11.9.2015 Day 2: Aquarius Teacher Under the Sea – Melissa

11.9.2015 Day 2 – Teacher Under the Sea – Melissa

Today was an incredible day and one I’ve long awaited for some time. Today we came together as a team and began working to quantify the impact of sharks on coral reef species. We headed out to sea, anchored up to the life support buoy and headed down in shifts. I was lucky enough to share my first experience inside the world ONLY undersea laboratory with my incredible students from Unity Middle School. Swimming into Aquarius I felt a rush of excitement and connecting to my students many miles away from the heart of the ocean was an experience I’m sure to never forget.

After showing my students around the reef base, we headed back out, toured the exterior of the base to see the surrounding reef and surfaced. This process was necessary for us because we were not saturated divers. As a saturated diver, you become saturated to a new level of pressure. Right now, you and I are saturated at 1 ATM. Aquarius Reef Base is at a level 2.5ATM. This means that once we go down to Aquarius and stay at that level (50 – 60 feet below the surface) we can actually stay and go diving as long as we want. It does not matter if we go for 15 hours or 15 months, the decompression time will be the same. This in turn allows researchers to do 9-10x the amount of work from the reef base as they would be able to do from the surface. They can even dive for 540 minutes at 95 feet. For a regular boat dive you can barely stay at that bottom time for 10 minutes. One can easily see how this impedes research time.

Aquarius is truly something special, but so much of the research actually happens on Conch Reef just outside of Aquarius. Today our science team set up the layout of the experiment and pressed “record” on all of the technology we have to help us quantify this data. From GoPro’s to ARIS, M3 and EK80 Sonar imaging technology we have plenty to work with. To process all of this data will take quite some time, but the results could significantly change the way we treat large predator species in coral reef communities.

The science team has developed this study after much research and has done all that they can to minimize any bias in the data. So let me explain how this would look if for say we decided to do this at the middle school level in a typical “science fair” style project. FIU’s researchers began their research with a question. They wanted to find out everything they knew about this topic to gain a better perspective to eventually propose a hypothesis and devise a plan to test this hypothesis with an experiment. The experiment they conducted was similar to our study, but used decoy predators. While this model did show minimal changes in grazing patterns, they were not able to quantify the affects as the fish became increasingly more comfortable as the predators stayed in one spot for a few days. So they went back to the drawing board, as all great scientists do and devised a new plan. This time they would set up algae tiles every few meters away from a sound emitting transducer. The hypothesis is that there will be less grazing nearest to the transducer in the presence of sharks. We will see in just a few days the data collect around this idea and we may be able to 1) identify how many and what types of sharks are in the area, 2) identify and calculate the number of herbivorous fishes that graze in a particular area at any given time, 3) make inferences about any patterns we see forming.

You see, in the case of this mission, the researchers are so focused on creating a “fair” experiment that each piece is so crucial to the overall success and validity of this data! I will do my best to upload a video link some time tomorrow to illustrate the layout of the plots and how we are conducting the experiment with visuals.

After my morning dive, I was able to participate in helping to swap out some of the algae tiles and also to replace the GoPro Cameras with new ones to run for the next 3 hours or so. This was an incredible and new experience for me as I’ve never “worked” under water before. The science team took us under their wings and welcomed our helping hands today.

When we arrived back at base, we split for dinner and returned within the hour to complete data processing from the GoPro’s and sonar imaging cameras from the day. It is important to know what is happening on the plots in real time, are the cameras stationed in the appropriate spot to see the entire plot, how are the changes in measurement of the tile different from at the beginning, when and how many sharks were present!

The highlight of my day was seeing my students (6th Grade, Unity Middle School in Delray Beach, FL)and being able to bring them to the bottom of the ocean with me. I hope to connect with more students tomorrow (Tuesday) in Peru at Colegio Neustra Señora del Carmen!!!

Melissa Norelli speaks to her sixth grade students from Unity Middle School in Delray Beach, FL.
Melissa Norelli speaks to her sixth grade students from Unity Middle School in Delray Beach, FL.

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