Scientific divers work below the surface of water, using scuba or bell-helmet diving gear to inspect, monitor or maintain underwater scientific test instruments. Divers may conduct experiments or tests, collect water or marine life samples, and observe and photograph sub-surface features or anomalies for scientific testing and evaluation. Divers are an integral part of oceanographic research. Salaries of scientific divers are dependent on experience, certification, geographical location, the risk of the diving challenge and the employer.
The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, 2010 reports that there are 3,720 commercial divers employed in the United States. The majority of commercial divers work on construction, demolition or water transportation projects. A small percentage of commercial divers work on scientific projects sponsored by historical sites, museums, environmental organizations or under sea exploration companies.
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The U.S. Department of Labor reports that as of May 2010, the annual median salary for commercial divers was $51,360. Commercial divers in the lowest 10 percent of earners received $31,890 or less. Those in the top 10 percent of earners received $89,560 or more. California is the top paying state for commercial divers. The annual mean wage for a commercial diver in California is $76,500.
Many scientific divers are biological scientists, working as part of a scientific research team. Salaries are reflective of their scientific education and training. Pay rate is based on their contribution as a scientist, rather than their diving qualifications. The United States Department of Labor reports that as of May 2010, the annual median salary of wildlife marine biologists were $55,290. Biologists in the lowest 10 percent of wage earners received $33,550 or less. Biologists in the highest 10 percent received $90,850 or more.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association offers training and certification for scientific divers. Certification as a scientific diver allows teams of research divers to operate under an exemption from OSHA commercial diving regulations. Candidates seeking Scientific Certification must be scientists or scientists in training and may only complete underwater tasks that consist of data collection and observation. Certification requires that the individual must have completed 25 previous open-water dives, passed a NOAA dive physical and passed a written scientific diver examination. To attain additional certification as a working diver, individuals must complete the Working Diver Course or present documentation of equivalent training or work experience.
The majority of marine biologists who do basic underwater research have a Ph.D. in marine biology or earth sciences and have passed the NOAA scientific diving training course. Because individuals who have only completed the scientific diving certification are limited in what they can do underwater under OSHA regulations, most scientific divers also complete the commercial diving course and obtain commercial diver certification.
Scientific divers should be able to work independently or as part of a research team. Clear and concise communication skills, both written and oral are important qualities. Scientific divers should be in excellent physical shape and have the patience and self-discipline to complete detailed research projects.
Employment Opportunity Outlook
Scientific divers are less likely to lose their jobs during times of economic uncertainly than those in other occupations because many are employed in long-term research projects. However, an economic downturn could limit or curtail the extension or renewal of existing projects.
- United States Department of Labor; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Occupational Outlook Handbook - 2010 Edition: Commercial Divers
- United States Department of Commerce; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA Dive Certifications
- American Academy of Underwater Scientists: About AAUS
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration - Scientific Divers
- Oceanus: Scientific Diving: The Benefits of Being There