THE Submarine, Mark Conlin, and Gates Underwater Housings

We are driving back on the California freeway from the site where Steve Drogin’s submarine is being constructed. California has a mountainous topography speckled with lots of bushes and trees. Being from Massachusetts I thought it was funny to see that there are stop lights and multiple lanes on the entrance ramps for “politely merging” onto the freeway-that’s a phrase you don’t hear too often in Boston! They help lessen the traffic at rush hour.

The drive was about two hours up to the shop, most of it spent telling Mark Conlin about the internship, and them him talking to me about his work and how he got started in the industry. Mark Conlin is a professional underwater photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Discover, has worked on many IMAX films, including ones for Howard Hall Productions. His story inspired me because he started out as a collector and surveyor for his school, after graduating from UCSB with a degree in marine biology. During his photographic surveying trips he would save about six exposures for himself to experiment with exposure, framing, etc. to learn more about the camera. He said that even though I will not be working my dream job when I first graduate from college, I have the potential to succeed by starting at one of these jobs and taking advantage of all opportunities that come my way. As a deckhand, he met Steve Drogin as well as Howard and Michele Hall and ended up working for them later on! Mark is an interesting guy, he knows a whole lot about the ocean and marine life but also has played a part in the construction of Steve’s submarine.

So…the SUBMARINE FACTORY was a sight to see!! You would never guess upon driving into the driveway of a small business park that hidden behind a few doors was Steve’s sub. It’s nine feet wide by maybe eighteen feet long; it’s the largest privately owned submarine and boy is it large!! It is not ready to go in the water yet but they predict it is two weeks away from submergence testing. We saw the motherboard “brains” of the sub, the three-inch plexi-glass dome that encloses the sub’s pilot and two passengers and it’s controls, the special aluminum edged seal and the enormous O-ring that seals the dome shut, and other external parts of the sub such as the propellers, pontoons, and the place where a camera will be mounted on the front.

Schmulich, the captain of Steve’s submarine, gave us an excellent tour of the sub and described how many of the parts function. He says he is still in the process of learning the controls of the sub, inside and out, and is very excited to be onboard this project. Seeing the submarine first-hand is awesome, Steve is building some really cool stuff! Next week there will be a photo shoot for the sub that sounds really neat. I can’t wait to see what Steve discovers on his adventures in it.

We hurried back to Steve’s house to run a few errands and then stopped at Gates Underwater Housings. Gates is a manufacturer renowned for their top-of-the-line underwater video housings, used by professionals all over the world. Gates is now owned by John Ellerbrock and he gave us a tour of the factory, boy was it amazing. What makes Gates unique is in the construction of their housings. Gates housings are cut out of a solid block of bulletproof machined aluminum; the precision of the high pressure water-cutter and the lack of seams greatly decrease the probability of leakages, making Gates so successful. Gates is currently making a customized video housing for Howard Hall. Mr. Ellerbrock is starting to experiment with prototype camera housings but right now he deals mainly with underwater video. Being behind the scenes in a premier manufacturing company was amazing, seeing the aluminum chips fly by us in the stripping machine I couldn’t help but wonder where that future camera might be in the future.

Flying out to San Diego

This morning I met Dave and Pat at the airport because we’re going to SAN DIEGO!! I can’t wait to see the beautiful, warm, area…and especially can’t wait to get into the ocean! Dave, Pat, and I are going to be staying with Steve Drogin in his house in La Jolla. Steve is an incredible photographer who has traveled all over the world on photographic adventures-and I mean all over! Steve has been to over one hundred countries, including Antarctica. I met Steve at the clinic this year (he was a speaker) and his animated personality got me psyched for the trip, especially when he showed me a picture of the submarine that he is in the process of building! After about six hours of being in the air, we landed in California. Steve welcomed us to San Diego by hosting a dinner cruise onboard his new dive yacht, Destiny. Destiny is beautifully decorated with Steve’s photographs, walking through the boat is like walking through a gallery-its awesome!! Steve and his wife Hiro have just returned from a trip to Mexico on the yacht and told us some cool stories. The dinner cruise was the perfect way to end a long day of traveling. We had delicious food cooked by Julie, Destiny’s captain, and watched the sun set over San Diego.

Advanced Class: Day 3

For the last day of the Advanced class, Dave and Pat came along to dive with us on the Wreck of the Chester Poling, and then for the shallower navigation skills dive at Bass Rocks. The Poling is a tanker that sunk in 1977 and the bottom of its stern sits in 102 feet of water off the coast of Gloucester. There are many different openings on the vessel, from portholes to doors to windows, and thought these openings we were able to see other divers exploring the inside of the wreck. Many frilled anemones covered the surfaces of the Poling, and we also saw a sea raven sitting on the deck as we rounded the vessel for our ascent. Bass Rocks was yet another type of environment that I hadn’t seen before. Bass Rocks has larger rocks that are covered in weed, but I noticed that it also has an abundance of skates. It’s pretty neat that so many of these sites are less than a mile from each other and yet each one looks drastically different. This was a nice dive to end the advanced class on. I can’t wait to go diving off these New England shores again-they’re beautiful!

Advanced Class: Day 2

Magnolia Rocks. Picture courtesy of

For the second day of my Advanced class, Ethan and I rode out to Halfway Rock to work on some deep diving skills, and then some more night diving skills at Magnolia Rocks. The dive at Halfway Rock was amazing-so awesome that the view is almost indescribable. Halfway rock may look like a smallish rocky island from the surface, but underwater it is completely different. Gigantic slabs of grayish rock seem to be stacked on top of each other like a triangular house of playing cards. It extends from the surface all the way down to the bottom at ninety feet. You feel completely dwarfed as you swim around. The rocks are covered in black sea urchins, and we saw a few lobsters and little fish. It was really cool to be swimming in an environment so large, the visibility was excellent and the whole place was surrounded by very light minty green colored water. It’s beautiful.

The dive was awesome, until we hit the safety stop at thirty feet and I couldn’t stay down! Even though we dumped all the air out of my drysuit and BC, Ethan still had to hold onto me so that I didn’t shoot up to the surface. Another lesson learned- forgotten ankle weights makes a HUGE difference, especially with the buoyancy change in Aluminum 80s! I sure didn’t forget to put them on when we made the next dive at Magnolia Rocks!

The environment at Magnolia Rocks is beautiful too, but very different from Halfway Rock. This dive was a lot shallower (30-40 feet), the rocks were smaller and covered in long, flowing seaweed. There were lots of hiding spots for lobsters, which I was looking for, and then came face to face with a large pout- I was wicked surprised to see THAT!! It’s a dark gray fish with a large head and huge lips, whose body curls up into an eel-like tail. Neat creature. I would say that today’s class was definitely an exciting one!

Underwater Photo-Tech

Fred Dion is one heck of an entrepreneur; he keeps a tight store, staffed by only a few people but certainly very successful. At his shop, Underwater Photo-Tech, not only did he explain to me how cameras and strobes work underwater and how they differ from land, he gave me invaluable pointers on how to survive in the business/marketing/retail world, and told me how he got started in photography.

Fred and Dave are the owners and founders of Underwater Photo-Tech, an underwater photography and repair store in Derry, New Hampshire. I started off the day with a tour of the store and pointers on what has made his store successful, such as small, knowledgeable staff that willing to do anything for a customer (like manufacture custom parts on site). I spent the next few hours with MJ, watching her do Nikonos camera repair. Their collection of flooded Nikonos’ is huge! MJ explained many of the steps she takes to disassemble and solder the camera back together. It was very cool to see what the guts of the camera look like-especially when saturated with salt…ouch! After her repair, MJ puts the camera through a series of tests- light meter testing, and pressure chamber testing, for example- before she hands them over to Kelly to be checked out.

In addition to camera repair, I also got to check out some of Fred’s pictures and slide shows from his trips to Indonesia-I have never seen pictures of such gorgeous and exotic life!! He also taught me how to edit the pictures using different software on the computer. I learned invaluable information with Fred and the gang at Underwater Photo-Tech, it was an awesome day!

Advanced Certification Class: Day 1

A picture of comb jellies bioluminescence in the dark; similar to what Ethan and I saw on our night dive. Source:

Today was the first day of my Advanced Class with Ethan Gordon. Although diving skill is not gauged by how many cards or certifications one has, many dive charters require divers to be Advanced certified to go on boat dives. It is the next certification level up from Open Water, and requires the diver to complete a series of at least four specialty courses. My four specialty courses are deep diving, limited visibility/night diving, navigation, and boat diving.

My class with Ethan today covered navigation and limited vis skills. He had me navigate different courses, and then distracted me for a while, and I was supposed to keep bearings and get us back to shore. My favorite part of tonight’s class was the night dive- It was awesome! We saw many lobsters, at least three dogfish, and a whole bunch of different kinds of fish. When we turned off the lights, it was surprising to see how much natural light the moon provides, and also really cool to see the phosphorescence. I think that the coolest thing that I saw that night was a long-finned squid. I’ve never seen one before and it was amazing. They glide along so gracefully in the water, and escape behind a nice cloud of ink when spooked.

Harbor Surveying on the Quest with Farsounde

Screen shot of Farsounder sonar image. Source:

A group of graduate students from University of Rhode Island invented a neat new device, a forward mapping sonar system named Farsounder, and have hired Captain Lori for the past several months to test their invention in the harbor. I went out with the three inventors, Matt, Matt, and Evan, along with Captain Lori and Captain Mike. The Farsounder system is very interesting and has many practical applications; it has even sparked the interest of the US government, which has purchased a model. While many sonar systems map what is directly below the boat, the Farsounder currently has the ability to map objects at a range of 1000 feet in front of the bow, and the team is looking to go to 1400 feet in the near future. Unlike other sonar systems, Farsounder uses quiet sound waves that do not hurt or confuse mammals underwater.

Mounted on the bow of the Takakjian’s vessel Quest, Farsounder was able to chart the locations of bouys, docks, and approaching vessels on a computer screen. Large shipping cartons submerged just below the surface, uncharted shipwrecks, and even whales are extremely dangerous obstacles to vessels and can cause an unexpected sinking. Collecting data every two seconds, the Farsounder software can create a three dimensional image of the sea floor to surface ahead, helping a vessel locate and safely steer around such obstacles. We took the Quest to four different locations to test out the system. At each site we panned the area back and forth and back and forth in a cross-hatch pattern so that Matt, Matt, and Evan could eventually stitch together a full three dimensional map of each site.

First we went to Butler Flats right outside of the harbor; I got to stear for a while and quickly learned that you need to compensate for drift caused by the wind and current. The next site, the Great Ledge, was another area where they wanted to stitch together a topographical bottom map, but we had to leave before getting very far because it was too shallow and the rocks became dangerous. We panned back and forth at the last two sites as well, Church Rock and Decatur Rock, and then finally Palmer Island Light before calling it a day.

Diving in Scituate with Tom Mulloy

Today Kim and I drove up to Scituate, Mass to dive with Tom Mulloy- and his dog Bailey. Before we got the boat ready to go, Tom showed us his artifact collection and the stained glass projects that he makes. Both were very impressive. He has a great boat to dive from because the stern is very spacious. The first dive site was Mino Light. On our way out we stopped to say hi to Tom’s friend, a lobsterman who had just pulled and set his pots. The lobstering right now isn’t as good as it has been; he only had two in that whole catch!

Diving at Mino Light was awesome. The historic lighthouse sits on top of huge rocks that form mini canyons just large enough to swim through- which was awesome!. The rock walls are covered in all different types and colors of seaweed and are filled with fish and hiding spots for lobsters. The site is not too deep so it was a nice long dive-and oh yeah, I caught my first New England lobster! I grabbed it quickly but then dropped it when it started to bring its claws back towards me-Tom was laughing, but I got it again and brought it over to him. The lobster was too little to do anything with, but I was wicked happy that I caught my first one!!

Kim piloted us into the harbor where we docked quickly to see the memorial to the lightkeepers of the first Mino Light, then we were off to the next dive site: The wreck of the Forrest Queen. The Forrest Queen was a wooden hulled ship that sank in 1852, and has been worn down by the salty, current-filled New England water. Because the wreck was in 13 feet of water Kim was able to snorkel down to see it, and we were both surprised to see big looming chunks of conglomerate on the bottom rather than something in the shape of a boat . Tom taught me how to use a crowbar and hammer, and we found lots of stuff in the conglomerate-mostly all wine bottles, but I found a corset lacing snap, and Tom found some hand cut nails. It was awesome to think all this stuff was from the 1800s. After that, he let me try out his underwater scooter. Wicked cool, but I got totally lost underwater and ended up surfacing far far away.

Later, Tom took us to the local sailing museum. He’s found lots of treasures on the Forrest Queen, from intact Tabasco bottles, all sorts of hardware made by blacksmiths, and best of all a 73 lb silver ingot! Holy cow was that thing massive. He puts his treasures on display at the museum so local kids and citizens can learn about some of their coastal history. It’s all very neat.

Quest Trip to Martha’s Vineyard

Today my sister Kim and I were picked up bright and early (something I’ve noticed is really common in the diving world!) by Dave and Pat to drive down and meet Eric and Lori Takakjian at their dock in Falmouth. Kim finally got to see firsthand some of the cool stuff I’ve been doing this summer! We all went out on their research vessel, Quest, to go wreck diving off of Martha’s Vineyard. Captain Eric and Captain Lori run a business called Quest Marine Services, where they charter their vessel for oceanographic services. The Takakjians have found numerous shipwrecks off the New England coast, three of which we visited today. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get into the water at any of the three sites because it was too choppy, but it was a nice day spent out on the water. I was pretty lucky that we didn’t get in the water because I only had 1500 pounds in my tank just after we left the dock….oh boy did I learn my lesson!! CHECK YOUR TANK PRESSURE RELIGIOUSLY!!  I was petrified of telling the people on the boat, hahaha.  Check, check, recheck…even if the shop filled it a couple of days before….boy was that embarrassing, but it taught me.

Kim caught my expression on film when I realized that I had less than half a tank of air left before the dive…

Days 4 and 5: They Eat Better Than We Do!

Attempting to use the lift bag in the Giant Ocean Tank, and not kill the fish on the way up!

Can you believe that all the food that the GOT animals eat is restaurant quality? All the way down to the cooked shrimp! These past two days I’ve spent most of the time feeding. Myrtle and the needlefish are the main ones that I’ve been feeding-the needlefish love the shrimp! Friday I worked with volunteers Jeff, Narda, Don and John. I love interning at the aquarium because every day I’ve met at least four new people. All the volunteers that I’ve met come from really different backgrounds ranging from freelance artists to computer programmers to college students.  Everyone has given me great advice on what to do after college, and how to stay in contact with the marine world.  A great idea that Tara suggested was that I should take advantage of travelling and studying abroad in college; if I want to keep traveling than working on live-aboards in Australia is definitely the way to go (that’s what she did).  It’s comforting to know that I don’t necessarily have to be a marine biologist to work with aquatic life.

Saturday was my last day at the aquarium  :-( and I met Barry, Neal, and Dan.  I got to do two dives on the last day, both of them were with Dan. Dan took me on a great tour of the GOT; we went through all the passageways and holes above and below the reef, and he let me pat the giant green moray. Underwater it has the softest, slimiest skin- it felt like I could almost poke a hole in its side if I pushed to hard, it was so malleable. A very different feeling compared to the tough, sandpaper-like skin of the nurse shark that Holly let me touch the first day.

On the second dive Dan taught me how to use a lift bag and we each used one to transport buckets of sand from one area of the GOT to the main tray. It was really cool, but hard to swim with so I guess I didn’t put enough air in the bag. At the end of the day Dan took me on a tour of the galleries behind the scenes. It’s a room with holding tanks for the galleries, and many aquariums with one side displayed to the public. If you look down you can see the people looking in- but they don’t see you! The aquarium was a fun place to spend five days. I learned so much about the animals, and what it takes behind the scenes to keep the aquarium going (a lot!). Now I want to volunteer at an aquarium when I’m away at college!