Royal Air Force Goes Under-Water to Scoop Royal Prize

14 November 2007

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The sub-aqua teamA Sub-Aqua team from the Royal Air Force (RAF) has been awarded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize following an outstandingly successful marine research expedition to Thailand called Benthic Orchid 2.  The expedition, the second in the Benthic Orchid series, took place in March 2007 with a 10 man RAF team supported by Dr Nick Evans, a Zoologist from the Natural History Museum (NMH) in London as Scientific Adviser.

Benthic Orchid was the brainchild of Squadron Leader Kev O’Neill who played a part in the humanitarian efforts in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Asian Tsunami by helping to identify the victims and return them to their loved ones.   Recalling how he felt at the time, Squadron Leader O’Neill said:

“Although I was working ashore, I remember looking at the unbelievable devastation all around and wondering how the offshore coral reefs would also be affected.  It was not until a chance meeting with Dr Evans when I got back to the UK, that an opportunity to find out was thrown up.  After several further meetings, a basic plan to mount a marine expedition to Thailand took shape”

Each of the Armed Services has its own governing body to promote and support sport diving, each with impressive records of mounting challenging expeditions to all parts of the globe.  The RAF Sub-Aqua Association is the nucleus for a very active group of divers with a wide variety of experience and interests, all willing to get involved with worthwhile projects.  It stretches personal abilities to their maximum whilst promoting team-work, a core ethos within the RAF.

After months of meticulous planning, the survey protocols were established and the methodology Delayed Surface Marker Buoy trainingstreamlined with the aim of undertaking series of underwater scientific surveys in the Similan Islands off the west coast of Thailand to assess the health of the coral reef eco-systems.  Benthic Orchid 2 followed on from the research carried out during the 2006 expedition which was ‘Highly Commended’ by HRH last year, and included new video survey techniques and expanded protocols.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize, the premier award made by the British Sub-Aqua Club, is given for the best underwater scientific project carried out by members and was first offered by HRH in recognition of his term as President of the Club.   Applications are scrutinised and short-listed by the Jubilee Trust Trustees before HRH makes his final selection.  The prestigious award was presented at Buckingham Palace and following the ceremony, Squadron Leader O’Neill said:

“Benthic Orchid 2 provided many opportunities to really stretch the less experienced divers, extend their underwater and leadership skills, and to collect this award from the Duke of Edinburgh is wonderful.  To me, it confirms just how worthwhile these projects are and it’s a true honour to have led the expedition.”

Another two military teams were at the ceremony collecting runner-up awards for their own research projects giving this year’s ceremony a distinctly Armed Forces flavour.  ‘Exercise Mayan Finn 2007’,  a 10 man RAF team led by Warrant Officer Paul Goodwin, based at RAF Odiham, continued survey work that began six years ago to investigate the damage to the Belize reef system following a succession of hurricanes in the region.  Its purpose was to assess the physical destruction to the marine environment and determine whether the reef was showing signs of regeneration.   Warrant Officer Goodwin is particularly proud of his team’s achievements and has now led Mayan Finn to four Royal awards since 2000.

Wing Commander CourtnageA Tri-Service team (Army, Navy and RAF) was led by Major Andy Reid who is stationed at the Army Recruiting and Training Division at Pirbright in Surrey. His team carried out an expedition to Costa Rica called ‘Exercise Jurassic Shark’; a project to help the plight of Hammerhead Sharks in conjunction with the Shark Research Institute (SRI) and a Costa Rican organisation called Programa Restauracion Tortugas Marinas (PRETOMA).   Against all odds, 15 Scalloped Hammerhead sharks were tagged allowing scientists to track their movements and identify whether they were feeding and breeding outside of their protected zones.

Following their major success with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, all three of the expeditions are now looking forward to 2008 when they will continue their research further by carrying out follow-on expeditions.  Dr Nick Evans from the Natural History Museum summed up his thoughts on the past success and is looking forward to 2008, he said:

“The successful collaboration of the Natural History Museum and the RAF has shown that it is possible to combine valid scientific investigation within the framework of the RAF's adventurous training program. After the success of the first two Benthic Orchid expeditions, there will be NHM participation on Benthic Orchid 3 in January 2008. Hopefully, building on this successful and synergistic collaboration, Museum Scientists will be able to participate in future RAF Expeditions to other locations.”

Editor: Sal Davidson

Image 1: The winning RAF sub-aqua team outside Buckingham Palace in London. [Picture: Sgt G Spark]

Image 2: Wing Commander 'Courtney' Courtnage (left) trains Flight Lieutenant Kirsty Livingstone in the deployment of a Delayed Surface Marker Buoy during 'Benthic Orchid 2'. [Picture: RAF]

Image 3: Wing Commander Courtnage marks the start point of a survey on expedition Benthic Orchid 2. [Picture: RAF]

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