Educational paths

for Scientific Divers

Italy has a long tradition of scientific diving, and for several years there has been discussion about the need for specific regulation of this discipline, which still suffers from a lack of harmonization at both national and European levels (Ponti, 2012). Despite the publication of the "Good practices for the safe conduct of diving activities by ISPRA and environmental agencies," validated in 2013 by the Permanent Advisory Commission of the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, and the adoption by many Institutes and Universities of regulations for scientific diving developed from those good practices, the absence of a clear framework, recognized and recognizable by the relevant authorities, means that scientific diving is often not identified as an independent and different professional activity, in terms of purpose and execution procedures, than commercial or even recreational diving. In this contribution we want to provide a synthetic view of the different schools in Italy that offer an approach to scientific diving to university students and professionals and, in addition, provide useful indications to harmonize the different training offers with common and shared guidelines.

The Associazione Italiana Operatori Scientifici Subacquei (AIOSS), formed on Feb. 5, 2010, was established as a trade association for workers who perform, in various capacities, diving activities for scientific, environmental, documentary and informational purposes as part of their profession. Recognized by the European Scientific Diving Panel (ESDP, now an integral part of the European Network of Marine Stations, MARS), AIOSS issues European Scientific Diver (ESD) and Advanced European Scientific Diver (AESD) certificates to its members who are duly registered and meet the minimum requirements of the ESDP standards, thus enabling recognition of the professional figure at least among the European institutions belonging to the Panel and many other non-European organizations, including the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS).

In order to obtain qualified training, and possibly achieve the requirements for European certification, students can take scientific diving courses that several universities offer as an optional choice in their master's programs in marine biology, geology, and archaeology; these courses are primarily aimed at students at the relevant universities (e.g., University of Bologna, Naples-Parthenope, Palermo, Genoa, Rome-La Sapienza, Venice-Ca' Foscari, Marche Polytechnic). However, many other extra or postgraduate training opportunities are offered to scientific diver candidates. We would like to list and illustrate below some of the longest-running or even international ones.
The oldest Italian organization dedicated to this activity is the "International School for Scientific Diving" (ISSD), which, since 1986, has annually organized its Training Course for "Scientific Underwater Researcher" in which, through a multidisciplinary approach, the fundamental techniques for conducting underwater surveys and the main sampling methods are taught (see Box 1). Once the basics are acquired during the course, the training is deepened through the involvement of students in various monitoring and research activities that the school organizes in Italy and abroad; an example is the "Scientific Cruise" to the Maldives, now in its 23rd edition in 2020, which ISSD organizes in collaboration with Albatros Top Boat and with some members of the University of Genoa, the Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (CEMT) of CoNISMa and the International Academy of Underwater Sciences and Techniques.
More recently, the "Panarea Summer School of Scientific Scuba Diving" (Aeolian Islands, Sicily), based at the ECCSEL-Nat Lab Italy in Panarea, operated by the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics (Trieste), opened internationally. The school focuses on the unique geology and biology of the many unique hydrothermal systems located around the island of Panarea and its mini-archipelago of adjacent reefs and islets (Gambi et al., 2018) (see Box 2).
The nonprofit organization Reef Check Italia onlus regularly organizes underwater monitoring courses in the Mediterranean Sea and abroad (e.g., Indonesia, Madagascar) aimed at both professional scientists and citizens, as part of citizen science initiatives of which Reef Check has been a forerunner and long-time promoter (Cerrano et al., 2017) (see Box 3).

Other initiatives worth mentioning are the internship "Environmental gradients in coastal marine habitats" organized in Palinuro (Salerno) by professors from the University of Genoa, Università la Sapienza (Rome) and Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (Naples), as well as the post-graduate course in "Participatory Research, Enhancement of Natural Heritage and Recreational Diving: the local economy in support of territorial management" organized by the Università Politecnica delle Marche in collaboration with DAN, PADI and Reef Check Italia onlus. Finally, we mention a private institute based on the Island of Elba, founded by German researchers and offering scientific diving training for many years, although intended mainly for German students. There is also no shortage of foreign institutes, such as the Scientific Diving Center of Freiberg (TU Bergakademie Freiberg, Germany), which, taking advantage of the beauty and scientific interest of our seabed, complete the training of their student divers in Italy.

As can be seen, the training offer for scientific diving in our country is numerous, growing and varied, but probably precisely because of this uncoordinated, if not for the connection with the AIOSS, which, in providing some experiences with its patronage, carefully evaluates the qualification of the teachers, the access requirements of the candidates and the teaching programs. Despite this, a harmonization of the courses would be appropriate, at least for some common and unavoidable aspects concerning the relevant regulations, safety at work, minimum training and suitability of participants, and the procedures to be adopted.

Topics should always include a section on good practice and safety procedures to be adopted in scientific diving, and an update on relevant legislation and first aid. Procedures for organizing, managing, and documenting educational dives, even if conducted with the logistical support of dive centers, should be those typical of good practices for scientific diving, not recreational diving.All scientific diving courses should always clearly indicate the target audience they are aimed at and the minimum criteria for access by participants (level of schooling, scientific fields, diving certification, minimum number of recreational and/or scientific dives). Of course, participants and instructors must always be required to possess a certification of medical fitness for diving practice issued by physicians qualified for Underwater Medicine and, if it is an in-house training course of an institution, public or private, the fitness issued by the competent physician. Organizations and participants must be covered by insurance for risks related to the activities included in the course.

Based on the access criteria thus defined, each course will be able to optimize the diving practice depths best suited to the participants, also in order to take advantage of longer times for demonstration and didactic diving operations.

Therefore, we believe the time is ripe to propose the drafting of general and harmonized guidelines among the different experiences of scientific diving education that could serve as a common reference at the National level, including for any new initiatives that may originate in this area. The AIOSS for this purpose could serve as a reference body and, through its institutional website (, distribute such guidelines and good practices for scientific immersion. Finally, another useful aspect would be precisely the organic formulation of the different educational offerings that could make potential stakeholders (students, doctoral students, but also professionals) better oriented according to their different cultural/scientific interests, educational/training needs, and technical levels. To this end, each initiative at the national level could provide the AIOSS with an outline of its prerogatives and aims, so that a general list of what is on offer would be made available, to the benefit of better dissemination and promotion of the various initiatives available to those wishing to undertake a more complete and informed training course.

In conclusion, although scientific diving in Italy continues to suffer from the absence of an unambiguous reference framework, several training organizations and initiatives continue to ensure the highest standards of safety and scientific quality of diving. Such experiences, if they were better disseminated and harmonized, could more effectively guide the choices and training of future scientific divers.



The International School for Scientific Diving, which became ISSD "Anna Proietti Zolla" in 2013, was formally established in 1989 by a group of university professors and researchers, some of whom are still part of the current Scientific Council, composed of: Prof. Francesco Cinelli (President; University of Pisa), Eng. Federico De Strobel (CMRE, La Spezia), Prof. Carlo Nike Bianchi (University of Genoa), Prof. Marco Abbiati (University of Bologna), Dr. Stefano Acunto (Biologist, MAREA Studio Associato). The current Board of Directors is composed of: Dr. Stefano Acunto (Director), Prof. Francesco Cinelli, Prof. Carlo Nike Bianchi, Prof. Marco Abbiati, Dr. Marco Castellazzi (Biologist, RAI Author), Dr. Luigi Piazzi (University of Sassari), Dr. Monica Montefalcone (University of Genoa), Dr. Alberto Fiorito (Medical Director of the Center for Hyperbaric and Underwater Medicine, Massa Carrara). ISSD is associated with the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), the International Academy of Underwater Sciences and Techniques, the Italian Association of Scientific Underwater Operators (AIOSS), the World Confederation of Underwater Activities (CMAS) and the Association CMAS Diving Center Italy (ACDCI). Today the school puts to good use the experience accumulated in the Courses for Scientific Underwater Researcher organized annually since 1986, making use of the collaboration of professors from the Universities of Pisa, Genoa, Bologna and Sassari as well as from other Institutions and Research Institutes such as INGV of Rome, CMRE of La Spezia, and professionals involved in environmental monitoring and consulting, scientific communication and hyperbaric medicine. For several years the school has been holding its courses in Sardinia where, thanks to the close collaboration with the Management Consortium of the Tavolara - Punta Coda Cavallo Marine Protected Area, it has an unparalleled natural underwater laboratory at its disposal. The Underwater Scientific Researcher training course takes place over eight days. Each day, with the exception of the arrival and departure day, includes theoretical lectures, exercises and seminars in the afternoon (totaling about 35 hours) and practical dive training sessions that take place in the morning until the completion of the 7 scientific dives in the program (Fig. 1).

The topics covered are divided into 2 complementary modules:

  • Module 1 TEC/GEO: Safety in scientific diving, guidelines and best practices. Science communication and outreach techniques. Coastal geology and sedimentology; topographic surveying and positioning; mapping techniques and graphic restitution; GIS fundamentals.
  • Module 2 BIO-ECO: Marine biology-ecology; bionomic survey; underwater sampling; monitoring techniques and study of benthos; visual census of fish fauna.


Entry Requirements: The course is limited to a maximum of 18 participants who are required to have:

Level 1 diving certification with at least 20 certified dives; specific medical certificate for diving activities; and insurance for injuries resulting from diving activities.

Certificates and patents: All participants who successfully complete the course receive an ISSD/AAUS Certificate of Participation, recognized by all major scientific institutions affiliated with the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. In addition, participants who meet the requirements set by the CMAS Scientific Committee can apply for the CMAS/ISSD "Scientific Diver" certification issued directly by ISSD. Finally, all ISSD training activities contribute to the achievement of the minimum requirements to obtain the European ESD and AESD certifications issued in Italy by AIOSS.


Fig. 1 - a) Pre-diving briefing. b) The municipal media room in Porto San Paolo (OT) during a theory lesson. c) The inflatable boats of the Tavolara Diving Center in Porto San Paolo and the Tavolara MPA, available to ISSD for scientific diving. d) An underwater survey phase along a transect.




The heads of the Scientific Diving School in Panarea (Aeolian Islands) are Prof. Sabina Bigi (La Sapienza University, Rome) and Dr. Cinzia De Vittor (OGS, Trieste); with the collaboration of Dr. Maria Cristina Gambi (Stazione Zoologica A. Dohrn, Naples) and Dr. Francesco Italiano (INGV, Palermo).

The School's experience began in 2016 in Panarea (Aeolian Islands), the course takes place at the ECCSEL-NatLab Italy laboratory, an infrastructure, funded by the Italian Ministry of University and Research, operational since 2015 and managed by the National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics (OGS, Trieste). Panarea's NatLab Italy is one of the Italian components of the European Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Laboratory Infrastructure (ECCSEL): a European network aimed at establishing a network of laboratories of excellence for the development of CO2 geological storage techniques (CCS, Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage) and is accessible to the national and international research community. It is focused on the application of study and sampling methodologies in the surface hydrothermal systems that the island of Panarea offers numerous and that include several coastal marine habitats (Gambi et al., 2018). The course, open to undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate, doctoral students in scientific disciplines and professionals (for a maximum of 12-14 participants) is 7 days long and includes 5 scientific dives,

15 hours of multidisciplinary lectures, and 10 hours of hands-on laboratory exercises (Fig. 2). A basic patent, having made at least 20 dives, medical examination for fitness to dive and insurance (DAN type) are required; operational depths are within 18 m. Dives are conducted at 4 sites characterized by surface hydrothermal systems: Hot/Cold Points-Ditella, Bottaro crater (Fig. 2), Camp-21 and "black point" near Dattilo, the latter where there is the INGV submerged observatory equipped with numerous sensors for continuous collection of physicochemical data. Since the 2018 edition, the school has taken on an international character with lectures and exercises in English. All participants who successfully complete the course receive a certificate of participation, while the in-water training activities contribute to the achievement of the minimum requirements to obtain the European ESD and AESD certifications issued in Italy by AIOSS. Thanks to the field work of teachers and students, carried out during the different editions,it was possible to acquire valuable data that have been the subject of scientific publications presented at conferences (e.g., Auriemma et al., 2019; Gaglioti et al., 2019).

Fig. 2 - a) The small room of the ECCSEL-NatLab Italy in Panarea during a theoretical lecture. b) The outdoor patio of the ECCSEL- NatLab during a briefing and practical exercise with benthic chamber and multi-parameter probe. c) The two inflatable boats of the Amphibia diving center in Panarea, supporting the School for scientific sea dives. d) A phase of underwater gas sampling in the hydrothermal system of the Bottaro crater (10 m depth).



Reef Check Italia onlus (RCI) is a nonprofit scientific association dedicated to the protection and recovery of Mediterranean reefs and all coral areas. It is chaired by Prof. Carlo Cerrano, of the Polytechnic University of Marche, the vice-president is Dr. Massimo Ponti, of the University of Bologna, and the secretary is Dr. Gianfranco Rossi.

Founded in 2008, it is a member of the Reef Check Foundation, based in California with representatives worldwide, and is a member of the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) and AIOSS. Since its inception, it has developed Marine Citizen Science protocols and projects, including the Mediterranean Submerged Coastal Environment Monitoring (MAC) protocol (internationally known by the acronym RCMed U-CEM; aimed at volunteer divers, freedivers, and snorkelers who wish to learn about and raise awareness of the Mediterranean's marine environment and thus contribute to its preservation. Since its inception, RCI has been conducting training courses for the application of Mediterranean and tropical monitoring protocols attended by both recreational divers and undergraduate and graduate students interested in marine habitat conservation and learning new knowledge and study methodologies (Fig. 3). Specifically, the international "Methods in tropical reefs monitoring" course has been held annually at the Coral Eye center in Bangka Island, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, since 2011 and is currently organized by Dr. Massimo Ponti, Dr. Gianfranco Rossi, and Dr. Eva Turicchia, with the collaboration of faculty from Manado University and internationally renowned guests. The main topics of the course include the Reef Check Tropical EcoDiver Program, which includes a complex protocol for monitoring coral reefs, the CoralWatch protocol for measuring coral bleaching, and field and laboratory sessions for the recognition of coral families and major genera. Although the course is also open to non-scientists, it has very high standards both in entry requirements (level 2 diving certification, at least 30 dives, diving medical certificate, and international insurance coverage) and in the lectures, taught in English by expert scientists, with 12 scientific-educational dives. For this reason, the educational experience of students and graduates contributes to the achievement of the minimum requirements to obtain the European ESD and AESD certifications issued in Italy by AIOSS.

Fig. 3 - a) A group of university students during a MAC course held at the BIODIVERS center on Elba Island. b) A volunteer notes information applying the MAC protocol along a coral reef wall. c) An international group of students and faculty during an evening class at Coral Eye Resort, Indonesia. d) A moment of coral reef health monitoring in Indonesia.



AURIEMMA R., DE VITTOR C., ESPOSITO V., GAGLIOTI M., GAMBI M.C. (2019) - Motile Fauna associated to Cystoseira brachycarpa along a gradient of Ocean Acidification at a vent system off Panarea (Aeolian Islands, Italy). Biol. Mar. Mediterr., 26 (1): 216-219.

CERRANO C., MILANESE M., PONTI M. (2017) - Diving for science - science for diving: Volunteer scuba divers support science and conservation in the Mediterranean Sea. Aquat. Conserv.: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst., 27: 303-323.

GAGLIOTI M., AURIEMMA R., DE VITTOR C., ESPOSITO V., TEIXIDO N., GAMBI M.C. (2019) - A pilot study on Posidonia oceanica features of a hydrothermal system at Panarea (Aeolian Islands, Italy). Biol. Mar. Mediterr., 26 (1): 269-270.

GAMBI M.C., DE VITTOR C., BIGI S., ITALIANO F. (2018) - 3rd School of scientific diving at Panarea (Aeolian Islands, Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy): the 1st International edition. ECCSEL NatLab-Italy. Panarea, 19-27 Sept 2018. Notiziario SIBM, 74: 104-110. (

PONTI M. (2012) - Scientific diving: Towards European harmonisation. Underwater Techn., 30: 181-182.


Texts from:

Acunto S., Gambi M.C., Ponti M. (2020) Scuole e corsi di subacquea scientifica in Italia: Proposte per una armonizzazione e sinergia. Bollettino della Società Italiani di Biologia Marina, 77: 7-13.

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