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.
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.
What is scientific diving and how do I get qualified to do it at UW?
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.
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.
Getting Started: What to look for in a dive shop or Open Water certification
The Seattle area is blessed with a variety of great dive shops. Different dive shops teach diving via different recreational SCUBA agencies including (but not limited to): PADI, NAUI, SSI, SDI, NASDS, and ANDI. These are mostly equivalent with a few differences in costs, the number of final open-water dives, and some different methods of approaching certain skills. If, for example, you start off with a NAUI Open Water certification that doesn’t mean you can’t switch it up and decide to proceed with a PADI Advanced certification.
All these SCUBA agencies have the same goal. That is, to provide you with the skills and knowledge you need to keep yourself (and your buddy) safe underwater. Therefore, you should go with the dive shop (or instructor) that makes you feel the safest and most comfortable. As a recreational diver, you’re the customer and you’re entitled to ask as many questions as you have.
What basic gear do I need? How much could I expect to spend on gear and training?
Basic SCUBA gear for cold water includes the following:
Mask and snorkel
Fins and booties (if boots aren’t already attached to your suit)
Gloves (can be wet or dry if attached to a dry suit. If wet, at least 5mm is highly recommended)
Hood (there are different styles of hoods for use with a wet suit vs. a dry suit)
Suit (wet or dry. If wet, needs to be 7mm, either 1 piece or 2 piece. If dry, some extra instruction will be required)
BCD (Buoyancy Compensation Device)
Regulator. This includes a first stage which attaches to the cylinder, a primary second stage to breathe from, a secondary second stage (also known as an ‘octopus’ for your buddy in an emergency), a SPG (submersible pressure gauge which shows air pressure in your tank and depth), and a low pressure hose to attach to your BCD (and a second lp hose for your dry suit. Generally if you purchase a new dry suit, it’ll come with a low-pressure hose to attach to your first stage)
A dive computer (optional but recommended)
Basic Open Water training costs are generally in the neighborhood of $500. Gear may be provided during the course, or students may be required to purchase a few minimum personal items (like masks).
Purchasing an entire kit of gear can cost anywhere from $1000 to $3000 or more, depending on brands and styles. If you purchase used gear, make sure your regulator or BCD has passed an inspection within the past year (and it’s perfectly acceptable to request those records. If you proceed toward scientific diver training, the UW DSO will want to see current inspection records for these items).
What are the UW Underdawgs?
The Underdawgs are an informal recreational SCUBA club founded by UW undergrads in 1973. Craig Gillespie, the owner of Seattle SCUBA School, was one of its founders. To this day, he offers Underdawgs 20% discount off tuition on classes and 50% off rental gear for as long as they are in school and associated with the club.
Over the past decade, it’s had a couple of leaders who have organized events and even created some very cool T-shirts.
It currently exists mainly as a Facebook group, which is a great place to announce/find diving opportunities or to find dive buddies. But with the new Marine Biology major and a new generation of undergrads, this may be the perfect time for the club to see a resurgence in enthusiasm and organization!