Imagine doing research in a place where you can’t talk, you can’t breathe, and there’s no gravity. Researching animals anywhere is hard. Researching animals underwater is harder.
Science is often portrayed as a series of meticulously planned, methodically executed experiments. But fieldwork can be disastrous; things rarely go as planned. Murphy’s Law is the only law, and if there are scientists who have escaped fieldwork completely unscathed, I’ve never met them.
My foray into scientific scuba diving began without science. I learned to dive when I was 14 years old in a freezing lake in Colorado. Along with every other child on the planet, I wanted to be a marine biologist. However, I didn’t really like science. I studied business and then worked in the scuba industry—I dove in over 20 countries, I learned underwater photography, I became a scuba instructor in Zanzibar, and then I got an MBA. But the more I learned about life underwater, the more I realized how imperative it was to look through my dive mask with the eyes of a scientist.
At the start of my PhD, having a thousand or so dives under my belt, I figured scientific diving couldn’t be too difficult. After all, I’d been diving with great white sharks! I soon realized that I had no idea where to find large numbers of the creature I wanted to study—a flashing bivalve aptly named the “disco” clam. I had only seen one in my life—on a reef in Wakatobi National Park in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. And unlike with great white sharks, you can’t chum the water to attract clams. I soon realized that finding these rare animals, before I could figure out why they were flashing, was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenges of working underwater.
The first challenge of underwater research is the subject: animals. Animals are unpredictable, and they don’t perform based on your schedule. To study an animal in its natural habitat implies that Mother Nature allows you both to locate the animal and to actually catch it performing the behavior you hope to study.
The second challenge of underwater research is time. Underwater, time is your enemy. It’s short, and the deeper you go, the less of it you get. The clams I studied lived more than 75 feet below the surface of the ocean. This gave me less than 30 minutes to work during each dive. At that depth, doing three dives daily, I had less than an hour and a half to work in each 24 hour cycle.
My time underwater was so limited that during my entire PhD, I never once got to see the behavior I was studying. I knew the disco clams weren’t flashing for each other, since their approximately 40 eyes weren’t complex enough to see it. I didn’t find any proof that the flashing attracted the tiny planktonic food they were eating. My hypothesis was that the flashing was to warn predators that they didn’t taste good. But because I didn’t have gills, and could only spend so much time with them underwater, I never once got to see a predator attack.
The challenge of time is that time is money. And when you can only work underwater nine hours a week, the money runs out fast. Scuba diving alone is expensive. Before buying the gear you’ll need for research, you need a boat, a buddy and the equipment that lets you breathe underwater. If you’re a cold-water diver, you’ll also need things like gloves to keep you warm, which inevitably hinder your dexterity. I had a dry-suit flood while diving in Alaska, and let’s just say that was my last dive of the day, and my first experience with hypothermia.
If the physical challenges didn’t deter you, remember that you can’t talk to your buddy underwater. If things go wrong, you better hope you picked someone that’s good at charades.
Underwater, things sink or they float. Everything you use has to be attached to you. Research divers have an amalgamation of hooks, bags, zip ties and tools connected to them. Put a tissue sample in a test tube in the lab? Sure! Put a tissue sample in a test tube underwater? Well, consider that most test tubes are buoyant, and will float away as soon as they can escape the cinched bag they’re in. The tissue sample will also float away, and because it’s buoyant, it won’t go into the test tube without a fight. But the light you held to find the organism, and the tweezers you used to get the sample? Well, if you didn’t hold on to them while the other things were floating away, they sank. Trust me.
Perhaps more interesting than the animals you’re studying, are the ones you aren’t. During one research trip, our boat guide told me he saw a saltwater crocodile while we were underwater that was three meters long. I thought he was kidding. He was not. I’ve been stung, scraped and bitten by every creature you can imagine. Add in seasickness, nitrogen narcosis (essentially, the deeper you go, the drunker you feel) and the threat of the “bends” (which can kill you), and you quickly realize diving requires a lot of preparation and competence.
It’s worth noting that not all “bonus” dive buddies are scary. Octopuses are known for stealing cameras, and more than one researcher I know has up-close footage of a curious octopus that took their camera for a ride; you can even hear their suckers during the heist. Triggerfish, which are huge and colorful with very sharp beaks, are known for their territoriality. I can confirm this two ways; bite marks on my fins, and a GoPro that looked like it went 10 rounds with Floyd Mayweather. The footage I recovered of the (37 minute) attack was hysterical, making the gear loss more tolerable. The triggerfish approached the camera from every conceivable angle, and at one point did a complete 360 degree roll, while never breaking eye contact. I’ve had video cameras knocked over by curious crabs, multiple remoras attempting to attach themselves to me, and once I even (literally) ran into a sleeping lemon shark when I was too focused on the reef in front of me to notice it.
So why do we put up with it? Well, whether you know it or not, the ocean is crucial to your everyday life. If you enjoy breathing, you should thank the ocean; it provides half of your breathable air. The ocean is the primary protein source for over a billion people worldwide, and it also provides necessary ingredients for things like peanut butter, chocolate milk, toothpaste, makeup, sunscreen, ice cream and shampoo. Beyond tasty snacks and beauty products, research into marine plants and animals has given rise to antibiotics and allergy medicines. Most recently, peptides (similar to proteins) have been discovered which have the potential to prevent and treat cancer.
Sea squirts, which are our closest invertebrate relatives, have very similar genes to humans. Scientists are studying how sea squirts fight disease, which can give us clues to things such as heart and eye development, pregnancy, and cancer in humans. Sea squirts can also repair themselves, so scientists are applying this knowledge to human regenerative medicine. Even sponges (the real-life, non-animated relatives of SpongeBob SquarePants), have survived multiple ice ages and five mass extinctions (including the one that killed the dinosaurs). Relatively speaking, if sponges have been living for about 10 minutes, then humans have only been around for 5 seconds. Needless to say, there’s a lot we can learn from them.
The growth of underwater research due to advances in technology is unlocking more of the ocean’s mysteries than ever before. From the Aquarius Reef Base laboratory, which was built in 1986 and can house researchers for weeks more than 60 feet below the surface, much of the new technology aims much deeper than that. Remotely operated vehicles, controlled by scientists on a ship, can explore underwater volcanoes and discover new species of deep-sea life.
They’re often surprised by things like giant sperm whales. Sperm whales sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die. The BBC film crew for Blue Planet 2 recently went 700 meters below the surface inside a submersible to film sixgill sharks feeding on a dead sperm whale. The sharks gave the submersible a few exploratory nudges to detect if it was competition, before deciding that it was not, in fact, there to eat the whale. We’re also improving at tracking wildlife underwater with smaller and more lightweight devices, cameras and sonars that can give us a glimpse into the behavior of migratory animals. Getting the devices to stick can be tricky, with one research group recently creatively employing peanut butter as a glue.
I do scientific dive research because for me, there’s nothing that rivals being underwater. The beauty and power of the ocean paired with the incredible animals that live within it make even the worst day underwater better than a good day at the office. I was lucky enough to explore four different islands throughout Indonesia, and a fifth island in Australia. I was privileged enough to study a behavior that no one had considered before. I was fortunate enough to see parts of the underwater world that it’s likely no one had ever seen. If I couldn’t dive as a part of my work, I wouldn’t be a scientist.
Underwater research is challenging. But it’s rewarding, and it’s necessary. It’s necessary because the ocean covers over 70 percent of our planet and holds 97 percent of our water. It’s necessary because the ocean absorbs a quarter of all the carbon dioxide we produce. It’s necessary because we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of the ocean. It’s necessary, because without it, we won’t survive.
The author would like to acknowledge the Rocky Mountain ComSciCon Workshop, NPR’s Friends of Joe’s Big Idea network, Chesney D'Avis, Christy Furman, and Dr. Jenny Hofmeister for feedback on this piece.