Interns do coral and fish research in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Current UH Hilo undergraduate Rosie Lee and recent graduate Keelee Martin spent a month as part of a NOAA research team studying the effects of climate change on the reef and fish populations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

By Susan Enright.

Colton Johnson, Keelee Martin and, Rosie Lee
Three interns from the University of Hawai‘i—(l-r) Colton Johnson (UH Mānoa), and Keelee Martin and Rosie Lee (UH Hilo)—on the NOAA research vessel Hi‘ialakai, at the port of Honolulu the night before departing for a 33-day research mission in waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Courtesy photo NOAA. Click photos to enlarge.

A current student and a recent graduate from the marine science program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo have just returned from a month-long sea voyage to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to do research on coral and fish populations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship Hi‘ialakai returned to Honolulu on Sept. 30 after a 25-day mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Current undergraduate Rosie Lee and recent graduate Keelee Martin were interns as part of a NOAA research team completing the third leg of a research mission in support of the Hawaiian Atolls Reef Assessment and Monitoring Project. The NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program team and partners conducted reef monitoring and damage mitigation work. The data is used to assess the impacts of climate change on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and gauge potential threats to the main Hawaiian Islands.

The opportunity for the interns to participate in the mission, says Lee, comes from a trusted relationship between the UH Marine Option Program (MOP) and NOAA, from which a unique internship program was developed just for students who have completed the MOP field school called QUEST. QUEST, acronym for Quantitative Underwater Ecological Surveying Techniques program, is an intensive summer field school where students are trained with active field professionals in underwater surveying techniques. After completing QUEST, a student then becomes eligible to apply for the NOAA internship opportunity.

As part of the partnership, NOAA and MOP award partial scholarships and tuition stipends for students to participate in the field school as a way of training and investing in future interns.

UH Mānoa student Colton Johnson was the third intern from the UH System, also on the trip through MOP.

Group of five researchers in life jackets on the water in side boat.
Rapid Ecological Assessment fish team after diving at French Frigate Shoals. (l-r) Colton Johnson, Scotty Jones, Jake Asher, Rosie Lee (top right), Jason Leonard (front right). Courtesy photo NOAA.

Lee is currently a senior earning a bachelor of science in marine science and a certificate from the Marine Option Program. She hails from Minnesota but has spent the past three-and-a-half years in Hawai‘i working on her education. She has been part of QUEST for three years and says she was incredibly eager to be a part of this internship opportunity.

Martin graduated in May 2017 with a bachelor of science in marine science, a minor in English, and a Marine Option Program certificate.

Rosie Lee

Lee was trained to be a part of the Rapid Ecological Assessment fish team where she helped conduct fish surveys throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. During a survey, the team identifies, counts, and sizes all the fish in a transect along specific time intervals. They also collect benthic (sea floor) data and photographs of the area to provide a habitat description for the fish they are counting.

“This internship is particularly unique as the interns are often the only scientists aboard that are still completing their bachelor’s degrees and yet are still treated and trained as seasoned professionals,” Lee explains.

Diver in ulua school, reef below.
Rosie Lee conducts a fish survey surrounded by a school of ulua. Photo by Jason Leonard/NOAA.

Lee says it would be easy to say that the NOAA internship was the most amazing experience ever, but it was far more than that—she says it was a month of intense learning, personal growth and very hard work.

“We gained a whole new light on what field work is like by waking up every day at zero-dark thirty, spending eight-plus hours in the sun and putting our bodies under immense pressure—literally—daily,” she explains.

“Everyone finds their own obstacles to overcome, whether its seasickness, homesickness, or the common cold,” she continues. “Being at sea for a month doesn’t come without challenges. Everyday you’re underwater, you make new observations, notice species interactions you’ve never noticed and are becoming a better scientist throughout the process. We are trained to count, identify, and size the fish, but every surveyor is doing so much more. You learn a whole new mindset of observing more than just what you are told to observe.”

She says she could read a thousand peer-reviewed scientific papers and still learn more about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’ ecosystem just by jumping into those waters every day and seeing it with her own eyes.

“It is a learning experience that you can’t get through the traditional education system,” she says. “Here at UH Hilo we are fortunate that our marine sciences program and the Marine Option Program aren’t very traditional as they provide a very wide variety of hands-on learning opportunities. This internship is just another great example of what those opportunities are.”

Lee says there is nothing quite like the first time seeing plating Acropora corals or being engulfed in an “ulunado,” a term used to describe a large school of ulua fish as it swirls as one unit. But she describes feeling a different kind of rush of emotions after dropping down on a reef that’s suffocating from being overgrown by macroalgae.

“You encounter the good and the bad, both many a time, but unfortunately more dives than not, you have dropped down onto a large flat of old, dead reef,” she says. “It is still seething with life here, but you wonder how much more it was when you imagine the giant coral colonies that once filled that now empty space.”

“It’s a weird feeling being in one of the most remote places in the world and seeing average household items floating by daily,” Lee adds. “Every day we came upon buoys, nets, bottles and more and think about how far they’ve traveled.” Through all the rubbly ocean floor flats, overgrown macroalgae, and floating marine debris, she says, every day she would remember where she was, the important work she was doing and the professionals she was with.

“The shine never seemed to fade because you realize you are one of three interns floating around at sea in one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, isolated on a NOAA ship with a fantastic crew and amazing group of scientists,” she says.

Group of researchers in boat's lab.
Scientists in the dry lab during a Midway port briefing. Photo by Jason Leonard/NOAA.

Keelee Martin

During the mission, UH Hilo alumna Martin was an intern on the Benthic Team, the group that looks at the substrate, which most of the time means coral. On the team with Martin was Kailey Pascoe (also a UH Hilo marine science/MOP alumna, and a graduate student in the UH Hilo Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, and a NOAA diver), and Steve Matadobra (UH Mānoa MOP alumnus currently working for Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument). The benthic team identifies and measures coral species, notes the morphology, assesses live tissue from dead tissue and looks at the overall health of the live tissue—in other words, disease and condition. They also photograph the substrate they are examining.

Two divers under water over reef.
UH Hilo undergraduate Keelee Martin (front) conducts benthic surveys during her 33-day internship aboard a NOAA ship in the protected French Frigate Shoals. At back is Kailey Pasco, an alumna of the UH Marine Option Program and QUEST. Photo by Stephen Matadobra/NOAA. Click photos to enlarge.
Dark green reef.
A photo by intern Keelee Martin as she examines the reef. “One of the moments I was most astounded by the coral cover and morphology at Lisianski,” she says. “This is only a small path in what I can only describe as a coral amphitheater. It was one of my favorite dives.”

“This experience is truly unique,” says Martin. “I heard about it for the first time three years ago when I first attended QUEST. The fact that this internship exists blows my mind, to actually be one of these interns—still processing that one. I feel humbled and very gracious to have been given the opportunity. It’s not every day that I see something and wonder if any other human eyes have seen what I am seeing. I thought that more than once up there.”

Martin says the typical intern is usually seen as a coffee and delivery service. But not here, not on a mission with NOAA.

“We put in just as much time underwater as the rest of the divers on our team and are expected to be real team players,” Martin says. “Working alongside acclaimed scientists and being a peer, we all work hard, and it’s a gratifying feeling when you know everyone on board is giving their all to support the same mission.”

Colton Johnson, Keelee Martin, Rosie Lee hold signs saying thank you. They are on deck with water in background.
The three interns from UH express thanks to the Hi‘ialakai crew and NOAA corps officers. (l-r) Colton Johnson, Keelee Martin, Rosie Lee.

About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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