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UAB in Antarctica

As you might imagine, SCUBA diving in the icy waters at Palmer Station is an activity that takes a great deal of preparation. It requires a lot of time and energy on the days of the dives. We will be telling you much more about that later on when we are posting from Palmer. But it also requires many hours of preparation here in Birmingham, long before we head to the “really deep south.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and UAB both take dive safety and training very, very seriously. I am on the NSF Office of Polar Programs board called the Scientific Diving Control Board that is responsible for overseeing scientific diving in Antarctica. I am also on a Diving Control Board at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL), near Mobile, Alabama, which oversees all scientific diving at UAB. All of us who will be diving at Palmer need to meet specific criteria of both of these safety boards.

Diving through the DISL/UAB program is further overseen by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS). (Are you tired of acronyms yet?) To become a diver in our program, first you have to be certified as a recreational SCUBA diver. Then you have to pass a physical exam and complete 100 hours of scientific dive training. Ruth was a certified recreational diver but not a scientific diver when she enrolled here at UAB in August as a new graduate student. Much of her time last fall was taken up with this 100 hours of training and now she is a certified Scientific Diver through our program. That was a lot of time and work!

Kate was in the scientific dive program at the University of California at Santa Cruz where she got her undergraduate degree and had worked for several years. That program also operates under AAUS rules so transferring her to our dive program here was fairly easy. And of course, Maggie and I have been diving here at UAB for many years.

To dive with the United States Antarctic Program, you need to have scientific diver status as we all do through DISL and UAB. On top of that you must have completed your initial, recreational diver certification over one year ago. You must have at least 50 lifetime SCUBA dives of which at least 15 must have been using a dry suit like we use to keep us warm in Antarctica.

You must also have completed at least 10 dry suit dives in the year before going to Antarctica. This is important in order to maintain your proficiency with dry suits since diving with them is quite different than diving with a wet suit. Since our team was not in Antarctica last year, even though Maggie and I have made hundreds of dry suit dives we each needed to make 10 more last fall as did Kate. She has made some dry suit dives in the past but not this last year. And Ruth needed at least the 15 lifetime minimum number of dry suit dives.

Fortunately, we have a great dive training facility here in the Birmingham area. Alabama Blue Water Adventures in Pelham is a wonderful training facility. When the weather cooled off this fall (so we would not roast in the heavy suits), Maggie, Ruth, Kate, and I started going out there one day every week or so to refresh our dry suit diving training. Jim came too some days to help out on the surface.

The photos on the left show Maggie, Kate, and Ruth at Alabama Blue Water Adventures during one of our dry suit dive training days. In some of the photos, Ruth is acting as a dive tender for Maggie and Kate. Some of our heavy, Antarctic dive gear is almost if not impossible to put on by yourself. So someone has to help on the surface and the term for that person is the dive tender.

The hardest thing for a diver to put onto themselves are the heavy, dry suit gloves we use in Antarctica. The tender always has to do that for the diver. Occasionally, particularly when we have been working especially long and hard, a diver will get a bit silly and, in his or her best Elvis voice, start singing “Glove me tender…” But as you might imagine, we try to discourage that.