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The Science of Sport Diving

Want to work on a science diving project? Good news. You don’t have to be a scientist. And for you non-divers out there, here’s another good reason to get certified and help Planet Ocean 

Text by Evan Kovacs & Chad Smith 

Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI - Maryann Kovacs
Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI – Maryann Kovacs

The family is out. You alone have dominion over the DVR; the flat screen belongs to you. Life is sweet. Cue the ocean documentary. It’s your time for that tropical seas adventure, to encounter bizarre life forms in the shallows and the deep, to swim through a centuries old shipwreck. Escape is the order of the evening, to slip into that Zen-like state as you drift – vicariously – through the blue mystery of our liquid world. Enveloped in the peace and quiet of that fluid moment you hear a whisper… your inner voice, that reliable truth-sayer, with a message loud and clear: could do that… could so do that. Truer words have not been spoken and you should listen to them.

SCUBA diving cross cuts a wide spectrum of recreational and professional activity. Whether a vacationing sport diver, a scientist, a military or police diver, a SCUBA instructor, a pro videographer, you name it, all of us draw on skills from the same toolbox when it comes to self-contained diving. Neutral buoyancy. Situational awareness. Monitoring your gas. Minding your buddy. Whatever you’re up to down there, it’s thumbs up to all of the above. 

We’re Serious

With this reality in mind, allow us to introduce you to the small but significant world of scientific diving and to urge you to seize available opportunities that can be found the world over. If this idea excites you, if you would like to contribute to science and conservation in the water world, then know that if you’re a good diver the door is open. Your involvement might be by way of career choice, part time work, volunteering, something someone said to you… maybe reading this story.

That’s it. That’s all that separates you from the diver on your TV, at least in the United States. Rules and regulations are a factor and they will differ from one country to the next. That said, we encourage any diver to explore the possibilities where they are, and to be persistent if you believe you can contribute to a scientific effort in need of competent divers. The will can lead the way.

Don’t be too hasty to shake your head. We’re serious.

Angela Richards Donà inspects a tagged coral  at Marsa Alam, Egypt. Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI - Maryann Kovacs
Angela Richards Donà inspects a tagged coral
at Marsa Alam, Egypt. Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI – Maryann Kovacs

We’ve been all over the world diving for science and neither of us is a scientist. Evan Kovacs was fortunate to find the sport at a young age. Later, as a recovering actor, the solace of diving helped him deal with what then became a very successful backstage career. On set he learned how to use lighting to create mood and effect, knowledge that led to a second career working and filming underwater. After five years of documentary filming he hooked up with an imaging lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) where his skills are put to good use helping design and use camera systems on an array of underwater vehicles and on dive projects around the world.

Chad Smith is a Merchant Marine officer certified as an open water diver at age 14 and who has been active since, continuing his diving education through his local dive shop in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Eventually, he was hired as a contractor to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Today, we both work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, building our careers in support of scientific research. To emphasize the point, our skills were honed and mastered through local dive centers, not from some advanced training center. There are many stories we could cite in support of this idea. The fashion designer sidebar is just one.

Active and Curious

Our advice? Stay active. Dive regularly. Always seek to learn something new. Knowledge through continuing education is the foundation of your scientific diving adventure, and this opportunity to acquire new skills and experience is readily available to you. The next step in this journey is to find the opportunities where your talents can support scientific and conservation efforts.

And need we state the obvious: this is a time for thinking outside the proverbial box.

Scientists examine corals on Micronesian wall. Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI - Maryann Kovacs
Scientists examine corals on Micronesian wall. Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI – Maryann Kovacs

From universities to aquariums, from government to NGOs, there’s a world of places to look. Start by searching in your own area, your professional network and, of course, a good old-fashioned Internet search with a little help from the engine of your choice. Do you see yourself steering your education and career towards science or would you simply like to add more purpose to your weekend recreation? It’s a question you may not know the answer to right away, and that’s okay… really. The cliché is correct! Life is about the journey. 

In the United States, scientific diving is defined as a distinctly separate discipline in the Federal Code and certification falls under two primary bodies: the American Academy of Underwater Sciences ( and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( If you learn of an opportunity that requires such a certification, check out these web links, they provide a wealth of information.

A scientific diver is mission-oriented in addition to being safe, as with any diver. This means that your core skills learned in open water must become second nature. In scientific diving more is being asked of you. Diving to depth may be to perform experiments, record observations or service instruments. Advanced tasks such as sample collection, documentation and maintenance are a matter of routine when diving for science. Often, when there is much to accomplish on a dive, a person is added to supervise the task-loaded team. This person monitors the group, is responsible for the situational awareness big picture and is at the ready to assist the team in their work or in an emergency.

Becky Kagan Schott at Yellowstone National Park.  Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI - Maryann Kovacs
Becky Kagan Schott at Yellowstone National Park.
Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI – Maryann Kovacs

Sound familiar?

Divemasters play an important and not dissimilar role in scientific diving, just as they do in the recreational context. So does this person need to be a scientist or specialist of some kind on the mission team? Not at all. What this person must be is a divemaster: skilled, alert and responsible.

Photographic Record

Another role of a scientific support diver involves photographic documentation of submerged features. It’s one thing to put your favourite pictures on Facebook and quite another to document subjects that provide researchers with a wealth of data they’ll scrutinize for weeks, months or even years. In science it’s sometimes the most benign of photographic records, lackluster to the non-scientific eye, that becomes the catalyst for a major scientific breakthrough (see Rocks Star sidebar). If you’re good with a camera there are researchers out there in need of your skills. And even if your photo or video skills are average don’t let that stop you. You will improve and, trust us, there’s a scientist somewhere who needs you. Never let your equipment be an excuse either. Whatever you have, put it to use, put in the work and you may end up connecting with some well-funded and equipped scientists. As ever, patience and practice are key. Scientists need basic shots from species ID and fish count photos to site survey and characterization imagery. It really doesn’t take much to get started. 

So, if you like wrecks and sunken cities, talk to archaeologists. If marine animals and ecosystems are your thing, talk to marine biologists. For whales and dolphins seek out marine mammal specialists. And if it’s that sub-seascape that captures your imagination, then you can share your mutual interest with a marine geologist. 

What scientific diving is not could fill volumes. Don’t be misled. Science diving is not the stuff of science fiction. It is not difficult. It is not a secret. For those of us in a supporting role, it is the particular skills you learn from your local dive instructor, in one of many courses offered by any number of established certification agencies doing business across North America and around the world. Once again, we say learn well and dive often. Practice your skills so they are second nature. As you become more accomplished you will acquire a unique ability that the whole of oceanographic science could benefit from and it is only left for you to start making those inquires that will earn you a place in a scientific undertaking.

There’s no shortage of glossy images and well-written articles that spotlight expeditions of all kinds and the men and women who lead them. Behind their successes are support teams that often include skilled SCUBA divers who have trained at their own expense through local dive centers. Consider lending your abilities to the job of furthering our scientific knowledge for the betterment of humankind and this planet. 

Opportunities abound so put down the remote, dear reader, pull up Google, and see what we are talking about. 

Editor’s Note: In future issues DIVER will look at a number of scientific expeditions from the standpoint of support divers. 

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