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Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Diving into the Aquarium of the Pacific

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Note: Before we join the new group of students training for the 2012 Micronesia Expedition we will catch up with several of the USC scientific divers and see what they have been working on over the past year.

The fish was coming straight at me. The 100-lb sea bass slammed me against the rock wall, bit my lip, and knocked out my regulator. My mouth filled with water and I fumbled to grab my regulator. I quickly got it back into my mouth and sucked in a breath of air. I steadied my breathing and calmly went back to feeding the fish. On the other side of the plexiglass window, the audience was filled with smiling children and their parents. I smiled too. It was just another Saturday volunteering at the Aquarium.

Photo 1 – Backstage tour of the Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach CA – above the big tank. (photo by Jim Haw)

Backstage tour of the Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach CA – above the big tank. (photo by Jim Haw)

Almost a year ago, I took a tour of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA as part of the USC Dornsife Guam and Palau Problems without Passports class. We were shown the dive locker and spoke with three dive volunteers who had just gotten out of the largest exhibit. I asked if I could dive at the aquarium, and the Dive Safety Officer told me that the aquarium always wanted volunteers who could do research diving and encouraged me to apply.

We received AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences) certification through the Guam and Palau class so we conduct research underwater. I applied to volunteer at the aquarium the week we were back in the United States.

Photo 1 (Underwater) – The author feeding the herbivores in the exhibit modeled after Palau's Blue Corner.  (photo by Christopher Caitlin)

The author feeding the herbivores in the exhibit modeled after Palau's Blue Corner. (photo by Christopher Contag)

I was soon sitting in the aquarium’s classroom reciting the mission statement of the Aquarium of the Pacific with twenty other new volunteers: “To instill a sense of wonder, respect and stewardship for the Pacific Ocean, its inhabitants, and ecosystems.” I thought about what I had felt while diving in Micronesia, and comparing the relatively barren reefs in Guam to the more fecund dive sites in Palau. Palau’s marine ecosystems are partially protected because of people’s sense of wonder – or at least tourists’ sense of wonder. Dive tourism and ecotourism are major contributors to the Palauan economy. Guam’s marine ecosystems are being destroyed because that widely felt sense of wonder is not widely accompanied by a sense of respect or stewardship.

At the aquarium, whether I’m giving a presentation or feeding fish or just cleaning the plexiglass, I feel responsible for making people feel respect and stewardship for the organisms that entertain them in the tanks. At the Aquarium, conservation is a constant topic of discussion; each underwater presentation includes tips for helping protect the ecosystem represented in the exhibit.

I am able to share my experiences traveling with Problems without Passports during presentations in the exhibit modeled after a Palauan reef, and in the Catalina exhibit modeled after a site just around the corner from the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center where we learned science diving.

Photo 2 (Above water) – The author (kneeling, left) Splashed by rays in the touch pool. (photo by Albert Herrera)

The author (kneeling, left) Splashed by rays in the touch pool. (photo by Albert Herrera)

The Aquarium hosted a “Marine Parks Day”, and I gave a special presentation about Marine Protected Areas. Even little things, like promoting the “two finger touch” in the ray pool because “one finger pokes and three fingers pinch,” seem to make people feel more responsible for the wellbeing of the animals.

I thought of my work at the aquarium recently at an interview when I was asked how I could possibly be content to commit to staying in one place for so long to complete medical school after traveling so frequently throughout my four years in college. I told him that the research I did abroad was important, but that it’s important to me now to use those experiences to help my own community. Volunteering at the aquarium is a way that I continue the work I started last summer in Guam and Palau.

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, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave 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

Previously in this series:

Catching Up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Surfgrass Monitoring at Catalina
Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: The Robot Submarine

Caitlin Contag About the Author: Caitlin Contag recently graduated from USC with a degree in Policy, Planning and Development. She is in her final semester of a pre-medical post-baccalaureate program at Scripps College. When she is not underwater or studying for class, she works with the gene that confers resistance to macrolides in M. tuberculosis.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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