By Santiago Fernandez-Barrera
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Drenched by the torrential rains of Guam as a tropical depression petered out to the northwest, my classmates and I loaded up the dive boat with gear as we prepared for our first set of dives since leaving Catalina Island. Suddenly, the clouds cleared and we set off through the mangrove forests into Apra Harbor.
Our destinations for the day were Western Shoals Reef and SeaBee Junkyard, where we would be making our first coral reef dive and practicing our data collection methods for use on Palau. Out in the distance, on the south side of the harbor, I could see the naval base that is one of the principal uses of Apra Harbor. Although it already covers a large area, I had to remind myself that the military footprint on Apra Harbor might increase still more if the proposed carrier berthing goes through.
Pulling myself back into the task at hand I prepared for our dive at Western Shoals. After a dive briefing by USC Dornsife Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith, we put on an unusually light amount of gear, looked out at the horizon and stepped off the swim step, unprepared for the sight that awaited us.
Unusually free without the clumsiness of a 7-mm wetsuit, I descending onto the reef below. Thousands of coral heads fanned out forming tiny skyscrapers for multicolored fish to swim between.
I followed my dive buddy and professor, Dave Ginsburg, deeper along the reef to take a closer look at the marine environment below. Covering a majority of the reef, Porites coral takes on several forms, creating a multilayered landscape speckled with brightly colored fish, sponges and soft corals.
After a few meters Dave turned to me and pointed at his ears and then at a peculiar blue mantle emerging from the coral. I immediately recognized that he was pointing at a massive elephant ear sponge, a species found in Guam only in Apra Harbor. As I considered the sponge I realized that dredging a nearby reef for the proposed carrier berthing would very likely cover this area with sediment and threaten not only sponges but other reef species as well.
Swimming forward, Dave began to wave his fingers out in front of him at a school of butterfly fish. Puzzled I followed suit and was amazed to see them school around us, curiously inspecting our fingers. My classmates soon caught on and before we knew it we were surrounded by dozens of other curious little fish.
Still mesmerized by the sight below I slowly ascended, readying myself for the next dive. Above water we were reminded that this area hosts an active military site by a passing nuclear submarine being escorted back to the naval base. We headed to SeaBee Junkyard to do our first transact tape survey in Micronesia.
Located next the Glass Breakwater, SeaBee Junkyard is characterized by an assortment of discarded WW II relics that are sometimes overgrown with marine life. Due to its shallow depth and sandy bottom, this was the chosen location to practice our data collection techniques. Tying off our transect tape to a bulldozer dropped here 67 years ago, my group and I headed out at 330 degrees to begin our survey of the area.
Surveying both fish and invertebrates we were able to identify the indicator species that we had so diligently memorized prior to our arrival in Guam. Having finished our survey and rolling up our transact tape we were free to swim around and inspect the junk dropped by the military so long ago.
I was able to collect a little souvenir, a 1945 Coca Cola bottle. Exhausted after a long day of diving we readied ourselves for the next part of our journey through Micronesia. Apra Harbor was just a taste of what’s to come and a firm reminder of the importance of our work in the field.
About the Author: Santiago Fernandez-Barrera is a junior pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He hopes to return to his home country of Mexico and promote environmentally sustainable business practices.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg,, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.