By Kristen Weiss

In a few short days, I will be heading to Micronesia with several USC staff and faculty members, as well as 26 bright, enthusiastic USC undergraduates. This trip is the culmination of a semester’s worth of anticipation, in which the students were trained in scientific diving skills, the physics of diving, and the applications of diving to marine ecosystem management. As the newest Environmental Studies faculty recruit, I spent the semester learning many of these skills right along with the students, from basic diving and first aid to underwater navigation, so that in future years I can take a leadership role in this course.

Just like the students, I am jittery with excitement knowing that soon we will be diving amongst vibrant tropical reef environments, discovering new cultures, and hopefully collecting valuable data that will contribute to marine conservation in Guam and Palau. This week, we are spending several days on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles to practice the last of our diving skills and learn more about marine management in the U.S. and Micronesia through lectures and discussion.

Just diving off the shores of Catalina is a privilege—the marine protected areas contain thick kelp forests and rocky outcroppings that house dozens of invertebrates (like lobster, urchin, sea cucumber, and starfish), colorful fish like the bright orange Garibaldi, and even beautiful spotted leopard sharks and shy bat rays. Being involved in this unique experiential learning program brings me full circle back to what originally inspired me to pursue a career in marine conservation.

I can pinpoint nearly the exact point in time when my passion for the marine environment—and its alluring wildlife—was initially sparked. I was about nine years old, on a family trip to Captiva Island on the Gulf coast of Florida. Walking along a boat dock in the island’s marina, I noticed a string of bubbles floating up to the surface right beside the dock. Enthralled, I stopped to observe. In the next instant, two hippo-like nostrils emerged, followed by a whiskered mouth, and finally two gentle eyes surrounded by softly wrinkled gray skin. It was a manatee, the first I had ever seen. Its flat paddle of a tail soon popped up as well, and I had a complete view of this magical creature.

From then on I gathered all the information and memorabilia I could find about manatees, and when I learned that they were endangered (and what ‘endangered’ meant), my determination to save them was solidified. As I grew older, this interest in conservation expanded to other wildlife and to the marine environment in general. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, I participated in an experiential learning program called ‘Biology and Geomorphology of Tropical Islands’, in which I and 19 other students were whisked away for three months to the island of Moorea in French Polynesia to learn about island biogeography and to complete individual research projects. The experience not only had a lasting impact on my future academic career; it affected my entire being. I had never before understood the mantra of ‘living in the moment’—of completely immersing yourself in the present—until I had removed myself from the constant feeling of restlessness typical of urban American life. Moorea finally allowed me to connect in a meaningful way with my long-held passion for nature. Hiking through steep slopes of rainforest, swimming amongst bioluminescent algae under South Pacific stars, and kayaking out to wave-worn fringing reefs reinforced my desire to pursue marine ecology and conservation.

After graduating, my dream of ‘saving’ the manatees became a partial reality—I interned at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, where I helped conduct research on manatee populations along the Gulf coast. It was like a dream come true! We collected genetic data and photographed manatees throughout the local bays and estuaries to gain a better picture of their population status and potential threats. While in Sarasota, I also volunteered in Mote’s animal hospital where I helped care for injured sea turtles and dolphins, and release those that had recovered. Eventually I moved to Queensland, Australia to pursue a PhD in marine wildlife management at James Cook University. My doctoral research focused on how to improve the conservation of migratory species like sea turtles and marine mammals through adaptive co-management (ACM). ACM is a management approach that emphasizes flexibility, iterative learning-by-doing, and the involvement of relevant stakeholders and their respective knowledge bases. To assess the network of stakeholders involved in marine wildlife management in Australia, I interviewed many policy makers, academics, indigenous leaders, marine park managers, and others. Using policy network analysis, I constructed network ‘maps’ that showed which stakeholders communicated and collaborated with each other, and which groups were being excluded from the process.

Australia’s marine environment is diverse and spectacular—but also highly threatened by coastal development, pollution, and climate change. In the Torres Strait Islands, just south of Papua New Guinea, I worked alongside Indigenous park rangers to catch, tag, and measure dozens of adult and juvenile sea turtles, as well as monitor sea turtle nests and the sea grass beds that act as their feeding and breeding grounds. The turtle population in this area is impressive, but sea grass dies off, coastal erosion, and overharvesting in nearby regions are already affecting population trends in worrisome ways. These same changes are affecting many other species in the area, including dugongs (relatives of manatees) and tropical fish and invertebrates.

Adaptive co-management and similar approaches to natural resource management will be important, if not essential, pathways towards sustainable resource use throughout the world. Tools like policy network analysis allow managers and policy makers to identify relevant stakeholders and determine how effectively they are being engaged in the management process. This year, I am excited to introduce a social science component to the Guam and Palau Program. We will teach our students about the basics of resource management and network analysis, and allow them to practice some of the data gathering techniques involved in these processes. We hope to establish an on-going research component to the course in which students interview various stakeholders on Catalina Island and in Micronesia, construct network diagrams of stakeholder relations, and provide resultant information that may assist resource managers in protecting their valuable marine environments.

I feel very lucky to have joined this unique program that will no doubt inspire and influence many students’ lives, just as mine was inspired nearly a decade ago in French Polynesia. And it doesn’t hurt that we get to dive in some of the most prized dive sites in the world!

Author Bio: Kristen Weiss is a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at USC Dornsife. She teaches ENST 100: Introduction to Environmental Studies and ENST 320a: Soil and Water Sustainability. She is excited to be developing a new course entitled Sustainable Fisheries Management to debut in Spring 2014.

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 through the Environmental Studies Program. 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, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, 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:

USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins