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August 4, 2003

Scuba skills, science come together in ocean research

By Louise Donahue

More than 4,000 times a year, someone at UCSC takes a dive—in scuba gear. Often they are perfecting their skills for high-level science classes that require diving skills.

Inflatable boats

diver underwater
Scientific diving students in Biology 75, center and top photos, use inflatable boats and record their data on special slates. Below, students collect data for the USC/Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies Summer 2002 scientific diving class. All the students in the class were UCSC students. Photos by Steve Clabuesch
diver taking notes

"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 study:

• 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 it."

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 the coast.

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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