"We were in the Aleutians running transects to confirm benthic critters with cameras," recalls Mitch Osborne, Fish Biologist with the Fairbanks Fish and Wildlife Field Office. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw it, a sunflower seastar— like a starfish—rolling downslope. And then came an anemone. They were being impacted by water pressure caused by Steller sea lions—the size of a mini-pickup—dive-bombing us. We went to another area five miles away, but those same three sea lions were back on us; the video confirmed their spots."
Osborne is one of several dozen divers who conduct conservation work on plants, fish, mussels, and other aquatic species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their personalities share important traits.
"You have to be calm under pressure," says Kevin Foster, Marine Ecologist for the Service in the Pacific Islands. "You have to be able to recognize a problem and work through it clinically and not be emotional."
"You have to be flexible and adaptable and willing to do a hard day's work," says Patricia Caccavale, Southwest Region Dive Officer at the San Marcos Aquatic Resource Center in Texas, "and have a very good sense of humor."
"Calm under stressful conditions," says Scott Yess of the La Crosse Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Onalaska, Wisconsin. "You want to be relaxed, slow-moving, and able to control your tendency to panic."
"Selfless people. Not big egos," says Patty Morrison, Northeast Region Dive Officer at the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Williamstown, West Virginia. Morrison grew up on the Hudson River near Nyack, New York. She has a biology degree from MIT and an Environmental Law degree from West Virginia University. She helps restore mussel populations to the Ohio River.
"Mussels filter and cycle nutrients," she says. "They make the river cleaner and healthier for people to enjoy. A primary thing we do is inventory, another is monitoring, and another is collecting brood stock. We might go into an area that has 25 species and look for 3. When mussel diving you're only going to see what's one or two feet in front of you. The Ohio River is mostly cobble, rubble and sand—so mussels are well camouflaged. You have to stay within arm's reach of your dive buddy.
"Our most unusual find was a safe," Morrison recalls. The state police identified it as having been stolen three years earlier from a hotel in St. Cloud and supposedly containing $18,000. "Hindsight's always twenty-twenty," she responds jokingly to the common question about a finders-keepers policy.
Tony Brady's mussel diving began in graduate school at Tennessee Tech when one of his professors who was conducting mussel research asked, "Want to be a scuba diver, Tony? If so, we're paying for it." Today, Brady is a Mussel Propagation Biologist at the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery in Louisiana. "You get trotlines in the river—entanglement issues. Sunken logs that you don't see until you hit them. Currents can be problematical. We're diving in zero visibility—not crawling around and looking, but digging around in the mud. Last week on the Pearl River there were alligator tracks next to where we launched the boat."
Divers in the Service have to demonstrate extensive physical abilities on an annual basis—including a 400-yard free swim, an 800-yard kick swim, a 200-yard diver distress tow, and 15 minutes of treading water including hands out of the water for the last 2 minutes. Divers are required to have a dozen or more dives each season and never have a gap longer than 6 months between dives.
"The coldest I've ever been? It was while placing mussel cages on the St. Croix River with chunks of ice floating by," Yess recalls. They are 3x2x2-foot wire cages with wood board bottoms and four 12-inch legs. The cages contain live fish whose gills have been inoculated with glochidia—mussel larvae—that eventually fall off and land on the platform. "We were in dry suits, but our faces were exposed. It's like little needles until your face numbs up, and then you don't feel it. Your hands and feet are the first to get cold—even with gloves and booties. When your hands get numb and you no longer have dexterity, it's time to get out."
Larry Lockard is a Fish and Wildlife Biologist at the Creston National Fish Hatchery in Kalispell, Montana. Part of his work is containing and eradicating invasive quagga mussels that were discovered in Lake Powell in 2012 at two marinas near the dam. "Lake Mead is downstream and is the epicenter for quagga mussels," Lockard explains. "They've only been in Mead since 2007, but it happens fast when they arrive. They're covering boats, motors, docks, water intakes, even the cooling system at the dam. They are a threat to municipal water and power supplies and could even blacken Los Angeles."
In June 2013, he helped examine 1,100 houseboats moored at the two Lake Powell marinas. A two-man team looked at each boat, each diver going down one side of the boat, meeting at the motor, and then going down the center. "We looked especially in the through-hull holes; they thrive on current, so any water intakes on outboards are targets. Our job was to remove every mussel and put them in little plastic vials. They range from microscopic to an inch. We found fewer than 300 on the 1,100 boats, mostly singles, and only 23 groups that were close to reproducing. Infestation is right at the beginning, and you have to contain it at those two marinas."
Kevin Foster grew up in New England where he was on a swim team throughout school and dived constantly with his dad who was an instructor for the National Association of Underwater Instructors. Foster joined the Peace Corps right out of college and was assigned to a 900-resident, no-electricity village on a Pacific island where his primary job was aquaculture—raising giant clams.
Today, Foster's work includes marine bio-assessment for harbors and channels that are scheduled for expansion by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dive work includes counting reef fish, corals, plants, and macroinvertebrates, and documenting spawning periods, behavior, life stages—all of which helps determine the best schedule for Corps projects.
Patricia Caccavale also grew up around water; her parents owned a boat yard in Staten Island. Caccavale's current work includes monitoring the upper San Marcos River in the Texas Hill Country to remove an invasive water trumpet native to Sri Lanka, a popular aquarium plant that "grows like crazy" and took over that section of the river a decade ago.
Caccavale's team first waves the sediment and soil away from the base, and then gradually removes the whole plant. In some areas they have to tie themselves with rope because of fast current. The eradication process began with dredging, and followed with divers who pulled out 1,200 plants the first year. In the fall of 2012, they found only two.
Although Service divers share a set of safety-first personality traits, they also share an ongoing awareness of, and exposure to, hazards.
"Turbid water, debris, lots of sunken logs, fishing line, hooks, barbed wire," says Caccavale. "We've come up wrapped in fishing line and had to cut each other out."
"We were doing a deep dive in perfect weather in the Marshall Islands," recalls Foster. "When we surfaced we were in three-to-five-foot swells with an approaching squall and visibility reducing to just feet. The wind was blowing our boat away from us and we were swimming with 80 pounds of gear. We grabbed the back of the boat just as the rain hit."
Together, these seven divers have logged many thousands of dives during which they have never been injured by an animal—including sharks and alligators—and don't know any divers who have.
And they haven't found sunken doubloons. They have found arrowheads, sunglasses, shoes, hats, bottles, occasional antique anchors, unspent military shells, and wallets filled with mud. And, of course, "There isn't a body of water—no matter where you go—that doesn't have a golf ball in it," confirms Osborne.
"Seventy percent of the planet is under water," says Osborne, "and, for the most part, we have no clue what's under there. Once someone reads and understands a report, they take ownership and start caring."