Embracing pathways to the sea in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

By Keelee Martin

October 2017

divers deploy off a small boat
Divers deploy off small boats to conduct research in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo: John Burns/NOAA

Diving in

Imagine you are surrounded by water. There is no land in sight for hundreds of miles—only two shades of blue glued together by a 360-degree horizon. How do you feel?

I felt connected.

For 25 days this fall, my world shrunk to 42 people on the 224-foot NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai. I was in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as a University of Hawai‘i Marine Option Program intern for the 2017 Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program research expedition. The monument encompasses the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the most remote archipelago in the world. Largely because of its isolation, the monument is teeming with life — it’s just better seen underwater.

three interns on deck holding up signs that say thank you hi‘ialakai
The 2017 Marine Option Program Interns: from left, Colton Johnson (UH Mānoa), Keelee Martin (UH Hilo), and Rosie Lee (UH Hilo). Photo: NOAA

Surveying the monument

The mission of the Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program is to supply scientific data that is the groundwork for conservation and management efforts for coral reef ecosystems. As scientific diving interns from the University of Hawaiʻi’s Marine Option Program, Colton Johnson, Rosie Lee, and I were brought to the monument to help in data collection on the fish and benthic (seafloor) teams.

table coral
A plating table coral at French Frigate Shoals. Photo: Keelee Martin/NOAA

These surveys are part of a long-term monitoring effort to determine the status, trends, and variability of both coral populations themselves and the communities that exist in their reefs. For example, looking at the status of a coral may determine its presence at a given location and if it is healthy. Looking at a trend may find that some coral species are more resilient than others to environmental changes. Looking at the variability could find that what is true for one island may not necessarily be true for another island 100 miles away.

Understanding these patterns provides insight into population dynamics, reef health, and biological responses to environmental stressors. Studying reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands helps us differentiate global impacts versus local impacts because the added pressures of human presence is removed. All of this information is pivotal as our world changes. To be part of this effort is nothing short of gratifying.

divers conducting benthic survey
Divers Steve Matadobra and Keelee Martin conduct a benthic survey among some curious ulua, or giant trevally. Photo: Kailey Pascoe/NOAA

All we have is each other

Every morning at 7:30 we had a safety briefing on the fantail of the ship. Being geographically isolated for hundreds of miles in all directions, the most important resources in an emergency were the people standing next to us.

A lot of work goes into dive operation days. Small boats are loaded with scientists, coxswains (small boat drivers), dive equipment, and survey gear. The boats are craned off and between three to eight dives later they return to be craned back up. After all boats have returned there is gear to clean, data to enter, and more than 45 scuba cylinders to fill. All of this effort was in my field of view, but so many more pieces functioned without me ever seeing them. These actions were crucial to the regular function, maintenance, and safety of the ship: inspections, drills, equipment checks, being on watch, fueling up small boats, keeping the internet going, and what about the meals that showed up in the galley every day? We were extremely fortunate to have excellent weather this trip, but even when rough seas cancel dives, the rest of ship still has to function.

researchers being craned off the ship in a small boat
The benthic and coral health teams prepare to be craned off of the ship. Photo: Jason Leonard/NOAA

Four incredible women served as our commanding, executive, operations, and junior officers. The way each one did their own job and relied on everyone else to do theirs showed me how many committed hands it takes to have a successful expedition. The day before we left Pearl Harbor, the ship’s third mate (who stands navigational watch as an officer of the deck and is the environmental compliance officer) was excused from the expedition to fly home to Florida to help his wife with their house before Hurricane Irma hit. Natural disasters stop for no one and the ship was still set to leave the next day so his duties were split up among other officers. Every hand carries their own weight and if anyone needs a break or eases their load, someone else has to pick it up. Every day you do your work as best, as safely and as efficiently as you can.

After all, as our chief boatswain (the senior deck crewman) would often tell us, “All we have is each other.” I think this phrase is relevant outside of ship life as well.

It’s the ocean that connects us

In some respects, science diving is the best and worst thing for me. I often get ahead of myself or take on too many tasks at once; I tend toward indecision and in stressful situations forget to breathe and be calm. Fortunately, science diving doesn’t allow for any of these things. Every task is done systematically while maintaining an awareness of yourself, your buddies, and your environment. You control your movements by intentional breathing; getting a closer look at something means exhaling, pulling farther back means inhaling. We are trained to make calibrated estimations, tested on species identifications, and encouraged to be confident in our assessments. Do you see all the personal growth that is possible here?

The late University of Hawai‘i professor Dr. Isabella Abbott (my mentor’s mentor) suggested the name Hiʻialakai as the name of the NOAA research vessel when it was commissioned. The Hawaiian word translates to “embracing pathways to the sea.” It’s a shared feeling for those of us who have grown up on Pacific Islands: the ocean doesn’t separate us so much as connect us. Even in an area relatively isolated from human presence, there was still so much evidence of us: coral bleaching, household plastic items washed up on atoll beaches, fishing debris carried by ocean currents. I could see how the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” was applicable. It can be hard to believe how our actions influence our environment, especially the world’s ocean when we can’t physically see where it is being impacted, but if this is what I was seeing in locations where humans don’t reside, what about the places we live in? Are we looking and not seeing?

The ocean is a life source and there is so much of it out there. What I’ve realized through this experience is that there is loads more going on than what we see. It’s our responsibility to think about how far our choices and actions ripple. Every horizon is connected to the next one. Find a way to experience the ocean. There are many pathways — embrace them.

sunset over the ocean
We scored this glassy ocean sunset leaving Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Photo: Keelee Martin/NOAA

This internship is possible through a partnership between the University of Hawai‘i Marine Option Program and NOAA. The Marine Option Program runs a two-week scuba diving field school called Quantitative Underwater Ecological Surveying Techniques through the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. NOAA awards partial scholarships and tuition stipends for students to participate in the field school as a way of training and investing in future interns.

Keelee Martin recently received her undergraduate degree in marine science from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and is currently working with community volunteer projects.