As the weekend quickly came to an end, the second week of class began. I was rested and ready to go! The second week of the course really dives into the training of different types of scientific procedures and processes that assist scientists in the field. Buddy teams are changed every day in order to help you not become accustomed to the same diver each time. With scientific diving, you may have multiple different buddies and it is helpful to learn how to approach this in training. In order to get all of the buddy teams on the same page, a short dive briefing was given by our instructor to explain the goal of each dive.
Dive Briefing by Rich Walsh
Truck with Scuba diving gear on SIO Pier
In addition, another safety measure before beginning your dive was a check in on the surface with your dive plan (planned time, depth, psi in, psi out, dive table letter group, etc.).
Check in before descending
I really looked forward to Monday because it would be my first time diving in a kelp forest. Originating from New England and never traveling to the West Coast prior to this course, I had heard about kelp forests. However, now was my chance to finally have a firsthand experience! This would also be our first day diving off small boats. At SIO, the process for using boats is a little different than most places. The system is used to minimize the time it takes to launch a boat. The boat ramp would add an hour to the procedure since it is located at Mission Bay Park, San Diego, California. The boats are launched off the pier, using a crane system to pick the boats up, bring them over the side of the pier, and then lowered into the water. Then each person has to climb down a 30 foot chain ladder to get on to the boat!
Small boat procedures at SIO Pier
Tuesday broke the normal routine of dives in the morning and classroom in the afternoon. We had a deep dive and beach entry in the morning from La Jolla Shores and a night dive was planned for the evening. The deep dive was done in groups of four students and one dive instructor. We surface swam out to the canyon from La Jolla Shores and then descended and explored. While heading back, each member of the group had enough air left for us to swim underwater until we hit about 5 feet of water and were basically back at shore. The night dive was back off SIO pier. We were tasked with more search pattern practice for this dive, which became a lot more difficult at night!
Wednesday we were back at SIO Pier to put our search and recovery skills into action. On the first dive, we were to search and recover two chains (approx. 10 pounds) that were thrown off the pier. The catch was that we did not see them thrown, but another buddy team would have to explain to us their approximate location. On the second dive, we were to find a “spider” which is a large metal object that is used to hold various underwater data collection machines. The “spider” was weighted down with ~50 pounds, so we also had to put our lift bag skills into action.
We then got to tour behind the scenes of Birch Aquarium, which is the aquarium at Scripps. Melissa Torres, who gave us the tour, is in charge of diving operations at Birch Aquarium and also an instructor for the course. We got to see the tanks that can be dove in, both behind the scenes and from the general public’s perspective.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Thursday concluded the scuba diving portion of the course. We were back on the small boats and dove Mia’s reef, which is an artificial reef. Small boat diving utilizes the seated back roll entry. This course was the first time I used this skill, and it is a lot easier than I had originally thought! In addition, we were also diving NITROX after learning the classroom material. I had never dove NITROX previously, but there are many benefits to this certification, such as extending bottom time at deeper depths. The first dive we completed a transect, collecting counts and sizes of different kelp species. The final dive of the class was reserved for a fun dive! We got to explore the reef, but always keeping in mind good diving practices and the skills we learned throughout the course!
Small boat diving on surface
Often the conditions were not optimal during the course, but this forced us to perfect our skills with even more accuracy. For example, we had to deal with surge while trying to take measurements and maintaining neutral buoyancy. Conditions are one factor that you need to take into consideration while planning scientific dives. You need to be realistic about whether or not you can complete the task within the given conditions that day. If it is not feasible, you should reschedule when the conditions are more optimal for your plan.
Small boat diving from depth
On Friday, the final day of the class, we took the final exam. This was a cumulative exam that covered all of the material from the course. This course is not only about scientific scuba diving skills, as much as it is about physically and mentally preparing yourself to complete the tasks at hand, even if you are exhausted. In addition, it is about adjusting to the conditions. California water is a brisk ~55°F and 5-25 foot visibility, something I had not dove very often.
Even with all these new skills to learn, there is always time to have a little fun!
Getting towed by the Boat
Getting fed pretzels
Class Picture after completing final dive: Left to right back: DSO Christian McDonald, Erika Sawicki (Me), Richard Walsh, Jim Behrens, Sho Kodera, Ben Frable, Irina Koester, Camille Pagniello, Anthony Tamberino, Tom Levi. Left to right front: Chad, Melissa Torres, Ellen Briggs, Pichaya Lertvilai, Megan Cimino, Kelsey Alexander
After 19 days in California and three different hosts who graciously let me stay at their homes, I am headed back home to Massachusetts for a couple weeks. My next adventure will begin at the end of July when I head to Savannah, Georgia to work with NOAA at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. I am really excited to see what this opportunity presents and am ready to get started!