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Bringing Citizen Science To Lake Pupuke

GUE diver and aquatic eco-toxicologist Ebrahim Hussain applies some serious citizen science to get to the bottom of the trouble in Lake Pupuke, New Zealand. Project Baseline is alive and kicking, thank you very much!

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by Ebrahim Hussain

I have always been passionate about aquatic ecosystems and how they work which inspired me to become an aquatic ecotoxicologist. I have always tried to document observations in an attempt to better understand environmental changes. The biggest challenge I have faced was getting my observations to organizations that are able to use them in a constructive manner. We all constantly see changes in our environments but are often unable to make a positive change.

Citizen science is a greatly underutilized resource by regulatory agencies. There are a myriad of citizen science groups that actively want to participate in the monitoring of their local ecosystems, but they lack the guidance or platform to do so. The Project Baseline Initiative provides an amazing platform for people to display their findings, and in combination with guidance from local authorities, the resulting projects can be an overwhelming success. This article will hopefully take you through my journey to improve a local lake that means a lot to me and the people who use it.

Lake Pupuke is a 186 ft/57m deep volcanic crater lake with a surface area of 110 hectares that drains a 105 hectare urban catchment in Auckland, New Zealand’s North Shore. The influence of this urban catchment on lake water quality is enhanced by the fact that the lake has no direct in and/or out flows and consequently has a high water retention time. Water enters the lake via a variety of diffuse sources (runoff, groundwater & precipitation) and exits through evaporation and intermittent drainage channels.

The lake is used for a variety of recreational purposes and is a venue for national and international events. The lake is also widely used by dive schools and boat clubs from across the region as a training facility.

A Lake Under Threat

I have been diving in Lake Pupuke since 2013, and I quickly came to realize that this lake was under threat. The water clarity had decreased, and according to the local dive schools, this deterioration had been noticed for many years prior. In the summer of 2014 a thick algal bloom developed which had not been recorded previously. The initial concern was the potential human health risk associated with algal blooms, but samples taken by the Auckland Council identified the bloom as Ceratium hirundinella which is a nontoxic species.

It was quite puzzling that even though Ceratium has always been present in the lake it had never formed large scale blooms until 2014. It was thought that this bloom was a once-off event until it occurred the following year and every summer since.


Ebrahim Hussain installing a dissolved oxygen & temperature sensor on the monitoring station. Photo by Andrew Davidson.

In an attempt to understand what had caused this change, I began looking at the Council’s long-term monitoring data, and to my surprise, I could not find anything that pointed to the exact cause of these recurring blooms.

I initially looked at temperature and nutrient loads which are the most common drivers for algal blooms and found that the lake had not been significantly warmer than previous years, and the trophic level index, while elevated, was within the same variance seen over the past ten years. However, there was no associated metadata to support any conclusions. It was clear to me that we could not fully understand what was happening in the lake through seasonal surface-based water quality sampling alone, and that regular subsurface observations were needed.

Enter Project Baseline

That is when I came across the Project Baseline Initiative, and it was the perfect platform for the type of work I wanted to conduct. The primary focus was to collaboratively work with volunteers, local communities, research organizations, and the Auckland Council to collect data that would complement the work already being done by the Council, as well as to specifically address the subsurface knowledge gaps. By doing this we are able to make use of both Council-funded and citizen science-driven data acquisition to support and inform a more holistic management strategy for Lake Pupuke.

We initially started collecting very basic data, such as visibility, temperature, and general meteorological information, but this quickly ramped up once we started noticing what was happening underwater.

Todd Kincaid & Louise Greenshields preparing the sediment coring tubes. Photo by Ebrahim Hussain.

We installed continuous temperature sensors, which log data every 15 minutes, at various depths to get a better understanding of the seasonal thermal stratification in the lake. Our data indicates that the lake usually stratifies from October until June, with an average winter temperature difference of 0.7°C between surface and bottom waters, and a summer difference of 10.2°C.

Stratification in lakes of this depth is a natural result of the surface water layers being heated by the sun. This heating causes the formation of a thermocline where the warmer water layer sits above the cooler, denser bottom water. This process separates the water column into three distinct layers, the epilimnion which is the warmest layer on the surface, the cooler metalimnion in the middle, and lastly the hypolimnion which is the coldest layer at the bottom of the lake. This separation of layers reduces the mixing of heat, oxygen and nutrients between the surface and bottom waters.

It is important to track these changes in stratification because it is directly related to the potential oxygen cycling and internal nutrient loading within the lake.

We installed continuous dissolved oxygen (DO) sensors within these distinct thermal layers to assess this oxygen cycling, and what we found was surprising. In winter the DO% on the surface ranges from 86% to 98% and gradually drops in even gradations down to about 40% at 55m. In summer the DO% ranges from 80 to 90% on the surface down to less than 3% at 55m. This is expected, but what took us by surprise was the presence of midwater anoxic layers, one near the surface between 7m-9m, and a second layer in the metalimnion between 12m-16m.  

The Results

After seeing this, we began investigating other potential DO dead zones in the lake using multi-parameter water quality meters and have since identified additional areas. There was evidence of anoxia in the macrophyte beds that surround the lake, so we deployed additional sensors, and our finding confirmed our initial assumptions with summer DO% dropping to less than 3%.

This is critical information, as anoxic sediment conditions actively promote the remobilization of nutrients which further contribute to the eutrophication of the lake and drive algal bloom formation. These conditions can also cause the release of ammonium & hydrogen sulphide which are all toxic in high concentrations.

The next question we had was what was causing this anoxia. It is natural for a lake this deep to have anoxic bottom waters during summer, but we did not know what was causing this anoxia midwater and in the macrophyte beds. The dense macrophytes stop water from freely flowing into the shallows, and there is a lot of visible organic material that is decomposing on the bed, which all contributes to the anoxia.

The increased load of organic material, composed of dead macrophytes & phytoplankton, seemed to coincide with the appearance of the algal blooms. To prove this we installed light sensors that continuously measure the photosynthetically active radiation attenuation at various depths. The data shows that at on average there is almost no usable light past 4m after 13:00 and zero light penetration past 10m during the summer blooms. This lack of light caused the macrophytes to die, and coupled with the dead phytoplankton settling down, created an influx of decaying matter on the lake bed. We now regularly conduct macrophyte extent surveys to document seasonal die back and regrowth.

Phytoplankton, Chlorophyll-a & biological oxygen demand sample bottles as well as a photosynthetically active radiation sensor ready for deployment. Photo by Ebrahim Hussain.

We knew where the additional organic material was coming from and what was causing the anoxia in both the macrophyte beds and the hypolimnion. The next question was how many nutrients are being released from these areas and what is causing the midwater anoxia. To answer this, we started a collaborative project with the Auckland Council and the Cawthron Institute.

The first step was to install sediment traps at various depths to understand how much organic material is produced midwater and how much settles down to the bed. The second step was to take a suite of sediment cores from the areas of concern we had previously identified to understand the amount of nutrient remobilization that occurs under various environmental conditions. The third and final step was to take targeted water quality and phytoplankton samples from the midwater anoxic layers to understand how/why they are formed.

Ebrahim Hussain & Tyler Ungureanu purging bottles in preparation for water quality sampling. Photo by Harry Josephson-Rutter.

The majority of the sampling required has been done except one more round of winter sediment traps. Once this has been completed, all the data will be analyzed and will fill a critical knowledge gap regarding internal nutrient cycling. This in turn will help guide the next steps for the wider project as well as inform potential mitigation measures.  

Project Baseline has provided an amazing tool to facilitate the collaboration between citizen science and local government by formalizing community-driven data collection. The Project Baseline Lake Pupuke Initiative is a proven example of how citizen science can be used to satisfy critical knowledge gaps and directly feed into regulatory strategies with the common goal of creating a better, healthier environment.


Ebrahim Hussain is an Aquatic Scientist working at the Auckland Council. He began diving when he was 12 years old and has never looked back. Hussain studied aquatic ecotoxicology and zoology at university, and it was clear that he wanted to spend his life studying these subsurface ecosystems and the anthropogenic stressors that impact them. Hussain founded Project Baseline Lake Pupuke with the goal of contributing to preserving and enhancing this natural beauty as well as encouraging others to get involved in actively monitoring their natural surroundings.


Cave

Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community

In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.

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by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations  that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.

In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered

He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game:  “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.

Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.

When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.

Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by  his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:

“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”

The Torbet Method for Managing Stress  

Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”  

Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:

“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.” 

Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.” 



There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,

“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment.  I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”

In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques. 

A Team of One?

Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations. 

Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay. 

In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces,  the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]

“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.” 

After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double. 

Stunt Doubles 

Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.

Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start. 

Why does he love being part of the stunt community? 

“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.” 

A Perspective on life 

 Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.

“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.

I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”  

Additional Resources:

Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet

Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet 

Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet

Rising: Meet The Man Who Dives 100m Deep Into Caves One Kilometre Underground

Dive Odyssey—A meditative journey into the depths of water and mind

Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!

Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.

I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving. 



Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion.  You can sign up for my newsletter here.

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