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AFSC Historical Corner:  Agency Diving Programs

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Canning & Curing
Diving Programs
Tools & Equipment
diver with crab
Diver and crab.  Photo by Bill Heard (ABL).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Diving Program was created in May of 1971 from the newly formed line offices of the National Ocean Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to be part of the Agency's Manned Undersea Science and Technology Program (MUS&T).

NOAA's predecessors, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, used diving for undersea research in the late 1940s and early 1950s and provided the foundation for NOAA's diving program in the 1970s.

Diving was first used by the FWS in Alaska around 1948, to assess abalone stocks. Between 1957 and 1960, divers of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF, formed under the U.S. FWS in 1956) in Seattle, Washington, began trawl diving studies to evaluate configurations of experimental net designs. During this same time, operating standards and regulations were developed for BCF diving activities. With minor changes, these regulations and operating polices were used as the template for structuring the NOAA Diving Program.

The NOAA Diving Program became a standalone program in 1979 to train scientists, engineers and technicians on how to dive to conduct research and to achieve operational objectives. During these formative years, NOAA implemented diving regulations and established a Diving Safety Board and a Medical Review Board. The NOAA Diving Program was instrumental in developing a nitrogen-oxygen (nitrox) breathing mixture along with decompression tables, as well as working to standardize equipment throughout the Agency, ensuring improved safety and cost savings. Recently (as of 2012), over 300 NOAA divers have averaged about 10,000 dives each year with an impressive 99.97% dive safe statistic.

The Kodiak Dive Unit

  divers in wintery conditions
Scientists diving in icy waters.  Photo by Bill Heard.

AFSC's Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering (RACE) Division has supported a dive program in Kodiak since the early 1970s to conduct research on life history, habitat use, and behavioral ecology of commercially important green sea urchins and Tanner and king crab. Currently (2012-13), the dive unit focuses on essential habitat, larval supply, recruitment processes, and fine-scale movement patterns of juvenile red king crab. Recent research also focused on assessing the feasibility of crab enhancement. This includes benthic surveys to identify suitable release sites for hatchery-raised red king crab.

In the fall of 2013, the dive team plans to track an experimental release of crab near the remote village of Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, Alaska, to quantify habitat use, movement, and species interactions as a function of crab density.

The Seattle Dive Unit

  Seattle NOAA Diving Center dive tank
NDC dive tank in Seattle.  NOAA photo.

During 1971-75, William High served as one of NOAA's three national program coordinators and contributed significantly in the evolution of the NOAA Dive Program in Seattle. Throughout this period, much of the diving done by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) in Seattle involved research on the design and instrumentation of trawl nets.

By the end of the 1980s, NOAA dive program facilities were consolidated and the NOAA Diving Center (NDC) in Seattle was created at the Western Regional Center (WRC) campus on Sand Point. A diving tower and an administrative support facility were built in Seattle and an 80-inch hyperbaric chamber was completely refurbished prior to its installation at NDC. Also part of the Sand Point facility was a 40,000 gallon, 30-foot-high dive tank, used to train NOAA divers and test various diving equipment.

More recently, RACE Division scientists Bob Lauth and Scott McEntire installed underwater time-lapse cameras and conducted transects to study the nesting habits of Atka mackerel in the Aleutians.

National Marine Mammal Laboratory (AFSC-NMML) scientists used diving to catch juvenile Steller sea lions underwater for physiological and behavioral studies.

AFSC divers in Seattle have also been involved in various projects including:

  • installing acoustic marine mammal deterrent devices in the Ballard Locks (Seattle) to protect migrating salmon
  • constructing a net pen at NMFS' Manchester facility (Puget Sound) to temporarily hold Springer, an orphaned killer whale
  • maintaining or assessing the sea lion floating trap in Shilshole Bay (Seattle)


Auke Bay Dive Unit

  divers at Little Port Walter
Divers at the Little Port Walter (LPW) field station.  Photo by Bill Heard (ABL).

The first dives by the Auke Bay Dive Unit in 1957 were for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. These were in Brooks Lake to explore the possibility of using diving in ecological studies of sockeye salmon in nursery lakes. From these earliest dive ventures, Bureau biologists developed a keen interest in using SCUBA as a research tool. In 1959, eight biologists from the region attended formal dive training at the U.S. Navy Torpedo School in Keyport, Washington. The program was off and diving.

The pioneer years of research focused mostly on early life history of salmon, the biology and ecology of Alaskan crabs, near-shore ecological studies, observations of fishing gear performance, and of course, testing of early gear and diving techniques.

As an outgrowth of the very active diving program at the Auke Bay Fisheries Laboratory (ABL) since the late 1950s, Laboratory divers became participants in several advanced diving projects outside Alaska; such as the saturation diving projects, which studied extended underwater living to conduct marine research. These projects, While having marine biological research as important objectives, were often more heavily slanted towards diving technology and studies of human behavior and phsiology during extended underwater missions. In other words, although the biologist­divers were pursuing interesting and worthwhile marine research, they were themselves objects of study by yet another layer of researchers

During its long history, the Auke Bay Dive Unit grew to number more than 25 divers at times and has always been "on call" for milestone projects, including those that come with little or no advance notice. Auke Bay divers collected data before and after the nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in the late 1960s and were among the first responders to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989. Diving was a critical tool for the oil spill studies, providing baseline data as well as post-spill assessments of marine ecosystems. Auke Bay divers dove the entire measurable path of the spill from Bligh Reef to the Shumagin Islands, collecting thousands of samples along the way.

Today's diving mostly involves research in support of Agency mandates such as Essential Fish Habitat and other emerging issues such as Ocean Acidification. Auke Bay divers have conducted tens of thousands of working dives from British Columbia to the Bering Strait, and although current diving activity is quite low compared to historic levels.

The words of Auke Bay's very first Unit Diving Supervisor, Bill Heard, still ring true, "Diving when used appropriately, like a microscope, a gill net, or thermometer, can be an indispensible tool in fisheries research".
Content provided by Rod Towell (NMML), Pete Cummiskey (RACE) and Bob Stone (Auke Bay Laboratories).

Additional reading

  • What Lies Beneath? The NOAA Diving Program Helps Find Out. ("NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship" website).
  • High, William L. (Bill). March 1993. Report Describing Aspects of Diver Supported Ghost Net Recoveries.  (.pdf, 88 KB).

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