"The only thing that rivals the reef as far as biological diversity is the rainforest," Yockachonis said via e-mail from Montserrat on Wednesday. "It is amazing to see these massive structures that were built by tiny little animals.
"It looks a lot like I imagine Dr. Seuss' dreams looking like. Every color is present, and a lot of animals change colors in front of you and emanate light brilliantly. ... when you see an octopus change colors right in front of you, it gives you a more connected spiritual appreciation of nature."
Like all of the FKCC team members, Yockachonis is juggling a handful of duties during the monthlong independent study. In addition to serving as an underwater surveyor of the coral reef, the 2003 Cartersville High School graduate also is one of the dive masters on each aquatic exercise.
"The survey involves hundreds of dives," said Yockachonis, who is studying marine biology and ecology at FKCC en route to becoming a college professor. "In these dives, a 100-meter transect line is anchored to a selected part of the reef. We swim over the transect line in about 60 feet of water counting selected fishes and invertebrate animals. The presence or absence of these 'key indicator animals' give us an idea whether the ecosystem is as diverse and healthy as it should be naturally.
"We count these organisms in 5-meter sections down the transect line, each category of organism being a different dive. These surveys will serve as a baseline to detect any future changes in the reef condition. The surveys are entered into a database for Reef Check, www.reefcheck.org. We use underwater GoPro cameras along with basic scuba equipment to perform the surveys. We hand enter our data underwater on specially printed underwater slates provided by Reef Check."
Calling it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Yockachonis believes it is important to monitor the reef ecosystem's conditions to help minimize future damage inflicted by humans or natural disasters.
"Worldwide an estimated 24 percent of reefs are in a state of collapse because of human effects and another 26 percent are under the threat of long-term collapse," he said. "I would say that number would drastically increase over the next few years because of the [BP] oil spill.
"That might as well be an old statistic now because the effects are going to astronomical. Here in Montserrat, the active volcano affects the reef more than the people because the island has almost been depopulated because of lava flows."
In addition to being freshmen at FKCC, Yockachonis and his classmates -- Joshua Forsythe, Ike Kanakanui and Chad Rector -- are all veterans of the U.S. military. Joining the delayed entry program for the Navy in 2002, Yockachonis was a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician before being discharged in September 2007. Along with preparing him to meet objectives despite mounting obstacles, his Navy training also introduced him to diving and "the underwater world."
Diving for seven years, Yockachonis said the reef surveys are the highlight of his summer studies in Montserrat. Even seeing nearby sharks pales in comparison to the trip's biggest challenge to date -- the month and a half voyage to the Caribbean.
"Sailing 2,000 miles was the most difficult part by far," said Yockachonis, who served as first mate on board Kanakanui's sailboat that departed Key West stocked with peanut butter, tuna and eight surf boards. "We had even less amenities than we had experience.
"We had no air conditioning, refrigeration or showers. I think all of us being in the military gave us the mental ability to handle the storms, waves and each other's company for that far. We have put out engine fires and patched ripped sails, all over 12,000 feet of ocean."
Serving as an FKCC independent study course on coral reef restoration, their surveying project is sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant obtained by James Hewlett. Yockachonis and his team met the Finger Lakes Community College professor last October and after learning about the ongoing surveys at Montserrat expressed their interest in participating.
"He's certainly getting more practical experience than probably most graduate students because he's down there actually doing what he's learned in the classroom to say nothing of the fact that they sailed down there," said Alex Brylske, professor of marine science and technology at FKCC. "It's not like they got off an airplane and started working. They spent several weeks [sailing]. He's [also] doing another independent study on the anthropology of the Caribbean. So they're studying the Caribbean culture as they make their way down and back.
"He certainly is a different kind of guy. T.J. and Ike both, they are former Navy explosive ordnance divers so they came in here with a strong background in marine issues, spending so much time around and under the water. They came here with an idea to launch a business that would involve a sailboat on which they own and live. Their plan is to use it for scientific exploration, to essentially hire it out to scientists who need to go places and do field research. So I get a lot of students who are in class because they need the credit, they need it to transfer. They may have a passing interest in the ocean or they may not. Then I get students who are passionately interested in the ocean and that includes [students] like T.J. and Ike. They're in there for far more than just to get their credit and grade."
While at Montserrat, Yockachonis' and his fellow students research from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and reside mostly on Kanakanui's sailboat. Even though the project is lacking in amenities, the project's rewards exceed modern conveniences, he said.
"This is an amazing project that most people never get to experience. The Earth is being destroyed for the economic gain of few," Yockachonis said. "It is important now more than ever, given the recent oil disaster that will forever change the marine environment. We will never be able to undue the damage that has been done to the ocean, but we can monitor the effects to minimize damage in the future, so maybe my grandchildren will be able to enjoy it like I was able to."