I have finally completed the last requirements towards becoming a fully certified AAUS scientific diver! The process began while I was still at home in Pennsylvania, with a medical exam to attest to my diving fitness. Recreational divers are required to have a similar medical exam when they initially get certified, however to remain certified as a scientific diver you must complete a medical examination every 5 years until the age of 40, with more frequent medical exam requirements after that. Throughout my first few weeks at the aquarium, I completed the preliminary requirements towards completing the certification, such as swim tests and open water checkouts. The swimming evaluation consisted of four components: swimming underwater for 25 yards without surfacing, swimming 400 yards in less than 12 minutes, treading water for 10 minutes, and transporting another person 25 yards in the water. Initial scuba skill checkouts were basic- remove and replace mask, regulator recovery, alternate air source. As the weeks continued I worked on fine tuning my buoyancy skills and using more advanced skills, such as hovering gear removal and SMB deployment, working with reels, lift bags, and hardware- all while wearing 7mm gloves of course.
My skills were put to test when I completed an underwater obstacle course that Jenna set up in the Shark Observation Pool. Before getting in the water I put pieces of material in my mask so that I was ‘blindfolded’. I finger crawled along the down line to make sure that I was descending at the proper rate. Once I got to the bottom I followed another line until I got to the first station- nut and bolt assembly. There were two bolts, one with nuts and washers on it and another that was empty. I had to take the nuts and washers off the loaded bolt and move them to the empty one. I wrapped the line around one of my arms to prevent myself from drifting off and loosing the obstacle course. One by one I removed the nuts and washers and put them on the other bolt. Once I screwed on the last nut Jenna grabbed my hand and wrapped her thumb and forefinger around my thumb, signaling I had completed that task and could move on to the next station. I made an O with my fingers around the line and followed it to the next station- mask removal to un-blindfold myself. I removed my mask, took out the material, replaced the mask, and cleared the water out. Ahh I could see again! I again followed the line to the next station- knot tying. First, I used the line to tie a clove hitch around a shark stick. Jenna gave me the ok signal and I untied the line and tied a bowline around a ring of PVC. Then I followed the line to the final station. Rope was bundled up and zip tied together. I used my knife to remove the zip tie and handed Jenna the rope. I had completed the obstacle course and even managed to keep my air consumption at its usual rate!
Scientific diving depth certifications are slightly different than those for recreational diving. As a trainee, the permit level depth limit is 30ft., which can be exceeded with the permission of the DSO. From there, depth certifications are to 60, 100, 130, 150, and 190ft. At each level you must satisfy the minimum number of dives in that depth range in order to move to the next certification level. To get a 60ft. certification, for example, you must complete 12 open water dives between 31-60ft. All subsequent certification levels require only 4 dives between the old and new certification depths. By the end of my internship I was able to obtain a depth certification level of 100 ft.
The most notable difference between the recreational and scientific diving certification is the academic requirement. The written exam for the scientific diver certification covers a great deal of information; In fact it is required that a minimum of 100 hours is dedicated to covering academic concepts. AAUS powerpoints cover such topics as diving physics & physiology, AAUS standards, nitrox diving, harmful marine organisms, accident management and emergency care, diving under special conditions, and handling high-pressure cylinders. Each week I studied a few of the powerpoints and review the quizzes at the end of each topic with Jenna or Vallorie. It took, me about 6 weeks to get through all of them, at which point I was ready for the exam. It was a lot of material and I spent hours studying, but my hard work paid off and I breezed through the test.
The last step towards becoming a scientific diver was completing an equipment exam. Jenna put together two sets of gear, each which had a number of problems. I had to inspect each set of gear and point out everything that was wrong with them. Some of the problems were easy to spot, like the BCD was not lined up properly with the face of the cylinder. Other details were more difficult to spot, such as missing zip ties around the mouthpiece of a regulator. With each set of equipment I was able to quickly list of a number of problems I saw right away, but then had to spend a few minutes staring at the gear before I found all the problems. This was a great exercise because it teaches you to inspect gear with extreme scrutiny. The more I inspect gear the easier it will become for me to spot out potential problems, increasing not only my safety, but also the safety of my dive buddies.