Becoming an Oregon Marine Reserves Diver

Since working through the Oregon Marine Reserves program, a couple of people have asked about it—what it is (no, I’m not in the Navy), and how they too might be able to do it. The good news is, it’s achievable, the less than good news—it comes with a price tag and a prerequisite: The Scientific Diver qualification, which is not your regular recreational scuba class, but rather an academic course that is usually taken via an educational institution.

I first learned about the Oregon Marine Reserves in my Scientific Diving class at Oregon State University. Prior to this course I had read about Marine Protected Areas but really knew very little about them in any depth. I would also later learn that a “marine reserve” is not the same as a “marine protected area” but is instead an area adjacent to the marine reserves and that is open to some fishing activities, though each site has its own rules. Learn more here.

When my course lecturer Kevin Buch raised the topic of “marine reserves,” I sent myself on a googling quest. What I uncovered was fascinating.

Unbeknownst to me, Oregon had five marine reserves:

  1. Cape Falcon
  2. Cascade Head
  3. Otter Rock
  4. Cape Perpetua
  5. Redfish Rocks

Each one of these reserves is monitored annually and in a number of ways—by scuba divers, by hook and line, by video lander and by ROV. Naturally this provides a number of data points.

After reading through much of the research on the website, and working through the incredible resources page, my interest was more than piqued. I wanted to help and the best way I knew how to do this was to get involved in the diving. That was the part I would soon be qualified to do.

The catch?

A test that was apparently very difficult to pass. This, however, did little to deter me. In fact, probably just the opposite. Not only would this be an opportunity to learn more about the marine life I had come to love and often knew little about, but, if I passed, I would also get to dive beautiful offshore areas that few would ever have access to. I would have a glimpse into a world fast becoming a “world of the past” thanks to overfishing, trawling and climate change.

And so, I inquired. What would it take for me to become an Oregon Marine Reserves scuba diver?

As it turned out, the girl in my class was right—an epic amount of studying, a test and two days of rigorous on-site training, including confined in-water training at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and an open-water dive out of Newport performing two surveys.

The next training opportunity was a little less than a year away (2018 at the time of my inquiry). I waited patiently and pursued other activities in the meantime, finishing my Scientific Diving course, and getting Tech certified. This training in addition to the regular Divemaster activities I was doing to help our local dive shop and instructors, kept my diving skills sharp.

Because I do not have a biology degree (just a passion for it), I had to be better, be more useful in other ways. I have taken and will continue to take every opportunity that makes me a more useful part of a team that is most likely comprised of scientists. My advantage, as Barry Lopez often told me when I talked about not being academically qualified enough for these things, was that I would come in with a different perspective, I would see things differently than those trained in the methods and the jargon. And, for a writer, learner and explorer like myself, these things are invaluable.

A sidenote on becoming a Scientific Diver

If you are yourself interested in becoming an AAUS Scientific Diver, and like me do not have a background in biology, do not be deterred. With permission from OSU’s Scientific Diving instructor (and an ability to meet basic course requirements—dry suit diver, rescue diver, o2/first aid certified, 100+ dives), I was able to register as a non-degree seeking student and enroll in the course. It wasn’t cheap (expect to shell out about $3,000 if you don’t get financial aid) but it was worth every penny! The course itself was the most rigorous diving course I have taken to date and a very natural complement to my Intro to Tech course (with TDI and Mel Clark) which I would take later that year.

In addition to the TDI Nitrox textbook, we used NAUI’s Master Scuba Diver textbook as a primary resource. The equivalent of this for PADI divers is something like the Encyclopedia of Recreational Diving, though of course with a slightly more scientific bent. On the course we benefited from weekly in-pool skill development sessions with a focus on excellent buoyancy control, advanced dive planning, and task loading.

As a whole I improved greatly as a diver. As with Divemaster training I became more aware. I also had a much greater appreciation for dive planning activities, and yet again, an appreciation for pre-dive safety checks, yet another safety procedure that would be further hammered in by my tech course. Our instructor took no shortcuts and was militant about us following procedures.

In January, the Oregon Coast Aquarium got in touch with those of us who had expressed an interest in becoming Oregon Marine Reserves divers. We noted on a spreadsheet what training days would work best. Shortly thereafter, one of the Dive Safety Officers from the Aquarium sent us a Dropbox link that included all of the study materials.

Eagerly I poked into each folder. They weren’t joking! There really was a lot to learn. On top of 5 take-home examinations (comprising 244 NOT multiple choice questions), we would be required to study a number of Powerpoint presentations, a monstrous 200+ guide to marine life of the Oregon Coast and then, when we met in February, take another test, undergo additional real-life identification testing and practice and then get into the water for some also real-life surveying.

From the moment the studying began through the final checkout dive, I enjoyed it all. The training was made all the better by a very varied style of teaching. Not only did we do identifications by slideshow, but we went into the exhibits and practiced identifying everything, we performed mock onshore transects, and of course got in the water to identify organisms. We were shown how to distinguish between bryozoans and tunicates, various crabs, the ever-difficult rockfish, including juveniles, and of course how to do it all while accounting for other factors like ground cover, fish size, and so on.

Practicing our IDs and associating them with the correct species.

We put in some practice in the exhibits—mainly running transect tapes, shooting lift bags, setting up the lander and GoPros, and identification practice. When we were done with that, we hopped on over to a large pool and practiced fish sizing underwater. This was a lot harder than I had expected. After almost 100 identifications I felt I was finally starting to improve. After this activity we headed out to the Newport Fingers. I paired up with someone else taking the course and one of the DSOs and hopped in to do a couple of transects—UPC on the way out,  Invert Swath on the way back.

It was brilliant.

For the first time in my life I understood what I was looking at. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known about bryozoans and tunicates before this course. They took my breath away. Now even the rocks were fascinating. But, like everything on this training, it was also difficult. Doing it fast enough was a problem, and sizing up my ID area too was difficult, as was keeping in contact with my buddy—I’m always the slow diver!

After the dive we debriefed and spent some time talking about the importance of tidying up our data sheets and tallying counts in order to hand over something that would be easy to decipher after. While we haven’t got any dives scheduled yet, we should be diving two of the Marine Reserves this year, spending up to a week at each reserve.

Honestly—I can’t wait! Will have to do some studying before-hand of course, but everything thus far has been well worth the effort.

If you’re interested in becoming a Scientific Diver, or joining the Oregon Marine Reserves, leave a comment or get in touch. I’d love to help you get there!

Written by Candice Landau
I'm a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor, a lover of marine life and all efforts related to marine conservation, a tech diver and a member of various scuba organizations in the Pacific Northwest. I write articles related to diving and spend my non-diving time writing and providing digital marketing services to nonprofits and businesses.