Doing underwater research is not always what the Hollywood films make out, but the office can be incredible!
Marine biology is the study of underwater animal and plant life from the microscopic plankton to the blue whale. To understand the behaviours that these underwater creatures exhibit, scientists need to spend some time in their environment. Setting up experiments and running them underwater isn’t as simple as setting one up in a lab or out in the woods. Being underwater for any considerable period of time is not what humans are built for. So how do these scientists get their experiments done?
Bring in the scientific divers. Scientific divers, or aquanauts (as some like to refer to them), are divers that do science underwater. It sounds simple enough, but there are a lot of rules and regulations that define this role. The American Academy of Underwater Sciences defines scientific diving specifically as:
“…diving performed solely as a necessary part of a scientific activity by employees whose sole purpose for diving is to perform scientific research tasks.”
So, if you’re taking equipment down, inspecting any equipment or doing any diving that doesn’t have any science in it, this isn’t considered scientific diving. Scientific diving, according to Nick Tolimieri, a research fishery biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, WA, is “data collection under water.”
There are a group of standard skills, according to Tolimieri, that every scientific diver will need to have. “Using quadrats and transects to measure percentage cover of a certain species on a reef are the most common experiments that we do,” he says. The quadrats can be a quarter-meter squared, which you distribute randomly across a reef and then count what’s in them, for example. Or you might use transects – where you’re laying out 20-50m long lines – to count fish. “These are the main science skills. But it’s more about being comfortable enough underwater to collect data in whatever way you need to,” he says. The most important skill a scientific diver can have, says Tolimeiri, is being able to control your buoyancy under water. “You can’t be crashing around on a coral reef and it’s hard to do any meaningful work if you’re bouncing up and down and not able to control yourself in open water. If people are thinking about what to practice: that’s it. That’s the most important. Once you’ve got that, learning the skills for experiments underwater is easy.”
Nick has been a scientific diver since 1989, when he spent a semester in the Caribbean working on an undergraduate project. He loved it so much that he stayed on to do a masters and PhD there too. Now that he works at NOAA, he’s doing somewhere between 50-100 dives per year. Depending on where you are based, you’ll do a different number of dives, says Tolimieri. “It’s dependant on the group you’re with, the research you’re doing and ultimately the climate too. Divers in Florida and California will do many more dives than those on the north east coast.”
Liz Bentley Magee has recently experienced one of the deepest underwater laboratories at the Aquarius Reef Base, 60 ft underwater in Florida. “It was amazing. Easily the best experience of my life.” Bentley Magee, a professional scientific diver and science diving teacher at Northeastern University’s Three Seas Programme, spent a total of 2 weeks in the pressurised habitat, diving for a total of 9 hours per day as part of Mission 31. “In our two weeks underwater we ended up collecting over two years’ worth of data. It blows my mind!” (She wrote a great blog about all her experiences.)
This serious amount of diving is only possible using a technique called saturation diving, in which divers allow their bodies to become saturated with nitrogen (and other) gas and live underwater in a pressurised habitat, reducing the risk of getting “the bends”.
Mission 31 was initiated by Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of diving hero Jacques Cousteau. The Mission hosted four research projects that were run by graduate and postgraduate researchers. “All the research was related to the impact of human activity on the coral reefs,” says Brian Helmuth, one of the scientists involved in the mission. “In one of the experiments we wanted to see how physiology of sponges adapts to changing temperatures and whether we can predict how future changes in temperature will affect their health” Other students were exploring what plankton and other main food sources were up to at night; how corals respire; and how corals take up chemicals from the environment.
The initial experimental design all happens above water and well in advance, but scientific divers like Bentley Magee get involved in the research too. “When it came to the reality of the experiment, when we could see what was and wasn’t doable, we got involved and helped adapt what was needed to get the research done in time,” she says. “So it was an on-the-job, on-the-spot involvement that would impact the experimental design. It’s a great opportunity to use problem solving skills in a way you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do.”
But it wasn’t just the full-time scientific divers doing all the hard work. “The researchers did a couple of hour-long dives every day, collecting any data and results that we couldn’t,” says Bentley Magee. “The problem with surface diving is that you’re limited to about 60 minute dives at the depths we were at (approximately 60 ft). So whilst they were doing two hour-long dives, I was out there for a three or four hour-long dive, continuing what they started and we’d work together.”
But being a scientific diver isn’t all about the diving. “It’s a big part of it, but I spend most of my time on land,” says Tolimieri. When Bentley Magee worked for UC Santa Barbara as a science diver/technician she would dive every day for half of the year, “but the rest of the time I spent analysing the data and maintaining the equipment. Prepping for the next big field season.” Analysing data is a big part of being a scientific diver, but like many marine biology researchers, they do get to spend some time in the environment they study.
To work at NOAA, an MSc in marine sciences/biology/environmental science will put you in good stead. “You don’t need to have any diving under your belt because they can train you here. But it does help.” The scientific diver community is small, says Bentley Magee, but that’s because “you need to be doing science underwater to become a scientific diver. With that, it’s hard to get certifications to begin with,” she says. Her advice, and that of Tolimieri’s, is to start enrolling in classes that require you to become a diver where you complete projects that need underwater data collection. “You need to be enrolled in classes that require you to be a scientific diver or going to school and doing a project that requires you to be u/w to collect data,” says Bentley Magee. “There is so much more to explore in the oceans and we have so much more to learn. By getting more divers we can learn a lot more!”