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Daniell Washington

Daniell Washington under water

hen I'm out on the ocean in a boat, I like gazing at the huge expanse of blue. It's breathtaking. But I know it's time to get ready. I reconfirm oxygen levels in my tank and check the amount of air in my buoyancy compensator. I examine each piece of equipment to make sure everything is in order. I zip up my wet suit and pull the hood over my head. I carefully attach my tank and regulator. I lower myself off the side of the boat and roll backward into the water. Then I look at the shore to orient myself and give a hand signal to my diving buddy that we're ready to descend.

As I deflate the buoyancy belt, I slowly start to sink. I exhale and equalize my ear pressure. I continue to descend and move further and further away from the shafts of sunlight above the water. I feel weightless.

I spot sea life just below me. Flashes of color — oranges, various shades of yellow, blues and pinks — streak by like paintings in motion. I see angelfish, parrotfish, groupers and sea turtles. I look below and catch the faint outlines of a coral reef. Soon I'm swimming by corals and sea fans. It's magical. Then I suddenly spot large patches of white on the reef — tell-tale signs of disease. My heart sinks. An entire section of the reef is drained of color and no longer teems with plant and fish life. It looks like an abandoned city. Most of this damage is caused by the corrosive mix of man-made toxins and global warming. I love the ocean, and I want to protect its rich universe.

Coral reef

rom the time I was three, I walked barefoot with my mom along the beaches in Miami. We chased miniature sea crabs and collected colorful shells. We watched the tides move in and out. My mom named every bird, sea grass and insect. She intuitively sensed when a storm was on its way — days before the forecasters. My mom taught me to swim and body surf in the ocean. I learned to respect its power and avoid rip tides. My mom is Jamaican: the ocean is in her blood, and she's passed that on to me.

Some kids play games in parks or on neighborhood lawns. For me, the beach was my playground. There was always something new to discover. One day a dead shark washed up on shore after a storm. Fishing nets were twisted tightly around its large tail. I pressed my hand against its rough skin and traced the length of its 9-foot body. I opened its glassy eyes and peered into them. I propped its huge mouth open with a piece of driftwood to examine its sharp teeth. I stayed by its side for hours.

My parents encouraged me to learn more about the ocean. When I was 13, they heard about a maritime magnet high school and moved the family from Miami to Hollywood, Florida so I could enter my dream program. I studied marine biology with oceanographic experts. Almost 70 percent of my classmates were girls. I never thought that our interest in marine biology was odd. We were all really into it! We studied marine organisms, ocean currents, the geology of the sea floor and ecosystem dynamics. We also took biology, chemistry, geology, meteorology, physics and geography.

Our senior year culminated in a two-week field trip to South Africa to study the great white sharks in their natural habitat. Eight of us assisted a graduate student mapping shark predation patterns in False Bay, near Cape Town. Sharks are attracted to this area because it's home to a large number of seals. In the afternoons we watched the massive great whites execute vertical attacks — sprinting upward and propelling themselv