 2 days on the ship doing plankton tows and CTD casts looking for gelatinous plankton called Doliolids. We did not find any Doliolids on the cruise even though the water conditions were good. We did catch some ctenophores in the plankton tows, which was pretty cool. The research cruise was a blast.

I am looking forward to the last 3 weeks of my internship! I will be traveling to Pensacola, FL next week to do some diving (finally!).

 

Dolphins playing in the wake of the Sea Dawg

Dolphins playing in the wake of the Sea Dawg

Beach Week games!

Beach Week games!

Beach Week!

Beach Week!

Beach Week!

Beach Week!

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Immersion suit safety drill

Immersion suit safety drill

Safety drill

Safety drill

 

The Big Bongo plankton net

The Big Bongo plankton net

CTD

CTD

CTD cast

CTD cast

Ctenophore caught in plankton tow

Ctenophore caught in plankton tow

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The oyster on the right is a male and has just spawned!

Oyster spawning

Oyster spawning

Trawl catch

Trawl catch

juvenile sharpnose shark caught in trawl

juvenile sharpnose shark caught in trawl

Squid friend caught in the trawl

Squid friend caught in the trawl

RV Savannah

RV Savannah

Putting Rider back into his tank

Putting Rider back into his tank

trawl net in the water

trawl net in the water

 

The otter doors to the trawl net

The otter doors to the trawl net

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Rider getting a sun bath!

Rider getting a sun bath!

Carrying Rider back to the aquarium

Carrying Rider back to the aquarium

 

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Key West – Dry Tortugas National Park

Another beautiful sunset from the roof of Fort Jefferson

Another beautiful sunset from the roof of Fort Jefferson

The morning of July 11th, I met up with Mike Feeley and Jeff Mills in Miami. With the 26-foot Twin Vee Catamaran in tow, we began making our way down to Key West. The drive down Overseas Highway is one of my favourite drives – 120 miles of palm trees and clear blue water out both windows. In fact, I just made this drive at the end of May with my undergraduate research lab. Every summer, Dr. Malcolm Hill’s lab at the University of Richmond travels down to Summerland Key to spend a week or two doing fieldwork with marine sponges. So I’ve made this drive for the past three summers and it’s come to be quite familiar.

SFCN crew: (front) Mike Feeley, me, Rob Waara, Nicole Palma, Erin Nassif, Lee Richter, Jeff Miller MV Fort Jeff crew: (back) Brian, Mikey

SFCN crew: (front) Mike Feeley, me, Rob Waara, Nicole Palma, Erin Nassif, Lee Richter, Jeff Miller
MV Fort Jeff crew: (back) Brian, Mikey

Mike and Jeff are two of the biologists working for the South Florida/Caribbean Network (SFCN) and this week I was joining their crew. SFCN is one of 32 NPS Inventory and Monitoring Networks across the country. These I&M Networks are in charge of collecting and analyzing natural resource data for parks and then providing them with information that can be integrated into park planning and management strategies. Specifically, on this trip to Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO), we would be performing annual benthic surveys on sites that the SFCN has been monitoring for years.

I was surprised when we pulled up to the Naval Air Station in Key West, but this was where we were meeting the Motor Vessel Fort Jefferson. The MV Fort Jeff is a supply vessel for DRTO owned and operated by the National Park Service that would serve both as our transportation to and from the park, in addition to our housing for the next 10 days. When we pulled up to the bulkhead where the MV Fort Jeff was docked, my eyes widened with excitement. I’ve never even seen a full-scale research vessel before (aside from on TV specials on the Discovery channel) and I was so eager to be spending my week on board.

The Motor Vessel Fort Jefferson

The Motor Vessel Fort Jefferson

Shortly after we arrived, Rob Waara and Lee Richter, the other half of the SFCN staff, and interns Erin Nassif and Nicole Palma pulled up to the dock with a truck packed to the brim with supplies for the week. On their way down, they had gone grocery shopping to get food for the eight-person team for our 10-day voyage, a very important task. We spent the afternoon unloading the trucks, launching the Twin Vee, and double-checking we had everything we would need for the expedition before settling into our quarters.

Our cabins aboard the MV Fort Jeff

Our cabins aboard the MV Fort Jeff

The next morning, it was all hands on deck as we helped Captain Tim, Brian, and Mikey push off out of Key West at 0700. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Ever since their discovery by Ponce de Leon in the early 16th century, the Dry Tortugas have had an incredibly rich history. The location at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico made them an incredibly important stop along shipping routes heading into or out of the Gulf. As such, a fort was commissioned to be built in the early 1800’s by the United States. During the Civil War it remained in Union hands as a naval base and later was used as a prison. Though it was never technically completed, the Fort Jefferson stands as the largest masonry structure in the Americas, with 16 million bricks making up the imposing three-story, hexagonal fortress. Today, its casemates house National Park Service staff and thousands ofvisitors flock to the park to walk the parade grounds of this historic structure.

A view of the parade grounds of the Fort Jefferson.

A view of the parade grounds of the Fort Jefferson.

A hermit crab crosses the wooden bridge on his way to visit the Civil War fort.

A hermit crab crosses the wooden bridge on his way to visit the Civil War fort.

A look back in time at the casemates of former prisoners.

A look back in time at the casemates of former prisoners.

After about 4 hours of cruising the open water, the Civil War fort appeared on the horizon. As we approached Garden Key and the bricks began to take on shape, I was taken aback. The fort, surrounded by a moat (which I discovered later had a crocodile living in it), looked like something out of a medieval fairytale. This and the 100-square miles of ocean surrounding the fort would be our stomping ground for the next 10 days.

Surrounded by a moat, the Civil War fort seems like something from medieval times.

Surrounded by a moat, the Civil War fort seems like something from medieval times.

That evening, we went over the game plan for the week. SFCN has been monitoring three sites at DRTO – Bird Key, Loggerhead Key, and Santa’s Village. Each site is comprised of multiple permanent 10-meter transects that are surveyed to monitor coral species, colony counts, and cases of disease. As the only things marking the permanent transects are metal pins fixed to the reef, the dive operations would be divided into two teams. The navigation team would dive first in order to locate the pins using compass bearings and distances and lay down the 10-meter transect tape between the two pins. The survey team would then drop, perform the survey, and collect the tapes.

The next day we loaded the Twin Vee with all our dive gear, a water jug, and a lunch cooler and set out on our first day of surveys. As my coral identification is not as practiced as that of Mike and Jeff (who have been doing this for years now), I joined the navigation team. Equipped with a compass, transect tapes, and a slate with pictures of the site, Lee, Nicole and I splashed in to lay down the transects for the survey team. What I thought would be an easy task, turned out to be an exciting challenge. Distances and bearings were not always enough to find the pins. Oftentimes they were covered with algae, hidden at the base of a sea fan, or overgrown by a sponge. Most of the time we relied on the pictures of the site to locate the pins, sort of like an underwater game of “I spy…”. When we came up for our surface interval, the survey team would go down to work on the transects we set out. We repeated this process again before it was time to head back in to the MV Fort Jeff for dinner.

Erin returns from tying the transect off to the end pin.

Erin returns from tying the transect off to the end pin.

Lee searches for the end pin of the transect. It was hidden underneath overgrowth of algae.

Lee searches for the end pin of the transect. It was hidden underneath overgrowth of algae.

Lee checks that the transect line is tight and follows a straight line.

Lee checks that the transect line is tight and follows a straight line.

Rob and Jeff prepare for the transect survey.

Rob and Jeff prepare for the transect survey.

 

Even though I was on the navigation team, it was hard not to stare in awe as DRTO reefs were teeming with life. I’ve been told that the reefs here were what the reefs of the Keys used to look like decades ago. Large groupers and snappers, which have been fished off the reefs in the Keys, thrive in the park’s remote and protected waters. Large boulder brain corals and great star corals populate the reef’s hard bottom with soft corals and gorgonians swaying in the current. Despite this, algal growth and coral disease, often indicators of unhealthy or declining reefs, were also very prevalent.

Sea fans and gorgonians surround large colonies of Great Star coral.

Sea fans and gorgonians surround large colonies of Great Star coral.

Disease and algae are visible amongst the corals and gorgonians.

Disease and algae are visible amongst the corals and gorgonians.

Goliath groupers hanging around underneath the MV Fort Jeff.

Goliath groupers hanging around underneath the MV Fort Jeff.

It wasn’t long before we fell into a comfortable and efficient rhythm. We spent every day on the water. We picked up wherever we left off the day before and would motor over to the next site when we wrapped up the one we were working on. Four transects per dive with two dives a day allowed us to wrap up each site in two or three days, depending on the weather. After returning from the field, Nicole, Erin, and I would spend the evenings exploring the fort or snorkeling along its perimeter.

The moat wall surrounding the fort teems with coral growth

The moat wall surrounding the fort teems with corals.

Sergeant major damselfish swim along the moat wall.

Sergeant major damselfish swim along the moat wall.

Corals have colonized the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

Corals have colonized the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

Grunts school around the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

Grunts school around the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

On the second-to-last evening, I had the opportunity to join the United States Geological Survey (USGS) crew on their nightly East Key turtle nesting monitoring. We motored the short distance over to the 100 by 200 meter island where we would be spending the night and set up camp before it got dark. Every half hour someone walked the shoreline to look for a nesting female. Luckily enough on the 2200 walk three turtles had come up to nest. I had never seen a turtle nesting before. It was miraculous to watch these 300-pound beasts lug themselves up on shore and sometimes go hundreds of feet before finding the perfect spot to dig their nest. Some even dig multiple holes until they find the right one to lay their clutch in. The whole nesting process took an hour or two to from start to finish.

Sydney the Loggerhead turtle in the corral.

Sydney the Loggerhead turtle in the corral.

Maria the Green turtle in the corral.

Maria the Green turtle in the corral.

We monitored each turtle’s nesting progress and once they had finished, before they returned to the ocean, we corralled them on the beach in order to gather data on them. We noted the species, took various measurements on size, collected a blood sample, and tagged any turtle that hadn’t already been worked up this year. We had two returners. Esther was a Loggerhead who had nested and been worked up earlier that year and Maria was a Green who has nested in past years but hadn’t been seen in awhile. The third turtle was a new Loggerhead who I named Sydney. After finishing up with Sydney around 0100, the rest of the night was uneventful and I got some sleep under the light of the stars. We returned to the fort just in time to watch the sun rise.

Sara and Devon take carapace measurements on Maria.

Sara and Devon take carapace measurements on Maria.

On our last night in the Dry Tortugas, the rangers called together a potluck. Everyone gathered in the crew quarters at the Fort as we laughed and shared stories of the week around delicious food. We talked well into the evening and even got to witness a green flash as the sun set over the cloudless horizon.

Evening potluck with the DRTO staff at sunset.

Evening potluck with the DRTO staff at sunset.

Sunset over the western bastion of Fort Jefferson.

Sunset over the western bastion of Fort Jefferson.

In the end, my time in DRTO was more than I could’ve imagined. The SFCN crew was friendly and warm and I was delighted to have lived and worked with such a passionate team of NPS staff. I’d really like to thank the entire SFCN team as well as the MV Fort Jeff crew for putting up with me during those 10 days and allowing me to join in on your annual monitoring effort. It was an incredible learning experience!

“Always remember kids. Today is a great day for a day!” – Mikey Kent

Next stop…Wisconsin?

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