by David Ginsburg and Jim Haw

With this post we launch coverage of the USC Dornsife Environmental Studies 2012 Guam and Palau expedition. This program is challenging to execute from both a logistic and academic perspective. Now in its third year, it is finally beginning to feel like a completed body of work. In 2010 we had 14 very-high-achieving students who did not mind that we (the course instructors) were sometimes planning course activities on less than a day’s notice.

Last year's class of 24 saw a much more polished product, and those students will recognize that what we are doing this year are largely refinements, but the refinements have made a difference. The Guam and Palau Program currently consists of two linked courses, which account for a total 6-units of academic credit: Environmental Studies (ENST) 298 ‘Introduction to Scientific Diving’ and ENST 480 ‘Integrated Ecosystem Management in Micronesia.’

ENST 298 is a 2-unit class taught during the ‘traditional’ Spring Semester, and is comprised of 1 hour of lecture and 2 hours of lab per week. Lectures are focused primarily on diving physics and physiology but these periods are occasionally preempted by extended laboratory periods or incorporated into weekend excursions to the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. Four lab periods were held in USC’s indoor pool facility where students practiced and demonstrated basic SCUBA skills prior to their first ocean dives. Several other labs were devoted to first aid training. The American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) requires that all science divers be certified in basic first aid, CPR, automated external defibrillator (AED), oxygen administration, as well as trained to OSHA standards on the handling of compressed gasses such as Nitrox.

All of this is in preparation for ENST 480, which is offered as a 4-unit Maymester course, meaning that even though the class begins immediately after commencement it is part of the students' Spring Semester tuition and fee bills. However, what makes this course unique is that months before the official start of Maymester, course participants must complete a series of weekend ‘dive-training’ sessions on Catalina Island. A typical dive weekend consists of in-water swim exercises, course lectures, writing workshops, and up to four SCUBA dives. On any given Saturday, we begin our day with an ocean swim before breakfast, complete a couple of dives with a lunch break in between, and end the day with a lecture well after dinner. The pace is intense, but come Sunday afternoon many students are sad to leave the island.

USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith provides SCUBA instruction with assistance from Riverside County Sheriff’s Office Reserve Captain and public safety diver Tom Carr – both of whom accompany the class to Micronesia. This year we had another very experienced SCUBA instructor join our class, Bradley Walker, whose first career was in the U.S. Navy as an officer on the SEAL Team. These instructors are supported by a group of other dive professionals including the authors, USC postdoctoral researcher Anand Patel, USC graduate student Chris Suffridge, and several undergraduates from last years’ class who are interning as Dive Master candidates under Bradley.

On Monday, May 14 we will return to Catalina for 5 days of advanced dive training and lectures on coral reef ecology and the natural history of Palau and Guam. We leave Catalina on Saturday, May 20 and fly to Guam early the next morning, crossing the international dateline in the process. This year we will spend only 5 days on Guam so that we can spend more time collecting data as part of a long-term monitoring project in Palau. After nearly 3 weeks in the field, we depart Palau in the early morning hours of June 3, arriving home in Los Angeles a little more than 24 hours later, but on the same calendar day we depart Palau.

Blogging has been part of the course since the first year it was offered (Summer 2010) to provide a reflective component of experiential learning. One of the major refinements for the 2012 course was to enlist Professor Geoffrey Middlebrook from the USC Writing Program to help organize and deliver a workshop on academic blogging. The majority of student blogs will be personal reflections, field reports based on both research and experience, and others will be in the style of persuasive Op-Ed pieces. One of the essential goals of the ENST Maymester Program is to cultivate “prepared minds experiencing teachable moments”, and we hope this will be reflected in the blog. Early blog posts will emphasize preparation for the trip, either field research in preparation or dive training, as well as content related to the southern California marine environment. Once we reach Micronesia the posts will reflect either a blend of prior research on hands-on experience in the field or spontaneous posts based entirely on our encounters.

Another refinement for 2012 includes a trip to the Masso Reservoir, which is located in the Asan-Piti Watershed on the southwestern coast of Guam. Constructed by the U.S. Navy in 1945 for the storage of drinking water, Masso Reservoir was abandoned shortly thereafter due to excessive siltation. Until recently, the Masso site was overgrown by exotic and invasive plants, and was an example of a failed water project of the past. In 2007, Masso Reservoir was included in a watershed restoration plan (led by Guam and Federal resource agencies) as mitigation for the loss of coral reef habitat in Apra Harbor due to dredging and other development activities.

Working with our colleague Brent Tibbatts, an aquatic biologist with the Guam Department of Agriculture’s Division of Aquatics and Wildlife Resources, students will participate in several ongoing research projects being conducted at the Masso site. These projects include the monitoring and removal of invasive plants, measurements of water quality and flow, and surveys of aquatic and marine organisms. Restoration efforts will directly contribute to the recovery plans for endangered species found in the area. For example, Masso Watershed is one of the last known nesting grounds of the Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus guami). Listed as critically endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fewer than 50 individuals of this species currently reside on Guam.

The final leg of the ENST Maymester Program takes us to the Republic of Palau where students and faculty will participate in a multi-day survey of marine resources in the Ngederrak Conservation Area. Closed to all recreational and fishing activities since 2001, this site was historically fished for a variety of high-value subsistence and commercial invertebrates and fishes. Working closely with Ilebrang Olkeriil and King Sam from the Koror State Government-Department of Conservation and Law and Enforcement and Paul Collins from the Coral Reef Research Foundation, our group will assist in ongoing efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation and enforcement activities in this area.

This is the third year our field course has teamed up with local resource managers and scientists from Koror State, which has one of the most active marine conservation programs in Palau. Home to some of the highest levels of marine and terrestrial biodiversity in Micronesia (and the Indo-West Pacific as a whole), Koror State officials recently submitted a proposal to include the Rock Islands (which includes the Ngederrak Conservation Area and other areas that students will visit during this excursion) to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Several USC Dornsife students in the 2012 Guam and Palau program will introduce themselves and their interests in the nest several posts.

About the authors:

Dr. David Ginsburg is a marine biologist and lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Guam and has conducted scientific diving in both Guam and Palau for a number of years. His scientific diving experience includes under-ice specimen collection in Antarctica.

Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

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

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