Marine researchers often use diving techniques to observe underwater habitats and to carry out undersea experiments. India, despite being home to a number of exciting marine research projects, lacks concrete regulations and guidelines to ensure the safety of diving scientists.
In this article, Thinesh Thangadurai (Marine Ecologist, former Fulbright Post-Doctoral Fellow, and scientific diver) and Anthony Bellantuono (Post Doctoral fellow at Florida International University) provide some suggestions on remedying this situation.
The invention of SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) enabled us to see the undersea world and its vast biological diversity more clearly and easily than ever before. While SCUBA diving can be a relatively low-risk activity when approached with necessary caution, there are inherent risks of working in the foreign underwater environment. Many divers, including marine scientists, have lost their lives in SCUBA diving accidents and more fatalities are being reported every year.
In 2019, on the Alaska coast, Hoshijima, a post-doctoral researcher died while diving at a depth of less than ten meters. He was studying the response of marine organisms to climate change. In September 2019, two students of Pondicherry University drowned while engaged in study-based snorkelling in Marina Park.
The risks associated with SCUBA diving can be dramatically reduced, and future casualties can be prevented with proper training, oversight, and procedures.
Ensuring a safe dive
Our level of understanding of marine ecosystems is several years behind our knowledge in the area of terrestrial ecology and general biology. SCUBA enables marine scientists to document underwater flora and fauna, identify sources for new medicinal compounds, and conduct in situ experiments to understand habitats, functional interaction between organisms, response to increasing temperatures etc. This information can be used to make policy and management decisions.
Before safety standards and training were implemented, several divers across the world lost their life due to decompression sickness, arterial air embolism, and drowning. To reduce such risk, several nations have established “scientific diving programs” under a unified platform such as American Academy of Underwater Science (AAUS) in the US, Scientific Diving Supervisory Committee (SDSC) in the UK and Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme (ADAS). Scientific diver training includes training in risk management and emergency response, as well as underwater techniques such as survey and sampling methodologies. This makes trained scientific divers not only safer, but also more efficient underwater researchers.
Countries that have adopted scientific diving guidelines have taken scuba diving accidents seriously and developed exceptional safety scientific diving and snorkeling protocols, updated every year based on accident-related information and analysis.
For instance, in places where scientific freediving is permitted (not all institutes permit this activity), specific requirements are put in place to reduce the risk of shallow water blackout. Shallow water blackout, also known as the silent killer, is a very dangerous condition which causes a diver holding their breath to lose consciousness. It results from a lack of oxygen supply to the brain and is typically manifested during the ascent from a free dive. Without immediate rescue, the swimmer quickly drowns. Typical guidelines to prevent shallow water blackout include mandating a “buddy” system, wherein one diver remains on the surface while the other is diving, so that an effective rescue can be executed at any time.
To maintain standard diving safety across a country, research universities with marine science programs form a diving control board (DCB) responsible for safe diving practices of their scientific divers. In the United States, a DCB includes several active scientific divers, as well as a diving safety officer (DSO). Approval for diving can only be given to scientists after the dive plan is verified. The dive plan should contain information regarding dive location, diver eligibility, members and number of dives, nearest locations of recompression chambers and emergency medical facilities, emergency kit and accessories, diving kit condition, first aid, and boat condition, leader of the dive team etc. Following dives, if the DSO finds any unsafe diving practices, they can refer the offending group or individual to the DCB for corrective action.
The Indian Scenario
Developing a safe diving culture among marine scientists is key to enabling marine natural resource conservation in any country, including India. In India, scientific SCUBA diving has been used for marine exploration for more than two decades. Indian researchers have successfully documented a plethora of marine species including corals, seagrass, turtle, dugong, and fish. Recently, they have also succeeded in operating sophisticated underwater instruments and progressing towards developing a manned underwater vessel.
However, there is presently no central control board, proper documentation strategies, or unified standard safety regulations to carry out scientific diving in our country. There is no database of scientific divers involved in marine research or their qualifications. There is no information regarding how often marine scientists dive, what standards they follow, and what kind of diving operations they engage in. Further, there is no process for accident reporting record-keeping and disseminating these reports to the scientific diving community for education and accident prevention.
Most researchers involved in marine scientific research in India were trained under recreational standards by as PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructions) and continue diving under informal standards. It is critical to realize that the training provided by recreational dive certifications such as those issued by PADI and NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) are insufficient for researchers working underwater. Underwater scientists have to handle a large number of unique tasks (conducting experiments, fixing monitoring sites, collecting data etc.) during their mission-driven dives. Specialized equipment and unique conditions add to these challenges.
A common practice for researchers in India is to hire fishermen and their boats for fieldwork. Though this has practical advantages — it is economical, uses existing infrastructure, and builds a positive relationship between local fishermen and scientists — there are issues which researchers and policymakers need to address. For instance, researchers need to bring their own safety and emergency response equipment including communication devices for emergencies and should be able to assess the appropriateness of a vessel for diving.
At present, there is no formal reporting mechanism or database for scientific diving incidents and accidents in India. We have no way of currently knowing how risky diving practices are, and how many casualties have occurred. This is a disservice to the scientific divers and puts researchers at unnecessary risk.
What can be done to improve diving safety in India?
Constituting a separate diving control board may take time to materialize in India. However, the following actions should be taken without any further delay by universities, as well as the Department of Science and Technology:
Develop a diving manual covering minimum safety standards including emergency care, medical oxygen kit, boat standards, documentation procedures (related to dive location, diver eligibility, depth, equipment conditions etc);
Emergency procedures should be formulated and circulated to every institution involved in underwater research;
All diving activities must be supervised by government officials through the concerned director of the institution, without compromising standard regulations;
All divers must be insured, and diving activities should be recorded
The government should make sure that Decompression Chamber is available at most common diving sites
Symposia and workshops should be conducted to form a network among the scientific divers’ community to educate them about safe scientific practices, particularly about shallow water blackout;
Above all, in case of an accident, there should be a mandatory reporting process resulting in a national repository for future analysis and prevention.
To achieve our goals in marine ecosystem conservation, scuba diving is undoubtedly going to play a central role. Hence, immediate serious steps should be taken by policymakers and scientists to form standard diving guidelines. This will not only reduce the inherent risks associated with scuba diving but also improve our efficiency as well as allow networking among Indian marine researchers.
The authors would like to acknowledge AP Lipton (UGC, Emeritus Scientist) and S Prakash (Scientist, Sathyabama University, Chennai) for their suggestions, as well as Bala for support with the illustration.