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How (and Why) I Became a Female Commercial Diver

by Rebecca Ziegler

It’s almost ten years ago that  I woke up at four in the morning, tossed my dive gear in the back of my dad’s car, and headed to the marina in Long Beach to hop aboard the boat that would take us to our check-out dives at California’s Catalina Island. That day we had ample sunshine, glassy sea conditions, and warm water to complete our PADI Open Water Scuba Diver certification. As a fourteen year old I had no idea that this day would chart the course for the rest of my life.

Fast forward through college applications and acceptance letters and the end of summer 2011, I boarded a plane to an island in the middle of the Pacific – the Big Island of Hawa`ii. There I spent four years exploring all that the beautiful Big Island had to offer on land and below the ocean. I learned everything I could about the marine world and continued my dive training. Graduation came in a blink of an eye and so went the fastest four years of my life. I went back to “the Mainland” and joined the rest of the recently-graduated millennials looking for jobs that weren’t there. Either I was underqualified for a paid position, or overqualified for an unpaid one. I was stuck.

And then I stumbled upon a whole new direction in diving – commercial diving.

Holding a Kirby Morgan 37 Stainless Steel (KM 37 SS) dive hat. Photo credit: Rebecca Ziegler

I decided to pursue the path of becoming a commercial diver and I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to attend the International Diving Institute in South Carolina. After four months of training I would graduate with a trade school certificate as a Commercial Diver. I never knew this type of diving even existed let alone that I could get to do it! I was the only female in the school at that time (of about 30 students) and my class was the smallest at the Institute with only four, including myself.

I was a ball of nerves as I drove across the country from California to South Carolina.

Would I like it?

Could I keep pace with all the guys?

What if I can’t do it?

OH GOD. What if I can’t complete the course?!

My mind ran wild with doubts.

I had to keep telling myself leading up to that first day of class that I knew how to dive.

I. KNOW. DIVING. 

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about because, surprisingly, very few of the guys in dive school had actually been diving before! Weird, I know. But what I lacked in mechanical skills, I made up for in dive knowledge. During my time at dive school, I have to say, I did some really cool shit! We learned welding and burning topside, but also got to take a crack at it underwater. I won’t be getting any jobs doing in underwater welding anytime soon (my welds looked like metallic bird poops), but it was one of the coolest experiences I can remember. We practiced putting together mock pipelines in zero visibility, spent time in the shop welding and cutting things (my welds impressively still look like bird shit out of the water), and my personal favorite practice was running a hyperbaric chamber! It was incredible.

Taking a crack at “burning” underwater. Power of the sun in your hands. Photo credit: Rebecca Ziegler

For having little mechanical experience, I found that I really enjoyed doing manual work underwater. I liked the gear involved; from the dive helmets to the tools that are required to complete tasks underwater. There was a certain challenge and yet simplicity to it all.
I’m often asked if it’s strange or difficult being the only female on the team at work. Honestly, at this point I don’t even really notice. Every now and again it dawns on me that I am the only woman in the room and a small smile crosses my lips. In an age where women are pushing into fields traditionally dominated by men, it is a satisfying feeling to be among such ranks.

 

DISCLAIMER: Commercial diving is not for the faint of heart. While jobs can range in intensity of the highly dangerous off-shore and saturation diving gigs on oil rigs to the less hazardous occupations inspections and cleaning of structures, it is not for everyone. The hours will be long, there may be extended travel involved, and you will be on a small team so there is no room for drama or egos.

It is not what I thought I would be doing when I started my dive journey 10 years ago, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Oxy-Acetylene Cutting. Photo credit: Rebecca Ziegler

Rebecca currently works for the Mouse (Disney) in Orlando as a commercial diver. She holds Bachelor’s in Marine Science and Communication as well as her commercial dive certification. When not working underwater, Rebecca can be found exploring her new home in the Sunshine State. 

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