Amanda Sordes – Scientific Diver, ADAS Board of Directors Member
“Oh hello… I just had to check, my mates told me there was a girl on board. There is.”
I smile politely and go back to work, hoping the supervisor has not overheard.
I am an occupational diver. I also happen to be a woman. I work in an environment that has little space for us: neither in the training, the equipment, the recruitment process, the evaluation criteria, the actual work itself nor in the social perceptions of it.
I trained in Scotland, where I used an excessive amount of electrical tape to turn bits of equipment from XXL to XS. I remember my first instructor mumbling under his breath as he was taping the neck dam to my skin “I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be doing this – or maybe you shouldn’t.”
I was warned that it would be difficult for a new diver to find a first job, and that it would be extra difficult for me, so I tried harder. Equipped with my French stubbornness, I chased employers relentlessly until one of them gave in – and later told me that he gave me a job just because he knew no one else would. During my first year I drove thousands of miles across the UK to work inshore. I did a bit of everything (welding, cleaning, construction…) and I started to understand the industry culture.
In every job there was at least one diver who was very supportive and respectful. Usually older men, married with kids, were kinder to me. Presumably treating me like they would have wanted their wives or daughters to be treated. I learned to focus on these colleagues rather than the ones who seem to take pleasure in reminding me constantly of my gender. I stood my ground and developed a thick skin. I gradually understood that in any masculine industry, men’s teasing or contempt stems from insecurity. A woman in the team challenges the perception that it is only a tough job for real men.
I had been told early on that I would have to prove myself inshore before applying for offshore jobs, especially in the North Sea sector. I became a 3.2u inspector to increase my employability offshore. When my partner had an opportunity to move to Singapore for 6 months, I decided this was the right time to try for my first offshore gig. I was lucky enough to be employed on a DSV doing UWILDs in Indonesia. Coming out of a 4.5 hour long hull inspection under live monitoring from the client, the supervisor was extremely complimentary of my work, and for the first time I was genuinely proud of myself. I felt like all my hard work had paid off.
After a year of offshore work in Asia, we moved to Sydney. I hoped to find jobs on the rigs in WA. I did not have a working visa yet so kept searching for offshore jobs in Asia. On one occasion I had already boarded my flight to Singapore, mobilising for a job in Vietnam, when the agent texted me telling me to get off the flight as the client had just realised I was a woman, and did not want me on the job after all. I had 8 hours of flight to contemplate that unexpected rejection, then a day in Singapore to try to argue my case. I was given no valid explanation, just that it would make the other divers uncomfortable to have a woman on the team. I had to give up and head back to Sydney, feeling rather defeated.
Yet I loved this life. I enjoyed the early starts, the physical exhaustion at the end of the day and discovering remote places of the UK. I loved the loneliness of underwater work and evolving in such a unique environment. I enjoyed the banter and divers’ stories from other gigs, the constant change of pace and never being stuck in an office. Working away was difficult at times, but the feeling of coming home to my loving partner made up for it. He had been supportive from day one, helping me through the hard days and believing in me when even I did not. Having his support and the stability of our relationship was an enormous help
Waiting for the next job, and for my work visa to be approved, I kept an eye out for scientific diving jobs as this was my ultimate aim. I have a Masters in Environmental Management and had always wanted to combine my university studies with my diving career. On the day my work visa was granted and before I could start sending my CV to companies in WA, I applied for a Dive Officer position at Macquarie University and got the job. Much earlier than anticipated, I had the amazing opportunity to start scientific diving and develop my skills by becoming an Onshore Dive Supervisor. This position allows me to manage a significant number of divers and dive operations, and to get involved with ADAS, first by becoming a trainer then by joining the Board of Directors. I also get to dive very regularly, yet still come home every night which made it possible for us to start a family.
To any woman wanting to be an occupational diver, I would say that it is achievable if you want it hard enough. However, being a woman, it is inconvenient for an employer to give you a job as they cannot pair you up with another diver in a twin hotel room, they are worried about your physical capacity to do the job, they are worried about you not being a part of the team, and they are worried about the other divers’ behaviour towards you.
You can prove to them that despite all these obstacles, you are a worthy addition to a team – by working hard, being patient and determined and not letting the misogyny get to you. It is a physically demanding job, but there are many opportunities to use your brains instead of your muscles. Many divers do enjoy working with a woman, and step by step, we can make space in this fascinating and diverse industry for more female divers.
Trail blazer and champion of occupational diving, Annette Thompson has helped carve the way for female divers in the occupational diving industry. Annette has worked as an onshore commercial diver and supervisor; set up a diver training school; trained and assessed divers to the level of ADAS Part 4: Closed Bell; and has worked offshore on the Hibernia Project. In each capacity she was one of the few (or the only) females in her field. Annette is now working part-time as a commercial diver, a fire fighter, owns her own massage therapy clinic and most recently, is assisting in the establishment of a dive search and/or rescue team for the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service in Nova Scotia, Canada.
One could say Annette was born to dive. Somehow, a love for the darkness, stillness and tranquility of the deep was in Annette’s blood from day one. Having both a mother and a father who were divers—Annette’s father was an onshore commercial diver, and her mother was a body recovery diver in the icy waters of Newfoundland—Annette was determined to work as a diver, even as a child.
After structuring her high school curriculum and hobbies (for example, being a lifeguard, swimming instructor and sport diver as a teenager) to prepare her for entry into an occupational diving course, Annette went on, in 1990, to study at Seneca College in Canada gaining her offshore diving qualifications. During her work as a diver she continued to develop her skills by becoming a certified topside welder, diver medic and picked up various mechanical skills including communications electronics.
Her skill in diving led to work as a commercial diver in Newfoundland and, later, to assist in the establishment of The Canadian Diver Training Centre in Newfoundland. The enjoyment of training divers led to various positions including: diver trainer in Britain, chief diver trainer at The Underwater Centre Tasmania, and Diver Training and Assessment Manager at the Dive HQ Hamilton, New Zealand.
After working as a dive supervisor in the maintenance and cleaning of water tanks along the east coast of Australia (post Sydney water crisis where the scare of contaminated water supplies led to a high demand for water tank cleaning), Annette resolved to return one day to work in the beloved land down under.
Her current work as a fire fighter may well accomplish that. Close to realising her ambition of becoming a First Class fire fighter within the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service, Annette is hoping to work on an exchange program with the Australian Fire Brigade.
So how, one might ask, did Annette go from commercial diver and trainer to being a fire fighter? Annette explains: “At about the time I was considering joining the fire service I was offered a job back in Australia as a trainer. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life. In the end I was at a point in my life where I was looking for job security and was attracted to the benefits offered by the fire service like being on a medical and pension plan. I fitted the criteria for fire fighting and thought ‘Diving involves being cold and underwater wearing a breathing apparatus whereas fire fighting involves being hot on land and wearing a breathing apparatus — they are at opposite extremes, but not that different!’”
“Working as an occupational diver is on a contractual basis and there may be long breaks between jobs. It is a particularly difficult industry for women to work in. Not only is discrimination a real issue, but there are other limitations. Women cannot be employed while pregnant which means, potentially, 9 months out of work plus the time after the delivery. Also many relationships or marriages wouldn’t be able to sustain the irregularity of the work and the long periods away from home. Sexual discrimination can also mean that it is harder for women to get a job even if they have the right skills and experience—it can be a Catch 22 situation because to progress you need the logged hours, but it can be hard getting the hours.”
Despite the challenges, diving remains Annette’s primary passion. Working independently and solving problems within a deadline can be difficult but highly rewarding. “Sometimes I would be working underwater and a seal would be chewing on my fin or I could hardly see what I was doing because of the schools of fish around me. In these moments I would think, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!’. The vastness and beauty of life underwater is awe-inspiring”.
Annette’s love of diving is so great that it almost jeopardised her wedding. After waiting for the right condition to go for a dive in Cuba, the opportunity arose only hours before the wedding. Taking the risk, she went for the dive with her fiancé getting back to shore only minutes before the scheduled ceremony! Fuelling her love for life underwater are experiences like swimming with a 45-foot humpback whale for hours and capturing some amazing photos in the process.
Annette’s advice to women considering a career in occupational diving: “Do your research and speak to other female divers if you can. Find out where you can work and the limits to the work that might be available to you”.
There is the antiquated perception that women make less capable divers overall because of physical and physiological differences. However if you understand the physics of the task, leverage, or the use pulleys etc, you don’t necessarily need the brawn. “Part of managing an effective crew is delegating tasks according to an individual’s skills and attributes. Within a crew a woman may have better fine motor skills and dexterity, or have more ability to be innovative and solve problems when faced with a task. In the end it’s all about working with the strengths of individuals in order to get the job done as a team.”
Working with her husband and partner, famed wildlife documentary film maker and photographer, David Parer, Elizabeth Parer-Cook has had lead a career full of adventure, travel and wildlife. Filming wildlife both topside and underwater since the mid 1970s she has filmed all around the world, from Antarctica to Papua New Guinea, Patagonia to Norway.
In the 1970s & 80s Liz went to the Antarctic on many occasions (for her the best place in the world!) to film wildlife. She and David recreated the 1911 journey of Douglas Mawson and also filmed a Biomedical Expedition on the plateau behind Dumont D’Urville Station. They have gone on to make several internationally acclaimed films including ‘Wolves of the Sea’ (Emmy and Gold Panda award winner), a documentary about the natural history of killer whales and ‘Mysteries of the Ocean Wanderers’ (Panda award winner) about wandering albatross.
From 1995 to 1997, Liz and David explored the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands with David (with 3 year-old daughter Zoe in tow!) making three films about the archipelago. ‘The Dragons of Galapagos’ won a Gold Panda at Wildscreen ’98 as well as two Emmies for Music & Editing, while ‘Islands of the Vampire Birds’ won a Rockie at the BANFF Television Festival in 2000.
Since then, they have made detailed behavioural films about Platypus, Tasmanian Devils, one about Surviving Extreme Environments (about the MIR Space Station & Antarctica) and have just completed a film shot in High Definition about the Parrots & Cockatoos of Australia called “Australia-Land of Parrots”.
Their work has been shown around the world including on the ABC, BBC, National Geographic, Discovery, Turner Broadcasting and PBS in the USA, Telcast in Germany and Canal Plus in France & Spain. In all, Liz and David’s films have won over 130 Australian and international awards for program achievement, cinematography, sound and editing.
The real joy for Liz has been spending lengthy periods of time both topside & underwater, observing the intimate life of animals in wonderful places like the Antarctic, Papua New Guinea, the Red Sea and Australia. She has also met and worked with some fabulous people. After working for 28 years for the ABC Natural History Unit, Liz now works as Independent Wildlife Filmmaker with David for their own company “Albatross Films & Marine Services”. It’s an exciting, fascinating life that has taken her to some of the most remote locations on earth.
Acknowledging women in diving wouldn’t be complete without celebrating the accomplishments and significant contributions in the field of scientific diving of Dr Jeanette Watson. One of the first female divers in Australia, Jeanette was a pioneer in the field of scientific diving, and is now an environmental consultant and a world-leading researcher of hydroids —small but complex marine organisms. Extraordinarily, Jeanette has been diving for 50 years and managing a successful independent environmental consultancy business for over 35 years.
Jan was first presented with the opportunity to learn how to dive with a small group of friends and colleagues in 1959 using the newly invented twin hose regulator system. After practicing diving in the Melbourne University swimming pool, Jan gained the confidence to take her first sea dive in southern Port Phillip (Pope’s Eye). Needless to say, there has been no looking back. She earned her nickname “Jan” on her first dive – it’s very difficult to call “Jeanette” over the water. She estimates she has clocked up over 10,000 dives and has loved every one of them!
It was on Jan’s first dive at Pope’s Eye in Port Phillip Bay that she first saw hydroids, sparking a curiosity that continues to burn 50 years on. Jan has committed a lifetime career to researching hydroids which are small, often colourful invertebrate creatures related to jellys, anemones and corals that form clusters on rocks and sea weed. Hydroids are incredibly diverse (over 6000 species documented world-wide) and range in appearance from fine transparent, fern-like branches to bright flower-shaped organisms. Jan is particularly passionate about the rich biodiversity of temperate seas and holds the discovery of a whole new family of algae at 75m depth in 1969 in the Great Australian Bight as one of her most memorable and exciting dives.
Using her consultancy business (quite probably the oldest environmental consulting business in Australia) to help fund her independent research, Jan has undertaken dives in the UK, France, Italy, Japan, New Guinea, Indonesia, New Zealand and the USA. She has written and contributed to dozens of scientific papers and books which have been published in various prominent national and international scientific publications.
Over the past 50 years, using her background in applied chemistry, geology and marine biology Jan has carved a successful career in what was once a male-dominated field having faced and overcome prevailing oppressive attitudes from past eras towards working women.
Determined to break through the label “housewife” (reflecting a stifling attitude of pre-1970’s towards women who were working part-time due to parenting responsibilities) Jan dedicated her spare hours toward a thesis on the ecology of marine hydroids on seagrass. In 1991 she gained a PhD in Biology from Deakin University as well as valuable traction to progress her consulting career.
As a consultant Jan is engaged by private and government enterprises and has been contracted by large companies such as BHP as well as channel and port authorities, and dredging companies to conduct environmental surveys and outfall monitoring programs. When asked about the best aspects of being an independent consultant Jan replied: “It has taken me to fascinating places that I would never have visited as a recreational diver. Also the flexibility to determine the type of work I do has meant I have been able to develop a wide experience in my field”. The challenges of running an independent consultancy business were easy to identify: “No holidays, no long service leave and the need to work hard at what you do to stay current and in demand”. Jan has utilised her ADAS licence to secure consultancy work that would otherwise be restricted to university-based scientific divers/researchers.
Jan has a very practical attitude towards SCUBA diving and sticks by the adage “If you can’t look after yourself underwater you shouldn’t be there”, and it would appear that it has worked well for her. Other than one near miss incident many years ago (before the days of octopus regulators) where Jan sacrificed her air supply to her buddy when he ran out thus forcing her to rapidly ascend 30m leading to minor decompression illness, she has had no serious accidents or incidents whilst diving.
Up until her recent retirement, Jan was the oldest known practicing occupational diver in Australia at 82 years of age. Her love of diving has carried her through a lifelong career and has been passed down to her daughter (also a scientific diver and consultant) and her twin grandchildren who are all passionate divers.
ADAS would like to acknowledge the remarkable career and achievements of Dr Jeanette Watson and her dedication to scientific diving. I’m sure you’ll agree, a role model for women divers around the world!