The Devils Hole pike is the rarest fish in the world, with less than 200 in the world. Although the stats are less stark, black female divers are rarely as good. More than 85 percent of professional divers in the U.S. are men, 63 percent of all divers are white, and 9 percent are Black, according to Zippia.
Despite these small numbers, Black women are making their mark in organizations like Diving With a Purpose, founded by Ken Stewart in 2003 to provide education, training, certification and field experience for adults and youth in marine archaeology. and ocean conservation. The DWP focuses on the protection, documentation and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks and the maritime history and culture of African Americans.
Ayana Omilade Flewellen, PhD., Rebecca Hunter, and Shirikiana Gerima are water adventurers who dive with the DWP and volunteer as mentors and instructors with the organization, who shared stories of how they got into diving, their experiences diving on around the world, searching for slave wrecks. , teaching the next generation and more.
Flewellen is an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Department of Anthropology and a marine archaeologist, one of about 20 Black women in the US to hold this certification. The 32-year-old has been a diver since 2016. She was inspired by a DWP board member she met at a conference who was looking for Black archaeologists to learn marine archaeology. “When I heard about the DWP’s mission it opened my mind to the possibility. Before that meeting, I never dreamed that I would become a diver or do underwater archaeological work. Once I was in the water, there was no way to get me out. I was stuck,” says Flewellen.
To conduct underwater research you must obtain a Scientific SCUBA Pilot certification through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences, a process that can take 6-12 months. “We learn so much during our certification, including the history of diving, regulations, human physiology underwater, basic chemistry for gas composition as well as underwater navigation.”
Flewellen has come a long way from that girl trying to swim during summer camp who nearly drowned. (Her mother successfully enrolled her in a free-swimming program.) Now, Flewellen has taken up diving in St. Croix, St. John, the Red Sea in Egypt, and Florida.
“I have worked around ships involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade such as the Clotilda (the last known slave ship to arrive in the US) in Mobile, Alabama. It was an amazing experience to dive on a vessel that was known to be carrying enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. It is also the only ship found so far with the most intact hull in which enslaved Africans were kept. Emotional doesn’t even begin to describe what that experience was like. To touch the wood of that vessel, to be able to hold fragments of that history… I have no words for it, but a deep respect.”
She has never been in danger while diving, “But one time while doing a coral survey in Key Biscayne a great white manta ray swam up next to me and was like, ‘What are you doing here?’. It scared the life out of me! The ocean is full of life, they are as curious about us as we are about them.”
What is worrying, she says, is that “in the 21st century we are still dealing with the very first. In 2008 Grace Turner became the first Black woman to receive a master’s degree in marine archaeology. The field is inaccessible to many of us, in terms of representation, cost, and educational attainment. Until recently there were no internal drives from within the discipline to translate that. The DWP has changed that.”
She is optimistic though. “There are barriers like the cost of training, the cost of equipment and the educational field schools for students, but black women are making progress, simply by showing up and carving our own paths and making sure that those paths are sustainable for people who come. after us.”
The truth is, it is not just those issues. Black people have a history with water, coming to this country by ship, being dumped in rivers – there is real trauma. “Black Americans haven’t always had access to public pools and beaches, which would have led to generational cuts in our relationship with water,” she says.
But the reward is huge for taking to the water. “I gained a new understanding of how interconnected everything is.”
What is her word for other Black women? “The water is calling. It’s a whole other world to experience.”
Rebecca Hunter was a snorkeler, while on holiday in Mexico over twenty years ago a friend encouraged her to try scuba. She took an introductory course, and they did a shallow dive. She would go on to receive her certification in 1998. She is retired and at 61, spends her time between California and Florida. She has been diving for 25 years in distant areas such as Indonesia, the Maldives, Fiji, Egypt, Tahiti and Australia.
It was not easy at first.
“I had to get out of my head. I was very worried. It would sometimes strike me that there was a huge amount of water between me and the surface. I learned to calm myself by touching another person to center myself and I also tried to focus my attention on finding something to photograph,” says Hunter, who volunteers with the Marine Archeology Program DWP and with the DWP Coral Cares Program as a tutor and mentor. She is a life member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.
“I’ve always hoped to get up close to whales, sharks, dolphins and myself,” she says, but she gets just as much joy from peering into holes and crevices for little creatures and observing sea life. and living in its natural environment. . “Although there is a lot of activity down there, the ocean is also a very peaceful place and the only sound you hear is our own breath. It is lovely.”
There is beauty below, but above the boat, there can be challenges. “I was the only Black woman on a dive boat. Needless to say, there was little enthusiasm when everyone else learned that I would need someone to be my dive buddy. But I think more people are becoming aware of the fact that we are here. Black women are getting more exposure because of the climate of the country and the world which has forced some people to acknowledge our presence and our qualities.”
Shirikiana Gerima is psyched to return to the hunt for the slave ship Jersey shipwrecked in July. After twenty years of searching, the DWP and Biscayne National Park are partnering to embark on what could be the final mission after 20 years of searching those waters. “I’m so excited!” she admits. “We have been trying to achieve positive recognition for years. We are getting close to it.”
Gerima is a certified dive master, scientific diver, and DWP instructor, and is working on becoming a dive instructor. She has been diving since 2013. “I love diving, especially as it relates to finding ways to make the world a better place,” says the 67-year-old filmmaker and co-founder of Sankofa Video and Books & Café in Washington, DC “This is what my work in film and my bookstore has always wanted to do and now it’s great to expand this work into the oceans.”
She was doing laps in a swimming pool in Washington, DC with her daughter when she saw some Black divers training in the pool, and she asked them how she could be one, too. These days she is training young people in marine archeology advocacy through the DWP, and working with organizations on coral conservation.
Gerima was part of the crew in 2015 scouring the waters of Biscayne National Park in Florida for Jersey. “It’s emotional and a bit eerie, but at the same time I feel like I have a mission to uncover history, not to waste my time on the planet. Discovery is important. You think about how long those souls have been thinking about when someone was coming for them. It is spiritual. I want them to know that we are trying to understand what they went through and that they are grateful for their bravery.”
The protection of cultural heritage in the ocean is at the forefront. “We don’t want these sites to be torn down and destroyed, but to preserve history to see what can be learned.”
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