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NOAA Corps Officer Profile: Lieutenant Commander Andrew Reynaga

Lieutenant Commander Andrew Reynaga posed in front of the American flag.

Where did you grow up?

I spent the first 12 years of my life in Montebello before moving to Whittier, both on the eastside of Los Angeles County, California.

Where did you go to school and in what subject did you get your degree(s)?

My high school offered a dive certification course, which I took my junior year. I was fascinated by this new world of fish and invertebrates, ultimately choosing to attend University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) as they offered a bachelor’s degree in marine biology. I continued dive training and became an AAUS Scientific Diver. I volunteered as a diver for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) under Principle Investigator Mark Carr, using SCUBA to monitor kelp forests. 

After graduating from UCSC, I found employment as a marine science educator aboard a 145-foot live-aboard education vessel operating off the coasts of southern California and the Hawaiian Islands. After a year and a half teaching marine science on the ship, a vacancy opened up at PISCO and I returned to work full-time as a research diver. Over the next five years my team was tasked with monitoring the newly implemented marine protected areas in the central and north-central coasts of California on SCUBA. It was during that time with PISCO that my general interest in marine research matured into a passion for marine operations.

What inspired you to become a NOAA Corps officer?

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time diving and operating small boats for PISCO, I began searching for something with more career potential. I obtained a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Credential and sought employment in the maritime field. My initial search yielded job posts working in the oil fields or aboard passenger vessels. None of the results included science facilitation and or a great sense of purpose.

Upon returning from a couple months of dive ops along the north central coast, Dr. Carr passed along a NOAA Corps brochure. This hidden gem checked every box: salary and healthcare benefits that could support a family down the line;  a scientific mission; a retirement package; and most important, service to the nation. I applied immediately.

What do you do as a NOAA Corps officer?

My NOAA Corps career began as a junior officer aboard NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai. I was the ship’s environmental compliance officer and navigation officer among other collateral duties while qualifying to stand my own watch as an Officer of the Deck. Each day, we deployed five small boats with divers to perform various coral reef studies along the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and even out to Guam, Saipan, and the Northern Mariana Island chain.

After two years aboard Hi’ialakai, I was assigned to the 72-ft. trawler, R/V Gloria Michelle, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I took my new family out to Cape Cod where I spent 3 1⁄2 years conducting the State of Massachusetts Groundfish Survey and the Gulf of Maine Shrimp Survey. As one of only two officers, it was a tremendous learning experience. I had my hands in every aspect of engineering, shiphandling, fishing, executing dry-dock contracts, and even cooked the food (with my wife’s help) that we ate underway.

Next up was a billet with the Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division in La Jolla, California. The family moved back out west where I spent nine months of the year coordinating logistics for a team of 4-5 scientists in preparation for a 3-month field season on Livingston Island in Antarctica. During our field seasons, I operated the uncrewed aircraft system hexacopter to map penguin colonies and conduct photogrammetry on Antarctic fur seals, assisted with animal captures, and performed maintenance on the camp structures/services. By studying the foraging effort of krill consumers (penguins and fur seals), our team provided valuable input and recommendations for management of the international krill fishery during annual Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources meetings.

I was fortunate enough to remain in San Diego for my follow-on assignment as Operations Officer aboard NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker. As Ops, my primary task was liaising between the ship’s crew and science groups to ensure mission success. There, I qualified as Senior Watch Officer. We conducted operations from Canada all the way down to Baja California, using our sounder to estimate fish biomass during the day. We trawled at night over the spots with big returns to collect samples for species identification, size class, and a host of other data. We also conducted the annual CalCOFI project which is a long-running study of oceanographic and marine ecosystem processes for sustainable management in the context of climate change.

Currently, I am a NOAA Corps Recruiting Officer, stationed at headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. I work to recruit new Officer Candidates and oversee the many administrative functions involved with onboarding new officers. I find it more than rewarding to have a hand in shaping the future of the NOAA Corps.

What was one of your favorite missions or experiences?

It really is hard to pinpoint a single favorite. A few that come to mind are driving the NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai into a sunken volcano caldera, Maug, for a study on ocean acidification, or walking amongst the albatross at Midway Atoll. 

It’s also hard to ignore the hands-on experience with penguins and fur seals in Antarctica or the helicopter ride over the glaciers into our rustic camp.

Port calls all along New England aboard Gloria Michelle will forever hold a place in my heart.

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker’s crew and scientific partners are also right up there at the top. The challenges we overcame together to conduct our mission during the pandemic were quite inspiring.

I could go on for hours.

What does National Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?

All four of my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico (Jalisco and Coahuila) seeking a better life. My maternal grandfather worked the rail lines for Amtrak and my paternal grandfather in a slaughterhouse. My parents shared similar meager upbringings as neighbors in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles but carried forth the mind-set of my grandparents which was to work relentlessly in the land of opportunity and provide a better starting point for the children. As first generation Chicanos they worked long careers at UPS; my father as a truck driver and my mother in the offices. In their off-time, they carried the torch further and made sure my brother and I had more in the way of extracurricular activities than they were afforded. My mother stepped up to become sports director at my school in the face of a collapsing program. My father attended as many Boy Scout outings with us as he could. Through their involvement in our after-school activities my parents unwittingly impacted our small Hispanic community, creating opportunities for kids to be involved in something different than the gangs that were ever-present in the Montebello and Whittier area.

National Hispanic Heritage Month is a chance to recognize the many contributions made by Hispanics (and especially important to me, the Latinx community) to human rights, labor laws, science, music, art, and society as a whole in our great nation. In addition to the notable figures, I feel it is equally important to recognize those putting in the work on a smaller scale across the neighborhoods and honor those leveling the playing field in our traditionally underrepresented communities. This month let us honor all who make the effort, whether on the national stage or within our smaller communities, to provide a better starting point for all members of our future generations.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a NOAA Corps Officer?

The career is a home-run for individuals looking to charge headfirst into the operational side of science. We are far more likely to be involved in logistics and management than data analysis or authoring articles for scientific journals. Within the first seven years of my career, I was qualified to operate a 224-ft. NOAA ship, had command of a trawling vessel, led field teams into Antarctica, and qualified as a drone pilot. There is an even blend of professional training and on-the-job learning; and no shortcoming of senior officers to provide mentorship throughout the process.

For interested individuals, I would recommend capitalizing on any available leadership opportunities. We are looking for officers and leaders first. Technical or academic expertise are secondary as our officers serve a wide range of billets facilitating NOAA’s various scientific missions. The one thing that holds true across the different assignments is the expectation to serve honorably and to lead.

I’d be remiss not to mention the challenging nature of our service. NOAA Corps officers go where assigned and relocate every few years, though assignments are carefully considered to find the best fit for each officer. This requirement to change assignments works wonders for gaining a “big picture” view into NOAAs different responsibilities and missions, but it definitely needs buy-in from the family.

What do you like to do outside of work?

The family-first mentality of my parents and grandparents is not lost on me. Now that my son is out of the house at college, I find my after-work activities revolving around my six year old daughter’s and wife’s interests. I spend most of my time on family walks, at the playground, visiting historic sites, local eateries, theater, museums, movies, and attending seasonal activities (pumpkin patches, ice skating rinks, holiday light displays, etc.). Travel, whether to visit extended family, revisit old stomping grounds, or explore new locations, is always on our to-do list when possible. On my own time, I enjoy woodworking, bicycling, and minor repairs around the house. I tend to get my outdoor and on-the-water fix taken care of at work with the NOAA Corps.