NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard R/V Point Sur
June 24 – July 3, 2019
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 1, 2019
Interview with Scientist Melanie Damour
Melanie Damour is the Co-Principal Investigator and Co-Chief Scientist on the expedition. She is responsible for directing all archaeological aspects of the investigation. We talked about her path to her career, and her advice for young people who might want to pursue ocean science.
When I asked her what sea creature she would choose to be, she immediately answered “A mermaid. Mermaids have the agility of fish, but they are smart.” Melanie may not be a mermaid, but she is agile as a fish and smart.
Melanie knew from early childhood what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her father was a fire and rescue diver, and Melanie sometimes got to see him at work. She was fascinated by scuba diving. With her father’s support, she learned to scuba dive when she was only eight years old. The second event that shaped her career was a visit to the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. This historic sailing ship is open to the public and played an important role in the war for independence from Britain. When Melanie visited this ship, she was awed by the ship and its history, and decided that somehow she was going to marry her two favorite things – diving and maritime history – for her career.
She got her scuba diving certification when she was 14 years old, and studied history in high school. She went to Florida State University to study anthropology. She took classes in archaeology, cultural and physical anthropology, and linguistics, all the disciplines within Anthropology. She was offered a teaching assistantship which allowed her to get into a graduate program and study submerged paleoindian sites in Florida. The offer was too good to refuse, so she began her graduate work at Florida State right away. Now she works for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) as a marine archaeologist.
Melanie reflected on what makes a good scientist. Her first response was that good scientists are always asking questions; being curious is what leads to new understandings. It’s also important to be open-minded. Scientists can’t expect things to turn out a certain way as this would blind them to what is actually happening. A scientist has to be persistent in the face of problems and always be looking for different ways and better ways to attack a problem. The ability to work well in a team is key. Each member of a good team contributes to the end goal. Taking into account different perspectives leads to a more accurate and complete picture.
Melanie has worked on projects in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Her personal research interests led her to Guatemala, where she worked in Lake Petén Itzá on a submerged Mayan port site. She went to Panama to map a Spanish merchant ship that sank off the coast in 1681. This is her favorite shipwreck so far. It is well preserved by the river sediments that poured into the Gulf there. The ship contains hundreds of wooden boxes full of supplies that Spain had sent to the colonies. The boxes contain nails and scissors, and some yet to be opened my contain books that are still preserved. After this expedition, Melanie is heading to Mexico to dive with her husband on a site that may turn out to be her new favorite. They will be looking for the wreck of one of the ships belonging to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish explorer. In 1519, Cortés sank his own ships to prevent his crew from leaving and returning to Cuba. This set the course for the conquest of the Aztecs. Last summer, Melanie and her husband found an anchor and wood that dated to the early 1500s. The wood was determined to be from Spain. This puts the anchor in the right time frame to be one of Cortés’ sunken ships.
Melanie pointed out that it isn’t easy to get a job as a marine archaeologist because it is a small field and there are not many permanent jobs. But she also encourages anyone who wants to pursue this as a career to be persistent and not give up. “It’s not always a straight line from A to B,” she says; in fact, you may discover that when your plan isn’t working out, you actually prefer the new track your life takes – that Plan B option that you may not have known existed when you began your career.
“The greatest threat to our oceans today is humans,” Melanie said. “Our lack of consideration for the consequences of our actions is the greatest threat we face.”
Marine archaeology is one of many subdisciplines in ocean sciences, and the future of our oceans depends on many scientists working together to reverse the trajectory of degradation we are on.