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Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: What is Scientific Diving?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Gerry Smith.

Diving is an inherently risky activity when compared to taking notes in a classroom. First and foremost is that it happens by definition in a locale that doesn’t support human life any better than the surface of the moon. Risks include drowning, hypothermia, decompression illness, and injuries from water movement, heavy equipment and sea life.

The author prepares to lift a massive experiment package from the bottom of Big Fisherman Cove, near the USC Dornsife Wrigley Marine Science Center. (photo by Jim Haw)

The author prepares to lift a massive experiment package from the bottom of Big Fisherman Cove, near the USC Dornsife Wrigley Marine Science Center. (photo by Jim Haw)

These risks are mitigated with high quality training. In order to offer the protections that students in our care deserve we believe that the highest quality of training is required before being released to dive on their own.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration considers all diving done in return for compensation (monetary or otherwise) to be commercial diving and so should follow guidelines established for oil field divers, salvage workers and underwater welders. These guidelines are not compatible with the typical activity of an underwater researcher so a group of universities sought and received an exemption from commercial guidelines in 1982.

The exemption enabled a standard that better matches the type of diving we do as researchers. The standard is set by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) and requires that university scientific diving programs be autonomously administered by a Diving Control Board composed of a majority of scientific divers, follow a Dive Safety Manual accepted by AAUS and managed by a Dive Safety Officer who reports to the Diving Control Board.

The standard far exceeds the level of training typically offered by recreational dive certification agencies (PADI and NAUI) and specifies what kinds of training are required. It was adapted from a curriculum developed at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography and used for more than 30 years in a program with an enviable safety record.

The author prepares to enter the ocean with a group of USC undergraduate students making their fourth ocean dive. (photo by Jim Haw)

The author prepares to enter the ocean with a group of USC undergraduate students making their fourth ocean dive. (photo by Jim Haw)

USC Students prepare for the Guam and Palau program by taking a semester long prep course that includes basic dive training, classroom lecture, confined water training (pool sessions) and three weekends at our Catalina Island field station. They finish the prep program with basic diving certification, First Aid, CPR, Emergency Oxygen Administration and AED (automated external defibrillator) certifications and ten to twelve open ocean dives. They have honed their swimming skills to pass a 400 meter/12 minute swim test. They have learned to plan and execute simple scuba dives.

During the succeeding Maymester they spend a full week on Catalina honing dive skills and learning some basic research techniques. They also learn more about diving physics and physiology, and get certified to dive with an alternative breathing gas (Nitrox). They plan and execute more complex dives with tools for measurement and data gathering. This gradual increase in the complexity of their diving is the key to the training program. The student is never overloaded, but constantly challenged by a task load that builds throughout the course.

The author (left) supervises a USC student practicing one of the skills used to sweep for and recover a dislodged regulator. Students become safe and comfortable divers by repeatedly practicing such skills, permitting them to shift some of their attention to their research mission. (photo by Jim Haw)

The author (left) supervises a USC student practicing one of the skills used to sweep for and recover a dislodged regulator. Students become safe and comfortable divers by repeatedly practicing such skills, permitting them to shift some of their attention to their research mission. (photo by Jim Haw)

Then it’s off to Guam where they dive on coral reefs threatened by the military buildup on the island and compare natural reef structures with the artificial reefs created when the military dumped tons of surplus war materiel in Apra harbor. In Guam the students spend a lot of time in the water laying transect lines and surveying the sea life along those transects. In past programs we’ve seen animals that were said to have been wiped out in the locations that we dived.

In Palau we have a cooperative arrangement with local government scientists to assist them in monitoring specific reefs. These reefs are in protected areas where only research is permitted. These are not the most spectacular dive sites that the archipelago has to offer but the data we collect on our training dives support their conservation effort.

At the end of their week on Palau the students have completed about 130 hours of training including approximately 30 dives during the course. The University can confidently allow them to conduct their underwater research in a manner that will keep them safe while they collect reliable data.

The USC scientific diving program trains students to be effective underwater researchers while providing a safe and regulated environment for that training. Students learn to collect data and make observations while keeping track of depth, time, air supply and the other factors that make up a safe dive.

About the Author: Gerry Smith is the Dive Safety Officer at the USC Dornsife Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. Prior to joining USC he was a senior IT officer for the Cal State University System. He served in the U.S. Army during the Viet Nam war.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies

Previously in this series:

Catching Up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Surfgrass Monitoring at Catalina
Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: The Robot Submarine
Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Diving into the Aquarium of the Pacific

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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