Colby Johns: Alumna and UMaine science diving assistant earns instructor certification

Colby Johns, a University of Maine alumna who has been working as a UMaine scientific diving assistant since 2017, has successfully completed the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) instructor certification. 

UMaine’s Scientific Diving program provides support and training to scientists and students in using diving as a research tool. It is based in Walpole along the Damariscotta River at UMaine’s Darling Marine Center.

Johns, who is from Woodstock Connecticut, received a bachelor’s degree in marine science from UMaine in 2016.

What was your path to getting your dive instructor certification?
I was planning my classes for Semester By the Sea, the UMaine residential program in marine sciences at the DMC, and saw scientific diving was one of the classes offered. In learning that I needed to have my basic scuba certification first, I quickly signed up for the basic course offered every spring at UMaine and was able to take scientific diving during the summer, combining it with an internship and capstone project with professor Rick Wahle and his students. I spent the whole summer at the DMC. That fall, while participating in Semester By the Sea I was able to secure a divemaster internship offered by the UMaine Scientific Diving Program. I completed my Divemaster certification the following spring.

A year later, I had graduated and moved on to a desk job that soon made me realize that sitting behind a desk was not for me. I applied for a scientific diving assistant position and have been a dive assistant since 2017. 

In October 2020, I attended the PADI Instructor Development Course and took the instructor exam. It took two weeks of extremely long nights studying and preparing, minimal sleep, and a trip to Pennsylvania for the exam. 

It was all worth it. I never thought getting my instructor certification would be so difficult, but during the process I realized how fortunate I was to obtain the amount of training I did with Christopher Rigaud, UMaine’s diving operations manager.

How do you currently use your dive skills?
Since obtaining my divemaster certification, I have been honing my skills as a dive leader to prepare for becoming a certified instructor. I use what I learned in both my basic scuba course and scientific diving course to teach students in Orono and in Walpole, and have grown through each experience. 

I also use my diving abilities to support marine research. I have worked with professor Damian Brady’s research group, deploying coastal oceanographic buoys that provide information for aquaculture site selection and other scientific questions. Whenever a Darling Marine Center-based research group needs a diver, I am always happy to offer my skills. 

How do you hope to use your instructor certification in the future?
With this certification I hope to help broaden the opportunities we can offer at the University of Maine. Having other instructors on staff will allow UMaine to offer more dive classes throughout the year. Working with Chris it offers me the opportunity to learn more about my teaching methods as I work with diverse student groups.

What has been your best dive experience so far?
My diving has been mostly limited to Maine waters, but I have also dove in the tanks at the Georgia Aquarium and recently, at Dutch Springs in Pennsylvania  for my certification. My dives in Vancouver during the 2019 AAUS Symposium, stand out to me the most. We dove every day for a week. I learned a lot because this was the first real time I was diving without students or my supervisor, Chris. There were no specific objectives, or other divers I was responsible for. It was just us in the water, exploring and living in the moment. 

The underwater environment brings such peace, a grounding calm, especially in these chaotic times. Of course having a great drysuit to keep me warm and dry certainly helps too. 

What dive location is at the top of your dream list?
I have so many places yet to visit, but the coolest one I keep seeing and reading about is the Iceland Silfra Fissure. It is the only place in the world where you can dive between two continents — and touch them. However, I also hear that diving under Antarctic ice is pretty awesome too. 

What has been the best part about working with the Scientific Diving program?
The best part is that I am able to learn new ways to help grow and contribute to the program. We often teach students from outside of the University of Maine System. These students may be from a different college or university, or individuals who are working professionals interested in gaining new skills. I love adjusting as we help meet each student’s goals and overcome their challenges. Diving is not your typical classroom, that’s for sure. Our students help make this class what it is — a fun, and invigorating learning experience for all.

What would you tell someone who is interested in doing their first dive, or transitioning from an open water certification to scientific diving?
If someone was interested in scuba diving, I would encourage them to complete a discover scuba course. These programs provide a  taste of what scuba diving is like and if it is something you want to explore. If it is something that you enjoy, then taking a basic certification course would be the next step. Once you have your basic certification, you can begin specializing with a course like scientific diving.  

For those transitioning from open water diving to scientific diving, it is important to know scientific diving is not like your open water class. It is task loaded and detail oriented. It is a college credit-bearing course, so don’t let the “diving” part fool you. It is academically rigorous. The scientific diving course prepares you to apply diving skills to your career, so if you’re passionate about diving and ready to take the next step, then I encourage you to take this class. 

How has diving impacted your career?
Initially, when I began my marine sciences degree at UMaine, I did not see diving as part of my career. When this opportunity did cross my path, I knew it could only help me. Never did I think I would be where I am today though. 

I thought I would obtain my basic scuba certification so that I could get my scientific certification to help with my career, and that would be it. Now here I am with my Open Water Scuba Instructor Certification. In conjunction with my bachelor’s degree in marine science, I am a more valuable asset, and I look forward to giving others the opportunity to take a similar path as mine or simply bring awareness to a life working underwater that they may not have known was possible otherwise. 

Diving has become a huge part of who I am and what I have accomplished. I owe a lot of success to the support and extra push to advance my diving to both Elisabeth Maxwell who went through the instructor course with me and Chris Rigaud, who continues to be a great mentor at every step. 

Contact: Matthew Norwood,