Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Not long ago, I helped a colleague, Dr. Judith Connor from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, on her first scuba dive in Antarctica. This was a bit of change for me, since I’m usually the person who gets to go underwater. On this expedition though, diving under the ice took somewhat of a backseat, as I was busy in the laboratory working on a research project focused on characterizing the presence of amino acid transporter genes in the embryos and larvae of echinoderms.
Tenders are an important part of the diving operations at McMurdo Station, which is the largest research station in Antarctica. Not only do they help the divers put on their heavy, cumbersome gear (e.g., weight belt, tank, mask, gloves) — but also help take it all off when they emerge back through the dive hole.
This is no small task, as the typical diver going under the ice is wearing nearly 100 pounds of gear! Additionally, dive tenders ensure that all research data and specimens are properly stowed and secured for the trip back to the research station.
Being that this was Connor’s first Antarctic dive, she was excited. If she was at all nervous, I couldn’t tell. Thinking back to my first ice dive, I was a wreck — what was I thinking, a guy born and raised in Los Angeles, jumping into below-freezing water through a shoulder-width hole in the ice?
Despite my angst, I remember having a great time, and was glad to see a smiling dive tender when I bobbed to the surface. Needless to say, Connor’s first dive was flawless. And, yes, in case you were wondering, I proudly schlepped her gear on and off, and had a great big smile on my face as she climbed out of the dive hole.
Fast-forward to the present and not a whole lot has changed. Although, instead of conducting dive operations in below freezing conditions, I’m leading a diving-centric field course to the tropical waters of Guam and Palau to examine coral reef health and biodiversity.
My co-instructor Professor Jim Haw and I lead undergraduate students as they work hands-on with local scientists and resource managers to study ecosystem management strategies, the environmental impacts of a major defense buildup, and invasive and endangered species. Nothing beats diving in 82 degree F water; dive tenders are a nice touch, but there isn’t a whole lot of gear to wrangle when all you’re wearing are swim trunks and a 4-pound weight belt!
Throughout the course, our students spend a lot of time underwater (nearly 25 dives total) performing transect surveys to quantify the abundance and distribution of key benthic invertebrate and reef fish indicator species. Because indicator organisms are not handled and anthropogenic disturbance is minimized, these methods are useful for recording data in marine protected areas, which serve as the primary locations for our research studies.
Such surveys provide an alternative to traditional and more disruptive methods such as the collection and removal of organisms from reef habitats for later analysis. This is, in fact, the exact opposite of my role as a science diver in Antarctica in which my goal was to collect and retrieve on a near daily basis sea urchins and sea stars from McMurdo Sound for laboratory experiments.
As my colleague Gerry Smith, Dive Safety Officer at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, noted in a previous blog post, “[our program] trains students to be effective underwater researchers…as well as safe and reliable divers.” For some students there is clear evidence that the Guam and Palau experience significantly altered their educational trajectory. For example, just this past year alone, new plans were made for graduate studies, study abroad programs, and marine-coastal themed internships. Above or below the water, I find teaching and mentoring students fulfilling because it offers an opportunity for me to engage and collaborate with the next generation of scholars, and I find that I am constantly expanding my own worldviews as a result.
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