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UVI's Research Diving Earns High Ranks in Low Places


In less than three decades, scientific diving at the University of the Virgin Islands has grown from a small program that taught students how to dive to a globally competitive marine science research engine. 
Based on 2017 statistics UVI divers completed 471 dives beyond 100 feet and 358 decompression dives, which are dives that require stops coming back up to avoid sickness. Of the 143 AAUS member institutions, the university ranked 13th in total dives with 2,247.

UVI professor Tyler B. Smith examines coral on a research dive at 220 feet on the South Drop of St. Thomas. Lamarck’s sheet coral and two reef butterflyfish are in the foreground. (Photo by Viktor W. Brandtneris)

Those rankings are impressive for a number of reasons. Among the AAUS’s top 15 programs in 2017, UVI is tied for the smallest with just 40 divers. The next smallest in the top 15 has 60 divers, which means that UVI’s students and researchers are doing more dives per person. Not to mention last year’s back-to-back storms, which kept the program members from diving in September and October, and limited their capacity once they could get back in the water. “Regardless of the numbers for 2018, I think the fact that our team has kept the deep diving program going strong through such a difficult time is a testament to our dedication to the program at UVI,” Brandtneris says.

Access to funding also plays a tremendous role in the program’s success. Tyler B. Smith, associate research professor of marine science at UVI, says that infrastructure support from the Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and (VI EPSCoR) and private foundations is crucial. “Their support allowed us to gather the unique data that made the world take notice of the science possibilities from studies in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Smith says.


Viktor Brandtneris dives to 170 feet near Wolf Island in the Galapagos while hammerhead sharks swim above. (Photo by Tyler B. Smith)

High-level technical diving is necessary to study the territory’s abundant deep reefs. Smith and Brandtneris say these reefs hold great promise, since large reefs at those depths are much healthier than shallow ones. Researchers call reefs below 100 feet “mesophotic.” “We’re looking for coral ecosystems living at the edge of where they’re ‘supposed’ to be. Reefs surviving at the edge of where we think they should be hold hope for corals in an increasingly stressful ocean,” Brandtneris says. According to Smith, the area of reefs at mesophotic depths in the Virgin Islands is more than double that of those in shallow water. These habitats are ideal for fishes and invertebrates like the spiny lobster. “We estimate that one species of star coral, which is listed as threatened on the U.S. Endangered Species List, may have a population in mesophotic reefs in the USVI of 100s of millions of colonies,’ Smith said. These deep reefs are also the backbone of the territory’s commercial fishing industry. “Around St. Thomas and St. John the majority of the commercial trap fishery is focused on mesophotic habitat, truly making it the ocean bread-basket for the northern USVI,” Smith explains.

Stephen Prosterman, UVI’s dive safety officer, has been involved in the program since its infancy in the late 1980s. In the beginning, the program was much more basic, teaching students how to dive and how diving could be used for research. When Rick Nemeth joined the faculty as a professor of marine biology in the late 1990s, the program really took off, Prosterman says. The university joined the American Academy of Underwater Sciences in 2008, which allowed for more research diving collaborations with other institutions.

“In the years since, our diving has grown exponentially. We did right around to 2,500 research dives this past year. When Rick Nemeth first got here it was around 50 – quite an increase over the past 20 years,” Prosterman says.

Since most people will never dive this deep even if they do scuba dive, UVI’s research divers are always looking for ways to share their findings about the territory’s rich coral reefs with the community. Those interested in learning more about the program can follow “VI-EPSCoR” on Facebook and Instagram. The program will soon partner with the Red Hook Dive Center to give recreational divers a chance to check out UVI’s coral nursery and learn from graduate students and faculty as a part of its Coral Restoration and Adventure Diving Expeditions. Children can look into Youth Ocean Explorers events and programs too.


Coral researcher Viktor Brandtneris films a deep coral transect at 219 feet on the South Drop of St. Thomas. (Photo by Tyler B. Smith)

By Kelsey Nowakowski - October 31, 2018
Excerpt from The St. John Source
Full Article at


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