Despite the fact that the ocean covers approximately 70% of Earth’s surface and dominates our global climate and weather systems, humans have relatively little understanding of what happens beneath the surface. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as of 2023, only 24.9% of the seafloor has been mapped. The ocean is commonly described as the last unexplored frontier, given that more of the moon and planet Mars have been mapped than the ocean floor, and funding for space exploration outpaces ocean exploration significantly.

Scientists worldwide dedicate their livelihoods to growing these statistics, including many of UC Santa Barbara’s community members. Much of this revolutionary research can be – and certainly is – conducted within the laboratory, however, it can also be done by researchers wearing thick wetsuits and air tanks on their backs as they descend to depths between 30 and 100 feet. 

UCSB’s unique proximity to the Pacific Ocean provides ample opportunity to conduct research of this nature. “UC Santa Barbara’s Scientific Diving and Boating Program is one of the oldest, largest, and most active scientific diving and boating programs of its kind,” according to UCSB’s Marine Operations Diving & Boating page. Still, many may not be aware of the specific implications of “sci-diving.”

“Scientific diving to me is being as comfortable as you can underwater while also having a lot of tasks thrown at you,” Santa Barbara Coastal Long-Term Ecological Research lab (SBC-LTER) assistant specialist Darrin Ambat said. “When people get into diving they think it’s going to be a great vacation, diving in these tropical regions, and it’s really warm. But scientific diving is definitely a job.”

Breaking the surface with scientific diving is no simple endeavor. Besides the high price tag of the necessary classes and equipment, divers who already have their open water scuba certification–and have a minimum of 12 logged dives (four of which must have taken place in water of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or below) – must complete a 100-hour, 12-day dive safety course that is offered twice a year by a Dive & Boat Safety Officer. The course includes online lessons, classroom instruction, pool diving sessions, and open water diving at Campus Point and Catalina Island. 

The course strives to address the unique demands of scientific diving. As UCSB’s Boating Safety Officer, Carly Haack oversees many of the logistics, equipment, and safety concerns of scientific diving. 

Haack explained how, as students make the transition from recreational to scientific diving, they must become accustomed to less than favorable conditions such as poor visibility or cold temperatures. The conditions may not be ideal, “but it’s totally fine for getting good data,” Haack said.

Additionally, the scientific diving course heavily emphasizes what she calls “task-loading.” 

“As you are going from a student in a dive class to starting to work for the labs, [there are] a lot of different things that you are adding onto diving all at once,” Haack said, who believes that one of the biggest challenges of scientific diving is continually remembering basic safety of principles, even when engaged in meticulous scientific work. “Even though I’m looking at all of these things, I also need to remember to check in with my buddy, or look at my air.”

Additional learning curves include working with various pieces of gear that can not be lost underwater, as well as collaborating with a team when verbal communication is not possible. Ambat described these as the inevitable challenges that come with conducting research “in a foreign environment that we’re not really made to be in for all that long.”

Despite the rigor of the required safety course, upon completion, divers are prepared to participate in underwater research through a lab on campus. 

Third-year aquatic biology major Hailey Springer received her scientific diving certification over spring break of 2023. Since then, she has worked alongside Ambat as an intern in the SBC-LTER lab. 

“The idea of being able to go out on a Thursday in the middle of the week, I had a lecture that morning and now I get to go dive and it’s considered school really appealed to me,” said Springer. “It’s really wonderful to be at a school where there’s such a big community for scientific diving. We’re so close to the beach, and we have access to a boatyard and different people who want to conduct this research. It’s just a great place for it.” 

Within the UCSB Marine Science Institute, three primary laboratories utilize scientific diving to conduct their research: Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, the Moorea Coral Reef Long-Term Ecological Research (field operations take place at Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia) and SBC-LTER. 

Since it was established in 2000, SBC-LTER has primarily focused its research on giant kelp. Their current research explores how both natural forces and human activities alter the structure and function of kelp forest ecosystems, which is made possible through direct observation. 

SBC-LTER conducts their research at thirteen dive sites, with nine located along the coast of mainland Santa Barbara and four along Santa Cruz Island. The sampling sites that they most frequently dive for their monthly giant kelp net primary production research are USS Mohawk CGC Veterans Memorial Reef, Arroyo Burro Beach and Arroyo Quemada Beach. According to Ambat, SBC-LTER divers measure a variety of community characteristics within and surrounding the kelp forests, including invertebrate, fish, algae size and abundance, habitat cover, and oceanographic conditions such as dissolved oxygen, light, temperature, and pH. Additionally, SBC-LTER divers continuously monitor and maintain underwater oceanographic sensors for year-round data collection.

After a dive, researchers at SBC-LTER will transfer the data that is recorded on their slate, which are submersible writing utensils used for underwater record keeping, to a computer where the interns enter it into their database. After an intern reviews it and it goes through statistical programming data checks by Ambat himself, it is published on the SBC-LTER website for public access. 

As one of the student interns working with SBC-LTER, Springer emphasized the long-term significance of being involved with this research. 

“Over years and years, twenty years, this data is going to be so important to compare and see how the Santa Barbara channel has changed…” Springer said. “These smaller things are some of the most important stuff because it’s what is going to be at the core of a lot of research in the future.”

Ambat described the value of scientific diving in advancing our collective understanding of the synergistic variables that shape marine ecosystems.

“You can read all these papers,” he said. “But there’s something to say about being out there and seeing it for yourself.”