March 31, 2014

Into the DEEP

Diving is a buried treasure on campus

Wetsuit? Check. Tank? Check. Regulator? Check. Buoyancy compensator? Weight belt? Check and check.

Such a gear list might seem out of place two hours from the ocean, deep in the heart of the Pioneer Valley in the campus’s own Curry Hicks pool. But in fact scuba diving has a 50-year legacy as one of the best-kept secrets at UMass Amherst.

In 1979, former Navy SEAL and trained combat diver Bob Sparks ’78G, ’81 PhD built on the existing campus scuba physical education program and established Project DEEP ("Diving Education Extension Program"). A nonprofit organization Project DEEP offers courses in both basic and advanced diving for credit through the Natural Resources Conservation program.

Between 150 and 200 students participate in Project DEEP each semester, taking basic and advanced diving courses for credit and acting as teaching assistants. The final pool class of underwater hockey becomes a favorite memory for graduates.

But beyond the pleasure of recreational diving, the classes serve another, even more important purpose.

"To be in the ocean and see all the animals gives you more desire to want to preserve it," says Project DEEP Executive Director Dave Stillman ’79. Divers, as front-line eyewitnesses, often become fierce advocates for ocean conservation. And diving certification is requisite for most marine careers: graduates have gone on to careers with the New England Aquarium and even as technical divers for MassDOT, inspecting underwater bridge foundations.

"Class has helped me push forward toward my career by making me a certified diver in open water," says Karli Tobias, Natural Resources Conservation major. "I want to do documentary work with marine animals in their natural habitat. Right now, I’m helping my teacher Andy Danylchuk edit his video on bonefish. I hope one day to do work similar to his."

Through a partnership with Cape Ann Divers, Project DEEP has dive bases out of Gloucester and Rockport. Project DEEP is one real-life way UMass Amherst puts its students and graduates in touch with the world’s oceans.