UVic student dives into his thesis defence

Mike Irvine makes history with underwater teleconference from the Salish Sea.

  • Apr. 22, 2015 6:00 p.m.

UVic masters student Mike Irvine throws his arms up in victory after spending more than an hour underwater - in pinstripe vest and wetsuit - defending his thesis via tele-conference.

Never one to take the easy road, Mike Irvine not only defended his masters thesis on Monday afternoon, he did it while making university history.

The University of Victoria student plunged into the sea at the James Island Road wharf in Central Saanich, pinstripes buttoned over his wetsuit, to explain via underwater teleconference how the use of marine web cameras can revolutionize ocean education by bringing the sea depths within reach of anyone.

“The biggest reason for all of this is that there are very few people who know very much about the ocean,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to see what’s down beneath the waves.”

Following a lifelong passion for the ocean and scuba diving, Irvine, 27, and several friends first explored the idea by doing a live dive at Victoria’s Fisherman’s Wharf for World Oceans Day in 2013 with a GoPro camera jerry-rigged to a scuba mask.

The equipment was basic, and it was simply an interested audience on shore watching a television set showing the camera’s feed.

Public response was huge and the project rapidly expanded with Irvine creating a company to develop and build better marine cameras. He also co-founded The Fish Eye Project, a non-profit dedicated to ocean education.

Two years and many innovations later, their live dives can now be streamed on your computer, smartphone or tablet, and the divers can even answer questions in real time too.

They are able to do this with a mask that allows the diver to hear and speak while underwater.

Some of the dives have had more than 4,000 students tuning in from more than 30 countries, proving that the desire for ocean education is strong.

“We’ve come a long way and it’s been exploding exponentially,” said Irvine.

And it’s not just students that are interested, he added. The dives have had nearly as many ‘big kids’ tuning in as well.

“It’s a great opportunity to see what’s down beneath the waves,” said Irvine. “The whole premise of this, is that we’re opening up a window to the ocean and from that we’re hoping to elicit your interest so you will dig deeper and make more informed decisions.”

Irvine is hoping that by providing the opportunity for everyone to actually see what’s going on in the oceans, the project will help fuel change in the way we treat them and start addressing the many threats to ocean ecology.

In addition to highly visible and devastating oil spills, there is also ocean acidification and degradation that affect marine ecosystems, fish stocks, even economic security, he said.

“What we do to the ocean comes back to us and affects us. We just don’t always realize the impacts.”

By bringing the secrets of the ocean to as many people as possible, Irvine said he and The Fish Eye Project hope to inspire people to become involved.

“Our hope, in particular, in following a quote from Dr. Sylvia Earle, is that ‘knowing is the key to caring, and with caring there is hope that people will be motivated to take positive actions,’” he said. “You never know what can happen from that.”

Irvine barely had time to worry whether his masters bid was successful; within moments of taking off his mask and scuba hood, Irvine’s thesis supervisor, Dr. Jason Price, offered him a hug and hearty congratulations.

“It’s amazing,” said Irvine. “I have worked so hard on it. It’s going to be weird that it’s over.”

“The research, going back to school, it was to build this whole thing, so I’m not leaving it behind. I’ll be taking it with me.”

He hopes to continue the live dives in different spots around the world to highlight meaningful ocean research.

“We’re trying to get a lens to it,” he said. “In terms of accessibility, the ocean just got a whole lot closer.”

For more information on the Fish Eye Project, visit fisheyeproject.org.

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