A cross between a scavenger hunt and basic training, Lloyd Austin's
Introduction to Scientific Research Diving" is no day at the beach.
You will find out more about yourself in this course,' ' the lecturer said enigmatically, "than in just about anything else short of living about forty years.
I looked around the classroom.
If any expression at all registered on the listeners' faces it was one of puzzlement.
Most of us had signed up for this class, Biology 407,"Introduction to Scientific Research Diving," to learn how to scuba dive, not to probe our psyches.
But Lloyd Austin, director and diving officer for the Underwater Scientific Research Program at Cal, is not beyond provoking and perplexing his students with sweeping philosophical statements and pithy epigrams.
A borderline eccentric who shows up to class one day in a tweedy sports coat and tie and the next in sweatpants, sweatshirt, and running shoes, Austin
students will get the point once they are in the water.
Few people within or without the university community know that Austin
course, and his
department even exist.
introductory lecture, however, seemed to hint that I was in for more than just a little physical training and a notebook full of research methods.
From the beginning, Austin
was an anomaly.
initial stern and serious demeanor in the classroom was belied by his
elfin features, a crinkly impish smile, sparkling eyes, and an almost Einsteinian crop of curly hair.
On that first day, he
seemed to be trying hard to present a solemn and didactic front so that his
class would know right off that diving is serious business.
I'd observed that the relatively few who plunge, climb, or rocket away from the narrow band of civilization usually come back transformed, and indeed Lloyd Austin's
prediction about self Âdiscovery soon seemed increasingly realistic.
words really hit home a week after the first lecture.
Probably the most hated exercise in the course-at least until we discovered the joys of performing such other stunning contrivances as the "doff-and-don", and the "bail-out", in an angry ocean with five foot swells-the circuit swim is emblematic of the aims of Austin's
In the classroom Lloyd Austin
was such a tough and exacting taskmaster-rejecting an entire answer on an exam if the word "buoyancy" was misspelled, for instance-that some students started seeing him as arbitrary and unfair.
But at the poolside or on the beach, he
cautionary lectures with rhapsodic descriptions of what we were about to experience.
Eventually, all the complex elements of Austin's
demeanor added up to a tremendous sense of caring.
Before the third pool session he
caught me alone near the deep end.
"You're not really any older than anybody else in this class.
In fact," he
smiled, "in some ways you might even be younger.
Before I could utter a response, he
turned and walked away along the pool's edge.
promises, what I was to see and feel in the water wasn't always pretty.
In the introductory lecture, before we had even been in the pool, Austin
had commented cryptically, "The class is about half over already.
was referring to the scavenger hunt we had been put through to find the equipment he
had issued each of us a detailed list specifying what regulators, cylinders, gauges, and the like he
would approve-and what equipment we would need to make ourselves.
Though dive shops are loaded with elaborate gear which will do just about everything short of brewing hot coffee underwater, we were busy cutting and sewing strips of neoprene into wrist gauntlets that would hold our gauges, gluing new swivel snaps onto the backpacks that would hold our air cylinders, and measuring rope and chain to make anchors.
Because of his
handicraft and woodshop orientation, Austin
is notorious in Bay Area dive shops and his
equipment requirements raise eyebrows throughout the sport diving world.
One student told Austin
that when he
went into a Southern California dive shop with his
shopping list, the clerk questioned the "archaic" equipment he
was trying to buy.
At one Bay Area dive shop recently I was asked why Austin
"refuses to use the latest up-to-date gear."
"Sport divers are equipment-bound, diving like robots," snorted Austin
, "and all automatic equipment eventually fails.
Such an attitude is considered reactionary if not crazy by a sport diving industry which aims, in the words of Charles Mitchell of the American Academy of Underwater
Sciences, "to sell the customers $2000 worth of equipment, certify them, and then send them out the door, while offering higher levels of certification for which, of course, they'll have to come back and pay for more classes."
madness-his doubts about such newfangled gizmos as computerized decompression chambers, his
reliance on the do-it-yourself ways of the scuba pioneers, his
insistence that students be acquainted with every strap, snap, and valve rather than take the dive industry's word on how things work seemed more and more like a rational methodology every time we hit the water.
We may have looked like throwbacks to the 1950s, but we were learning the lessons of Austin's
"The main question about pieces of equipment," ' he
emphasized, "is do they work or not?
If they offer reliable protection in the harsh ocean environment, facilitate the diver's activity underwater, and enhance safety rather than add complications in hazardous situations, they "work.
And in order for the diver to enjoy a comfortable, quasi-organic relationship with the underwater world, he
must have an equally organic relationship with the equipment.
Cal's safety record-no reported cases of decompression injury or sickness in over 100,000 logged dives bears out the wisdom of Austin's
Walking down the aisles, I realized I was in danger of becoming a scuba snob, something Austin
The research diving elite, of course, is not without its horror stories of death and injury.
sometimes mischievous tone would grow stone cold sober when he
lectured about accidents.
Lloyd Austin, an instructor in zoology who had been a sport diver from the age of fifteen, was one of the organizers and researchers on that project.
In 1966, Austin was appointed Cal's diving officer and charged with overseeing underwater research and the training of divers at UC Berkeley.
Although the program has suffered through a tortured history within the university's bureaucratic structure, it has been buoyed by the slow but steady growth of in-water scientific study.
A naturally quiet and self-effacing man, Austin stands at the helm of a vessel in which lives are at risk every week.
Through all his
rules and requirements, Austin
is simply emphasizing the safe diver's absolute need for good physical conditioning and training, thorough knowledge and understanding, and a positive mental attitude.
The prerequisites for the course include a complete physical examination (plus a heart stress test for those over 35), first aid and CPR training, and a fairly demanding swimming test.
The classroom portion of the course covers physics, physiology, medical emergencies, the marine environment and animal life, the psychology of fear and panic, dive planning, wave behavior and beach characteristics, research methods, and the logic of the tables from which you calculate how long and at what depth you can stay underwater.
"This course is designed so that you work at your limits while learning," Austin
distributed a handout that described the exercises required in the pool and ocean sessions, he
said, "Study this, but don't get emotionally involved.
did all of his
teaching on land and left the in-water training to his
lieutenants, a stalwart corps of underwater senior instructors and volunteer assistants.
The bulk of the day-to-day responsibility for training and safety fell on the shoulders of these hardworking men and women.
The first one on the beach (either Monastery or Carmel River Beach), was usually Austin
, bundled in sweat clothes and a parka, facing the ocean like an old friend.
Each week his
enthusiasm and encouragement grew bolder.
Describing the wind, waves, and currents, and bidding us forth into the next foray of exercises, he
was taking us deeper into his
confidence, sharing something very close to his
In the last weeks of recovery from a long illness, Austin
had to stay out of the water, turning us over to his
trusted deputies, but the longing was there in his
words and his