Alumni Profiles

If Your Feet Are Numb, You're Done

One of the skills Elizabeth Calvert '00 learned last summer is what to do if a sea lion approaches you underwater. Try not to exhale—they take that as a sign of aggression—but do make eye contact. "They're very curious, and really quite playful," she explains. "One bonked me on the head—he was a juvenile and was trying to get my attention. He pulled on my flippers, too!"

Calvert was scuba diving in the Arctic, 300 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, as a member of a three-person ice diving team with NOAA's Hidden Ocean project. Their destination, the Canada Basin, is covered in sea ice most of the year and is incredibly hard to get to. The team of 45 scientists was able to reach it, thanks to the new Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker that can break four-foot-thick ice continuously at three knots.

For two months, Calvert dived 15 to 20 feet below the ice in 30- to 40-degree water to study life on the underside of the sea ice. "When you first get in, you get an ice cream headache," she says. "Then your hands start to hurt. You have to be very careful not to drop anything, though, because it's a mile and a half to the bottom. Once your feet go numb, you're done—my longest dive was 35 minutes."

The purpose of the expedition was to sample underwater organisms—many of which have never been seen before. Scientists feel a sense of urgency in gathering this information because the Arctic environment is changing so rapidly; climate models predict that because of greenhouse gases, the Arctic summer sea ice may be lost by 2100.

Calvert started diving recreationally in high school—she told her alarmed parents that if she was going to be a marine biologist, it was a necessary career move. At UNH, she learned how to research and write underwater from Jim Coyer at the Isles of Shoals Marine Lab. His instruction helped her land her first major diving project in September 2000, a two-week stint as a diver for Aquarius, an underwater habitat four miles off the coast of Key Largo, Fla.

Only a small percentage of marine biologists actually know how to dive, despite what Calvert told her parents. "Physically, it's hard," Calvert admits. It's also long, painstaking work. "First, there's the boat ride, and the time it takes to suit up," Calvert explains. "And then there's the data collection. When I was researching my master's thesis on kelp beds (at the University of Alaska Fairbanks), I would have sheets of paper that had spaces for 10,000 data points. There would be days when I would spend six hours diving, and would only get one data point." Calvert is now the associate editor for Fisher Bulletin, a quarterly scientific journal. "I really credit UNH for the opportunities I've had, not only for the solid scientific foundation," she says, "but also because of the writing-intensive curriculum. As a scientist, you spend a lot of time writing grant proposals. I was awarded more than $36,000 in grant money to fund my master's project because I could put together a decent proposal. People are always asking me to edit their work!"

 Easy to print version

blog comments powered by Disqus