Finding Color Below the Surface

Reflections on racial diversity in the dive community

Mariah Shore enjoys the view during a surface interval.

When I was a child my parents bought me a toy that changed my life: a Barbie. As children of the 1990s, many women my age fondly recall spending time in their childhood bedrooms playing with Barbie. They wouldn't attribute to Barbie the power to set the stage for their lives, but my Barbie was special. She was the trainer of a small plastic orca named Keiko, like the one in Free Willy, another hallmark of millennial childhood. Barbie's porcelain skin and platinum blonde hair were standard to the doll's image, but my Barbie had a unique feature: Her legs turned black when she got wet. Barbie's black legs were supposed to be a wetsuit she wore as a whale trainer, but I saw something entirely different. As a young, biracial, water-loving girl, I decided that my Barbie would be biracial like me. My 7-year-old brain didn't care if Barbie looked like a multiracial chimera; I identified with her, and that's all that mattered. Like me, she was half white and half black (in her case, right across the middle).

I looked up to Barbie because she was living the life I wanted. I played with Barbie and Keiko in the bath until my fingers and toes pruned and my parents had to drag me out of the water. It was then I knew, deep in my young soul, that I was going to be her when I grew up.

Today when I think back to my times with Barbie and Keiko, I wonder why I had to imagine that she was a black woman. I realize it was because I never saw any black female dolphin trainers or scientists around me or in the media. Despite having no one to emulate who looked like me, I continued to follow my love of the ocean toward as many wonderful marine experiences and jobs as I could. At age 16 I took my first scuba diving course. Like many divers, my life changed the first time I breathed underwater, and I never looked back. I continued my training, went diving as much as possible and soaked up as much knowledge as I could. In college I became a dive instructor because I wanted to give people the opportunity to feel the same thing I did — to have their lives changed by the sea.

Throughout my career as an instructor and an active member of the dive community, something always troubled me: Why did I rarely see people who looked like me in the dive community? Where were all the women of color? Of all the divers — both recreational and professional — the snorkelers, the swimmers and the scientists, where was the representation of black women? How could I feel such a strong sense of connection to the dive family but not see myself represented in the larger community or in the media surrounding it?

As time goes by I feel this absence more deeply. While I will not allow this to deter me from pursuing my life's passion, it does beg the questions: What will my responsibilities be as a woman of color and a dive professional? Am I now the role model I was looking for as a child?

The scuba community has been growing more accessible for women and
divers of color. Appreciating the diversity coming into the sport and making an
effort to be more inclusive opens the door even wider for future generations
of potential divers.
I look forward to the day when a young black girl interested in the ocean is empowered not just by a woman she looks up to but, more specifically, by a brown-skinned, scuba diving heroine fighting for the environment. It is a profound moment for a child to not only think but truly believe, "That could be me," when she sees someone she idolizes.

When I was young I had to create my own role model using my admittedly active imagination. As a strong multiracial woman, an orca trainer and an aquatic ambassador, my Barbie was bold and fearless. I hope the next generation of girls and boys of color will have real live humans to look up to.

As a community of divers, water lovers and ocean advocates, we need to make a serious effort to encourage more diversity in our aquatic family. Scuba diving is dominated by white men, but it doesn't have to be. We have made giant strides to make the dive community more accessible and welcoming toward women. Let's take the effort a step further and appreciate the diversity of the divers as much as we appreciate the diversity of the dive sites we love to visit. Whether this means organizing outreach events in our local communities, putting together a dive club that focuses on diversity or setting up events outside of our inner dive circle, we need to extend our tendrils and try to connect with a more diverse set of potential divers.

Countless young ocean advocates are waiting to be inspired — waiting to see themselves as heroes, swimming with sharks, coasting with mantas and singing with whales. Let's facilitate change; let's make an effort to create and grow a more diverse dive community for the next generation of divers. Color fades as we descend deeper underwater; now is the time to add to the mosaic of the dive family and make it just as vibrant as the reefs we love so much.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2019