An often unsung hero of the realms of underwater exploration and conservation is the humble Underwater Naturalist. Frequently armed with formidable local knowledge and capable of amassing large amounts of information, the Underwater Naturalist can be a boon to researchers and scientists alike as they conduct their own more thorough studies. Thanks to groups like Reef.org and Cousteau Divers, more and more divers are becoming naturalists in addition to sport divers, contributing greatly to ongoing ocean studies with volumes of population data. In addition, rare species sightings will of come from sport divers before scientists, if for no other reason than there are more divers than scientists! This entry is for those who are looking to become serious underwater naturalist.
Education and training are the first big steps on the road to becoming a naturalist. Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re already a diver. If not, unless you’re solely interested in the intertidal zone, it’s time to become a diver! In a previous article, I went over what certifications I’d recommend as a general rule for divers. The only addition to this list is the Underwater Naturalist course (for obvious reasons). This course is available through PADI, SSI and SDI/TDI/ERDI amongst others. Be aware though, it’s not offered by all dive centres, so you may need to search the sites themselves to find out what dive centres offer the courses you need. The Underwater Naturalist course will give you a basic understanding of marine ecosystems, how the ocean works, and how to identify different types of flora and fauna. While this alone will prep you for what’s up next, the next step is actually the hardest.
Learning what’s what is the next big step. Each ecosystem is a little different, and offers a host of new challenges for identifying what you’ve seen on a dive. Personally, I’ve dived the indo-pacific, tropical pacific and pacific northwest the most, with a smattering of dives in the mediterranean. The end result has been an explosion of books on marine life and the ocean on my bookshelves. I have 35 books on the subjects of diving, marine life and sciences; and there are literally dozens upon dozens more books on the topic that I’d love to have! My collection is here at LibraryThing, in the Underwater Naturalist collection. The point is, you’ll have to get good at recognizing marine life while in the water, and good at using identifying features to figure out what you saw after you get out of the water. This is where groups like the afore mentioned REEF.org and Cousteau Divers step up, with guides and tests to get you on top your game when you hit the water. Of course, having a camera will help as well, because if you see something unfamiliar, you can snap a picture and check it out later with your new marine life identification books!
Records and surveys are the next area. If you’re using a large organization like REEF.org or Cousteau Divers, you can submit your surveys to them, and they can build the information into a coherent record of population trends. If you’re working on your own, you’ll have to keep track of things on your own. Create a filing system and keep both hard and digital copies of your information. Take photos and keep them with the relevant files as well. Another route is to do what I’ve done, and build an online presence with a photo database for people to use. Information doesn’t do much good unless it’s accessible and organized!
Now, there are things you can do to become a better naturalist or to make your work safer and more professional and more usable by the public and scientists alike. Getting training to Rescue Diver (or equivalent thereof) level and as a Scientific Diver will make you a more proficient diver and observer, as well as teach you how to use some scientific methods to gather information. Marine Research Stations, universities and colleges often run naturalist applicable courses, and a bit of adult learning can never hurt! A great resource for information is you local library; in the modern age of the internet, libraries now offer online access to peer reviewed scientific papers, magazine articles, and more! If there is a particular item you want to watch or study, the library might be a better place to start, as the reference librarians can quickly amass a large amount of information sources for you (without having to weed through online search results that may or may not be what you actually want). Using all the resources available to you, combined with better training and education will definitely put you on the right track to becoming a good Underwater Naturalist.
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