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Editor’s note: Full-length version of story.
As an employee of the UMaine Department of Safety and Environmental Management based at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, Christopher Rigaud spends a lot of time on land dealing with hazardous waste and laboratory safety issues. However, when he’s not at his desk, Rigaud is likely to be in the water.
Rigaud leads the UMaine Scientific Diving program, working with up to eight students at a time who want to learn how to operate safely underwater, collectmarine specimens, gather data and take measurements – key skills for future marine scientists.
In October, Rigaud and UMaine will host for the first time the annual meeting of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), which will draw science divers and researchers from all over the world. Rigaud is on the AAUS board of directors and hopes the meeting will promote Maine as a viable community to do science and diving projects.
How did UMaine’s science diving training program come about?
Scientists have been diving at UMaine for more than 40 years. It used to be that these divers were trained only as necessary for specific research objectives. To use UMaine oceanographer Bob Steneck as an example, he would have an underwater project and would hire student divers and interns to accomplish his the work. When these divers arrived at UMaine, we would train them to our standards and integrate them into the program. In this model, the training requirements often seemed like just another obstacle standing in the way of underwater research. I wanted to create a diving program that actively promotes and facilitates underwater research by giving students an opportunity to get in the water and accomplish all the necessary training requirements in an organized, progressive, fashion and earn academic credit at the same time. Our current program does this, so when a project comes along students are already trained and ready to focus on the science.
Diving is taught in other educational institutions in Maine and around the country. What makes UMaine’s program unique in the state and nation?
To my knowledge, no other university programs in the state have this kind of organized scientific diver training program. The diving we do here is regulated under AAUS guidelines. We’ve been members of AAUS since 1995, so our training program, safety and equipment protocols all meet that national standard. If the students finish all the requirements, they can go on to other AAUS institutions and start as a science diver with minimal additional training. Being an AAUS qualified diver will also put them on the top of the list for jobs.
Here in Maine, students have the opportunity to learn to dive in fairly challenging environmental conditions. We never have ideal conditions, such as 100-foot visibility in 80-degree F water. The visibility is poor by any means, even on good days. The water is cold, and even when it’s warm in the summertime, it never really gets above 60 degrees F. Due to these demanding environmental conditions, the equipment requirements are also pretty intense. Divers must wear thick wet suits or dry suits, gloves, hoods, and a fair amount of weight. Essentially, if they learn to dive up here, they can pretty much dive anywhere. You can’t really take someone who’s been trained in the Bahamas, for example, and put them up here and expect them to hit the ground running. There are things they’ll have to get used to. Whereas, when our divers go to places with ideal conditions, they can really focus on their science mission because they’re prepared for and used to much harsher conditions.
What would a student already familiar with recreational diving get out of the class?
The goal of recreational diving is to have fun and enjoy yourself. Science divers use diving as a tool to meet a larger scientific objective. We’re using actual scientific protocols to collect specimens, gather data, map and measure habitat, and perform other tasks not associated with recreational diving. When possible, we encourage students to integrate the dive class into their other coursework, so for instance they can go out and collect organisms for their invertebrate biology or marine ecology class. Diving allows them to observe these organisms in their natural habitat before bringing them back to the laboratory.
In addition to earning their UMaine scientific diving authorization, students also have the opportunity to earn two recreational diving certifications, which are built into the scientific diver course. With more hands on time and additional skill requirements, students end up being more knowledgeable, proficient and well-rounded divers.
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