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Where the tide meets the sand

caption: A collage of the Patos Lighthouse with the tail of a humpback whale and other photos of beaches.
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A collage of the Patos Lighthouse with the tail of a humpback whale and other photos of beaches.
Photo illustration by Kea Lani Diamond, photos provided by McKenna Kilayko and Myla Diamond

Just how deep can someone’s connection to the water be?

Join RadioActive's McKenna Kilayko, Kea Lani Diamond and Hayden Andersen on a journey through the layers of the ocean.

[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This story was entirely youth-produced, from the writing to the audio editing.]

Podcast transcript:

[McKenna playing guitar, people talking, waves crashing]

McKenna Kilayko: The ocean impacts daily life for people around the world.

Kea Lani Diamond: Three-point-five billion people rely on it as their main source of food.

Hayden Andersen: And for many people, the ocean is a fundamental part of their identity and culture.

McKenna: I’m McKenna Kilayko. I grew up in California, just an hour away from the iconic Pacific Coastline.

Kea Lani: I’m Kea Lani Diamond. I study in a marine science program at Seahurst Park beach.

Hayden: And I’m Hayden Andersen. I've lived by the Puget Sound waterfront for my entire life.

McKenna: And you’re listening to a RadioActive podcast. RadioActive is where teens make radio at KUOW Public Radio in Seattle — where we’re surrounded by water.

Kea Lani: Our goal is to find out about how people in our area are connected to water.

Hayden: So today we’re exploring people’s connections to the bodies of water around them. And to do that, we’re going on a journey through the layers of the ocean.

Kea Lani: Metaphorically!

McKenna: So grab your life preserver, or your scuba gear. Put on your wetsuits, maybe jump on a boat.

Hayden: And we’ll start where the tide meets the sand.

[Waves crashing, someone diving into the water]

On the Surface

McKenna: The surface of the ocean, or any body of water for that matter, is the one we see and interact with most often. People swim, fish and surf up here.

I wanted to talk to someone who spends a lot of time on the surface of the water.

So, as we start here, floating amongst the seaweed, I talked to Mark Nichols. Or as I know him, Mr. Nichols.

He’s an open-water swimmer, and also my science teacher.

[Waves crashing]

Before Mr. Nichols was a teacher, and before he was an open-water swimmer, he worked at a cardboard factory.

Mark Nichols: And I was stuck in between two conveyor belts, just moving boxes from one conveyor belt to the other one. And my shoulder started getting sore. And I'm like, "I gotta keep this job, so I gotta strengthen my shoulders back up." So I was living on Capitol Hill when I first moved out here, so I would drive down to Madison Park and start swimming out there.

McKenna: Mr. Nichols grew up as a competitive swimmer, swimming in warm, chlorinated pools.

But when he moved out here from the Midwest, he started swimming in more natural bodies of water — Lake Washington, Andrew Bay, Madison Park — and working up to the saltier waters of the Puget Sound.

Mr. Nichols: And it's just more exciting, you know? And the waves — you know, big boats will go by, and a wave will splash into you. And it's like — it made me laugh, right? Because my whole swimming had been so structured and competitive that it was like — you're swimming and then all sudden, you know, Mother Nature comes along and just, you know, rolls you over or slaps ya.

That's where I started to get more of an appreciation for the open water.

McKenna: But the open water can be unpredictable.

Mr. Nichols: It took me a while before I figured it out, but I thought I saw, like, an arm, like a person's arm, right? But it's like my overactive imagination running away with me. But I was like, "Ah!" So I just swam. But I was like, "Well, I gotta turn around and go back." And I'm like, "There's no way, there's no way." So I swam back and I was like, "Phew," didn't see anything. And then I figured it out, it's kinda cool: the sun beams coming down through the seaweed create these shadows and lights, and where one of them looked like an arm.

McKenna: The way he described the sights in the water, these scarier things he’s seen, made me want to learn more about the things like the sounds he’s heard.

It reminded me of a quote from Donna Tartt’s "The Secret History" — “Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it."

Because apparently, the river talks.

Mr. Nichols: Sometimes you think somebody's shouting at you, too. And you come up, and you'll do a side stroke, and, I don't know, it's like the water will talk to you. It's like, 'Hey,' it's sort of that sixth sense, you know, your spidey senses. I think they actually are more in tune when you're in that water.

[Waves crashing on the shore]

McKenna: Whenever I visit the beach, I like to just stand and take a deep breath.

Letting the sounds of the waves roll over my body, the wind carrying away any negative energy. Just letting myself feel the sand between my toes, the silky seaweed against my ankles, the ridges on the seashells.

Mr. Nichols: It's so calming. Go to the ocean, drive, you don't even have to swim. Just look out over the ocean and that endlessness of it, that whole — it just makes you want to build a boat and go out there.

You know that one movie with the girl who sails away on the boat?

McKenna (on tape): Oh, "Moana"?

Mr. Nichols: Yeah! Yeah, that one!

[McKenna playing the guitar]

McKenna: Growing up in California, I got to experience the beach so often that when I leave after a visit, I feel as if I leave a part of myself behind.

That endless body of blue has a quality to it that is simultaneously terrifying and awe-inspiring.

But before we get too carried away, let’s dive deeper and explore some more of this uncharted territory.

[Waves crash, scuba bubbles bubble]

Beneath the Waves

Kea Lani: There's a whole different world under the surface of the water. Countless ecosystems, bubbling and flowing and teeming with life.

I’ve loved marine biology my entire life, and I’d like to pursue a career in that field.

Pema Kitaeff oversees the scientific dives for the University of Washington. She started her journey under the water when she was just a little younger than me, in a marine science program at her own high school where she had the opportunity to go scuba diving.

Pema: And I didn't really care if I saw, like, big turtles or anything. I just wanted to see the coral and the anemones. And I came home from that trip when I was 15, and I told my parents I wanted to be a diver. And they were really cool about it. That's totally not their thing. But they said, "It's your allowance, do what you want with it."

Kea Lani: Pema studied biology at Reed College, taking her junior year off to become a divemaster in Utila, Honduras.

From there, her diving journey took her all around the world, and eventually she started working with the University of Washington at the Friday Harbor Labs, where she met some researchers who she would later go to Antarctica with.

Pema: Yeah, I got to do about 30 dives there as part of a research project that was looking at nudibranchs.

Kea Lani: Nudibranchs are a type of shell-less marine mollusk, a sea slug. There are 3,000 different species all around the world at different depths of the ocean. Some are poisonous and some just pretend to be. Most of the nudibranchs I’ve had the opportunity to see around here are smaller than my hand.

Kea Lani (on tape): We went out to collect some specimen, and I found some of the Melibe nudibranchs. And they're like, the coolest thing. I didn't know they smelled like watermelons?!

Pema: Well, the next time you hold one, I know it sounds really weird, but smell your hand [laughs]. You might be surprised.

Kea Lani: Anyway, she went with these researchers to Antarctica, and she describes the vastness of the environment there being very different from what she’s experienced before.

Pema: It had very, very clear visibility, like see, for hundreds of feet. It was almost disorienting. And the people I was working with are specifically looking at egg cases of nudibranchs. So we would go diving, looking for those. And yeah, it was fascinating.

Kea Lani: This research was being done at the McMurdo Station. A hole is drilled in the ice where the researchers dive, the thickest ice Pema has been through being about 15 feet.

Under ice this deep, it gets pretty dark, but a large light is set up so the divers can find their way back.

Pema: Like, a scientist who I asked about it before I went down there, she said, "Oh, don't worry, it'll be like finding the light bulb in the ceiling of the room." And she was right. You know, it's like, "Ahhhhh," like, shining down. Like, it's really obvious from thousands of feet away. You can't miss it.

Finally, I asked Pema if she had any advice for people who are looking to find careers in marine science, like myself.

Pema: Don't be hard on yourself, or disappointed if you get rejected from something you want. Because that happens a lot. If you can't find a paying job, like able to support yourself completely in your field, as an academic marine scientist, it might be okay to volunteer for something. And then also do something else on the side where you're just making money, like in food service, or something else that interests you.

Kea Lani: Marine biology is interesting, and there’s always research going on. That affects you, even if you don’t know about it or don’t really care.

For example, there’s plankton that produce 70% of the worlds’ oxygen. And that’s just one thing.

There are organisms everywhere, just existing. And their existence affects ours, in big and small ways.

And that’s true even at the bottom of the ocean.

[Waves crash, bubbles bubble]

The Bottom of the Ocean

Hayden: The bottom of the ocean.

Down here, the light that gives the water clarity and certainty has long since vanished.

That sense of depth and of reverence we associate with this "twilight zone" of the ocean was something I couldn’t get out of my mind.

Just how deep can someone’s connection to the water be?

To answer this question, I spoke to someone who’s connection to, and investment in, the water is a lot deeper than most.

Rosa Hunter: I like to call myself a forensic biologist. Because I'm hunting. I'm trying to figure stuff out. And it just sounds cool.

Hayden: That’s Rosa Hunter. She’s a lab manager at the Salish Sea Research Center, and a local expert in marine microbiology.

Despite this, her perspective on water is a lot more personal than just a job.

During our conversation, Rosa brought out a framed photograph of her grandmother.

Rosa: The older I get the more look like her. So I'm pretty honored with that. My grandmother, Jean Hunter, she's First Nations, so her mother is Native to Canada. My grandmother was a school counselor for Indian Heritage High School in the city. So she really kept a short leash on me.

Hayden: Rosa talks a lot about how her family influences her perspective. It started from a young age, when her grandma would take her down to the water.

Rosa’s grandmother was very strict, and didn’t usually open up about her heritage. But there was one exception.

Rosa: But we will go down the water. And then she opened the floodgates. She was like, "So my parents, my mom taught me this." And then I'm like, "Oh my gosh, she's telling me, like, all this knowledge, right?!"

She would just — she was a big, large woman. But she was down there, hands on her hips, and just stare all the way from the sky all the way to the floor.

Hayden: In fact, the serenity and comfort that Rosa’s grandmother found in the water might be something that runs in the family. And its helped Rosa, despite actually being scared of the open ocean, confront emotions that a lot of us don’t like to think about.

And even though Rosa and her family have all this experience, she told me that sometimes it can be very difficult to have confidence in it.

Rosa: I still think, to this day, I'm faking. I totally believe, wholeheartedly, that I'm faking it. This is all a front. I think people are gonna catch on, I'm not as smart as they think I am.

Hayden: But following in her grandmother’s footsteps, and with a connection deeper than any ocean, she’s found the strength to keep moving.

Rosa: So, if I'm having a mental breakdown, or I've got too much happening, or I just want to talk with the spirit guides, whatever, right? I go to the water. I'll go, like, ankle deep in the water. You know, as scared as I am of the open ocean, but that's where I go to to find peace and to clear my mind and to reset myself.

Hayden: And Rosa is right: these are things that all of us — including myself — have struggled with in one way or another.

And even though you might feel alone — isolated, as though you’re at the bottom of a deep, dark ocean — remember that you aren’t.

Down here, where there isn’t even any light, the water is still teeming with life.

Even if you can’t see it.

[Waves crashing]

McKenna: When we went into this podcast, we wanted to find out what people’s connections to water were.

Kea Lani: For Mr. Nichols, Pema, and Rosa, there was something that called them to the water, promising a break from routine, a career, and a sense of self.

Hayden: So, the next time you’re out by the water, think of the stories you heard today, and what yours might be.

[Waves crashing]

This story was produced in a RadioActive Youth Media Advanced Producers Workshop for high school-age youth. Production assistance by Dayana Capulong. Prepared for the web by Kelsey Kupferer. Edited by Mary Heisey.

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