AlgiKnit: We’re so curious to find out: who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
Kate Vylet: My name is Kate Vylet and I'm an underwater photographer/videographer, scientific diver, and Divemaster based in Santa Cruz, California. Professionally I work as a scientific diving technician in Central and Northern Californian kelp forests, collecting data and implementing projects for marine ecological research via scuba diving/boating. Previously I worked for PISCO (Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans), which primarily conducts long-term monitoring surveys of subtidal and intertidal rocky reef ecosystems by documenting species and habitat present at chosen sites every year. Currently I work for Reef Check's California branch, which does much the same except mostly by the power of citizen science rather than professional divers. My primary work with Reef Check however is our climate change research project, for which I'm the coordinator. This research involves the use of subtidal sensors installed on rocky reef to monitor temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH in order to survey any changes in ocean chemistry in our nearshore environments, and which can be paired with our ecological monitoring data. Besides the science side of things, shooting photos and videos of these ecosystems is my primary passion - to share the beauty of hidden underwater worlds and hopefully inspire awe, appreciation, and stewardship of marine ecosystems when it is more important than ever.
AlgiKnit: Your work largely revolves around marine life. Why is it so influential to you and what role has the ocean and its ecology played in your life?
Kate Vylet: Given the above, the ocean has played a major role in my life for the last 7 years as a diver, scientist, and underwater photographer. Exploring a kelp forest or coral reef is like exploring another planet in all the beauty and complexity of its ecosystem, and yet it is all here on our own Earth. Experiencing this wonder of marine life when I first learned to dive is what steered me from a path of terrestrial ecology and photography to marine, and led me to where I am today... That and breathing underwater is just too cool! The ability to access the underwater realm through diving, to be able to see and experience the unbelievably beautiful marine world in person, is what influenced me the most, and the reason I believe photos and videos are our most powerful tools in inspiring those who cannot experience it for themselves.
AlgiKnit: In your experience with Reef Check's climate change research project, how has the ocean's chemistry or ecology changed, if at all, over time? Are there any worrying or encouraging trends you've seen? And, more specifically, are there any underlying ways in which climate change has affected kelp?
Kate Vylet: I can't quite speak on the ocean chemistry and temperature data we're collecting now as it's still in the early stages, so until that smooths out with time we can't really see long-term trends. However, one of the major worrying trends we're seeing in California is the loss of our kelp forests. This is especially evident on the north coast where a once thriving abalone fishery was shuttered for the first time due to decimated abalone populations, which feed on the kelp that is now substantially thinned. We experienced a kind of unfortunate trifecta of conditions that led to this kelp loss. In 2013 sea stars were hit by a wasting disease that caused their populations to plummet - diseased stars were essentially "melting" away. This absolutely destroyed the sunflower sea star - a large species up to a meter across with around 20 arms - that also happens to be a voracious predator of urchins. With the stars gone, the purple urchin population exploded. Urchins feed on kelp, and in their droves they wiped out large swaths of forest like a herd of free-range goats, replacing fields of algae with urchin barren. It didn't help that in 2014-2016 "The Blob", an unusually warm mass of water, showed up along our coast. Kelp doesn't like warm, nutrient-poor water, and this extra stress didn't aid in its growth. Both the emergence of sea star wasting disease and The Blob may likely be linked to climate change, but I don't believe they are either fully understood yet. This is of course a simplified picture of what is happening as the ecology is much more complex than simple cause-and-effect, and there are many researchers looking into what is happening here. This is also why long-term monitoring, which is often seen as an unsexy science, is so important in helping us understand the changes occurring in our coastal ecosystems. I began diving not too long before the sea star wasting started, and I still remember the giant sunflower stars cruising the ocean bottom - they're surprisingly fast! I saw one on my very first dive and remember being awestruck by what a bizarre animal it was. They were quite common back then, seen on virtually every dive. Now I haven't seen one since 2017 - a smaller dinner plate-sized animal - and that was a very rare sighting. The disease is still around to an extent and the sea stars have not recovered unfortunately.
AlgiKnit: You described underwater exploration as similar to exploring another planet. Can elaborate on that? What is the process like of exploring a place where not many people have been before?
Kate Vylet: Since we're land animals raised in the terrestrial landscape, the underwater world is so alien to us. Towering trees of algae, bizarre animals like sea cucumbers and urchins, ridiculously colorful sea slugs, fish of all shapes and sizes - it's a very different world than what we're used to. When you're neutrally buoyant in the water you're also essentially weightless, floating in a very three-dimensional world, whereas on land you're tethered to the ground. It's a wholly unique experience to float through this landscape of life forms adapted to what feels like a totally different planet.
AlgiKnit: What do you think the future holds for you? Are there any other careers or fields of work that you'd like to pursue?
Kate Vylet: Maybe it's a pipe dream, but I have hopes of one day professionally shooting underwater photography and videography as a means of conservation and science communication. Research is very important and I'm happy to have been involved in it, but I also think communicating it in a meaningful way is equally vital. So few people get to experience our underwater - or even much of our terrestrial - worlds, and without seeing it it's easy to disconnect from nature in our fast-paced modern lives. People care about what they can see, and photographs and films allow them to experience their planet in ways they may never otherwise. This visual communication not only informs but also inspires appreciation and spurs action. I've met people who switched to an electric vehicle after seeing a film about coral bleaching - a story so strong it influences people and society to protect our Earth. That is the kind of impact I want to be involved in making some day.
Kate Vylet is a diver, photographer, and scientist based in Monterey Bay California. Kate works as a scientific diving technician in Central and Northern Californian kelp forests, collecting data and implementing projects for marine ecological research via scuba diving and boating. To learn more about Kate, visit https://www.katevylet.com/ or follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/katevylet/.