When Sarah started scuba diving, she found it to be a very male-dominated activity. So, she set out to change the scuba diving scene for women by creating a community that encouraged and supported female divers from all backgrounds.
Girls That Scubanow connects women diving in seas and oceans all over the world. In the final instalment of our Making Waves Body Stories, Sarah talks motherhood, travel and the power of all-female communities.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I'm the founder of Girls That Scuba, which is the world's largest scuba diving community for females. By being the founder, I get to travel the world and scuba dive in the most amazing places, meet loads of women from different backgrounds, different countries – and basically live my dream life while creating a community for other women. However, at the moment I have a baby son, so I’m mostly at home in England – I am still traveling when I can and when it fits in, but my priority at the moment is being a mum.
Why is it so important to encourage women in scuba diving?
For many years scuba-diving has been a predominantly male sport. That’s not only what we’ve seen and experienced, but it’s also been shown in statistics – around 70% of certified scuba divers are male. We noticed that this percentage wasn't going down; there weren't more women starting the sport, so that’s when we started Girls That Scuba to try and bridge that gap. I guess the aim would be for scuba diving to be more equal, but we know that it's a lot harder than just equal numbers – it’s more important that we inspire women and show them that this is a fun, exciting sport that can be done by anybody.
Diversity is an issue in outdoor sports. Is scuba diving also a race issue
Yes, scuba diving is predominantly white, middle-aged men and, as a woman, that demographic can be quite tough to deal with. But we also noticed that of the women doing the sport a lot were white, so we wanted to find out why without presuming that it was because of financial reasons. So, we did a diversity survey to dig deeper into why some communities are struggling to dive. Cost did come up as one of the big reasons – scuba diving is an expensive sport. But there are lots of other reasons around accessibility, education and inspiration. Representation is also a problem – some women are not seeing people that look like them in scuba diving media.
It's important for us to find out why there’s an issue with diversity in diving, and we’ve still got a very long way to go. There’s a lack of diversity in extreme sports generally, and scuba diving is an extreme sport. However, the recreational side of scuba diving isn't extreme; it's very much for the everyday person. I think that also that comes down to representation and showing that people like you, whoever you are, are doing it and so you can see yourself doing it. That goes for all extreme sports and outdoor sports as well.
Have you always loved water being in water?
I was brought up in the south east of England near Brighton and we lived a short walk from the sea – we walked past the sea on our way to school. And, as anyone who grew up the UK knows, whether it was raining or sunshine, British summer holidays were spent on the beach. Like most children who lived on the coast, we had a lot of access to the beach. My mum was a swimmer and really wanted us to be swimmers too. So, we joined swim clubs very young and kept swimming and I think my confidence and ability with swimming attracted me to scuba diving and free diving later on life because I had the confidence to swim. I feel privileged really to have that upbringing and it eventually led me to where I am now.
Do you think that a little bit of that childhood joy and wonder is sparked when you’re in the sea now?
I guess it’s the creativity and imagination of your younger self. For me, it was always about dolphins; I was like, wow, imagine if I could swim with dolphins. Now, every time I see dolphins underwater, I'm like, seven-year-old Sarah wouldn't believe her eyes.
Can you describe that first time you experienced that magical underwater world?
My first ever dive was when I was 19 and I was in the Maldives. These days, the Maldives is a super luxury destination, but back then it was a really cheap holiday. The Maldives is made up of small islands, so everything was centred around the ocean. There, I met a dive instructor who told me that he'd quit his job in a bank in England to scuba dive. He told me that the first scuba dive he did there was with manta rays that danced around him and how that was the moment he realised that the life that he was leading centred around possessions and money and the rat race wasn’t important. And so, he quit his job and became an instructor on $20 a day. At the time, I was working in a bank in England, and his story made me realise that there was this other life, that work, money and possessions weren’t so important. Then I went diving and I understand exactly what he meant.
Meeting that man really helped me. I can't even remember his name and he definitely wouldn't have known, but he helped me start my journey to inspire people to get in the ocean. It shaped where I am today, as well as many other things. I hope that what we do with Girls That Scuba can create those moments for other people.
You sound like you were a confident, happy teenager. Were you looking for a new experience?
I had a lovely childhood with a great family. I wasn't looking for anything; that was my first dive and then I didn't really dive again for a while after that. But then my life changed when my mum unexpectedly passed away when I was 22 years old. So, a few years after that experience in the Maldives, this thing happened to me and made me reconsider. I thought back to that time and that dive instructor, and really understood that life wasn't all about working. I quit my job and I was like, now is my chance to live the life that I want. In a way, I'm lucky that happened to me so young because I got the opportunity to do that; I always say now, it was a great gift that my mum unintentionally gave to me and my brothers. It was like the gift of life.
So, I went traveling and that's where my scuba diving career kickstarted, because that was when I got to see the world and do different dives and experience different marine interactions. From then on, everything was centred around the water and living my life to the maximum.
What happened next? Did you become a diving instructor?
I never wanted to become a dive instructor and I'm still not a dive instructor. I'm a dive master which is one below an instructor, but my passion was never to teach people how to dive – that’s not what I'm good at and it's not what I enjoy.
Back then, we didn't have as many blogs or social media, so I didn't know what other routes there were into diving. I worked as a dive leader, but I always knew that I wanted to do more. That quite naturally became creating a community. It was important to me to be on the same level as the people I was creating this community for. So, while I have a lot of knowledge about diving because I've been in it for years, I felt like I didn't need to have dive instructor knowledge to create a community. I think that's where my strength is and I am quite proud of myself for standing my ground and not becoming an instructor.
How did it become apparent that you were in the minority as a female dive leader?
I ended up working as a dive master, so leading dives and working on a liveaboard, which is a scuba diving boat which is like a floating hotel that you dive from. I was in Micronesia, which is this tiny country in the middle of the Pacific. It’s fairly unknown apart from to scuba divers because there are some World War II wrecks there. I was the only female member of staff on the boat and 90 per cent of the clients were also male. At first, I didn't really notice it, but then every week, the new charter would be men. As a 25 years-old who was new to it, I just thought that scuba diving was for men. But then I observed their attitudes towards me as a female diver, a lack of respect and an assumption that I didn't know anything – it was like they couldn't work out why I was there.
It became glaringly obvious that women weren't as involved and not as outspoken. I think that having grown up with two brothers meant that I was quite used to what we call here in England ‘banter’, so that didn’t intimidate me. But there were some things that these men said that crossed a line and it started to become very sexist, which I definitely wasn't used to. I was angry. It was a horrible industry and not somewhere I wanted to work. My initial thought was probably the same as most people's – ok, I'll quit. So, that’s what I did. I didn’t think about doing anything about it straightaway because I think was processing it. And then later on, I thought, wait a second, if that happened to me, it must be happening to lots of women. And even if it's not continuous sexism, just being made to feel uncomfortable sucks.
It was a couple of months after I quit, which was also the time when Facebook was growing and Facebook groups were starting up, when I started a closed group for people who identify as female and were either scuba diving or wanted to be scuba divers. Within that group we had this safety net of one another, and we could inspire, chat and just have a space. That was all we needed. And because there was nothing else out there for women in diving, it took off really quickly. On the first day, we had about 100 members and then within a few months there were thousands. Fast forward to where we are now and there are hundreds of thousands from all around the world. A lot of hard work has gone into Girls That Scuba, but I'm very aware that at that point in time it was needed, so I guess I was the lucky one that thought, do you know what? I'm going to do it.
How did it feel to have that space where you could share experiences with other female divers?
Initially, I was just so excited to have other female diver friends. It was very exciting and it’s still exciting now – anywhere I go, I can meet up with someone from the community. But, as we grew, we started getting more like stories and experiences that were really terrible, shocking and definitely something I hadn’t prepared myself for. You find out things that you just can't imagine.
Around the time that the ‘me to’ movement took off, Girls That Scuba was already quite established, so we started to hear some stories. It’s really tough to continuously hear these things, but I was proud that we had created a space to share and discuss them. We’ve been trying to make those stories more than stories, to be able to report them and for something to happen. A big issue in scuba diving is that there's no successful way to report sexual assault or sexual abuse at the moment. It’s our ongoing struggle, but if anyone's going to do it, it's going to be our community.
It’s a heavy subject, and what started off as very exciting came with lots of heaviness, but I would say ultimately, the community is full of inspiration and motivation.
Have you noticed any changes in the female experience of scuba diving?
When it comes to statistics, it's very hard to pinpoint changes. We don't tend to worry so much about the split is between certified men and women anymore, it’s more about the experience of women that are involved in scuba diving now. I mean, in my head, diving is just for women because I spend my whole time within the community, talking to women and seeing women. I know that's because of what I do day in, day out, but the number of women who are pushing boundaries and doing really cool stuff like finding and mapping dive sites, finding history, going ice diving, going altitude lake diving, is incredible. Women are doing all these extreme things within the diving world.
To begin with, you would just see men with loads of tanks looking really serious and now you'll see women laughing and having fun, wearing fun wetsuits and swimming costumes and embracing friendship. I think that's where feminine energy is really special within extreme sports and outdoor sports. I think Girls That Scuba has injected a bit more light-heartedness and fun into diving.
It's not about ultra-feminists breaking down men trying to get more women than men in scuba diving. Bridging the gender gap is about equality and bringing a different energy. Gender doesn't matter, it's about making sure that everyone has got their place in diving. So, if you ask me, I think the industry has changed.
What have you learned about yourself through Girls That Scuba and being part of that community that’s changed your perspective of yourself?
I am so aware of what my body gives me – this ability to scuba dive, free dive and swim. I don't even consider what it looks like when I'm doing those things. I love wearing fun swimwear, but that's about as far as it goes – I love to look fun, but I don't care what size my body is. I mean, not only is it given me the ability to do the thing that is now my job and my passion, it’s also gone through pregnancy and a terrible birth and come out the other side and now I have a beautiful son. So, yeah, my body is incredible for what it can do. Through Girls That Scuba and through becoming a mum, I see myself as strong – maybe I don’t look strong physically, but mentally I think that whatever I look like, I will always believe that I'm strong because I can do amazing stuff.
How did it feel to have the camera on you?
I would have probably felt more confident underwater because I wouldn't even realise that you were taking a picture. But I didn’t feel insecure. I don't really care what people think I look like – I care what people see me do with my body rather than the way it looks.
I love every piece of Deakin & Blue swimwear. When Rosie first set up Deakin & Blue years ago, I was in the first few years of setting up Girls That Scuba and she sent me this bikini. I still have it – I've worn it all around the world. There’s a picture of me in Egypt in January 2019 and one of me in the same bikini in September 2023 (below) and it still looks brand new.
Scuba diving is very hard on your swimwear. For instance, Egypt is like the saltiest sea in the world and you do multiple dives. I know you're supposed to look after your swimwear, but I don’t wash it out with fresh water every time. But it's held! D&B swimwear is incredibly designed, but for me, they last, which is fantastic.
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