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  1993 Aqua Woman Dive
Aqua-Woman Expedition 1993 divers on the top deck of the Eagle’s Nest.


by Hillary Viders, PH.D.  Photos by Kieth Ibsen – Innerspace Images   Discover Diving Nov./Dec. 1993


Aqua-Woman Expedition may sound like an episode from Star Trek, but it is most definitely not science fiction. Aqua- Woman is the first all-woman sport diving wreck expedition in the northeast, an event which has continued to grow in popularity and importance since its creation thirteen years ago. Every summer, up to two dozen Aqua­Women meet to dive northeast wrecks, exchange ideas and share a com­mon love of scuba.


Aqua-Woman began in 1980, at a time when female wreck divers were few and far between. The North Atlantic has always been inundated with historic wrecks, but diving these wrecks was considered physically and technically overwhelming, and sometimes downright impossible. On a given day, for example, diving a northeast wreck can involve extreme depths, 40°F water, zero visibility, six to eight foot seas, relentless surge and unpredictable currents. It is with good reason, therefore, that northeast wreck diving is referred to as "the Mount Everest of diving," a sport which fascinates but historically has intimidated many potential participants, par­ticularly women.


Because northeast wreck diving was acknowledged as He-Man only territory in the 1960' s and 1970' s, Aqua-Woman started somewhat as a dare. Edith Hoffman, a marketing analyst, who was then the Vice President of the Long Island Divers Association, (LIDA) approached Steve Bielenda, Captain of the Research Vessel Wahoo in Captree, Long Island, to host a LIDA-sponsored all-woman dive aboard the Wahoo to the wreck of the USS San Diego, one of the most difficult dives on the east coast.


The San Diego, a huge WWI destroyer which struck a submerged German mine in 1918, lies upside down in 119 feet of water off Fire Island, New York. The San Diego today contains a maze of narrow passageways, rooms, and cuI de sacs shrouded in black silt, tentatively supported by increasingly unstable beams. Boilers, decks, and bilge keels have already collapsed, and eventually the major expanse is expected to cave in. The Class I live ammunition which is still strewn around the ship commands respect from even the most experienced divers. In a twist of irony, the number of sport divers who have died while diving the wreck is greater than the num­ber of crewmen who perished when the ship met its disastrous fate in 1918. 


It is not surprising, therefore, that thirteen years ago, the concept of women diving the USS San Diego seemed outlandish. Nevertheless, Captain Bielenda agreed to host the all-woman dive with the caveat, "Are there twenty women who are capable of diving the San Diego?" "I don't know," Edith replied, "but if they're out there, I'm going to find them!" The answer turned out to be a resounding "YES!" Advertisements for women to participate in the USS San Diego dive were placed in magazines, the LIDA Journal, and at local dive clubs. Within the northeast wreck diving community, reactions to the venture ranged from support and admiration, to anger, to disbelief. But there was no shortage of enthusiasm requests to join the expedition poured in from women not only in New York, but New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Women as young as twenty and as old as sixty six. Women from every walk of life nurses, teachers, secretaries, an airline stewardess, commercial divers, lawyers, housewives, scuba instructors, students, accountants, and waitresses. Even a Radio City Music Hall Rockette dancer! All were competent divers, physically fit and eager to take the plunge into the cold dark waters of the North Atlantic.



The twenty-three spaces on the Wahoo were soon filled, and many additional applicants had to be turned away. Not only did Edith Hoffman find her boatload of women capable of diving the San Diego, the female wreck divers of the northeast had found a successful venue. Karen Gurian, a participant on this and every subsequent expedition, coined the name, "Aqua-Woman," and designed the Aqua-Woman logo. "Aqua-Woman" had been officially launched! Since the first Aqua-Woman expedition, the event has continued to evolve as a forum for new friendships, diving expertise, and business contacts. Karen Gurian, a nurse, medical office manager, and active mother of three children, became the President of Aqua-Woman in 1985, and she continues to organize the event every year. The enormous energy and enthusiasm which Karen puts into Aqua-Woman is obvious: "It's encouraging to see the growing number and variety of new women in diving," relates Karen. ""Wreck diving offers a unique opportunity for women. It gives women a platform to develop a sense of accomp1ishment, self-assurance, and discipline. I get great satisfaction in seeing the very experienced women taking newcomers under their wing and helping them progress. That's an important opportunity not usually available to women, unless they have a boyfriend or husband who is a seasoned wreck diver and willing to work with them." "I agree!" added Susan Bennett, an investment manager from New York. "More and more female divers today are independent, high income, well traveled and sophisticated. They are diving not to please their husband or boyfriend, but because they are serious about diving! Aqua-Woman is a catalyst for diving friendships amongst these dedicated women divers. "What really makes Aqua-Woman interesting is the diversity of its members' backgrounds and experiences: just about every profession imaginable has been represented, from medical experts to fashion models, to an Assistant District Attorney. Participants in Aqua-Woman 1993 expanded the spectrum to include a stock broker, a designer, an investment manager, a psychologist and two professional journalists.

For the last eight years, the Aqua-Woman expedition has been held aboard the Eagle's Nest, a 55-foot state-of-the-art live aboard dive boat in Hempstead, Long Island. Aqua-Woman is currently sponsored by the American Sport Diver's Association, founded and directed by Capt. Howard Klein, and LIDA. Aqua-Woman participants are invited to spend the night before the dive on the Eagle's Nest, which has full kitchen facilities, TV and VCR, spacious beds, bathrooms, and showers, and fully air-conditioned sleeping quarters.


Captain Klein and his wife Barbara, and the top-notch crew of the Eagle's Nest (this year's Aqua-Woman crew consisted of Tommy Soriano, Bill Rea, Ron Gernert, and Erich Ackerman) infuse the trip not only with fun and friendliness, but also an outstanding commitment to safety. (Note: In the thirteen years of Aqua-Woman, there has never been a diving accident or inJury.) Each participant must show proof of qualification and experience in wreck diving procedures and familiarity with the environmental conditions and depth. The day's expedition begins with a detailed mandatory safety briefing, which includes a strict no-alcohol and drugs policy. Each diver must carry her own wreck diving and redundant safety equipment, including a 50 pound lift bag, a 100- foot ascent line on a reel, and a pony bottle. Most women sport one or more dive computers, some use mixed gases, and those venturing inside the wreck have double tanks, backup lights, and penetration lines. "I would like to see many more women wreck diving here," remarked Diane Barerra, a chemist who recently returned from diving in Scapa Flow, England, where the male commercial divers were surprised and impressed by her diving expertise. "I think that even today, when so many women are taking up diving, many still do not dive northeast wrecks, not because they cannot master the necessary skills, but because this type of diving involves such an enormous load of equipment. "Although the Aqua-Woman group has explored a variety of interesting northeast wrecks, including the Coney Island and the Stolt Dagali,


Aqua-Woman 1993 returned to the USS San Diego, to celebrate the 75th year of the ship's sinking. This year's commemorative trip was an outstanding adventure. There was over 30-foot visibility on the wreck, which sported lush marine life, including an array of tropical fish carried by the Gulf Stream which runs close to the North Atlantic coast in August and September. Capt. Klein anchored the Eagle's Nest near the bilge keels of the wreck, offering divers access to a number of gashes by which the wreck could be entered. In past years, divers often honed in on the USS San Diego's ammo room to retrieve Class 1 explosives: 50 caliber ammunition shells, bullet clips, shell casings, and powder canisters. However, due to the perceived threat of explosion, which was hyped by local TV and news media and bomb experts, the U.S. Coast Guard recently outlawed the removal of live ammunition. Even discounting munitions salvage, the USS San Diego has yielded an array of historically significant artifacts, such as engraved silverware and china, cage lamps, serial numbered portholes, engine fittings, instruments from the ship's infirmary, and personal belongings from the officers' quarters. During the surface interval inbetween the two dives, the group invites guest speakers to lecture on a variety of topics, such as diving physiology and medicine, careers in diving, and dive travel. As the guest speaker for Aqua-Woman 1993, I conducted a forum entitled, "Tips On Getting Your Diving Articles Published." Knowing that this year's Aqua-Woman group included two other professional writers, I invited them to share "the podium with me. Cathy Cush, a full-time photojournalist whose work has appeared in many publications, and Melissa Orenstein, a former Associate Editor of the Sub Aqua Journal, both contributed to the discussion of techniques and tips for finding interesting topics, developing them into articles, creating an effective writing style, and working with editors. The group also discussed the need for women to insist on quality dive training and to avoid dive operations motivated only by profits. All the women agreed that there are no short cuts to becoming a good wreck diver.


An interesting point was raised by Dr. Jennifer Hunt, a noted New York psychologist: "Once a woman is properly trained, she is often more cautious and more safety minded than her male buddies. When I conduct studies on liveaboards, for example, I invariably see male divers making as many dives as they possibly can squeeze into a day, every day of the trip, but I rarely see female divers undertaking such reckless agendas. "After a second dive on the USS San Diego, the two and a half hour ride back to Hempstead Marina was another opportunity for relaxing, sunning and socializing. As Aqua-Woman 1993 concluded, Karen Gurian presented each participant with an Aqua-Woman T-shirt donated by The American Sport Diver's Association, and a matching visor, compliments of LIDA. A representative from Harvey's Dive Store in Brooklyn, New York, also distributed T-shirts, hats, and long stemmed roses. Plans are underway for mid-year reunions, more wreck dives, and a weekend quarry dive trip in 1994 to which the women can bring their friends and families. The excellent diving and camaraderie experienced by all attested to the event's enduring success. Aqua-Woman an innovative venture which began thirteen years ago continues to prove that real women do dive, and that yes, they dive with real gusto and expertise. Author Note: The Aqua-Woman Expedition welcomes all qualified female divers. If you would like to participate in Aqua-Woman 1994, contact Karen Gurian at (516) 798-1726 or (516) 798-4146. Hillary Viders, Ph.D., is a NAUllnstructor, and NAUI's Director of Environmental Programs and Projects.


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