Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
If you have followed the GEMM Lab blog for a while, you have read about the multitude of techniques we use to conduct research. A combination of platforms and technologies help us observe whales: rigid inflatable boats (RHIBs), kayaks, theodolites, cameras, binoculars, high-tech drones, and more. However, not only do we observe from the sky and sea surface, but we also know it is important to monitor whale behavior, habitat, and prey underwater. For this week’s blog, I’d like to highlight the GEMM Lab’s sub-surface efforts as part of the TOPAZ/JASPER project, and share more about the world of scientific diving.
Most terrestrial ecologists have the luxury of strolling through their study systems without having to give thought to their next breath, but marine scientists need creative, streamlined, and most importantly, life-preserving ways to directly observe the ocean environment. Like most inventions, today’s self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) equipment was developed from countless prototypes worldwide, dating as far back as the 1800s. This equipment was improved during World War II, specifically to support combat swimmers (called “frogmen” at the time). After the Franco-German Armistice of 1940, French engineer Émile Gagnan and Naval Lieutenant/Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau teamed up to invent the “Aqua-Lung” (Fig. 1), which allowed divers to autonomously stay underwater for much longer periods of time.
Figure 1: Vintage advertisement for the Aqua-Lung (left) and a diver testing out the equipment (right). Photos sourced from https://us.aqualung.com/en/ourstory.html
Now that the first commercially successful breathing apparatus was available, universities began to purchase these units to aid with scientific exploration. However, after a series of fatal diving accidents, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography felt it was urgent to develop the first scientific diving safety program in 1954, years before recreational diving courses were implemented. With specific tasks at hand, the additional level of distraction makes safety and situational awareness that much more important. Now, scientific dive programs, like the one at OSU, are widespread, and after proper safety precautions and training, researchers have been able to accomplish what was previously implausible: restore coral reefs, obtain genetic information from invasive species, monitor species under polar ice sheets, and so much more (Fig. 2).
Figure 2: Scientific divers at work. Norwegian polar ice diver Michal Tessman collects algae, zooplankton, and phytoplankton samples (left); Florida State doctoral student Nathan Spindel obtains genetic material from urchins (top right); Dr. Colleen Bove of UNC Chapel Hill monitors tropical coral growth (bottom right).
On the south coast of Oregon, the GEMM lab collaborates with Dr. Aaron Galloway, an accomplished scientific diver and one of the lead scientists with the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA), an organization dedicated to kelp forest monitoring, urchin culling, and restoration efforts. He and his team, along with our long-term project partner Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours, help us deploy our in situ underwater cameras each summer (Figs 3 & 4). As you may know, the TOPAZ component of our project aims to link fine-scale gray whale foraging ecology to prey distribution patterns, using inexpensive field methods. The in situ underwater CamDO camera systems are an exciting, recent addition to our long-standing sampling approach.
Figure 3: CamDo lander with attached oceanographic sensors (left); two new OSU scientific divers and Marine Studies Initiative interns, Faith Townsend and Caroline Rice, preparing to dive (right).
We have two durable camera housings that anchor in Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove. In each housing we insert a GoPro, an extra battery, and a microcontroller programmed to record footage at continuous intervals. With these cameras we capture hundreds of hours of underwater footage of fish, zooplankton, and we hope to one day record gray whale foraging.
Figure 4: Dr. Aaron Galloway and his graduate student Samantha Persad getting ready to complete the final dive of the season in ideal visibility conditions.
Each week during the field season, the divers and I meet early at the dock to board the tour boat Black Pearl for our routine CamDO maintenance excursions. My first role on the early morning journeys is to be a “dive tender” — I help the divers back on board, log their dive times and air pressure, and keep gear organized on the boat. Then, while the divers relax and enjoy a snack, my next role begins. The next few minutes is what we refer to as the “NASCAR pit-stop” of camera maintenance: I replace batteries, swap SD cards, program the camera, ensure that it is secure in the housing, and tuck it into the diver’s bag along with installation tools. All the while, I simultaneously listen for radio calls from our Port Orford interns, sometimes troubleshooting urgent questions while they collect zooplankton and water quality data from the kayak or observe for whales from the cliff.
This multitasking is challenging, but at least I am dry, warm, and have total dexterity of my hands. As I watch the divers descend, in all their neoprene glory, to secure the camera back to its stationary landing, I like to imagine what they are seeing and experiencing. If visibility is good, they will descend into a cerulean blue world filled with rockfish, jellies, mysid swarms, and algae covered reefs (Fig 5.). However, as exciting as sightseeing can be while diving, my own scientific diver training has allowed me to understand the focus, determination, and adaptability even the simplest of tasks require, especially in the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Figure 5: Under the surface: black rockfish enjoying a swim around the rocky reefs in Tichenor Cove, Port Orford.
I earned my AAUS Scientific Diver certification in 2018 through UNC Chapel Hill, and have since learned just how different cold water is from warm water diving. My first cold water dive was at the Orford Reef exhibit in the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Guided by Kevin Buch, OSU’s Diving and Boat Safety Officer, I gained a new respect for how important it is to train in the conditions you will be working in. For example, cold-water diving requires much more insulation, which in turn changes your buoyancy and dexterity. At first, I struggled to learn my new buoyancy baseline while simultaneously rolling out transect tape with thick neoprene gloves and keeping a curious sturgeon from stealing my mask. At times it felt like I was learning to dive all over again. This winter, I have increased my confidence by taking evening SCUBA proficiency courses to sharpen my skills and logging dives in local conditions.
Figure 6: Obtaining my open water certification on the French Reef in Florida Keys, 2018.
As part of our Advanced Diver weekend course in the beautiful Hood Canal, I had the opportunity to hone my skills in compass navigation, buoyancy, night and deep dives, and search & recovery methods, all in my new cold water gear. While my dive buddy and I were ecstatic to see some amazing flora and fauna (giant pacific octopus, sea pens, nudibranch, pipefish, and more!) we mainly bonded over the shared sense of achievement in safely completing our complex tasks in low-visibility, cold-water conditions.
Figure 7: Giant Pacific Octopus like this can be observed while diving in the Hood Canal, photo credit Bruce Kerwin.
As I complete these trainings, I think of all there is to to be discovered with data collected under the surface of our Port Orford study system: the health of kelp forests, the density and patchiness of mysid shrimp (the crucial prey source for gray whales), habitat complexity, and more. I am curious if there are certain puzzle pieces driving gray whale foraging decisions that may be revealed through expanding our subsurface monitoring efforts as part of the GEMM Lab’s already impressive dataset.
The skill sets required for scientific diving are also useful for outdoor leadership, and truly in all situations: maintaining a cool head under stressful conditions, planning for the unexpected, managing expectations, and communicating well (you can’t really talk with a regulator in your mouth!) — to name just a few. Regardless of exactly how I use my scientific dive training for future research, I am thankful for all this experience has taught me; and, I look forward to integrating these skills further as we head into our 9th year of the JASPER/TOPAZ project.
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