Inside the Strange World of Coral Reef Crime Scenes
How scientists and law enforcement officers pioneered a new brand of underwater justice.
Something didn’t look right.
It’s not illegal to fish at night off the coast of Oahu, of course, but there was something about the boat that seemed suspicious to the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officer who was on patrol. Then, as he approached the vessel, he saw big splashes—the men on the fishing boat had thrown something into the water. But by the time he had actually climbed on board to look around, there was nothing there to see. All that remained was a wet gill net, some tiny fragments of coral, and the fish the men had caught—none of which, alone, constituted anything illegal.
But that doesn’t mean things were on the up-and-up. The officer suspected that the men had something to hide—specifically that they had been using their nets illegally. Most likely, they had placed them on the bottom and left them there unattended for a while before pulling them up. That particular use is against the law, because the nets left like that are more likely to get entangled in the coral, and then rip large chunks of the fragile, legally protected animal colonies up when pulled free. Plus, the law requires fishers to inspect their nets every two hours to release any undersized, illegal, or unwanted fish that get stuck. But without definitive evidence that large pieces of coral had been broken off and hauled up, there was no clear evidence of wrongdoing. So the officer temporarily confiscated the boat, and called David Gulko.
“That was one of my first cases,” says Gulko. Then, as now, a coral expert for the state of Hawai‘i, Gulko was able to identify the coral fragments, but they weren’t the key piece of evidence. That was other animals he found on the boat. “I went on the deck and started finding all these little tiny, tiny, tiny little crabs and shrimp,” he explains. Those species only live deep inside large pieces of coral. “That was the evidence that they had brought up big heads of coral in their net—the presence of a little tiny shrimp and crab on the deck,” he continues. “That’s what made the case and got the conviction.”
For the authorities, the entire case had been a series of lucky breaks. Back in the early 2000s, when this all happened, marine regulations were rarely enforced successfully. Agencies were understaffed, but there was also no standard training for conducting forensic investigations on and under the sea. With no accepted techniques for collecting and analyzing this evidence, even a strong case wouldn’t hold up in court. Marine biologists like Gulko knew how to study and monitor reefs, but that’s not the same. “We just weren’t doing well trying to hold people accountable for damaging reefs,” he says. In 2005, Gulko saw that officers from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority were holding a session on enforcing marine regulations at the first ever International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Geelong, Australia. He knew he had to attend.
But the session wasn’t what he’d hoped for. It turned out that pretty much everyone around the world was having the same kind of problems that he and the state of Hawaiʻi were having. Despite their best intentions and efforts, the people and corporations breaking laws and damaging coral reefs were finding it all too easy to weasel or buy their way out of convictions.
“We’re bringing up the science and they’re able to just turn it around [on us] in court because none of us are trained in those sort of things,” Gulko recalls lamenting with his colleagues at a bar after the meeting. One of them joked that what they needed was “Coral Reef CSI”—just like the endless and popular American television series, but for marine biologists. Laughing, Gulko drew a little logo on a cocktail napkin. As the night progressed, he added notes and ideas that the group came up with.
That napkin ended up in the U.S. State Department—and Gulko became the head of the working group charged with making the idea a reality.
Gulko’s group was given a little less than a year to put something together, specifically a draft of protocols for how coral reef crime scene investigations could be done, in time for a training session at the next year’s meeting of the International Coral Reef Initiative in Cozumel, Mexico. “We were charged with basically coming up with a way to train resource managers, research agency scientists, and enforcement officers how to do investigations underwater to hold people accountable,” Gulko explains.
For the project Gulko quickly recruited a team of underwater scientists, including Patricia Ramírez Romero, an aquatic ecotoxicologist who is now a professor at Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City, and fellow marine biologist Angelique Brathwaite, who recently cofounded the conservation-minded investment NGO Blue Finance. They knew the underwater world very well and certainly could identify the difference between a natural disturbance to a reef and one caused by illegal activity. But he knew he needed someone else.
“It didn’t matter how good your science was. It came down to the legal things, and you have to understand the legal things as you were doing the science or you were going to be screwed,” Gulko says. “I knew how to do things underwater, but I didn’t know how to collect evidence. So I went and found the guy who did.” That guy was Ken Goddard.
Goddard began his career in law enforcement as a homicide detective in California. “I started in 1968 out in the desert, digging up bodies and shallow graves,” he says. After more than a decade of forensic investigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recruited him to design and run the only national laboratory dedicated to investigating wildlife crimes (located in Ashland, Oregon). But his vast experience ended at the surface of the water. When he was told he was to join Gulko’s working group, he didn’t even know how to scuba dive.
The first time the pair met, they quickly discovered that adapting forensic techniques for use underwater was not going to be easy. Almost nothing you do on land can be done the same way there. The smallest details could prove problematic, Gulko says—even something as simple as taking notes. “I’d be telling Ken, ‘Okay, we do this, this, and this,’ and he’d go, ‘Goddammit Gulko, you can’t use a pencil to write down notes—every cop knows you cannot use pencils to take notes.’ And I’m like, ‘Goddammit Goddard, get your head underwater. You can’t use pens underwater.’”
So they both did some homework—Goddard learned to dive and Gulko studied forensic science. The problems went beyond pens and pencils—they had to figure out everything, from the very first step. “The first thing you’re supposed to do at a crime scene is set a scene perimeter,” Goddard says. “Well, that’s fine if you’ve got a body in the middle of the field, but not if you’ve got a half-mile long coral reef.” It’s not clear how to rope off a three-dimensional space, he adds. “And crime scene tape? I don’t think so.”
Goddard searched, but there didn’t seem to be any existing forensic protocols for conducting investigations underwater. There were bits here and there, but no standard methods—no guide for them to start from. They had to devise and write their own guide, from scratch.
“My contribution to the whole process was trial and error—mostly error,” Goddard says wryly. When he tried to solve the problem of tagging evidence, for example, the marine biologists all had a good laugh.
At a crime scene on land, an investigator can just lay out little cards or placards with numbers on them to identify the location of different clues. The constant motion of water on a reef makes that impossible. “I came up with the idea of a cork painted like a resistor,” says Goddard. Different banding patterns would indicate the different numbers, and the corks could be tethered to float at around the same height in the water, allowing investigators to see and photograph their relative positions.
He thought it was a perfect solution—until he tried it. “Groupers showed up and started grabbing the corks and running off with them,” he says. “I was not used to having things that bite show up at my crime scenes.”
Not all his ideas played out that poorly, though. “All his experience with land wildlife was perfect,” gushes Ramírez Romero. “Having him was a great addition.”
The lack of protocols for processing underwater crime scenes is an issue both for marine biologists and ordinary law enforcement agencies, says Rhonda Moniz, a veteran dive scene investigator.
Like Gulko, Moniz came to underwater crime scene investigation from the science side of things. “When I was a little kid, I went to see the movie Jaws and I did the opposite of what everyone else did. I immediately fell in love with sharks and diving,” she says. She became scuba-certified as a kid, and went on to become an instructor, a dive safety officer, and an underwater filmmaker. She even learned to pilot underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and joined the underwater team of Bob Ballard, the oceanographer most famous for finding Titanic.
Because of her expertise in both diving and marine technology, she was often called upon by local law enforcement in New England to help locate bodies or pieces of evidence. It was while helping out on those sporadic cases that she came to realize that most law enforcement agencies simply have no idea what they were doing underwater. At best, she says, they were trained to respond to emergencies and had a team of capable divers that could get in the water and look around, but “to this day they still don’t really get the proper training to process a crime scene underwater.
“When processing the crime scene on land, they’re very particular and meticulous,” she says. “They take samples from where they found the body, they take all these photos and video and they really process that crime scene. But underwater that doesn’t happen. They go in, they get the body and they remove it—and that’s it. There’s so much evidence that’s lost.”
That’s why, around the same time that Gulko and his team were developing Coral Reef CSI, Moniz and her team of experts were putting together their own set of protocols and developing workshops to teach police and other law enforcement officers how to apply what they do on land to submerged crime scenes.
And in 2013, she founded Underwater Investigative Group, a Massachusetts-based firm that provides training and information about conducting forensic investigations in aquatic environments. “I teach an entire semester of basic underwater forensics,” she says. The only problem is, “most organizations or agencies just don’t know what’s there. They don’t know what exists.”
The full Coral Reef CSI Toolkit—a 290-page guide for coral reef managers and investigators—was completed in 2008. And in the years since, Gulko, Ramírez Romero, and their colleagues have provided Coral Reef CSI trainings around the world, improving upon and adapting the material each time.
Gulko really wanted to teach people how to recover bodies, for example—especially non-human ones. “Anybody can bring a body up from underwater, but bringing it up in a way where we preserve the evidence around the crime that that was involved with the body—that’s a little harder in the marine environment,” he says. And poaching or illegal fishing cases might be made or broken based on an investigator’s ability to recover evidence from a large, dead animal, so he wanted to train people to do that, too.
He got it into his head that he would need a life-size leatherback sea turtle model that he could use for training. And no matter how big you think a leatherback is, it’s bigger—fully grown, the animals can be over six feet long and weigh over 1,000 pounds. “I wanted it to be as realistic as possible, but I wanted it made out of a soft material so I could take it with me and then just stuff it somewhere and sink it in a pool,” he says. And when he described this dream to one of the instructors he’d hired for a workshop in Thailand, she instantly knew the perfect seamstress for the job.
A couple of days later, she drove Gulko into “the really seedy part of Phuket,” and that’s when he realized why she’d thought of that specific seamstress. The woman was a costume designer for the local kathoeys (sometimes called “ladyboys,” a group distinct from transgender women in Thailand), and was particularly skilled at sculpting rubberized foam garments. “To make a long story short, she made this amazing leatherback sea turtle,” he says. “I’m on my fourth version of it right now. We use it so much.”
After lots of hands-on, in-water work, Gulko’s training sessions always include a mock trial in which the investigators-in-training have to make their case. The goal, he says, is “to show them how these little mistakes they make out in the field collecting and preserving the evidence will affect their case months or years later.”
And they’re ruthless. “We go after them harder than they’d ever get in court,” says Gulko. He even cheats: ”We also go in and doctor their evidence when they’re not looking to really get across to them the idea of chain of custody, and that they have to maintain chain of custody,” he says. “We take it to ridiculous levels because I want them to fail in that training so that they don’t fail when they’re doing it for real.”
Chain of custody is a big deal on land, too, because it can be an easy target for defense attorneys. Every person with the opportunity to alter a piece of evidence has to testify that they didn’t (if there’s any chance evidence was tampered with, it can be deemed inadmissible). Of course, for land-based crimes, it’s usually fairly straightforward to keep this chain short: You close off the scene so only a few have access, and then have those few carefully document the evidence, seal everything in tamper-evident containers, and transport it themselves.
But underwater, it’s difficult or impossible to totally seal up every object separately, especially if you don’t want to carry around gallons of seawater. And if you don’t, then everyone on the boat or who meets the boat at the dock ends up roped into the chain of custody, too, since there’s no way to prove they didn’t mess with the evidence somewhere along the way. “So you’ve got to put together this huge chain-of-custody list of people who will have to testify that they didn’t alter, switch, change things,” says Goddard. “That’s a complication.”
The most challenging part of conducting investigations underwater, though, is the most obvious. “We humans need air to live,” says Ramírez Romero. “In order to work most of the cases, you need to be a very experienced scuba diver. But even then you have to learn to work fast, because you can be underwater for only a certain amount of time.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of the things Moniz and Gulko train people to do are things that help them make the most of that precious time. As Moniz put it, you have to solve a puzzle, “except you’re under more pressure and not just literally, because you are, but also because you do have a clock.”
But the two differ on their approach to incorporating technology.
“The underwater environment is so, so different,” Moniz says. “And because of that, there’s techniques and training and things that need to be approached in a very different manner than processing something like that on land.”
Underwater crime scenes are dynamic, for example—and often, inherently dangerous. “I’ve definitely worked in zero-visibility conditions,” she says, “and that’s always a very uncomfortable and hairy situation to be in.”
Because of these difficulties, Moniz sees ROVs and other technologies as important tools of the trade. “It takes out the guesswork, and it takes out the amount of time that those divers have to be risking their lives in that water,” she says. Better yet, swimming robots can see using sonar in conditions people can’t.
Gulko doesn’t discount the usefulness of the higher-tech equipment, but his emphasis has always been on accessibility. “Most countries don’t have the funds or the technology,” he says, “so a lot of the materials that we developed had to make use of easily available things that could be gotten in any country.” They figured out how to lift fingerprints from poached shells using materials that could be bought at any hardware store, for example.
Gulko was working with officials at a marine park in Mexico that kept getting hit by conch poachers. The poachers entered the water like tourists, but then pulled the meat from the shells underwater and shoved it in their wetsuits. Then they slipped away, leaving behind piles of empty shells.
Officials knew the poachers had to be handling the animals bare-handed because the park bans gloves in general. But like most people, they thought that water—especially salt water—would destroy any potential prints (if they thought about leaving evidence behind at all). “Nobody was really thinking you could pull fingerprints off,” Gulko says.
He and his team showed local authorities that careful soaking in fresh water could remove the salt. Then, the prints on the shells could be revealed with an old-school cop field method—using a metal trashcan, a bit of aluminum foil, superglue, and an acetylene torch borrowed from an auto shop. “Sure enough, there were all these nice little fingerprints on the inside,” he says.
In total, Gulko’s team—now known as the International Coral Reef CSI Field Training Program—has taught Coral Reef CSI in more than 40 countries, and there are always agencies asking for more.
Moniz, too has felt the demand—her classes sell out and then some. “I’d like to see more training than what is out there now available to all of these dive teams that have to go out there,” she says, but it feels like that’s “fighting an uphill battle.”
“It’s so frustrating because it always seems to come down to the same thing,” she says, “money.”
Properly investigating crime scenes underwater can be expensive, in both time and resources. Even dive gear may not be in the budget, so Gulko has given trainings that were entirely snorkel-based in areas where there was no dive team to train. (It’s even harder to do everything while snorkeling, he says. Cheaper, for sure, but harder.)
But in the end, the investment is worth it.
Marine and freshwater environments are facing a multitude of threats. “These resources are everybody’s, and we need to take care of them since we depend on them for food, medicine, tourism, etc.,” says Ramírez Romero. “We’re not only leaving something beautiful for the next generation, but also making sure that they will enjoy the benefits of it.”
While there may not be much she, Gulko, and the others can do about warming waters or ocean acidification, through Coral Reef CSI training, they can empower people around the world to protect their local aquatic resources. And the army they’ve been slowly building is finally holding polluters, vandals, and poachers accountable.
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