What do a former U.S. Navy submarine sailor and a passionate crappie angler have in common? Both are captains of the Chota Princess II, the 40-foot catamaran that’s the star of the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center, a partnership between Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Elachee Nature Science Center and Hall County Parks & Leisure.

TJ Convery and John McCalpin both skipper the floating classroom that introduces Hall County students, among others, to the science and purpose of the lake. About 20 times each month, the two alternate captaining the Chota Princess II for school field trips. Area elementary, middle and high school students experience hands-on learning about water quality, how to take samples and analyze them for certain traits and characteristics and learn about wildlife that calls the lake home. The Chota Princess II also takes out other groups for learning.

“Many of these young people have never been on a boat before, and there are even some of them who live near the lake who haven’t been here,” said Convery, the former Navy mariner. “While my job is to operate the boat, I’ve learned so much from the Elachee naturalists about the history, ecology and challenges the lake faces, I’m constantly amazed.”

For instance, Convery said before he starting captaining for the LLALC, he had no idea the extent of water sampling and testing that goes on to ensure that the lake water quality is not threatened. “Through frequent sampling they’re able to discover conditions that can create algae blooms or a source of pollution because of improper water discharges into the lake, like the one that (Chattahoochee River Keeper Executive Director) Jason Ulseth found this summer.”

McCalpin said he has expanded his knowledge about Lanier since he began working with the LLALC. “Just by listening to the naturalists as they work with the students is amazing. You can’t help but learn more about the lake’s complex ecosystems and why it’s so important to be good stewards of this valuable resource.”

He says he’s impressed with the students’ reactions.

“These kids look at the testing for the amount of dissolved oxygen or pH levels of the water like it’s magic,” he said. “Not only do they enjoy being out on a boat, they really take the lessons and messages to heart.”

Convery and McCalpin both began working with the Riverkeeper about a year ago. They have earned the required US Coast Guard certifications to operate inland commercial vessels that carry passengers.

Captain TJ Convery standing at the helm.

Captain TJ Convery at the helm.

Convery has been boating since age 7. “Growing up in Merritt Island, Florida, we had a canal in our back yard,” he said. “Dad was an avid offshore sports fisherman. We went offshore regularly on many boats he bought, used and sold throughout my youth. I knew from a young age that boating would be part of my life.”

During his six years of active duty in the US Navy, he was stationed in Pearl Harbor and Groton, Connecticut, for a time. His training included studying to be a mechanic’s mate and attending nuclear power school. He also served three years in the Navy Reserves.

“I actually volunteered for submarine duty, where I spent a great deal of my Navy service,” he said with a smile. “I guess you could say I went from a civilian on a small powerboat to driving a 300-foot submarine.”

Moving to Atlanta in 1987 after active duty, Convery was immediately drawn to Lake Lanier where he purchased a 17-foot bow rider. These days he owns a 28-foot Sea Ray called “Sea Dancer” and a 28-foot Tartan sailboat.

He also worked in quality assurance for World Bank, monitoring shipments to third-world countries for 10 years before opening a tree-care business. As a member of Tree Climbers International he teaches tree climbing and safety for commercial and recreational climbers.

He’s an active member of America’s Boating Club Atlanta and is a certified instructor and vessel safety examiner for the organization.

“I’ve boated many places, including the Pacific & Artic realm, Caribbean, BVIs, Windward and San Juan Islands,” Convery said. “It’s certainly a very important and meaningful part of my life. Every time I see people get on a boat for the first time I just think, ‘ah, this is just the beginning,’ and I smile.”

McCalpin, a life-long boater began fishing at Lake Lanier after he retired as a managing director for a global consulting firm. Having grown up on the St. Johns River in Palatka and Jacksonville, Florida, he developed a love of the water from an early age. He graduated from Jacksonville University and later earned an MBA from the University of North Florida.

Captain John McCalpin standing by boat with cap and lifejacket on

Captain John McCalpin. (Photo courtesy CRK)

He worked for CSX railroad in IT and corporate finance before moving to Atlanta to work with Anderson Consulting, now Accenture, retiring in 2014.

“My goal was to become a fisherman full time, but after 8 months, the change of pace from the corporate world to fishing was too sudden. On the water, my biggest decision became what color fishing lure to use next.”

McCalpin continued his fishing, becoming a marine electronics instructor, a boating safety adviser and writer. Additionally, he earned his 100-gross-ton US Coast Guard Captain’s license.

“In all honesty, part of getting my captain’s license allowed me to attend the ICAST Fishing Show where they roll out the next year’s latest fishing gear,” he said. “Really, it’s more than that, but I’m certainly glad I’ve earned my Merchant Mariner Credential, because it enabled my involvement with CRK. The irony is that even though I’ve had this credential for many years, I have not yet attended ICAST.”

His first boat was a 15-foot Chaparral bow rider, which he purchased at age 24. “I learned to water ski in the St. Johns and my love of boating took me to several inland lakes in the Southeast, plus to the Caribbean, the Keys, Mexico and many other great places.”

McCalpin credits his wife Lisa with introducing him to fishing 12 years ago. “Lisa grew up fishing with her father when she was a kid, so for her birthday one year, I gave her a guided striper fishing trip.”

Lanier’s Doug Youngblood took the couple out and talked McCalpin into fishing that day.

“‘If you’re on my boat, you’re going to fish,’ he told me, and within the next five minutes I had a 17-pound striper on the line.” This first catch drove his interest in fishing and led him to pursue greater knowledge about the sport and its related skills and technologies.

In 2016, he connected with the North Georgia Crappie Anglers, a 180-member non-profit group that hosts more than a dozen tournaments each year for members, the public and special groups, including an annual Childrens Tournament and a Fishing with Military Heroes Tournament. McCalpin shares what he has learned about fishing and boating safety by making presentations at the Atlanta Boat Show, several national boating and fishing-related retailers and numerous local fishing clubs.

Convery and McCalpin agree that their work with CRK and the LLALC is incredibly rewarding.

“Where else do you get paid to drive a boat to help people understand the importance of Lake Lanier?” Convery said. “And when people come out with us on a boat for the first time, I know that this just may be the time that influences what they do for the rest of their lives.”

“Working with CRK has provided an amazing opportunity to learn more about Lake Lanier’s complex ecosystems, and at the same time enjoy observing thousands of local students learn about the lake’s essential biological and chemical needs,” McCalpin said.

For more about the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center, visit chattahoochee.org.

Photos: by Pamela A. Keene, unless otherwise noted.