Diving for science is one of the coolest things you can do as a scuba diver, and definitely rates fairly high on the list of reasons that people get into diving in the first place. It’s a multilayered, multidiscipline area that offers different levels of activity and involvement for everyone interested. More excitingly, training is available for divers from multiple agencies now, and the extra training and knowledge makes every dive even better!
Training wise, PADI offers the Underwater Naturalist specialty. I’ve completed this training, and can say it was pretty fantastic! As an introduction into underwater science and ocean ecology, it was quite good. As a starting point, I highly recommend it. It covered the basics that set me up for the next course I did, the CAUS Scientific Diver Level 1 course. CAUS is the Canadian Association for Underwater Science, and they largely preside over university level scientific and research diving in Canada, and have a strong relationship to the AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences). The level 1 course covers the research techniques and equipment frequently used for study (quadrats, transect lines, survey styles etc…), and is limited to 20m maximum depth. An excellent course, I was lucky enough to do mine at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Barkley Sound; each dive was a treat! Courses I’m interested in are TDI’s Research Diver, the various underwater archeology courses and further levels of CAUS. Interestingly, DiveSafe International in Campbell River, BC, covers environmental survey techniques as part of their 40m Unrestricted Occupational Scuba Diver course as well.
Having covered those broad bases, the two easiest ways for someone interested in scientific diving to get involved in it comes from two sources. PADI’s Underwater Naturalist specialty and REEF. The PADI course is an excellent base to start from, and gives you a general idea of how things work underwater. REEF is a massive, international operation that collects and stores data from each dive its members do with a survey sheet. With specialties for each oceanic region (i.e.: Pacific Northwest, Caribbean etc…), they are probably one of the best sources for marine biodiversity and population density in the world! For most divers, this will be enough, but for those who crave more, professional level training is strongly recommended.
Skills and knowledge are the name of the game for scientific diving. Probably the most important skill you can have is buoyancy. Without strong buoyancy skills, you’ll constantly be stirring up the bottom, frightening away marine life and generally being unproductive or even counter productive. After that, an eye for detail is key. You won’t always have a camera or videocamera with you, and being able to identify a fish or invertebrate at a glance or with only brief study is very important. After saying that, photography skills are a serious plus in the scientific diving game. With the proper set up, you can take pictures of your quadrats and/or unusual species seen during the dive. Video skills are less common and less used, but if available, can turn a transect line or roving transect into a fantastic experience. After that, first aid or preferably Rescue Diver certification (PADI or equivalent) is a good idea, as scientific diving will tend to take you further afield than regular diving if you let it!
Marine life identification is a big part of scientific diving for me and the observation, documentation and identification of marine life is my naturalist area. This is where the process can get a bit expensive, as you’ll quickly discover many books on the topic, and water resistant cards, and of course the internet. I found it best to ask the local dive guides and companies about which books are the best for their area, as some books are more accurate than others. While some point to the internet at this point and say “But it’s all here, why should I buy a book or field guide?”; the reason is simple. Type in “Yellow tropical fish” or “Clownfish” and you’ll see why a book is better for initial ID. Plus, internet is not a reliable resource for divers in the field, especially if you get into a lot of boat diving. A book is handy, gives an idea of what type of fish you saw and sets you up for the inevitable internet confirmation. Be ready to revise things though!
As a final note before the conclusion, scientific diving taken past the REEF and PADI level is a level of professional diving. You can get paid to dive with this particular skill set once you’ve developed it to the appropriate level. In Canada, scientific dives are also occupational dives, and count towards commercial dive training and experience. In British Columbia though, only university divers can get “paid” to do scientific or research dives with only scientific diver training. If you want to go into the private sector, aside from a preference for degrees in related fields, you have be a trained and certified occupational diver (restricted or unrestricted) to legally be employed as a scientific diver.
For divers looking to get a more out of their dives or looking to get involved in conservation, scientific studies, or serious wreck exploration, scientific diving skills are a natural step in their evolution of skills and knowledge. The nice thing about it is you can take it to whatever level you’re comfortable with, whether it’s being a weekend fish and invertebrate spotter, a university research diver or a full on commercial diver with a scientific tendency. I can guarantee on thing though, getting involved in scientific diving at any level is an experience that will enhance all the diving you do afterwards!