Diving is an important tool for many people in their work. For some, such as sea urchin divers, it’s their most important tool for getting the job done. For others, such as police divers, it’s just one in a selection of tools. Over the past year, we have done video interviews with 14 different people who are professionally employed in careers that involve diving. We wanted to find out what they do, why they do it, and what they like and dislike about their jobs. The people we have interviewed include a scuba instructor, a commercial diver, an underwater videographer working in Hollywood, an FBI agent, a marine biologist, and others. This article is the first in a multi-part series on some of the people interviewed who are professionally employed in diving.
Scientific Diving Officer
Dr. Diana Steller is the diving safety officer, as well as a researcher, at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in Moss Landing, California. Moss Landing is located just north of Monterey, and the town is a busy recreational and commercial fishing port.
As a diving safety officer, Steller oversees all of the diving operations conducted through the Moss Landing lab. This includes researchers working in such diverse environments as Elkhorn Slough, Monterey Bay, mountain lakes, the tropics, and the Antarctic. In addition, Steller also conducts her own research as part of the faculty at the lab.
Diving safety officers like Steller oversee underwater research whether the divers are engaged in marine biology, geology, archaeology, botany, or oceanography. Steller supervises 65-70 scientific divers at any given time, and it’s her job to ensure that what they do underwater is safe and carried out properly. She estimates that there are somewhere between 4,000-5,000 divers working for scientific research organizations across the U.S. These divers work for universities, aquariums, private consulting firms, as well as state and federal agencies like the National Park Service. Most are members of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS).
A diver for 26 years, Diana Steller learned to snorkel as a child, encouraged by her parents who learned to scuba dive after moving to California from the Midwest. In college, she heard about a work-study job that was available through the marine lab at U.C. Santa Barbara, but she needed a scientific diving certification to be hired. She took a basic scuba course, followed by a research diving course, and the rest is history.
Diana teaches the research diving course for the graduate students at Moss Landing Marine Lab. The program is much more extensive than an ordinary scuba certification course and includes 12 ocean dives. In addition, the students learn to perform a variety of scientific techniques underwater, such as how to set up a “transect line” underwater. For this task, the students use a fiberglass measuring tape that is unwound across the bottom from a fixed reference point. This enables them to determine exactly how many animals of each species are in a particular area. In addition, the students use preprinted data sheets that are produced on waterproof paper so that they can quickly record their underwater observations.
Steller loves the solitude, the sense of exploration, and the experience of weightlessness that she enjoys whenever she goes underwater. However, she also acknowledges that diving has risks. Teaching her divers how to minimize the risks in diving is one of the most challenging parts of her job. She is constantly analyzing each diving operation to help ensure it is done in the safest way possible.
As a scientific diving officer, Diana notes that perhaps the most important skill she uses in her job is assessing whether people are competent divers and when they are capable of going out on their own to conduct their diving research. She notes that part of this is helping people make realistic assessments of their own capabilities.
In addition to her diving abilities, Steller also has other skills that are essential to her job, including computer proficiency, boat handling, and teaching. Each one of these capabilities is vital to her job.
A typical day for Dr. Steller may involve diving with her students in Monterey, working on her own research, helping other people plan their dive operations, and coordinating with her marine operations facility regarding the lab’s boats. In her job, no two days are the same.
Steller’s research has focused on a unique type of underwater habitat called rhodoliths, which translated from the Latin, means “red stones.” Rhodoliths are basically unattached small coral algae reefs that form a unique undersea habitat that supports many different types of life. Although they are found in many places in the world, Dr. Steller has concentrated her research on these interesting organisms in the Gulf of California. There she has found them covering sections of the ocean floor like a bed of red tennis balls.
Besides being a diving safety office and a researcher, Diana is married to another marine biology professor who works at U.C. Santa Cruz and is a mother. Organization is a key factor in helping her to juggle the many demands on her time.
What Diana loves most about her job is her involvement with interesting, motivated people who are excited about the mysteries of science. For those who want to become a university diving officer, she recommends a graduate degree in marine or aquatic science, becoming a scientific diver, and getting as much experience in diving as possible. Of course, you’ll also need to become a scuba instructor and gain experience in as many diving specialties as possible, such as dry suit diving, blue water diving, and other techniques.
Working as a diving safety officer is a rewarding career for anyone who has an interest in diving and science. It’s an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of discovery and adventure.
Emergency Services Diver
David Carver is a Deputy Sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, assigned to the Emergency Services Detail (ESD). This unit is responsible for search and rescue activities throughout the county. As an ESD deputy, Dave has a wide range of duties that include mountain rescue, diving in both fresh and salt water, working as a paramedic, providing tactical medical support to the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and investigating dive fatalities. Dave has been with the department for 26 years and specializes in the management of the dive team’s activities.
Dave first became interested in diving at the age of 12, when he visited an older cousin who owned gear and allowed him to try the gear in the local pool. Dave was hooked from that point forward, but it wasn’t until almost 26 years later that he was able to combine his passion for diving with his career.
While attending college, Dave met a group of like-minded people who were interested in working in law enforcement. He heard about the Department’s search and rescue team and set out to make that his career. However, he did not realize what a long and difficult path it would be to achieve that goal.
Getting hired by the Sheriff’s Department is not easy. Applicants must pass a written test and an oral interview, undergo a psychiatric evaluation, submit to a polygraph (lie detector) test, and complete a fitness and agility test. Once the applicant has cleared those hurdles, he or she must attend the Sheriff’s academy. After graduating from the academy, new deputies can expect to spend several years working in the county jail system.
After graduating from the academy, Dave worked at the jail before being assigned to a patrol station. He then became a gang investigator, and later worked as a homicide detective, before being assigned to the Special Enforcement Bureau’s Emergency Services Detail. His training at ESD included working as a member of a tactical team, becoming a paramedic, and becoming certified in technical mixed-gas diving, the use of full-face masks, helmets, and fully closed-circuit rebreathers. He regularly dives his rebreather, even going so far as to be deployed from the Department’s rescue helicopter while wearing it.
A typical day for Dave (if there is such a thing) starts with reporting for duty, a workout, and then loading his gear aboard the rescue helicopter at the Long Beach airport. From there, he and his partners could end up anywhere, from rescuing a lost hiker to recovering a diving accident victim.
As divers, the ESD team recovers evidence underwater (whether it’s stolen goods or weapons), performs body recoveries, and salvages vehicles (including cars, trucks, light planes, and boats) that have ended up on the bottom due to criminal activity or tragic loss of life. There are currently eighteen divers on the team, including seventeen men and one woman.
Some of the hazards that the divers must contend with include: contaminated water, moving water (such as streams, rivers, and aqueducts), and entanglement risks. In many instances, they are diving in places where there is little or no visibility, and sometimes in silt so thick that Dave says it feels like diving in Jell-O.
Carver maintains that there is nothing about his job that he does not like, although there have been times on the department that have been extremely difficult, like when a partner was shot and killed. What appeals to him most about his work is that every day is different and that he, “can’t fall into a rut, because there is no rut to fall into.” In addition, Dave states there are many different assignments within the department, which provides personnel the opportunity to move to different positions and face new challenges.
Based on his experience as a homicide investigator, Dave has been assigned the task of investigating all dive fatalities that occur within the waters of Los Angeles County. This role is one of the more challenging and interesting aspects of his career. Dave investigates every diving fatality to determine whether or not a crime has occurred and to determine exactly what went wrong. Dave feels a strong obligation to each victim’s family and attempts to provide each family with information on what happened and why their loved one died in an activity that most people consider reasonably safe.
Dave Carver is a person who has truly been able to combine his love of diving with a challenging career.