Scientific Diving

Scientific diving is a tool used by researchers, federal and state agencies, museums/aquariums, and some consulting companies to perform workplace diving operations with the objective of collecting data for scientific or educational purposes.

In order to understand what scientific diving is, we first need to take a step back and discuss the entire diving industry. There are two general categories into which all diving can be sorted, recreational and commercial. Scientific diving is a subset of commercial diving, officially established in 1985 by OSHA as a partial exemption to the commercial diving standard.

Divers conducting operations

Commercial diving includes all diving activities where the participants are paid for their work. Because there is an employee/employer relationship in commercial diving, oversight, safety regulations and training requirements are dictated by a regulatory agency, such as OSHA in the United States.

OSHA defines scientific diving in Section 1910.402 as, “diving performed solely as a necessary part of a scientific, research, or educational activity by employees whose sole purpose for diving is to perform scientific research tasks.”

Additionally, a Diving Safety Manual and a Diving Control Board are required by OSHA for any scientific diving operation. After obtaining this exemption, some of the scientific diving community formed the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), with the objective of standardizing scientific diver training, tracking incident statistics and fostering a repository of scientific diving institutions and divers.

The Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) has been a practicing member of AAUS since 1992 and currently provides scientific diver training and oversight for all participating schools within the Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium (MESC).

Scientific Diving Training

Scientific dive training at DISL is offered to any MESC member requiring dive operations for their research in accordance with AAUS standards. To be accepted into the program, applicants must submit an application, hold at a minimum, an open water recreational SCUBA certification, pass a medical examination, pass a swim test, demonstrate appropriate levels of underwater proficiency with equipment and dive skill, acquire and maintain emergency care training.

Once all prerequisites are met, the diver in training (DIT) must complete a cumulative total of a minimum of 100 hours of practical and theoretical dive training, complete an online training module and successfully pass a written examination.

Detailed information on training topics can be found in the DISL dive manual. Once the training is complete, working dives can be conducted to a depth of 30 feet, however, divers have the option to progress to deeper depth levels by completing a specified number of supervised dives to the next depth level (Table 1).

Once certified, the scientific diver is responsible for maintaining any certifications that may expire (i.e. emergency care training), log a minimum of 12 dives during any 12 month period including at least one dive to their deepest depth certification level, and pass medical examinations at intervals determined by their age.

Dive training is continuously ongoing at DISL based on the needs of the researchers. Each year, new graduate students join the Sea Lab and new research projects start up; this means that at any given time, 3-4 people are working toward their scientific diver certification.

Under normal circumstances, it takes about 1 year to complete the training, but it is possible to finish much more quickly.

Formal structured classes are offered as part of the DISL Summer School Curriculum dependent on demand.

DISL Dive Logging

Table 1: Depth levels and the number of supervised dives to obtain depth rating as required by DISL
* Diving on air is not permitted below 190 feet
Depth Rating # of Dives Prerequisite Specific Criteria
60 12 30 foot certification Minimum 4 hours dive time
100 4 60 foot certification Demonstrate use of dive tables
130 4 100 foot certification Demonstrate use of dive tables
150 4 130 foot certification Demonstrate understanding of deep diving physics
190* 4 150 foot certification Demonstrate understanding of deep diving physics

Alabama Aquarium Collection

The ongoing scientific dive training at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab presents a unique opportunity to support the Alabama Aquarium on the DISL campus that showcases marine and aquatic animals found in the local waters. Dive trainees are often presented with the logistical challenge of collecting specimens, ranging from octopus to the invasive lionfish. Collections typically occur five to six times a year, and are done primarily on natural gas and oil platforms just south of Dauphin Island, but occasionally artificial or natural reefs are visited as well.

WECP Mooring (formerly FOCAL)

Since 2004, every six weeks, Dauphin Island Sea Lab divers perform instrument swaps on what is known as the FOCAL mooring. The FOCAL (Fisheries Oceanography in Coastal Alabama) mooring represents the longest time series of water column data in the Mississippi Bight and consists of a range of oceanographic instruments that sample temperature, conductivity, and measure the current speed and direction.

The mooring is located about 9 miles south of Katrina Cut on Dauphin Island at a depth of 65 feet, and is regularly impacted by discharge events from Mobile Bay, resulting in multiple stratified layers in the water column. Data from this mooring are being used to improve the understanding of the coastal response to environmental variability over long (climate cycles, El Nino, North Atlantic Oscillation) and short time scales (such as river flooding and hurricanes).

The dive team is responsible for the general upkeep of the mooring, the associated hardware and tackle, as well as the instruments and data collection. This project, because it needs to be serviced at regular intervals, is commonly used as part of the scientific dive training requirements.

UAB Antarctic Diving

Our research in Antarctica primarily focuses on the chemical ecology of sessile benthic organisms such as macroalgae and several groups of invertebrates including sponges. Particular emphasis over the years has been understanding how chemical defenses structure algal-herbivore and invertebrate-carnivore relationships and this has grown into broader studies of trophic dynamics. Some recent work has also examined the impacts of climate change on key organisms in the community and on their relationships. Since 2000 our main study area has been at Palmer Station along the western Antarctic Peninsula. Benthic communities there are dominated by forests of large brown algae that rival temperate kelp forests in biomass. Deeper waters are dominated by rich communities of sessile invertebrates, and we are able to access these communities at diveable depths where they occur on vertical walls where the macroalgae are not as dense.

UAB divers under the DISL Scientific Diving Program have made well over 1000 research dives at Palmer Station in addition to a small number at another US Antarctic Program base, McMurdo Station. The group also worked from McMurdo in the 1990s before coming under the auspices of the DISL dive program. Our diving at Palmer is largely to collect organisms that are studied in the station aquarium and/or in our lab at UAB or the lab of collaborators at the University of South Florida. Although the extremely cold water restricts dive duration and necessitates the use of heavy gloves, we also employ a number of experimental designs that involve manipulation of organisms in situ while diving. Maggie and Chuck Amsler provide year-to-year continuity in the UAB dive team and they have been joined at Palmer by numerous graduate students and postdocs over the years. The other two current UAB Antarctic divers are doctoral students Sabrina Heiser and Leucas Miller.