Stories from the Blue: 1400 Dives and Counting

As told by Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator Emma Hickerson

Emma Hickerson knows Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary like the back of her hand. She first dove in the sanctuary as an undergraduate student, and today serves as the sanctuary’s research coordinator. Hickerson has logged hundreds of dives in the Flower Garden Banks and has studied everything from sea turtles to deep-sea ecosystems. This is her story.

emma and grouper looking at each other
Hickerson communes with a curious black grouper at West Flower Garden Bank. Photo: G.P. Schmahl/NOAA

As an undergraduate, I went down to Costa Rica and worked on an olive ridley sea turtle arribada beach in Santa Rosa National Park, where the turtles came up to nest. We lived in a research cabin that had no electricity except for an hour or two a day when we had fuel for the generator. It was basically camping outside, and it was the best experience. That solidified my desire and wish to be involved in fieldwork.

emma in costa rica
Hickerson in 1992, at Playa Nancite, Costa Rica, where she was studying olive ridley sea turtles. Photo courtesy of Emma Hickerson

You had to be comfortable in the wild. We had to leave the camp one day because we could hear the army ants coming through and they would just bulldoze through camp and clean up any scraps. Very large saltwater crocodiles lived on the beach. In order to survey the female turtles waiting offshore to come in and nest, we’d have to swim through huge waves, getting tossed back several times before we’d actually make it to the boat. But first we had to make sure there were no crocodiles in the water. We’d look for their massive footprints leading into the water, and then look for matching footprints leading back out. We’d have spotters on the headlands watching for us, also.

I didn’t automatically jump to the Gulf of Mexico as a place to dive. But when I finally got out there, I was blown away. I just fell in love with it.

The first time I visited Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary was when I was a undergraduate student at Texas A&M University. I was working as a divemaster in a dive shop, and a graduate student, Christy Pattengill, came in and recruited me to count fish at the Flower Garden Banks. I had kind of been poo-pooing diving in the Gulf of Mexico because I grew up in Australia, and like many people, I didn’t automatically jump to the Gulf of Mexico as a place to dive. But when I finally got out there, I was blown away. I just fell in love with it.

Click and drag the image to look around. Extraordinarily healthy, high coral cover, dominated by massive brain and star corals, is the norm at the East and West Flower Garden Banks. With over 50 percent live cover on the caps, these are some of the healthiest corals in the world. Photo: NOAA

My master’s project ended up being satellite and radio tracking of sea turtles at the Flower Garden Banks. I conducted dozens of survey dives, at night, and on several occasions, was able to capture subadult loggerhead sea turtles which became my study subjects. I crafted a capture bag myself. We would take that underwater with us during surveys, and if were were lucky enough to find a turtle sleeping under a coral, we tilted the animal forward so it couldn’t get that sweeping swimming motion with its strong front flippers, and then directed it into the net. We had a handle on the bag to keep our hands safe as we brought the animal to the surface.

Once on the surface, we attached radio and satellite transmitters using slow setting fiberglass methods (not a hot mix), took blood, inserted a Passive Integrated Transponder tag, and attached a flipper tag. The animals were placed on an automobile tire during the processing, to immobilize them and stop them from injuring themselves. The most important job on the deck was the assignment of turtle masseuse. Someone had to always be massaging the animal’s neck to keep it calm – if you stopped, they would get incredibly agitated. Once the animal was fully processed, which took several hours, we’d get it to the jump gate, and let it do a giant stride back into the water.

emma with tagged turtle
Hickerson with one of her tagged turtles. Dr. Steve Gittings, now chief scientist for the National Marine Sanctuary System, is at right. Photo courtesy of Emma Hickerson

Most sea turtle work is done with females, since they nest on beaches and practically walk up to the researchers – but in my project I actually went out to their feeding and growing habitat offshore. One of the big subadult male turtles I documented, I named him Triton, is now in The Biology of Sea Turtles. I caught him three times over the course of 20 months, in the exact same place on the reef – and was incredibly lucky to be able to document this teenage turtle going through puberty. His plastron softened, his testosterone levels increased, his claws grew, and his tail elongated.

From the satellite tracking, we learned that our Flower Garden Banks loggerhead sea turtles have a very high site fidelity. The turtles I caught at the East Flower Garden Bank were homebodies there, and the animals we caught on the West Flower Garden Bank really honed in there. Our coral reef habitat is home and very important to them.

I love to sit on the back of the deck when somebody who has never been there comes up from a dive. Typically what I hear them say is “WOW, so much coral!”

I started out volunteering with the sanctuary in graduate school – I saw that there was a need for somebody to just come in and help in general. That grew from five hours a week to 10 hours a week. Eventually it became a full time position. I officially joined the staff in 1997 to coordinate the research cruises and operations.

manta ray
Manta rays are frequent visitors to the sanctuary. This is one of the first photographs Hickerson took at the Flower Garden Banks. Photo: Emma Hickerson/NOAA

Most people, like I did, have no inkling that something so spectacular is in the sanctuary. No matter how much we can talk about it, it’s hard to wrap your head around how much coral is there. The extraordinary size and health of the reef is really mindblowing. I feel like I know it, and it’s like a friend. Some of the animals that we get to see, you know you’ve seen them before.

I know I am extremely fortunate to be able to be in this incredible position, to dive, to watch footage sent up by ROVs, to even pilot submersibles. I feel a strong responsibility to get the imagery out to the public, to show them how extraordinary the Gulf of Mexico resources are. I do this through collecting and making available our photographs and video from our cruises – making it available to students, the public, and media. I work directly with all levels of audiences to share our sanctuary. A project that I’m extremely pleased with is a collaboration with my friend and fellow Aussie, Jacqui Stanley. Jacqui, an ocean educator and writer, sits on our Sanctuary Advisory Council. We developed a pretty fabulous mural program that has been the centerpiece for our Ocean Discovery Day for the last seven years. Jacqui paints a 12’x6’ mural, and we ask the public to help paint an interpretive replica – each contributing an 8”x8” square.

Hickerson before diving in the sanctuary. Photo: John Embesi/NOAA

I get mail from young readers from all over the country, asking terrific questions about my job, my time underwater, and mostly about the animals I see. I make a special effort to respond to them all, in the hopes that it encourages them to keep reading, and learning about the marine environment.

I’m especially proud of the amount of information that we know about the deeper water habitats in and around the sanctuary. Along with our partners we’ve been able to collect high resolution maps of a lot of these places, maps that we use to plan our ROV and submersible dives. We not only have maps, but we have a much better handle on the biology of what’s living in these areas, even though we have a long way to go. All of this effort has allowed us to look at and assess the potential boundary expansion of the sanctuary.

It’s about the animals and it’s about the habitat. There are things that we can do to help protect these resources, and that’s how I want to make an impact.

In 2014 I was accepted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. This was an incredibly humbling honor. The women I’ve met have been fantastic. It’s a sisterhood. I was thrilled to organize a trip to the Flower Garden Banks with the Women Divers Hall of Fame, so I got to share the Flower Garden Banks with people I have tremendous respect for.

To aspiring women divers and scientists, I would say don’t hesitate to engage with people in the field that you’re interested in. Look for volunteer opportunities. Put yourself out there. Don’t wait for things to fall into your lap. That not only lets you determine whether you really are interested in the field, but it gives people the opportunity to see you and know that they want to invest in you.

I’ve just logged my 1,411th dive. Probably 1,200 of those dives are in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, and I continue to be inspired by our sanctuary, and see things that I haven’t seen before. People travel the globe for a chance to see the animals and sights we have: manta rays, schooling hammerheads and spotted eagle rays, tiger sharks, mass coral spawning, and vast healthy coral reefs bathed in clear blue water. You never know exactly what you’re going to see. But even if I don’t see something new, as soon as my head goes underwater, the chaos of the world melts away, and I feel calmed. Take the time to listen to nature. And listen to the silence when you can.

emma releasing turtle
Hickerson releases a rehabilitated sea turtle off the R/V Manta. Photo: NOAA