This year I finally landed in to the field I’ve been interested in since I was four or five – marine biology. As things like this tend to happen to me, this started from a random conversation and an impulsive decision, but turned out to be the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my adult life.
Last summer, as I was helping out in an archaeological dig, a pal mentioned that he has been going to a research diver school which was aimed at marine archaeologists, biologists and geologists, and that they are looking for more students for the summer, people who can already dive. The aim of the course is to certify scientists to do underwater work in their field according to the Advanced European Scientific Diver guidelines, which is starting to be a norm and a requirement around Europe for doing such work.
I was still so broke after the move and the break-up that it wasn’t even funny, but he kept gently pestering me about it so in the end I just mailed the guy responsible for the course, not thinking for a second that I could swing it, what with me having no actual academic background in archaeology and biology, nor the finances for a few kilo-euro school.
Well, a few weeks later I got called into an entrance exam of sorts that took place in just a few days. My dayjob had started again, but it was still slow going with the summer, so I took a day off and headed for the school main site, which is next to the Ojamo mine lake. It was the day Curiosity landed on Mars, and I landed in the school thinking I’m just there to sightsee. A few hours later I left a bit stunned, having been accepted to the school which seemed to be quite flexible with the schedules, so if I really busted my ass and managed to juggle ten figurative living trouts at once schedulewise, I might get it to fit in with my dayjob.
Full Masks And Tethered Diving
My experience in diving is recreational, as it pertains to Finland. Ie. dry suits, diving in cold and dark water with a visibility of three meters. The only time I’ve done tethered diving, ie. had a rope held by a buddy in the surface has been when I’ve done ice diving. The dive school used AGA / Interspiro double-7 tanks and a full face mask, dive phones, and all the dives were tethered, which was the first hurdle in learning. Additionally I had had almost a year long pause in diving due to various reasons, so that made starting the school interesting.
In the end we had a three day course with the new gear, and because of work I made it to just one day’s worth of training, but surprisingly enough it was plenty. I think it had a lot to do with the Divemaster course I had been doing, since thanks to that taking the gear off underwater and putting it back on and other antics like that came easy. Also the full face mask setup turned out to be easier to use in many ways than a basic half mask. On my first try I managed to dive to five meters without gear, and put on the kit that was waiting for me below, pretty easily.
Crash Position – Ditching, Ditching, Ditching!
I’m not sure, but I’m pretty certain that the Monday when we had the rescue training might have been The Best Monday Ever. Security and rescue training is a part of the curriculum, and we spent a day in Meriturva’s facilities where they train stuff like handling life rafts, using escape chutes, being airlifted out of the sea by a helicopter, escaping a chopper after a splashdown, and surviving in the ice cold sea.
We did all of those. It was fun as hell.
Wearing these snazzy orange and salmon coloured overalls we jumped down a 9 meter tall escape chute and landed on a liferaft, and paddled a raft in their pool which was equipped with wave and wind machines to simulate rough seas. There was a training jump from five meters high wearing a life vest, escaping from a simulated flipped helicopter, climbing up nets and rope ladders, and finally a simulated airlift from the sea by a rescue copter. This was done in darkness, with the wave and wind machines going, with this helicopter shaped thing that was moving on tracks in the ceiling of the training hall and lifting you up ten meters or so with a harness, after which you had to climb into the “chopper”.
Oh, and the cold water training… “Most fatalities happen in the first five minutes after falling into a cold sea, so let’s spend six minutes in that five degrees celsius water”. It’s amazing what a proper cold water rescue position can do to your comfort in that situation…
All in all, at least now I know how to use the basic safety equipment in ships, and that in case I actually get into a maritime accident, I’ll be sooooo fucked.
Underwater Science – In The Sea And Through A Microscope
In addition to the diving the course has a whole lot of science, which was a mental goldmine for me. I have been interested in the underwater world since I was in elementary school. I watched the Cousteau documentaries shown in Finnish TV religiously when I was a kid, and I’ve been interested in biology in general throughout my life. I’m the guy who’s still happy at 37 to turn around rocks and see what bugs live underneath.
There is a whole damn lot of rock turning and underwater bugs in this school. The autumn curriculum had three hands-on courses: the fauna of the seabed, archaeological methods for biologists, and sampling methods and tools. Basically the courses were what it said on the tin, and for me they were a bloody heaven on earth. The courses took place in the zoological research station in Tvärminne, and man, I’d give my left nut to be able to live and work in that place for a year.
All of science side courses have been very well planned and executed. The seabed fauna course had us getting to know a new sampling tool every day, hitting the sea and using the tool, and spending the rest of the day going through the sample with a microscope, plus doing a mock research of sorts. I spent late nights just hunched over the ‘scope, trying to identify all the little worms and mollusks and isopods our traps caught, happy as a baby in a barrelful of nipples. Since I don’t have a thesis or anything other specific to use as the final graduating work of this school, I pitched an idea that sort of combines underwater archaeology and zoology, and to my great surprise the teacher pitched the idea to the whole group, and looks like it’ll end up being a peer reviewed paper.
The marine archaeology course saw us diving in a fun, rather well preserved wreck of a wooden ship, taking measurements, doing drafts of the wreck, and learning the best practices and measuring methods of doing underwater archaeological digs. We visited a school where they teach restoration, but unfortunately our own submerged wood restoration part of the course got canceled. There were also documentaries and other information about the restoration of famous shipwrecks, the survey of a crannog-type lake settlement in Valgjärv in Estonia, and a visit to the National Board of Antiquities where we learned about the legalities of underwater finds.
The last course of this autumn was about underwater research and sampling methods, which in practice meant learning and using a new method every day for a week and a half. We surveyed plant and algae lines in the bottom of the sea (how do you survey your grid in the depth of 0,5 meters when the waves keep slamming you up the stone wall two meters high, do moss and ants count?), counted fish in the night, built a horrible contraption to stand in the place of an artificial reef and moved it with lift bags, learned how to use pneumatic drills underwater, searched for midwater buoys and changed fragile microscope slides and test tubes to testing stations, plus there was a some boat handling training and driving speedboats. Doing things like surveying an algae line while trying to use pincers and a string of sample bottles, a writing slate with a big ass form to fill, a flashlight with no handle and the surface rope at the same time, all while trying to reel in the weighed line and keep hovering at least half a meter over the seabed – it was pure, unadulterated fun.
I woke up on a couple of nights into the strangling sensation of stress, financial worry and burn-out, but fast forward to two hours later, blasting over the mirror calm Baltic Sea behind the wheel of a speedboat, the morning sun burning away the hoar glistening in the boat structures, and a swan couple with their young bobbling in your wake – fuck that noise. Never mind the night dives with the velvet black starlit sky, the lights of the divers an eerie glow in the black water, and the coastal artillery making the clouds in the horizon flash with their practice – or the day with a rainbow on one side of the boat, and a pair of fighting swans on the other.
Because of scheduling issues we had a two day pause in middle of the course, and I stayed at the zoological station through those days. Alone in a research center in middle of nowhere, just beautiful nature around me, a bucketful of isopods to identify and more good food than I could eat. Heaven on Earth, I tell you. (Yes, I was alone in a secluded dark research station, there was a fake startle with three dogs rushing me outdoors in middle of the night, and I spent time alone in the upstairs lab after I broke my flashlight – no, I have never seen a horror film, why?)
Through A Gray Rock…
Doing this school hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to do some really interesting and intensive scheduling with the day job, which meant working evenings, nights and weekends, and taking on more freelance work to help pay for the thing. My day job ends in the end of December, and this school will eat half of January and February, which will make getting a new job interesting. Well, I’ll manage somehow, since this is something I really, really want to do. I can’t really remember anything I’d been more motivated and happy to do in my whole adult life, which is a feeling I certainly don’t hate. Also, the course mates are a really fun bunch, people work well together and there’s really no social friction there. This is good, because at times it felt we were around each other 24/7, and if someone gets cranky in a situation like that, pretty quickly everybody will be cranky.
There’s a lot left to do this year to – I still have my navigation and VHF radio exams to pass, and there are some questions about my first aid and dive medicine courses which I couldn’t take because of scheduling shit, but well – things like this have a habit of sorting themselves out. Next year: the basics pressure chamber operation, ice and pack ice diving, hard helmet / surface air gear training, and a school trip to somewhere abroad to study artificial corals. Like a kid in a candy store, I’m telling you. There is also a very tentative, yet realistic chance to get some actual employment in the field next summer, especially if I get my algae species identification skills in order.
Damn great to finally find a place in the world where I feel like I belong.