News Article

RAF divers go underwater to scoop royal prize

A Training and Adventure news article

13 Nov 07

An RAF sub-aqua team has been awarded the Duke of Edinburgh's Prize for their contribution to marine research during an expedition to Thailand earlier this year.

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]

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]

The Benthic Orchid 2 expedition saw a ten-strong RAF team, supported by Dr Nick Evans, a zoologist from the Natural History Museum in London, carry out detailed research on some of Thailand's most delicate and endangered coral reef eco-systems.

Benthic Orchid, the expedition's predecessor, 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."

All 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 teamwork, a core ethos within the RAF.

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

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


After months of meticulous planning, the survey protocols for Benthic Orchid 2 were established and the methodology streamlined with the aim of undertaking a 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 The Duke of Edinburgh 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 shortlisted by the Jubilee Trust Trustees before HRH makes his final selection. The prestigious award was presented at Buckingham Palace. 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 ten-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.

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

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


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.

A 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 and a Costa Rican organisation called Programa Restauracion Tortugas Marinas. 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 (NHM) summed up his thoughts on the past success and, looking forward to 2008, 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."



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