Scientific Diving Defined

By Jeanne Bear Sleeper

Scientists scuba dive to gather information. This might include collecting samples, observing animal behavior, recording which organisms inhabit an area, searching for artifacts or photographing underwater habitats or organisms. Like recreational divers, some scientific diving is for the purpose of merely seeing what’s there and looking for new critters, behaviors and underwater formations.

Diving under the auspices of an educational institution, governmental agency or nongovernmental agency is often conducted in a different manner than a recreational dive. There are many more guidelines and restrictions and more stringent training requirements. Some university programs require 100 hour long scuba certification courses with rigorous watermanship and academic testing and a full medical examination every one to three years. Educational institutions have diving control boards that monitor compliance with detailed policies and procedures. The diving safety officer is responsible for ensuring that divers follow the regulations and meet competency requirements. Working scientific divers cannot be worried about how to scuba dive; their focus is data collection.

Other rule setting and enforcing entities include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Worker’s Compensation and insurance carriers. General guidelines for scientific divers are promulgated by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS). Military diving regulations incorporate many of these agencies’ concepts but, owing to the nature of its mission, the military ultimately establishes its own protocol. Military diving is not generally considered scientific diving.

All groups setting guidelines for scientific diving share the common goal of diver safety. Scientific diving takes place in every possible underwater environment. Some spots are pretty nasty. Few are in clear, calm, tropical water. Researchers need to collect data at regular intervals and in specific locations. Similar to the post office, neither rain, nor sleet nor snow can stop them from making a dive. Low visibility, fast currents, cold water, big swells, surge, wind and all that Mother Nature can dish up are everyday, on the job challenges for a diving researcher.

Scientists use specialized equipment, assistants and established procedures when collecting data. Their actions need to be repeatable, accurate, quantifiable and documented. The samples collected need highly accurate notations, such as where the sample was collected, method of collection, depth, water temperature, light, salinity and relationship to other similar and dissimilar organisms or data.

Archaeologists locate a potential artifact site, then invest many dives placing a grid system over the area, drawing and photographing items in situ. Where the items lie in relation to one another may be meaningful. The very last underwater step is artifact removal. Then begins the tedious surface tasks of cataloguing, identifying, cleaning and preserving artifact. Scientists frequently spend 5 to 20 hours on the surface or in the lab for every hour spent underwater.

Research projects are typically funded by grants and there is never enough money for all the projects scientists would like to do. Applying for a grant is a slow, painstaking process. Unless your ongoing salary is paid by a business or educational institution, there are often lean times between grants and projects. Your commitment to underwater scientific research must be steadfast to survive the highs and lows of failed experiments, inconsistent data and insufficient fundings.

Maintaining a diving program is expensive. Diving control boards are responsible for training, testing and supervising all diving activities. Tanks, regulators, compressors, dive boats, vehicles, swimming pools, research labs and never ending material and supply needs add up to big dollars even before staff wages and office costs are tacked on. Rarely are people hired just because they are divers, even if they have a comprehensive logbook. A business or school hires a biologist or chemist who also is a certified, and hopefully experienced, diver. Multi-talented and trained people have an easier time finding employment.

Some programs use volunteer recreational scuba divers to assist with scientific projects. These are great opportunities for young divers to get a look at the world of professional work that involves diving. In most instances, the volunteer diver pays a fee for room and board in the project’s remote location and works long, hard hours for free. Don’t forget to sign up early because these choice spots go fast!

Volunteer divers on scientific projects (as opposed to a local one day beach cleanup) need specialized skills. It is common for projects to require first aid and CPR certification, open water scuba certification, presentation of a logbook with at least 50 dives in varying conditions, strong swimming skills, a medical exam and approval for diving, passing a written theory exam, providing all dive gear and signing a detailed legal document: (Acknowledgment of the Risks). Volunteers are expected to abide by the diving operations and safety rules and regulations of the sponsoring organization.


The pursuit of scientific knowledge and the joy of the underwater environment have combined to become a lifelong career for many divers. This is a path with many rules but unlimited horizons. It is a constant challenge to find funding but a reward of immeasurable proportion to name a newly discovered marine organism. Scientific diving is one tool used by researchers in their quest for knowledge.

For more information, write to the American Academy of Sciences, 430 Nahant, Nahant, Massachusetts 01908; (617) 599-7114.