Diving Into The Parks With Brett Seymour

One of the notable underwater artifacts in the National Park System is a B-29 Flying Fortress that crashed into Lake Mead in 1948/NPS, Brett Seymour

Diving Into The Parks With Brett Seymour

Lynn Riddick with Brett Seymour

It’s been said that the night skies are the other half of the National Park System. Well, maybe it should be viewed as one “third,” with another third being the surface of the park system and another the underwater resources. Indeed, there are some 5.5 million acres of the National Park System that are underwater? There are sunken ships and aircraft. There are remnants of industry and mining, there are coral reefs and underwater caverns.

The Submerged Resources Center of the National Park Service is where these water resources are explored and documented. Underwater photography is crucial in the understanding of what lies beneath the surface, and images taken by the SRC staff are essential not only for mapping and documenting, but to help the parks address issues and solve problems. This week, the National Parks Traveler’s Lynn Riddick sits down with Brett Seymour, the Submerged Resources Center deputy chief and audiovisual production specialist who has spent some 30 years with the Park Service, photographing the mysteries below the surface.

The following is a transcript of their conversation, edited for brevity. You can listen to the full conversation here.

Lynn Riddick, National Parks Traveler: A rusted ship’s propeller, each of its nearly perfectly preserved four blades, which are larger than a man, lie suspended in the cold waters of Isle Royal National Park. Three 14-inch coral and barnacle encrusted guns from the USS Arizona’s No. 1 turret, pointing motionless into the dark depths of the water at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Clumps of diseased and bleached stony coral in Dry Tortugas National Park getting picked over by a school of hopeful fish searching for sustenance in this threatened ecosystem. These are powerful images made possible by the team of archaeologists and photographers at the Submerged Resources Center. With me today is one of those team members, Brett Seymour, audiovisual production specialist and deputy chief, calling in from dry land at his office in Lakewood, Colorado. Hi, Brett, welcome to the Traveler.

Brett Seymour, National Park Service: Good morning, thank you for having me.

Riddick: A few years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing your boss, Dr. Dave Conlon, archaeologist and chief of the Submerged Resources Center. And it was really fascinating to learn about this unique department and how the work it doe, exploring, documenting, mapping, photographing both cultural and natural resources, is really an essential part of preserving the underwater treasures in our parks. So today, I did want to talk a little more specifically about the photography that is an essential component of this department. And so for those who missed my interview with Dave, Brett, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about the center?

Seymour: It’s a very unique program in the National Park Service. We kind of pride ourselves a little bit about the best kept secret, because the best kept secret of the National Park Service, in my opinion, are those things underwater. Most people associate the National Park Service with, you know, backcountry hikes or forests, and few people realize kind of the management responsibility and the recreational opportunities that the parks afford. So if you take places like Yellowstone National Park, there’s tremendous water resources, lakes, rivers. And there’s actually some very interesting things underwater at Yellowstone. Geothermal features, shipwrecks, dormant thermal vents, all types of things. So there’s really a tremendous amount of material, a tremendous amount of recreational opportunity. And the thing about the Park Service is, our mission is to preserve and protect for future generations, regardless of where those —we call them resources, it’s kind of a governmental, nerdy thing to say — but I mean, where those things are, where there’s coral reefs, where those shipwrecks are. It’s our responsibility as the federal agency to preserve and protect those. So, what our office specializes in is just that. Work underwater. It could be anything from, like, you mentioned, archaeologist. We have several archaeologists on staff. So locating objects underwater, mapping objects underwater, and then kind of closing the loop and interpreting them, meaning telling their stories, sharing with the public, helping those people responsible in the management team to manage them.

Are they deteriorating? Is their coral disease? What do the shipwrecks look like? And then that’s kind of the internal management philosophy, but the public-facing thing is, is really outreach and education. How can we educate the public about their parks? How can we get them excited about recreation opportunities in those? And that’s really where my job comes in, specifically in underwater imaging, producing documentary films, and web content. So that’s kind of really my specialty in terms of telling those stories in the parks to the American public.

Tugboat on the bottom of Five Finger Bay at Isle Royale National Park/NPS, Brett Seymour

Riddick: How many folks are in your center, there in Lakewood?

Seymour: We have seven people. It’s a very small program. We always say we have a very large office, because our office really spans from American Samoa to the coast of Maine on the East Coast, and then all the way from Alaska down to the Virgin Islands. So it’s a massive geological area that the national parks and those with water have. But there’s seven in the office here. And then we have one remote employee who’s our admin. So there’s eight total in the in the Submerged Resources Center. 

Riddick: I think it’s interesting to note that there are many certified divers who do work for the National Park Service, but not in your center. Can you list some of the parks that have divers on staff?

Seymour: The National Park Service diving program actually has a very storied and interesting past. We are the oldest non-governmental diving program in the nation. We run generally about 125 to 150 divers in 23 to 25 parks. And those divers have very unique and  very specific missions. For instance, in our region here in the Intermountain Region, where Denver is the the regional office, places like Curecanti [National Recreation Area] and the Black Canyon [of the Gunnison National Park], have a dive team. Nobody would associate a small inland, high altitude lake as having that, but that dive team exists specifically for public safety, body recovery,  resource, those types of things. They’re what we call a public safety diving team.

If you look at the coastal parks, Channel Islands [National Park], Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park, those marine parks, those are largely natural resources parks, so kelp forest monitoring in Channel Islands, coral ecology, those types of things. So there’s also a law enforcement capacity of diving in the National Park Service, and a maintenance capacity. So we kind of pride ourselves in the program of those 8,000 to 9,000 dives a year in doing pretty much whatever the National Park Service diving needs to be done underwater. In our office at the Submerged Resources Center, we’re kind of like the experts of whichever call out needs to happen. So if a park has a dive team that needs a body of recovery, for instance, but it’s a little bit deeper, or swiftwater, or requires a little bit of a higher level of expertise, then our office office often gets called. But the Park Service definitely has a long tradition of diving. 

Riddick: So how do your photography assignments originate?

Seymour: It’s kind of a dual mission. We, at the SRC, we have two positions that are supposed to be underwater imaging, one of them is vacant right now. But it kind of splits along two lines. Some of our underwater imaging is really in support of archaeological or science projects. So we send a photographer to go and document things that we find underwater. Shipwrecks or dock structures, or, you know, coral areas. So there’s kind of a scientific documentation that goes along with the imaging. And then the other side of that is the outreach and education, the public facing. So trying to try to do partnerships with National Geographic or History Channel, Discovery Channel in the media world, web-based. National Parks Traveler is a great example, you know, working with them on story ideas, again, telling that story of the underwater world at the Park Service to the general public. Sometimes our assignments, they kind of trickle in in terms of what the project work is. Sometimes a lot of what I’ve spent my career doing is really generating those things. So generating imaging projects to tell the story and approaching parks and saying, ‘Hey, you have a great story here that I think is really of interest to the greater public. If we get a media partner, either in a web streaming content or a television or, or a public publication. I think there’s a great story there.’ So it’s a bit of a producer role in terms of balancing, you know, a publication or media source with the parks management, and kind of helping them kind of come together and then facilitating that imaging underwater myself in terms of providing that content to those partners to tell those stories. So sometimes it comes in through need to document science work, sometimes it comes in to telling those stories about the underwater world of the Park Service.

Riddick: I’m thinking of a piece I did, I think last summer or fall, with Dave Murano at Dry Tortugas. And he had discovered remnants of graves and like a hospital foundation at Fort Jefferson. Were you summoned to look into that further?

Seymour: I have imaged on that. I generated a model, a 3D photogrammetric model, which is kind of a different vein. It’s one of my specialties. But yes, Josh located that cemetery site, and there’s a grave marker there, which was a pretty interesting, unique thing. And the unique thing has kind of come along quite a bit over the course of my career, whether it’s World War II airplanes in park units, cold cases of missing persons, all kinds of very unique geological [formations] in Yellowstone, some very interesting dormant geothermal vents that really shouldn’t be there, but are really found nowhere else in the world. Unique fish, the Desert Hole Pupfish, of which they’re not located anywhere else in the world. So, there’s all these really unique and that one, a director or two goes, that grave marker kind of fits in that category of, of kind of really interesting stories. And they’re not just things underwater, they’re not things that we manage, or things that we’re responsible for.

Riddick: You mentioned the pupfish, because I follow that story, too. Tell us a little bit about that. I know that there is an annual count of pupfish because they’re threatened and that’s the only place that you can find that species. And divers go down, well, a couple of times a year, right, and count fish. As this year the population had grown a little more than the last count. So what’s your involvement in that?

Seymour: It’s a fascinating study. Death Valley, probably one of the last places on Earth that you would expect this amazing aquatic resource to happen. And then you kind of dig in a little bit more and there’s this unique, tiny little breed of fish that’s found nowhere else in the world. It’s like an incredible story inside of an incredible story. Devil’s Hole in Death Valley National Park is a really fascinating, not just environmental area, but it’s kind of what the Park Service does, right? So, the Park Service is interested in these kinds of management things, how can we preserve and protect? So this is an example of why the Park Service exists in terms of doing these long-term studies. The Devil’s Hole pupfish have been monitored for many, many years. And at some point, you know, someone somewhere along the line said, ‘We’re going to, we’re going to work to preserve these.’ A lot of people would say, ‘Ah, they’re tiny little fish in the middle of the desert.’ Well, there’s a lot of those tiny little fish and this is what we do as a conservation agency. We strive to conserve. So there in Death Valley is an incredible team, actually largely volunteers, on that dive program. And like you mentioned, every year, they do two surveys a year. And they have a whole series of in water counts with scientists. It’s a very systematic survey, visual survey with cross correlation and double blind studies kind of a thing. It’s a fascinating thing. I’ve participated in it a few times. And my role in that, again, is, to do exactly what I do, underwater imaging. Here is a park, who has a dedicated staff that is doing science and doing resource management, but they want to tell that story. And they’re busy counting, you know, they’re busy doing what it is they do. So, where I get asked to come in is tell that story, shoot those fish.

What does the cave look like? What are the resources there? And then the second time they asked me to come back was like, ‘We want some really close images of the fish themselves,’ which is a totally different mission. So they really wanted to see what the fish look like in their natural habitat. And again, they’re busy counting, they’re not busy doing the imaging, so they asked me to come in. It’s a unique environment because it’s a cave overhead environment. So you have to be a cave diver. It’s also unique because it’s 94 degrees, I think, it’s a very, very warm body of water. So it’s a tremendously interesting environment.

Riddick: And it’s really pretty narrow, right?

Seymour: It’s pretty narrow, you got to squeeze through a couple places. And the other thing, it’s deep. Nobody really knows how deep it is. The last person to dive deep in there was in the mid-80s. A cave explorer called Sheck Exley he went to I think 455 feet, and it kept going. So it’s kind of unknown how deep it is. And the Park Service is just there to manage and look at these fish and say, ‘We want to maintain these. … there’s a tie between this particular environment and climate change. They see that when things happen in other areas of the world, there in Death Valley this is kind of an indicator species of when the counts go down because of certain environmental issues and when the counts go up because of health issues. It’s really kind of a canary in a coal mine as the park sees it. And it’s a really interesting story of how the Park Service has an underwater unit, or an underwater part of a unit, Death Valley, that no one would expect, yet here we are managing and trying to conserve these fish.

Riddick: I want to hear more about photography equipment and how you determine what to take, what to use on a dive. I was looking at some of your photographs and some of your rigging seems to be pretty complex. For example, in a couple of shots it looks like the camera is tethered to what might be a float on the surface or the boat to support the weight of the camera and the lights and the tripod. So tell us more about the equipment.

Seymour: Equipment is ever changing. When I started an underwater photography, I’m kind of dating myself, but there was this thing that we used to call film, and film would go in a camera, and you would have 36 chances to make a photo, right? That was it. And underwater that was limiting because you were under there. It wasn’t like you could, you know, take a roll of film, shoot a roll film, and then just change out. You had to surface and there was all those logistical problems. The idea that photography has kind of been mainstay in scuba diving is kind of an understatement. I don’t really know too many people that dive that don’t take pictures underwater, because of how the technology has advanced. In our world, we have followed those those trends into digital photography and high definition and 4k video. The thing that we’ve kind of pushed the envelope a little bit is on these high-resolution optical systems. For instance, we were doing 3D cinematography back when 3D movies were kind of back in vogue in 2010, 2012. We were kind of working with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we were doing visitor center films in 3D, we were kind of pushing the edge of the envelope on that, and that might have been some of those camera systems that you saw. Those were tethered to the surface with fiber optic connections.

Marine life, like this Torpedo ray, also find their way into Seymour’s cameras/NPS, Brett Seymour

Some of the other systems that we have built and we use, we’re very big now into this new world called photogrammetry. And photogrammetry, really, has revolutionized our ability to both document things underwater. But also to tell the story of those things underwater. Photogrammetry is a very simple process. It’s basically you shooting hundreds or 1,000s or 10s of 1,000s of images of anything underwater, or anything anywhere, it doesn’t have to be underwater, just that’s what we specialize in. And then we use computer software to stitch those together to create 3D representations of whatever it is. And it sounds kind of dry and boring. But where it really comes into play for us is these remote areas. If we work in the Central Pacific, where, you know, hardly anybody ever has seen some of these World War II planes and these historic shipwrecks, having the ability to really saturate a site and bring that site back in a three-dimensional world where the public can look at it online, they can manipulate it, they can zoom, all of those kinds of things. So the technology has really advanced into digital photography. And our office is really taking that digital photography and kind of pushing the edge of the envelope all the time to figure out how we can better not only document, because that’s what we do in the Park Service, and conserve and preserve, but also to tell the stories of those things underwater and bring those to the surface more so that more people can understand the amazing things in our parks.

Riddick: Do you ever use Photoshop to alter any of the images?

Seymour:  Adobe Lightroom is really the backbone architecture of all of our imaging. When you shoot 1000s of photos, and a lot of times in the photogrammetry aspect of our world, I will go down and I’ll shoot 20,000 photos in a dive, a single dive. And you have to have someplace to catalog those, inventory those, to manage those. So there’s an archival aspect to imaging these days as well. It’s always been a struggle in underwater photography, how do you catalog your images? How do you find your images? You know, it’s different when you’re taking your kids on vacation. You remember, ‘I think that was three years ago in Florida.’ When you’re doing this regularly, and you’re generating the volume and the data, you have to be able to have a workflow to manage that. I use Adobe Lightroom. And yes, I do edit my photos. Nowadays it’s an interesting thing of how much software and processing can, quote, save a photographer, right? I mean, we won’t even get into AI and what AI can do and you can basically make up these scenes that look great. But in photography it is that kind of ethical question of how much do you alter your image? How much do you make something look better, and that can go either from clarity of water color, or warmth of water, all the way to cloning dead coral, or cloning live coral, or, you know, shaping the story because of these software technologies that we have. I think you have to have a strong ethical kind of case behind you that this is the story. It’s not what I think the story should be. It’s what the story is.

Just as one example, there are parks that we work in now that I’ve been shooting in for 25 years. We’ve seen a lot of change in 25 years in our oceans, and it’s not good. We’ve seen a lot of coral decline. So I have catalogues of parks like say, in South Florida, the Virgin Islands, of really robust reef structures, coral reefs, beautiful images of divers and visitors on reefs that I don’t use anymore. I simply don’t send them out to publications or web because it’s not actually telling the story. It’s not a truthful representation of that park as it is today. And I think the same can be said for software. You really have to be careful of documenting what’s there, but not embellishing what’s there, and making it look better. And software can play a big part of that. My basic philosophy is software helps me make the image better in terms of color balance. Because what I think of is we are limited in what we can capture underwater. We’re working under a totally different parameter. We’re shooting through a medium, we don’t have the light available to us. There’s things in the in the air, the water column, those are the things that I look to correct or remediate underwater, not reestablishing scenes or putting things in that aren’t there.

Riddick: I want to ask you about some of your other images in the parks. The first one I saw, a picture that I wanted to ask you about, Ellis Island National Monument. There’s some kind of shallow shipwreck or ship hull really close one of the piers, what was that all about? 

Seymour: Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty, they actually had an issue, which is what we deal with a lot. Parks have an issue, they need help fixing, whatever that is, dock clearances, removal of things, mapping, finding. At Ellis Island in particular, the ferry, the Ellis Island Ferry, had sunk in its slip. And when we were working there we were told about a third of the United States population could trace their ancestry to that ferry because Ellis Island was the largest immigration station for the United States. So it’s an incredibly historic ferry. So the park just couldn’t rip it out. Right? You can’t just pull it out for the sake of convenience. And really the concession, the people who run those those ships back and forth for the public, the companies that do that, they wanted the slip space. But there’s this historic hull in the way. So our office was asked to go in and do clearance and basically look at what was remaining, and look to see if anything was worth recovering to help tell that story. So by the time we got there, most of the ship was not worth recovering. It was all dilapidated and really was not structurally sound. But we did identify a few things, the brass propellers, for instance, a couple of key diagnostic features like engineering and engine parts, that we were able to recover. And we basically made recommendations to the park, ‘This is worth saving because this can be conserved and can help tell the story of this Ellis Island Ferry, and this is really just too far gone. It’s not worth saving, we would recommend removal.’ So we spent a couple of months there diving in very shallow water. I’m gonna say not very clean water at all. In New York Harbor, it was some of the grossest to be perfectly blunt diving we’ve ever done. And that offered up a little bit of a unique experience for contaminated diving with full face masks and dry suits and gloves. And we were very, very specific about the type of diving that we did.

One thing about that project since you brought it up. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie Star Wars. In Star Wars there’s this scene where they are in this trash compactor. And there’s just detritus floating all over the place. So there we were on the dock at Ellis Island getting ready to jump in the water, and we looked in the water and I swear it looked exactly like the scene out of Star Wars. There was Styrofoam and cups and plastic and there was just this, the whole surface was covered with trash. So we would all gear up, we would all get ready, we all sit side-by-side on the dock, and then all in unison, we take our fins and we create this kind of moon pool like this clear water path where there was no detritus in our way. And we’d all quick jump off and stay underwater for the entire dive so we didn’t have to, like swim around in that kind of floating debris. So it wasn’t exactly the nicest place, the nicest project environment we’ve ever dove in. But the park had a need. And there’s a lot of those types of diving. For every for every one Virgin Islands or, you know, Caribbean Reef dive we do, there’s one or two of these blackwater reservoir clearance or New York Harbor type dives that no one at a party would say, ‘Man, I’m so jealous that you’re an underwater photographer’ because they’re really difficult, and they’re really not much fun.

Riddick: So another photo from Olympic National Park, some old submerged car [in Lake Crescent]. What’s the story behind it?

Seymour: Oh, one of my favorites. I don’t know how you found these. It’s like we talked about this but we didn’t. These are some of my favorite like things underwater. The ‘Warren’ car. Oh, there’s a whole podcast on that. The short story is Russell and Blanche Warren were in Port Angeles, Washington, and they were there in 1948, I think it was, I want to say ’48. I’m not sure of the date, but anyway, they were in Port Angeles, and they bought a washer and dryer, and they had this Chevy. And they couldn’t fit both their twin boys and the washing machine in the car. So they left their boys in Port Angeles, Washington, to take the ferry back. They lived in the woods or in the rural area away from the city. And they disappeared, they never were never seen again. And then a really fascinating law enforcement ranger in the late late ’90s heard about this, and there was always this theory that the car went off the road and went into the lake, but no one had ever found anything. So during dive trainings, he started diving deeper and deeper, just in the area trying to look for any kind of debris that might indicate something was there. And then and some other people stumbled on this old washing machine lid dated from the time period of Russell and Blanche Warren.

So he kept diving deeper and deeper. We were asked to go in, eventually that car was found at 170 feet deep. So we were asked to come in and document the car. And then we were subsequently asked to come in and recover some human remains that were discovered near the car. And to excavate those remains, send them off to Quantico [FBI headquarters in Virginia] for DNA testing, and it was confirmed that Russell Warren, the husband, his remains were recovered. We never really found out anything about Blanche, we never found any material record of Blanche. But it’s kind of a cold case. And it’s one of these fascinating things that a few people kind of started pulling on the strings of history, and the material or record the archaeology of it, or the anthropology of it, actually kind of started to unveil reveal itself and it was because our office, the National Park Service, has the capability of these highly trained and highly specialized divers, that were able to work at 170 to 190 feet, document the car, recover the remains, and then give closure to the family whose whose parents had just honestly vanished one random Saturday bringing home a washing machine. So that’s a pretty interesting case. It doesn’t it doesn’t solve world history or have this huge geopolitical story to it. But it’s a really fascinating story, and it did have incredible significance to the Warren family. It gave them tremendous closure as to what happened or their parents.

The Warren car/NPS, Brett Seymour

Riddick: So the Chevy, was it a 1948 model? It was so remarkably well preserved. The tires are still intact.

Seymour:  It was. The Chevy at the time, I think was a year-old. But yes, I believe it was from the late ’40s, I may be getting that wrong, and they’re probably people who are going to email me and and say how horrible I am at dates, but I believe it was in that that time period. Yeah, because that water in Crescent Lake is cold. It’s freshwater, and it’s very low oxygen. So there’s very little growing, there’s very little life, there’s very little things that would deteriorate. So as a remarkable rate of preservation, and we see that in places all over the world, quite frankly. … I’m gonna re-edit history here. It wasn’t in the ’40s it was 1927, it was a 1927 Chevy. So it was the late ’20s that that that that Chevy was there.

Riddick: I mentioned a couple different shipwrecks or submerged cars and that kind of thing. Are there any other ones that just kind of jumped out to you that you’d like to tell me about?

Barnacle-encrusted guns on the USS Arizona/NPS, Breet Seymour

Barnacle-encrusted guns on the USS Arizona/NPS, Brett Seymour

Seymour: The shipwreck probably that I’ve had the closest personal, it sounds kind of strange, but personal connection with is the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. … I have done I don’t know how many films for you know, History, Geographic, Discovery, all of the media partners and articles. Because it’s closed to diving, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of filming and a lot of work for outside agencies and outside partners. But I’ve also had the opportunity to do a lot of work for the Park Service. And the USS Arizona is a site, it’s such a sacred site, there’s still 1,000 sailors and Marines that are entombed in that site. We treat it with utmost respect. There’s the kind of two-edged sword. The access that I’m afforded working for the Park Service that is allowed to dive on the site. But there’s really the kind of responsibility and I think really the kind of commitment to tell the story in Pearl Harbor. Time fades stories, right? I think in the 1940s and the 1950s, Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, was a much different event than it is 82 years later, right?. I mean, we forget things that generationally we weren’t part of. And I feel that it’s my responsibility as a photographer to keep those stories alive. … It really kind of moved me to spend a career, quite frankly, 30 years of diving on that site, trying to communicate the importance, the significance, and the loss of life at that site. And the stories behind the ship. It’s not just a steel and wooden ship, it has a soul, it has people interred in it. I wrote a book actually called Beneath Pearl Harbor, it’s a coffee table photo book. The only reason I did that, it was nothing to do with money, I don’t make anything off it, I did it as part of a Park Service project. But I really wanted people to understand that this is a touchstone. The Park Service is really good at remembering and honoring. 

Traveler postscript: To hear their entire conversation, downland National Parks Traveler Episode 276, Diving Into The Parks.

To learn more about the projects and photography of the Submerged Resources Center, go to nps.gov/submerged. You can also view images taken by Brett for the National Park Service at brettseymourphotography.com.  For those who would like to listen to Lynn’s interview with SRC Chief Dave Conlin and hear more about the unique work of the Submerged Resources Center, it’s Podcast Episode 116.

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