Heriot-Watt celebrates 50 years of deep sea diving programme

Hundreds of undergraduate and postgraduate students have travelled to the Orkney Campus to carry out the practical elements of marine biology courses offered at the University.

Heriot-Watt University celebrates 50 years of scientific and research diving this week, marking a period that saw the University connect marine biology with Scotland's burgeoning offshore oil industry, a research development that led to it being recognised today as a world leader in both areas.

Heriot-Watt diving activities started in the early 1960s and in 1964 preparations were made for scientific survey work in the Canaries. This work on seaweed biology resulted in scientific journal publications. Since the 1970s, however, Heriot-Watt research diving has been closely associated with Orkney.

Marine Environment Surveying

The oil boom and, in particular, the opening of the Flotta and Sullom Voe oil terminals in Orkney and Shetland, brought new purpose to the University's marine biology courses. Since then, Heriot-Watt's Marine Biology students have been offered a Diving Science module including practical fieldwork. Early destinations were often in Ireland, the Summer Isles or Orkney and since 1990 there has been a major diving science training centre based in Stromness at the University's Orkney campus.

Hundreds of undergraduate and postgraduate students have travelled north to carry out the practical elements of marine biology courses offered at the University. Professor Hamish Mair, of the University's Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology, who has been diving with Heriot-Watt since 1979, said that the University was now a world leader in marine environment surveying and monitoring research and student training in these areas.

"Off Shetland and Orkney we have run continuous monitoring surveys over 35 years and Heriot-Watt advised the oil industry on outfall and low impact outlets when the Flotta terminal was being commissioned in the mid 1970s. Further diving survey and mapping work in 2004 provided information resulting in Sullom Voe in Shetland being classified as a marine Special Area of Conservation," he said.

Fifty years have seen a lot of changes in diving equipment and practices. While equipment and thermal clothing have become more efficient, modern health and safety regulations have also informed and enhanced student training. The greatest changes, says Hamish, are using digital photography to capture high quality images and use of mixed gases such as Nitrox and Trimix to allow divers more time to carry out scientific tasks at different depths with improved safety.

Orkney Campus

Heriot-Watt's Orkney Campus, with an on-site recompression chamber, is a major player in scientific research diving and training. It is also an integral part of the scientific diving network in Scotland, coordinated by MASTS (Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland).

A team of 12 Heriot-Watt staff and students, who are completing another research survey in Scapa Flow this week, gathered in Stromness Town Hall on Friday 9 May with many other guests for an event to celebrate 50 years of advancing research through scientific diving. Special honour was paid to two members of the audience: Professor Cliff Johnston who initiated Heriot-Watt's scientific diving in 1964, and Bobby Forbes who started at the University in the late 1970s and who now runs the Sula Diving company and diving recompression chamber in Orkney.