According the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society website, “Each Rolex Scholarship provides a hands-on introduction to underwater and other aquatic-related endeavors for a young person considering a career in an underwater-related discipline. One scholar is selected from each of the three regions and each scholar spends approximately one year working side by side with current leaders in underwater fields. Each scholar travels primarily within his or her region, but may have opportunities throughout the underwater world. The range of experiences may include active participation in field studies, underwater research, scientific expeditions, laboratory assignments, equipment testing and design, photographic instruction, and other specialized assignments.”
We asked Hester a few questions about his exciting year as a Rolex Scholar.
How did you first get into diving?
I first started diving during the summer of 2010, I was interning in a coral reef ecology lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. This was during the summer before my junior year at PLNU. I had always wanted to try it out because I’ve loved the water since I was a wee lad. That and it was an opportunity to explore what is largely unexplored.
When you decided to study biology at PLNU, did you have your current work in mind?
I didn’t have what I’m currently doing in mind until the day I had my phone interview for the position and they told me that I got it. To be completely honest, I thought that there was no way that I had a chance to be the North American Rolex Scholar. I figured it had to be incredibly competitive but I still thought I’d give the application my best effort and see what happens. And here I am! But I digress. When I decided to study biology at PLNU, my interests were mainly in marine biology but I didn’t know what I wanted to do within that realm. My other dream was to be a professional decathlete but I’m happy with the way things turned out.
How did you get involved with OWUSS?
I originally learned about OWUSS back in 2011. I was doing an NSF [National Science Foundation]-funded AAUS [American Academy of Underwater Sciences] diving project in the San Juan Island Archipelago in Washington state with the Shannon Point Marine Center. My dive buddy for the summer, Jenna Walker, was also doing her AAUS certification and helping me out on the project but she was funded by the OWUSS. Our World, in addition to three Rolex scholars per year, also offers a handful of summer internships, of which Jenna was the AAUS intern. Another woman that worked with the nearby indian tribes was the 1999 Rolex Scholar (Julie Barber). The two of them told me all about the OWUSS and it sounded too good not to apply.
What made you decide to apply to be a Rolex scholar? What was your reaction when you found out you were selected?
I applied because of the incredible opportunities that are made possible through the scholarship. Things that I would otherwise never experience are now at my fingertips. But it’s not only those experiences that I am after but also the responsibility of being in this position. One of the most influential moments of my year thus far was during a dive show back in March. Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, came up to me, smacked me in the chest, congratulated me, but then told me that it’s my time now to motivate my generation to save the oceans. I have been incredibly fortunate to have grown up in such close proximity to the sea and now I want to instill in others the same deep appreciation that I have for it.
I was super stoked when I found out that I had been selected. I was kinda at a loss for words on the phone, I kept repeating how excited I was, they probably thought I was a complete idiot and regretted their decision.
What is something the Rolex scholarship enabled you to do that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?
Some things that I have coming up that I would have never thought possible are a trip to the Dominican Republic to assist in the excavation of a ship from the 1700s and to join a couple National Geographic photographers on assignment.
Right now you’re working with sea turtles in St. Croix. Tell us more about that.
My work with sea turtles in St. Croix stemmed from contacts from my previous job working in a marine mammal genetics lab for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). A sea turtle researcher named Kelly Stewart has her field season in St. Croix every summer and she invited me to join. She has been doing her work there for the past 5 years. The project goal is to genetically tag leatherback turtle hatchlings in order to learn basic demographic parameters (which remain virtually unknown for marine turtles in general). So for a portion of my time there, I helped out on her project (which was awesome, the leatherback hatchlings were so cute) and for the rest of the time, I helped out on another project with an organization called Geographic Consulting that involved saturation tagging of nesting leatherbacks. This entailed patrolling the beach from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. looking for turtles, tagging them if they weren’t already and relocating any nests that might not otherwise survive. These turtles are incredibly massive and they look pre-historic, it was great.
Do you get to choose how you use your scholarship?
Yes, I get to choose how I use the scholarship, that’s one of the great things about it is that it is completely tailored to each individuals interests. After Bonaire, I’ll be doing some stuff around the west coast for a couple weeks and then I head to the island of Abaco for cave diving. I’m still working things out to get to Antarctica for some ice diving so we’ll see how that goes.