Angela Edmunds on a scientific dive in Mendocino County. | Photo by Hanna Johnston

HSU takes a dive underwater

What HSU's scientific diving program is like
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When the coast is right at the fingertips of Humboldt State University Students, some are finding interest in the scientific diving program. This underwater scuba program gives students opportunities to learn about what is in the water around us and take a peaceful and informative dive.

“The HSU dive program has a phenomenal reputation around the world, so one of the benefits is simply having HSU diver or HSU scientific diver on your resume. It really means something,” said Scientific Diving Instructor Hanna Johnston.

As one of the very few schools that has scientific diving as a minor, students are given unique opportunities. Johnston calls it the “greatest gift of all” to work with the program again after she had gone through it as an HSU student.

“The scientific diving program at HSU is a very rare and unique program that I feel very honored for being in, being part of that because it’s like a little family you create,” said alumna Jessica Ramirez who minored in the program and was on the 2020 HSU brochure cover.

Some of the fan favorite finds are nudibranchs, octopuses, crabs, bioluminescent plankton and bull kelp.

“The amount of time we get to spend training our divers allows for really honing people skills and making them really highly qualified and comfortable and competent in our pretty dynamic and challenging ocean conditions which means that when they travel the world they can tend to adapt very quickly to whatever environment they are moving to,” said Diving Safety Officer Richard Alvarez.

The students conduct research through many different programs, including Reef Check California and Marine Protected Area Monitoring Program to see what’s changing, the health of reefs, and what is out there.

The divers go all over, from Humboldt County to Mendocino and even Catalina Island.

When COVID-19 hit, the divers had a new challenge. Everything changed according to Johnston, and the instructors spent a whole summer redesigning the program to work with the students.

“I always feel really really lucky and fortunate to have been able to do face to face in the fall and looking forward to the face to face in the spring because I know every instructor at HSU kind of craves that interpersonal relationship with their students and being able to do that makes all of the COVID precautions well worth it,” said Alvarez.

Students who have just joined the program know no other, but others see huge changes.

“It’s so great to see them smiling under their masks every day, or when we see them in person,” Johnston said.

Ramirez, Johnston, and Alvarez each find their own joy in the program and the community it brings.

“There’s just little moments of every dive where you find just amazing beauty and interest that it’s hard to catalogue it all but there’s moments of wonder every time,” Alvarez said.

Ramirez said the program is unlike other classes and schoolwork. It provides a breakaway from stress for students.

“You are no longer having to do math problems or anything like that,” Ramirez said. “You kinda just forget about that whole part of school and deadlines, like you’re just kinda in the present moment of doing what you’re told to do underwater and it’s very peaceful.”

Ramirez and Johnston see it as more than classwork, but as a learning community.

“Whether I’m seeing them doing masked off buddy breathing [pre pandemic] or doing new skills for the first time and seeing that light in their eyes when they complete something, usually with no problem that they didn’t even think they’d attempt, it’s just the most magical feeling,” said Johnston.

Alvarez says it’s a learning experience for himself and the students.

“Working with students is just so refreshing and something that there are a lot of things in my brain that I’ve experienced for many many years and you just never know when a student is going to have that same experience but have a different way of affecting them or having a different way of describing it that just unlocks it in a new way for me too,” Alvarez said.

Students have gone all over the world after being in the program, one even working for NASA.

“Being adjacent to that and being a part of that journey is really part of the reward for me,” Alvarez said.

Students have to pass a diving physical and take the prerequisite course, then the courses are available.

“Every dive is its own unique thing which is what brings me back is that I’m never going to have the same dive even in locations where I’ve done tons of diving,” Alvarez said.

You can find more information about the program @hsu_diving on Instagram.

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