Off the Clock: Scuba Hobby Creates a Poseidon Adventure

Posted: June 30, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

It doesn’t matter how large the body of water is. Whether it’s the Atlantic Ocean, a marine park, or the pool at the Fitness and Aquatic Center, scuba diving is a passion Tom Wood, assistant professor in New Century College (NCC), submerges himself in completely. Lucky for him, he is able to pursue the hobby he’s had for more than 20 years in his spare time and in his professional life, merging the best of both worlds.

Tom Wood scuba diving
Photo by Herman Tessman

Wood’s thirst for the water started in high school when he became part of a club in Northern California that did free diving, an activity in which participants hold their breath to dive. “We used to go to the campgrounds in the redwoods and dive in areas with kelp beds so we could catch fish,” he says.

A longtime lover of the outdoors, Wood chose to study environmental science and public policy, earning a PhD in 1996 from George Mason. He completed his dissertation at the Smithsonian Zoo and has since created a partnership with the zoo and George Mason in which eight graduate students each year get fellowship support to do their dissertation research at the zoo.

Now, Wood teaches scuba diving courses for the Conservation Studies learning community at Mason. He recently took a class to study the wildlife and coral reefs off the coast of the Bahamas in the Exumas Land and Sea Park. “Diving in the Bahamas is much different than off the coast of California,” he says. “The water is much warmer and the visibility is better.” His own travels have also taken him to places such as the Belize Barrier Reef, which is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Underwater, Wood cannot lecture, but he can, with a wave of his hand, show students bioluminescence. This is the ability some organisms have to light up, a phenomenon that Wood describes as “sparks flying.” Students might not be able to open up a textbook underwater, but if they are lucky, they can see “coral spawning,” which is when coral reefs reproduce. During a full-moon phase, the coral release many, many sperm and eggs that trigger a burst of activity from other animals in the water. “It’s fantastic to see,” Wood says. “I love the diversity of coral reefs and all the life-forms you find there.”

Interest in scuba diving at Mason has grown throughout the years, and recently the university became one of the institutions associated with the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS). Wood founded the Scuba Club at Mason when he began working here in 1996, and the following year, the club won the Rookie of the Year Award for the best new club. With Wood as its faculty advisor, the club continues to sponsor diving training trips to places such as Lake Rawlings in Richmond.

In addition to teaching students, Wood has also taught George Mason faculty members how to dive. Ken Hintz, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Bob Jonas, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, have accompanied him on several field courses.

“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to take a personal interest and include it in my professional life,” says Wood. “One of the wonderful things about working in NCC is that the administration allows and encourages faculty to pursue things that they love to do.”

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