Leah Houghton pulls on her wetsuit, shrugs into her weight belt, tank, and buoyancy vest, then slips over the side of a boat into balmy seas to count baby fish hiding in coral crevices. Erich Horgan hovers 60 feet below the sea surface, scanning the blue space that surrounds him and the four other divers attached to him by 30-foot lines. Pat Lohmann dons a dry suit on a wintry day on Cape Cod—the multiple layers take half an hour to put on—then grabs his tools and splashes into the icy seawater to switch out batteries on underwater instrument.
All three are researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) who were doing scientific scuba diving, a valuable but unheralded means of doing oceanographic research.
Oceanographers use tools and techniques ranging from nets to autonomous robots. Most measure or take samples while scientists stay on board a ship or ashore. Instruments can substitute for people’s hands and eyes, taking measurements more frequently, for longer timespans, in deeper waters and worse conditions than people can. But scuba is the one technique lets the scientists extend their own reach under water.
"The diving program at WHOI provides access to the shallow ocean for people who need to observe or manipulate things, in places where you can't do that with a remote device," said Larry Madin, WHOI director of research and a scientific diver. "It's much more effective to be there in person and be able to see what you're doing."
In the 1950s and 1960s, as scuba diving became popular for recreation, it also became a standard tool for research and equipment support. Scientific diving, though, is not the same as recreational scuba diving, even when it's done in the same places.
"We distinguish scientific diving from both recreational diving on the one hand and commercial diving on the other," said Madin. "Recreational divers go to have a nice time and can go or not as they choose. Commercial divers, on the other hand, work in difficult conditions, have a job to do, and a schedule to meet.
“Somewhere in between is scientific diving: We have a job to do, but it's a job of our own choosing, because it's our own research. We have a certain amount of choice in how we do it, but it's more than just going for fun, and we're probably going to be using more complex or unusual equipment than a recreational diver, doing tasks we need to complete in a certain time length, and being responsible for collecting data and samples, and at the same time, for diving safely and looking after the people with us."
Scientific diving requires specialized training, and the WHOI diving program provides that. WHOI has had just three diving safety officers: David Owen (1953-1980), Terry Rioux (1980-2010), and Edward O'Brien (currently). The program they developed over the years has trained and certified 418 divers in all, preparing them for whatever conditions their research requires and helping them maintain their expertise.
"It isn't leisure," said O'Brien. We have a saying here: The science controls the diving." Divers come to him with a problem, describing what they want to do under water, he said. Then they talk about it and come up with a solution that safely enables the research.
"It's all in the training," he said. "Everything's possible if you take it in small bits and focus on the task."
WHOI belongs to the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), the professional organization established by scientific divers from research institutions around the country. AAUS defines what scientific diving consists of, promotes safe procedures and guidelines, and keeps track of safety records. A diver certified at WHOI can travel to another AAUS institution and be accepted as a diver with acknowledgement of their qualifications.
These three narrated audio slideshows profile different kinds of diving that WHOI researchers do in the course of their work.
Voyages into the Antarctic Winter
Oceanus magazine story about research on krill in Antarctica
Antarctic expedition slideshow
A glimpse at cold-water diving from Dive & Discover
Antarctic Water Wear
Dive and Discover article on diving and drysuits
The Watery World of Salps
Article by Larry Madin, blue water diver and salp researcher
Dive and Discover interview with Larry Madin
Interview with zooplankton biologist Larry Madin
Dye Sheds Light on Jet-Propelled Salps
A graduate student reveals locomotion in the ocean
Transparent Animal May Play Overlooked Role in the Ocean
Oceanus magazine story on the critical role salps play in the ocean system
A photo gallery of animals from the Census of Marine Zooplankton cruise
Images of animals that live in the open ocean
The benefits of being there. This video spotlights researchers using scuba in shallow water. These scientists, working on coral reefs, fish ecology, or seafloor topography, require uninterrupted lengths of time or close work in small areas, which are impossible to do by free diving or snorkeling. Scuba allows them time to observe and the experience of being in the environment yields insights beyond experimental results.
Diving in the open ocean. This video describes a specialized diving technique that lets biologists study the ocean's most fragile beings—soft, transparent animals such as jellyfish that are crushed by traditional tools such as plankton nets. Scientists had to find a way to spend time where these gelatinous animals live—inside the bottomless blue open ocean, drifting with the plankton.
An audio slideshow on going to extremes for research. This video shows the focus needed to do scientific work in cold water. The gear is bulkier and heavier, cold affects dexterity and capacity, and dives must be shorter to compensate yet still get the job done. Scientific divers work in winter, in the high latitudes, or in the Arctic or Antarctic. They collect or handle animals, do experiments, or perform maintenance on submerged equipment—work requiring caution and experience.