Adventuring into Scientific Diving

This week, we’re taking the plunge into the world of scientific diving! Elisabeth is an active scientific diver and is sharing some of her diving experiences along with some excellent tips for aspiring divers.

By: Elisabeth A. Maxwell(@studentofwater)

I’ve been diving for about seven years and have been fortunate to experience a range of diving conditions from freshwater lakes and quarries in Texas, to offshore reefs in Mozambique, and cold-water diving in coastal Maine. Because I am a marine scientist, my primary reason for developing skills as a scuba diver was so that I could witness first hand the species and habitats that I study. In 2016, I became certified as a scientific diver through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences.

E Maxwell in Mozambique

Elisabeth chasing a manta ray while conducting research in Mozambique. Image courtesy of Andrea Marshall.

Throughout my experiences so far, I’ve been very fortunate to work and dive with people who did not discriminate against me because I am female. I have run into people who seem to think that women shouldn’t be hauling cylinders or lifting heavy gear. But, most of the people who I’ve dove with for projects didn’t treat me any differently than their male counterparts.

I have found that I prefer diving with other females. Here in Maine, I have a small close-knit group of women who I go with when we have opportunities to go on “fun” dives. I’ve found that other women seem to be more thoughtful of each other, careful when planning the dive, and flexible to accommodate the other diver’s desires. These habits likely are also from our shared training experiences under an experienced and professional dive instructor (who is male) and we hold ourselves to a high standard.

One of the things that I like the most about diving is that being underwater levels the playing field. Diving is much more about your personal discipline and training than your physical strength. Once in the water, the strongest individuals can wear out the fastest if they don’t moderate their movement to be efficient. And big, tall, muscular people usually empty their cylinders the fastest because their body has a high oxygen demand. I’ve seen petite women be more relaxed in the water and come out with more air left in their cylinder than a burly guy with broad shoulders and a cocky attitude.

Gear issues

Until more recently, diving gear was predominately designed for men with women as an after thought. For some of the gear (such as regulators), this isn’t much of an issue because there is little sizing involved. (One notable exception is the development of lighter second stage regulators – the one you breathe out of – which reduce jaw fatigue and may be more comfortable for people who have smaller mouths.)

However, certain equipment is extremely uncomfortable and nonfunctional if it isn’t fitted properly. The most obvious of these being the wetsuit or drysuit. My best recommendation for finding a great suit that fits you well is to find a local dive shop that is owned or managed by a woman and arrange a time for her to help assist you with sizing. When I recently bought a drysuit, I walked into my local shop (after giving the owner a heads up the day before that I was coming) and waiting until she had time to focus on helping me find the right size. We discussed what I was expecting to use the suit for, special features that I was hoping to have, and what my price range was. Then she pulled out a few suits that she recommended and I started trying them on. By the third suit I found exactly what I needed – although it was a different style than I had in mind when I walked in the door. Because I was clear and upfront about what I needed and willing to trust her expertise, I ended up with a suit that has served me very well.

E Maxwell dry suit

Elisabeth trying on a drysuit for the first time. Image courtesy of E. A. Maxwell.

Most awkward moment

One day last year, in the midst of my divemaster internship, my period started on our scheduled dive day. Going into the morning I wasn’t too worried because I thought that we’d be back to the dive locker within an hour or two and I’d be able to replace my tampon. But we ended up being out in the field for longer than I was expecting. Long story short, as I peeled off my wetsuit I saw red. My upper legs were smeared with the dark, rusty color that can only be from one source. I quickly realized that the spandex shorts that I wear underneath my wetsuit were completely saturated. Pulling off the rest of my wetsuit, I quickly wrapped myself in a towel and rushed to the showers to clean up. It ended up being a non-issue because I was in a place where I had some privacy when removing my wetsuit and had immediate access to shower facilities. If I would have been on a dive boat in the middle of the ocean, it would have been a lot more uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing for myself or others on the dive team.

I would like to emphasize that in all of my years of diving, this is the first time that I’ve had an issue with my cycle. There have been many other days where I was bleeding and using a tampon and didn’t notice any leaking at all. So don’t let this story discourage you from learning to dive! Most of the other divers I have encountered are respectful and conscientious and would never call attention even if they happened to notice something.

Have insight you’d like to share? Join us on Twitter (#FemFieldSecrets and @FemFieldSecrets) to continue the conversation!

Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!

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