SILENT DIVING SPONSORS 2006 SCHOLARSHIP WINNERS
Michelle Fetzer 2006 North American Rolex Scholar Our World Underwater Scholarship Society
I am the 2006 North American Rolex Scholar of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society. This mouthful of a title has allowed me to travel the world, diving in locations I would never have gone to on my own. This society has annually awarded a North American scholarship for over 30 years, and a European scholarship for the past 6 years. Starting this year, there will be an Australasian scholarship as well.
The scholarship, which is sponsored mainly by Rolex, is designed to give a young diver the contacts and funding to meet and work with professionals in the underwater world. The purpose is to expose the scholar to many different careers, in order to help the scholar on his or her own career path. The experiences can be tailored to the scholar’s own interests, but may also include areas she may have never considered, including biology, hyperbarics, anthropology, archaeology, and photography. Some past scholars have completely changed their career choice because of a captivating experience they had, which opened their eyes to a profession they had never considered.
When I began my scholarship year in May 2006, my main interests were marine biology and underwater photography. I have a B.S. in Marine Biology, and I had already had quite a bit of hands-on experience doing research; but I still wasn’t sure exactly what area I wanted to study in grad school. I hoped that experiencing many different areas of marine research would help focus my interests. I had never had any formal training in underwater photography, so this would be a good start to see what it is all about.
In addition to Rolex, many generous individuals and companies also sponsor me, including Silent Diving, Aqua Lung, Diving Unlimited International, Light & Motion, and Divers Alert Network. Thanks to their generosity, I have had fantastic gear to use when I have been diving all over the world. And yes, I did get a Rolex watch as well. I have dived in the Red Sea in Egypt; the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; the wrecks of North Carolina; and the kelp forests of California. I’ve earned certifications in Advanced Nitrox, Scientific Diving, and on an Evolution rebreather. I’ve snorkeled with dolphins in the Bahamas and false killer whales in Australia; dived with manta rays, sting rays, sharks, cuttlefish, sea turtles, sea snakes, and hundreds of species of fish; gotten up close and personal with the smiling teeth of sharks in a feeding frenzy; wrestled with a 252 pound loggerhead turtle, who was trying to bite my arm off; avoided the now infamous barbs of rays; and intimately handled tiger sharks measuring over 9 feet in length, and wide enough to swallow me whole. And this is all just another day on the job for a marine biologist.
All of my diving had always been on open-circuit, noisily blowing bubbles with every breath. Then I was introduced to the wonderful world of rebreathers. Jeff Bozanic, a well-known expert on rebreathers and author of Mastering Rebreathers, offered to instruct me on the rebreather. I would just need to find a unit to use. And that’s when Mike Fowler of Silent Diving stepped in and saved the day, providing me with an Evolution on very short notice.
The course was fantastic, leaving me wishing that I had a unit of my own. I spent a couple days in the classroom, learning the theory involved with rebreathers. I had known about the obvious benefit of not having any bubbles (being a Silent Diver), but I never realized all the other benefits, including increased no-decompression times. When Jeff began to go over formulas, tables, and PO2 calculations, it all seemed like a blur at first. Then I realized how long I could stay down on a rebreather, with minimal nitrogen loading; I was amazed and wanted to learn more. Jeff thoroughly discussed many topics including the history, theory, and numerous designs of rebreathers, diving physics, physiology, diving techniques, emergency procedures, and dive planning.
I then spent a day getting familiar with the Evolution, taking it all apart, learning to pack the canister, and preparing the unit for diving. It was then time to get wet, but only in the pool at first. I swam around the pool for a while, just getting used to the feel of the unit. Then I practiced some drills, including mask and mouthpiece removal and replacement, loop flush, switching to bailout, monitoring and changing PO2, removing water from hoses, sharing air with my buddy, and donning and doffing the unit underwater and at the surface. I also practiced semi-closed rebreather mode and dealt with emergency scenarios.
After getting comfortable with the unit in the pool, I then headed for the ocean, diving off Catalina Island in California. As soon as we arrived at our dive site and had a dive briefing, we took the plunge. From the very start, I loved diving with the Evolution, which was much lighter than I had expected. It was easy to put on and comfortable to wear, even on the boat while I was waiting for the other divers to suit up. And once I got in the water, it was awesome. I practically forgot I was wearing it at all; it seemed like I was just another one of the fish that were swimming around me. The warm, moist air was so much more comfortable to breathe than the dry tank air. It really helped keep me warm in the cool water of the Pacific. I got so used to the ease of breathing that it felt foreign to breathe off my bailout bottle during the drills. It took a little while to get used to the differences between this and open circuit, such as you can’t use your breathing to make small adjustments in your buoyancy. But with the help of a fabulous instructor and an extraordinary unit, I soon overcame my buoyancy issues and was enjoying the diving. I practiced the same drills as in the pool, and even added some new skills, such as ascents with a lift bag. Jeff had me fly the unit manually for most of the dives in order to internalize the habit of monitoring the PO2. This required more attention than I typically give to my open-circuit gear, but I was still able to enjoy the amazing marine life around me. For the final two dives, Jeff said to let the electronics do the work; and then I was able to fully appreciate this remarkable unit. It performed flawlessly, keeping my PO2 at a safe level so that I could concentrate on using my video camera. Because the Evolution was so effortless to use, I was able to capture on video leopard sharks, a harbor seal, sea lion, many fish, and even a baby horn shark.
While I am still uncertain of the exact career path I wish to follow, the experiences I’ve had while on the scholarship have helped me to define my interests. I was originally interested in studying only marine mammals. However, by assisting with research on other marine life, I have broadened my research interests. I have also developed a passion for underwater videography, and would like to incorporate this into my career. This is one of the many areas for which rebreathers are valuable. It is difficult to get close to marine life while on open circuit because the noisy bubbles scare them away. You also have to worry about the bubbles getting in your shot. These concerns are not relevant when diving with a rebreather, as you glide silently through the water, just another fish in the sea. I noticed the difference immediately, as the fish and other animals came very close and didn’t seem to be bothered at all. In addition, the increased no-decompression times are helpful for research and videography, since animals rarely perform behaviors on cue. It requires patience and the ability to have a long dive to be able to wait for the anticipated action.
Being certified on a rebreather will be very valuable as I pursue a career in underwater film. It is advantageous for marine research as well, as I will be able to get much closer to the animals I am studying. The scholarship is designed to provide me with skills and experiences to advance my career. Getting certified on a rebreather has been one of the most beneficial things I have done this year, as it will surely make me more valuable to a potential employer.
When I had applied for the scholarship, I wrote in one of my application essays, “I spent summers at the bottom of my pool, seeing how long I could stay down, hoping I would begin to grow gills. At one point, my mother swore I had done so and become part fish, since I never wanted to leave the water.” When I was diving with the rebreather, I felt like I had finally achieved this goal and had grown my gills.
When my scholarship year concludes, I may go to grad school or perhaps look further into underwater film. Either way, I know that the experiences I’ve had this year will aid me as I pursue my career. I also know that I will continue to gain experience on the Evolution, and some day buy one of my own. I put it on my Christmas wish list, but Santa must have forgotten to bring it, as I didn’t find it under the tree on Christmas morning. I am very grateful for being given the opportunity to get this certification. I would like to thank Jeff Bozanic for instructing the course, and Mike Fowler and Silent Diving for providing me with the Evolution to use. These generous individuals have provided me with an experience that has had a profound impact on my career and life.