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UH Hilo grad to embark on Antarctica adventure

Special to Hawaii 24/7 by Alyson Kakugawa-Leong | UH Hilo Director Media Relations

For most, the undersea world of Antarctica is something seen only in a theatre or on television. But for a recent Marine Science graduate from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, it is about to become a real-life adventure.

Danielle Woodward will be part of a research team that accompanies Wadsworth Institution professor Dr. Samuel Bowser on an undersea expedition to Antarctica. Bowser is an old Antarctic hand, with more than 20 ice diving deployments under his weight belt.

“We are continuing to study the genetics and life habits of single-cell organisms called forams that live on the seafloor of McMurdo Sound,” Bowser said. “Some of these species secrete a strong adhesive, which they use to glue sand grains together to build sturdy shells. Natural products like this ‘biological superglue’ have potential biomedical value.”

The research will also test the skills Woodward developed in UH Hilo’s scientific diving program “QUEST,” or Quantitative Underwater Ecological Survey Techniques. She credits QUEST with teaching her a wide range of survey techniques, including target surveys and photo assessments, which will come in handy working with Bowser.

Woodward was recruited by Grammy award-winning guitarist, composer, research diver and film producer Henry Kaiser, another key member of Bowser’s team. Kaiser, grandson of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, has been visiting Antarctica since 2001.

His underwater camera work is featured in the Werner Herzog films The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which he produced and co-composed the musical score with fellow guitarist David Lindley.

How Woodward met Kaiser can best be described as a twist of fate. He went to see her about a dog she was giving up for adoption before leaving to attend UH Hilo. But the conversation eventually turned to his undersea adventures.

“He told me about his trips to Antarctica, the research and various diving experiences, which really got me interested,” Woodward said. “We also discussed my background and diving experience and I felt that I’d left a favorable impression even though I was just 18 at the time.”

Born near Lake Tahoe, Calif., Woodward learned to swim when she was six months old and was scuba and free diving at age 12. By the time Woodward met Kaiser she was already a certified PADI Dive Master, which is equivalent to having a professional dive license.

The rigorous process requires several courses, including open water and advanced diving, CPR, first aid, rescue diving and instructor training in addition to her parents’ self-imposed requirement of 100 dives.

“When Danielle told me how she had been diving since age 12 and as I appreciated her love of diving and the ocean, I realized that she was that special kind of diver that I only saw every five years or so, in my 17 years of teaching underwater research at UC Berkeley,” Kaiser said. “My later diving experiences with her confirmed that she is safe, effective, and naturally more comfortable than 99 percent of other divers in the underwater environment. I knew that she would be a perfect fit for our Antarctic research dive family at Explorers Cove, Antarctica.”

Kaiser’s first-hand observations occurred when he visited Hawaii during her freshman year, which led to him inviting Woodward on an upcoming Antarctica trip. But the offer was based on meeting a number of conditions, including graduating from college and becoming dry suit certified. The latter presented a unique challenge since dry suits are designed for cold water use, rather than Hawaii’s warm, tropical waters.

“Dry suits lack an inflator to control your buoyancy, so you have to understand how the suit moves around you in order to control your underwater movement,” Woodward said. “Get too much air in your suit and you could find yourself helplessly stuck upside down, which could have serious consequences.”

Not withstanding, she obtained her dry suit certification with the help of UH Hilo’s Unit Diving Coordinator Mauritius Bell. Woodward will put what she’s learned to the test when she travels to California in July, where she’ll perform a series of at least 30 cold water dry suit dives in preparation for her trip.

The team will depart for Christchurch, New Zealand at the end of September on the way to Antarctica, where spring officially begins Oct. 1. Woodward, who will remain there until Dec. 15, says the underwater work will begin a couple of weeks after their arrival.

“The ocean will be covered with ice up to 20 feet thick so we’ll have to create our own entries into the water,” Woodward said. “That will involve drilling a series of pilot holes and using a heavy duty, diesel-powered hole-melter made from a commercial carpet cleaning device, to make holes in the ice,” adding that Team Bowser has used dynamite to make dive holes in the past, but plans to stay away from high explosives this season.

Woodward hopes her introduction to Antarctica and work with Bowser will pave the way for future research opportunities there. Ultimately, Woodward hopes to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a marine veterinarian and will apply to veterinarian school this year.

“A lot of the studies done on marine mammals involve internal probes like their heart rate, and that requires a veterinarian who can implant the necessary devices to do that,” she said. “So the challenge for me is to piece together the things I enjoy doing and create the job that allows me to do them.”

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