The Devils Hole pupfish holds the distinction of being the rarest fish on our planet, with a global population of fewer than 200 individuals. While not as striking in numbers, Black women divers also stand as a rarity in their field. According to Zippia, more than 85 percent of professional divers in the U.S. are men, with 63 percent being white and only 9 percent Black.
Despite these low percentages, Black women are making remarkable contributions within organizations like Diving With a Purpose (DWP). Founded by Ken Stewart in 2003, DWP is committed to providing education, training, certification, and invaluable field experience to both adults and youth in the realms of maritime archaeology and ocean conservation. DWP specifically focuses on the protection, documentation, and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks, along with exploring the rich maritime history and culture of African Americans.
Within this unique and challenging domain, Black women divers are defying the odds, leaving their indelible mark on the underwater world. Their dedication, passion, and commitment to preserving our shared history and fostering ocean conservation serve as a powerful testament to their resilience and unwavering spirit. Through their efforts, they inspire others, shatter stereotypes, and forge a path towards greater representation and diversity in the diving community.
1. Andrea Motley Crabtree
The Retired Army Master Sgt was the American Army’s first female deep-sea diver and the first Black female deep-sea diver in service. The former soldier spoke in January 2023 at a Martin Luther King Jr. event at Fort Lee, Virginia, recalling just how difficult it was for her to earn the Army diver badge.
“I had to prove myself over and over and over again every day,” she said at the event.
The Westchester, New York, native was the only Black person and the only woman among eight soldiers, and more than 20 others, in her 1982 class at the U.S. Navy Deep Sea Diving and Salvage Training Center at Panama City Beach, Florida, according to the release. Crabtree was one of only two soldiers and nine sailors to earn the coveted diver badge.
2. Ayana Omilade Flewellen
Flewellen is an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Department of Anthropology and a marine archaeologist, one of about 20 Black women in the U.S. with 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 maritime archaeology. “Hearing about the mission of DWP opened my mind to the possibility. Before that meeting, I never imagined I would become a diver or do underwater archaeological work. Once I was in the water, there was no way of getting me out. I was hooked,” Flewellen says.
To do underwater research you must obtain a Scientific SCUBA Driving 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, elementary chemistry for gas compositions as well as underwater navigation.”
Flewellen’s come a long way from that girl trying to swim during summer camp who nearly drowned. (Her mother ended up enrolling her in a free swim program.) Now, Flewellen has dived in St. Croix, St. John, the Red Sea in Egypt, and Florida.
“I’ve done work around ships involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade like the Clotilda (the last known slave ship to arrive in the U.S.) project in Mobile, Alabama. It was an amazing experience to dive on a vessel known to have carried enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. It is also the only ship found to date that has the most intact hull where enslaved Africans were held. Emotional doesn’t even begin to articulate what that experience was like. To actually touch the wood of that vessel, to be able to hold fragments of that history… I actually don’t have words for it, just a deep reverence.”
What’s troubling, she says, is “in the 21st century we are still dealing with ‘firsts’. In 2008 Grace Turner was the first Black woman to get a masters in maritime archaeology. The field is inaccessible for many of us, in terms of representation, cost, and educational obtainment. Until recently there were no internal drives from within the discipline to shift that. DWP has changed that.”
What’s her word to other Black women? “The water is calling. There is a whole other world to experience.”
3. Rebecca Hunter
Rebecca Hunter was a snorkeler, who while on vacation in Mexico more than two decades ago was encouraged by a friend to try scuba. She took an introductory course, and they did a shallow dive. She would go on to get her certification in 1998. She’s retired and at 61, spends her time between California and Florida. She’s been diving for 25 years in far flung locales such as Indonesia, the Maldives, Fiji, Egypt, Tahiti, and Australia.
It didn’t come easy at first.
“I had to get out of my own head. I experienced a great deal of anxiety. It would sometimes hit 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 underwater photography to focus my attention on finding something to photograph,” says Hunter, who volunteers with the DWP Maritime Archaeology Program and the DWP Cares Coral Program as an instructor and mentor. She is a lifetime member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.
“I had always hoped to get up close to whales, sharks, dolphins and I have,” she says but she gets as much joy peering into holes and crevices for small creatures and watching the sea life exist and co-exist in its natural environment. “Although there’s a lot of activity down there, the ocean is also a very peaceful place where the only sound you hear is our own breathing. It’s beautiful.”
There’s beauty below, but above on the boat, there can be challenges. “I was the only Black woman on a dive boat. Needless to say, there was not much enthusiasm when everyone else learned that someone would need 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 thanks to the climate in the country and world that has forced some to acknowledge our presence and qualifications.”
4. Shirikiana Gerima
She is a certified dive master, scientific diver, and DWP instructor, and is working on becoming a diving instructor. She’s been diving since 2013. “I love diving, particularly 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, D.C. “This is what my work in film and my bookstore has always sought to do and now, extending this work into the oceans has been wonderful.”
She was doing laps in a swimming pool in Washington, D.C. with her daughter when she saw some Black divers training in the pool, and asked them how she might become one, too. These days she’s training young folk in marine archaeology advocacy through DWP, and working with organizations on coral conservation.
Shirikiana Gerima is psyched to return to the hunt for the slave ship Guerreroshipwreck in July. After two decades of searching, the DWP and Biscayne National Park are partnering to go for what may be the final mission after 20 years of searching in those waters for it. “I am so excited!” she confesses. “We have been trying to make a positive identification for years. We’re getting close.”
Gerima was part of the crew in 2015 scouring the waters of Biscayne National Park in Florida for the Guerrero. “It’s emotional and a little eerie, but at the same time I feel like I have a mission to uncover history, to not waste my time on the planet. Discovery is important. You think about how long those souls have been wondering when someone was coming for them. It’s spiritual. I want them to know that we’re trying to understand what they went through and grateful for their bravery.”
Protecting cultural heritage in the ocean is top-of-mind. “We don’t want these sites to be destroyed and looted, but to preserve history to see what can be learned.”
5. Tara Roberts
Tara Roberts, a captivating storyteller, intrepid adventurer, and avid traveler, made waves in 2022 as the distinguished recipient of the prestigious Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award. Over the past few years, she embarked on an extraordinary quest, immersing herself alongside Black scuba divers in their pursuit of uncovering and documenting slave shipwrecks across the globe. With a mission to rewrite the narrative and shed light on the ancestral journey of Africans in the Americas, Tara’s stories resonate with profound humanity, weaving empathy, nuance, and complexity into their historical voyage. Her remarkable journey has been transformed into the spellbinding National Geographic-produced podcast “Into the Depths” and was prominently featured in the esteemed March edition of National Geographic magazine. As an extraordinary milestone, Tara proudly graced the cover, marking her as the first-ever African-American female explorer on the cover of the National Geographic Magazine.
This article was culled from The Daily Beast.
Author: Sheryl Nance-Nash