By Leslie Clift, Policy and Planning Coordinator
James (Jimmy) MacMillan is redefining his career in marine science. Starting out as a commercial diver after high school in Austin, Texas, Jimmy conducted underwater bridge inspections and offshore oil and gas platform inspections, often in dangerous conditions such as strong current, low visibility, and deep depths. Yearning to be working in clearer and cleaner waters, Jimmy shifted gears and attended University of Texas at Austin. With a degree in biology under his “dive belt”, Jimmy was hired by a consulting company to perform environmental assessments, fulfilling contracts from agencies such as the Department of Transportation. Garnering more than 1,000 logged SCUBA dives, Jimmy enjoyed diving in the clear but cool freshwater springs in inland Texas. However, he felt pulled towards the coast and another shift in his career path. In 2016, Jimmy volunteered twice through his consulting company to participate in two research cruises at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS).
During the first week-long expedition aboard the Research Vessel Manta (https://flowergarden.noaa.gov/about/rvmanta.html), Jimmy assisted with the Sanctuary’s long-term monitoring project at Stetson Bank. His second cruise offshore went even further offshore (approximately 110 miles) to the coral reefs sitting atop the salt domes of West Flower Garden Bank and East Flower Garden Bank. Throughout his week of living offshore on the ship with nine other divers and four crew members, Jimmy collected water quality samples and donned his SCUBA gear to change out underwater instruments 60 to 100 feet below the surface. After these trips, Jimmy recalls wanting to get back to the “untouched wilderness and intricacy of FGBNMS where he could learn something new.” FGBNMS was a whole new ecosystem for him, and he applied for the first job opening available.
Hired in 2017, Jimmy now works with and in the sanctuary as a Research Specialist. His primary tasks are coordinating the water quality monitoring which involves deploying and retrieving instruments, taking samples into the labs for processing, processing results, and writing reports. During his first few months, he participated in a research cruise funded by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for the installation and maintenance at FGBNMS of mooring buoys and the u-bolts that hold them in place on the seafloor. Later in his first summer with the sanctuary, Jimmy participated in another Foundation-funded research cruise, but this time an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) did all the diving. Harnessed into the deck of the ship and wearing steel-toed shoes, hardhat, and a personal flotation device, Jimmy helped deploy and retrieve the 166 kg ROV and its tethered 365-meter cable, a challenging assignment in rough seas.
His advice to other students who desire a career in marine conservation is to take a summer field class, volunteer to help in a teacher’s lab, or “learn to train your eye” at a nearby aquarium. Jimmy commented, “Quantifying a school of 5,000 or 10,000 bonnetmouth baitfish swirling in the water column is one thing, but seeing and identifying a 2-inch neon goby on a coral head is important too.” He added, “Have knowledge of your area. I had a degree in marine science and didn’t even know about Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.” Like his co-workers at FGBNMS, Jimmy also outreaches to others about the coral reefs offshore of Texas. With the support of the Foundation and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, perhaps every student in Texas will be aware of and take pride in the coral reefs of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.