Certifying for Underwater Scientific Methodologies

I was thrilled when my dear friend convinced me to sign up for an intense week of Underwater Scientific Methodologies and when one of the professors accepted us – only four students with little or no dive experiences – to participate in such an activity, organised by the university. The aim of it was to learn how to sample underwater, analyse the samples and make conclusions. Before the week had started, we were given dive slates and some general instructions to follow. Little did we know that it was going to be way more adventurous. Personally, I had only four dives behind me so the whole idea of just going with the flow was frightening but at the same time exciting.

We were to meet at Centro Sub Monte Conero, Numana (Italy), where the professors did some briefing on how would the first day go, what should we be focused on, and then each of us took the diving equipment, double checked if everything was working properly and we were good to go. All of our practices were boat dives, which was something new for me. I felt quite insecure the first day, as I did for the following ones, but it is okay to be aware of the dangers, otherwise you do not pay enough attention.

However, the first day was all about vertical transects and underwater photography. Vertical transects basically consist in placing a measurement tape along a vertical wall and then report what organisms you see on every meter of the tape and 50 centimeters left and right from the meter you are observing. It sounds pretty simple but it isn’t because there can be currents like in our case, or the tape doesn’t hold to the vertical wall properly (when you attach it, you have to be super careful not to destroy any specimen), etc..

For what concerns the photography, we were given a proper underwater camera attached to a wire frame which worked as our quadrat to say. The most important thing was to place the frame on the wall randomly without destroying any creature. Same story here, the currents were quite intense and it was difficult to take a clear picture. The Adriatic Sea, especially the upper part, is full of resuspended sediment, which makes it even more difficult to take photos.

Later that day, we analysed the photos in the university’s informatics room and finished only a few photos. It was a long process… We had to calculate the percentage cover of organisms, which we had to identify based on literature, and then convert the data into a cake graph.

On our second day, instead of doing just one dive, we squeezed in another one. During the first one, we divided into pairs and, firstly me and Adi randomly threw the quadrants on a horizontal bottom and wrote down on our dive slates how many organisms were in each section. This was important in order to calculate the percentage cover and understand the health condition of that area. Then we switched roles with the other pair and did the air lifting, which looked like vacuuming the bottom and consequently sucking everything within the quadrat. The sediment and organisms were trapped in a nylon sock.

Air lifting on the upper left and lower right photo, vertical transect on the upper right and coring on the lower left photo.
Credit: Cristina Gioia Di Camillo

The second dive was heavy because we worked at 13 degrees for an hour, and it really started freezing violently. Your body loses so much heat underwater and it can lead to cramps, heavy breathing, stomach pain and generally exhaustion. Each of us had to take sediment samples with a corer – a tube that we inserted into the sediment, closed it on top to create the vacuum space and then lift it up and close the other side of the tube. Then we continued the dive and did a visual census of marine litter. The bottom was covered in fishing nets, cages, plastic tubes and ropes, bottles, shoes, and many more. After ten minutes maybe, I started having trouble breathing and tried to calm myself, breath slowly and with control, but with every breath, I felt more and more sick and started getting dizzy. My saliva started accumulating and that was a sign that I was either to vomit or to pass out. I waved to my professor and indicated that something was wrong. By the time she finned to me, I had already started the ascent – something that I shouldn’t have done. She tried to hold me down for a few more minutes, but I wanted to take a breath of fresh air and just feel better. When we both ascended to the surface, I spit out the regulator and put the mask down, took an extremely long breath and was so relieved. It felt like I was choking one minute and reborn the next. My stomach cramped every few minutes and I still felt very nauseous, but at least I was breathing fresh air. The rest of my buddies ascended shortly after us and we all got to the boat safely.

In the lab that afternoon, we microscoped the sediment and air lifted sediments, and finished quite early.

Third day was a repetition of the last dive, we reported the marine litter on our dive slates and towards the end of our dive, we observed the small organisms hidden between bigger ones on the vertical wall. Luckily, we had the chance to do an additional dive at Due Sorelle, which was more of an adventure dive near a shipwreck covered in mussles and ophiuroids.

That afternoon, we dedicated our time to analysing the rest of the photos from the first day and we were not as productive as we thought we were, so the final work was left to do at home. We all finished at midnight or one in the morning.

Having done everything, we came to the informatics room the next morning to briefly prepare ourselves for the discussion, however, all the data was erased due to file conversion problems… And so we ended up redoing everything quickly and finished by the time the professors came in to discuss about our experiences. I sensed that I had learned so much during those few days because it was so intense and even though it seemed like a simple plan from day to day, we found ourselves with small problems every now and then: currents, cold water, high waves, forgot two BCDs one day, and many more.

The practical aspect is extremely important because you actually get to experience it firsthand and is usually completely different than what you read in the books. Two tips that I can give you now is to look for the small things and take care of yourself and your buddy.

Credit: Carlo Cerrano

I would like to thank my mentors, who were supporting, taught me many things, were opened for questions and conversations.

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