Sisters grad is a National Geographic explorer
Last updated 5/11/2021 at Noon
Sisters High School graduate Alyssa Adler is living a life full of beauty and adventure.
A day at work for Adler takes her on ocean voyages and deep beneath the frigid waters of Antarctica. She’s a polar diver, underwater educator, National Geographic Explorer, and is in her first year of a Ph.D. program at Duke University.
She also describes herself as a professional fun-haver.
“People forget it’s important to have fun. That’s a goal I try to keep at the forefront of my life at all times,” said Adler on a Zoom call from her home in Durham, North Carolina.
Adler has spent years working for the Lindblad-National Geographic fleet as an undersea specialist on expeditions to remote places like Antarctica and Patagonia.
Kelp forests have fascinated Adler throughout her career as a polar diver, researcher, and scientist. They remind her of salty submerged woods and are found in cold-water environments from the British Columbia coast, Alaska, Northern California, to Chile, southern Argentina, and sub-Antarctic islands as well. Last year, she received a National Geographic grant to do a study in southeast Alaska. She spent time at the Inian Islands Institute (renamed the Tidelines Institute) investigating how kelp forests have affected communities in the past; and how modern day communities are using kelp in innovative ways.
Finishing up the study has proven to be a challenge.
”I’ve already shot all the footage and I’m working with an editor; we’re just waiting for one piece to complete it. I was scheduled to be finished right as COVID hit, so there’s a few more interviews to do. I’m hoping to uplift small, Indigenous communities. It’s been very difficult going forward over Zoom. It’s impossible to safely be there right now,” said Adler.
With her impressive list of accomplishments and skills, Adler is also a writer, photographer, and videographer. It’s her way to share inspiring places and animals with interested students and armchair explorers. After a season in frigid waters, she heads up to Patagonia for more diving. “It feels relatively warm to be in 45-degree water instead of 28-degree in Antarctica. Kelp forests have become my playground and classroom. I will be studying kelp forests throughout my Ph.D. Polar regions are fascinating unknown and largely untraveled,” she said.
With an exciting job full of rare experiences, it’s hard for Adler to settle on a favorite story. One memory included icebergs.
“They sit underwater quite a bit.
When you look at an iceberg, depending on that certain chunk’s density, you’re only seeing 10 to 15 percent of it,” she said.
“They sink down into the sea floor and scrape the bottom creating something called ice scour.
A lot of animals, in a marine environment, use that seafloor to recruit onto.
When they’re young they spend time in the water column, then eventually their body composition changes, and they drop from their suspended spot to the hard floor and grow from there.
A lot of animals in Antarctica live on the ocean floor and are sessile or benthic, which means they don’t move much and are heavily associated with the sea floor.
When an iceberg comes by, it may rip them off the bottom.
This leaves some areas pretty bare, and makes the lively sites even more exciting.”
Adler found this favorite site near a Ukrainian research base in the Argentine Islands. It had channels with that were 60-feet deep with rock on either side. The passage was narrow enough so icebergs couldn’t get through.
“I knew there was going to be sea floor that hadn’t been scoured,” she explained. “It was phenomenal, and covered with anemones and sponges and tunicates, nudibranchs, and seas stars. The community was so colorful and beautiful… all of this life was present because it hadn’t been scoured. We managed to only stay for about 11 minutes because I had a gear failure. That can be a touchy thing but it was fine,” she said. In Antarctica, Adler dives with extra equipment called redundancies. “Once you lose your primary breathing apparatus, it’s no longer safe to continue a polar dive without a redundancy.
“On our ascent, we saw more beautiful critters on the wall. On the surface, right before we got back on the boat, we noticed a leopard seal directly in front of us. I found out later, it had been hanging out behind us for a few minutes. I had a 360-degree GoPro mounted on my camera. Looking at the footage later, we saw it had been doing backflips behind me.”
But Adler’s amazing day wasn’t over yet.
“We got back in the little boat that takes us back to our bigger ship and saw killer whales. It was this amazing hour being in the wild that I’ll never forget. That was our one opportunity. Expedition diving is very specifically timed. Sometimes, I’ll talk to my boss, who’s the expedition leader, he or she will give me my scheduled dives and usually there’s a small window for other dives. It’s all very regimented,” she said.
Beluga whales are one of Adler’s favorite animals.
“They have the most beautiful calls I’ve ever heard. Sometimes you can hear them singing through the ship’s hull. So when I’m in my cabin waking up or going to sleep, I hear their call through the ship. It’s one of the most romantic sounds in the world.” Another animal Adler likes finding underwater, are nudibranchs which are in the phylum mollusca, and are marine slugs. “They’re brightly colored, and there are many species, but they’re really hard to find. I could talk about them for 50 minutes, but I won’t,” she laughed.
After meeting her first octopus, Adler never ate octopus again.
“They are such amazing animals —so smart and really curious,” she said.
“Their intelligence is obvious when you meet one.
My dive buddy and I went for a dive just south of Argentina and saw some cool stuff.
Suddenly he saw an octopus, and I started filming it.
We never touch wildlife but with some animals, they will initiate an interaction and that’s what this one did.
It came up to us.
We kept watching and stayed in one place.
It approached and started putting each arm out, and almost touching us.
Ian put his hand out and it touched him with its tentacle and started wrapping itself around him, then got scared and went back, and then came out again and got scared and went back.
They certainly don’t know what humans are doing underwater blowing bubbles or what cameras are, but after that it let me get super close so I could take macro photos.
It just stayed in one place and didn’t move at all and let me take up-close shots of its eyes.
It was a really cool experience.
Its body was about the size of a chicken.
With that documentary, ‘My Octopus Teacher,’ people are so interested in octopuses.
I love how media can start a movement, like when the image of a straw in a turtle’s nose went viral and reduced straw use worldwide.”
It’s important to Adler that people realize her career hasn’t been without its challenges and obstacles.
“For every success, there’s been so many failures. You don’t see that side on platforms like Instagram,” she said. “Nobody gets to where they’re trying to go without failing. I haven’t gotten so many things I’ve applied for. The first time I tried to get into graduate school I didn’t make it. One thing I’ve learned is how to fail, but not let it affect me — just do better the next time. For all the times you win, there’s so many times you don’t and that’s OK.”
Enjoying a warm spring day in-between classes at Duke, Adler reflected on her roots in Sisters.
“I’m honored to be interviewed by The Nugget,” she said. “Everywhere I’ve been in the world, Sisters is still a place I cherish and am happy to return to every time. It’s a beautiful part of the planet.”