Citizen science keeps me pretty busy in my leisure time; I am a Scottish diver that is involved in both Project Baseline and the UK-based recording scheme, Seasearch. When an opportunity came to do more in depth training with a GUE Scientific Diver course I was quick to sign up. Like many things in recent times, the course was put on ice until Covid restrictions were eased, but it was eventually confirmed in late 2021 when our instructor, Diogo Paulo, could travel from Portugal. Diogo is a Researcher and Diving Safety Officer at CCMAR (Centre for Marine Sciences, University of the Algarve). He and my fellow students from England and Germany converged in Scotland; coinciding rather fittingly with COP26 Climate Change Conference which was being held in Glasgow at the time of our course.

Not only did we come from different nations, it turned out we also came from different places in terms of our interests. There were cave enthusiasts, divers that used their skills to investigate wrecks and those, like me, who concentrated their efforts on marine life. The Scientific Diver course has been designed to apply to all of these aspects of diving. There are many concepts and techniques that are the same, regardless of whether you are involved in geology, archaeology, or marine biology. The five-day course included a good chunk of classroom work (fueled by plenty of tea and shortbread) and six dives at local sites.

Not only was I attending the course, but my partner and I were hosting it. We live on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands where we are lucky to have quite a range of places to dive. There are deep, fjord-like sea lochs, kelp forests and seagrass beds all within half an hour of where we live. The catch was that the sites for the course had to be shallow and safely accessible from the shore at the time we wanted to dive them.

Before we could take that step, we needed to do some schoolwork. Diogo described the historical context and legal frameworks that underpinned scientific diving and the academic content quickly segued into techniques and dive planning. In fact, it became apparent that not only was the planning essential, it was also going to take up the greatest amount of time and effort. We were all reminded of those famous five ‘P’s: Proper planning prevents poor performance. The idea is that once you are in the water doing your stuff everything should work like clockwork. In order to make this happen, preliminary activities included creating task codes and activity tables, preparing sample sheets, and organising field drills. Our instructor from Portugal seemed pretty amused when some classic Scottish weather drove us to laying transects in our hallway.

Needless to say, we were all keen to get in the water. Once the standard GUE skills dive was out of the way we moved to trying out some of the methods we had learned in class: site referencing, establishing baselines with datums, radial searches, offset measurements and the use of sampling grids and quadrants. This was the fun bit! Diogo hovered at a respectful distance while the team tried to re-enact all the maneuvers we had done in the hallway. Occasionally he intervened; for example, when he indicated that the easiest way to photograph a sampling grid at 2.5m was actually from the surface. The depths of all our dives never went beyond 7m, which was convenient but presented its own challenges.

In the course of our diving, we managed to do some ‘real science’, albeit in small-scale projects. A seagrass meadow in south Skye gave us the chance to compare estimates of abundance made in the water with the impression created by photography. Kelps were counted, mapped, and measured within given areas or depths – it takes you longer than you think to measure thirty kelp stipes. We surveyed the end of the local pier and mapped five artifacts. At this point I was impressed with the patience of my fellow students, one of whom had been involved in the Mars Project – the study of a sixteenth century wreck in the Baltic. Two old tyres, some smashed fishing creels and a shopping cart were not, perhaps, the most inspiring finds but they did give us the chance to imagine a seabed littered with ancient relics.

At the end of each activity, we were debriefed by Diogo, who commented on all aspects of the dive. Our motto was ‘safety, efficiency and scientific correctness’ and nothing escaped Diogo’s eagle eye.  If you thought you could get away with slipping your wetnotes into your pocket without clipping them, forget it. Having heard tales of researchers in tears after losing all their data, you start to understand why these things really matter.

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The final task after each dive was to go back and sort out all the data. This came in the form photographs, videos, tables and lists of numbers that could then be integrated into a report. It highlighted again that not all scientific diving is, well, diving. We divided up the tasks involved according to our talents as, to be honest, I have not calculated standard deviation since I left college. The resulting reports looked rather impressive, and it was good to have something tangible at the end after all that planning.

The next step will be applying our knowledge to our diving pursuits. With two of us managing Project Baseline sites, and all of us interested in project diving, it is evident that the skills and techniques will be invaluable. The course was a great experience, not least because there was an exchange of knowledge between everyone involved. Scientific Diving is many things, but ultimately it is a collaboration.

Guest Author: Vanessa Charles

Image Credits: Martin Hynd, Marcus Newbold, Diogo Paulo and Sina Weber