By Darby Hinkley, The Alpena News
This article is part of a collaboration between The Alpena News and Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television to bring audiences stories about the Great Lakes, especially Lake Huron and its watershed.
ALPENA — These teens have a lot of experience diving, but, until this month, none of them had any experience diving in any of The Great Lakes.
The SCUBAnauts spent a week in Alpena this month diving in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
“We were thrilled when they reached out to the sanctuary to join us up here,” said Stephanie Gandulla, maritime archaeologist with Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “They travel and have adventures all over, but they chose the sanctuary to come do citizen science.”
Diana Phillips, 19, has been in the SCUBAnauts program for seven years.
“SCUBAnauts International is a scientific diving organization for youth ages 12 through 18, so we do a lot of work in the Gulf, which is where we’re predominately located, but we also have locations in North Carolina and Georgia,” Phillips explained. “We do scientific and research diving, as well as conservation opportunities.”
She said it has been very educational for her, and she recommends that other young people get involved.
“It’s really an opportunity to give kids the ability to go out into the world,” she said. “And they can do things that they would do in a career path for marine biology or oceanography.”
Phillips is planning to become a marine biologist. She will be a sophomore at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
“They get the opportunity to work with science and also help improve our environment, and gain a greater understanding for not only what it is, and what problems its facing, but also, what steps, as an individual, they can take to help improve conditions,” she said.
She enjoys not only learning but helping to educate others about marine life, science and environmental conditions.
“One of our more exciting events is called Capitol Hill Ocean Week, and we go up to Washington, D.C., and we educate senators and representatives about the issues facing our oceans, and talk to them about current bills … and encourage them to vote certain ways on ocean bills.”
She participated in that event in June.
“For the last two years, it’s been held online, because of COVID,” Phillips explained.
SCUBAnauts is a positive, educational experience for teens, according to Janelle Fleming, whose daughter is in the SCUBAnauts.
“They are really growing, and trying to incorporate these like-minded teens and giving them opportunities to learn about marine sciences and grow in their understanding of what they can do and how they can help the community at large,” said Fleming, who is also an adult leader with SCUBAnauts.
Her daughter, Bryn Fleming, 15, enjoys all the adventures she gets to take with SCUBAnauts.
“I get to meet cool people who have exactly what they want to do figured out,” she said. “It’s like, hey, I can look up to these people.”
Diving is one of her favorite pastimes.
“I like diving, and I like to learn new things,” she said. “I like exploring the possibilities, and SCUBAnauts is a way to do that.”
John Ziska explained what the SCUBAnauts were doing on one of their dives earlier this month.
They went out with Nick Myers and Stephanie Gandulla and collected cyanobacteria, which looks like muck, and brought it up in plastic bags from the lake bottom.
“So you have to go down to, like, 80 feet, in freezing cold water, and collect samples,” Ziska said.
Once they collected the samples, they shipped them to Germany to be analyzed, Ziska added.
“As the day increased in length, oxygen (in the cyanobacteria) had the ability to be produced more often, because, the longer the day, the more light you have, so more oxygen is produced,” Phillips added, talking about photosynthesis.
Evana Foisy explained what it was like diving down to the lake floor.
“It was super duper cold,” she said. “Because I wasn’t wearing gloves.”
She explained that she reached into the silty bottom and scooped what she could into the plastic bag Ziska was holding out. Once she disturbed the bottom, a cloud of silty muck surrounded her, and Ziska said it was pretty funny because he couldn’t see her anymore.
Despite it being cold and mucky, Foisy said, “I would do it again. I don’t know why. I just thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Gianna Montevago, 18, has been in the SCUBAnauts program since she was about 13.
“We do a lot of stuff with the scientific community, and we work a lot with NOAA,” Montevago said.
She said they make annual trips down to the Florida Keys to help a marine laboratory replenish their coral growth.
“We go down to the nurseries and we help fragment and assemble the coral trees, and then we outplant some of the corals out into the reef, to try and rebuild the reef, since there’s a lot of stony coral tissue loss disease in the Gulf of Mexico,” Montevago said. “So we’re trying to combat that.”
She said SCUBAnauts has social and networking benefits, too.
“Through SCUBAnauts, I’ve met a lot of people and I’ve made a lot of contacts, and I’m … going to college and I have recently become a divemaster, so I plan on returning as an adult leader to continue my time with SCUBAnauts,” Montevago said.
Phillips added that being active about environmental issues is key to protecting our waters.
“It’s so important to be, at least, aware, but hopefully engaged and actively encouraging your government to take stances that will support the environment,” Phillips said. “Because the environment supports our way of life. We do not continue to live and have the resources and accessibility to the lifestyles that we want if our environment is deteriorating.”
For more information about SCUBAnauts, visit scubanautsintl.org.
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Featured image: Above, the SCUBAnauts take a break in the classroom in Alpena earlier this month. From left to right are Bryn Fleming, Diana Phillips, John Ziska, Evana Foisy, and Gianna Montevago. (Photo Credit: Darby Hinkley/The Alpena News)