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March 2004 Vol. 19, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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NABS Nabs a Niche

national organization for African-American divers

from the March, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Journalist Michael Cottman was looking forward to a pleasant day of diving off St. Petersburg, FL, a few years ago. When the boat captain asked who didn't have a buddy, Cottman, an African American, raised his hand. He was shocked at the response. "The divers looked down, looked out to sea, looked anywhere but at me," he wrote in an article in the Washington Post. "I felt like the kid on the playground who wasn't picked for a sandlot basketball game."

One reluctant diver from Houston eventually agreed to buddy up but quickly separated from Cottman underwater. "After we returned to the boat," Cottman reported, "we shared a few words out of courtesy while others were giddy, recounting their experiences. I was just ready to pack my gear and head home."

Questions raced through Cottman's mind: "Did they assume that because I was black, I was not experienced, and I might put their lives in jeopardy? Was it just that they didn't want to dive with a black person? Experience had led me to believe that they weren't just preoccupied and oblivious."

Following that incident, Cottman joined the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, Inc. (NABS), formed 13 years ago to create a national network of friends sharing skills, experiences, and advice. Its appeal is in creating an extended family for divers like Cottman and Tonia McNeal, a Pennsylvania CFO who joined NABS for support and friendship. "I have traveled alone on some dive trips," she told Cottman, "and it never fails that some dive operators assume that because I am female and a minority that I lack skills and experience," McNeal says. "It's not unusual for black divers to feel as if they are out there alone."

NABS grew out of a Washington, D.C., based organization, The Underwater Adventure Seekers, which was founded back in the '50s by marine biologist Jos Jones, who found existing scuba diving clubs in the area refused to admit black divers. Jones was an instructor in the Atlantic Skin Diving Council, which included no black dive clubs and few, if any, black divers, so he realized that if he didn't organize a club and train blacks to dive, probably no one would. His vision led to the formation of other chapters in major urban areas, with the goal of networking individual divers and clubs. NABS divers travel all over the country diving with affiliated clubs.

"Protection was our first priority, camaraderie came later," says Lenny Milner, a NABS member with about 1,000 dives. "We couldn't travel on a dive trip alone and expect to check into a hotel without trouble, so we traveled in groups."

Today, more than 20 domestic and foreign affiliated clubs are linked from the NABS website. More than 2,000 affiliated divers plug into another club's trip . . . a great idea, and one we wish more clubs and regional councils would share. Recent and upcoming trips include Crystal River, FL (Manatee Dive); Bonne Terre Mine, MO; St. Croix; Belize; and Truk Lagoon. Members also get a quarterly newsletter with updates on member and chapter activities. NABS also sponsors an annual convention, as well as regional, national, and international dive trips. Last year's gathering at Bonaire's Plaza Resort brought together more than 160 divers and snorkelers plus nondiving companions.

"We couldn't travel on a dive trip alone and
expect to check into a hotel without trouble,
so we traveled in groups."

Comparing her initial lonely dive experiences to diving with other NABS members, Tonia McNeal says, "You get to know people and people are talking and trading stories, and you find that you have things in common with people and you develop friend friendships." Today, she is treasurer of NABS.

NABS also is dedicated to teaching African-American kids about scuba diving while introduc introducing them to careers in marine science, marine biology, and underwater archaeology. William Murrain, the immediate past president, told Undercurrent that members often visit local schools, at home and on trips to foreign dive destinations, offering educational talks and positive role models for local kids. "We can't always be diving," he says. "What do you do with the rest of your time?" The organization sponsors scholarships for college students studying marine and environmental sciences.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of NABS is that members frequently train other members, along the lines of the British Sub Aqua Club. A number of NABS club members are certified instructors, who carry their own liability insurance. Murrain estimates that more than a third of new members over the last several years have been trained by a current member.

And that training may be a key to breaking down barriers to diving. Murrain says that racial discrimination "is not the norm today," primarily because "dive operators know we're good divers." When discrimination does arise, it's generally from other divers, not commercial operators, says Murrain.

Tina Robinette-Miller, who handled travel arrangements for the last two NABS summits at Island Dreams Travel, would agree. "I've never heard anything negative or derogatory from either vendors or clients. The camaraderie amongst divers is a universal entry card."

For more information about NABS, visit their website at www.nabsdivers.org.

P.S.: Michael Cottman has written an excellent diving book, The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie: An African American's Spiritual Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship's Past. It's available at Undercurrent.

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