Daniel Benjamin Ortega is not your everyday diver, but a true enthusiast who combines years of experience underwater with education in Marine Biology to pursue marine life conservation. He founded the Marine Genome Project in 2019 and has spearheaded their efforts of gathering eDNA from multiple underwater environments, in hopes of developing sustainable conservation methods. In conjunction with World Ocean Day 2023, we're glad to welcome Daniel onboard as a BOLDR Ambassador!
Growing up around the waters of Southern California, Daniel persuaded his parents to let him join the Junior Lifeguards and got his diving certification at 12 years old! At just over 2,800 dives & 2000 hours underwater later, he is a PADI Master Instructor. Daniel originally studied political science but gave that up to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences from Arizona State University (class of 2022).
Making a huge splash at only 24 years of age, he dedicates his time to advancing the project and educating the public through speaking engagements at places such as the Global Underwater Explorers Conference, and the recent NGEN symposium at The Explorer’s Club where he recounted findings from the underwater caves in Sardinia. He will be speaking again at the Explorer’s Club in conjunction with World Ocean Week.
How did the Marine Genome Project come about?
It sprouted from my love of marine science projects. I wanted to volunteer at major institutions and organizations, asking them “Hey, can I volunteer? I've got thousands of hours underwater experience doing research in remote locations, etc.”, and so on, putting myself out there.
I fell short, a lot of times - they just didn't have room, or I didn't have certain qualifications, or didn't know the right people.
My biggest thing was; I felt a disconnect between the scientific community and everyday people. Organizations tend to go “Here, we've got this project, let us do the science, don't worry about it, we'll save the ecosystem or the reef or the one specific species. Just give us money and we’ll take care of it”.
That creates a feeling of almost distrust with the community and I think there’s a better way to go about that. People don't necessarily want to know all the nitty-gritty details of the science, but many want to understand these ecosystems better and develop a stronger connection with what marine biologists do.
That’s how the project was born. My cave diving partner and I wanted to do something marine conservation-related. We sat down for over a year trying to figure out how we could better serve not only our local communities, but international communities and science in general.
Our main mission is to focus on using marine genetics to increase conservation efforts. This can look like a couple different things: increasing access to genetic tools, creating protocols that are easier to understand, and publishing materials in different languages and reading levels - a lot of scientific material is just in English.
We’re also developing cheaper tools and creating programs to involve citizen scientists in collecting, processing, and analyzing eDNA.
It’s a holistic approach to encourage others to get involved.
What are citizen scientists?
So the term citizen scientist is kind of used broadly, but generally it means someone with a passion for science or knowledge and wants to help but doesn't have the formal training required. For example, in the diver's world, we see multiple locations eg. Southern California up to 5 times a week, and we may have noticed certain changes in the area over the years. Maybe one has a desire to probe deeper into that ecosystem but doesn't know where to start. Now, they have us!
Did you always want to study Marine Biology?
I was originally studying political science, wanting to work in government. I thought so, at least. I did an internship in Washington DC with opportunities to tour the state Capital, the State Department, the FBI, etc.. I quickly realized that running around in a suit & tie, bureaucracy and all of that wasn't my thing. So as soon as I came back from the internship, I went on a scientific research expedition to Belize.
I spent six weeks studying the effects of lionfish populations which are an invasive species. None of the other predatory species see them as a threat and don't recognize that they're edible, so these lionfish can go on unchallenged around the reef eating lots of small fish, decimating the population. They're starting to develop a condition where they lose the ability to tell that they're full. They just go around the reef, eating tons and tons of small little fish, until they end up gorging themselves and dying which causes huge damage to the reef.
I spent six weeks there; honestly brutal conditions, we were up at 4 or 5 am to rake the sand so sand fleas wouldn't bite us later in the day, making breakfast and collecting data, going on dives and cleaning equipment, and other household chores. We only had one day off a week for six weeks. There was no running water, so we showered with rain water. We drank clean rainwater, and had no electricity. But I enjoyed every second of it.
That's what flipped the switch for me, that “Hey, I wanna do something more related to science and specifically marine science, than political science”.
The day I came back from Belize, I changed schools and switched my majors. I graduated from Arizona State University in June 2022 with a degree in Biological Sciences, focusing on Conservation Biology.
Is the Marine Genome Project independently funded?
We're a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so all of our funding comes from private donations, corporate sponsorships and other donation types. A lot of it in the beginning was self-funded by me and other partners in a small community. I'm a member of the Explorers Club that houses some of the world’s best & brightest in science and exploration. I got extremely lucky to be a member, getting introduced to fantastic people that offer help with connections, funding and support.
One such individual, Jeremy Lazelle, is a documentary filmmaker who works a lot with BBC and National Geographic - he offered to film the expedition for us because he believed in the project and vision.
Can you tell us more about eDNA?
eDNA stands for environmental DNA. All living organisms, plants and flies and fish and whales and everything in between release cells into the environment. Different bodies of water carry traces of skin cells, bodily fluid or any other tissue remnants in the water column. We're talking even from birds and ancient plants, etc.
eDNA is the capturing of those DNA samples from the organisms that frequent that area. From that, we're able to tell the different species at varying timelines, and we can use the info for research.
How challenging is it to capture samples?
The biggest difficulties we face in collecting eDNA is contamination of the samples when we're diving. Let's say we were looking for a specific species of fish in a lake. Traditionally scientists might go out on a boat to a specific area, dip a bottle or stick, use a pump, or maybe collect just by hand. Then it goes through a very fine filter which the DNA sticks to, and we sequence it back in a lab.
For us in an underwater cave system, however, it’s a little more difficult - we’re on a zodiac boat that has room for 6 - 8 people, we roll backwards off the side of the boat and head towards the salt water caves. Some of the cave systems immediately change into fresh water within the first couple hundred meters, while other ones transition between salt and freshwater multiple times throughout the cave.
My skin is exposed on my cheeks, lips, there’s saliva, other bodily fluids. I may also be dragging the DNA of other sea creatures into the cave system. Also I may drag freshwater system DNA that might not naturally occur in the saltwater section, and vice versa. We don’t use robotics because it’s not conducive to underwater cave system collections, so we have to plan the logistics of how far, how deep, how cold, etc.
Can you describe the procedure?
The procedure is as follows: just say I’m going in first, I make sure that we sterilize all of our equipment prior. There is a risk of contamination as mentioned earlier, because the entrances for a lot of caves are in the ocean - can't do much there, but once we’re in, we carry special collapsible containers. We would get to the site and we would open it up, releasing the air that is inside of it and causing water to flow into the container. We extend them, and then close them off, getting multiple containers of the sample at that site before continuing to the next one.
Can a diver tell when they are transitioning from saltwater to freshwater, or vice versa?
You can actually feel it! In Sardinia, the ocean water is roughly 88 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's fairly warm. When you get into the cave system, the freshwater tends to drop about 10 degrees to 15 degrees Fahrenheit almost immediately, so, you can usually feel that temperature change on your skin. You can feel it on the rest of your body, too, long with a buoyancy change.
Typically because there's a salt difference, there’s a halocline where you can see how they don't mix, almost like oil and water.
Who plans out the dive route?
It depends on the cave system. Three major cave systems we were working on were actually surveyed back in the late 80s or early 90s give or take a couple years, which means a team of divers had marked the cave system and made a rough map of it. They laid a line inside the cave system which we used - those have been there potentially 15, 20 years or longer.
However, one of the cave systems we’re going back to for an exploration-type dive of biological life and ecology, as far as we know, has no known map and no line in it. So we’ll spend the first dive just kind of looking at the cave as a whole seeing what parts might be interesting, taking a visual assessment of salinity and hydrogen sulfide layers, which would mean there’s decomposing organic material of plants or maybe animals, so on. Then we’ll do a station setup dive with lines and set little plastic ‘cookies’ with station numbers.
That way, when our team (or any future team) comes back, we find things easily. This is crucial because we're carrying a couple hundred pounds of equipment, and there's a lot of task loading, and multitasking and thinking already going on.
How do you communicate underwater?
We use hand signals and wet notes or slate, which is basically a book that we can write underwater with a pencil for complicated questions, notes, concerns, comments, anything like that. But a lot of that work is done prior to getting in the water.
We try to rehearse everything eg. if I'm doing a pre-biological survey where I'm looking for the types of environments and what species are we finding, the abundance, the distribution of them, we would walk that through on land. I will say “Okay, I'm going to go first, this is what the cave kind of looks like (pointing to a whiteboard), and when I get here, stop here etc. such and such will happen”.
We give a clear outline to the film crew so the cameraman and light person knows the trajectory. We have a safety team and a filmmaking team, and what’s cool is after diving for a while we can figure out what needs to be done in shorter amounts of time.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever come across on your dives?
The Sardinia expedition probably had some of the weirdest stuff I've seen. There's very few people who go diving out there because it's taxing and requires a very specific skill set, and what you come across can be pretty bizarre. There was a biological survey done in approx 2016/2017 by a joint space agency program with US, Canadian and Italian space agencies - they were in a dry section of the cave when they discovered a new species of isopod that basically looked like little kind of rolly pollies with a hard outside shell, white in color and crawling on the ground.
They lose their pigment by being in underwater cave systems so they turn almost translucent looking. We saw a lot of species that we weren't expecting to see in those areas. I can't reveal too much as there’s a lot of data to sift through. But, one example of unexpected DNA findings was of an extinct species of bovine, basically a cow. The last time it was seen was in the 1600s, but we've got multiple hits for their DNA sequence in that cave system.
What’s a lesser-known aspect of this project that you want people to know?
Definitely the importance of involving the general public. Our big goal for the organization is to branch out and make sure that people who are interested in the science; be it the hard science of collecting data, or lab work, or even just taking photos, can all come together to accomplish our goal.
People should be aware of how underwater cave systems are the perfect laboratory to study species evolution over thousands and thousands of years and how organisms have adapted to the changing ocean environment. There's always potential for discovering new antibiotics or other medical purposes.
We're working with the local aquarium to create an exhibit that'll showcase the species in the environment and ecosystems of these underwater cave systems to involve the islanders and tourists alike. We’re also creating educational programs for local tour guides who do boat tours of caves in the Sardinia region, giving extra opportunities to learn and understand our work and get involved.
Also, creating a system for upcoming marine science students or citizen scientists to get involved, whether it's physically in the water or through photo identification of species over web communication.
Where is the best place to learn more?
All of our information on our website (linked below). You can keep up to date with all of our project data details. There will soon be an interactive map with all our genetic sequence information to learn about the different species and their biological information.
There is also an educational section with materials based on different topics for all age levels, with a college resource section that will help in applying for grad schools to grants.
What are some doubts that you had to overcome to get this program started?
The little nitty-gritty paperwork stuff to permits and everything in between - it's a huge undertaking. I might never be able to finish in my lifetime, but the idea is to spotlight genetics as an up & coming field.
Many major universities are utilizing the tools for different research projects, but a lot of that information doesn't get out and isn't used by smaller nonprofits who maybe don't have the funding, expertise, nor the time. Our job is to bridge those two fields by being able to supply the genetic information, data, and research that bigger universities and PhD students and candidates can use. Not everyone has resources to dive and collect the info, so we’ll help with that.
There may be smaller nonprofits that want to integrate conservation marine genetics by tracking invasive species, or understanding specific biodiversity distribution. The cheaper it gets for everyone, the more accessible it is and the better results we get as a whole.
Bravest thing you've had to do?
I think a lot of it is on a personal level - while it seems like I might talk in front of people a lot, I try not to do it as much as humanly possible. I had to force myself to step up public speaking, and getting out there in situations where I might not feel as comfortable.
It's taking that uneasy step of not knowing what to expect next. It’s scary to think “I don't know what might happen, it might not work, it might not turn out” but then do it anyway.
There's a lot of things that could go wrong with eDNA. I mean, we can come back with nothing. We could have gone through a week of work and doing all this to have our samples destroyed on the plane ride back.
You have to take these risks and be willing to adapt.
Any advice for someone going through a rough period?
I think we all go through different things, obviously, with the pandemic, it's been really hard on everybody. I think working towards something that's bigger than yourself, and working towards a goal that you enjoy, helps.
Daniel’s worldview is to leave the world and its people better than when we found it. Find out how you can get involved with the Marine Genome Project here. Click for Part 1 of the Sardinia documentary to see the team in action, and stay updated on Facebook and Instagram.
BOLDR's high performance Odyssey 40 dive watch is made for Daniel’s team and anyone who resonates with his message. Check it out here!