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Women In Diving: Past, Present and Future


by Hillary Viders, Ph.D.

The 1950s and 1960s: A Few Good Women

As scuba diving evolved in the 1940s and 1950s from a commercial and military activity into a recreational sport, it was dominated by young males, offering little encouragement to women to participate. There were, however, some notable exceptions such as Zale Parry, star of Sea Hunt and a record-setting deep diver in the 1950s; Dr. Sylvia Earle, a deep-sea oceanographer; Lotte Hass, one of the first underwater photographers, nicknamed the "First Lady of Diving"; Dottie Frazier, the first female scuba instructor in the US in the 1950s; Dr. Eugenie Clark, a renowned marine biologist and shark expert; Valerie Taylor, an underwater photographer and videographer who starred in the documentary film Blue Water, White Death and who tested mesh suits for shark bite protection; Fran Garr, who became the first female PADI Master Instructor in the 1960s and was one of the first instructors to train New York City Fire Department rescue teams; and legendary wreck diver, Evelyn Dudas (the first woman to dive the Andrea Doria) who could not find a wet suit made for women in the 1960s, so she designed and sold her own line of wet suits.

These pioneers of women's diving were not trying to break barriers or make political statements. They succeeded in the "men only" world of diving because they loved diving, and they did it brilliantly. Eugenie Clark, for example, remembers the day she first told her parents she wanted to be an aquanaut. "I was eight years old and had just made my first visit to the Brooklyn Aquarium in New York, USA, and I was fascinated by a film about noted American naturalist/author/scientist William Beebe. My parents said, 'Women can't be aquanauts. Maybe if you take up typing in high school, one day you can become a secretary to an aquanaut.' I just couldn't accept that!"

Consciously or not, female scuba divers of the 1950s and 1960s opened a door through which many others followed. In the following decade, more and more women divers began to successfully embrace diving as a career. The last 30 years have seen a steady growth of women entering scuba diving, both for recreational and professional purposes. Each year, women make up about 25-30 percent of all newly certified divers. The topic of women in diving, therefore, is of increasing relevance to professionals who train divers, to medical experts who evaluate and treat divers and to the dive public.

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The 1970s: Women's "Fitness to Dive" Takes Center Stage

In the early days of diving, a number of widely held beliefs discouraged and/or disqualified women from diving and from piloting aircraft. The issues in contention were: Less upper body strength, less aerobic capacity, higher risk of the bends, hormonal differences (particularly in the case of women taking estrogen-laden oral contraceptives) and pregnancy. In the 1970s, there were many erroneous anecdotal surveys, flawed and/or conflicting data, and not enough human studies to address these issues. Sylvia Earle, who led the all-female National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Tektite saturation project in the early 1970s, noted that female aquanauts were ordered to discontinue birth control pills at least three weeks prior to diving. "But, in those days, everything was different," recalls Earle. "Female aquanauts were referred to as 'Aqua Naughties.'"

Ironically, up until the 1990s, almost all medical studies used to determine women's fitness to dive were conducted by men and used male subjects. This is not as surprising as it may appear, since funding for medical studies came primarily from the military and the commercial dive industries. In the last decade, offshore oil exploration diminished and many militaries now use submersibles and robots for underwater exploration. Therefore, funding for dive medical research from these entities has all but ceased. The only significant dive medical research today is conducted by the Divers Alert Network (DAN) in Durham, North Carolina, USA, and funding for DAN's research relies heavily on memberships and donations, thereby limiting the scope of its research. Therefore, we may never have definitive answers to all the medical issues concerning women and diving.

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Just the Facts, Ma'am

Fortunately, most of the myths and misconceptions about women's physiological fitness to dive were laid to rest by the 1990s. Most medical experts now agree that depending on the individual woman's goals and motivation, outstanding levels of physical fitness are entirely achievable. In the 21st century, an era in which female athletes routinely bring home Olympic gold medals and set records in grueling sporting events, it would be naive to think otherwise. Although smaller women may have less upper body strength than larger male counterparts, dive safety and performance depends more on overall fitness, proper training, well-fitting equipment and responsible dive practices. As noted commercial diver Bunny Key has said, "It takes brains, not bulging biceps to move a 180 kilogram/400 pound flange underwater." Therefore, all divers should consider increasing their fitness levels to maximize overall dive performance and safety to be fully prepared for unexpected and strenuous dive situations. An excellent program is one that combines a high energy/low fat diet, regular weight training and cardiovascular exercise (i.e., running, stair climbing, bicycling, swimming etc.).

The most recent medical studies have also denounced the theory that women are more susceptible to decompression illness (DCI) than male divers. After several decades of animal and human research and anecdotal reports, researchers now believe that DCI is the result of a complex set of physiological and environmental factors—and gender is not one of those factors. Nor are oral contraceptives, although the effects of estrogen in birth control devices and hormone replacement therapies are being studied further. (In the 1970s, it was believed that estrogen caused clotting that would lead to DCI. This theory was later overturned and the only applicable advisory for women divers who take estrogen now is if they are over 35, smoke and have a family history of coronary disease.) Currently, the only taboo for women divers is no diving during pregnancy. Diving while pregnant may endanger the fetus because if excess bubbles, which are not outgassed following a dive, enter the fetus' circulation, they may cause a fatal arterial gas embolism. So, other than not diving during pregnancy, there are, in fact, no contraindications specifically for women divers, assuming they are fit and in overall good health.

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The 1980s: Color Wars

In addition to the long-standing physiological myths and misconceptions, women divers have also had to navigate rough seas when it came to the logistics of diving. For example, finding comfortable dive equipment. Traditionally, dive equipment was designed to be worn by commercial divers or those in the military, i.e., large, black rubber dive gear, take it or leave it. In the 1980s, however, the growing number of women entering recreational diving, as well as the age range, education and financial status of these women divers made it apparent to the dive industry that women made up a substantial percentage of the market and, as such, attention should be paid.

To accommodate this potentially lucrative women diver market, the 1980s saw a surge of brightly colored dive equipment and a slew of magazine and television ads in which women were shown stylishly dressed to take the plunge. Small and extra small-sized BCDs, masks that fit even the most petite of faces, wet suits designed to accommodate female contours, lightweight fins and even smaller scuba tanks became widely available. Ironically, as the last vestige of scuba's traditional macho male image gave way to a cavalcade of neon colors, many serious women divers, i.e., wreck divers, cave divers, cold water scuba instructors, rescue divers, etc., still preferred to wear basic black. As it turns out, what many women divers had really wanted was not necessarily lime green and hot pink gear, but rather high quality equipment that fit!

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The 1990s: The Glass Ceiling Starts to Crack

Even while equipment manufacturers and certification organizations were pursuing the growing population of women divers, women who sought professional careers in diving still had to contend with the proverbial "glass ceiling", i.e., they did not receive equal pay and promotions compared to male counterparts. It was during the 1990s that salary discrepancies between male and female dive instructors and dive guides began to diminish. Women also found unlimited opportunities in dive medicine and science, as well as in other dive-related fields. Dr. Karen Van Hoesen, who works in the emergency medicine department at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), California, USA, remembers receiving a warm welcome when she entered the field of dive medicine in the 1980s. While attending medical school at Duke University in North Carolina, USA, Van Hoesen worked with the staff at DAN, which increased her interest in hyperbaric medicine and said she had no trouble finding mentors and support amongst her male colleagues. "The field is still wide open for women," she reports.

Some of the best career opportunities for women divers today are found in the military, a far cry from the 1960s, when the term, "woman diver," was nonexistent. When Donna Tobias applied to the US Navy's dive school in 1974, she was told, "Women don't do this." Still, she kept on and was eventually told that the only possible opening was the Navy's Deep Sea (Hard Hat) Diving School, take it or leave it. Throughout her deep sea dive training, Tobias, a slender but wiry woman of medium height, had to handle some 90 kilograms/200 pounds of gear, including a Mark V metal dive helmet, weighted boots and heavy canvas suit. She dove in pitch-black, icy, often turbulent water, surrounded by men, some of whom were supportive and many more who resented her "invasion." "If you ever uttered the words, 'I quit,' you could never take them back, and there were plenty of eyes waiting to see me fail," says Tobias. "But that just fed my intentions to finish the course. I didn't want them asking less of women, ever, for anything." Tobias toughed it out, and, in 1975, she became the first woman to graduate from the US Navy's Deep Sea Diving School.

Thanks to pioneers like Tobias, the US Navy eventually relaxed its stance on women and diving and, in addition, now assigns pay and rank solely on merit. For example, during the 1990s, Captain Marie Knafelc, MD, PhD advanced to become the highest ranking medical officer at the Navy Experimental Dive Unit in Panama City, Florida, USA, and Commander Karen Kohanowich was recently promoted to the position of Ocean Resources and International Programs Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Installations and Environment. Commander Bobbie Scholley, a US Navy Diving Salvage Officer since 1983, was the commanding dive officer assigned to the TWA Flight 800 crash search and recovery operation in July 1996, and was the US Navy's first female supervisor of diving. Commander Scholley is also the first woman to take command of a US Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit in the Atlantic Fleet.

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The Women Divers Hall of Fame: the Future is Now

Although there were many accomplishments and success stories of professional women divers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they were, for the most part, isolated events. In 1999, however, women's status in the global dive community took a giant leap forward, with the founding of the Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF). With its insignia of a woman diver proudly holding up a torch, the WDHOF was the first organization dedicated to bringing public awareness to the contributions of outstanding women divers, and to offering financial, mentoring and educational support for women divers around the world. The WDHOF was founded jointly by Beneath the Sea, Inc., the Underwater Society of America, Women Underwater ezine, Women's Scuba Association and Hillary Viders, PhD. WDHOF was incorporated in 2001, and currently has 119 Members, from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, Australia and the United States. The Members of WDHOF, a multidisciplinary nonprofit organization, include pioneers, innovators and leaders in every field of diving: Arts and science, dive medicine, dive training and education, undersea exploration, marine environment and conservation, free diving, business, media, commercial diving and military diving. WDHOF Members include diving's reigning celebrities—Sylvia Earle, Zale Parry, Eugenie Clark, Cathy Church, Evie Dudas, Betsy Royal (vice president of Mares Corp.) and free-diving world champions Tanya Streeter and Meghan Heaney-Grier—but also many lesser known heroes from many countries and sectors whose work has made diving safer and more enjoyable for all divers.

In a nod towards the future, in March 2002, WDHOF launched its WDHOF Scholarship Program, which consists of five different annual scholarships. The WDHOF Scholarship Program administers awards totaling several thousand dollars worth of cash, educational materials, internships and training programs to women of all levels of diving and marine science, particularly those considering careers in diving. Kathy Weydig, WDHOF president explains, "Our goal is to use the wealth of resources within our membership to give something back to the dive community which has so enriched our own lives."

Until recently, no one could have imagined such a large population of recreational and professional women divers or the camaraderie that exists among them. In 2001, women made up about one third of all new divers and that number will undoubtedly continue to grow, as will the opportunities for upper-echelon dive careers for women. Thanks to advances in equipment and dive training, and with the support of WDHOF, the path for future women divers is a much smoother one than the rocky road their predecessors traveled during the last 60 years.

For information about WDHOF members, scholarships, membership applications and events, email WDHOF at wdhof@wdhof.org or visit the website at www.wdhof.org.

Note: At the time of this writing, the Italian government had awarded the WDHOF a silver cup and plaque in recognition of the organization's global effect on diving.