Underwater biologist

Professional context

Man's interest in the underwater environment and its exploration has very ancient origins, and there are numerous reported historical experiences. The motivations are partly related to the procurement of resources such as sponges, mollusks or corals or to the simple desire to explore the seabed. The initially most effective solution adopted by humans for exploring the underwater environment was a bell filled with air inside which it is possible to breathe without having to return to the surface.

Scientific diving adopted by biologists and naturalists can generally be traced back to the exploration of underwater caves on the Sorrento peninsula by Filippo Cavolini in the late 18th century. Later, scientists such as Henri Milne-Edwards and Anton Dohrn in Sicily and the Gulf of Naples, Jean-Marie Pérès and Jacques Picard in Marseilles, and Rupert Riedl in the Adriatic definitively sealed the importance of underwater exploration in science. Today, the scientific fields that make most use of underwater exploration in biology and the natural sciences are zoology, botany, ecology and comparative anatomy. Many other fields find the observation and study of the underwater environment extremely important, from environmental bio-chemistry and pharmacology (secondary metabolites) to bio-engineering (biomimesis). The operating conditions can be very diverse and depend mainly on the specific training of the researcher and the operational limits imposed by the training. Activities can be conducted from the surface to even very great depths, greater than 100 m, both in inland waters and at sea, from the poles to the equator.

Classical indirect seabed survey techniques, carried out by means of instrumentation moved from the surface, have long since been supplemented or replaced by direct survey techniques involving the work of scientific operators who carry out underwater dives to perform:

  • measurements;
  • surveys;
  • mapping;
  • sampling of substrate, water and organisms;
  • video-photographic documentation;
  • checks;
  • experiments;
  • didactics.

Ultimately, it is a matter of bringing underwater not only the hands, to sample or carry out other specific operations, and the eyes to observe, but also and above all the instruments and knowledge necessary to conduct experiments and observations with the appropriate scientific approach. This has led to an enormous advancement in the knowledge of the underwater world and constitutes an approach that no operator without specific skills or with instruments operated from the surface will ever be able to match.

The underwater biologist generally operates using small boats or entering the water from the shore. The instruments used are mainly simple equipment, either for visual surveying along established routes and along transects (compass, metric string, clinometer, depth gauge) or within fixed surfaces (square frame), or by taking organisms on fixed surfaces or standard volumes, or for video and photographic documentation. For the sampling of organisms, hammers, chisels and spatulas can be used to scrape sessile organisms from rock surfaces or artificial structures and wrecks, small hand-operated core drills, nets and small sorbones can be used to collect vagile fauna. Commonly used sorbones are low-powered instruments that consist of a tube near the mouth of which air is injected from a dedicated cylinder that, by creating a vacuum, allows part of the sediment to be sucked out of the sampling site along with the vagile organisms present. Finally, the underwater slate on which to record observations, made of PVC or compressed polystyrene, and the gloves are the distinguishing features of the underwater biologist. Sometimes small lifting balloons can be used to retrieve instruments and objects.Technological development provides increasingly sophisticated instruments, sensors and technologies, from multi-parameter probes for detecting the chemical and physical parameters of the water column and the seabed to wireless positioning and communication systems, and even to unmanned tablets that allow several instruments to be operated and interconnected, recording and processing data in real time.These activities can also be conducted by biologists during training activities related to scientific diving, thus requiring skills not only related to the application of the techniques described above, but also leadership and group management skills with an up-to-date and detailed knowledge of the required safety regulations. 

All the activities listed above must be conducted directly by biologists; however, for heavier operations, technical underwater operators (OTS) may be used, supervised in the water by at least one biologist to ensure the effectiveness and scientific validity of the activities and the preservation of the environments and organisms under investigation.

Educational paths

'Underwater biologist' is a commonly used term for a multifaceted professional figure involved in a wide range of activities. Generally, they are graduates (with a Bachelor's, Master's or old system degree) in scientific disciplines such as Biology, Natural Sciences, and Environmental Sciences who during their training have followed courses related to the aquatic environment or have defended a thesis in this area.

Today in Italy, it is only possible to graduate with a Master's degree in Marine Biology or Marine Biology and Ecology at a few universities (Table 1), but in other locations there is the possibility of attending dedicated courses or taking relevant examinations. It is important for students to enquire at the respective locations and assess the different curricula on offer.

Table 1. Master's degrees in marine biology and ecology in Italy.





Università di Genova

LM-6, LM-75 Interclasse di Biologia e Scienze e tecnologie per l’ambiente e il territorio

Biologia ed ecologia marina

Università Politecnica delle Marche (Ancona)

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia marina

Università di Cagliari

LM-6 Biologia

Bio-ecologia marina

Università di Palermo

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia marina

Università di Messina

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia ed ecologia dell’ambiente marino costiero

Università di Milano Bicocca

LM-75 Scienze e tecnologie per l’ambiente e il territorio

Marine sciences

Università di Pisa

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia marina

Università di Padova (sede di Chioggia)

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia marina

Università di Bologna (sede di Ravenna)

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia marina

Università del Salento (Lecce)

LM-6 Biologia

Coastal and marine biology and ecology

Università della Tuscia (sede di Civitavecchia)

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia ed ecologia marina

Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II

LM-6 Biologia

Biologia ed ecologia dell'ambiente marino ed uso sostenibile delle sue risorse

As a general rule, the underwater biologist learns the techniques of autonomous scuba diving in schools for recreational divers, and only then completes his or her training on scientific diving methodologies and safety in the workplace during specific university courses or by participating in extra-university training courses held in any case by expert scientists. Typically, during these courses, the biologist learns, in both theoretical and practical form, the main operational methodologies for underwater surveying and sampling and is informed of the possible fields of application, as well as the safety protocols to be adopted. This basic training must then be supplemented with the experience acquired during participation in various research projects, thus building his professional figure.

Today, in Italy and in many European and non-European countries, the teaching of the approaches, materials and methods used in scientific diving research, intended for graduates or undergraduates in the various scientific-disciplinary sectors, is provided in some degree courses, mostly at second level (master's degree), within Doctoral Schools, and in some extra-university courses, such as those organised annually, since 1986, by the International School for Scientific Diving (ISSDwww.issdonlus.it). ISSD's offer is completed by the involvement of students in various other monitoring and research activities that the school organises in Italy and abroad. One example is the "Scientific Cruise to the Maldives" that ISSD has been organising since 1998 in collaboration with Albatros Top Boat, researchers from the University of Genoa and members of the Centre for Tropical Marine Ecology (CEMT) of CoNISMa and the International Academy of Underwater Sciences and Techniques.


More recently, the 'Panarea Scientific Scuba Diving Summer School' opened internationally, based at the ECCSEL-Nat Lab Italy in Panarea (Aeolian Islands, Sicily) managed by the Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e Geofisica Applicata (OGS, Trieste).

The no-profit organisation Reef Check Italia ETS (https://www.reefcheckmed.org) regularly organises underwater monitoring courses in the Mediterranean Sea and abroad (e.g. in Indonesia and Madagascar) for both professional scientists and citizens, as part of citizen science initiatives of which Reef Check Italia has been a forerunner and promoter.

Other initiatives related to scientific and underwater training include the internship "Environmental gradients in coastal marine habitats" organised in Palinuro by professors from the University of Genoa, La Sapienza University (Rome) and the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station (Naples), as well as the post-graduate course in "Participatory Research, Natural Heritage Enhancement and Recreational Diving: the local economy to support territorial management" organised by the Marche Polytechnic University in collaboration with DAN, PADI and Reef Check Italia onlus.

AIOSS provides an online archive of university and other courses providing qualified education, accredited to ESD/AESD standards, in the various fields of scientific diving.


Sampling of vagile fauna with air sorbonne

Sampling of sediment and mobile bottom fauna using a manual core drill

The 'Common Practices for the Recognition of European Levels of Competence for Scientific Diving at Work', updated in 2017, are established by the European Scientific Diving Panel (ESDP, www.esdpanel.eu), for the purpose of implementing Directive 2005/36/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 7 September 2005 on the recognition of professional qualifications. ESDP provides two minimum standard levels of professional competence: European Scientific Diver (ESD) and Advanced European Scientific Diver (AESD). These certified minimum competence levels allow organisations in other Member States to recognise the levels within their national regulations. The fulfilment of these requirements is certified by the authorised national agency representing their country in the ESDP. The requirements include appropriate diver training and competences related to safety, emergencies, use of equipment, operation at sea, and knowledge of approaches and methods used in one's scientific field, which can be acquired through university and post-graduate training courses. In Italy, the organisation that certifies the possession of these requirements, based on the mutual recognition of ESDP members, is the Associazione Italiana degli Operatori Scientifici Subacquei (AIOSS) established as a professional trade association on 5 February 2010. As of 2019, the ESDP is under the umbrella of the European Network of Marine Station (MARS; www.marinestations.org).

Conducting an experiment in a Posidonia oceanica meadow

Implementation of a transplantation experiment

Employments opportunities

The research sector (Universities and Research Institutes), environmental control activities (ISPRA and the Environmental Agency System) and land protection agencies (Local Authorities, Parks, Reserves, Marine Protected Areas) are increasingly demanding qualifications, especially in the field of underwater investigations. Public and private companies and freelancers engaged in environmental consultancy activities, as well as those involved in aquaculture or resource exploitation, require qualified underwater biologists trained not only in basic theoretical knowledge but also in everything related to underwater scientific operations.

In addition to pure research activities, the required activities also include controlling and monitoring water quality and ecosystems, characterising habitats and assessing the impact on coastal biocoenosis caused by the construction of artificial structures, dams, marinas, underwater pipelines, energy resource extraction plants, as well as beach nourishment works carried out to tackle beach erosion. 

The figure of the underwater biologist can also be employed in environmental education and outreach, both at public and private educational institutions and in the eco-tourism sector. Recently, the expansion of 'citizen science' as a tool to support research and management strategies in various Marine Protected Areas on a global scale is opening up new employment scenarios at both non-governmental organisations and dive centres.

Selective sampling of sessile organisms

Volunteer carrying out a biological survey as part of a citizen science project (Reef Check Med)

Article from:

Acunto S., Montefalcone M., Cerrano C., Terlizzi A., Turicchia E., Ponti M. (2020) Il biologo subacqueo. Identikit professionali degli Operatori Scientifici Subacquei. La collana del faro, Il Pianeta Azzurro, 1/2020: 10-17.

The authors:


Stefano Acunto
Marine biologist at MAREA Studio Associato (Cecina, LI), director of ISSD and board member of AIOSS. He provides environmental consultancy to public and private entities in the field of studies and monitoring of Mediterranean and tropical marine-coastal habitats.     

Monica Montefalcone
Marine ecologist at the University of Genoa and a member of the board of directors of ISSD and of the technical-scientific committee of AIOSS. She deals with characterisation and assessment of the status of coastal marine habitats.

Carlo Cerrano
Zoologist at the Polytechnic University of Marche, president of Reef Check Italia onlus and vice-president of AIOSS. Expert on porifera and cnidarians, from the Mediterranean to the tropics and Antarctica. FIAS Master Instructor.

Antonio Terlizzi
Zoologist at the University of Trieste, member of the AIOSS board and FIPSAS scientific committee. Expert on benthic hard substrate systems (natural and artificial) and marine phanerogamous systems.
Eva Turicchia
Marine ecologist at the University of Bologna, board member of AIOSS and Reef Check Italia onlus. She works on the conservation of Mediterranean and tropical benthic populations, 3D image analysis and citizen science. PADI and NASE instructor.    

Massimo Ponti
Ecologist at the University of Bologna, president of AIOSS and vice-president of Reef Check Italia onlus. He works on the conservation of Mediterranean and tropical benthic populations in relation to anthropic impacts and climate change. FIAS Master Instructor.