Scientific Diving


Also see: ADAS Part1 Restricted Course

Scientific diving at work can be described as any diving operation undertaken in support of science. In Australia, scientific diving is classified as occupational diving, which is defined as diving performed in the course of employment, such as a part of a business, as a service, or for profit for the purpose of professional scientific research, natural resource management or scientific research as an educational activity. Such diving operations are conducted by a wide range of organisations including Universities, government agencies, consultancy companies, and NGOs, to name a few.

Usually scientific divers are scientists first and divers second. Most are marine biologists and geologists but may come from a range of disciplines such as archaeology, underwater engineering and scientific journalism. Scientific divers use SCUBA as a way to study their science and collect data. Some projects may accommodate divers without a science degree to assist with research, however in these situations, a degree or post-graduate degree from another discipline is usually still needed.

If you are a scientist (or want to become one) and have a passion for underwater conservation, life on coral reefs or the polar ice caps, an interest in the effects of climate change on marine biology, or are fascinated by the migration of whale sharks, then science diving may be for you!

Tasks Performed on the Job

All branches of science that are researched on land are also investigated under the sea including biology, botany, geology, physiology, chemistry, and many others. As a result, scientific diving tasks are widely varied, and may include almost anything. Common tasks include underwater photography, underwater videography, specimen collection or in-situ measurement, underwater survey (free-swimming or transect based), benthic coring, and equipment deployment and maintenance.

The following descriptions of common scientific diving tasks have been sourced and adapted from:

Underwater Photography

Used to better illustrate an event or process or for more detailed analysis. This is often done using high resolution underwater digital SLR still photography.

Specimen Collection or In-situ Measurement

Divers are often used over surface-based collection methods (e.g. trawls) to minimise the environment impact of collection, to allow for the most humane collection methods such as using anesthetics underwater to allow specimens to be captured and measured etc, and, at times, to measure in-situ to avoid destroying the specimen through retrieval to the surface.

 Static Underwater Video

Underwater video is used to construct longer term analyses of events. The equipment can either store the images self-contained or transmits the images to the surface through umbilicals. The use of time-lapse can prolong the operation; infra-red cameras can record both at night and day. Correct positioning of the cameras by divers is often an essential component of the study. Divers can also maintain the equipment underwater meaning that the apparatus does not have to come to the surface each time.

Underwater Survey

Diver-based underwater surveys are often used to quantify biological communities or single species over defined areas.

Video Mosaicing

It is often very difficult to obtain broad scale visualisations of areas of sea bed. If the water is dark then a lot of illumination is required. Waters may be turbid and so obtaining a broad scale photograph is almost impossible. Video mosaicing employs digital video cameras on a sliding apparatus constructed underwater to maintain attitude and height above the seabed. The camera is moved over the area to be visualised and either continual or individual images taken. The processing of the images takes a percentage of each image and digitally overlays it on to the previous image. Even though the resolution of a single frame of video footage may not be high, once fully mosaiced, the researcher will obtain a high resolution image of a wide area, irrespective of the water clarity or lighting.

Benthic Coring

Benthic cores contain a lot of information about the receiving environment and the impacts on it. Sometimes the cores are taken for pollutant analysis, sometimes to assess the biological community within the benthos, and at other times in order to make physio-chemical measurements on the cores post-collection. The advantages of using divers to core by hand is that they can be precise on where the cores are taken from and the level of disturbance is less than if some form of surface deployed corer was used.

The longevity of coral reef development and the processes that go into that development make coral reefs ideal sources for proxy studies of the long-term climatic record. The length of core is correlated to the time record and analysis of changes within the core can determine indirectly the climatic conditions at that point. Divers are used to drill into coral heads in order to minimise disturbance and guarantee the quality of the core.

Equipment Deployment and Maintenance

Often divers are employed in support of science simply to deploy, maintain and/or retrieve monitoring equipment underwater. By attaching the equipment to permanent or long-term moorings using divers means that the whole mooring does not have to be lifted each time. If a large surface vessel is required for this lifting process then it can be expensive. Continual deployment and recovery of moorings can impact the sea floor in vulnerable areas.

Responsibilities and Challenges

As with any occupational diving operation, the responsibilities of a scientific diver might range from being the Coordinator in charge of a diver team and managing all tasks that this involves through to acting as one of the diving members of the team, and fulfilling all WHS and dive team responsibilities inherent in that role; while getting the job done in such a way that the data collected is as accurate as possible.

Conditions under which scientific diving might occur can range from under ice in the Arctic or Antarctic, to tropical coral reefs, and from conditions of zero visibility through blue water diving in the open sea.

Any scientific diver must be sufficiently skilled and experienced to allow them to focus on the work being done in whatever environment they are working with accurate collection of data, and safe performance of any other required tasks being of primary concern.

Highlights and Rewards

Science diving can take you to a wide variety of locations worldwide. Water covers a huge portion of the world’s surface, leading to plenty of underwater realms to explore. You may study , or the ice caps in Antarctica, or the coral reefs of Honduras. You may watch the mating patterns of seahorses or study rocks and sediment near a tectonic plate. The options are plentiful.

Scientific divers will almost always be involved in research that contributes to a greater understanding of our world, and for many, this is what makes the job so inspiring. Of course, there is always the fact that scientific divers are able to spend much of their work time diving which is also often seen as a bonus!

How do I Become a Scientific Diver?

Universities in Australia (other than the University of Tasmania and the University of Queensland) and government marine research agencies generally do not do their training in-house, so are required to use the other training facilities (see below) schedules and pricing schemes vary.



Thanks to Simon Talbot, University Diving Officer, at the University of Tasmania for contributing to this web page.