Into the deep: How Scottish students became underwater explorers

Heriot-Watt diver Image copyright Paul Kay
Image caption Heriot-Watt University has been running its diving programme since the 1960s

For more than 50 years, students at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University have been exploring the oceans.

Their findings have been used by both the offshore oil industry and global conservation groups as keystones to future policies and direction.

Now a series of photographs from the personal records of former students and staff has been published to highlight the work carried out by the university's deep sea divers.

Underwater pioneers

The diving programme began in the 1960s, created by Prof Cliff Johnson. The first students to take part travelled to Fort Bovisand Diving School in Plymouth, where they were trained in how to operate diving equipment and in underwater photography.

The first batch of divers carried out an expedition in waters near the Canaries.

It proved to be a success, with their findings about the water's ecology being used in a number of scientific journals. Further plans were then made to expand the project's reach.

Image copyright Ingeborg McNicoll
Image caption The early diving projects took place at Fort Bovisand Diving School, Plymouth
Image copyright Ingeborg McNicoll
Image caption A diver goes through pre-dive checks with diving supervisor at Fort Bovisand

However, the 1970s brought a number of changes which would alter the programme's direction.

The first was the decade's energy crisis, with a renewed focus from western governments looking closer to home to try and meet their demands for gas and electricity.

Scotland, being rich in "black gold" reserves, with easy access to large ocean waters, proved to be a perfect fit for the university to carryout further exploration.

In 1974, a large new oil facility was commissioned at Flotta, off the coast of Orkney. The following year another terminal began construction at Sullom Voe in the Shetlands.

Image copyright Heriot-Watt University
Image caption Diver Stuart Taylor carrying out routine sampling at a dive at Stanger Head, Scapa Flow, Orkney close to the Flotta oil terminal
Image copyright Andy Mackie
Image caption A crew take a break after a dive in September 1983

Prof Hamish Mair, from the university's centre for marine biodiversity and biotechnology, said the diving project played a crucial role in the development of Scotland's North Sea oil industry.

"Off Shetland and Orkney we have run continuous monitoring surveys over 35 years," he said.

"Heriot-Watt advised the oil industry on outfall and low impact outlets when the Flotta terminal was being commissioned in the mid 1970s."

Diving work carried out by the university proved to be a valuable resource for petrochemical companies wanting to maximise the efficiency of the multi-million pound developments.

The two oil production bases gave the university a chance to establish a permanent base for its students. Heriot-Watt was able to offer a Diving Science module which proved popular, and in 1990 a diving training facility was set up at the university's Orkney campus.

Image copyright Richard Shucksmith
Image caption A diver prepares to carry out an ecological survey of the seabed
Image copyright R/Shearsmith/Heriot-Watt University
Image caption A crew study some of the sea life captured on a 2012 diving expedition

The course has given hundreds of students the chance to learn new skills, and has also resulted in a number of significant finds and discoveries.

In 2004, the university carried out survey and mapping work in the waters around Sullom Voe which resulted in the area being classified as a marine Special Area of Conservation.

A special dinner will be held this month to mark 50 years of the diving programme. It will celebrate previous work and look ahead to what lies next for the university's intrepid underwater explorers.