August 4, 2003
Scuba skills, science come together in ocean
By Louise Donahue
More than 4,000 times a year, someone at UCSC takes a divein scuba
gear. Often they are perfecting their skills for high-level science
classes that require diving skills.
"Our program is one of the most active diving programs in the
country," said Steve Clabuesch, campus diving safety officer, who
oversees all scuba diving and boating done under UCSC auspices.
"The Aquarium of the Pacific and UC Santa Barbara are the only
organizations with more active programs," he said.
Research dives can be as close as the Monterey Bay or as far away as
Australia or the Bahamas, and the subjects vary as much as the destinations.
A look at a few of the research efforts reflects the variety of undersea
This year alone, biology professor Donald Potts and his graduate
students are gathering data on growth and destruction of coral reefs,
and on effects of human impacts and global change on reefs in Papua
New Guinea, the main Hawaiian islands plus Midway and Kure Atolls (with
graduate student Daria Siciliano), the Caribbean (incoming student Tania
Sosa), and on tropical mangroves in Australia (with Stacy Jupiter).
Chemistry professor Phil Crews, along with staff members and
student divers, collects marine organisms and extracts and isolates
chemical compounds in the Bahamas, Fiji, and other tropical areas. The
organic chemistry of these compounds is then analyzed and tested for
their pharmacological activity.
Closer to home, physiologist Terrie Williams and her graduate
students delve into the physiological responses of diving mammals such
as dolphins, otters, and sea lions.
"Scientific diving is really a different kind of diving,"
said Ian Culbertson, a senior majoring in marine biology. Culbertson
is looking forward to taking the Kelp Forest Ecology course taught by
Associate Professor Mark Carr and Professor Peter T. Raimondi in Ecology
and Evolutionary Biology this fall. In the class, students learn the
sampling and analytical techniques to conduct their own scientific studies
underwater. "You get a chance to apply all the skills you've learned,"
Culbertson said. "There 's a lot of work, but it's a rewarding,
yet humbling, learning experience. I like the physical challenge of
Before students can join a scientific dive, they must undergo
rigorous preparation. At UCSC, the Office of Physical Education,
Recreation, and Sports (OPERS) offers courses in Basic, Advanced, and
Rescue scuba diving. Those taking the Basic course must also complete
First Aid/CPR training to receive their certification. Students are
required to be certified at least to the level of a Rescue Diver before
taking the scientific diving course (Biology 75) offered through the
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.
All the scuba courses are physically and mentally demanding, said OPERS
scuba program director Cecilia Shin, but the divers' camaraderie eases
the learning process. Shin said the divers are great about helping each
other out. It's not unusual, she said, for a certified diver to help
out in the pool during scuba classes, serving as a "volunteer T.A."
Shin said some of the camaraderie stems from the buddy system used for
safety--"You're literally putting someone else's life in your hands,"
she said. Also, the preparation and setup time for a dive is considerable,
giving divers time to get to know one another. "It really is a
social sport," Shin said.
Scientific diving has its own niche, distinct from either recreational
or commercial diving, Clabuesch said. "You're using data collection
tools rather than construction tools." A common approach is to
attach meter tape to the ocean bottom, then sample what is found at
different points along the meter tape: "kelp, snails, crabs--whatever
is the subject of interest is counted," Clabuesch said.
Scientists might also mark out a square with PVC pipe, and count everything
inside the square or note the size of the flora or fauna inside. On
many such dives, the scientists have to work quickly, swimming as they
roll out tape and noting everything they see.
The tools of the trade include underwater slates made of PVC that use
waterproof paper and ordinary pencils. If there is a tremendous amount
of data, the scientists sometimes record their observations
on audiotape for later transcribing.
UCSC has 12 vessels--some custom-made--for conducting underwater research.
Inflatable boats are used for much of the research taking place near
Clabuesch's job includes visiting the sites of certain proposed dives
and checking the qualifications of divers. In cases of decompression
sickness, "we err on the side of caution," beginning treatment
right away, Clabuesch said. He also emphasizes to individual divers
that they have the right not to go on a dive if they feel the situation
isn't safe. "We impress upon them that they can say no."
Clabuesch is well prepared for the challenges he faces. After getting
his degree at UC Santa Barbara in aquatic biology and serving as a scientific
diver there, he went to commercial diving school and worked in coastal
aquaculture. Clabuesch worked with the scuba program at OPERS for more
than 10 years before moving to his current role as diving safety officer
about a year ago.
"Safety is always a top concern," he said, adding that the
UCSC program has not had a decompression sickness incident for several
years. Still, the job has its anxious moments, "such as when the
phone rings late at night or you know people are out late at night and
the weather's bad," said Clabuesch. "I'm probably getting
a few more gray hairs than I thought I would."
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