Unexplored, Unseen & Unknown: The Future of Deep Water Research at UVI

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the vast majority of the ocean, up to 80 percent, remains a mystery. In an era where seemingly all questions are answered in seconds by Google, this statistic is pretty incredible. Here in the USVI however, we can expect more will be revealed about Territory waters thanks to recent advances in the SCUBA diving program within the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies (CMES) at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). 

With an eye on deep water coral reefs, and under the guidance of UVI’s Dr. Tyler Smith, Associate Research Professor of Marine Biology and Viktor Brandtneris, technical diving program manager, the facility has grown into one that is recognized as a global leader in deep ocean research capacity. In fact, last month Smith and Brandtneris achieved the deepest open ocean diving certification available. As a result UVI is now qualified to conduct a level of scientific research on par with any other research facility globally. Furthermore, the future of the program is highlighted by the fact that Brandtneris is now qualified to train and certify future deep water technical divers.

 Smith and Brandtneris achieved the deepest open ocean diving certification available.

Smith and Brandtneris achieved the deepest open ocean diving certification available.

AAUS Membership and Critical Funding Were Game Changers

In 2010, UVI became a member of The American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), a consortium of over 140 universities, governmental and environmental agencies, aquariums, companies, and research institutes across the globe. The AAUS mission is to provide a framework in which scientific diving is differentiated from commercial diving and establishes standards for safety and training, diving programs and certification. AAUS also maintains statistics on scientific diving activities and incident rates and supports student research by hosting workshops and conferences.

AAUS membership has allowed UVI faculty, staff, and students to participate in underwater research programs in places like Israel, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, and Micronesia by promoting collaboration and making it easy for UVI divers to work at other institutions.  The program at UVI’s CMES has grown tremendously since joining AAUS—nearly doubling the number of research dives carried out annually. Supplemental grant funding secured by faculty within CMES further ensures that there are always active research diving projects at UVI.

 Sarah Heidmann and Rosmin Ennis have also earned certification in closed circuit rebreathers, greatly expanding the time and depth available to them for deep water coral and fish ecology research

Sarah Heidmann and Rosmin Ennis have also earned certification in closed circuit rebreathers, greatly expanding the time and depth available to them for deep water coral and fish ecology research

While not the largest research institution within AAUS, UVI’s dive program is a global leader in a number of exciting areas. Specifically, UVI divers execute more research dives beyond 100 feet than any other research institution in AAUS.  Diving below this depth for any workable amount of time requires advanced training and expensive equipment which the program has gained thanks to VI-EPSCoR’s investments. It also requires decompression stops. These “deco” stops are critical, consisting of many safety stops on ascent before a diver can exit the water. For example, a diver who spends 20 minutes at 220 feet, must take up to 70 minutes to ascend safely and avoid decompression sickness.

Another reason UVI is so prolific in carrying out deep research dives is its rebreather program – funded by Lana Vento Charitable Trust, Caribbean Fisheries Management Council and VI-EPSCoR – another area in which CMES stands out as a global leader.  Rebreathers are an advanced form of SCUBA technology that allows a divers’ exhalations to be recycled. Electronics within the rebreather control the oxygen dosage being received by the diver based on depth. Rebreathers allow researchers to dive deeper and stay down much longer than traditional open circuit “bubblers”, and with less decompression time.

Why Deep Water Research Matters

Within our own lifetimes the devastation of coral reefs in the Territory is marked. This loss can be attributed directly to climate change (warming oceans which cause die-off and disease) and human activity (construction runoff, and boat anchors). Yet researchers are seeing flourishing coral gardens at surprising depths. In some areas, coral reefs are thriving up to 220 feet.   The deep water diving capacity of UVI CMES positions the facility as a leader in the research of this phenomena and provides unprecedented opportunities for students in the Masters of Marine and Environmental Studies program. 

While 2017 was a difficult year for the facility, and all Virgin Islanders, the perseverance and growth of the research SCUBA program at UVI is remarkable. As a result, research diving in the US Virgin Islands has never been stronger; we expect to see it grow as more students in the MMES program advance in their training and participate in the notable research taking place in the Territory’s waters.

 
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