New England Aquarium: Filming in the GOT

After seeing the film crew in action yesterday in the penguin exhibit, I was itching for a chance to use my own camera in the Aquarium. The opportunity came today when I headed back to the top floor to work once again with the dive staff in the Giant Ocean Tank. Don Stark–one of the dive volunteers–has his own underwater video production company, and he was more than willing to let me shadow him for the day, offer lots of useful advice and even film me diving in the tank. Before that, though, we had the two morning feeding sessions to deal with. Myrtle was a joy, as always; she not only gulped down all of her squid, fish, and protein gel in the first feed, but a whole head of lettuce and broccoli too! One thing she didn’t like, however, was the zucchini that had been put in her feed (I can’t say I blame her…) The staff mentioned that Myrtle fluctuates between periods of fasting and feasting; last time I worked with her as a marine mammal intern, she would eat just a couple pieces of squid and a handful of brussel sprouts, nothing more; whereas currently she’s been known to eat up to 10 heads of lettuce in a single day!
During the second feed I dealt again with the ‘cuda, needlefish, and porcupinefish, and helped set out the herring that were to be fed to the sharks. Feeding the sharks is quite an delicate task for the divers; while the two species in the tank are both non-aggressive and would never attack anyone in the tank if unprovoked, the divers must attach the sharks’ food to long poles so that no one’s hands are mistakenly crunched. Overall, the sharks are very well behaved, mostly due to how well they are fed (twice a day, whereas in the wild they might eat once a week at the most,) but each diver has their own tale of a close encounter; One story was told to me where all three sand tiger sharks decided to simultaneously go after the same fish, resulting in some spectacular underwater acrobatics by the diver to avoid being bowled over by a combined 900+ lbs of fast-moving chondrichthyes.
After lunch I suited up for the 1:15 maintenance dive, making sure my camera was properly set up and sealed in its housing. The dive was as excellent as my first in the tank–I don’t think I could ever get bored of the opportunity to swim just inches away from sharks, rays, moray eels, turtles, and much, much more, all gliding fearlessly by without a care. One of the more interesting things I had the opportunity to do on this dive was to clean out the gills of some of the hogfish and triggerfish on exhibit. Don taught me how to do this by feeding handfuls of sand into one of the four inflow vents in the tank; the fish soon clustered around the resulting plume of sand with mouths wide open, ingesting the grains and passing them along their gills to clean out any unwanted detritus. All in all, I got some excellent footage in the GOT, and am excited for tomorrow, when I’ll have the opportunity to film in the penguin exhibit as well!

The Great Lakes

The last trip of my internship was to the Great Lakes, more specifically Lake Huron for a week of wreck diving and video editing with Jim and Pat Stayer.  Jim and Pat are founders of Out of the Blue Productions and have helped find a handful of wrecks in Lake Huron. The first couple of days I was there, Sea Rover Cris Kohl and his wife Joan Forsberg were also visiting.  Cris also writes books about the Great Lake Wrecks.  The first day that we went out on their boat the Wildkat, I was astonished to be looking at the huge body of water in front of me.  It smelled and tasted like freshwater, but the amount of water and the waves made it look like the ocean.  We dove the wreck of the Sport.  The next day the weather was not good, so we could not go out.  Whenever there is a little bit of wind or rain, it gets rough really fast on the lake. Instead, I spent the day in the editing room.  The Stayers have an amazing editing room that they use to put together their films from their trips. Luckily, I was able to pick up using the editing program fairly quickly.  The following day the weather had improved, and we made 3 dives.  The ships that we dove on were the New York, Col. A.B. Williams, and the Charles A. Street. The shipwrecks in Lake Huron are located in a preserve so all of the portholes and metal are still intact.  This was really cool to see, because the shipwrecks in the ocean where I live have all been stripped down.  After a long day of diving it was back to the editing room to continue working on my presentation.  The day after we were able to get in a dive before the weather got bad; Jim and I dove the Eliza H. Strong.  The rest of my time at the Stayers was spent editing and sightseeing in nearby Lexington.  My visit with the Stayers was an amazing opportunity.  I dove so many wonderful wrecks and was able to learn their history.  I would like to thank the Stayers for their unbelievable help with the editing and the assembly of my presentation.  As I got on the plane to go home, it was weird to think that after my flight, I wouldn’t have any more traveling or planes to catch for a while.

I would like to thank the Boston Sea Rovers and the Scalli Family for the amazing opportunity, and although the internship may be coming to an end, it is just the beginning for me.

Intern Dive

Today my family and I drove to Gloucester, MA to meet Patrick Scalli, past interns, and other Sea Rovers for a day of diving and a cookout.  We dove from two boats in Folly’s Cove and caught some enormous lobster, most of which had to be returned because they were over the maximum size limit.  It was a day full of fun and catching up with old friends.


Before I knew it I was flying to North Carolina to visit the Divers Alert Network (DAN) headquarters.  When I arrived, I met with Eric Douglas and Donna Uguccioni from DAN.  Donna is in charge of the scholars and interns that come to visit.  Jamie Brisbin (2008 Our World Underwater Scholar) was also there to receive DAN training and take part in a “Flying after Diving” study (FAD).  These studies are done in the hyperbaric chamber at Duke University to measure the effects on divers who fly soon after diving.  For each study, 4 people went into the chamber to exercise for a set time at depth; we were in the chamber for 40 minutes at 60 ft.  We then spent time on deck between the “dive” and the “flight”.  When I participated, the time between the flight and dive was down to 5 hours.  We then went back into the chamber for a 4-hour flight.  During the flight the doctors would take Doppler and TE readings which enabled them to monitor our hearts for bubbles.  Each trial of the study decreases the time between “diving” and “flying” after a certain amount of people have gone through that time period and no one has gotten bent.  The goal is to bring the surface time all the way down to 5 minutes between flight and dive.  The training that I received while I was at DAN included AED, O2, Advanced O2, and First Aid for Hazardous Marine Life Injuries.  The time spent at DAN was a lot of fun and I met a lot of really cool people as well as learned an incredible amount.

Dutch Springs and Rescue Class

I was next off to Pennsylvania to take a Diver Rescue class at Dutch Springs taught by Andrea Zaferes and Lifeguard Systems.  The class consisted of one night of classroom and then the weekend of diving at Dutch Springs, with a mix of lectures and dives.  On land, we went over CPR, dressing different types of injuries, and other exercises.  In the water we learned how to handle an unconscious diver, out-of-air diver, and other drills that would be useful in an emergency.  This class was very helpful in better preparing me for what to do in an underwater emergency situation.

Great White Shark

Today I went to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries office in New Bedford to take part in a great white shark necropsy being performed by Greg Skomal.  The shark had washed up on shore a few days earlier and was picked up by the Division. The necropsy was being done to try and figure out the cause of death and to take tissue and organ samples for further study of the fish.  The shark was a female and less than 1 year old, although, you would never know that from its size (6 feet).  This was an amazing opportunity to see a great white shark up close and to learn about sharks from the Division’s shark expert.

Advanced and Nitrox Training

After my work on the Quest, I was off to Connecticut to meet up with past Frank Scalli Intern Richard Simon.  I would be doing my Advanced and Nitrox class with him.  The first night, we got all of the gear ready to go to Block Island and then did the majority of the classroom portion.  There were a lot of materials to go through, since I was doing two classes.  Nitrox or enriched air is a mixture of gas that has a higher percentage of oxygen than regular air; the two most common mixes are 68% nitrogen, 32% oxygen, and 64% nitrogen, 36% oxygen.  The next day we drove to Point Judith, RI to take a boat to Block Island.  There are a ton of wrecks near Block Island, which is a perfect location for the advanced dives.  We dove on the Troydon, and the Heroine. The Troydon is a 90 ft clam boat lying in 135ft water.  The Heroine is a broken up steam fishing vessel lying at 80ft.

New England Aquarium: Giant Ocean Tank

I woke up this morning with eager anticipation; I was finally going to dive in the New England Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank, fulfilling a dream I’d had ever since I’d interned at the Marine Mammals exhibit there. For those who’ve never been to the New England Aquarium, the Giant Ocean Tank (or GOT) is a 23′ deep, 40′ diameter tank holding 200,000 gallons of seawater heated to 75F to simulate conditions in a Caribbean reef ecosystem. The tank houses a gigantic, 20′-tall fiberglass coral reef replica that over 600 fish (and a few turtles) call home. The species within the tank range from damselfish to balloonfish to tarpon to sand tiger sharks; pretty much every level of a typical reef food chain is represented in the GOT. One would expect this to result in a lot of bad news for the little guys in the tank–and a lot of tasty meals for the apex predators, like the sharks and the barracuda on exhibit–but fortunately that is not the case, thanks to the tireless efforts of the aquarium’s dive staff, who work all day to ensure everyone in the tank is well fed and taken care of. This group of dedicated staff and volunteers, whom I worked with for the day, prep four meals a day for the fish on exhibit; the food ranges from lettuce to zooplankton to squid to herring, with specific diets prepared for each species on exhibit. Some of the fish are feed at the surface, while the others are feed underwater by divers. In total, five dives are conducted each day, four for feeding and one for maintenance of the exhibit.
The workday started with food prep; nothing like the smell of countless buckets of thawing seafood to wake you up! Squid were debeaked and depenned, shrimp were detailed (as in tails removed, not cleaned like a car–that took me a while to figure out,) capelin were sorted male and female, and everything was chucked into buckets, bags, and tupperware containers for the feeding sessions to come. For the first feed, I handled the needlefish and barracuda, chucking krill, silversides, and capelin out to any hungry passersby. Second feed found me paired up with Myrtle, unofficial mascot (and definite prima donna) of the GOT. Myrtle is a 75-year old, 550-pound Green Sea Turtle, and she cavorts around with an attitude that can only come from living in the Giant Ocean Tank ever since it was first built 40 years ago. She also eats quite a lot, being the only animal in the tank that fed at each of the four sessions; during my session with her, she gulped down a full head of lettuce, a dozen or so brussel sprouts, and a head of broccoli and seemed eager for more.
After lunch came the moment I’d been waiting for, as I suited up and prepared to dive into the GOT. Paul Leonard unfortunately could not dive with me that day, but I was placed in the capable hands of Dan Laughlin, assistant curator of the Giant Ocean Tank and Penguin exhibits. He made sure to show me that, while diving in the GOT is a job with a lot of responsibility, it’s also a fun and incredible experience. We scrubbed the “coral”, noted deposits of damselfish eggs on the walls of the tank, brushed Myrtle’s back with a convenient rock, and then I had the chance to just sit back and observe all the amazing animals interact peacefully around me. And as I watched Dan blow bubble rings to the sharks cruising directly over our heads, while hundreds of visitors peered at us through the glass, I realized just how lucky I was to be in that position, and how I wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything in the world.

Quest and Multi Beam Sonar

My next location was Fairhaven Harbor; here I was on Eric and Lori Takakjian’s boat the Quest.  The Quest was being used by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to support a Focus II tow vehicle for using multi-beam sonar.  The two days were spent putting everything onto the boat and securing it to the deck. Setting up the system with the computers, to ensure that everything was being read properly took quite a while.  As with any big research project, we ran into some problems, so there was a lot of trial and error.  When everything was all set up, we slowly raised the Focus II and slid it into the water, for a float test. It was very interesting to learn about the system and how it all worked.   I am very grateful to Lori and Eric for inviting me out on the boat.

New England Aquarium: Penguin Exhibit

Today found me up at 5:00 AM, getting ready to catch a train into Boston for a long day’s work at the New England Aquarium (NEAq). I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of deja vu during the trip in to North Station; you see, I’d caught this exact train many times before, back when I participated in a six-month Marine Mammal internship for the aquarium. This time, however, I was not going into Boston to work with the Atlantic Harbor & Pacific Fur Seals; instead, I was going to help out with the African, Rockhopper, and Blue Penguins! Once I arrived at NEAq, I met up with Paul Leonard, a Boston Sea Rover and senior aquarist in the penguin exhibit. He introduced me to the staff and volunteers on the exhibit, and then I jumped straight into work, helping separate and weigh the fish of choice for the day — Sardines (which are quite different from the fish sold in tight little tin cans in the supermarket.) Once the buckets for each species of penguin were filled with the proper amount of fish, we all suited up in nice, thick 7mm wetsuits and prepared to go in the exhibit. Though no one was going to be diving, those 7mm suits were crucial; the water in the exhibit is filtered in straight from the adjoining Boston Harbor, at an average temperature of about 60F. Furthermore, we were planning to spend about 3 hours in that water, which ranged in depth from waist-deep to up to my neck; after the first half-hour in there I was thinking I should have brought my DUI drysuit!
However, my attention was quickly drawn away from the cold when we started to feed the penguins. Working with Paul, I kept a tally of how much fish each of the 41 African Penguins on exhibit ate. Though the African’s have distinct markings on their chest plumage, it’d be almost impossible to recognize each individual bird by sight, which is why the penguins are all tagged with colored ID bands on their wings; left for the males, and right for the females. I expected to be overwhelmed by all the colors and corresponding names,  but was pleasantly surprised to find that by the end of the feeding session I could already identify a handful of the penguins. Once every African Penguin had been seen to, we put the food buckets away and pulled out hoses, disinfectant, and scrub brushes; even with a team of four or more volunteers, it takes roughly five hours of work a day to keep the exhibits clean and the penguins well fed–that means five hours in numbingly cold water, which is why I soon learned to be very grateful for the hot showers we took at lunch and again near the end of our shift. The rest of the day flew by, and before I knew it the kitchen was clean, blocks of frozen fish were set out to thaw, and wetsuits were all hung with care, ready for the next day’s set of volunteers to do it all over again. I’ll be back with the penguins later this week, but tomorrow brings a whole new set of experiences as I head up to the top floor to work with the aquarium dive team and dive into the Great Ocean Tank!