Morehead City | 7:15 am | August 25, 2016
I've lost count of the number of times I've climbed aboard the Capricorn in the blue pre-dawn light of early morning. The 50-foot research vessel creeks against the dock behind the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. The air hangs heavy, thick with salt and moisture, but without the heat of the sun, I'm not sweating yet.
Stacey, the first mate, gives me a kurt nod of recognition - he'll be more talkative later when the sun is up, and we're out in the middle of the open ocean.
"Good morning Captain Joe," I say, as I put my camera bag inside the main cabin. I pull my BCD and regulator out of my dive bag and walk back onto deck.
"Those two tanks are yours." Glenn, the dive master, points to two silver cylinders labeled oxygen. All the other tanks are labeled Nitrox. I mentally kick myself - I still haven't taken the Nitrox certification course. I'll be able to stay down a lot longer after I do that.
Today I'll be filming and photographing a group of six students conducting fish surveys. I sit with them on the bow of the Capricorn. We talk about diving, traveling and the best concerts we've ever been to.
Two hours later we don our wetsuits and BCDs, double-check our air supply and regulators, and splash into the water. We're only seven miles offshore - the ocean here is calm and warm.
The familiar tingling sensation that accompanies the beginning of every dive settles into my stomach. As soon as we descend from the surface, the nerves dissipate. I focus on breathing slowly and allow my body to glide effortlessly downward.
The visibility at the bottom isn't great but I take photos as the students take notes on their underwater clipboards. One of the students removes his regulator to blow big air bubbles.
This is the best part of my job.
As we kick back towards the surface we swim through massive schools of fish.
At the surface, we compare PSI levels. We start with 3,000 and the general rule is you should have 500 PSI left at the end of the dive.
"I'm right at 500," says one of the students.
"Damn, I'm down to 350."
I look at my gauge. "Wow, I still have 1,200 left."
The two students look at me in disbelief. "Are you even breathing down there??"
I smile. One step closer to becoming a mermaid.