In the next article in the Women Diving series, I would like to go back in time and introduce some of the amazing female pioneers. Unusual activities and more extreme forms of recreation have always attracted equally unusual people. However, we must remember that diving did not start as a form of sport or leisure activity, for the beginnings were decidedly more pragmatic – from commercial diving through navy divers. I will immediately point out that the figures you will read about in this text are not a closed set. I also encourage you to search for more remarkable women who have written their chapter in the history of diving.
Was it a male-dominated world? Yes. But that doesn’t mean at all that we won’t find women who, from the early days when diving was commercial in nature, redefined their role in the world around them and pushed the boundaries. Meet the real trailblazers!
Amelia Behrens Furniss led a particularly unconventional life. Born in California on June 6, 1895, Amelia was the daughter of the owner of a commercial diving company, Captain Henry Behrens of Denmark. He who taught Amelia and her sister, Dorothy, scuba diving.
So Amelia grew up in the crazy 1920s – and perfectly embodied the spirit of the era. She was called the “diving girl” and was very popular, hitting the headlines even in her young years. They described her extraordinary exploit, which was also a depth record of the time. Well, very expensive tools belonging to Captain Behrens fell into one of the pipes. Due to the size of the pipe, neither Captain Behrens nor any of his male collegues rewe able to fit inside. Amelia volunteered for the task. She dived to a depth of about 50 meters,in an oil pipe that was only 60 centimeters in diameter to recover the tools. She at the same time broke the record at the time.
She was a flapper, a stuntwoman in silent movies, a wing walker and above all – a free soul. To this day, her family still funds scholarships (named after Amelia Behrens Furniss) for women who want to learn hardhat diving.
Lotte Hass was an Austrian born back in the 1920s that proved very quickly that women can dive. A model, underwater photographer and actress. She was only 19 years old when she began the adventure of her life. She was still working as a secretary for Hans Hass, the famous Austrian diver and naturalist and her later husband, when she secretly learned scuba diving, but also how to take underwater photographs. She repeatedly persuaded Hans Hass to let her take part in his expeditions – unfortunately, he was strongly opposed to the participation of any woman in his expeditions. He only gave in to persuasion when his colleagues convinced him that the films would become much more attractive to the public if they featured an attractive woman. And so in 1950 Lotte proved quite quickly that she was a very valuable member of the crew, and not just a “pretty face” – coping with both filming and taking photos underwater, as well as posing for them. She was thus the first woman to dive on the reefs of the Red Sea and beyond. The shots of her swimming among manta rays and whale sharks made Hans Hass’ film titled “Red Sea Adventure” a real hit.
She recorded and published her memories of the expedition in the book “Girl at the Bottom of the Sea”, which I heartily recommend to you!!
Dottie Frazier is another diving legend. Born in 1922, Dottie May Frazier learned to swim and walk almost simultaneously, practiced freediving and spearfishing as a teeneger. So scuba diving was a natural progression, but Dottie didn’t just stop at diving. In 1955, she also became the first diving instructor in the United States, and established her dive center, Penguin Dive Shop in Longbeach. Another of Dottie’s breakthrough ideas was also the creation of a line of dry and wet suits tailored to fit women’s figures. Dottie liked to joke about her diving career – she used to say, for example, that she initially thought scuba diving in gear was for wusses who couldn’t hold their breath long enough to hunt down their dinner.
Getting a diving instructor’s license wasn’t easy either – she was first told that such was for men only, and she owed it to her persistence alone to break through that glass ceiling. What’s more – there is the first group of students consisted of male doctors, who were not thrilled that a petite and young woman would be training them. Dottie was not discouraged, what’s more, once her students finished the first part of the training (skin diving), they returned to her for the scuba diving part of the training.
This amazing character also used to say that she owed her longevity to being underwater – she lived to be 99 years old. As a 90 – year old she rode a zipline and only in 2019 decided to sell her last motorcycle.
Donna Tobias, born in 1952, the daughter of a soldier who later became a World War II prisoner of war, in turn blazed a very different trail. Her family was not one of the rich, so Donna quickly had to become independent. She worked as a school bus driver and later in the police force. She tried to get into Navy diver training, but was denied because she was a woman. Like Dottie Frazer, she faced bureaucratic barriers, but she didn’t give up. So in 1974 she began by repairing hulls, and a year later she applied for special permission to take diver training. She received such approval from the Pentagon just two days before the training began in January 1975.
During the course of the 10-week class, she wore gear weighing more than 90 kilograms and dived in cold and murky water, often in currents. Donna herself was short and very petite, so we can assume that the equipment she carried weighed almost twice as much as she did! She was the first woman to graduate from the Navy’s Deep Sea Diver School, and later took part in deep sea salvage operations.
Unfortunately, as a woman, she could not permanently join a crew working on the high seas. Donna Tobias then decided to change her path to one related to more scientific work – she became the first female submarine evacuation tank instructor at a special facility in New London. She also worked at the hyperbaric chamber, where she treated divers suffering from decompression sickness, as well as civilians poisoned by carbon dioxide.
At the very end I left my personal heroine – Penelope “Mossy” Powell, who famously performed the first cave dive in history. It took place in the UK at the Wookey Hole cave. Dressed in a navy diver’s suit that was too big for her, borrowed from Siebe Gorman, sealed and adjusted by homemade means, she and her diving partner Graham Balcombe performed the historic dive on July 14, 1935. The equipment enabled both of them to dive the siphon, which until then had closed off the available route of exploration of this famous British cave. They both made it to the seventh chamber. The first dive in 1935 at Wookey Hole was also the beginning of many years of exploration that have taken place and continue to take place to this day.
“Mossy” described her first cave dive in British history as follows: “Suddenly we were in a completely different world, a world full of greenery where the water was crystal clear.”
About the author:
Daria Dobrowolska has been involved with the IDF since the very beginning of the federation. She is a Staff Instructor as well as Technical Diving Instructor at the trimix and advanced wreck levels, but she is most proud of her Full Cave instructor certification. In diving, she appreciates remote cave trips and fascinating macro of tropical seas. You may know her as the author of our training manuals.
Outside of diving, she enjoys spending her free time hiking in the mountains and traveling, always with a book in her backpack.