Column Lisa Becking: Moratorium

A marine researcher has to be able to dive.
Text: Lisa Becking

Since July 2021, we have not been allowed to go scuba diving for research in the Animal Sciences Group (ASG). A ban on diving is comparable to banning molecular biologists from pipetting.

Last December, I was on fieldwork for a project on the restoration of coral reefs. The project, which is funded by the ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, was set up before this diving moratorium was announced. To collect at least some of the agreed-on data, we have no choice but to dive deep with just mask and snorkel, holding our breath. Freediving, in other words. Now, freediving is nowhere near as dangerous as the film Le Grand Bleu (tip!) would have you believe, but for research it is riskier than scuba diving.

After a tiringly inefficient day of diving like pearl divers through high waves to collect our valuable samples, we visit one of our local collaborators. While there we meet a couple of students from the WUR Environmental Sciences Group. In disbelief we see them unload diving equipment from their truck. ‘Those Wageningen researchers are allowed to dive!’ says our collaborator, laughing at the absurd situation.

So what’s going on? In the Netherlands, there is recreational diving (e.g. PADI qualifications), and there is professional diving for heavy work underwater, such as welding on oil rigs. Scientific diving doesn’t formally exist here. It is recognized by our European neighbours, where scientific diving certification is available. But since time immemorial, Dutch scientific divers have found themselves in a grey area.

While we‘re grounded, the rest of the campus and the country are diving safely

Recently, the powers that be became aware of this greyness, which led to an initiative to develop scientific diving certification and a protocol at a national level. This takes time. Therefore, Dutch academia decided to tolerate safe forms of diving for research until scientific diving is fixed nationally. Only the ASG decided to ban scuba diving.

In July, an internal group was formed to draw up a protocol, but that is seven months ago now. While we’re grounded at ASG, the rest of the campus and the country continue to dive safely.

Could we be allowed some air, please?

Lisa Becking is an associate professor at Aquaculture and Fisheries, a researcher at Wageningen Marine Research and a member of the national Young Academy (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences). She has an eye for art above and below sea level.

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