Impact of Degradation in the Marine Ecosystem on Human Divers – A New Perspective based on the Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) Framework

Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash

Diving is a versatile activity that is generally classified as either recreational or occupational. Occupational diving can be further classified into scientific diving, military diving and industrial diving. While diving continues to be an increasingly popular activity amongst tourists and a necessity for industries to source materials, maintain equipment, conduct research etc., the hazards associated with it are also rising at an alarming rate. Although there is a wide variety of protective equipment that is available and, in many countries, physical health check-ups are legally mandatory for divers, there continues to be a constant threat of accidents and sustained after-effects. There is a lot of focus on improving available technology and creating monitoring systems to combat these hazards but, not much work is done on a seemingly harmless aspect of diving – the underwater habitat.

The undersea ecosystem is a world in itself with its own unique physical characteristics such as temperature, pressure, sound, density, etc as shown in the figure below. However, along with these naturally occurring phenomenon and the marine biota, huge amounts of pollution is present as well. An amalgamation of all these factors creates a territory that is often unsuitable for long term exposure. The interlinked nature of different physical parameters of the marine ecosystem and their impact on the health of divers has been widely studied by the hyperbaric medicine fraternity and the risks associated with the natural characteristics of the water bodies are widely known however, the overall risk of diving has elevated due to degradation of marine ecosystem. 

The increase in human activities around coastal areas and inside oceans is introducing different forms of disturbances in the marine environment including underwater noise, artificial light, thermal pollution, electromagnetism, chemicals, trace metals, etc. Naval equipment accounts for large amounts of underwater noise, excessive mining and exploitation of water bodies from corporates is causing changes in the physical characteristics of the underwater climate, chemical and metallic waste from industries is causing a rise in toxin levels and rampant consumerism is leading to a lot of littering, especially from plastics. 

The changes in the naturally occurring attributes of the underwater ecosystems such as rising temperatures and pressures makes divers more susceptible to increased respiratory discomfort, heat strokes, barotraumas, decompression illness and cardiovascular problems. All these occur quite instantly and cause immense pain as well as discomfort which impairs the diver’s ability to complete their descent and access safety equipment. Onset of sudden discomfort can also cause panic and increase in pulse rates as well as ventilatory rates amongst divers and contribute to mishaps for inexperienced divers. When pressure is rising, it also means that density is high which is also harmful to divers. Studies have shown that higher density of water has a correlation with the energy expenditure during locomotion which reduces a diver’s efficiency under water. Density also has a relationship with dynamic viscosity which affects the ability of a body to move through water. 

In addition to this is the vast amounts of pollution present in the oceans. Divers can get entangled and trapped in nets and other various types of litter which can cause accidents and other fatalities. A lot of these objects and plastics are also good at absorbing atmospheric heat and sun rays which generate increased thermal energy in water bodies. Apart from this, as represented in the figure below, dumping of biomedical waste, other sewage such as faecal matter and chemical contaminants exposes divers to infectious pathogens and carcinogenic substances. Along with this, many toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide dissolve in water which can lead to poisoning in divers. Several of these chemical contaminants can cause neurological conditions and long-term effects on the health of divers. 

Similarly, increased anthropogenic noise interferes with functioning of marine creatures causing them distress and changes in behaviour. The repercussions of altered behaviour of marine mammals, many of whom are predatory, include cases of bites and venomous injections in divers. This is especially possible if divers have small amounts of skin exposed or reduced visibility which is also a degradation factor of the marine ecosystem that occurs due to excessive dumping of waste in water bodies. Another consequence of underwater noise is the disturbance caused to diver’s hearing and interference in communication between divers and their vessels. Studies have shown that long term exposure to these noises causes accelerated hearing loss in divers.

Figure: Impact of Degradation in the Marine Ecosystem on Human Divers – a Visual Summary

To ensure safe diving practices, many countries have established occupational safety regulations that include guidelines on mandated procedures to be followed in cases of recreational as well as occupational diving. The laws also outline the obligations of diving contractors and standards of equipment that should be adhered to. The International Organization of Standardization (ISO) also emphasizes on sustainable environmental practices in diving to ensure adverse effects of diving on the underwater environment can be minimized. In regards to India, only the Andaman & Nicobar Islands provide an official regulation for recreational SCUBA diving in the region to ensure risk-free diving practices for divers as well as the ecology. A lot of these countries also have environment protection laws in place to protect water bodies and limit activities that may cause pollution. An example of this would be the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and the Forest Conservation Act from the Ministry of Environment, Climate and Forest Change, Government of India. Both these acts focus on conserving marine biodiversity and limiting land-based pollution in Indian waters. Occupational safety laws and environmental protection legislations, as illustrated in the below figure, are crucial to mitigating the hazards from increasing underwater degradation. 

Recreational diving has been limited to specific areas of interest due to which aforementioned hazards can be minimized however in case of unregistered diving and lack of public information on safe zones for diving, the risk still remains. Hazards from contaminated waters are most crucial for occupational divers. Many organizations follow pre-diving and post-diving protocols as well as maintain extensive records of diving operations to enable well organized diving activities. However, in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), there is no publicly available data on regulations and policies or databases regarding diving operations and standards of equipment.

The diving industry is of economic as well as recreational importance and increasing degradation of aquatic environments will make carrying out diving operations complex and expensive which will subsequently affect various other industries and stakeholders. A proper assessment of the underwater ecosystem will allow precise risk assessment for diving that may have direct relevance for insurance and other associated cost valuations.Moving forward, giving individual focus to each degradation factor and its biohazard will help grow this conversation to include possible solutions and regulatory measures that could be implemented specific to different regions. Keeping with the UDA Framework, one of the focus areas at Maritime Research Centre is underwater acoustic degradation and its adverse impact on human health. We plan to target acoustic degradation in the Indian Ocean Region and propose a unique approach to better manage diving operations.

Aarohi Kapadia

Aarohi is a medical technology enthusiast and a student of Biomedical Engineering. With a passion for writing & research, she thrives on innovation. Currently, she is an intern at Maritime Research Center, Pune and is working on the effects of the changing underwater ecosystem on the health of human divers.

Shridhar Prabhuraman

Mr. Shridhar Prabhuraman is a Computer Science engineer with a deep understanding of algorithm development and Machine Learning based Data Analytics. He is currently Manager (Research & Operations) at NirDhwani Technology Pvt Ltd and is a Research Fellow at Maritime Research Center, focusing on the domain of Underwater Acoustics.

Dr Arnab Das

Dr Arnab Das is a former Naval Officer and has obtained a PhD on Underwater Technology from IIT Delhi. He is Founder & Director of Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune and also runs a startup called M/S NirDhwani Technology Pvt Ltd (NDT). Both MRC and NDT focus on the Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) Framework.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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