NOAA Corps at the Sanctuary

R/V MANTA at sea with its skiff suspended along the port side and workers looking off the back deck at an object in the water

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps) is the uniformed service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA Corps officers operate ships, fly aircraft, lead mobile field parties, conduct diving operations, manage research projects, and serve in staff positions throughout NOAA. Officers are reassigned every 2-3 years, rotating between shipboard and land-based positions throughout the country.

Here at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a NOAA Corps officer serves as our Vessel Operations Coordinator, making sure that R/V MANTA remains in good working order and that our overall sanctuary operations are safe and sound.

The sanctuary's first NOAA Corps officer reported for duty in 2004. Following is a brief history of our NOAA Corps staff.

Dustin Picard (2016-present)

Dustin standing in front of R/V MANTA dockside in Galveston
Dustin Picard standing dockside by R/V MANTA on the TAMUG campus (Image: FGBNMS)

Background: Dustin grew up in a military family with his father serving in the Navy and his mother in the Air Force. After earning a B.S. in Marine Environmental Science and Policy from the University of Maryland, he pursued a career which would combine service and science. The NOAA Corps seemed like a perfect fit. 

Accomplishments: Dustin is the current Vessel Operations Coordinator for FGBNMS and is still working on his sanctuary accomplishments.

Highlights: "I have been fortunate to sail internationally in the Pacific, where I was able to dive WWII wrecks in the Marshall Islands while on a port of call. The wrecks and reefs of Kwajalein Atoll are pristine and heavily protected. Nothing will compare to diving and exploring history on the islands, at least until my first coral spawning trip..."

Jamie Park (2013-2015)

Jamie Park standing on the dock next to the bow of R/V MANTA.
Jamie Park standing dockside by R/V MANTA on the TAMUG campus (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Background: Jamie grew up in a small town in north Georgia, but gained a love for the ocean at a young age windsurfing with his parents on trips to the Florida coast.  He sailed competitively at the University of South Florida while earning a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a concentration in Marine Science.  During his time in the Tampa Bay area, he was also a coach and Program Director at the Davis Island Youth Sailing Foundation.  It was here that Jamie learned about the NOAA Corps and the opportunity for service it provided.

Accomplishments: Jamie was responsible for the acquisition and installation of R/V MANTA’s Scientific Computer System (SCS), in partnership with Texas A&M University. This data collection system is widely used throughout the NOAA ship and small boat fleets.  SCS captures water quality, meteorological and vessel data for use in a wide variety of ways by both NOAA and outside research scientists.

Highlights: "Some of my favorite memories to date as a NOAA Corps officer involve Flower Garden Banks NMS.  While aboard NOAA Ship NANCY FOSTER, I had the opportunity to support a 14-day technical diving mission to FGBNMS as a ship driver, small boat operator and in-water safety support diver.  That was my first in-person exposure to the sanctuary, and it inspired me to pursue the sanctuary billet.  I've had many great trips to the sanctuary aboard R/V MANTA, and my favorites were the 2014 and 2015 coral spawning missions.  However, any day at the sanctuary is a great one!"

Marc Weekley (2010-2013)

Marc Weekley on a ship with the ocean in the background
Marc on board the NOAA ship Gordon Gunter.

Background: After spending two years in college in Colorado, Marc decided to take some time off, got certified to teach scuba diving and spent a few years teaching and leading dive trips in the Bahamas, Caribbean and the west coast of Mexico.  In 1996 he returned to college to finish a degree, and, upon graduating from University of South Florida in 1999, found a full time position at an environmental lab, as well as two part time positions at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, FL(Assistant Biologist and Divemaster).  In December of 2005, Marc was selected for the next BOTC, and looked forward to a unique and exciting career with the NOAA Corps.

Accomplishments: Marc continued supporting existing projects aboard R/V MANTA such as sediment and hypoxia cruises and ROV operations, and helped out as both a boat captain and diver for the buoy maintenance and long-term monitoring missions.  He also worked with the University of Texas to set up mission funding and logistical details for their first missions aboard the MANTA.

Highlights: "In April 2014, NOAA Ship GORDON GUNTER encountered a weather system that was not forecast by either the National Weather Service or the Navy.  What was in the forecast, and what we expected, for the those few days were 35-40 knot winds and around 15 foot seas. What we actually encountered were 25-30 foot seas and at least one wind gust of 110 knots.  The ship sustained rudder damage and some very tired crew and scientists (nobody got much sleep that day), but otherwise an experience I would have never gotten in an environmental lab!"

Tracy Hamburger (2007-2010)

Tracy in dive gear pouring holding a pvc tube full of cement.
Tracy pouring cement around a newly placed u-bolt for a mooring. (Image: FGBNMS)

Background: Tracy grew up in Milwaukee, WI with no boating experience but a love for the outdoors.  Trips in high school to Florida and cruises to the Caribbean engaged her interest in our oceans.  Tracy ended up attending Texas A&M University at Galveston for Marine Biology, where she joined the Corps of Cadets and gained valuable maritime and leadership experience. After three at-sea summers, Tracy acquired a USCG Third Mates license and was introduced to the NOAA Corps by a shipmate who had sailed on the NOAA Ship GORDON GUNTER as an intern.

Since Tracy's first sea assignment in the NOAA Corps was on the NOAA Ship NANCY FOSTER, she was exposed to East and Gulf coast sanctuaries. She had already worked with the FGBNMS research team, so it was an easy transition when she joined the sanctuary in June 2007.

Accomplishments: Tracy's first duties with the sanctuary included the transport of R/V MANTA from the Pacific Northwest to its home in the Gulf of Mexico (along with previous Corps officer Lindsay Kurelja), commissioning of the vessel, outfitting the vessel and conducting its operational shakedown.  She also participated in some of the first working cruises aboard.  Tracy worked closely with Texas A&M University at Galveston to establish a mooring for R/V MANTA, create a pier facility and set up commercial vendors for supply and maintenance in the area.

Highlights: "My most memorable moment was R/V MANTA's maiden voyage from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Galveston, TX.  With a small crew of three we sailed her around the Florida Straits making port calls in Key West and St. Petersburg, FL for VIP events and tours.  We had her cruising 27 knots across the Gulf of Mexico to Port Fourchon, LA for a fuel stop and arrived in Galveston to ready her for sanctuary science cruises! 

I believe all of the 90 days that the R/V MANTA sailed in its first operational year were successful and set the stage for future operations of the largest sanctuary research vessel. I fully enjoyed working with all of the FGBNMS staff whether it was on a science cruise or participating in an outreach event. 

Before the MANTA came online, I was able to sail and dive aboard the live-aboards M/V SPREE and FLING on buoy maintenance and long-term monitoring cruises which were all great experiences.

Lindsay Kurelja (2004-2007)

Lindsay in dress uniform standing in front of a table top display about the NOAA Corps.
Lindsay working the NOAA Corps display at our first Ocean Discovery Day in 2007. (Image: FGBNMS/Drinnen)

Background: Lindsay Kurelja hails from the mountain oasis of Estes Park, CO. She ventured to Galveston, TX for education in Marine Biology and Marine Transportation at Texas A&M University at Galveston.  During her freshman year, NOAA Ships GORDON GUNTER and OREGON II arrived in Galveston and Lindsay realized that there was a way to participate in data acquisition excellence through dedicated service to the NOAA Corps. She joined the honor ranks of the NOAA Corps in 2002.

Accomplishments: While at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, Lindsay served as the Contracting Officers Technical Representative for the design and construction of R/V MANTA, although she never got to serve on the vessel.  She was also the first FGBNMS employee in Galveston, TX and assisted in the commissioning of the offices currently housing FGBNMS staff on the beautiful Ft. Crockett campus.  In 2007, she coordinated with the staff of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and a team led by Bob Ballard for the Secrets of the Gulf expedition, that used a naval submarine to explore in the sanctuary.

Highlights: "My favorite moment from my time at FGBNMS was during the Hammerhead Shark migration study in 2006.  After being plagued with bad weather and worse visibility on East and West Flower Garden Banks, we transited to Stetson Bank.  The weather had calmed and we were cleared to dive.  As soon as I put my face in the water, I could see a large school of mackerel schooling.  As we descended, the mackerel moved their schooling pattern to circle us. 

While watching the small jellies sparkle through the water column, the school of mackerel began to thin. Upon reaching the bottom, we could see the shadows of many hammerhead sharks circling in the opposite direction on the outside of the mackerel school.  The mackerel continued to thin out until there were none left and my dive partner and I were at the bottom now being circled by several large male hammerhead sharks. 

They continued to close the circle and get closer and closer.  One by one the sharks started to approach us, while we floated still and observed their behavior, and then peeled off and disappeared into the abyss.  The final shark was a large male.  He approached us within 6 feet, passing between my dive partner and I.

As that shark approached, a strange calm passed through the moment and we all knew that this was just a moment of curiosity for both us and the shark.  It was the most beautiful experience of communing with nature that I have ever experienced!

I have so many more!  The musky smell of corals spawning, the dolphins approaching while on a safety stop, the pride while seeing R/V Manta float for the first time.  I could go on forever."