May 22, 2018
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UMaine researcher to appear in National Geographic magazine

By Alex Barber, BDN Staff

WALPOLE, Maine — Rhian Waller’s job as a deep sea researcher and diver has taken her from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and now it’s taking her inside the cover of National Geographic magazine.

The University of Maine assistant research professor has been selected to appear in the March edition of National Geographic.

Waller, a marine scientist and research professor at the Darling Marine Center in the School of Marine Sciences, was selected for the magazine’s Risk Takers series. National Geographic celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

Waller primarily studies reproductive ecology and deep sea coral by diving into some very cold waters. She said she has worked in Alaska, Chile, Antarctica and in the Gulf of Maine.

“I work all over the world,” said Waller on Saturday. “I started a project last year looking for deep sea animals in the Gulf of Maine.”

Waller has gone down to great depths in submersibles, but spends a lot of time scuba diving in depths of up to 150 feet.

Fjord ecosystems are areas of waters that are cold enough to replicate very deep waters. Waller has spent much of her time studying species of coral in fjords off the coast of Chile and Alaska.

“There’s only a few of these places in the world that mimic deep sea areas,” said Waller, 34. “In Alaska, there’s a species I work on that I usually find in 500 to 1,000 meters in the Gulf of Alaska. In the fjord, we find them in 10 meters.”

Waller dons a drysuit in waters with temperatures just above freezing and dives into the fjords to research coral.

“Coral is an animal. It is related to other animals, including jellyfish,” she said. “You see these big coral trees in places, and they’re genetically identical. Some places get some [coral] that are single and living by themselves. When you think of the Great Barrier Reef, primarily in these big reefs, many are attached together.”

Coral are mainly found on the sea floor and attach to rocks, shells or other hard surfaces.

Waller typically works on projects that take her down to 100 feet below the water’s surface. She’s done training and dives at 150 feet, and said she hopes to do training for up to 300 feet.

In going down so far, divers have to be careful when resurfacing, she said.

“You have to do a safety stop. You go up 20 or 30 feet and stop for three minutes [to safely release nitrogen from the bloodstream],” said Waller. “Often times you’ll see some things while you’re sitting there for three minutes.”

While resurfacing from a dive off the coast of Chile, she said she saw a comb jelly, or a Ctenophora — a colorful, translucent jellyfish often found at deep depths.

“They look like mini footballs,” she said. “I was coming up and a big giant jelly came around, and it was bright red. It was pretty amazing.”

Waller grew up in England, where she was interested in marine life at an early age.

“Both parents are scuba divers and I grew up around reefs,” she said. “I just love how beautiful the underwater world is. I ended up getting a degree and I really haven’t looked back. I thoroughly enjoy everything I do.”

She received her Ph.D. from the Southampton Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton in 2004 and has been doing research for the University of Maine since January 2011.

“I came to the University of Maine for the facilities. It was a good job opportunity for me,” she said. “It’s great for what I do. They have good diving facilities, great culture facilities, great suite of faculty. It’s a good department.”

Waller now calls Jefferson home and goes on three to four trips a year. Scuba diving trips last between two to three weeks, while deep sea diving trips last four to six weeks.

“I can be away from home quite a bit,” she said.

Her next trip will be deep sea diving in the Gulf of Alaska in August, she said.

Waller said she was surprised when National Geographic tabbed her for its magazine.

“Last summer I got a phone call out of the blue from the photo editors at National Geographic,” she said. “They’re doing articles all year to find explorers to feature. I didn’t know I was in that category. It was all internally chosen.”

National Geographic is writing about “people who take risks for the betterment of society,” she said she was told.

“We try our best to minimize risks,” said Waller. “When you’re going a hundred feet underwater with nothing but an air tank on your back, you have to practice. The main way to be safe in scuba diving is practice with the equipment you use.”

The online edition of the National Geographic magazine was posted on Feb. 15. The magazine is scheduled to be released on Feb. 26.

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