Scientific Diving Discovery Program students overcome challenges through mutual support

August 31, 2023, Vanessa Codilla, Nick Neumann, and Jason Goode

A typical early summer morning at the USC Wrigley Institute’s Wrigley Marine Science Center waterfront is a tranquil sight. The waves of Big Fisherman Cove ebb and flow, gently nudging floating kelp closer to shallow waters. Great blue herons, which nest in the cliffs next to the water, quietly hunt for breakfast as bright orange Garibaldi fish dart in and out of the rocky reefs along the shore. 

On a recent July morning, however, the view was different. A small group huddled together at the dock, a palpable sense of urgency filling the air as they cheered loudly for two figures in the water.

Angelo Spinosa, a student in Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability’s Scientific Diving Discovery Program (SDDP), was retaking his swim test for the sixth time. Jordyn Scott, another diver-in-training, was in the water to provide moral support and help Spinosa to keep his pace. 

As part of the annual, month-long SDDP, students from underrepresented backgrounds complete training on the fundamentals of scuba diving and underwater research. For Spinosa, who navigated financial challenges while moving 13 times over the course of his educational career, the high cost of equipment and training had made scientific diving seem more like a lofty dream than an attainable achievement. So when he heard about the SDDP through a professor at L.A. Valley College, he jumped at the opportunity. He was determined to get certified in scientific diving before starting classes as a marine biology student at California State University, Long Beach this fall.

left: diver floating in the water makes a heart sign with two hands; right: diver steps off the dock to get into the water whole one diver floats nearby
Jordyn Scott (left) and Angelo Spinosa (right) during their training in the Scientific Diving Discovery Program (Jason Goode/WIES)

Although the SDDP removed the financial barriers Spinosa was facing, he quickly realized that he’d have to overcome another challenge: gaining the physically demanding water skills necessary for scientific diving. 

To graduate from the SDDP, Spinosa had to successfully swim 400 yards without the use of flotation aids and under time pressure. Back at the dock, encouraging cheers transformed into frantic yells as a frightening realization dawned on his peers: Spinosa was becoming fatigued and had slowed down significantly as he headed into his final two laps. Retaking his swim test in the chilly open water, rather than at the recreational pool where it was usually administered, also added to the challenge. 

“Consistently, the greatest barrier dive students face – besides finances – is the swim evaluation,” says USC Diving Safety Officer Hanna Reed, who is also the SDDP’s lead instructor. “There are so many barriers and often generational traumas associated with swimming, reflected in racial and ethnic disparities in drowning rates and lack of exposure to swim lessons. You can just imagine why it’s so emotionally charged.” 

As Spinosa fell behind, his peers stepped up their encouragement. 

“Keep going!” 

“You’re so close!” 

“Just a little more!” 

Scott swam ahead, beckoning Spinosa forward. With a look of relentless determination, Spinosa kept going until he reached the dock for the final time. Moments after touching the finish line, he learned that he had completed the swim five minutes quicker than his initial time. With the support of his peers, he had finally passed the test. 

“Moral of the story: even when you feel like giving up, you’ve got more fight in you,” Spinosa said.

There are so many barriers and often generational traumas associated with swimming, reflected in racial and ethnic disparities in drowning rates and lack of exposure to swim lessons.
Hanna Reed, USC Diving Safety Officer

Successful scientific diving: It’s about more than water skills 

Scuba diving is an inherently dangerous activity, so divers must prioritize their physical safety while they’re in the water. For the SDDP students, however, psychological safety was equally important, given that being underwater for extended periods of time while conducting research was largely unfamiliar territory. Reed and the rest of the program team knew that an environment of trust, vulnerability, and mutual support would be key to the students’ success. 

This year, Wrigley Institute Engagement Coordinator and 2022 SDDP alumna Marcela Riddick organized team-building activities and workshops for the students to learn how they could leverage their new skills in their academic careers and beyond. 

Outside of the water, students bonded through dining hall mealtimes, where they excitedly recapped what they saw in their daily dives and shared their new personal achievements. The cohort took frequent group trips to the nearby town of Two Harbors and attended karaoke nights and outdoor excursions planned by the Wrigley Institute’s education team.

“My passion is creating communities where divers like these students can grow, make mistakes in a controlled environment, and learn from those mistakes. The greatest lessons we will learn are actually from our failures,” Reed said. “I’m so lucky that I’m able to be part of a program and team that facilitates a healthy culture in this demanding field.”

The students’ camaraderie with each other and the program team helped them successfully complete physically and mentally demanding training simulations. These included dives that involved task loading (the accumulation of scuba activities beyond swimming, breathing, and monitoring one’s air) or buddy breathing, a rescue technique that requires two divers to share one regulator. 

Before each dive, students were given the opportunity to speak up about anything that made them feel intimidated or uneasy. The dive team, in turn, addressed questions and issues, and reassured students that they were in a controlled environment. 

“I think the lesson they learned here – which they can apply anywhere – is when and how to advocate for themselves,” said Reed. 

By the last day of the program, every diver-in-training had successfully completed more than 25 dives. And on July 13, all seven participants officially became American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS)-certified scientific divers. The certification, which is a prerequisite for scientific opportunities such as internships and graduate study, will open career and educational pathways in ocean science, recreational diving, conservation, and related fields. 

“Without opportunities and programs like this, I wouldn’t have any chance of getting an extended education, especially in something like scuba, which I’ve fallen in love with,” Angelo Spinosa said. “It’s brought me a much deeper connection with the ocean.”