SE16-02: Jumping in the deep end

by Motusaga Vaeoso

Training in standard fish survey methods for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s reef fish survey project was difficult, intensive work. As the new coral reef monitoring technician for the American Samoa Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG), I wanted to participate in this research cruise (SE16-02) to further develop the skills that will improve my role as a technician. Participating in the NOAA research cruise was also a tremendous personal development opportunity for me. Before Paula Ayotte from the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) arrived to conduct the final training the week before the cruise, there was still a good amount of preparation to be done.

Two months before the date of the cruise, I had to study my reef fish species. Paula provided helpful tools, review aids, and exams to develop our fish identification skills. The American Samoa reef fish flashcards created for the Flashcard Deluxe app was a handy mobile tool that helped develop my fish identification skills. In addition to studying fish, there was the matter of acquiring the required certifications for Advanced Diving using Nitrox and all of the physical health examination documentation for reciprocity to dive with NOAA divers.

Parrotfish

Parrotfish (Chlorurus frontalis), NOAA Photo by Tate Wester

On the first day of the training week, we reviewed fish identification, size estimation, binning, and benthic cover estimates. We also completed a dry run of the survey method. For the next three days, we were in the field—diving underwater with Paula, Alice Lawrence, and Brittney Honisch, to practice the skills we learned and familiarize ourselves with the survey methods. The more we practiced going through the motions, the more comfortable I felt. At sites where fish diversity and population is high, conducting the reef fish surveys can be overwhelming. Closely following the protocol was important to staying on track. As a fairly new diver I had to master the skill of multitasking underwater, which included recording fish data, maintaining buoyancy, checking air supply, and maintaining contact with my dive buddy.

I knew that this cruise was going to be physically challenging, especially for me. But it wasn’t until I tried to climb aboard the the American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) enforcement boat from the water without the ladder, that it hit me, this is going to be really hard. To increase my upper body strength, I was tasked with five push-ups, increasing the number each day during the remaining days before the cruise. The last day of training consisted of entering data in the database, quality checking (QC) with my dive buddy, and an introduction presentation to life aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Going through the training prepared me for the cruise in the survey method and developed my fish identification and size estimation, substrate height and benthic cover estimation skills. It also helped me realize where my limits lie and areas that I needed to focus on improving.

Abandon Ship Drill

Putting on our survival “gumby” suits for an abandon ship drill aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

On April 14, I boarded the Sette along with other scientists from NOAA. The first day consisted of settling into our staterooms, familiarizing ourselves with where gear is stored, going over safety protocols, running drills to be prepared in the event of fire, man overboard, or need to abandon ship. There was a lot going on that day, but all I remember is feeling nauseous because the floor was constantly moving. After a day, I got over that seasick feeling and was ready to start.

Diving operations began on April 15. As it was the first day of diving, we took it slow. I did a swim test, used the Redundant Air Source System (RASS) for the first time, practiced buddy breathing skills and the rescue skills of removing an unconscious diver from the water. All divers had to have alternate air sources just in case of an “out of air” situation. I had to adjust my weight system to account for the weight of the RASS and get used to the weird feeling of this protruding object on my right side.

I noticed great improvement in my fish identification skills after every dive. As I got to see certain surgeonfish like Ctenochaetus striatus and Acathurus nigrofuscus repeatedly, certain features became more prominent and easy to recognize. With each dive, I looked forward to checking off a new fish or two on my mental list and it was always a treat to see a new species.

In my first deep dive of about 75 feet off the coast of Ta‘u Island, I saw my first shark. I do not have a fear of sharks but I do have a healthy respect for them and believe in giving them adequate space. Seeing this 130-cm gray reef shark up close was one of the most exhilarating moments I have ever experienced.

First shark

My first ever shark sighting at the island of Ta‘u in the Manu‘a Group, NOAA Photo by Louise Guiseffi

I signed up for the first leg of the cruise, from April 14-25, surveying the islands of Tutuila and Ta‘u. After six consecutive successful dives days, operations had to be halted because of cyclone Amos which was heading towards Tutuila. It was an anti-climactic end to such a great start but it could not be helped. Fortunately, the chief scientist Kevin Lino extended my stay for the second leg to survey Tutuila, Ofu and Olosega Islands, and Rose Atoll from April 25-May 6.

There was so much beauty and life to be seen around each of the islands we surveyed in American Samoa. My most favorite part of the experience was diving in the gorgeous and pristine waters of Rose Atoll Marine National Monument. It was phenomenal to see the vibrant pink and purple crustose coralline algae of Rose and the life it harbors. I saw so many new species of fish in numbers I have never seen before.

Tang

School of achilles tang (Acanthurus achilies) and whitecheek tang (Acanthurus nigricans) in an herbivorous feeding frenzy, NOAA Photo by Kevin Lino

Overall, my experience on the SE16-02 cruise was more enjoyable than I could have ever imagined. The quality of life aboard the ship was good, safety is a high priority, and the food was amazing! The crew and scientists were helpful, easy to work with, organized, and capable individuals. I had the opportunity to dive with almost all of the scientists and learned something new every day, a technique or skill, no matter how small. Louise Guiseffi showed me some helpful techniques to secure the rescue and tracking float with minimal tangling and easy removal. I was able to get on the small boats on my own with encouragement and coaching from Paula.

My last day of diving in the pristine waters of Rose Atoll was phenomenal and I could not have had a better last day for this research cruise. Although I did not get to see the Acanthurus hawaiiensis as I had hoped on my last dive, that is something to look forward to on my next visit to Rose. I am taking so much away from this cruise—not only in my professional development as a scientist but also in building character!

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