Catalina Underwater Studies Jeopardized

Times Community Correspondent

An innovative diving program that enables biologists to conduct underwater research that would otherwise be difficult or impossible is about to lose its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funding.

The year-old tether diving program, which allows divers to stay submerged longer and more comfortably than with scuba gear, is scheduled to end Sept. 30, a victim of federal belt-tightening.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which funds the Catalina-based diving program, say it will be restored upon completion of an underwater habitat or live-in capsule, which will be used primarily off the shores of Santa Catalina Island. How long that will take--it could be as soon as December, 1986--depends mostly on how much money Congress allocates to undersea research.

Though NOAA administrators are pushing for the habitat capsule, the man who initiated the project on behalf of the Marine Science Center said that tether diving should not be dropped in its favor. He and others worry that the USC’s Marine Science Center could wind up with a shiny new living capsule and no users.

10 to 14 Days

The habitat would house marine biologists on the ocean floor for 10 to 14 days days at a time, so they could avoid the time-consuming process of decompressing every time they leave the water. It would serve as living quarters for marine biologists who could go “outside” to conduct their research, using either tether or scuba gear.


NOAA plans to apply the $250,000 that currently pays the operating costs of the tether diving program to the $750,000-to-$900,000 cost of finishing the habitat. Seven or eight of the staff of the tether diving program would lose their jobs in the funding shuffle.

Once the habitat is complete, NOAA officials say they will resume the tether diving program.

But critics are not mollified by NOAA assurances. Marine biologists who are doing research by tether diving say they are worried that the habitat may not be finished on schedule and that even when it is done, it won’t be available to scientists who want to make short-term dives. And some say that scientists who are doing underwater research here in the tether program will take their work elsewhere if the program ends.

Used by Oil Industry

Tether diving is not a new technique and is commonly used by the oil industry, but rarely for scientific research. It utilizes specialized equipment that allows divers to stay in the water for extended periods without becoming chilled or surfacing for air. A submerged way station equipped with communications to a surface barge provides lights, compressed air and warm water to run through wet suits. Tether diving was proposed for Catalina because the technique makes prolonged dives, at depths of 100 feet or more, possible in chilly local waters.

Mike Foster, a phycologist (one who studies seaweed) from Moss Landing Marine Laboratory who has been doing research near Catalina, said that he needs short-term tether dives, not a habitat.

“Frankly, I have no use for a habitat right now,” he said.

Foster has been using tether diving to monitor patches of seaweed that were artificially replanted after they were destroyed by the storms associated with El Nino warm-water currents. Now, when he goes to check whether reseeded areas are growing, he will use scuba gear.

Require Tether Dives

Ideally, however, he would repeat the replanting experiment, to make sure his results were valid. That would require more short-term tether dives, but he doubts that NOAA will let him do that now, he said.

Others worry that if tether diving is dropped, scientists whose research is interrupted will go elsewhere and the habitat will not get as much use as it could have.

Andrew Pilmanis, who initiated building a habitat for Catalina, is worried that dropping the tether diving program will have an adverse effect on his program.

Pilmanis directs the National Underseas Research Program at USC, which contracted with NOAA in 1980 to oversee the building of the habitat and to operate it upon completion.

“Habitats are very appealing,” Pilmanis said. “But they don’t work if nobody develops a program for them. I want that habitat as bad as anybody else, but we have a (diving) program going here that is more successful than anybody expected, and we are wiping out the whole purpose of the program in favor of the vehicle (the habitat).”

Not Enough Money

Spokesmen for NOAA said the agency does not have enough money to both complete the habitat and continue to staff the tether diving program.

President Reagan this year, as he has every year since 1981, called for elimination of the National Underwater Research department of NOAA, which funds both the tether diving program and the habitat.

The House of Representatives, however, in its 1985-86 budget allocated almost $6.5 million to underwater research, the same amount as it got last year. If the Senate follows suit, NOAA officials believe they will be able to have the habitat up and running by December, 1986.

Ned Ostenso, director of Sea Grant and Extramural Programs for NOAA, said the tether diving program was intended to be a precursor to the habitat to build up a stable of scientists who would be accustomed to tether diving and to have research projects in progress off Catalina when the habitat became available.

“We are not doing this (dropping the diving program) out of perversity,” he said. “We’re doing it because we don’t have enough money. It (the diving program) was never expected to operate independently.”

Asked for Evidence

Ostenso, who has the authority to reverse the decision to drop the tether diving program, has asked for evidence that it is as valuable as the scientists say it is. “We’ll compare it with the productivity of other programs,” he said. Both programs could be saved, Ostenso said, but only if another NOAA research program is curtailed.

Richard Bray, biology professor at California State University, Long Beach, and one of the program’s most frequent users, is spearheading an effort among scientists to salvage the program. He is collecting evidence of scientific achievement resulting from the program from 15 scientists at 10 institutions, which he will forward to Ostenso.

Among other things, scientists have used the diving program to study the effects of El Nino on kelp beds around Catalina, and to examine the predator-prey relationship among species in the area.

So far Bray has found three users who plan to present findings that resulted from the tether diving program at the meeting of the Western Society of Naturalists, which is scheduled for December in Monterey.

Scientific Journals

Bray and others also expect results of their work on Catalina to be published in scientific journals. Bray and Alan Miller, another Cal State Long Beach biologist, have written an article dealing with the relationship between kelp and blacksmith fish. The article has been tentatively accepted for publication by Marine Biology, an international scientific journal.

“We are asking some real basic questions about what drives the (eco)system,” Bray said. “We (previously) tried to do the same project using scuba, and it was absolutely hopeless so we trashed the project.”

Bray said that the scientists are partly at fault for allowing the program’s success to go unnoticed. In fact, Don Keach, the director of the USC Institute for Marine and Costal Studies, originally recommended it be curtailed by NOAA because he had not heard of its value. Now Keach is planning to meet with Ostenso in Maryland to try to win it back.