“Never lose the child like wonder. It’s just too important. It’s what drives us.”
Think back for a moment to that constant thrill of discovery you experienced as a child. Everything was so new and exciting, full of limitless possibilities. Every day brought something new to learn or some new skill to try. And when you finally understood and mastered it, you were so full of excitement that you just had to share it with someone.
More often than not, that someone was one or both of your parents.
I think the phrase, “Look, Mom! No hands!” sums up the feeling I’m trying to describe in a nutshell. Whether you were riding a roller coaster or trying to move some random object with your feet instead of your hands, you wanted to show Mom that you were just that skilled, that as a wee child, you were doing something awesome.
Well, I have also recently experienced that childlike giddiness and thrill of discovery through my field season this year. Despite the setbacks and obstacles that I described in my last post, I still crossed a major milestone in my research by collecting my first complete set of video data.
And if my mom had been there on our dive trips, I would have yelled, “Look, Mom! I’m doing science!” before stepping into the water for my next dive.
Our first dive trip of the season took place back in mid-May. Bob had booked the R/V Silver Crescent, a stately 52-foot fiberglass hull vessel, for the day and stocked the galley with plenty of snacks, drinks, and sandwich supplies. We had a total of six divers in our group, and we were in excellent hands with Captain Rob, a seasoned pro with years of experience aboard his vessel who genuinely loves his work and the sea.
Bob and Ryan gave us the dive plan and safety briefing once we were on our way. We would be diving on my three artificial reef study sites and shooting video surveys of the fish communities. My thesis is about how the age of artificial reefs affects fish communities, so I am using three identical reefs of varying ages to track how the communities change over time. I am also surveying two natural reefs, which have been established for decades, if not centuries, to determine whether artificial reef fish communities eventually resemble those of natural reefs.
But first, we had some unfinished business with the Ronald McDonald House.
We passed by the drop site for the recently deployed “McSteel” reef, comprised of steel railing donated by the Ronald McDonald House, on our way to the study sites, so Bob took two divers down for a scuba photo shoot to commemorate the occasion and so the children staying at the Ronald McDonald House would have some exciting pictures to admire. With that mission complete, Captain Rob took us full speed ahead to our first study site.
Paulette and I made up the first dive team, and we dove on the middle-aged reef cones, which are about 6 years old. As we assembled our gear, I realized that this dive would be one of many “firsts.” It would be my first dive of the year, my first real attempt at collecting data for my thesis, and my first trial of my new BC (buoyancy compensator). Before the sampling season, I had finally purchased my own BC instead of the one I had borrowed the previous year, and I couldn’t wait to test it out. I had gotten a Zeagle Zena, which is designed specifically for women and zips in the front like a corset instead of using a Velcro cummerbund. It also inflates in the back instead of a jacket style and would hopefully give me more mobility with my arms. And best of all, it was teal, one of my favorite colors.
This was my first time diving from the Crescent, and I could finally see firsthand why she had a bit of a reputation for a rather daunting method of water entry. Unlike the R/V Palmetto, the Crescent did not have a cutout door in the side to allow a simple giant stride entry. Instead, we would have to sit on the edge and do a back-roll. I had practiced this method of water entry in my scuba classes, but the size of this vessel meant that it would be a good six-foot drop. Fortunately, the seas were calm, so we didn’t have to worry too much about timing our back-rolls with the crest of the waves to avoid hitting the side of the vessel.
I was a mix of nerves and sheer excitement as I sat on the edge of the Crescent, going over my mental pre-dive checklist before taking the plunge. Mask? Check. Fins? Check. Air on? Check. Weight belt? Extra tight. BC inflated? Double check. Hold mask and regulator in place with one hand, hold console and octo (backup regulator) with the other, and…
…I am not ashamed to say that I screamed/whooped through my regulator as I tipped backward and was completely airborne for a split second before crashing down into the ocean’s waiting embrace.
Before I could even think to worry that I would continue sinking, my BC was true to form and brought me back to the surface so Bob could pass me the video camera. Paulette and I re-grouped at the buoy marking the dive site, gave each other the signal, and allowed the ocean to close over our heads as we began our descent.
Any time I begin a dive and feel the silence of the water around me, I always get a feeling bordering on reverence, knowing that the ocean has allowed me into her realm as a visitor for a unique experience unlike any other. In a way, descending below the ocean’s surface feels like a second baptism, as though I’m dying to the life above the water and experiencing a form of rebirth in this strange, yet familiar realm that has called to me since I was a child. And right away, the ocean granted me a truly unique experience as soon as my fins touched the bottom. As I surveyed the surroundings and waited for Paulette, I looked to my right to see one of the ocean’s gems, a beautiful four-foot loggerhead sea turtle. He approached us at a slow, almost leisurely pace, gliding through the water with a grace and elegance that we, in our cumbersome gear, could never hope to match. He passed less than an arm’s length in front of me, and I reached out my hand almost as an afterthought, though I stopped shy of touching him. Apparently satisfied with his inspection, he departed from our presence and vanished beyond our sight.
After that unexpected surprise, Paulette and I got right to work. This dive was my first real attempt at collect video data for my thesis, so I wanted to make sure I got it right. I picked three random sites on the reef near some of the concrete balls, knelt on the bottom, turned on the camera, and held it at eye level while I rotated 360 degrees in 60 seconds. The artificial reef program has been using this video protocol – called a point-count – for years to monitor fish communities at their reefs and can attest to its reliability. While I worked the camera, Paulette inspected the reef units more closely and recorded on a clipboard a list of all the fish species she encountered, particularly small, cryptic species that the camera might not catch. By the time I had recorded all three point-counts, Paulette and I still had plenty of air and bottom time left, so we explored the reef some more to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Paulette pointed out a flounder camouflaged in the sand and a toadfish peeking out of a hole in one of the reef units, both of which I would have otherwise missed seeing.
After we made our safety stop and surfaced, Ryan led the next dive team onto the youngest artificial reef, at about 2 years old. They reported that they didn’t see a lot of fish, but they made sure to carefully list each species they found while recording the point-counts. Paulette and I wrapped up the day’s work on the oldest artificial reef, and it was a short and sweet dive. As I recorded the point-counts with the camera, I noticed that the coral and sponge growth was much more developed than on either of the other two reefs, which wasn’t surprising given this reef’s age at 15 years. Once Paulette and I had finished our respective tasks, we shrugged at each other, not knowing what else to do, and headed back for the anchor line to ascend.
But we were only halfway done after that first dive trip. About a month later, Bob once again called on Captain Rob, his trusty Crescent, and a team of divers to visit the two natural reef sites. Unlike coral reefs in the tropics, these reefs are called hard-bottom or live-bottom reefs, which consist of rocky shelves covered with soft corals, sponges, and algae instead of the colorful reef-building corals commonly touted in magazines and documentaries. But if you ask me, they are just as fascinating and exciting dive sites as the tropical reefs.
During the dive briefing, Bob placed me in the first dive team with Ryan and Jenn, a seasoned diver from the sea turtle program. She had come along to prepare for a research project in the tropics that would involve scientific diving. As an added bonus, the Crescent now sported a latched door on the side and a removable ladder to make entering and exiting the water much easier.
I had not dived on the live-bottom reefs in over a year, but they certainly did not disappoint as Ryan, Jenn, and I began our first descent. Almost immediately, a small school of greater amberjacks rose up from the murky depths and followed us at a polite distance as we passed through a mild thermocline and hit the bottom 70 feet below. I paused to check my gauges, looked around, and just had to stop and stare.
I mean really stare.
The good captain had really outdone himself in picking this spot. Rocky debris and shallow shelves formed a complex labyrinth encrusted with soft corals, bright yellow sponges, and filamentous algae that danced lazily in the current. And swimming around us were more grouper and snapper than I had ever witnessed in one place. Gag grouper ranging from two-foot juveniles to four-foot adults loomed at the edge of our field of vision like slow-moving shadows, dancing out of our way if we got too close for their comfort. Red snapper, bleached to shimmering silver by the low light, dared to approach us for a closer inspection before carrying on with their business. And of course, the sea basses were as inquisitive as ever. After diving on the artificial reefs and noting the dominance of smaller, non-recreational species such as tomtate and spottail pinfish, I was shocked to see how much the fish communities differed on these ancient, natural reefs that had stood as sentinels against the slow progression of time.
After the shock factor wore off, I got to work with the video camera while Ryan logged fish species on the clipboard and Jenn followed his lead. I tried to swim slowly to avoid startling the skittish gag grouper and would kneel motionless for a few seconds before beginning each point-count. I reunited with Ryan and Jenn after completing my video work, and we swam around the reef, searching for any species we might have missed, before heading back to the anchor line to ascend. Once again, as if on cue, a school of amberjacks darted out of nowhere to escort us back to the surface, a fitting end to a successful first dive.
Bob’s team finished up the data collection on the next dive, so he announced that our second dives of the day would be “for fun.” At that comment, I wanted to turn to him with a bewildered expression and jokingly ask, “Well, aren’t all dives fun?”
While we rested between dives, Ryan pointed out an adult loggerhead resting on the surface of the water. Jenn, our resident sea turtle expert, was absolutely delighted and wasted no time commenting on how cute he was and explaining aspects of his behavior and biology. Needless to say, I have learned a great deal about sea turtles simply from diving with people in the sea turtle program.
While gearing up for our “fun” dive, I set aside the video camera and readied my digital camera in its underwater housing. Jenn also planned to take her camera underwater as well, so we swapped notes on how best to lubricate the O-rings with silicone and ensure a watertight seal. Ryan pointed out that I had too much weight on my belt on the last dive, so I removed a couple of pounds to avoid, in his words, “swimming like a plow.” He also put me in charge of the circle search, a spool of line that we attach to the anchor line and carry with us on every dive so we can find our way back in case of poor visibility. With our preparations complete, the captain placed us over a promising new site on the reef, and we made our descent.
After devoting my previous dives to work, it was quite a change of pace to take a more relaxed approach and simply “play” underwater. Jenn and I explored every interesting nook and cranny that caught our eye, snapping pictures of black sea bass, colorful coral formations, and even a sea cucumber twice the size of a grocery store cucumber. I had to fiddle with the settings on my camera before finding one that worked decently well in the dim lighting, but finally I started seeing results. I also noticed a huge difference in my buoyancy and ability to maneuver after trimming the extra pounds from my weight belt, so it was much easier to get closer to the reef fish without the added weight and the bulky video camera.
In some cases, the fish seemed as curious to investigate me as I was to approach them. I knelt in place for a good five minutes while a sheepshead slowly circled, getting closer and closer while I kept snapping pictures, each one better than the last. It was almost as if he were trying to pose for the camera, the way he turned so I got good views of his impressive front teeth and eye-catching black-and-white stripes along his sides.
I also went nose-to-nose with a particularly gutsy black sea bass. He rested on the bottom on his pectoral fins while I lay on my belly with the camera held at arm’s length. Jenn told me later once we were topside that she saw the whole thing and could just picture me talking to him like a Hollywood photographer, saying things like, “Show me some fin!” and “The camera loves you!” and “Work it, baby, work it!”
I eventually began varying my approach to get good pictures. I would army crawl along the bottom to creep up on a bank sea bass standing guard in front of an empty conch shell, hover in place over a sea cucumber, and try to compose shots with a colorful wrasse in front of a coral-encrusted boulder. I could have stayed down there for hours, honing my underwater photography obsession, but eventually Ryan gave me the signal to reel in the circle search and take us back to the anchor line. Back on the Crescent, Jenn and I scrolled through our pictures and compared notes on what we had seen and experienced.
And later that day, after the Crescent was safely anchored and our gear was stowed for the day, I giddily called my parents to share my excitement. They almost got as much enjoyment from hearing about it as I did with doing it.
I still know who enjoyed it the most.