By Jim Haw
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Planning for this year’s Guam and Palau course stated about two weeks after we got back from last year’s course. Halfway through our stay in Palau this year, my co-instructor Dave Ginsburg and I were being interviewed on Oceana Television Network when the anchor asked if we were doing the course next year. I demurred that if I said “yes” it would mean that we were officially working on the course year-round. Still ignoring that question for another couple of weeks, the last year has been, well — a lot of work but enormously satisfying. There were a lot of lessons learned, nearly all very positive.
One of the first things we did for this year’s course was to greatly expand the application form. In addition to the very extensive dive physical form we added a very lengthy “release” in which we put prospective students on notice about everything from our necessarily inflexible attendance policy through the required swim test, weekends on Catalina, deadlines, course expenses, and rigorous academic expectations — even (especially) in paradise. Each item on the release/application had a sign-off, and item 1 required the applicants to acknowledge that they had read all of our Scientific American blog posts from last year. “I didn’t know that we had to ….” wasn’t going to be something we would be listening to this year.
The application also requires a photocopy of the student’s passport showing number and expiration. We had about 50 application requests for what ended up being two-dozen slots in the class. Some prospective students who did not complete the application had scheduling conflicts or other external limitations, but I imagine that a few realized that our program required more than they were willing to commit to. This release-application model was quickly adopted in a general way by several of the other field courses in Dornsife. Our Belize course application, for example, requires that the prospective students acknowledge that they will be expected to take anti-malarial drugs.
The application stack grew over the fall semester as we were preparing for improved dive training, more rigorous academic content, improved first-aid components, and better field experiences. USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith convinced a local dive shop to donate some SCUBA tanks and sell others at a steep discount so that we would have a set of tanks on the main campus for pool training. Our office suite now has 32 candy-colored 62 cf aluminum SCUBA tanks. Gerry also got his hands on several hundred pounds of lead shot and sewed a few dozen soft weight belts for use in the USC pool without the threat of chipping tiles that come with conventional SCUBA weights.
Meanwhile Dave and I navigated the Program through curricular approval. It is astonishingly easy to create a new course at USC through the mechanism of 499 – Special Topics. But once a course has been taught twice as 499 it must go through an exhaustive approval process to become a permanent course. We used the 499 mechanism twice, and last fall we created 480 “Integrated Ecosystem Management in Micronesia” as the permanent catalog listing, but not without several back-and-forths through the curricular process. My joke that “Curriculum Mechanics is harder than Quantum Mechanics” was pretty stale by the end of the road.
Before last year’s class we had added a new 2-unit course ENST 298 “Introduction to Scientific Diving” as a way to award some credit (and enforce attendance) for some of the essential run-up to Guam and Palau. American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) scientific diver certification requires over 100 hours of academic content. Recent changes to AAUS guidelines require formal certifications in CPR, basic first-aid, AED, and oxygen administration. We needed to get all of our students through all of that plus basic open water SCUBA and NITROX (oxygen-enriched air) certifications before we took them overseas as “Scientific Divers in Training”.
We also had to get them through the basics of coral reef ecology and diving physiology and physics, teach them the basics of scientific diving and the detailed sampling protocol including 24 species IDs for the surveys in Palau. So ENST 298, a 2-unit course, met every Friday afternoon in the spring for one hour of lecture and two hours of lab plus three mandatory three-day weekends on Catalina Island. We plowed through five books plus handouts.
If ENST 298 is so much work, why is it only 2 units? The answer had, in part, to do with the Maymester programming concept. ENST 480 e.g., “Guam and Palau” ran from May 14 — a couple of days after commencement — through June 3, the same time frame as some summer courses at USC. But administratively a Maymester course is part of the student’s spring semester registration — and hence spring fee bill. Maymester, among other advantages, allows a student to participate in a short-term study abroad course (or other intensive coursework) without having to pay for summer tuition.
At USC, a student may register for 18 units in a semester and pay the same amount of tuition that they would pay for 16 units. So, if a student does Guam and Palau with us, takes three normal four-unit courses between mid January and early May plus ENST 298 during the same time as those other courses along with 480 in Maymester — their tuition payment is the same as for a more typical registration. We could have justified 298 as a four-unit course (the same as 480) but it would have either increased the tuition burden or interfered with registration for other courses. So we have a six-unit, two course program.
While I’m on the subject of course-related expenses, flying to Guam and Palau is not cheap, and we also incur a lot of expenses in California, before we get on the first airplane. USC Dornsife has a program called Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF), which awards up to $3000 for a Dornsife student with a GPA of 3.0 or higher for summer research. This year most of our students received the full $3000. This brought the cost of the entire program down to textbooks, mask, fins and snorkels, certification cards, some meals, and maybe a little over $1000 in other expenses for some students. One student qualified for a Gold Family Scholarship and got very nearly everything paid for by USC Dornsife.
ENST 298 met for the first time this year on January 13, 2012. There was no such thing as typical class meeting. On four weeks we lectured for an hour and then spent 90 minutes in one of the campus pools, usually on SCUBA. We did CPR on manikins, practiced administering shocks using AEDs, and we went through a lot of physics and biology.
Something that helped a lot this year was that we used the NAUI e-learning system instead of traditional lectures for basic SCUBA classroom instruction. The students then did that work on their own, leaving us with more classroom time. We added Marlowe Anderson’s “The Physics of SCUBA Diving” to the course books, allowing me to derive elements of the Navy dive tables in class (and test on this). We also had a book that covered diving physiology, the usual NAUI manuals for Open Water, NITROX and Master Diver plus various first-aid instructional materials.
One very special lecture in ENST 298 was given by Prof. Geoffrey Middlebrook of the USC Writing Program on the subject of academic blogging. And it made a difference. I am a proponent of writing throughout the curriculum, and I think writing needs to be a lot more active than it normally is. In more traditional courses writing assignments, if any, are seen by a single reader, marked, and then returned — to be tossed out with the trash. For some students this was the first time they had writing returned to them with instructions like “start over – it’s not good enough – for the reasons listed below”. And then after revisions and editorial changes their work is published where anyone can read it. This is much more active. Also several of the students were well equipped with serious cameras, and everyone else was carrying a point and shoot. So words and photographs became a daily activity.
In March and early April we spent three weekends on Catalina, meeting at 6:45 on Friday mornings to board a bus followed by a boat and returning to campus on Sunday afternoons. Those weekends had up to four dives each as well as lectures, exams, blog workshops, swim tests, filling SCUBA tanks, and sleep. On the first two weekends we had extraordinary conditions for Catalina in the spring — up to 70 ft. visibility.
We also had some extra help. Bradley Walker, a former Navy SEAL and high-level SCUBA instructor, helped out with the basic open water instruction. As did some of the other scientific divers: graduate student Chris Suffridge, postdoc Anand Patel, and our former students Austin Hay, Caitlin Contag, and Dan Killam. Austin, having completed Dive Master training with Bradley, was to come with us to Palau to assist with general safety and survey organization. By the third weekend on Catalina we were back to the limited (or nonexistent) visibility common for spring diving in California, so the students got to work in some more realistic conditions as well.
Finally, after all of that — an entire semester’s worth, it was time for our field course to start. USC held commencement on Friday May 11, and the following Monday morning we were on the boat to Catalina for three weeks in the field. The six days in Catalina were spent on navigation, scientific diving and deeper dives — out to 60 fsw in our cove. We also received a great lecture and lab on fish collection by Chris Plante from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. Twice, Tom Carr made the one-hour dive on dirt roads to Avalon with sick students. Immediately before we left Catalina another student banged her knee – which swelled to grapefruit size on the flight. She disembarked onto Guam soil by wheelchair. Once again Tom was off to a hospital and then back again for an MRI. The student only had a sprain and was quickly cleared to dive, but did some of the terrestrial activities on crutches. (She was more mobile in the ocean than on land). Tom is, among other things, an EMT and a Captain (Reserve) in the Riverside County Sherriff’s Department. When a student is sick or injured in the field you could do worse than have your own EMT/police officer as a first responder. Since Tom is also a Shift Supervisor at the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber he would useful in the unlikely event of a diving accident.
Brent Tibbits and his colleagues at the Guam Department of Agriculture Division of Wildlife and Aquatic Resources were even more helpful than they have been in past years. Day one in Guam was at their headquarters interacting with critically endangered birds and a fruit bat, and (somewhat ironically) handling a juvenile Brown Tree Snake, a mildly venomous viper that when mature is highly aggressive. Brent latter took us on a tour of the Massa Watershed, a labor of love for him that provided us with some of the best academic content for the course. Brent also gave us a lecture in our meeting room at the Hilton.
We only spent one day diving on Guam to leave more time for the monitoring project on Palau, but what a day of diving. The first dive was on Western Shoals Reef, which is adjacent to where the Navy wants to demolish other reefs to make way for carrier berthing. As we surfaced into poring rain, an Ohio-class SSGN (a ballistic missile submarine converted to carry a large number of cruise missiles) passed immediately in front of our dive boat — perhaps 300 feet away — as a coast guard vessel with a manned machine gun kept watch between us. The dive boat captain insisted it was a smaller Los Angeles class submarine, and I called it that in an earlier blog post, but the photo clearly shows it was the more massive Ohio class — with a hanger for some sort of SEAL delivery vehicle on the hull.
This was a coincidental reminder of the elements of the course focusing on the military buildup on Guam with its flawed environmental review. On our second dive in See Bee Junkyard the students ran transects around discarded bulldozers and other WW II detritus. Our last day in Guam was a mandated free day, and it was the occasion of the closest thing to a glitch in the entire program. Nine of the students rented motor scooters from a lot a mile from the hotel and went off in various directions oblivious to the gridlock that roadways on Guam become on Friday afternoons. We were still collecting the last of them along the roadside as the shuttle and rental van drove to the airport, but no one missed the flight, and the only item left at the hotel was repatriated.
I should mention that we also had two textbooks for 480 as well as a weekly examination. We used the very excellent “The Biology of Coral Reefs” by Sheppard et al. — if we wrote a lab manual for the marine components of our course we could do no better than that book. We also had Pat Colin’s “Marine Environments of Palau”. More on Pat Colin later. Basically, on the last working day on any island, Catalina, Guam or Palau, the students had a traditional exam. Most of it was based on the assignments in Sheppard or Colin, but we also threw in questions from the course blog, which was quite the bonus for the students who found that they were being tested on something they wrote!
Arriving in Palau, we got to the hotel at a decent hour for once. The first full day in Palau was a visit to the Ngardmau Falls on the island of Babeldaob, which is morphing into a semi-developed ecotourism destination complete with a monorail train for those (like our knee-sprained student) who were not up to the steep steps down to the waterfall and back. I took a few photos of the students cavorting at the falls and then headed into the jungle on the tracks of a different train.
Before and during WW II the Japanese used forced labor from Korea, Okinawa and Palau to surface mine bauxite for producing aluminum, a strategic resource for aircraft production. Some of the mines were near the waterfall, and the tracks from a narrow-gage railway that carried out the ore are still extant, briefly paralleling the monorail for the modern conveyance. I followed the tracks a ways into the jungle and found the remains of two of the locomotives. I was even able to determine that a U.S. manufacturer (Hercules Engines) made some of the components of these locomotives, which were labeled “Saka Works” in English. I had hoped to run down some more information on the railway and the bauxite mines (and no doubt the suffering of the miners), but I was unsuccessful. Palauans have access to little of their history, and if the Japanese recorded anything about this, I didn’t immediately find it.
Much of our time in Palau was spent doing surveys in the Ngederrak Marine Conservation Area, in support of Koror State and the Coral Reef Research Foundation. As in Guam we had a lot of help. Ilebrang Olkelriil and King Sam from the Koror State Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement were of fantastic help, and King accompanied us on the dive boats on some days. Here the students performed the most important part of the course — functioning as real scientific divers giving Koror State some of the data they need to get the Rock Islands listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The diving those days could have been described as repetitive and highly scripted, but the students didn’t see it that way.
By the time we had finished our work in Ngederrak as well as surveys at Short Drop Off and Ngederchong as control sites, the students were looking very good in the water, with excellent buoyancy control and situational awareness. Even so I had not expected that the Dive Safety Officer would clear them to make one of their last dives at Blue Corner, which is consistently listed as one of the top dive sites in the world. Actually he provisionally cleared them for Blue Corner, provided that the next day’s dives at Ulong Channel went well. They did. Last year we had an immense current at Ulong Channel, sweeping us into the lagoon like aircraft flying up a canyon. This year we caught Ulong closer to slack, and it was more sedate, just barely a drift dive, and with fewer sharks.
The final day of diving in Micronesia started with Blue Corner. This site features a wedge-shaped reef with vertical wall drop-offs on either edge. The contour ensures an active upwelling on the leading edge relative to any prevailing current. Deepwater upwellings bring up abundant nutrients drawing very high fish densities and in turn large numbers of reef sharks. These currents, outside the fringing reef of Palau and hence away from any runoff, also provide spectacular visibility. We dropped from our three boats into some of the bluest waters I have every seen. Visibility was about 150 ft. A nearly unique feature of Blue Corner is the use of reef hooks to “hook in” against the current.
Our groups settled in on reef planes between 40 and 60 feet below the surface, hooked in and enjoyed the show. For 25 minutes we watched the parade of gray reef sharks, the less abundant black tip sharks, giant Napoleon wrasses, bumphead parrotfish and other fishes while kiting on our reef lines. We then unhooked, drifted back over the reef along with a turtle, ascended for a safety stop, and recovered. Everyone looked great in the water. We made one final dive after lunch in German Channel, which can be a spectacular site (with Manta Rays), but Blue Corner was the highlight of the day. Key to our success in Palau was the assistance we got from Sam’s Dive Tours and especially General Manager Dermot Keane. Sam’s gave us three boats, each of which could have handled a dozen divers. With typically eight students and two faculty or staff per boat we were never crowded.
Dave and I don’t get to relax in the water very much — our roles are primarily safety, and along with Tom, Gerry, Austin, and any other dive professionals in the group, we are watching the students pretty closely. After the first few dives I’m usually also handling a fairly large camera and strobe system to capture some of the stills. This means that I have to think ahead of the action. My least favorite underwater photo is anything that is swimming away from me.
Shots of students collecting data on transects are the easiest to get: let them swim the transect out, wait a couple of minutes, then follow the transect tape and swim through the students’ formation while they are counting invertebrates and reeling up the tape. The hardest photos include students encountering charismatic sea creatures. A photograph of a shark is just another photograph of a shark, but a photograph of a USC student with a shark has value. So, at Blue Corner, for example, I placed myself behind most of the other divers, so that most of my shark photos would have students in the foreground.
The last day in Palau was the Rock Island kayak tour with naturalist Ron Leidich, who is something of a force of nature on Palau. Among very many other details, Ron led the students up the side of a small island where he had just found the wing of a U.S. B-24 bomber that was lost in WW II and not seen since. That night Dave and I sent everyone else to the airport for the very long trip back to LA and then we moved across the street into an apartment in the Coral Reef Research Foundation run by Pat and Lori Colin, the author of one of our textbooks. Dave Ginsburg reported in a recent blog on the rediscovery of the lost brittle star species, but those four extra days in Palau were not all glory. For much of the time it poured rain, and we did a lot of grading. Our hands were in constant pain from hydroid stings and spicule-induced rashes that we picked up from sponges during the brittle star hunt.
All indications are that the students had a transformational experience. Quite simply it exceeded their expectations, which were already high. What did they get out of the program? If they had to list one thing it might be doing research to help Palau get the Rock Islands listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They also became full American Academy of Underwater Sciences Scientific Divers. In the future some of them may work full time as AAUS divers at universities, aquaria, or state and federal agencies. More immediately and more likely they will continue their scientific diving at USC. When a visiting scientist comes to our Catalina Campus for specimen collection he or she is likely to be paired with one of our students.
Some of the students are continuing the surfgrass monitoring project headed up by Dave. Others are increasingly showing up on the volunteer dive staffs at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach and the California Science Center across from campus. One is starting a Ph.D. in marine ecology at UC-Davis and several are applying for internships with governmental agencies that monitor coastal environments from California to the Virgin Islands. Three of this year’s class, Dawnielle Telez, Stephen Holle, and Judy Fong, went almost immediately from Palau to Catalina Island where they are spending the summer as interns for the Catalina Conservancy along with Justin Bogda from the 2011 class. There they are doing trail building and non-native plant removal Monday through Friday, and diving on the weekend. Most of the 2010 Guam and Palau class graduated from USC last month, and it seemed that they had a generous share of academic honors. If nothing else, experience as a scientific diver makes an application to graduate and professional schools or a White House internship stand out. Dave Ginsburg and I are entirely satisfied that the program is transformational for many of the students.
I want to close by thanking Bora Zivkovic of Scientific American, who gave us a lot of latitude on content this year, and who was always happy to receive a post, wherever he was at the time, as long as I remembered to include the images separately and not just embedded in a document. Usually I remembered.
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.