Diving In

The oceanic adventures of two scuba divers

Alix Barry poses for an underwater photo while diving in Belize, where she spent a summer working for the Belize Conservatory. Photo by Jessie Kaull and art by Estelle Martin

Estelle Martin, Senior Staff Writer

“Imagine you are under water, off of a secluded island in the middle of the Caribbean, and you are swimming with nurse sharks,” says Alix Barry, Palo Alto High School Class of 2018 and freshman at Princeton University. “You are 90 feet underwater, and for 40 minutes you can breathe.”

Barry has always been drawn to the water; she swam competitively as a young girl, and joined her local crew team as a seventh grader. She took her love for the ocean a step further when she attended a week long session at Catalina Sea Camp the summer before high school. She loved the experience so much that she decided to return for two subsequent summers, earning a Rescue scuba diver license. Though Barry built an attachment to the CSC, she knew it was time to expand her fascination with the ocean while cultivating her scuba diving skills.

The summer before her senior year, Barry found herself living on a 40-foot catamaran, floating on the waters of the British Virgin Islands for seven weeks. She conducted research for the British Virgin Island Conservatory and was overseen by a field scientist.

Barry spent the first week training to be certified as a research scuba diver. This was necessary to conduct proper research, as she had to learn how to dive upside down for long periods of time, properly chart data and maintain a neutral buoyancy position while collecting data, among other skills.

While on a routine fish evaluation, Barry noticed a colony of strange tunicates — marine invertebrate animals classified under the Chordate phylum. Her field scientist did not recognize the particular colony that Barry had found. Barry had discovered a new species of tunicate!

“There are purple, green and white tunicates, but we found a colony of yellow tunicates that live in a certain bay in the British Virgin Islands,” Barry says.

Barry researched this colony for the next six weeks. She counted the tunicates, tracked the abundance of their colonies and recorded the location of the colonies. Further, she was responsible for testing the pH levels surrounding the colonies, as well as determining the colonies’ proximity to algae. To conclude the seven weeks, the British Virgin Islands required that she submit a report to them that synthesized the data Barry collected throughout the summer.
The Conservatory was impressed with Barry’s work and entered her report into a National Geographic competition.

“We received the National Geographic Junior Legacy Award for discovering a new species of tunicate, so now they will be added to formal books,” Barry says.

During Barry’s senior year, she was offered the opportunity to dive in Belize to tackle invasive species, a problem that has affected their local water for decades. Barry spent her first summer out of high school on Island 166, a tiny island in the Barracuda Patch of Ambergris Caye, which is a body of land 40 miles off of mainland Belize.
The Belize Conservatory provided a cost-neutral plan, meaning that Barry would not be paid, however, all her expenses, including room and board, would be covered.

“I love scuba diving because it is so surreal and an experience few are able to have,” Barry says. “If there are people who are basically willing to give it to me for free, why would I ever say no?”

According to Barry, an aquarium in Florida released lionfish into the ocean in the late 1980s after they no longer wanted to keep them. Despite initial beliefs that the lionfish would simply die off, the fish flourished, quickly invading the Caribbean and spreading down to the waters of South America.

I love scuba diving because it is so surreal and an experience few are able to have.””

— Alix Barry, Paly alum

“Juvenile fish [of other species] are eaten [by lionfish] and, therefore, will never reach full adult maturity, so populations of native fish are just plummeting, especially those [populations] that are fragile in the Caribbean,” Barry says.

To combat this problem, the Belize Conservatory sends scuba divers like Barry to cull, or spear, lionfish. This task requires three people: the first person spears the lionfish, the second holds the container for the dead lionfish and the third records the size of the fish.

The conservatory depends on volunteers like Barry, who embark on these culling expeditions, to report the data back to them. As a result of these efforts, Belize has seen a decrease in their Lionfish populations in the past three years.
“I had WiFi once a week when we did supply runs, which was a three hour boat ride to a city called San Pedro, which was not even a city … it just had a cafe and a smoothie store,” Barry says. “We would all go there on Sundays because we had to send in our information (to the conservatory); we couldn’t do that on the island.”

As a result of her many weeks dedicated to scuba diving, Barry reached her 150th dive the summer of 2018, an achievement she is very excited about.

Along with her high number of dives, Barry has 12 specialized certifications, including a night-diving and a cave-diving certification. She also has a nitrox certification, meaning that she is able to dive using air that has a higher percentage of Nitrogen which allows for longer dive times and reduced risk of decompression sickness. Barry’s experience qualifies her for a Master Diver Certification, meaning she could instruct other divers.

The not-so-junior diver

Paly senior and avid scuba diver Lou Guionnet is determined to become a Certified Master Scuba Diver as soon as she turns 18. According to Guionnet, she was raised by the ocean.

“We are a relatively nature-oriented family… on break, [we] were in the ocean on an island,” Guionnet says.

Before she could scuba dive, her parents would go out on a dive and come back with pictures from their GoPros. She eagerly waited for their return, excited to upload the photos and admire the beauty that she was not yet able to experience for herself. This changed when Guionnet became eligible for her junior Open Water Certification at 12 years old.

Guionnet is now a Certified Rescue Diver, racking up over 60 dives throughout her scuba career — 10 more dives than required to be eligible for Master Diver. In her efforts to preserve marine life, Guionnet always makes sure to collect trash that she encounters while diving.

“You can do it without even an organization. In Bali, there is a really big issue with trash in the ocean, and [my family] was diving and just taking plastic on the way, and stuffing it in our [gear].” Guionnet says.

Like Barry, Guionnet has dived in a variety of destinations, including Mexico, Tahiti, the Galapagos, and Hawaii.

Diving into the future

For both divers, their experiences in the ocean have greatly influenced their projected career path.

“I used to always think I would do something in Linguistics… throughout middle school I was like ‘I am never doing sciences or math… I like history and English,” Barry says. “But now I have found this other passion for the ocean and environmental studies.”

Barry currently studies Environmental Science at Princeton and hopes to obtain a specialized Marine Biology degree following graduation. Guionnet always knew she wanted to spend her life dedicated to the ocean and is especially fascinated with sharks. Guionnet has swum with many different species of sharks, including Hammerheads, Nurse sharks, and one of her favorites: black tip sharks.

“When you are scuba diving, sharks can see that you are not food, so they are much more calm and can interact with a less aggressive manner. Black tips are very calming [to me] thus animals that are very approachable,” Guionnet says.

Like Barry, she enrolled in the course offered at Paly, taught by Mr. Olah, and very much enjoyed the class. As a result of her affinity for marine life, Guionnet plans to major in Marine Biology in college.

Environmental efforts

Much of Barry’s and Guionnet’s focus is on ocean and marine life conservation. Like Barry, Guionnet hopes to control unwanted population booms in certain species. One location where this is occuring hits closer to home: Monterey Bay.

In 2014, a deadly disease spread throughout the entire West Coast, decimating large numbers of sea stars, According to David Schmalz of Monterey County Weekly. As main predators of sea urchins, the disappearance of sea stars led to a sea urchin population boom in Monterey Bay. Urchins consume kelp and their population increase has resulted in a drastic decline in the kelp, a feature that has long characterized the waters of the bay.

Guionnet hopes to join scuba divers by physically removing urchins from the ocean floor — an effort supported by marine biologists — before their species completely wipes out all the kelp from the bay, similar to Barry’s efforts to remove the invasive lionfish in Belize.

Both divers understand the importance of being proactive when dealing with ocean conservation.
To help protect marine environments, Barry believes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association deserves a much greater government-allocated budget.

“The ocean is two thirds of our planet [surface], and it deserves so much more attention than it is getting,” Barry says. “There is so much that comes from the ocean that we use without even realizing it.”

The ocean is calling

Barry and Guionnet both describe scuba diving as an opportunity to venture into another world — to focus on the present while orienting oneself.

“When you are inside something so vast [the ocean], you realize how small you are compared to the world around you; it’s very humbling,” Barry says. “The experiences I have had over the summers … they remind me that there is so much more than what I see in my daily life when I am at home, school, or rowing.”

Guionnet cites the ocean as the source of her creative imagination throughout her daily life, with its beautiful colors and animals. She loves the unique silence that comes along with diving, where all you can hear is your steady breathing.

Barry encourages all people to respect the ocean, as she believes it can provide as much happiness to others as it has for her.

“I don’t think anyone should be scared of the ocean; it is really approachable if you do it the right way,” Barry says. “In a way, it is always asking you to explore it because it is so vast and such a huge part of our planet. I think anyone would be crazy not to be curious about it.”