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Welcome to a new initiative by the AAUS to spotlight organizational member projects and divers. Articles will not only be featured here but also in the E-Slate and AAUS social media.   

To join us in spotlighting our community, please complete the form at the bottom of the page or send your articles and photos to aaus@disl.org.

Please be sure that all photos/articles have credits if required.



Together for Continuity into the Second Century of a Coral Transect

By Charles Birkeland


Over a decade before the Great Barrier Reef Expedition of 1928-1929, Alfred Mayor of the Carnegie Institute did a number of studies from 1917 to 1920 of the growth, ecology and distribution of corals in American Samoa. One of his studies in Spring 1917 was to quantify the distribution and diversity of corals along a 267-m transect off the village of Aua in Pago Pago Harbor. His accurate description of the transect included photographs and a map which allowed locating the transect in the future. The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey placed permanent markers at the two ends of the transect which has been resurveyed 9 times over the past century. A summary of the first 90 years can be found online at http://micronesica.org/sites/default/files/2013-06_birkeland_et_al_aua_transects_screen_res.pdf

When Charles Birkeland and Alison Green came to American Samoa to repeat the survey on the 100th year, Alice Lawrence and her colleagues at the American Samoa Governor’s Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG), in collaboration with the NOAA Pacific Island Regional Office, took advantage of this event to reach out to the American Samoan students and public by organizing events to develop their awareness of the value and their concern for the health of their coral reefs. They arranged for visiting scientists to give talks at two elementary schools and one high school and to a public gathering to highlight the importance of coral reefs to their standard of living and things that can be done locally to keep them healthy enough to persevere in the face of global changes.  They arranged for a science fair in the village of Aua at which the government groups involved with managing coral reefs (American Samoa Community College (ASCC) Marine Science Program; University of Hawaii (UH) Sea Grant program; National Park Service of American Samoa; Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources; National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa; NOAA Pacific Island Regional Office; American Samoa Coastal Zone Management Program; ASCC Land Grant, and the American Samoa NRCS office) maintained information booths. A student symposium on coral reefs took place at the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa Ocean Center.  The visiting scientist spoke at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) congress on how Samoan women were also needed to fill positions at American Samoan agencies that worked to manage the island resources wisely, and students should consider getting the training to follow such careers. All the above, including taking data along the transect, took place within one week.

For continuity into the future, Alice also arranged for three local scientists, Motusaga Vaeoso of CRAG, Mareike Sudek of National Marine Sanctuaries, and Kelley Anderson Tagarino of UH Sea Grant, to participate in taking data along the transect.

In American Samoa, the coral reefs are under the jurisdiction of the local village leaders. To obtain permission to resurvey the Aua transect, we got up at 4:30 am in order to be at Aua village before dawn and take part in the village council. The Chiefs gave short talks and then each of us drank a small bowl of kava in turn. It was an interesting experience and it is good because local authority probably provides more diligent management than open access.



Chiefs, representatives of government agencies, teachers and students come together to celebrate the science and management of their coral reefs






Reprinted from Reef Encounter with permission of the International Society for Reef Studies






Scientific Diving to Rescue a Reef

Rebecah Delp, University of Miami Rosenstiel School


Coral reefs are referred to as the rainforests of the sea, known for their diversity, bright colors, and variety of life and activity. What many people do not realize, however, are the numerous resources they provide us in addition to their overwhelming beauty. Coastline protection, economic revenue, marine habitat, and food production to name a few! Unfortunately, coral populations have drastically declined globally the past few decades from coral bleaching events, disease, overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction. Without healthy coral reef ecosystems, we lose many of the critical resources that they provide. Thankfully, researchers at the University of Miami (UM) are working hard to actively research and restore depleted coral reef populations. Dr. Diego Lirman, an Associate Professor and AAUS diver at UM’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science, has been studying coastal ecosystems for decades. When he realized the danger these beloved resources were in, he shifted his research to focus on coastal ecosystem disturbances, human impacts, and their recovery. In 2007, he created the Benthic Ecology and Coral Restoration Lab utilizing AAUS scientific diving for coral reef research and active restoration known as “coral gardening”. The coral gardening methodology involves growing coral species in underwater nurseries to create a sustainable source of healthy coral colonies which can then be outplanted onto wild coral reefs via SCUBA. This process aims to use active restoration to promote natural recovery of degraded coral reef ecosystems. With increased interest, expanding efforts, and the realization of how much work needed to be done, the Rescue a Reef (RAR) program was born.

Rescue a Reef was designed in 2015 to support UM’s coral reef research and restoration through outreach, education, and citizen science. The program engages interested individuals in coral reef biology, ecology, and conservation by allowing them to assist UM researchers with hands-on, experiential activities. University of Miami divers use their AAUS diving authorization to explain and train scientific diving techniques to citizen scientist SCUBA divers on RAR excursions. On these excursions, divers learn about basic coral nursery maintenance, collection, and outplanting methodologies. It is a platform that allows the general public to become both educated on active coral restoration and immersed in the field of scientific diving. By involving these citizen scientists in coral conservation and restoration activities, they become invested in and excited about protecting these critical marine resources in Miami-Dade County.
Since 2015, RAR has hosted 34 expeditions, trained 381 citizen scientist divers, and outplanted 2,400 corals on the reefs of South Florida. Coral gardening has expanded considerably the last few years and is starting to have significant, positive impacts on localized recovery. Rescue a Reef’s corals have an ~85% survival rate, a great sign for the program and its participants. Even so, RAR and UM researchers know restoration is not a long-term solution. Ocean warming and acidification continue to pose serious threats to corals.  That is why Dr. Lirman’s lab collaborates with other UM researchers, using cutting-edge science and methodologies to develop more resilient and genetically diverse coral populations.
All of this contributes to Rescue a Reef’s ultimate goal: to engage and educate the local community, increase scientific literacy in coastal and coral conservation, and foster ocean stewardship.
Learn how you can contribute at www.rescueareef.com!

Program Director: Dr. Diego Lirman

Program Manager / Photos:Dalton Hesley 






Scientific Diving Class Opens Doors for Rutgers Undergraduates

By Ken Branson and Cameron Bowman


Breathing through their scuba gear, Ailey Sheehan and her classmates dropped a new and improved lionfish trap – a hinged net that will help scientists study that invasive fish in the Caribbean – into the dive pool at Rutgers.Sheehan, a junior marine science major, discovered the opportunity to help design, build and conduct underwater testing of the fish-snaring device through Rutgers-New Brunswick’s scientific diving class, created through collaboration between the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Rutgers Recreation.

Led by Rutgers Recreation’s scuba coordinator Debbie Miller, a veteran diver, scientific diving is one of the few such classes open to undergraduates in the United States. The class leads to certification as a recreational diver, a rescue diver and – by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences – a scientific diver.

“Scientific diving is essential to oceanographic research, an area in which Rutgers is a worldwide leader,” Miller said.  The students in her class learn advanced open water and rescue diver skills, as well as the use of scientific methods underwater.  That they can acquire these skills and attain this certification while still undergraduates opens more doors, and opens them sooner, than would be the case if they had to wait until they entered graduate school as in other institutions.

“You can apply for graduate programs. You can apply to do research. You can be a citizen scientist. The course sets all the groundwork, so if you want to go into professional diving or be a dive master, you can do that as well,” Miller said.Rutgers sends its faculty and student scientific divers around the world.  For example, they help deploy, recover and repair the submersible robot gliders whose use the university has pioneered as ocean-observing instruments.  Right now in the Philippines, a team led by environmental sciences professor Malin Pinsky is using scientific diving to research how anemone fish – better known as clownfish – disperse their larvae in coral reefs.

For Julian Maheu, a junior marine science major, the scientific diving class also teaches confidence. “In high school, my grades were very good, but in college I was losing confidence. Having scuba diving and being very good at it and improving with my peers, has taught me that school is not just about the grade you get on your exam but about the experience you build.”


Reprinted with permission from Rutgers Today
April 5, 2018




Hurricane Impacts on Coral Reefs

 Deborah Gochfeld (OM: University of Mississippi), Marilyn Brandt (OM: University of the Virgin Islands), and

Julie Olson (University of Alabama, through OM: Dauphin Island Sea Lab) 

Photos by Deb Gochfeld and Rossie Ennis 


AAUS scientific divers Deborah Gochfeld (OM: University of Mississippi), Marilyn Brandt (OM: University of the Virgin Islands), and Julie Olson (University of Alabama, through OM: Dauphin Island Sea Lab) have received a National Science Foundation RAPID grant to assess the impacts of back-to-back hurricanes on coral reefs, and their ability to recover. This interdisciplinary research team is examining impacts to the sponge communities at sites they have monitored on St. Thomas USVI, over the past several years. Sponges are increasingly recognized as crucial components of coral reef ecosystems worldwide, providing habitat, food and nutrients for various coral reef species. However, while impacts of hurricanes on corals have been known for decades, this is the first time that scientists have examined the effects of hurricanes on sponges, and how that influences recovery of the coral reef community.


The initial fieldwork for this project occurred in December 2017, approximately 2 months after the category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the USVI. Using the University of Miami’s research vessel, F.G. Walton Smith, the research team performed surveys at six sites surrounding St. Thomas that varied in their pre-hurricane levels of runoff from land-based sources. They found a loss of coral cover, and an even greater loss of sponge cover, along with dominance of the benthos by fleshy macroalgae over that interval. In addition to surveys, the scientific divers cleared plots of algae and/or sponges to assess the degree of competition between algae, corals and sponges, and how that might impact reef recovery.


The research cruise also served as a training opportunity for  AAUS student divers from UVI. The team will return to the USVI in March 2018 to follow sponge and coral recovery within cleared plots, and along permanent transects on St. Thomas’ reefs. The results of this research will have significant implications for coral reef management strategies, and for our broader understanding of coral reef ecology.









Doing Science at 500 Feet

Reflections from the California Academy of Sciences Palau 2016 Expedition

  By Tyler Phelps, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

Photos by Tyler Phelps and Luiz Rocha (California Academy of Sciences)


Fifteen minutes. That’s all we have at 500 feet. Hours of preparation, years of training, for just a quarter of an hour. All other fundamentals like buoyancy, propulsion techniques, team awareness and the nuances of your equipment have to be habitual. Each dive costs hundreds of dollars. Wasted seconds is wasted money. In every breath you take, millions of inert gas molecules rush into your tissues. This is decompression diving. Going to the surface is not an option. For if you do, you will die. Why do it then? We are the first human beings to see these reefs and often the first to see new species. It is the most euphoric and intense fifteen minutes imaginable.

Long before this dive, there was a little boy that looked up at an aquarium exhibit and something inspired him to become a marine biologist. Do you believe in love at first sight? Growing up at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, the boy was mesmerized by the “Tropical Pacific,” a section of the aquarium that imitated Palau’s coral reefs. Fast forward to this past September.  A gracious email invitation to attend an expedition with the California Academy of Sciences team to Palau.  Missing this trip was not an option! The expedition was scheduled to begin December 6.  The trip would occur well before finals.  Meeting with farsighted and flexible professors, it was negotiated that exams would need to be taken early. 

Palau is an incredible island country located 4,600 miles southwest of Honolulu. The mission for the expedition was to conduct biodiversity surveys and collect live specimens for the Steinhart Aquarium. This was a huge project consisting of three teams. Members of the “shallow” team (diving to 130 feet) were the invertebrate curators from Cal Academy based out of HQ, the Coral Reef Research Foundation. For us, the “deep” team, we occupied a significant portion of the facility at Sam’s Dive Tours, the largest diving operation in Palau. Lastly, there was a team of aquarists who had the responsibility of caring for all the live specimens that were collected. This team operated out of Biota, a local and sustainable aquaculture facility. The glue holding all of us together was Project Manager, Cristina Castillo, who was back-and-forth between the facilities ensuring everything was going smoothly.

The expedition began with the unpacking all of the cylinders, safety equipment, compressed gas, and rebreather consumables that were sent two months earlier. After organizing the equipment, it was time to assemble the rebreathers and blend gas; lots of gas. Since preparing a rebreather to dive is similar to preparing a plane to fly, checklists are a must. One of the perks to the project was getting to use very cool diving toys, I mean tools. One example was the $2,000 “NERD” (Near Eye Retinal Display), a full trimix closed circuit rebreather computer conveniently located on your heads up display! After an initial check out dive, it was time to get to work.

Each day started at 6:00am with breakfast at our hotel. It was the only time to get half-decent Wi-Fi as most of the other guests were still asleep. After coffee, scrambled eggs, and emails, we shuttled down to the dive center, departing at 7:45am. We stayed in the capital, Koror, where about 70% of the population of Palau lives. In our drives to the dive center, sometimes in the back of a truck, we were overwhelmed by the beautiful island country. On the way, we would stop at a local market to buy lunch for the day. It didn’t have a diverse menu. Milkfish, teriyaki chicken, and fried chicken were our options. Needless to say, some of us got tired of fried chicken by the fifth day in a row. Who knew a PB&J sandwich could be such a comfort food?

By the time we strategically arrived at Sam’s Tours at 8:15am, the morning boats had departed--leaving us room to operate. Typically, we spent about two to three hours preparing for the dive. This included assembling the rebreather, packing the CO2 scrubber, analyzing gasses, programming our gasses into the dive computers and getting all of the collection equipment aboard our chartered 40 foot boat. If we were going to be collecting fish, a chase boat followed us with our team of aquarists. The teams generally left the dock between 10:00am and 11:00am.

Once we made it to the day’s dive site, all personnel participated in an extremely detailed and thorough safety briefing. We reviewed the dive plan with every contingency imaginable. After we were in agreeance, it was time to suit up. Everyone was quiet as we mentally visualized the dive and conducted our individual pre-dive safety checks. With a 100 pound rebreather on our backs, and a cornucopia of safety equipment in our pockets, our safety diver led us through the team’s pre-jump checklist.

After we splashed into the water, it was time to receive our scooter, nets, fish decompression chambers, and all of our bailout cylinders from the crew. With everything clipped off, the team visually confirmed that everything was where it was supposed to be and that there were no visible leaks. Due to the complexity, it usually took over an hour from the time we geared up, to begin our dive.

The team made eight mesophotic dives during the expedition with an average max depth of 360 feet and an average run time of four hours. Our planned depth and duration was mainly predicted by the dive site’s topography. Logistics definitely played a significant factor. If our site was further away, we tried to keep the dive shallower and shorter. The exception to this was the dive at Angaur Island, the southernmost island in Palau. We knew from talking to locals and looking at bathymetry maps that we would have the best chance of finding a desirable species of Centropyge. Everything was prepped the day before to leave the dock at 7:30am for the two hour boat ride out. Spending more time on the bottom also meant for greater decompression obligations. Remember how I said we only had fifteen minutes to work at 500 feet? At Angaur we worked for an incredible 40 minutes at 430 feet which resulted in 5.5 hours of decompression! It was our most productive dive.  We collected a dozen beautiful specimens, including two undescribed fish species. The long decompression was worth it.

As marine scientists, we know that most bony fish have a gaseous swim bladder. As divers, we know that Boyle’s Law states the pressure and volume of a gas have an inverse relationship. The swim bladders in fish expand as they are brought to the surface due to the decrease in ambient pressure. Obviously this poses a huge health concern for the fish. Traditionally, scientists have used hypodermic needles to puncture the swim bladder to off-gas the fish as they come up from the dive. This is a very stressful process that often results in mortality. The ichthyologists and aquarists at Cal Academy have invented a solution to this problem, the fish decompression chamber.

After the fish are caught at 400 feet they are placed into a porous acrylic cylinder with a depth gauge. We then ascend to about 250 feet to slow our decompression accumulation while providing enough ambient pressure so the fish aren’t too stressed. The fish are then placed into a larger water filtration housing. Divers then puff a small bubble of nitrox gas into the lid before it is attached. As the team ascends, the bubble expands inside the filter and causes the chamber to hold a static pressure. Our team of aquarists meets us at 100 feet to attach an off board gas supply so the chamber does not lose pressure during the final ascent. Back on board the chase boat, the aquarists attach water filtration tubing and haul back to the aquaculture facility. They then spend two days constantly tending to the chambers to off gas the fish slowly and safely.

Our dives in Palau were incredible. Imagine the best aquarium you’ve ever seen and multiply it by ten! This attempts to describe Palau’s coral reefs. The diversity was not only remarkable, but overwhelming. At “West Past,” we couldn’t even lay a finger on the bottom at 200 feet because everything was exploding with life! Palau is also famous for becoming the first shark sanctuary in the world. Rightfully so, we saw sharks on almost every dive. During one of our collection dives off a vertical wall at 360 feet, we were surrounded by 20 reef sharks and one very curious 11 foot female tiger shark. It took every ounce of discipline to stay focused on the mission and not look up to say “wow!”

You might be wondering how we passed the time during these four to six hour dives. Frequently, we leisurely did video transects and documented the reefs with our cameras. Fish watching was a personal favorite. Time flew by studying a school of colorful Anthiadinae or a family of clownfish in their anemone. Other activities included: practicing line skills, studying the scientific names of local fish on laminated cards, cruising with the scooters, listening to music, spontaneous dance competitions, cutting away fishing line, and writing graduate school application essays. We also need to stay hydrated by drinking from our underwater hydration packs and keep up with our calories. Grapes, bananas, and tubular apple sauce are team favorites!

We did not return to the dive center until 4:00pm to 5:00pm or later. As tired as we were from our four hour dive, the work did not stop. The boat needed to be offloaded, gear rinsed, cylinders filled, and rebreathers disassembled and sanitized. We left the dive center at about 7:00pm to 7:30pm after our two hours of cleanup. By the time we got back to the hotel and took a quick shower, we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner at 8:00pm to 8:30pm. Returning to our rooms at 10:00pm to 11:00pm, falling sleeping was not an issue. Then it at all started again the next day. This continued for four days straight, with one dry “day off,” then back at it for another four days.

I am extremely grateful to the California Academy of Sciences for allowing me the funding and privilege to accompany them on this expedition. The Palau expedition was a dream come true for the eight year old boy. The reef structure and diversity exceeded all expectations. Our deep team caught over 30 live specimens for the Steinhart Aquarium. It will be the first time that some of these species have ever been displayed in an aquarium. A few of these species are also new to science! Advancement in diving technologies has allowed us to explore these mesophotic ecosystems.  Who knows what else we will discover on our next expedition to Easter Island!









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