Author Archives: Erika Sawicki

2017 AAUS/OWUSS Internship — Welcome to Georgia

July turned out to be a crazy month, even though my internship was on a brief pause. Throughout July, I spent each week in a different state from Massachusetts to Oklahoma to Rhode Island and finally arriving here in Georgia to resume my internship duties!

I was not the only one exhausted after my trip to California. My suitcase went on its last journey and only made it home with some help from the tape holding it together.

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Traveling home from California

My first order of business once arriving home from California was to get fingerprints. In order to get computer access and an email address at Gray’s Reef, I had to go to the police station to get my fingerprints and mail them to Gray’s Reef.

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Getting fingerprints

Nonetheless my internship was back on track and rolling me the punches, just like before. I booked my flight to Georgia exactly two weeks before my start date. About 9 days before departure, the paperwork requests started rolling in. NOAA loves their forms and paperwork, so I spent the plane ride working on everything before arrival. There is never a dull moment and my flight seemed to remind me once again. Upon landing in Rhode Island, we were told to stay seated while three police officers got on the plane and arrested one of the passengers.

I sent my paperwork in the next day and everything seemed good to go! Then the email came on Thursday evening about additional medical tests that I needed completed in order to be cleared for diving.

With some panic, I started sending out emails about how to get this resolved since I was leaving on Tuesday morning and doctor appointments are not always easy to schedule, especially on such short notice. Friday morning, I woke up to a text “Hello!!! Can I give you a quick phone call to discuss medical? I promise it’s good news.” A feeling of relief went through my body, probably the easiest fix so far. I would be able to get all the medical tests done once I arrived in Georgia except the CBC blood test.

Saturday morning my mom and I drove home from the beach in Rhode Island and headed home to Massachusetts. Well, actually right to the doctor’s office. I got my CBC blood test done and we were on our way. I had two and a half days at home before I was headed to Georgia. Those two days were spent repacking my suitcase for this new adventure, attending the annual Polish picnic at my church, and visiting my friends Bill and Ethel Farrington. Each time I come home, I update them on my travels and share all my new stories.

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Polish Picnic

Quickly, departure day approached and I was still headed to Gray’s Reef. Thankfully, my site had not changed again! The suitcases were packed once again, after struggling to meet weight requirements. On July 25th, my Dad, or rather my personal taxi diver, and I are were heading back to the airport in Hartford, Connecticut. Lucky for him, the flight did not leaving until 10:25 am, which meant we did not have to leave our house at a ridiculous time in the morning.

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Airport adventures

This time, the whole airport trip went a little smoother! I arrived in Washington Dulles for a quick layover and boarded another plane that arrived in Savannah, Georgia. Marybeth Head, the Vessel Operations Coordinator, met me at the airport.

The first place I got to see in Savannah was the Doctor’s office. We headed from the airport right to the Doctor’s to finish the remaining tests for my medical paperwork. After what seemed like forever we left the Doctor’s, made a quick pit stop at the grocery store to pick up some food for dinner, and then headed to Skidaway Institute of Oceanography located on Skidaway Island. This is where my housing is located for the remainder of my internship. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s office is located right next to Skidaway Institute and only a 10 minute walk from the house where I am staying. For the first three days I had one housemate, but now I have the whole house to myself!

 

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Housing at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography

After a long day, I ate dinner and crashed. The next morning Marybeth graciously let me borrow her car so I could do a more thorough grocery shopping trip, then I met her in the office that afternoon where I was introduced to the whole team. Lots of names were thrown at me all at once. I met and talk with Kim Roberson, the Unit Diving Supervisor. I will be working closely with Kim and the diving operations while at Gray’s Reef.

The following day, I was shown the boat, R/V Joe Ferguson, and we completed a gear check on all my equipment. This is done to make sure there are no problems with my gear and that they meet the NOAA standards. Once this was done, we loaded up gear in the truck and gathered everything we needed for the pool session so it would be ready once my paperwork came through. That afternoon Kim, Marybeth, and I discussed my interests to find some projects that I can work on when we are not diving at Gray’s Reef. We decided that I would focus on Geographic Information System (GIS) training and then use these skills to map invasive species. We also set up my computer access and email on my computer in the office — I had to complete a security training to gain access to my NOAA email.

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Joe Ferguson (Photo by Marybeth Head, NOAA)

On Thursday evenings, the graduate students at Skidaway Institute show a documentary. This week Chasing Coral was shown, which many people from the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society helped with, such as Danny Copeland and Stephanie Roach.

We were going to go to the pool on Friday, however all of my medical paperwork had not yet been approved, so I spent the day reviewing PowerPoint presentations about NOAA diving and their practices. I also started some of the GIS online training courses. Friday afternoon I received the email that I was officially cleared to go diving!

I had a pretty quiet weekend, relaxing and settling in. On Saturday evening, my best friend and roommate from school was passing through Savannah on their way to drop her sister off at college in Florida. They stopped by for dinner and we also got to explore downtown Savannah. Downtown Savannah has a lot of history and is bustling with lots of people. The roads by the river are made of  brick or cobblestone.

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Kristen and me

Monday morning, we loaded the truck and headed to Hunter Army Airfield to use their pool and completed my swim test and confined water check out dives. On our way back to the office, we stopped for a quick snow cone (Because even NOAA divers have to eat lunch). Then Marybeth and I met Todd, the Marine Operations Coordinator, at the dock to clean the hull of the boat. We jumped in the water with snorkel gear and began scrapping off the barnacles.

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Confined water check out dives at Hunter Army Airfield

Tuesday morning we went back to Hunter Army Airfield where I finished the last component of my swim test, a 500 meter snorkel in under 12 minutes. After this was completed, we arrived back in the office for the staff meeting, where I met the rest of the staff members and became up to date with everything happening at Gray’s Reef. For the remainder of the day, I worked on GIS training and we prepared for dive operations for Wednesday.

Wednesday was our first day out on the boat and my first time at Gray’s Reef! Gray’s Reef is approximately 19 miles off shore, which amounts to about a 2.5 hour boat ride. With a 2.5 hour boat ride, that also means an early start to the day. I arrived at the dock at 7:30 AM, helped load the remaining gear and we were on our way. My NOAA diver paperwork had not been signed off on yet, so I had to remain top side on the boat for the day. Top side I helped with getting the divers in and out of the water, logged dives, and learned their dive procedures.

Gray’s Reef has multiple partnerships, one of these is with Dr. Danny Gleason from Georgia Southern University. Danny is conducting research on long-term monitoring plots in Gray’s Reef to study benthic invertebrates. There are a total 52 plates and every third one gets cleaned in late July/early August each year. Their were two components to their dives; one, is getting pictures of each plate and the second, is scrapping every third plate clear and collecting the invertebrate samples into a bag for further studies back in the lab. This data educates us about invertebrate recruitment over different time scales and informs us on how the invertebrate benthic community changes over time. This was completed in three dives and were accompanied by Dr. Danny Gleason’s graduate student and Kim Roberson.

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Top side day

Before heading back, we stopped at the NOAA buoy to take pictures and try to figure out why none of the carbon dioxide sensors were working. The NOAA buoy transmits a bunch of different information about the weather and conditions at Gray’s Reef. You can find this information here.

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NOAA buoy at Gray’s Reef

My final clearance and paperwork came through on Wednesday and I officially became a NOAA diver! We planned to go back to Gray’s Reef on Thursday, however we got the call at 6 AM that weather was not good and we would try again tomorrow.

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Officially a NOAA diver

I went back to bed for a little while and then headed into the office. Thursday I continued my GIS training and completed my first course, Getting Started with GIS.

On Friday, I finally got to dive Gray’s Reef. I woke up at 5:55 AM and Marybeth picked me up at 6:30 AM to get our gear and tanks for the day. We loaded everything up on the boat while everybody else arrived. The goal for today was to complete Gabe Matthias, a University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography diver, and my checkout dives and to retrieve two hydrophones, which are underwater microphones. The data collected from the hydrophones is used for studies on ocean soundscapes. I completed two of the three dives on Friday. On the second dive, we saw a bunch of sea life from nurse sharks, turtles, flounder, eels, barracuda, etc. The third dive, Kim and Marybeth completed to find the hydrophone that we could not find on the previous dive.

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First Dive Day (Photos by NOAA)

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Receiver (Photos by NOAA)

Once we got back, cleaned, and put everything away it was already 6:30 PM. I ate dinner and did not make it past 10 PM. Saturday I caught up on things from the week and did some laundry. I met a few other students at Skidaway, we went out for dinner and walked around downtown Savannah. I had a lazy Sunday and prepared for the week ahead!

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Historic Downtown Savannah

I cannot wait to get back out to Gray’s Reef and do some more diving. Some exciting things are coming, stay tuned for more adventures!

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2017 AAUS/OWUSS Internship — Final Week in California

As the weekend quickly came to an end, the second week of class began. I was rested and ready to go! The second week of the course really dives into the training of different types of scientific procedures and processes that assist scientists in the field. Buddy teams are changed every day in order to help you not become accustomed to the same diver each time. With scientific diving, you may have multiple different buddies and it is helpful to learn how to approach this in training. In order to get all of the buddy teams on the same page, a short dive briefing was given by our instructor to explain the goal of each dive.

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Truck with Scuba diving gear on SIO Pier

In addition, another safety measure before beginning your dive was a check in on the surface with your dive plan (planned time, depth, psi in, psi out, dive table letter group, etc.).

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Check in before descending

I really looked forward to Monday because it would be my first time diving in a kelp forest. Originating from New England and never traveling to the West Coast prior to this course, I had heard about kelp forests. However, now was my chance to finally have a firsthand experience! This would also be our first day diving off small boats. At SIO, the process for using boats is a little different than most places. The system is used to minimize the time it takes to launch a boat. The boat ramp would add an hour to the procedure since it is located at Mission Bay Park, San Diego, California. The boats are launched off the pier, using a crane system to pick the boats up, bring them over the side of the pier, and then lowered into the water. Then each person has to climb down a 30 foot chain ladder to get on to the boat!

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Boats

Small boat procedures at SIO Pier

Tuesday broke the normal routine of dives in the morning and classroom in the afternoon. We had a deep dive and beach entry in the morning from La Jolla Shores and a night dive was planned for the evening. The deep dive was done in groups of four students and one dive instructor. We surface swam out to the canyon from La Jolla Shores and then descended and explored. While heading back, each member of the group had enough air left for us to swim underwater until we hit about 5 feet of water and were basically back at shore. The night dive was back off SIO pier. We were tasked with more search pattern practice for this dive, which became a lot more difficult at night!

Wednesday we were back at SIO Pier to put our search and recovery skills into action. On the first dive, we were to search and recover two chains (approx. 10 pounds) that were thrown off the pier. The catch was that we did not see them thrown, but another buddy team would have to explain to us their approximate location. On the second dive, we were to find a “spider” which is a large metal object that is used to hold various underwater data collection machines. The “spider” was weighted down with ~50 pounds, so we also had to put our lift bag skills into action.

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“Spider”

We then got to tour behind the scenes of Birch Aquarium, which is the aquarium at Scripps. Melissa Torres, who gave us the tour, is in charge of diving operations at Birch Aquarium and also an instructor for the course. We got to see the tanks that can be dove in, both behind the scenes and from the general public’s perspective.

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Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Thursday concluded the scuba diving portion of the course. We were back on the small boats and dove Mia’s reef, which is an artificial reef. Small boat diving utilizes the seated back roll entry. This course was the first time I used this skill, and it is a lot easier than I had originally thought! In addition, we were also diving NITROX after learning the classroom material. I had never dove NITROX previously, but there are many benefits to this certification, such as extending bottom time at deeper depths. The first dive we completed a transect, collecting counts and sizes of different kelp species. The final dive of the class was reserved for a fun dive! We got to explore the reef, but always keeping in mind good diving practices and the skills we learned throughout the course!

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Small boat diving on surface

Often the conditions were not optimal during the course, but this forced us to perfect our skills with even more accuracy. For example, we had to deal with surge while trying to take measurements and maintaining neutral buoyancy. Conditions are one factor that you need to take into consideration while planning scientific dives. You need to be realistic about whether or not you can complete the task within the given conditions that day. If it is not feasible, you should reschedule when the conditions are more optimal for your plan.

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Small boat diving from depth

On Friday, the final day of the class, we took the final exam. This was a cumulative exam that covered all of the material from the course. This course is not only about scientific scuba diving skills, as much as it is about physically and mentally preparing yourself to complete the tasks at hand, even if you are exhausted. In addition, it is about adjusting to the conditions. California water is a brisk ~55°F and 5-25 foot visibility, something I had not dove very often.

Even with all these new skills to learn, there is always time to have a little fun!

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Getting towed by the Boat

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Getting fed pretzels

Class Picture

Class Picture after completing final dive: Left to right back: DSO Christian McDonald, Erika Sawicki (Me), Richard Walsh, Jim Behrens, Sho Kodera, Ben Frable, Irina Koester, Camille Pagniello, Anthony Tamberino, Tom Levi. Left to right front: Chad, Melissa Torres, Ellen Briggs, Pichaya Lertvilai, Megan Cimino, Kelsey Alexander

After 19 days in California and three different hosts who graciously let me stay at their homes, I am headed back home to Massachusetts for a couple weeks. My next adventure will begin at the end of July when I head to Savannah, Georgia to work with NOAA at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. I am really excited to see what this opportunity presents and am ready to get started!

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Hello, my name is Erika Sawicki and this year I received the OWUSS-AAUS Dr. Lee H. Somers Scientific Diving Internship. I am from a small town called Wilbraham, Massachusetts and recently graduated from the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine with a double major in Ocean Studies & Marine Affairs and Environmental Science and a minor in Philosophy. I am extremely grateful for the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS) and the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) for their continued effort to create a positive and meaningful learning experience for me this summer.

After an interesting turn in events, I found out I would be completing my AAUS Scientific Diver Certification in La Jolla, California at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) with Diving Safety Officer (DSO) Christian McDonald. One week later, I was on a plane across the country to Los Angeles… Next, I was greeted with the wonderful California traffic and a four hour drive to San Diego.

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              Massachusetts                            to                                          California

My first night in San Diego I was warmly welcomed by Faith Ortins and Jeff from Diving Unlimited International (DUI). I had the opportunity to take a tour of DUI and learn how a drysuit was made. It was really fascinating to learn that almost the entire process is done by hand.

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Diving Unlimited International 

For the rest of my time in California, I was warmly welcomed to stay at Mary and Sally’s condo. Sally Wahrmann is a member of the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame (WDHOF), with extensive knowledge and dive experience of the NE wreck Andrea Doria. After a couple of days of settling in and exploring the area, my Scientific Diver course began on Saturday (6/17). It is a two-week intensive course consisting of very long days, starting at 7:30 am and ending around 5:30/6 pm each day. In addition to our class, homework was required each evening.

Prior to enrolling in a Scientific Diver course you have to fulfill the pre-requisites, which include a medical exam, first aid and emergency oxygen certification, and a recreational SCUBA certification. The AAUS Scientific Diver course includes a minimum of 100 hours of training and 12 dives, along with a swim test, confined water checkouts, and open water checkouts. In addition to the Scientific Diver certification, at SIO you are able to receive Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, Oxygen Provider, and NITROX certifications during the course. I had previously received all but the NITROX certification, but it was a great opportunity to review this material. The class had a wide range of experience levels, but everybody worked together well.

Saturday was an introductory day filled with the swim test and snorkel skills in the pool, along with a swim out to the pier (1,090 feet) and free dive down to the bottom. On Sunday, we started to use our SCUBA equipment. The importance of buddy checks was stressed; no matter how much other planning is happening at the surface for your scientific procedures, a buddy check should always be included. Buoyancy is also an important skill that we practiced. As well, we practiced different scuba entries into the pool, such as the back roll (for small boats) and giant stride.

SIO Pool

Monday started in the pool with different stress tests, such as getting gear from the bottom of the pool. We also practiced rescues skills. In addition, we determined proper weighting with our exposure suits and beach entries. Proper weighting will help with your buoyancy control. On Monday, we also started classroom lectures. For the rest of the course, we had a classroom session every day, usually after our dives. Tuesday we practiced our rescue skills in the ocean, which made the whole process a lot more difficult. This was also our first dive of the course. It was used to practice basic skills and explore our main dive site (SIO pier) for the course. Wednesday was our final pool session; we got to practice different skills, such as lift bags, transect measurements, assembly of equipment blindfolded, etc. Although challenging, it was a lot of fun to experience all of these new challenges.

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Pool

      A black piece of plastic was placed in our masks to make it impossible to see when completing the tasks.

Thursday started our new schedule of two morning dives, followed by a classroom session in the afternoon. Each day had a different focus for the dives. For example, Thursday we focused on rescue skills and rocky entries, while on Friday navigation and search patterns were practiced. During our class session, we practiced providing oxygen. We learned how to set up the oxygen kits and also got to experience what it is like to receive oxygen. Oxygen is a life-saving tool that is necessary to be on site for all scientific dives.

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                                              Oxygen Provider Practice

After a long and exciting seven days, the first half of the class came to an end. I was exhausted and really looking forward to some sleep over the weekend before the second week began!

Children’s Pool Beach, La Jolla California

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