Great women in diving (part 2)
Updated: Feb 24
The pioneers, part 2
Simone Melchior Cousteau, the great woman behind the man
Simone was the world’s first female scuba diver, making her first dives in the Mediterranean in 1943 (less than a year after the very first male diver, her husband). she was also the first female aquanaut spending 4 days underwater in 1963 (and the only woman). Without her, Cousteau’s famous ship the Calypso would never have come to be, since she obtained the boat and part financed it. She also ‘took care’ of the all-male crew as nurse, psychologist, confidant and healer and saved the ship once during a storm, earning her the nickname of the shepherdess. She led Cousteau to the men and money who would help build his scuba invention. Without her, Cousteau’s legacy would not exist.
Valerie made her first underwater film in 1962. Her and her husband Ron soon became famous for their films on sharks. Their documentary ‘Blue water white death’ was the first footage made of great white sharks without using a cage. The pair were headhunted for the film ‘jaws’, on which they filmed the underwater sequences with the great white shark. She was the first to develop and use chainmail suits to dive with dangerous sharks. She has fought against mining on the great barrier reef and was instrumental in securing protection for many areas. A multi-awarded wildlife photographer and marine conservationist, she has spent 50 years of her life raising awareness about the sea.
Lotte Bairl Hass
Lotte was the first diving pin up, though she was much much more. She managed to push her way into diving by being the star in underwater documentaries. At the time (50’s- though it’s still true today) documentaries, even underwater ones, held little commercial value. The company funding her boss(and future husband)’s documentaries insisted Lotte star in the films despite his reluctance. She soon proved herself not only a very proficient diver but also an excellent actress, photographer and camera (wo)man. She turned down a career in Hollywood after a documentary she featured in was awarded a top international prize in the Venice biennale. She was amongst the first women to be seen diving and gave a wider audience to underwater documentaries.
Zale Parry became involved in pioneering diving and scientific work in the 50’s. In 1953, she became a tester for underwater equipment for Scientific Underwater Research Enterprises. Following this, she and her partner designed, built and marketed the first decompression chamber for civilian divers. They promoted the new chambers around the world to encourage the building of facilities for divers suffering from the bends. A record breaking freediver, Zale was also amongst the first female scuba instructors. She was quickly snapped up by the television business to feature in shows like ‘Sea hunt’, mostly as a female stunt double or to teach the actors to dive but also occasionally as an actress. She co-founded one of the first underwater film festivals and was one of the first women elected to the U/W photographic society.
Ancien orders of female free divers
Haenyeo of Korea, the oldest order of female abalone divers
The Haenyeo diving tradition on the island of Jeju in south Korea dates back to 400 AD, originally a male dominated activity, the abalone divers became mostly female around the 17th century for various reasons. It could be the loss of so many men at sea/ at war or women’s increased subcutaneous fat which gives them a higher shivering threshold, making them more adapted to diving in Jeju’s cold waters. Whatever the reason, they were very successful and soon took over the activity completely; women becoming the primary breadwinners in many families. The local society slowly shifted from patriarchal to semi-matriarchal with dowries being given to the bride’s family and the birth of a baby girl being celebrated (quite the opposite from the rest of Korea). Korea celebrates the Haenyeo’s contribution to Jeju’s culture and has asked for them to be put on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.
Ama, ancient order of Japanese pearl mermaids
The Ama, literally ‘woman of the sea’ in Japanese, are a community of freediving pearl and shellfish fishing women in Japan. First mentioned in literature as early as 750, the tradition still lives on today with some of the divers being over 90 years old. Originally catching shellfish and abalone, the Ama were also hired by peal companies to add the pearl producing nucleus to their oysters. The numbers of new recruits are dropping and in 2010 only 2174 of these women remained. They dove down in just a loin cloth in freezing waters and held their breath for over 2 minutes; this hard lifestyle however offered complete independence in a very patriarcal society.