Diving for science

A happy diver

15 July 2016 by Jo Porter and Richard Shucksmith

Jo Porter and Richard Shucksmith describe what it's like to take part in an intensive course training the scientific divers of the future.

The icy wind chills your face - the only part exposed to the air. Fully kitted up, the divers go through their final checks. A shot line is thrown from the side of the boat, the MV Halton, marking the area to be dived. As the skipper brings the vessel back round towards the line, a shout goes up: "Divers ready!" Seconds later, "Go, go, go!" Each diver takes a giant stride from the boat and is immersed in the clear, cool water of Scapa Flow.

They are on a specialised course that will teach them all the skills a working scientific diver needs. These include carrying out surveys, taxonomic identification of marine life, monitoring, sampling, collection and preservation of organisms for genomics processing, as well as knowing the relevant recording protocols.

Among the course's aims is to teach the skills needed to undertake an in situ 'MNCR Phase 2' survey - the industry standard. By the end, participants know how to survey habitats, collecting and recording data in a systematic, standardised way that ensures the right information is recorded to assess what lives there. They are also better divers with stronger basic skills.

North of mainland Scotland, across the Pentland Firth, are the Orkney Islands. Within them lies Scapa Flow, a sheltered body of sea that's famous for the scuttling of the German fleet during the First World War. At 324km2, it is the second-largest natural harbour in the world, after Sydney Harbour in Australia. It encompasses many habitats and species, and can be dived even in the worst weather. This makes it the perfect place for the course, letting participants carry out real-life survey scenarios. On top of this, Heriot-Watt University has an Orkney campus based at Stromness, Scapa Flow's main harbour, which provides laboratory facilities and lecture rooms.

At the beginning of the course, participants meet the Halton, the dive boat and survey platform and their home for the next week. Heriot-Watt scientific divers use this vessel for survey work, so students are getting a realistic taste of what it is like to be out on survey. Some are studying for PhDs; others work in diving units for conservation agencies or public bodies like the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Marine Science Scotland, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage.

It's an intense course with a lot to take on board in a short time. The first evening on the day the participants arrive, marks the start of the course with an introductory lecture from Dr Bill Sanderson of the Heriot-Watt Scientific Dive Team, co-creator of the course. It is a time for both the participants and the instructors to get to know one another, and understand how much experience each person has.

Next day, lectures start at 8am in the Halton's saloon. Chief dive instructor Kieran Hatton distributes official paperwork, and then it's into the first session. Throughout the week a range of techniques and methodologies are taught, in both theory and practice. Dry runs before each dive make sure everyone understands the task ahead and the kit they will use.

Each participant is buddied with another, and there are two trainees per instructor, both for safety and to maximise learning opportunities. Each day the instructors are rotated so that trainees can benefit from the instructors' different expertise. Kieran leads on the teaching in-water dive skills, including kit configuration for scientific diving, buoyancy control, positioning in the water and line laying.

Shakedowns, shrimps and flame shells

The first dive is a shakedown to go through the fundamental skills that all divers need - mask clearing, regulator retrieval, using an alternative air source, finning technique, surface marker buoy deployment - before we move on to more specialised scientific diving skills like macro photography for species identification, wide-angle photography for habitat imaging, on-site species and habitat recording, video transects, quadrats and core sampling.

Divers getting ready on deck

Divers getting ready on deck

Participants practise these skills over a series of dives, culminating in the last day where they are given a site to survey. They have to work together to organise the whole survey day, allocate tasks between each buddy pair and collect data, with only limited input from the instructors. The next day the data is analysed at the Heriot-Watt Orkney Campus laboratory, and then the team give a presentation to report their findings. All the instructors attend, as well as several of the Orkney campus lecturers, to simulate what might be required for a scientific research study or for commissioned surveys.

For many people on the course it is their first time using professional underwater imaging kit. On land, this can often feel heavy and bulky. Once under the water, though, these camera rigs become almost neutrally buoyant, making them very easy to handle. They produce high-resolution imagery that records incredibly fine detail and helps document habitats and identify animals and plants.

The quality of some of the images being produced by people who have never held a professional underwater camera before is stunning. Each day everyone eagerly gathers around the big screen onboard Halton to review the imagery and get feedback. With advice from the instructors on photographic skills and technique, the trainees quickly gain confidence and their images improve markedly from one day to the next.

Sometimes the students make real scientific discoveries. For example, it was during an image review session that a rare shrimp was identified. The feather star shrimp (Hippolyte prideauxiana) lives on the feather star (Antedon bifida) and was only observed due to the review of the high-resolution images, giving a great example of how digital imaging helps record small hard-to-find species in biological surveys. This particular shrimp has only been recorded eight times within the UK, and this is only the second sighting in Orkney. A great find by the course participants.

Another discovery was a flame shell (Limaria hians). These are beautiful bivalve molluscs that are considered a priority marine feature (PMF) in Scotland. About 4cm long, they have bright orange fleshy tentacles coming out of their shell, hence the name. Despite their striking appearance, finding them can be difficult unless you know what you are looking for - they live hidden on the seabed, building nests from shells, stones and other material around them. These nests can form dense beds, raising and stabilising the seabed, and providing a habitat for many other species.

As students undertook video transects on one of the training dives, Bill Sanderson thought he saw such a nest-like structure. A little digging revealed a small flame-shell bed, increasing the range of places around Scapa Flow in which we know this species lives.

Throughout the week, Kieran uses a GoPro camera to record buddy pairs diving. This footage is shown at the end of each day, attracting keen interest - it is incredibly helpful in honing diving skills, letting trainees see for themselves exactly what they are doing under water.

By the end of the week, a group of strangers is transformed into an efficient working team, capable of planning, executing and collating an underwater scientific survey to a very high standard. The marine environment faces a host of potential problems, from nutrient pollution to ocean acidification, and we are moving into a new era of ocean conservation with the designation of new marine protected areas. It is essential that we train the scientific divers of the future, so that we can generate the evidence we need to inform sustainable management practices and comply with new laws.

NERC funded, the In-Situ Marine Field Identification & Survey Skills for Scientific Diving course in collaboration with Heriot-Watt University and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) under the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology Scotland (MASTS).

Dr Jo Porter is a senior lecturer in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University; she co-created the scientific diving course alongside Dr Bill Sanderson. Dr Richard Shucksmith is a marine biologist and award-winning professional underwater photographer, and works as the course's embedded photographer.

All photographs are copyright Richard Shucksmith.

The boat at sunset

Sunset onboard the Halton

A pair of divers

A pair of divers

A feather star shrimp

A feather star shrimp