Research or Scientific Diving at the Nelson Mandela University started in 1974 when Anton McLachlan, at that stage a lecturer in the Zoology Department, acquired a Bauer portable compressor and two SCUBA diving sets. Deo Winter (an Honours student in the Zoology Department at the time) took over from Prof. McLachlan in 1977, and the Research Diving Unit (RDU) was started the following year. In July 1979, the University campus moved to its present location in Summerstrand and the RDU acquired its own building for equipment storage. At this stage the RDU was housed in the Zoology Department, who benefitted because of their greater utilization of the facility. Throughout the next three or four years, six further SCUBA diving sets were acquired.

In 1980 the South African Bureau of Standards Codes of Practice concerning Commercial Diving were drawn up and in the same year the Nelson Mandela University Research Diving Unit became the second University affiliated Commercial Dive School to be registered with the Department of Labour. At this stage, Diving Courses were offered at no cost under the Instruction of Deo Winter. Within the next 5 years approximately 40 Divers qualified as Diver Scientists. These were mainly people affiliated to the various University Departments of Zoology, Botany and Geology. A chamber was made available at the Naval Base SAS Donkin in Port Elizabeth Harbour.

In 1987, Philip Coetzee took over the leadership of the RDU, and then this responsibility was passed on to Anton Cloete in 1994. At this time mixed gas/nitrox facilities were also introduced into the RDU to further promote safe diving practices. In 2011/2012, it was considered more appropriate to house the RDU under the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research than under any single Department at the University, and continues to be run by Anton Cloete.

To date, well over 100 divers have been qualified and registered with the Department of Labour as Diver Scientists, Commercial Divers or Diving Supervisors through the RDU. A number of non-university divers have also passed through this facility, including divers from Bayworld, Fire and Rescue Services, and National Parks Board.

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