Photo courtesy of Angie Edmunds. Student diver in the deep.

Submerged in science 

Scientific diving certification offers a way to dive deep into marine studies

By: Alina Ferguson and Emma Wilson

Diving can take you to magical, strange places that can be beneficial to science, research and our understanding of the oceanic unknown. There are still many mysteries to be discovered in the deep sea. 

“Humans are not meant to be submerged underwater,” Cal Poly Humboldt diving student Rory Bourdage said. “We are aliens in that world.” 

At Cal Poly Humboldt, students can enter that alien world through the scientific diving courses offered. This can lead to them getting certified in scientific diving, along with hands-on experience in conducting underwater research and preparing them for a career in marine science. 

Richard Alvarez, the university’s Diving Safety Officer since 2005, has been diving since 1994. He consults and oversees the diving classes, making sure everyone is staying safe and equipped with diving equipment that is properly maintained. 

When you go through the scientific diving process, you can get your certificate in American Academy and Underwater Sciences — also known as AAUS — for free through Cal Poly Humboldt. It will take about four semesters, as the classes are not always offered each term. 

“To get that certification as a scientific diver, you have to do 12 open water dives,” said Alvarez. “What we traditionally do is we learn a scientific protocol, we have people go out and they learn that protocol, they show me that they can do it in the ocean, [that] they can do the extra scientific stuff in addition to being safe scuba divers.” 

Photo by Angie Edmunds. Master diver students completing a navigation dive under the supervision of leadership diving students and instructors.

Scientific diving is an important skill to have for conducting underwater research, but is also physically and mentally challenging. Common barriers for aspiring divers are the expense, access to training and gear required for getting the AAUS certification. 

“[There’s] a lot of things that you have to learn so that you can do it safely. Diving in Northern California waters is a couple of notches higher than most other places because our ocean is just a little bit more demanding,” Alvarez said. “We are exposed to a lot of open ocean swells, we see a lot of ocean energy. Our visibility is pretty limited by world standards. You know, we’re pretty happy with five to 10-foot visibility.”

Marine biology student Rory Bourdage has been in the scientific diving class for almost three years. He is currently a teaching assistant for the scientific diving class. Bourdage is certified as a beginner diver and as a master diver. 

One of the projects the class conducts is measuring sea creatures, sometimes down to the nearest millimeter, depending on their rarity. For example, a red abalone, an underwater sea snail, will need to be measured as accurately as possible. 

“In our protocol for the class, we want to measure abalone, for example, since they have been struggling for years, so we want to track not only how many there are in a location, but how big they are getting to get a better idea of their recovery – or decline if that’s the trend that is found,” said Bourdage.

Bourdage mentioned that it is easier to conduct research in certain areas since the animals are less likely to be afraid of humans. An example of one such place is Catalina Island situated southwest of Los Angeles, a marine protected area. 

Photo by Angie Edmunds. Student diver and the California state fish called a Garibaldi.

This means they heavily restrict what can go in and out of it. Due to these restrictions, the animals are a lot more comfortable with people, compared to other places and sometimes they will come right up to you. 

“Many of these animals have gone generations without having the fear of humans,”  said Bourdgae. “They can get right up in your face.”

Rebecca Colyar is a transfer student who started in the scientific program two years ago. She is originally from Fresno, CA, and when she was looking for schools to apply to, Cal Poly Humboldt was the only one to have a scientific diving program, which caught her eye. 

Colyar’s interest in diving began the summer before her freshman year in high school after her mom took her snorkeling in the Bahamas.

“That was the one big thing that got me really into ocean life and documentaries,” Colyar said. “I kind of realized if I wanted to do that, if I wanted to tag animals, that I have to scuba dive, like there’s no other way than to start learning how to dive and be comfortable in the water. So, I found out about the scientific diving minor.”

Colyar is, in a way, a superhero. A large obstacle that may normally scare off some divers, does not deter her. 

“I have a superpower — I can breathe underwater,” Colyar said. “It’s just that, like, feeling of being in a place where your body knows you’re not supposed to be, and being able to overcome those obstacles that your body and fighting your body to. I feel like there’s a lot of accomplishing hard things.”

While it may seem like the only people in the diving program are science majors, it is not a requirement. You can have any major or other interest, just as long as you are willing to put in the work for the AAUS certification. 

“You don’t have to be a STEM major or Marine Science major, you can be anybody,” Bourdage said. “As long as you have the willingness to, you know, take the plunge into the unknown.”

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