Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wayback Wednesday!

As I am incredibly swamped this weekend, I decided to take a quick trip down memory lane. I recently stumbled upon an essay I wrote back in 2008 when I was between Masters/PhD about scientific diving. It was supposed to be part of a larger collection of essays about the different type of SCUBA divers but only the first one was ever written. I will be back to new stuff Friday ;)

Scientific diving. The very nature of the phrase signals the end of your recreational diving days. SCUBA ceases to be about blowing bubbles and becomes a tool for the greater good of scientific discovery. Upon entering the world of science diving, there is no turning back.
            Once you were a nervous open-water student, standing on the edge of a boat waiting with excitement and trepidation at taking that first giant stride into the underwater world. Jaw clenched around the regulator with one small step for man, the chilly sea rushed over you and changed you forever. Suddenly weightless, drifting slowly down like a feather falling from a great height, the marvelous achievement of breathing underwater was fascinating. At first the only sounds you are aware of is the metallic sound of your own breath though the regulator. You can not help but think of Darth Vadar and mutter softly “Luke, I am your father”. Each breath shoots streams of bubbles racing to the surface, glittering like gems in the sunlight. The diversity of the ocean critters staggered your imagination before you took the plunge, now existing as one of them it is even more unfathomable.
            In the beginning, inhabiting the three dimensional world is awkward, floating and sinking wildly. Every small movement produces gangly results that make you feel like a baby just learning to toddle. However, with time, you learn to streamline your body more, easing your passage through the liquid. Each fin kick starts to bring elegance out of clumsiness. Each dive teaches the finesse of manipulating your buoyancy, up when you want to go up, down when you want to go down, until eventually, perfectly suspending yourself in this 3D environment. Once buoyancy and breathing become second nature, your thoughts change from survival to exploration. For some this takes on the appearance of becoming global divers, seeking out new habitats. For others a camera is added to the basic SCUBA equipment, to attempt to bring pieces of your wet world onto land. And there are those who pick up hunting, adding food to your table from beneath the sea caught with your own hand. Then there is a smaller group, those that pick up bizarre and unique equipment to conduct scientific research, like me.
            Research – studious inquiry or examination aimed at the discovery and interpretation of new knowledge. New knowledge truly is the aim of scientific discovery. Oh sure scientists wrap it in a package of how it will impact or improve mankind but in reality the heart of research is simple discovery, the answer to every three year olds standard question of “Why?”.  My particular research to this point has been focusing on coral reefs, particularly the photosynthesis that occurs within their symbiotic algae. This particular algae is known as zooxanthellae or by its genus of Symbiodinium. The nice part of this is that coral reefs are only found in beautiful tropical and sometimes exotic locations such as the Florida Keys, Hawaii, Belize, Australia, etc. etc. Rough places to dive, full of warm, clear water. It is a dirty job but someone has to do it!
Using the Diving-PAM
Personally, those first few research dives were more harrowing than my first open water dive. No, I was not scared of dying but I was taking a $20,000 piece of equipment with me! This particular piece of equipment is used to measure photosynthetic activity and is cylindrical in shape and can be quite a drag, literally destroys your streamlined form underwater and has the added bonus of appearing as a bomb in airport X-ray to make sure travel is not simple. It is known as PAM, and is a 15 in long cylinder with a diameter of 7.5 in and a 3 ft fiber optic cable coming out of one end. The cylinder casing is impressively sturdy even while getting scuffed up when it is banged against rocks, boats, other divers, and yet the delicate internal machinery is not affected. The Achilles Heel is that evil cable. The optics are made of glass, very thin glass that is surprisingly pliable but if you bend the cable to hard you can break them. As each one breaks it leaves pin prick black dead zones in your light transmission and reception through the cable. The movement of light through this cable is very critical to the proper measurement of the health of the photosynthetic process so even single fiber breaks can have large impacts on the accuracy of the readings.
Another critical piece of equipment that accompanies our research group is a light meter. It 
Setting up the light meter
simply records the amount of light passing through the water column so that we know exactly how much light the coral is receiving. This is a little more precise than the weatherman’s grading system of sunny, partly sunny, partly cloudy etc. The fun part of this piece of equipment is that it is meant for use in aquariums, therefore the sensor is water proof; however, the logger is not. This is a common problem found in underwater research, how in the world do you get that to work underwater?! Solution: Jury-rigging! Most experienced underwater scientists would give MacGyver a run for his money with their improvisational skills, but with cable ties in place of duct tape. In this particular case, we had a custom housing made for the non-waterproof logger. Unfortunately, the company that made our housing simply cut a stock cylindrical piece of plexi-glass with a diameter the width of the logger. This would not have been a problem except for the fact that the length of the cylinder was a good 6 inches longer than the unit! The amount of extra air that gets trapped when sealing the air-tight lid results in a positive buoyancy that can not be overcome with less than 15 pounds! Adding the weight inside the cylinder might damage the logger in transit to the bottom, therefore we return to the underwater scientist’s best friend – cable ties. With a quick flick of the wrist you zip weights to the outside of the cylinder ensuring it will not float away with the pricey logger. Once these weights are attached, the lucky diver assigned to deploy the logger simply rides the housing down like a missile and then at the end of the dive struggles with all their might and a BC full of air to make headway inches at a time to the surface.
While all scientists are smart, the most important feature of working underwater is the ability to improvise and jury-rig. This includes building your own equipment or accessories to get the job done. Grey PVC pipe, cork stops, and rubber bands can be combined to make dark acclimation platforms for the good ol’ PAM. Pexi-glass, screws, bolts and Petri dishes can be fashioned into chambers for chemical or nutrient studies. Or for smaller applications, Ziploc bags cable tied to things works just as well. With my brain, and a BC pocket full of cable ties, I feel confident jumping in to the world of scientific diving.
One final note: all underwater research requires permits and permission from the waters owner, private or government, before being conducted. If you are interested in following research beneath the waves check out the Aquarius habitat ( the American Association for Underwater Scientists ( for more information.

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