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UC Dive Alumni > Articles > Article by Derk Richardson

The East Bay EXPRESS
July 22, 1988
By Derk Richardson (with thanks to Mark Lenhart '90 for scanning)

A cross between a scavenger hunt and basic training, Lloyd Austin's Introduction to Scientific Research Diving" is no day at the beach.

You will find out more about yourself in this course,' ' the lecturer said enigmatically, "than in just about anything else short of living about forty years." I looked around the classroom. If any expression at all registered on the listeners' faces it was one of puzzlement. Most of us had signed up for this class, Biology 407,"Introduction to Scientific Research Diving," to learn how to scuba dive, not to probe our psyches. But Lloyd Austin, director and diving officer for the Underwater Scientific Research Program at Cal, is not beyond provoking and perplexing his students with sweeping philosophical statements and pithy epigrams. A borderline eccentric who shows up to class one day in a tweedy sports coat and tie and the next in sweatpants, sweatshirt, and running shoes, Austin assumes his students will get the point once they are in the water.

Few people within or without the university community know that Austin, his course, and his department even exist. For many years, while a graduate student in history, I had walked past the "temporary" wooden, barracks-like buildings behind Doe Library without ever trying to decipher the sign that read "Division of Diving Control." But over the past twenty years, Berkeley's Underwater Scientific Research Program has trained and certified 600 divers logging over 100,000 dives; eleven graduates have become diving officers-maintaining and monitoring training programs and safety standards at other educational institutions; seven are directors of marine laboratories; two are currently conducting research in the Antarctic. Despite all this, the department remains a poor stepchild within the UC mega-academy.

None of this initially concerned me. Most of the 25 or so undergraduates and young graduate students in the class may have enrolled so they could learn how to pursue their archaeological, zoological, or biological research underwater. I was just there to learn how to scuba dive. The course is typically under-enrolled and a few slots are granted to non-university students. Henry Kaiser, better known for his guitar experimentations than for his twenty-plus years of involvement with diving (he is a senior instructor in the UC program), had convinced me that the semester-long program would be the safest and most thorough way to learn scuba diving. He told me it was exhaustive but gave few clues about how exhausting it would be, with its twenty-six hours of classroom lecture time (plus mid-terms and finals), sixty hours of pool training, and eight all day diving trips in Carmel Bay.

Austin's introductory lecture, however, seemed to hint that I was in for more than just a little physical training and a notebook full of research methods. From the beginning, Austin was an anomaly. His initial stern and serious demeanor in the classroom was belied by his elfin features, a crinkly impish smile, sparkling eyes, and an almost Einsteinian crop of curly hair. On that first day, he seemed to be trying hard to present a solemn and didactic front so that his class would know right off that diving is serious business. I didn't require much convincing. As I looked around at the other students, I realized that many of their childhoods coincided with the Nixon and Carter administrations and Star Wars, not with Eisenhower, Kennedy, and & Sea Hunt. I began to wonder how a writer, only a few laps shy of forty, whose main exercises were slow­ pitch softball and floppy-disc Frisbee, would fare in the company of these fresh young academic athletes. Was my notion of exploring the wondrous watery world just the pipe dream of an aging scribe?

Most people's images of scuba diving are shaped by Jacques Cousteau specials on TV, James Bond movies, news stories about treasure hunters salvaging shipwrecks for pieces of eight in the Caribbean, and, of course, black-and-white memories of Lloyd Bridges as underwater adventurer Mike Nelson. At least half the friends and acquaintances with whom I've discussed scuba diving say they would feel claustrophobic underwater. Some of them, no doubt imprinted with silver screen fears of Jules Verne's giant squid and Peter Benchley's jaws, hint that even the remote possibility of seeing a shark is enough to confirm their landlubber status.

I, on the other hand, have always felt less comfortable on top of the water than under it. Like a child who fantasizes about spiders and snakes under his bed and ends up sleeping on the floor, I would rather be ten, twenty, or sixty feet below, where I can see what is going on, than be bobbing on the surface at the mercy of the waves, wondering what is swimming-or-hunting­ underneath me. I was one of those kids who always felt at home underwater and stayed in swimming pools and lakes until my lips turned blue, my body shivered uncontrollably, and my parents were forced to drag me out of the drink. Although I was coming to it late, scuba diving promised to be both a homecoming to the dreamy weightlessness of total immersion and a revelation of a whole new living universe.

Granted, there is an extreme irony attached to feeling "natural" beneath the waves. What is intrinsically natural about wrapping yourself head to toe in a quarter-to a half-inch-thick spongy skin of neoprene, strapping twenty to thirty pounds of lead weights around your waist, adjusting a plate of tempered glass in front of your face so you can see, propelling yourself with awkward planes of webbed rubber on your feet, and breathing canned air from a heavy tank hanging on your back? What is so natural about risking the drugged state of nitrogen narcosis at great depths, or the "bends" and chronic decompression sickness from inert gas bubbles in your tissues, or instant death from an air embolism in your bloodstream, all for the sake of thirty to ninety minutes of communion with the extreme upper reaches of an ocean that drops down maybe three to four unfathomable miles in impenetrable mystery beneath you? And why would anyone want to dive in the icy, sometimes turbulent waters off the Northern California coast, let alone begin training there in the dead of winter?

Still, most of us go through life just skimming the surface, and not just figuratively. I'd observed that the relatively few who plunge, climb, or rocket away from the narrow band of civilization usually come back transformed, and indeed Lloyd Austin's prediction about self ­discovery soon seemed increasingly realistic. His words really hit home a week after the first lecture. We were at the end of our second pool session, and were getting a grueling inkling of the physical trials that lay ahead. The three-how in water training session-in Cal's enormous Spieker Pool on Bancroft Way had been devoted to free-diving (non-scuba/snorkeling) skills. The class ended, as it would for the next twelve weeks, with a nightmarish exercise called the "circuit swim" (or, as my wife Robin dubbed it after seeing me drag home every Wednesday night bleary-eyed and muscle-weary, the "sink-or-swim").

The circuit swim was devised by the same sort of mind that might advocate jogging around Lake Merritt in a suit of armor, towing John Candy and Refrigerator Perry in a rickshaw. It is an agility and endurance test that involves swimming back and forth across the pool eighteen times. With each crossing you are required to dive to the bottom and leave a piece of equipment-mask and snorkel or weight belt-or else retrieve and don equipment left on the last length. Also thrown in for good measure: three proper scuba entries from the side of the pool; a donning of an air cylinder while continuing to swim; and four laps aboard a canvas surf mat kicking like crazy. (If you are really lucky your instructor makes you do all this in either thirteen feet of water, where it can be a struggle just to reach the bottom without your weight belt, or in seven feet, where your buoyancy pops you back to the surface before you can grab your weights and buckle your belt, or clear the water from your mask and snorkel.)

All of this is supposed to be accomplished in fifteen minutes or less. Gasping and sputtering on my air mattress-like surf mat, dragging legs that felt like two water-logged corpses, I finished my first circuit swim in just over twenty minutes. "Is this really something I need to do?" I asked myself. Some Wednesday nights I fancied I was experiencing the post exercise high that some runners describe. Most likely I was just glad to have survived another circuit swim.

Probably the most hated exercise in the course-at least until we discovered the joys of performing such other stunning contrivances as the "doff-and-don", and the "bail-out", in an angry ocean with five foot swells-the circuit swim is emblematic of the aims of Austin's course. It is a test of physical conditioning, emotional balance, competence with equipment, and, perhaps above all, will. It is a lesson in the dialectical relationship of attitude and ability. And it is just one of the things that makes this program exceptional in the world of diver training.

Scientific diving exists in it's own realm, apart from commercial diving and especially apart from the sport diving industry that has been experiencing tremendous growth in recent years. Equipment sales and dive related travel now generate a billion worth of business a year. According to a 1987 Skin Diver magazine survey are 1.5 to 2 million active divers among the 3.5 million who have been certified in the US. An estimate based on equipment sales puts the number of active divers in California at approximately 350,000. Research divers, however number only about 6,000 to 8,000 in the country.

Over and over again during the course, I was struck by the fact that the gap between recreational and research diving exists not only in numbers but also in the attitude toward equipment and training. A variety of standards are applied by different certifying agencies, including the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), and the YMCA, and teaching quality and safety standards vary greatly from instructor to instructor. It is possible to be certified in one weekend, with no snorkeling or rescue training and as few as two open water dives. Even the relatively stiff NAUI requirements for an entry-level "Open Water I" card-eleven classroom hours, and the acquisition of prescribed skills during seventeen in-water hours and five open ­water dives-can't compare to Cal's training marathon.

Every step toward becoming an Austin-trained scuba diver is taken slowly, and in systematic fashion, so that the mastery of one skill, such as taking off and putting on a weight belt or a mask, lays a foundation for the next, such a removing and retrieving the air cylinder and regulator. No matter how contrived an exercise seemed in isolation, I was soon to see how it contributed to the kind of coordination, confidence, and safety consciousness that helps a diver avoid life-threatening situations or cope with danger without panicking. We were aspiring toward a level of competence in which, like a doctor or a musician, you no longer have to think about your instruments, but know what you're doing with them at every moment.

In the classroom Lloyd Austin was such a tough and exacting taskmaster-rejecting an entire answer on an exam if the word "buoyancy" was misspelled, for instance-that some students started seeing him as arbitrary and unfair. But at the poolside or on the beach, he leavened his cautionary lectures with rhapsodic descriptions of what we were about to experience. Eventually, all the complex elements of Austin's demeanor added up to a tremendous sense of caring. Before the third pool session he caught me alone near the deep end. "You're not really any older than anybody else in this class. In fact," he smiled, "in some ways you might even be younger." Before I could utter a response, he turned and walked away along the pool's edge.

Despite Austin's promises, what I was to see and feel in the water wasn't always pretty. The first thing I noticed in our early water sessions was how dirty a swimming pool can actually be, even when it looks invitingly blue and clear from above. My mask allowed me to see hair, Band-Aids, broken tiles, and miscellaneous unidentified flotsam in the Spieker pool. But there was little time to appreciate either the ugliness of garbage and grime or the beauty of a lighted pool under a pink-streaked sunset sky.

Divided into groups of four students, each overseen by two or three instructors, we were kept busy manipulating our equipment and each other through the inventive series of exercises. Our early underwater discoveries included the fact that pool chlorine tastes like bleach and dries and reddens your eyes. And that the wet suit which keeps you warm in the ocean-allowing a thin layer of water between the neoprene and your skin to be heated by your body-keeps you uncomfortably hot in a swimming pool, especially when you're simulating a rescue of your buddy: bringing her up from the bottom, removing her equipment, and giving rescue breathing every five seconds while towing her back and forth across the pool Somehow, at the end of these pool sessions, I didn't feel much like Lloyd Bridges.

If the pool was drudgery, surely our first Saturday trip to the ocean, at Monastery Beach near Carmel, would inaugurate the payoff. But suiting up on a cold windy beach, walking awkwardly into the surf wearing enough gear to make you feel like a pack mule, and learning how to get in and out of the ocean through the waves took up half the morning session. When we did dive down into the water, it was to drop off and recover our gear, not to look around at the sights. One curious harbor seal did swim close enough to sniff at a weight belt on the sandy bottom, but the most exotic sights were seasick students bobbing up and down on the swelling surface, moaning and retching in between exercises. The inevitable mouthful of saltwater swallowed during the rescues, whether you were being towed or your back or giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while hauling the victim through the surf, added considerably to the nausea factor.

It was several weeks into the course before we were finally to have our first experience of scuba (a word that's actually an acronym for "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus" In the shallow end of the pool, we practiced our hand signals, checked each other's air pressure, put the regulators in our mouths, and descended all of four or five feet. My heart was racing. The air was dry and tasteless in my mouth. We signaled "OK" back and forth. I must have been sucking down the air at a phenomenal rate. Here at last was the feeling of freedom I had so longed-after as a child -I didn't have to come up for air. So excited I could have laughed out loud if I hadn't had a mouthpiece jammed between my teeth, I swam along the bottom of the pool with my buddy, watching the other students going through the same experience, feeling time take on a new elongated shape, unconfined by the impulse to surface. I was becoming a new animal.

In the ocean, the exhilaration of the first scuba descent was multiplied many times over. With one buddy and two instructors, I slowly dropped down to the ocean floor twenty feet below. My "OK" signal was totally inadequate for - communicating the happiness I was feeling. The water in Carmel Bay may have been thirty degrees colder than the Spieker pool's, but I wasn't noticing. We ran through a few simple exercises. We raised our masks, exposing our faces to the frigid water, and then cleared the masks by breathing hard into them. We stood on our heads and turned somersaults, and then we swam a short distance in buddy pairs, looking for the first time at anemones, urchins, sea stars, rock fish, and the fringes of a spectacular kelp forest. That first exposure lasted only moments but it was enough to assure me that whatever I would have to go through to get more would be worth it.

With that brief tantalizing peek beneath the waves, it was back to the grind of training.

Many of the non-research scuba divers I have met are boggled by some of the exercise drills we were required to perform. The circuit swim, for example, not only points to important differences in training, but also in attitudes toward conditioning and equipment. In the introductory lecture, before we had even been in the pool, Austin had commented cryptically, "The class is about half over already." He was referring to the scavenger hunt we had been put through to find the equipment he required. Austin had issued each of us a detailed list specifying what regulators, cylinders, gauges, and the like he would approve-and what equipment we would need to make ourselves. Though dive shops are loaded with elaborate gear which will do just about everything short of brewing hot coffee underwater, we were busy cutting and sewing strips of neoprene into wrist gauntlets that would hold our gauges, gluing new swivel snaps onto the backpacks that would hold our air cylinders, and measuring rope and chain to make anchors.

Because of his handicraft and woodshop orientation, Austin is notorious in Bay Area dive shops and his equipment requirements raise eyebrows throughout the sport diving world. One student told Austin that when he went into a Southern California dive shop with his shopping list, the clerk questioned the "archaic" equipment he was trying to buy. At one Bay Area dive shop recently I was asked why Austin "refuses to use the latest up-to-date gear."

"Sport divers are equipment-bound, diving like robots," snorted Austin, "and all automatic equipment eventually fails." Such an attitude is considered reactionary if not crazy by a sport diving industry which aims, in the words of Charles Mitchell of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences, "to sell the customers $2000 worth of equipment, certify them, and then send them out the door, while offering higher levels of certification for which, of course, they'll have to come back and pay for more classes."

But Austin's madness-his doubts about such newfangled gizmos as computerized decompression chambers, his reliance on the do-it-yourself ways of the scuba pioneers, his insistence that students be acquainted with every strap, snap, and valve rather than take the dive industry's word on how things work seemed more and more like a rational methodology every time we hit the water. We may have looked like throwbacks to the 1950s, but we were learning the lessons of Austin's pragmatism. "The main question about pieces of equipment," ' he emphasized, "is do they work or not?" If they offer reliable protection in the harsh ocean environment, facilitate the diver's activity underwater, and enhance safety rather than add complications in hazardous situations, they "work." And in order for the diver to enjoy a comfortable, quasi-organic relationship with the underwater world, he or she must have an equally organic relationship with the equipment. Cal's safety record-no reported cases of decompression injury or sickness in over 100,000 logged dives bears out the wisdom of Austin's anachronistic style.

During the middle of the course, to get a peek at the wider world of recreational diving, I attended a product fair, the first annual "Seaviews," which was held in Oakland last March. The orientation of the sport diving business hit me with the force of a six-foot breaker. Filling up an exhibit hall in the Oakland Convention Center, the trade show featured an eye popping array of candy colors, high-tech conveniences, high-ticket equipment, and splashy enticements for exotic excursions. Very much like skiing, diving has become a profit-minded sport that sustains a big business in fashion and design. The emphasis was on what you could buy, not what you could learn. Training is regarded as something to get out of the way; safety seems taken for granted. Walking down the aisles, I realized I was in danger of becoming a scuba snob, something Austin discourages.

The research diving elite, of course, is not without its horror stories of death and injury. Austin's sometimes mischievous tone would grow stone cold sober when he lectured about accidents. One inadequately trained and uncertified professor from another campus was on a research dive in New Caledonia with a young assistant. An emergency developed at 100 feet and the professor brought the student up to the surface too quickly. The student suffered an embolism and died. A researcher in the Antarctic making an emergency ascent also suffered an embolism under the ice. Even Conrad Limbaugh, one of the original scuba pioneers and the University of California system's first diving officer, made a fatal error while cave diving in France and ran out of air as he tried to find his way out. He was found with his regulator still in his mouth. Such tragic exceptions have served to reinforce the scientific diving community's obsessive attention to safety.

The science of research diving has grown in almost complete isolation, misunderstood not only by sport divers but by academic researchers. As Nanette Chadwick, a zoologist studying the competitive ecology of coral and sea anemones, told our class, most scientists believe the way to study sea life is to remove it from the ocean, where conditions are inhospitable to humans, and examine it in the laboratory. "Until recently," she noted, "little marine science was done underwater. Researchers didn't even get their heads wet."

The Cal diving program has been training research divers for over twenty years. Scientific diving began on the West Coast shortly after World War II at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. A group of professors at Berkeley formed a diving committee in the mid-'50s and the growth of Cal's program accelerated in the early '60s when PG&E funded an undersea survey of a proposed reactor site at Bodega Bay. Lloyd Austin, an instructor in zoology who had been a sport diver from the age of fifteen, was one of the organizers and researchers on that project. In 1966, Austin was appointed Cal's diving officer and charged with overseeing underwater research and the training of divers at UC Berkeley. Although the program has suffered through a tortured history within the university's bureaucratic structure, it has been buoyed by the slow but steady growth of in-water scientific study.

A naturally quiet and self-effacing man, Austin stands at the helm of a vessel in which lives are at risk every week. Through all his rules and requirements, Austin is simply emphasizing the safe diver's absolute need for good physical conditioning and training, thorough knowledge and understanding, and a positive mental attitude. The prerequisites for the course include a complete physical examination (plus a heart stress test for those over 35), first aid and CPR training, and a fairly demanding swimming test. The classroom portion of the course covers physics, physiology, medical emergencies, the marine environment and animal life, the psychology of fear and panic, dive planning, wave behavior and beach characteristics, research methods, and the logic of the tables from which you calculate how long and at what depth you can stay underwater.

"This course is designed so that you work at your limits while learning," Austin says. When he distributed a handout that described the exercises required in the pool and ocean sessions, he said, "Study this, but don't get emotionally involved. This is not a horror novel."

Many of us would soon take issue with that evaluation. Edgar Allan Poe should have come up with such gothic devices. Take the "bail-out": you clip your weight belt and air cylinder to the side of a boat, climb in, take off your fins and mask, haul in your weights and tank, turn off your air, clutch all your loose gear in your arms, and jump overboard. While you sink to the bottom of the pool or ocean, you put everything back on, all within five minutes. (The only application I could figure for this exercise was that you would be prepared should your dive boat explode-but sink slowly enough for you to gather your gear before leaping for your life.)

The "doff-and-don" is a labyrinthine exercise starting at the bottom of the pool or ocean. You take off your air cylinder and lay it down in front of you, hook your mask onto it, and lay your weight belt over it before rising to the surface under the control of your buddy. Then you dive back down and "don" ' the equipment, again within five minutes from start to finish. In the "buddy breathe' ' variation, invented at Berkeley, you repeat the exercise while you and your buddy breathe back and forth from a single regulator. Early on, these routines seemed like boot camp tortures at best, sadistic rituals at worst. But we were slowly learning both about the things that can go wrong underwater, from tangled air hoses to broken straps, and how to cope with them. And we were being inculcated with the practice of watching out for a buddy at all times, knowing that our lives depended on one another.

And then there were the instructors. Austin did all of his teaching on land and left the in-water training to his lieutenants, a stalwart corps of underwater senior instructors and volunteer assistants. The bulk of the day-to-day responsibility for training and safety fell on the shoulders of these hardworking men and women. Year after year, school teachers, lawyers, physicists, musicians, and others who have taken the course before return to help teach, making Bio 407 one of the most labor intensive courses to be offered at the university. The teacher student ratio is never less than one-to-two, and often it is one-to-one.

An incredibly dedicated lot, the instructors all seemed motivated by a desire to see more people learn scuba and research diving safely. Their teaching styles ranged from lighthearted joke telling to concerned professionalism to boot camp whip-cracking. By the third or fourth week of the course, one infamous senior instructor had validated his reputation as a drill sergeant from hell. He had some of his students shaking in their fins and others girding their loins for confrontation.

An instructor's presence can literally save the day. In my case, I kept inventing new ways to foul my gear. During my first "doff-and-don," I unsnapped my weight belt instead of my backpack and started floating to the surface prematurely. My instructor had to hold me down as I corrected my mistake. In my initial "bail-out," I put one fin on and managed to strap the backpack strap under my foot, effectively hogtying myself into a tight little ball at the bottom of the pool. During my frantic maneuvering, I gulped down more than half my tankful of air. By midcourse, Henry Kaiser had spread the word about my dreadfully inefficient, bent-at-the-knee flutter kick. So I had the pleasure of going through nearly a complete circuit swim accompanied by an instructor, who kept a stiff arm pressed over my calves so that my knees wouldn't bend. If I didn't drown, I swore, I'd drown Mr. Kaiser, but my kick did improve.

A we progressed deeper into the semester, the long-awaited ocean scuba dives began. Unfortunately these first Saturday ocean sessions proved to be anything but a walk in the marine park.

My alarm would go off at 4:30 am, and I'd crank myself up for the two-and-a-half-hour drive down to Monterey. The first one on the beach (either Monastery or Carmel River Beach), was usually Austin, bundled in sweat clothes and a parka, facing the ocean like an old friend. Each week his enthusiasm and encouragement grew bolder. Describing the wind, waves, and currents, and bidding us forth into the next foray of exercises, he was taking us deeper into his confidence, sharing something very close to his heart. In the last weeks of recovery from a long illness, Austin had to stay out of the water, turning us over to his trusted deputies, but the longing was there in his words and his eyes.

In the water by nine, sometimes barely awake, we were put through our paces in the cold and occasionally murky deep with very little opportunity to observe or appreciate the ocean environment. For most of the course, we were blessed with mild weather and relatively calm wave conditions. It seemed the instructors couldn't tell us too many times how lucky we were, and how when they'd taken the course they'd had to battle hurricanes, monsoons, earthquakes, and bi-weekly tsunamis. Even in these atypically gentle seas, however, many of my classmates continued to earn their water wings the hard way, heaving their croissants and cappuccinos into the kelp beds.

As the weeks passed and the exercises became more strenuous, a handful of students dropped out. I was not surprised; in fact, I was very impressed that any fulltime university student could handle the compounded stress of study and scuba. But for me the course was becoming a source of peace and fulfillment. After a few early bouts of self-doubt, I felt like I was sailing through. The exercises became fascinating tests of coordination and memory. I began imagining what it would be like to really have to take my gear off in an emergency, or to rescue a near-drowning victim in a turbulent sea. In each session I tried to glimpse just a little more of the tantalizing underwater life around me. I still came home from class feeling and looking like a load of laundry in between the spin cycle and the dryer, but I had lost ten pounds, my cholesterol level had dropped nearly seventy points, and I knew I could pull off a "doff-and-don" ' in just three minutes.

As the course coasted into its thirteenth week and the onset of final examinations, the realization began to dawn on us that after we completed the exercises in the time allotted, we would never have to do them again. Ever. In our entire lives.

Finishing the last circuit swim was going to be especially sweet, a euphoric rite of passage. I had already trimmed my time down to about 14:15 on a couple of occasions. I thought I was home free. All the pool exams went smoothly-hand signals, entries, rescue, doff-and-dons, bailout. But something happened at the end of class. Even now, months later, there is one lasting image. Coming up from my first mask recovery, I saw the solemn, black-bearded face of the monitoring instructor and the flat palm of his hand in my face. A small amount of water sloshed at the bottom of my mask and the instructor's hand twisted from the "stop" sign into a single finger pointing down. I had to dive down and repeat the mask recovery. I had lost valuable time, but I knew I was still on a good pace. I steamed ahead, completing the next weight belt ditch and recovery, dragging in and putting on my tank, diving down and placing my mask on the bottom. On the return length I rolled smoothly out of my weight belt. Only two recoveries to go and then onto the seat. I plunged to the bottom and pulled the weight belt up smoothly and buckled it. I swam to the edge of the pool and turned around. Breathing heavily I estimated where I had left the mask, dove down, slipped it on, blew through my nose to blast the water out, and rose to surface, puffing through the snorkel t
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