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The Ultimate Field Trip

By Connie McDougall
Reprinted with permission of Connie McDougall and Divers Alert Network

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"The more people we can get to dive for science, the more we’ll learn, and we haven’t even touched the surface of what we know about the oceans."
—Sam Sublett, University of Washington Dive Safety Officer, on Dr. Dan Matlock’s diving program.

The water is impenetrable, dark like chocolate and glacially, painfully cold. Three divers — two students and a professor — keep expecting and hoping for the bottom but it is not there, not appearing, as it should any moment now, and they continue a blind slide down the throat of the lake: darker, deeper, colder.

Forty feet. 50. 60. At 80 feet, the professor grows concerned, then seconds later, when the bottom does come, it’s no comfort. Worse than the descent, the lake floor is surreal — a thick, ambiguous muck that threatens to consume them.

Dr. Dan Matlock, Ph.D., recalled the dive. "It was creepy," he said. "We could barely see beyond our masks. I didn’t like it." He could only imagine what his young, green charges were feeling, suspended in the dark chill, waiting for instructions on what to do next. 

The dive was part of a scientific diving program launched two years earlier by Matlock, an associate professor of biology as well as chairman of the biology department at Seattle University in Washington. Bringing together an eclectic but complementary blend of his life skills — 30 years of diving, a stint as an Army drill sergeant, mountain climbing and a long academic career — Matlock established this rigorous course of study for two reasons: safety and inspiration.

"I wanted undergraduate students to have the kind of quality training usually available only to university faculty and graduate students," he said. "And I hoped to inspire them to go on to graduate school and scientific research. I thought I could show them that you can have a full life and an element of adventure, in the pursuit of science."

He knew firsthand that this was possible. In 1978, after receiving his Ph.D. in zoology from Oregon State University, Matlock and his wife, Nancy, moved to Guam, where they lived for several years. There, as an assistant professor of biology at the University of Guam, he had his first experience with research diving, which involved seaweed studies.

He also discovered the joy of underwater exploration. Once, the Matlocks and a group of other divers traveled to Palau. "In those days, there were no dive boats, so we chartered a supply boat that delivered rice to Angaur, the southernmost part of Palau," Matlock said.

During one of the dives, he spotted a turtle circling 90 feet / 27 meters below. After signaling his friends that he was going down, Matlock descended into infinitely clear water, brushing the ancient turtle shell with his hand. "It looked at me, and I was absolutely thrilled," he said. People watching from above assumed he was "narked," or suffering from nitrogen narcosis, but, in fact, it was an epiphany. "It was the most exciting, enchanting experience I ever had," Matlock said.


Returning in the ’80s to the United States, he gave up diving to focus on career and family. Matlock became an avid mountain climber and outdoorsman, climbing major Northwest peaks, including Mount Rainier in Washington state. 

Eventually though, he could not deny the fascination of the ocean. In 1996, on an academic sabbatical in Guam, he rekindled his love for diving, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Back at Seattle University, students asked if he could teach them to dive and if they could go with him on his next excursion. "It occurred to me that this might be something that could really inspire them," Matlock said.

Moving beyond recreational diving standards, he researched the rigorous requirements of the American Academy of Underwater Science (AAUS), the governing organization for research and academic diving in North America. The professor also sought out experienced mentors like Sam Sublett, diving safety officer at the University of Washington. Finally, in 1998, Matlock applied for and received AAUS accreditation. With the university’s backing, he was on his way.

Students were attracted to the glamour of diving, but Matlock emphasized preparation and knowledge. "Of course, there’s the adventure, but more than that, my goal was to be safe, to help them become confident, competent divers," he said.

That first year, three biology majors — Christine Pereira, Brian Schaible and Melani Fraser — signed up. They earned basic scuba certification, and they took four weeks of intense research diving instruction under what they call "Dr. Dan’s patient, enthusiastic" guidance.

They attended lectures backed up by dozens of hours of hands-on application, diving in the cold waters of Puget Sound. They learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and how to give emergency oxygen, and they experienced all the difficulties of working and thinking underwater. "I was teaching them to go beyond just surviving the dive," Matlock said. "They learned how to perform tasks underwater."

For the first time in their lives, the two young women were taught how to use tools, then how to use them with gloves on in 60 feet / 18 meters of water.

The students spent 13 hours familiarizing themselves with equipment. As a result, each of them can disassemble their dive gear, troubleshoot a problem, fix what’s possible to fix and put it all back together. They learned precisely what keeps them alive down there. In addition, they made their own slates and mapped underwater sites, and each chose a senior project that linked biology to diving.

The highlight of the program was two weeks of diving in the Bay Islands of Honduras, where Matlock had established a base with local divemaster Denis Midence. "This is not just a vacation," Matlock said. "It’s the ultimate field trip."

Guanaja Island is remote so distractions are few. Students studied every day and took advanced dive training, which included both night and deep diving. For Pereira, the best part of the trip was an echo of her professor’s epiphany. "On one dive, Dr. Dan’s wife, Nancy, pointed at a sea turtle, and I just stopped dead in my tracks," she said. "It was huge."

Schaible’s defining moment came during a wreck dive, 110 feet / 33.5 meters down to the wreck Jado Trainer. Strong currents broke up the group and some people struggled, clearly frightened. "I realized the best thing I could do for myself, and for Dr. Matlock, was to take care of myself," Schaible said. He did so, admirably. In a current that he said felt like a wind tunnel, he remained calm, stayed with his group and made an orderly ascent.

All three have now completed substantive senior projects: Fraser completed a thorough survey of sea stars in a Puget Sound location; Pereira studied the effects of nitrogen narcosis on diverse divers at varying depths; and Schaible investigated the connection between dehydration from breathing dry tank air and decompression sickness. All three plan to attend graduate school in the marine sciences.

This summer, a second cadre of students journeyed to Honduras with the program’s first three alums and completed the course. Dozens of other students have also received basic scuba certification through the program.

Only two years old, this is Washington’s only research diving program aimed solely at undergraduates. Sublett said Matlock’s effort is meeting its goals. "Most AAUS programs start small and grow, like Dan’s, and his is great," Sublett said. "The more people we can get to dive for science, the more we’ll learn, and we haven’t even touched the surface of what we know about the oceans."

Perhaps most important, Matlock’s students have developed into the confident and competent divers he wanted them to be. They are at ease but vigilant in the water, and they credit their teacher. Says Schaible: "Dr. Dan is so motivational, so gung-ho. He’s the kind of person who makes me want to do better. We don’t want to let him down. He believes in us, and so we believe in ourselves."

Added Fraser: "He taught us that if there’s a problem you need to stop and deal with it. You need to listen to yourself."

Wise words. The students have learned to apply them not just to diving but also to living. Schaible said the trip to Honduras gave him a chance to reflect on his life. And Pereira discovered an autonomy that allowed her to end an emotionally draining relationship back home. "It made me realize my life didn’t have to be like that," she says.

Last fall, with training almost complete, a colleague asked Matlock if his new recruits could retrieve plankton traps in Lake Sammamish, a glacial lake 30 miles / 48 km east of Seattle. It was an excellent test of their skills and they all agreed.

The plankton traps had failed to surface on schedule. The students’ task was to dive down, find the bottles, cap them and bring them to the surface. The first dive was relatively simple; they found a set of plankton traps at 30 feet / 19 meters. The second dive, with Matlock, Pereira and Schaible, would be truly challenging. They jumped into the lake and descended on a cable anchor line.

"It was so cold after 40 feet / 12 meters, that it was the first time I felt real pain. We kept dropping down and couldn’t find bottom," recalled Schaible.

Matlock remembers the descent. "I’d never experienced anything so dark and creepy. I was uneasy and so were the students," he said.

When they finally found bottom, visibility was so poor that they could barely see each other’s lights. But the search began. Pereira and Matlock attached a safety line and reel to the base of the cable and did their sweep on it. Schaible remained at the cable’s base, following the swimmers with his light. Matlock recalled, "Chrissy (Pereira) was fearless, and she spotted the traps."

All three worked in the dark and cold, fumbling to put caps on bottles, trapping the plankton within. The instant they were done, they ascended as fast as was reasonable, made their safety stop, then popped to the surface, jubilant.

Summed up Matlock: "This was their first real scientific dive, and they did a great job. They were poised and I was proud of them."

Pereira said she hadn’t been afraid during the dive. "I knew if anything went wrong, if it was time to go up, we’d figure it out," she said. "It was exciting. We got to do exactly what we were trained to do." 

CONNIE McDOUGALL is a freelance writer from Seattle, Wash. A DAN member since receiving her diving certification in April 1999, she’s gone beneath the waves in the Inside Passage of British Columbia and Hawaii’s Kona Coast, as well as Puget Sound.

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