Region 4 Dive Team: Operation Zebra Safari

As Regional Dive Officer, I always wondered if I would get the call, "Can you activate the dive team and respond to a mission critical request from the Regional Office in less than 48 hours?"

Recently, this scenario came to pass. The orders were, "All other work priorities are to be postponed, and this mission is the highest priority." How important is it to maintain dive readiness? Extremely! Questions quickly ran through my mind: What is the mission? Is it safe to dive? Who is available? How will they get there? What will they need to accomplish the objectives?

I knew everyone on the dive team would want to support the mission, but with the travel window so short, who would be available to do it? Unfortunately, even I was limited by family responsibilities and was not available to travel. Well, it so happens that in Region 4, we are fortunate to have an amazing team to choose from.

Quickly, calls went out and responses came in. Four divers were able to change work and/or personal plans to provide assistance. Shout out to Tyler Hern (TN), Thomas Inebnit (AR), Jenna King (AL), and Bill Tate (FL). These divers accepted the call on a Tuesday afternoon, traveled all day from their home stations on Wednesday, went diving on Thursday, and traveled back on Friday.

What is the mission, you ask? Let me tell you.

The Challenge

Sightings of invasive zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) were reported in a recreational dive quarry in Region 4. A state agency responsible for invasive species invasive species
An invasive species is any plant or animal that has spread or been introduced into a new area where they are, or could, cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health. Their unwelcome presence can destroy ecosystems and cost millions of dollars.

Learn more about invasive species
heard of this report and was very concerned; the state agency reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Office in the Southeast to request if any individuals on the dive team were able to conduct dive surveys in the quarry as soon as possible. Due to the highly sensitive nature of potential positive results, any biological samples from the dive operation were closely monitored by both state and federal wildlife officers. The management of the dive quarry also limited the ability of the divers to be allowed on the property, only allowing them access one day from 12pm - 5pm. When it comes to aquatic invasive species, rapid response is critical for early detection and implementation of control and containment measures. Time was of the essence.

Challenge Accepted

Divers prepared gear and rolled out, arriving close to the destination on Wednesday evening within 24 hours of activation. The next morning, the team assembled with state representatives to discuss dive safety, sampling protocols, and chain of custody for samples. Then, everyone proceeded to the dive quarry to execute the dive plan.

During the first dive, the divers split into two teams with one team collecting eDNA water samples for cross-verification, and the other team starting visual searches. After nearly an hour of intensive searching, the divers were able to locate positive samples of zebra mussels on the first dive. Following a surface interval to offload gas nitrogen in their bodies and exchange SCUBA cylinders, the divers continued to visually inspect for zebra mussels on a second dive. The team found even higher zebra mussel densities and spent more time collecting additional water samples, taking photos, and documenting the infestation.

Although it is unfortunate that zebra mussels were found in the quarry, the dive team members were composed and professional, executed the dive plan flawlessly without incident or injury, and were able to provide a much-needed service to the state agency. Our divers traveled from multiple states and verified the presence of zebra mussels within 48 hours of the initial request for assistance.

So, when I ask, "How important is it to maintain dive readiness?" Extremely!

Region 4 Dive Team members from emergency response mission. From left to right: Bill Tate (FAC), Tyler Hern (FAC), Thomas Inebnit (ES), and Jenna King (ES).

Story Tags

Aquatic animals
Aquatic environment
Freshwater mussels
Invasive species
Scuba diving

Recreational Activities