These black women are making their mark on the diving world

Dr. Justin Dunnavant

Dr. Justin Dunnavant

The Devils Hole pupfish is the rarest fish in the world, with less than 200 in the world. While the statistics aren’t that grim, black female divers are also a rarity. According to Zippia, more than 85 percent of professional divers in the US are male, 63 percent of all divers are white, and 9 percent are black.

Despite these small numbers, black women are making an impact in organizations such as Diving With a Purpose, founded by Ken Stewart in 2003 to provide education, training, certification, and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archeology and ocean conservation. DWP focuses on the protection, documentation and interpretation of shipwrecks during the African slave trade and the maritime history and culture of African Americans.

Ayana Omilade Flewellen, PhD., Rebecca Hunter and Shirikiana Gerima are aqua adventurers who dive with DWP and volunteer as mentors and instructors with the organization, shared stories of how they got into diving, their experiences diving around the world, search to slave wrecks, teaching the next generation and more.

Flewellen is an assistant professor in Stanford University’s department of anthropology and a marine archaeologist, one of about 20 black women in the US with this certification. The 32-year-old has been diving since 2016. She was inspired by a DWP board member she met at a conference looking for black archaeologists to teach marine archaeology. “When I heard about DWP’s mission, I opened up to the possibility. Before that meeting, I never thought I would become a diver or do underwater archeology work. Once I was in the water there was no way to get me out. I was hooked,” says Flewellen.

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Rebecca Hunter.


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To undertake underwater exploration, you must earn 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, underwater human physiology, basic chemistry for gas compositions, and underwater navigation.”

Flewellen has come a long way since that girl who tried to swim at summer camp and nearly drowned. (Her mother eventually enrolled 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, such as the Clotilda (the last known slave ship to arrive in the US) project in Mobile, Alabama. It was an amazing experience diving on a ship that was known to have transported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. It is also the only ship found to date with 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 barrel, to be able to hold fragments of that history… I don’t really have words for it, just a deep reverence.”

She was never in any danger while diving. “But one time when I was doing coral research in Key Biscayne, a huge white manta ray swam right next to me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ It scared me for life! The ocean is full of life, they are just as curious about us as we are about them.”

What is disturbing, she says, is “in the 21st century, we are still dealing with ‘firsts’. In 2008, Grace Turner became the first black woman to earn a master’s degree in maritime archaeology. The field is inaccessible to many of us, in terms of representation, cost, and level of education. Until recently, there were no internal motives from within the discipline to change this. DWP has changed that.”

However, she is optimistic. “There are barriers like the cost of training, the cost of equipment and for educational field schools for students, but black women are making progress simply by showing up and forging our own paths and making sure those paths are sustainable for people who come after us.”

The truth is, it’s not just those issues. Black people have a history with water, come to this country via ships, get dumped in rivers – there’s real trauma. “Black Americans didn’t always have access to public pools and beaches, which I think left generations of scars regarding our relationship to water,” she says.

But the rewards are huge for getting out on the water. “I got a new sense of how everything is connected.”

What is her word to other black women? ‘The water is calling. There is a whole different world to experience.”

Rebecca Hunter was a snorkeler who was encouraged to try scuba diving by a friend more than twenty years ago while on vacation in Mexico. She took an introductory course and they did a shallow dive. She would earn her certification in 1998. She is retired and at the age of 61 she spends her time between California and Florida. She has been diving for 25 years in remote areas such as Indonesia, the Maldives, Fiji, Egypt, Tahiti and Australia.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning.

“I had to get out of my head. I have experienced a lot of fear. I sometimes noticed 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 shoot,” says Hunter, who is an instructor and volunteer at the DWP Maritime Archeology Program and the DWP Cares Coral Program. 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 did,” she says, but she gets just as much pleasure peering into holes and crevices for tiny creatures and seeing marine life coexist and coexist in its natural environment. “Although there is a lot of activity down there, the ocean is also a very peaceful place where you only hear our own breathing. It is beautiful.”

There is beauty below, but on top of the boat there can be challenges. “I was the only black woman on a submarine. Needless to say, there wasn’t much enthusiasm when everyone heard that someone had to be my dive buddy. But I think more people are becoming aware of the fact that we’re here. Black women are gaining more prominence thanks to the climate in the country and the world that has forced some to recognize our presence and qualifications.”

Shirikiana Gerima is excited to return to the slave ship hunt Guerrero shipwreck in July. After two decades of searching, the DWP and Biscayne National Park team up to go on what may be the last mission after 20 years of searching those waters. “I’m so excited!” she confesses. “We have been trying to make a positive identification for years. We’re getting close.”

Gerima is a certified Dive Master, Scientific Diver and DWP Instructor and is working towards 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 have always tried to do and now it’s great to be able to expand this work to the oceans.”

She was swimming laps in a swimming pool in Washington DC with her daughter when she saw some black divers training in the pool and asked them how she could become one too. Today, she trains young people in marine archeology advocacy through DWP and works with coral conservation organizations.

Gerima was part of the crew that scoured the waters of Florida’s Biscayne National Park for the 2015 Guerrero. “It’s emotional and a little creepy, but at the same time I feel like I’m on a mission to expose history, not to waste my time on this planet. Discovery is important. You think how long those souls have wondered when someone came for them. It’s spiritual. I want them to know that we are trying to understand what they have been through and be thankful for their courage.”

Protecting cultural heritage in the ocean is of paramount importance. “We don’t want these sites to be destroyed and looted, but to preserve history to see what can be learned.”

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