Scuba Diving Slave Shipwrecks Is a Spiritual Journey

It’s also a chance for black divers to become more engaged with the underwater activity while working to uncover a painful and important part of history.

Scuba Diving Slave Shipwrecks Is a Spiritual Journey

Organizations like the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) are working to encourage greater diversity in the scuba diving community.

Courtesy of the Professional Association of Dive Instructors

“It’s the souls of our ancestors,” said 74-year-old Ken Stewart, cofounder of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), an organization that leads programs focused on submerged heritage, including slave shipwrecks. “We know that 41 people died there, so it could be a graveyard,” Stewart said of the Guerrero, a Spanish slave ship that sunk somewhere in the southern end of Florida’s Biscayne National Park in 1827. Stewart and his organization have been searching for the Guerrero for 16 years. He believes that underwater archaeology of slave shipwrecks is an important cultural experience for black divers to understand and document the tragedy of enslaved Africans in North America.

“I was never a history buff, but realized the Guerrero was one of the biggest incentives for people to join DWP; be a part of history; and experience a spiritual dive,” said Stewart. If one is interested in being a part of slave wreck research and diving, then DWP is an organization that is open to new members of any race who can be involved in this work. Teenagers and young adults can also be a part of the search for the Guerrero with the youth division of DWP, Youth Diving With a Purpose (YDWP), where students ages 16 to 23 take part in underwater archaeology work each summer. DWP has been involved in other shipwreck archaeology efforts as well: Lead instructor Kamau Sadiki participated in the search for the São José in Cape Town, South Africa, and for the Clotilda in Africatown in Alabama.

Diving With a Purpose lead instructor Jay Haigler trains members of the Slave Wrecks Project community monitoring program in Mozambique in 2018.

Diving With a Purpose lead instructor Jay Haigler trains members of the Slave Wrecks Project community monitoring program in Mozambique in 2018.

Photo by Robyn Leone

Another organization focused on slave wreck archaeology is the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), which is run by the Smithsonian and focused on “recovering, restoring, remembering, protecting, and sharing previously submerged archeological remains and long-neglected histories from slave ships.” Researchers, institutions, and historians are able to do archaeology work on these wrecks, which span sites in North America, Mozambique, Senegal, and St. Croix, among other global locations. For example, in 2018, the SWP participated in efforts to locate the Clotilda, called “America’s last slave ship,” which carried 110 enslaved Africans from the west coast of Africa into Alabama’s Mobile Bay in the fall of 1860.

SWP recovered the wreck of the slave ship São José in 2014, which was one of the first times that there was archaeological documentation of a vessel that carried enslaved people. One mission of SWP is to work with local communities where the slave ship archaeology is taking place in order to form a connection with the descendants of Africans who may have perished on board. “Through the Slave Wrecks Project’s Community Engagement Program, professional divers are teaching the fundamentals of scuba diving and underwater documentation,” said Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and leader of the Community Engagement Program for SWP. “A team of university-based archaeologists are introducing students in Mobile’s Africatown, St. Croix, Senegal and on the island of Mozambique to archaeology, teaching them to investigate neighborhoods and building sites to uncover information about the people who once lived, worked and raised families there.”

While the work they do is very inspirational, there are no current opportunities for volunteer divers to work with SWP (those who are interested can contact the program about possible future opportunities).

Encouraging greater diversity in scuba diving

As a certified scuba diver for almost three years, I have personally experienced being the only black diver on most of my recreational dives. I recently made one black scuba diving buddy after joining Stewart and his organization last summer while on a historic shipwreck archaeology program with YDWP. Before the trip, I had no black friends who were certified divers. My experience in the program was not focused on a search for the Guerrero, but instead, an underwater archaeology training session to help the National Park Service map a mid-1800s shipwreck site. The wreck, named BISC-60, lies in 22 feet of water in Biscayne National Park, and as a team we identified wooden planks, metal scraps, nails, and iron fasteners that previously held together pieces of the ship, among other artifacts.
Stewart started YDWP when he realized that adults were not the only ones capable of documenting shipwrecks for archaeological purposes. “Most of the students that go through the program enter into some facet of marine biology or internships with the National Park Service,” said Stewart. The program’s students are a mix of races—including black, Hispanic, and white—and YDWP addresses the need for greater diversity in scuba diving by working to get youth interested in the recreational sport early in life.

Although there is lack of representation of blacks in scuba diving, the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) seeks to support and unite black scuba divers through education, dive safety training, and scuba diving trips. The organization has more than 3,000 members across the United States.

“The NABS network builds unity and camaraderie to transfer the legacy to future generations,” said James Morgan, who is the Americas vice president of training, sales, and field services for the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI), the world’s largest global network of dive centers and resorts. PADI is also a scuba diver training organization and issues more than 1 million diver certifications annually.

“As a founding member of NABS, I’m proud of the work that the organization has done in introducing communities of color to scuba diving nationally and also regionally through its network of affiliate clubs,” said Morgan. When NABS was founded in 1991, there were already a handful of regional African American dive clubs throughout the United States. For example, the Underwater Adventure Seekers based in Washington, D.C. celebrated their 60th anniversary last year. The vision is to build a network of clubs to encourage scuba participation locally in the African American community.

In 1993, a group of NABS divers placed a memorial plaque on the sunken slave ship the Henrietta. “Those that made that dive have described it as a transformative experience. While wreck diving is a popular scuba pastime for the average scuba diver, researching and diving former slave ships transcends this form of recreational diving,” said Morgan.

Morgan has worked with numerous PADI dive centers and resorts over the years to create community outreach programs for minorities. For example, he has worked with PADI resorts in the Caribbean to create vocational training programs and scholarships to give African Caribbeans the chance to work in the recreational diving industry.

For those interested in becoming divers, PADI has more than 6,600 dive centers and resorts where prospective African American divers can attain their PADI Open Water Certification, which is the first level of dive certification for new divers. I started diving in order to become closer with diverse forms of marine life, and over the past three years have found the idea of exploring slave wrecks one of the most profound cultural opportunities to participate in my own ancestral legacy.

>> Next: Where Are All the Black Women Pilots?

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