Gaining access to the subtidal realm isn’t just beautiful and mind-expanding, it can also open up a world of opportunities for a Marine Biologist.

P. Kitaeff
2011 scientific dive class students deploy from the FHL dock for a practice. (credit: P. Kitaeff)

If you study Marine Biology, you are likely already intrigued by the idea of being able to get in the ocean with the organisms and systems that interest you. So how to get started? The first step toward becoming a SCUBA diver is Open Water certification. This is a course that could take less than a week if it were done intensively (all day/every day) but more frequently takes 1-2 months of weekly meetings for both classroom and confined water (generally in a swimming pool) sessions, and wraps up with 4-6 open-water dives. In each of these sessions, you’ll become familiar with basic dive equipment and practice various skills for how to cope if your equipment malfunctions. In the final open-water dives, you’ll demonstrate the skills you’ve learned for your instructor.

With a basic Open Water certification, you may dive to a depth of 60’/20m and you can rent gear and fill tanks. After that, the next step is the Advanced Open Water certification. The Advanced certification builds on a beginner’s skills by adding in different types of diving such as night diving and deep diving. There is generally no confined water component to an Advanced certification course and it’s often shorter in duration (and usually less expensive) than the initial Open Water course. Proceeding toward an advanced certification is a great way to gain more experience under the supervision of an instructor.

At UW, we don’t offer a basic Open Water certification. We have a Diving Safety Program in the service of scientific diving. In order to become a scientific diver at UW, you must already have (at minimum) a basic Open Water certification.

UW Diving Safety Program

What is scientific diving and how do I get qualified to do it at UW?

Student Caiti Guerin conducting a ‘Uniform Point Count’ survey of invertebrates at South Shaw Island as part of the 2018 Marine Subtidal Ecology course. (credit: A. Lowe)

The UW dive program is an organizational member of AAUS, the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. This is the standard-setting body for scientific diving. These are standards that cover working divers – scientists who need to dive for research purposes. When we train students as scientific divers, the end goal is to create scientists who collect data underwater and follow certain guidelines to ensure they do so safely. AAUS is not equivalent to recreational agencies like PADI or NAUI because its member divers are employees or students, not customers or clients.

In order to become a scientific diver at UW, first you must have work that requires you to be underwater and a sponsor to confirm that work. This could take the form of a paid position or it could be a project that you’re supporting as a student/volunteer. It could also be part of a class, like the Marine Subtidal Ecology course at FHL. Your sponsor (employer, PI, or instructor) will sign your initial registration form to pay your annual scientific diver fees. And finally, before beginning training as a scientific diver, you must be medically cleared via the UW Employee Health Clinic.

American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS)

What’s so great about cold water diving?

Red sea urchins at Shady Cove, San Juan Island. (credit: K. Turner)

The most common depiction of SCUBA diving in movies or TV shows the tropical diver – with no gloves or hood, and maybe just a bathing suit! But there are at least several excellent reasons to dive – and to learn to dive – in cold water.

First and foremost, if you’re a marine biologist at UW you already know that our region is home to stunning kelp beds, walls of anemones, and a plethora of colorful invertebrates. Many of these inverts are attached to the benthos or fairly sedentary so as a diver you have a very good chance of getting to check them out closely. The variety and assemblages of organisms observable ‘below the kelp line’ (approx. 40’ and deeper) can be every bit as beautiful and colorful as a tropical coral reef and often distinct from what’s found in the intertidal. This area is home to the world’s largest octopus. And we also have numerous species of rockfish, several forage fish, and large ling cod, just to name a few.

Training in cold water produces tough and competent divers. Diving in cold water is more involved than tropical diving and it’s not just that it’s a bit colder. Because it’s colder, more exposure gear (wet suit layers or a dry suit) is required. Because a thicker wetsuit is more buoyant, cold water divers need to wear more lead weight. They also need to wear hoods and gloves. Once a diver is accustomed to all that gear and able to accomplish basic skills wearing gloves, they come out of an Open Water course capable of diving pretty much anywhere in the world. If you’ve been trained to dive in the Seattle area, you’ll likely find it relatively easy to don a tropical rig and dive in warm water with a thinner suit and less weight. Conversely, if a diver has been trained in the tropics they will likely need an environmental orientation with a local instructor or divemaster before they feel as comfortable and confident as a brand new Open Water diver who was certified in cold water.

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