On a brisk, sunny late-October morning, a group of divers in wetsuits and scuba gear could be seen heading down to Canoe Beach in Nahant, Massachusetts. They were carrying bright orange pumpkins with them, about the size of a basketball.
Soon both the divers and the pumpkins disappeared under the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. For about half an hour, the only thing one could see on the ripply blue surface were half a dozen red “Diver Down” flags with a diagonal white stripe several feet apart from each other, with pumpkin bits popping up around them.
When the first pair of the 20 divers finally came back on shore, one of them was carrying a freshly carved Jack-o’-lantern, spewing the salty water.
“It is kind of a tradition that our program has been doing for years,” says Andrea Jerabek, diving safety officer at the Northeastern University Marine Science Center in Nahant, referring to underwater pumpkin carving contests that have been happening among participants of the Three Seas Program that was established about three decades ago.
Three Seas is an immersive and field-intensive graduate program in marine biology that prepares students for careers in marine research, applied marine sustainability, conservation and restoration.
“Three Seas definitely has a distinct culture,” Jerabek says “There are some things that regardless if you did Three Seas in 1990 or you did it in 2020, there are things that alumni can always reminisce about and relate to regardless of year. And I think this is one of them.”
Jerabek, who carved her pumpkin underwater as a Three Seas student in 2014, oversees all the program operations and instructs a course called Diving Research Methods, which trains graduate, doctorate students and sometimes postdoctoral fellows to do science underwater with confidence and safety. During this course students complete at least 12 dives and learn navigation, night diving and rescue skills.
“They started the Three Seas program in September,” says Jerabek about the divers who completed the pumpkin carving assignment this year. “It’s amazing to see how quickly the students learn and improve throughout the semester.”
The pumpkin carving contest is a wholesome, not competitive, activity, she says.
“One, it’s fun and it’s in the holiday spirit,” Jerabek says. “Our graduate students work exceptionally hard. They are taking 20 credits of graduate-level courses all at once, so I think it is important to sometimes make sure we bring fun back in.”
In the past, students came up with some funny designs, Jerabek says, like vomiting pumpkins; clever designs like “P>.05,” a joke on statistical probability and hypothesis testing; and complex designs such as an octopus with all eight arms.
“Actually having to carve something underwater is pretty challenging,” she says.
For this year’s pumpkin dive, students worked in pairs. The guts of the pumpkins had to be taken out ahead of the dive to avoid fish gathering around them underwater, Jerabek says.
Each pair came up with their own design, which they drew on land with permanent markers, before getting into their scuba diving gear. Upbeat music helped the divers set the tone and warm up before the plunge.
“We are trying to go for an angler fish scary look,” said Hannah Bauriedel, who wants to go into conservation of marine ecosystems and wetlands after the Three Seas program. “I have done pumpkin carving before but I think it’d be really fun to try to see how much harder it was in the water.”
“We are just discussing how we are going to get it to not float,” said Braedlie Morgan, who together with her partner Ashland Aguilar was planning to carve a hammer fish. “I think we are just going to put some rocks in it.”
The temperature of the water was 54.3 F that day.
“It’s just like two to five minutes of being really, really cold and then your suit heats up,” said Justine Mattson, who has been diving for about six years. “You just fully embrace being a little uncomfortable.”
Although Jerabek gave the students 50 minutes to complete the dive, most pairs were done in about 30. Jerabek and a few teaching assistants dived together with the group to observe the carving.
“Underwater pumpkin carving in the context of scientific diving is great because, yes, it’s fun, but you are also working on a lot of skills,” she says.
Those skills that young researchers will use in the field include counting and measuring small things; neutral buoyancy, or the ability to float and control one’s body movement underwater in order to not disturb the environment; and communication underwater via hand signaling and writing on slates.
Exercises like pumpkin carving help develop better dexterity, Jerabek says, as cold water makes using tools underwater or writing even more difficult.
“Scientific diving really is about task loading,” she says. “How can I not only keep track of the safety requirements, and my air, and my buddy, but have tasks to do underwater and do them in an organized fashion?”
After the dive was completed, the group gathered for a quick debrief. Most of the students found the activity fun and relatively easy. Some had difficulty with waves yanking them up and down, and one pair’s knife broke half way through the carving.
Morgan Nelson beamed with excitement trying on a pumpkin helmet, which she and her partner Pooja Pednekar had carved.
“I saw there’s a bunch of trends going around about people wearing pumpkins,” she said. “And I was just like, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be funny if a scuba diver wore a pumpkin hat?’ It’s making my day.”
When all the scuba diving gear was cleaned and put away, the pumpkins were left outside of the marine center for the faculty, staff and guests to see.
“We’ll leave the pumpkins out for a day or two,” Jerabek says. “Because they are wet, they definitely don’t last as long as the regular pumpkins would.”
The pumpkin carving is not graded, she says, but the marine center has shared the photographs of the pumpkins on its Facebook page for the Northeastern community to vote for the best one.
This article originally appeared on News@Northeastern.