Alaska Dive Semester

My global challenge is studying the conservation of native fisheries, specifically anadromous species. I have a strong connection to the chinook salmon, sockeye, and steelhead runs that spawn in the rivers and streams around my hometown, Salmon ID. This is the longest salmon migration in the world, and these populations are in peril from both habitat loss and passage barriers along their migration corridor. I have studied these issues in their spawning grounds of the upper Salmon River watershed, and I wanted to extend my experience to the ocean. In spring semester of 2022, I attended a program called the Alaska Dive Semester that is offered by the University of Alaska SE and is based in the coastal community of Sitka. This unique program provides a small cohort of 15 students with the opportunity to earn an Occupational Endorsement Certificate in Scientific Diving that includes certifications in rescue and cold-water dry suit diving, a small vessel operator license, and a scientific diving internship. It sounded like the perfect opportunity to live in an ecologically rich fisheries hub while gaining experience in field techniques and diving.

The Alaska Dive Semester was the most eye-opening, learning intensive, and physically demanding four months of my life. Having never scuba dove before, within the first two weeks (mid-January) I was diving in a dry suit in 34-degree Fahrenheit water in the Sitka Sound. By the first month, I could perform rescue procedures for diving accidents or cold-water exposure emergencies and was certified in providing oxygen and CPR through the Diver’s Alert Network. By the second month I was learning underwater data collection techniques, identifying marine invertebrates and fish, and using technical equipment like lift bags to deploy heavy ocean exploration instruments. By the end of the semester, my classmates and I were making our own dive plans and float plans to complete our scientific diving internship. We designed and carried out transects in Macrocystis Kelp forests to determine ecological community structures and sampled for Didemnum vexillum, an invasive tunicate species.

The skiff handling and outboard maintenance experience I gained from the program made it possible for me to stay in Alaska for the summer and work as a fisheries technician on sockeye and chum salmon runs in Yakutat, AK and Juneau, AK. Salmon fishing is a pillar of life in southeast Alaska, so I was able to see firsthand the impact of the fisheries on the local economy and culture. I learned that the Tongass National Forest is intrinsically tied to the health of salmon runs. From diving all semester, I saw how important marine habitat is for anadromous fish to carry out their life cycle, and then witnessed during my summer work how marine health effects escapement rates in freshwater systems. These fish are a keystone species to say the least.

Aside from the invaluable skills I learned and the understanding I gained for Alaska fisheries; I also had a blast diving in arguably the world’s best cold-water diving location. Some dives I would descend when it was snowing and ascend to sunshine. I saw a variety of sea life including sea otters, Pacific octopus, wolf eels, nudibranchs, rockfish and greenlings, herring, and sunflower stars. I had a few close encounters with 900-pound sea lions and went on frigid night dives to see the water lit up with bioluminescence. I drove skiffs in rough sea conditions, backcountry skied on my time off, watched humpback whales bubble net feed, and learned about the indigenous Tlingit and Haida tribes’ history in the area and current subsistence practices. It was a life changing experience, and I plan on returning in the future.

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