As I sit down to write this, almost to the minute we have been here a week. I made my sixth dive of the season this morning, which makes about 290 lifetime dives in Antarctica. It often amazes me when I think of how much preparation goes into scientific SCUBA diving down here. We will certainly be writing a lot about diving operations (“dive ops”) in our journals this season. But today I’d like to think back on what it took to get here.
Scientific diving in the US is overseen by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS). All our diving here in Antarctica and at UAB follows AAUS procedures with an additional layer of US Antarctic Program (USAP) standards added on.
A big difference between this kind of diving and regular sport diving is the requirement that we dive regularly. I’ve been certified as a sport diver since 1974 and I could walk into a dive shop with that certification card and rent gear or book a dive trip even if I hadn’t been in the water once since becoming certified.
Under AAUS procedures, to remain current as a diver one must make at lest 12 scientific dives per year (technically at least 6 in each half year period) and one is certified only to particular depths. Most of us on the field team are certified to dive to 130 feet and must make at least one dive close to that in each half year.
For the USAP dive program, one must also have made at least 10 dry suit dives in the year before coming to Antarctica (more on what a dry suit is in a future post). And for newer divers, there is a 15 lifetime dry suit dive minimum and a 50 total lifetime dives minimum.
We do most of our dry suit training dives to keep current at Alabama Blue Water Adventures in Pelham. It is a great facility and has underwater topography very similar to many of our collection sites here in Antarctica (lots warmer though!). We are really lucky to have it so close to us in Birmingham (actually it is only a couple of miles from Maggie’s and my house).
For both AAUS and USAP, we must also be current in CPR, First Aid, and in diver-specific emergency oxygen care. For the CPR and oxygen provider requirements, we have to retrain every year. Randy Jaudon and his crew of instructors at Royal Divers in Birmingham have been a wonderful resource for us in this respect, and have gone out of their way to work with us and within our schedule.
All that just to be able to get in the water here. But it is worth every bit of effort! Fast forward to this morning’s dive. Maggie and I got our gear ready in the dive locker. Craig and Jim got the gear loaded in the boat and after Maggie and I zipped ourselves into our dry suits, it was time to go diving!
There is a bit of a wind today, mostly out of the northwest. It was less than the 20 knot maximum for boating but not much. So we decided to dive a wall at a place called Norsel Point that would be protected by fairly high cliffs from a northwest wind.
Jim and Craig expertly piloted us out to Norsel and helped us get into our gear. There was a lot of glacial flour in the water, which is very fine silt that is picked up by the glaciers and released as the ice released from them melts. That meant that the visibility wasn’t very good until we got fairly deep and the flour near the surface cut a lot of the light.
Even with the low light we were able to find our targets for the dive. We dropped down to about 110 feet on the wall and were able to get some sponges and associated amphipods for Maggie and Jim’s projects and, shallower, I got some macroalgae and associated amphipods for Craig. You’ll be hearing more about those projects in future posts.
About 30 minutes after Maggie and I had left the surface, we were back up and getting into the boat. Another great dive in Antarctica. Well worth all the months of preparation!