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2023 Dr Lee H Somers Scientific Diving Intern
Jessica Anayansi García Pantoja
Excerpts from final report. Full report can be found here .
OWUSS and AAUS work together to promote marine and underwater research, exploration, and education. The primary goal of the Dr. Lee H. Somers OWUSS/AAUS Scientific Diving Internship is to prepare participants for careers in scientific diving and related fields. Throughout the summer, interns receive professional training, take part in scientific diving research and data collection, and learn about AAUS diving standards and procedures. AAUS fosters collaboration among researchers, educators, and diving experts while upholding safety standards for scientific diving. This collaboration contributes significantly to the advancement of marine sciences and conservation.
To achieve this, I received training through an AAUS Organizational Member. The internship took place at Shannon Point Marine Center of Western Washington University in Anacortes, Washington. Throughout my stay, I resided in the marine center's dorms alongside SPMC’s summer 2023 REU students, progressing through the scientific diving certification and contributing to research on Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) as well as other diving projects.
Practical and Theorical Diving Skills
Our initial task in scientific diving training was to head to the pool for our swim test after checking out gear from the dive locker. We successfully completed a 400-yard swim in under 12 minutes, a 25-yard breath-hold swim, a 10-minute tread water session, and practiced water-based person transport. Surprisingly, I finished the swim test first, achieving it in just 7 minutes and 38 seconds.
Moving on to the second pool test, our focus shifted to rescue diver training. We navigated through various rescue scenarios like surfacing an unconscious diver from depth, bringing them to shore and initiating CPR/emergency oxygen administration. Though demanding and physically taxing, this training fulfilled my desire for comprehensive skill development in this area
Olivia, Mary, and Jessica taken before first open water rescue training.
Photo by Gaby Vitale
Before diving into the data collection project in the cool waters of the Salish Sea, Nate and Derek led us to Western Washington University's Lakewood facility on Lake Whatcom. This served as a gentle introduction to cold waters, enabling us to practice buoyancy and navigation without the usual challenges of limited visibility and strong currents.
Our training continued at Rosario Beach, just outside the Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory, and at Tugboat Beach Park. Here, we honed our open water navigation and first aid skills. At Rosario Beach, we executed a search and recovery dive and practiced various search navigation patterns. Our classroom time at SPMC delved into first aid and AAUS knowledge review, while the Divers Alert Network training covered CPR, AED usage, neurological assessment, diving safety, underwater theory, and marine life injuries.
Eventually, Mary, Olivia, and I obtained additional certifications alongside the AAUS Scientific Diving Certification. This included PADI’s Nitrox, Advanced Open Water, and Rescue Diver certifications. The Nitrox e-learning course focused on math problems, dive table calculations for different gas mixtures, and understanding the physics of gas partial pressures. Our advanced certification involved a deep dive at The Cathedral, where Nate tested us with 8 math problems at 85 ft, and a night dive at Burrows Bay amongst Sea Pens - an illuminating experience thanks to the incredible bioluminescence.
Successful night dive at Burrows Bay
Photo by Jessica Anayansi García Pantoja
The diving conditions near Anacortes weren't the easiest. Alongside frigid temperatures, limited visibility, and strong current systems, we had only brief windows of calm during the 30-minute slack periods between tidal exchanges. Throughout my time there, I encountered various tide exchanges, witnessing the moon's significant impact on the Salish Sea. It was fascinating to observe how currents would intensify during certain phases. Despite the challenging environment, I'm profoundly grateful for the experience as it has undoubtedly enhanced my diving skills. It's reassuring to know that navigating these conditions prepares you for diving in almost any scenario.
Conducting underwater surveys in the amazing Salish Sea
Sea star wasting disease (SSWD) is a devastating syndrome that affects various species of sea stars, causing rapid tissue deterioration and death. A field study was conducted in 2014-2015 on the short-term population impacts of SSWD in subtidal sea star species in the Salish Sea (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0163190). Nine years later, we wanted to investigate the long-term effects of SSWD on subtidal populations by resurveying the historic transect sites in the San Juan Islands.
After completing our diving training, we were eager to begin the underwater surveys. Mary, Olivia, and I were filled with excitement. We worked alongside other skilled scientific divers and students from Western Washington University, using two different methodologies, strip transects and roving transects, to collect essential data and assess the seastar population. Through both methods, we counted the presences of adults and juveniles and their state of health.
We gathered data from 12 monitoring sites. Across our 34 dives with 6 divers, we've encountered only about 6-7 of the elusive Pycnopodia helianthoides
. This species is commonly known as the sunflower star and has become rare due to the devastating sea star wasting syndrome outbreak in 2013. Their population declined by about ~90%, resulting in the loss of approximately 5 billion stars along the Pacific coast of North America. They are now considered critically endangered by the IUCN. However, there is hope as scientists have successfully bred them in captivity, with plans to reintroduce them into the wild and restore their numbers.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore the breathtaking channels, island sounds, and beaches of the Salish Sea. Being involved in this project and diving at these sites has been an amazing experience. During our surveys, I've come across a wide variety of beautiful creatures, such as the impressive giant pink sea star, giant sunflower star, the captivating giant Pacific octopus, elusive Wolf eels, strawberry anemones, white plumose anemones, numerous sea cucumbers, and nudibranchs.
Another Diving Projects for SPMC
Throughout the summer, my involvement in Shannon Point's scientific diving tasks allowed me to gain valuable experience in a range of diving techniques. One of first tasks involved sampling surface and benthic water for local water profile analysis as part of the Joint Effort to Monitor the Strait (JEM'S) JEM's project by the Washington State Department of Ecology. We covered 10 stations, starting with the Strait of Juan de Fuca and continuing to Admiralty, and Whidbey Basins. Additionally, we took part in installing and maintaining oceanographic sensors, including subtidal sensors in front of SPMC. We set up four permanent quadrants in Burrows Bay for the Sea Pens Long-Term Monitoring Project. And on the final day of my internship, we conducted surveys for cockle clams on a sandy beach in Canada, working alongside Dr. Jay Dimond.
During the transects installations on the Sea pens patch
Photo by Jessica Anayansi García Pantoja
Life & Academic Workshops at SPMC
During my time at SPMC, I've been incredibly fortunate to have access to remarkable opportunities. All of this has been made possible through SPMC's REU program, generously funded by the National Science Foundation. This initiative provides eight undergraduate students with the chance to engage in supervised research under the guidance of esteemed faculty mentors. Through this program, I had the pleasure of meeting Olivia and Mary, both chosen participants, who, like me, have become certified scientific divers. I also had the chance to connect with other REU students who successfully carried out their scientific projects over the summer. Additionally, I attended classes at SPMC, including R workshops, and took part in insightful talks like "Snacks and Tracks," as well as engaging in outreach events such as Kids R Best Fest, Western Washington University's 2023 Summer Session,
Our last dive together! Love you a lot crew.
Photo by Sean Curtis Patrick