Planet NOAA Podcast Episode 5: Dive into Ocean Month

Explore the beauty and mystery of the ocean! Nicole LeBoeuf and guests unpack how NOAA scientists are leading efforts to understand, explore and preserve Earth’s oceans for future generations.

A NOAA diver collects 360-degree imagery for virtual reality displays of a coral nursery in  NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Audio file


[Planet NOAA theme music plays]

SYMONE BARKLEY (HOST): Welcome back to Planet NOAA. I’m your host, Symone Barkley, and I’m the National Ocean Service Exhibits Manager and an Education Specialist at NOAA. Y’all, June is National Ocean Month. I couldn’t be more excited today to take a deep dive into what makes the ocean so special. We’ll chat with our marine experts about some of the mysteries behind ocean organisms and ecosystems – and how you can join us in serving as stewards of our nation’s beautiful oceans and coasts. 

[NOAA in the News theme music plays]

HOST: We’re joined by NOAA Public Affairs Specialist and Climate Scientist Tom DiLiberto, who’s here with the inside scoop on NOAA in the News.


HOST: Tom, Ocean Month is one of my favorite months of the year. What is NOAA doing to celebrate it?

DILIBERTO: Actually, we’ve already started the celebration at Capitol Hill Ocean Week, or CHOW. CHOW brings policymakers, scientists, educators, students, and members of the public together to talk about issues impacting the ocean and how we can address them. CHOW is calling on leaders around the globe to protect and celebrate our ocean in partnership with NOAA, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and other ocean stakeholders. Oh. Symone, as an educator, I know you’ll be excited to hear this – young people are at the forefront of this movement. At CHOW, we’re going to hear from students that are part of our Young Changemakers Fellowship on what NOAA leadership and policymakers can do to preserve the ocean and its resources for future generations. CHOW is convening from June 4-6 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC. It’s free and open to the public, so folks in the area are welcome to join us and learn more about the ocean. You can learn more at Party hats are not needed for this ocean celebration.

HOST: Nice, thanks, Tom. Can you talk about one of the issues impacting our ocean today that people might hear about at CHOW?

DILIBERTO: So, when we think about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, we typically think of the atmosphere, right? But the ocean is also heavily involved in that process. The ocean naturally absorbs about a quarter of the carbon dioxide that is released by human activities like the burning of fossil fuels. As more and more carbon dioxide is absorbed, the pH of the ocean decreases, causing it to become more acidic. Marine organisms with shells are hit especially hard by ocean acidification. Species like oysters and corals rely on the calcium and carbonate that’s naturally present in ocean waters to form their hard shells and skeletons. As the ocean acidifies, these resources are being depleted, making it harder for them to survive in marine ecosystems. If the ocean’s pH gets low enough, organisms’ shells and even skeletons can begin to dissolve in the water. Those animals will have quite a bone to pick with us.

HOST: Oh, Tom.

DILIBERTO: The good news is that our Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing Program is stepping in to further develop NOAA’s Surface Ocean CO2 Reference Observing Network, or SOCONET, and the Surface Ocean CO2 Atlas, or SOCAT. Jeez, that’s a mouthful. Together, these two systems help NOAA track and forecast CO2 levels and impacts in the ocean. And new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding is allowing us to outfit NOAA ships, uncrewed surface vehicles, and polar vessels with new CO2 measurement systems to track CO2 levels in climate-critical areas of the ocean. Gathering this data helps us to provide policymakers with really timely and essential data on the global carbon cycle and ocean health, which in turn shapes climate negotiations and marine ecosystem management.

HOST: That’s great to hear, Tom. Thanks again for joining us today.

[Did You NOAA theme music plays]

HOST: Calling all ocean trivia nerds. Let’s welcome back Tara Garwood, the communications and multimedia lead for the NOAA Heritage Program.

TARA GARWOOD: Hey Symone. What do you NOAA about how early undersea research was conducted at our agency?

HOST: Hey, don’t underestimate me, Tara. I’m an ocean educator.

GARWOOD: Well, you still may be in for a surprise. Let’s dive back in time to the 1960s, when NOAA’s aquanauts would scuba dive to study coral reefs and marine habitats. The thing about diving to conduct research is that you need to surface regularly – unlike clocking in and out after a few hours at the research lab on dry land. In 1970, everything changed with the introduction of the HYDROLAB. The HYDROLAB was NOAA’s first undersea research habitat where aquanauts could live on the ocean floor for days or weeks at a time. A lot of early research taking place at the HYDROLAB in the 1980s focused on the life history and behavior of coral reef organisms and sponge tissues.

HOST: I can just imagine opening my eyes in the morning and the first thing I see is a fish swimming by? I would be in love. What was it like to live and work in the HYDROLAB?

GARWOOD: We’ll give you an exclusive inside look soon.

[Roundtable theme music plays]

HOST: Life began in the ocean over 3.5 billion years ago. But most of the ocean remains to be seen by human eyes — over 80% of it, in fact. With the help of NOAA’s ocean scientists and researchers, we’re making new waves in ocean research every single day. Joining us under the sea today is Dr. Marian Westley, the Director of the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, or CO-OPS. As the nation’s authoritative source for water level and current measurements, Marian’s team provides mariners, coastal managers, and other users with historic, real-time, and prediction data for ocean conditions along America's 95,000-mile coastline. Welcome.

MARIAN WESTLEY: Thank you, Symone. I’m happy to be here.

HOST: I’m also excited to welcome Dr. Molly Baringer, the Acting Director of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory, or AOML. Under Dr. Baringer’s leadership, AOML serves as the leader in Earth system research in the Atlantic Ocean region. Thanks for joining us.

MOLLY BARINGER: Thank you so much. I'm super happy to be here.

HOST: Also joining us is Dr. Martha Nizinski, a Research Zoologist with the NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology National Systematics Laboratory in Washington, DC. Her current research focuses on deep-sea coral habitats, particularly the animals that live in association with the corals. Welcome, Dr. Nizinski.

MARTHA NIZINSKI: Thank you, Symone. Looking forward to a great conversation.

HOST: Rounding out our guests today is Sean Corson, the Director of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, or NCCOS. Sean and his team provide coastal managers with the scientific information necessary to decide how best to protect environmental resources and public health, preserve valued habitats, and improve the way communities interact with coastal ecosystems.

SEAN CORSON: Hey, thank you, Symone. Really glad to be here. Looking forward to our discussion.

HOST: Folks, how do you think that our oceans have changed over time? And what are some of the biggest changes that NOAA has documented in the ocean in recent decades? 

CORSON: Happy to jump in. You know, certainly the ocean is changing at an extremely rapid rate. The physical parameters in the ocean, whether you're talking about temperature, oxygen, salinity, control, a lot of what's happening in the water column, and that directly affects the animals that live within it. So, you know, we can expect over the next 20 or 30 years to see a lot of movement, the systems becoming much more dynamic. Species are shifting their home ranges and this is likely to impact coastal communities who have come to rely on different resources and natural patterns that are changing over time. 

NIZINSKI: Well, a couple of things that I would like to point out is, and this is, you know, also a good way to look at change is we have so much better access to the ocean than we did back in the early days of exploration. And now we have so many more tools that allow us to go deeper and stay longer and really get a better idea of what animals are there, where they live. What are the communities of animals? And so that has been a plus as we look back and, and look forward to how the oceans have changed. But, you know, rising temperatures and changing ocean chemistry does have a big impact on a variety of organisms, including those that live in the deep sea. And we need to be aware of this. And we will be seeing new changes in distributions of animals, particularly with animals like corals or crustaceans that have calcium carbonate or calcium carbonate shells. A change in chemistry will affect these animals and we're not sure yet what the major impacts will be, but movement of animals, it's definitely going to happen. And animals with certain types of skeletons are also going to be impacted by changing ocean chemistry. 

BARINGER: The ocean is definitely changing. We see kind of really remarkable stresses that are being put on the ocean. You know, it's warming, it's acidifying. Ice is melting at a rate that is not really predicted. Oxygen is being lost in the ocean and marine organisms are feeling stressed because of it. There are also ocean circulation changes that are happening. Those are some of the ways that the ocean is really being stressed. And I will tell you, we know some of those things from some work that NOAA is championing. And that includes things like the unprecedented Argo program. So the Argo program is a system where we have 4,000 essentially autonomous little vehicles that are floating around in the ocean doing a profile to about 2,000 meters. They pop up to the surface every ten days and transmit data. That gives us a wealth of information that we can use to improve forecasts. It's used in your weather prediction models. But without Argo floats, we wouldn't know where and by how much. For example, the ocean is losing oxygen. We also wouldn't know things like our lab is interested in…is the changes in the carbon cycle. So the ocean is getting more acidic. And when we think of looking forward and how we're going to respond as a human species to climate change, we have to think about what those forecasts might depend upon in terms of our understanding of basic physical processes about how the ocean works.

HOST: Thank you so much, Dr. Baringer. Is there anything else that you like to share about how your lab, AOML, is helping to conduct research to better understand the ocean's role in the connection to both weather and climate events? 

BARINGER: Our lab is really working at understanding the intersection of climate change variables that have changed in the ocean, and how those impact you in your everyday lives – or ocean species. And so one example that I'm really proud of in our lab is our coral reef research. So for example, when the ocean acidifies, that of course puts a stress on coral reefs and they're already being stressed by temperature changes. And how those stressors interact with each other is a really important fundamental research question that we have to move forward so that we understand how to best protect and restore our reef system, for example. 

CORSON: You know, one of the great things about working at NOAA is often that we're able to collaborate with one another. Speaking of coral, for example, some of the work that Molly's discussing about changes and the cumulative effects of multiple stressors, whether you take ocean acidification and the degradation of coral skeletons, like, we were just hearing from Martha, and you compound that with changes in temperature and changes in salinity and increased disease and changes in the oxygen content. These things add up over time and create a cumulative effect that is stronger than any one of them in and of themselves. At AOML, we've got a great partnership with some of the scientists from my office, the National Center for Coastal Ocean Science, in particular at our Hollings Marine Lab. And so many of the scientists that are working on the Florida reef track are identifying different diseases and taking samples of those corals and bringing them up into the Hollings Marine Lab, where our scientists are able to characterize the disease and create innovative solutions by, for example, mixing antibiotics with biodegradable paste that can be applied to corals to address these diseases. So we're constantly looking for ways to mitigate these compounded stressors. And it's always fun when we get to be able to do that in a collaborative manner across NOAA. 

WESTLEY: So CO-OPS is very much an operational organization where we're providing real time data for operational use. And one of the partnerships I'd like to talk about is our partnership with the Weather Service to provide tsunami warnings. So after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which led to catastrophic loss of life, NOAA was given new resources by Congress to invest in our tsunami observing network. So we built tide gauges in places where we had gaps, often very underserved areas in Alaska, in the Pacific, in the Caribbean. And then we partnered with the Weather Service to provide a tsunami signal from those stations. So for looking at tides, we look at data every six minutes. For tsunamis, we look at data every one minute. And that's how you detect a tsunami wave. So we have these observing stations on the shore around the Pacific Ocean in particular, and also the Caribbean, which tends to be very tsunami prone, in partnership with the Weather Service. So an example of how that played out recently, in January of 2022, I have 24/7 watch standards who are watching our sensors all the time to make sure everything's working, and that we're providing the information to mariners, navigators, coastal planners, whoever. So they saw a tsunami wave signal in Pongo Pongo, American Samoa, at our gauge there. A little later, they saw that same signal in Hawaii, and then they saw that signal travel across to our California gauges. So they were the first to detect that there was a tsunami that had been generated by an underwater volcano that had erupted near the island of Tonga. We also install in most of our water level gauges, meteorological sensors that the Weather Service uses for weather forecasting. So we saw in those gauges that there was a barometric pressure wave that had traveled from that tsunami site. So it showed up, you know, across the Pacific. And then it went over the United States and showed up at our gauges in the Caribbean. And so we saw this atmospheric pressure wave or sound shock wave travel across the United States. And then in the Caribbean, we saw that it triggered a meteorological tsunami, which is a tsunami that's produced by wind action on the ocean. So that was just an amazing phenomenon. I don't believe that we had ever seen something like that before. And the atmospheric shock wave was traveling around 900 miles an hour. We estimated the tsunami wave was more like 500 mph, so it was a much faster signal. So that was very interesting. We, of course, had alerted the Weather Service to put out the proper tsunami warnings with that event. But scientifically, this was a very interesting phenomenon that we had never seen an event cause both an ocean based tsunami and a meteorological tsunami from the same event. And it turned out that because we contribute our data to big global databases, that scientists could study this throughout the tide gauges the global network of type gauges. And that meteorological tsunami was seen as far away as the Mediterranean. So really interesting event. And just part of our collaboration with the Weather Service. 

HOST: That was a great example. And it really shows us again how the work that your offices and labs do at NOAA, how they do impact people. Dr. Nizinski, can you tell us about the National Systematics Lab’s partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History? And what does systematics research involve when it comes to the marine species that NOAA oversees?

NIZINSKI: I'd be happy to talk about the National Systematics Lab and what we do here. We're a unique lab in that we are housed within the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. And I have to say, that's a great place to come and go to work. But let's take a step back first, and let's just think a little bit about biodiversity in general. And as the stewards of our coastal and marine ecosystems and resources, we need to study and understand marine biological diversity because we can't conserve, manage or protect what we don't know. But before we can take a deep dive into understanding biodiversity, we need to know what the building blocks are. And for most of us, that's a species. So taxonomy is the science of discovering, naming, describing, identifying and classifying organisms. And it lays the foundation for all of the biological sciences, because all that we know about a species is linked through its name. So our scientists at the Systematics Lab conduct taxonomic, systematic and life history research on marine organisms of ecological and economic value. Our studies include fieldwork, whether that's working on ships or in museum collections or in laboratories, the collection and curation of specimens, data collection. And we use a whole variety of data in our research, which could be anything from images like photographs or X-rays or 3D images to heuristic, morphometric, genetic and ecological data. And we take all of these kinds of data, analyze them, and report our results by publishing scientific papers to share our findings and facilitate further research. Now our lab is housed in the Natural History Museum, and our lab has had a very long history with the Smithsonian. Dates back way before NOAA even existed. And museum collections are very important to taxonomic and systematic research, as I mentioned. And the research that we do is very similar to what the curators at the Smithsonian do. And each of the scientists within the systematics lab also serves as a curator of various parts of the collection. But each specimen represents a point in space and time. So there again, that's our basic biodiversity data. But we can also use collections to look for patterns across space. If we want to look at distributions of species, how they're changing the community composition, what species are living in the same place. And we can also use collections to examine patterns across time, because we have specimens that are dating back to early expeditions in the 1800s to recent expeditions just last year.

HOST: You know, as someone who comes from an aquarium background, the power and the importance of informal learning, institutions like museums and aquariums is understated. And I really appreciate you talking about, you know, the partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and, you know, valuing the space that you all have with them. 

NIZINSKI: Yes, I agree completely. And another part of our mission is education outreach. And so we often interact with the public to help teach them about the animals that live in the ocean and how and how we're all connected. 

HOST: Absolutely. NOAA scientists have made some pretty cool ocean discoveries over the last several years. For instance, we've learned that some corals can live up to 5,000 years, making them the longest living animals on Earth. But it's estimated that a whopping 91% of ocean species have yet to be classified by today's scientists, and we've explored less than 20% of the entire ocean. What's one thing that you personally find really interesting about the ocean, or an ocean discovery or find from your field that you'd like to share? 

NIZINSKI: We've estimated the marine species diversity to 2.1 million or 2.2 million. So there's a lot left to be discovered and documented. And so when you think about it, we maybe know 12 to 25% of what's out there. So that's just the tip of the iceberg. I've had a lot of opportunities to go out on deep sea expeditions. And I have to say every time I go, we find something amazing. There is always something new. Many times we've collected species that are new to science, but just the ability to get the opportunity to look at these amazing ecosystems and get an idea of the communities. I mean, my particular interest is looking at the different animals, particularly crustaceans, those that live on deep sea corals. And it's amazing to be able to really see how the animals are interacting. Through recent ocean explorations, we've gotten so many insights. And just to the natural history of these animals, things that we never knew before because we never saw them. So, you know, there is just so much yet to learn. And every time we have the opportunity to put a camera or ROV into the water, we learn something new. And all of this information is helping us learn more about the animals themselves, the total biodiversity of the ocean, and how better we can work to protect and conserve it.

WESTLEY: Dr. Nizinski, your response really made me want to go snorkeling this weekend. So I'll say that from the perspective of the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, or CO-OPS, we're really watching water levels, and we understand tides and tidal forces pretty well. But there's a lot we're seeing in the sea level record that's surprising or unknown to us. And so we really welcome the opportunity we've had recently with Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to collaborate a lot more closely with people like Molly Baringer and her lab and other labs to really look at larger scale oceanic processes that are affecting sea level at the coasts. And also we're looking at land processes. So the sea level that you experience at your place in the shoreline is going to be affected, not just with what's happening at the ocean, but also what's happening with the land that your city is placed on. So I would say for us, the new discoveries are really just getting a deeper understanding from combining both our coastal observations with a full scale, global oceanography to understand where those surprises and sea level change might be coming in the future. And that's a very exciting area of new research. And that's a combination of both of all the observations we do from shore-based platforms, from ocean-based platforms and space-based platforms, also coupled with the best numerical modeling and sort of forecasting models that we have. So that's what I'm really excited to learn and be a part of, is just watching sea level science growing and expanding with these investments.

BARINGER: It's always tough to pick the scientific advance that you think is the most cool. So, I'm gonna, like, want to pick 3 or 4. The first thing I would say is that I was just talking to somebody in the hall yesterday who said that they had just told me that corals are spawning in the Port of Miami, and so that might not seem really cool to anybody else. It does to me. And Marian and I will probably go diving over there this weekend. No, I'm only kidding. If you can come down to Miami, we'll get there. But what's really cool about it is the Port of Miami is one of the probably the worst places in the world to have corals grow at all. I dove there myself and there was plastic floating around, and the visibility was terrible. It's super hot. It’s subject to all of the stressors that we've already talked about. And yet corals are finding a way. And so I guess if I had anything to say that I thought was cool, it kind of offers some hope. I guess it's that I'm really kind of stoked about the research that our lab is doing to figure out ways that we can find resistance in, in the world in the face of climate change. 

CORSON: Keeping on the theme of new ideas and new discoveries, over the past ten years, we've been learning a lot more about mesophotic and deep benthic coral communities and the mesophotic communities are still photosynthetic corals. So, in that depth range of, let's say, 100 to 350 ft, so there's still enough light penetration that they can survive. But it's a very different kind of community. The conditions at those depths are such that they may be sheltered from some of the changes that we're seeing in climate change. That's an ongoing area of research. It's unknown what the thermal tolerances are at those depths, but it's an exciting possibility that these deeper water refugia may exist. Some studies that have gone on over the past ten years have demonstrated that there's transmission between these deeper water areas and some of the shallow water corals further downstream, if you will. So the ocean circulation patterns that are moving fish and moving genetic material, whether that's for corals or algae or, or fish, are really critical in understanding those changes through time. It's an exciting chapter that we're exploring right now. 

HOST: Sean, yeah, you're talking sexy science for me. And I could listen to you do this all day. However, I would like to shift our focus to the land. The US shoreline is more than 95,000 miles long. Now, that's a whole lot of coastal communities and residents situated next to the ocean, which is rapidly changing as our planet warms. How does NCCOS help transform communities into resilient coastal stewards in the face of climate change? 

CORSON: Well, thanks, Symone. You know, NCCOS provides applied science for coastal ocean management. And so in order for that science to be relevant, we really have to engage coastal communities. So for a lot of the different types of work that we do, we we get out into the communities through public meetings, through survey instruments, working with nonprofits, community groups, federal, state, local and tribal agencies to understand what the needs of those communities are, particularly in the face of a changing climate. One example of the kind of work that we're doing includes social vulnerability analysis, combined with sea level rise and inundation risk. We're finding that the impacts of climate change disproportionately impact some sections of our society, more so than others. 

HOST: Thank you, Sean. We appreciate you sharing that information with us. Now everyone, it is Ocean Month, and during Ocean Month, we would love for you to share one thing that people can do every day to keep our ocean healthy. 

BARINGER: Getting involved and understanding science. Seeking out unbiased scientific information. Follow us, right? Follow all of us. We have some great websites and social media. and we're constantly pumping out cool stories about the ocean. 

NIZINSKI: I liked your answer, Molly. And I will add to that, that I think everyone can reduce the amount of trash that they produce and be careful where they deposit it, because you'd be surprised the amount of trash that we're finding at depth as well as deep as 2000 meters, so it's ending up somewhere, and a lot of it's ending up in the ocean. So let's be careful about our trash and where we put it. 

WESTLEY: I love both those answers. I spend a lot of time picking up trash myself, and I really do believe anything that is left on land is going to wind up in the ocean. And to have that perspective, I'd like to encourage people to spend time in the ocean, at the beach, near the ocean, and when you go there to use our safety products and services that we provide, and the weather service provides to make sure that you have a safe and fulfilling ocean experience. So we provide a lot of forecasts for things like rip currents. We provide a lot of storm information. so, you know, please spend a wonderful, fulfilling and healing time at the beach and inform yourself before you go with all the hazard information that NOAA provides. 

CORSON: I would say, you know, bring in the next generation of people who are connected to our environment. It's important that we explore issues around renewable energy, around reducing waste, around keeping plastic out of the ocean, and work to inspire our young scientists of tomorrow to tackle some of these challenges. We know that climate change is causing an extremely dynamic environment, and we want folks to remain engaged and inspired to address these challenges going forward. 

HOST: Yes. Thank you. The future is bright with the young ones for sure. And so I appreciate all of you being with us. It's been a pleasure to talk with you in this Ocean Month, and I hope that you all get to go out and enjoy the ocean every day. So thank you.

[Did You NOAA theme music plays]

HOST: Tara, I’m ready for my close-up – of the HYDROLAB, that is. 

GARWOOD: Ok, Symone. Picture this – you’re looking at a submarine of sorts that’s 16 feet long and 8 feet in diameter. So, a little bigger than a midsize car. The HYDROLAB would be anchored on the ocean floor while scientists lived and worked there, so it was complete with electricity, running water, heat, and six viewports to see out of. Alongside a miniature laboratory, there were three bunk beds for inhabitants. But four scientists could occupy the HYDROLAB at a time, so you can do the math on that. The HYDROLAB was also outfitted with what we call a “moon pool,” which allowed scientists to get in and out of the habitat to conduct research and, yes, even use the bathroom. It definitely wasn’t all fun and games, though. Since HYDROLAB occupants were spending extended amounts of time on the ocean floor, when it was time to return to dry land, aquanauts would have to spend at least 16 hours in a NOAA hyperbaric chamber.

HOST: Hyperbaric chambers treat decompression sickness, right?

GARWOOD: Yep – or as some folks call it, “the bends.” Symone, Did You NOAA that one of the original trailblazers of hyperbaric chamber medicine and dive training is part of the NOAA family?

HOST: No way. That’s really cool.

GARWOOD: Yeah; back in the 1970s, Dick Rutkowski was pioneering hyperbaric treatment right here at NOAA. He led NOAA’s dive training program and hyperbaric facility until his retirement in 1985, treating hundreds of divers during that time. Let’s take a listen to what he had to share with the NOAA Heritage Oral History Project about treating decompression sickness in NOAA’s very first hyperbaric chamber: 

DICK RUTKOWSKI: Right now, all the gasses you are breathing are at equilibrium with all the gasses in your body. Right now, you’re in saturation. Your body cannot take on any more gas. Now when you go diving here, you’re off of this pressure into the water of another pressure. See, that’s what they’re doing. They get out of that pressure into another pressure, and dive and go back. So if you’re going to go diving here, you’re going to leave this atmosphere, you have to obey all the rules that they have to obey. So decompression – when you start breathing gas under another pressure, you’re taking on more gas into your body. As you’re taking on more gas, you have to release it properly coming back up, or you’ll fizz up like that bottle of pop if you come up too fast. The first case that came in, I believe, was one of the worst cases we had. These young Navy pilots coming in from Vietnam…when they started landing on our parking lot in the Fisheries. But that was one of the worst cases we ever had because it was the director of a nursing college somewhere up in Chicago. He had a bunch of nursing students with him. He evidently came up, holding his breath, and he was very unconscious. They kept him alive on the boat. They had the Air Force base in Homestead, Florida fly him up to us. We got him into the chamber. After a few treatments, the guy went on to live, and he went on to do very good. So that was a very exciting event for all of South Florida because it was in the newspapers and everything else. So that place kept existing to go on. 

GARWOOD: Wow. We’ll hear more from Dick right after this.

[Leadership Corner theme music plays]

HOST: It’s one of my favorite months of the year – National Ocean Month. For me, the ocean represents the great unknown, and I love learning about the new discoveries NOAA is making underwater. In celebration of Ocean Month, I’m very excited to welcome Nicole LeBoeuf, the Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service, to the Leadership Corner. Under Nicole’s leadership, the National Ocean Service, or NOS, observes and manages the nation’s coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes areas; provides critical navigation products and services; and protects vital coastal resources. Nicole also serves as the U.S. Representative to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and has over 20 years of scientific and program management experience, with emphasis on the connections between science and policy. Nicole, thanks for being here with us today.

NICOLE LEBOEUF: Thank you so much and it's great to be here. 

HOST: It's a pleasure to have you. So, Nicole, could you tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up in a coastal community?

LEBOEUF: Oh, gosh. I can remember being on the beach and in the marsh from a very, very early age. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and of course, as a small child, I felt the Gulf of Mexico was the ocean. It was my ocean. And, we spent a lot of time there, and I collected shells, and I played in the water, and made sandcastles and all the things kids do. But I also was fascinated with the birds and the little critters that were burying in the sand like mole crabs. I liked watching the dolphins swim along the shore. And then I also spent a lot of time in and around the marshes of the Texas Gulf Coast birdwatching, but also just listening to the amazing sounds of the marsh. So it absolutely has been core to my upbringing and to my interest in working in the ocean space and in the coastal space. I don't think I ever knew a time when I didn't want to work either on or with or for the ocean. 

HOST: So many of our experiences at a young age really do spark our interest in the ocean. And the same goes for me too. So it definitely means a lot to hear people talk about how the ocean…you fell in love with the ocean right when you saw it, or you fell in love with whatever body of water it is that was close to you – if you thought it was the ocean or not. But it is amazing to think about the power of water and being outside. Could you tell us about what brought you to NOS and what specifically drew you to NOAA? 

LEBOEUF: Well, I applied for my first NOAA job on a dare, if you can believe it. I was living in Galveston, Texas. I had recently graduated with my bachelor's degree, but I didn't have a good job prospect at the time, so I was kind of hanging around and doing odd jobs for the university. And one of my friends saw a job posting, and it was for the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. I didn't even know what that was. And she encouraged me to apply. I had never lived outside of Texas before, so it just seemed like another planet. And so she dared me to apply and I got the job, which was incredible. I was drawn to NOS – this is a true story – from Fisheries after 19 years at the National Fisheries Service…I was drawn to apply for my first job at NOS on a dare. A very important mentor and colleague of mine – I'll say dare – but she strongly suggested that I apply for the position of the deputy assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service. And I took her advice, and I did. And the journey here at NOS has been amazing. I've been here for almost seven years; that’s a long time. And I still have a steep learning curve. And NOS is so diverse in terms of its mission, space and its areas of specialty, that I still have so much to learn, but it's been amazing to get to know NOS and to be able to represent and advocate for our mission and our workforce. So, yeah, maybe don't always apply for a job on a dare, but in this case, it's worked for me. 

HOST: Well, whether it's a dare or college course, ocean education has to start somewhere. And as an educator, I'm curious – what is NOS doing to increase ocean and climate literacy around the nation, especially for young folks?

LEBOEUF: That’s a great question. So we have multiple programs throughout our different offices that are working to increase youth engagement generally, including ocean and climate literacy, through various educational programs, as well as through internships and fellowship programs. We're also a real leader across NOAA in developing web content. And, other, you know, age-appropriate types of resources for kiddos, including a recent release of an animated series called “Teek and Tom,” which is developed to help kids understand the ocean and climate change. So it's really a lot of things that we're doing all combined. We work closely with the NOAA Office of Education as well. Because we have such good content and content creators, we want to make sure that they are pushing out the products that we have and reaching as wide an audience as possible. 

HOST: Absolutely. You know, as someone who's on the NOS education team and sits on the Education Council, I take a lot of pride in what we put out to educators and to students across the country to engage them with the ocean and Great Lakes and coastal waters. What does it mean to build climate resilience from the ground up when it comes to the ocean?

LEBOEUF: The word “resilience” or the phrase “climate resilience” or “coastal resilience,” those are being used a lot. And so one of the ways that I try and enter into conversation to get to what we mean by climate resilience, for example, is I ask the next set of questions, which is, “What is it you are trying to make resilient? Is it a building? Is it a town? Is it a certain aspect of the economy? Is it a supply chain process? What are you trying to build resilience for, and what are you trying to make it resilient to?” The first question is about scale and scope and specificity. And that's really important to begin. But the second question helps us get at not just the size of something, but the temporal nature of it. “What are you trying to make it resilient to?” “Well, I'm trying to make it resilient to coastal inundation.” “For how long?” “Oh, well, for the life of this building.” “Oh. Okay. So what do you want that to be?” “Well, I want it to be 50 years.” Right? So then we know it's a building. We know, so, that's what you're trying to make resilient. We know you're trying to make it resilient for 50 years to coastal inundation. And so then we can begin to really ask, what does it mean to do that? What kind of data do we need? What kind of predictions do we need? Engineering do we need? What kind of community engagement do we need? Who needs to be a part of this conversation? Who will the building of that resilience or the potential failure to build that resilience impact? Right? And so then we start asking who needs to be at the table. And that's super important because that in and of itself raises the ability of everyone around the table to be in that kind of a conversation. And what we find with our data about sea level rise is that many of the communities, where sea level – where there is the most risk of inundation from sea level rise over time – there are also highly vulnerable communities because of the systemic challenges that they face. They are more vulnerable to the impacts of coastal change, but they've not been brought to the table. So they in and of themselves need to build resilience, and getting them to the table is the first step in doing that. 

HOST: Thank you for walking us through that, Nicole. What are you most excited about for NOS in the months to come? Any new projects or new tech on the horizon that you'd like to share with us? 

LEBOEUF: I'll just say we'll be making a lot of announcements this year. So over the last 2 or 3 or 4 years under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, we've done a whole lot of new work from the work to designate sanctuaries, to designate national history and research reserves, as well as developing blue tech accelerators for climate detection and adaptation. So for the last several years, so much of NOS has been building, building, building toward sort of the culmination of so many of these things. I'm really excited. I'll pick the climate resilience accelerators. I'm really excited for this area of work. You know, we are at NOAA, but largely NOS, we are a leader in ocean and coastal observations, and having eyes and ears on the ocean is super important for understanding how climate change is expressing itself, but also how the ocean might serve as a potential solution to various climate impacts. What we're trying to do through the accelerator program is make the detection of climate change in the ocean, and the solution space for solving some of our climate problems with the ocean, profitable. So what we're trying to do is build interest and support for companies that are looking to make money by solving the world's problems through the ocean and through a healthy ocean and ocean observations. And so this is a space that I think could really open up in a big way. And I'm very excited for NOS to be at the heart of it. And I think we're going to see new inventions and new applications for ocean observations in ways that we've never seen before. 

HOST: Thank you. That does sound pretty cool.

LEBOEUF: I think it will be. Yeah. 

HOST: We've spoken about just how little of the ocean humans have actually discovered or explored. As we continue to delve deeper and deeper into marine research and exploration, how do you think our relationship with the ocean will continue to evolve? 

LEBOEUF: Oh, man, I have to pick one thing?

HOST: I know, right?

LEBOEUF: I think that for me, I am interested in understanding where we can find operational efficiencies for our shipping industry that allow them to also create environmental benefit. So there's a project we're working on right now – with the Department of Transportation's Volpi Center and the Maritime Administration, and others – that is trying to ask a question, essentially through mathematics and modeling of physical properties of sound, presence of greenhouse gases, of efficiencies in fuel consumption and other things related to how vessels operate at sea. I think the more we can understand about what would make good operational sense for that vessel and for that company, that also makes good environmental sense. I think the closer we're going to get to co-development of solutions that will last, both for industry but also say, for example, for whales underwater. And so I'm really excited to advance that work. That's not strictly an ocean discovery. It's more like taking what we know about human activity and marrying it up with what we know about the ocean and creating a solution in that space. 

HOST: That would be interesting for us to learn more about as time goes on. Nicole, is there anything else that you'd like to share with us today?

LEBOEUF: I just want to say thank you so much for having me on. With the ocean as 70% of our planet's surface, it should not surprise any of us that the ocean, and communities that are reliant upon the ocean and the atmospheric and weather patterns and so much else, is influenced by the ocean because of that. I have to believe that so many solutions to challenges that we face are going to be derived from the ocean, from a healthy ocean, and from retaining the resilience of the ocean itself. So I'm really looking forward to anyone that's listening, that's got new ideas they want to put into practice of what we can do to not only support the ocean, but the ocean’s ability to support us. 

HOST: Thank you for that. Thank you so much, Nicole, for joining us. 

LEBOEUF: You got it. Thanks for having me.

[Did You NOAA theme music plays]

HOST: Hey, Tara. I haven’t been able to get Dick Rutkowski’s story out of my head.

GARWOOD: Symone, it gets better and better. This guy even has a glacier in Antarctica named after him.

HOST: Oh my god, goals. So, to back it up a bit, was he directly involved with the HYDROLAB?

GARWOOD: He sure was – as part of NOAA’s original “Man-in-the-Sea” program. It’s all very Jules Verne…let’s take another listen. 

RUTKOWSKI:  The Man-in-the-Sea. They had an organization start to put people into the sea – undersea habitats like Tektite, AGER, the HYDROLAB, and so on.  Eventually, there were about seven or eight. This was one of the first ones, called the HYDROLAB, off of Freeport.  This is sitting at sixty feet of water.  This goes down to ninety feet.  This goes over the wall where people can dive over the wall.  This was the latest one called the NOAA Aquarius. Their purpose is generally that NASA and the Navy use it quite a lot.  A lot of universities and so on use it.  See, it’s in 50 feet of water.  It’s open circuit.  If you were a diver, you would come up from a dive.  If your first dive was at fifty feet, you couldn’t make any money because you’d be spending all your time decompressing back to the surface.  But by that lab being at fifty feet, that’s their surface.  So they can come up and get into that, and do this all day long, up and down, and only have to decompress once at the end of the mission.  The mission could be ten days.  It could be a day.  It could be a month.  It could be a year.  Once you’re in saturation, you’re only dealing with one tissue of the body, so you only have to decompress once in saturation.

HOST: Aw, so no more HYDROLAB?

GARWOOD: No more HYDROLAB. It was decommissioned in 1985 and replaced by the NOAA Aquarius habitat in Florida that Dick mentioned. And that’s currently the only undersea dwelling in the world being used for underwater research. If you’re nostalgic for the old days of undersea research a la “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” you can always visit to learn more about the HYDROLAB and other NOAA artifacts straight from your device. And you can listen to Dick’s full interview via the NOAA Heritage Oral History Project. 

[Planet NOAA theme music plays]

HOST: Thanks for joining us on Planet NOAA, where we explore cool science throughout the NOAAverse and ensure that people are prepared for tomorrow’s planet, today. See you next time.