Empowering Women Veterans through Scuba Diving
National park sites are protected spaces that provide endless opportunities for discovery. And for some, national parks also offer a unique venue for healing, inspiration, and camaraderie. With the help of the National Park Foundation (NPF), a group of women combat veterans found such opportunities at Biscayne National Park.
A fact unbeknownst to some is that 5 million of the 8.5 million acres of National Park Service lands are underwater. This includes the submerged cultural and natural resources that lay beneath the aquamarine waters of the Florida Key's Biscayne National Park, including colorful fishes, coral reefs, and ancient shipwrecks. The National Park Service Submerged Resources Center (SRC) works to protect and preserve these underwater resources.
With continued support from NPF, SRC can partner with Women Divers Hall of Fame and WAVES (Wounded American Veterans Experience SCUBA), a nonprofit that introduces disabled American veterans to the therapeutic benefits of scuba diving. This partnership has connected female veterans to professional diving mentors. These teams of veterans and professional divers, "Sea Sisters," receive specialty training and mentorship while assisting NPS with management needs of recreational diving locations, making them more enjoyable for park visitors while preserving precious natural resources. In the summer of 2021, five veterans joined NPF project staff for dives at nine different sites at Biscayne National Park, where they removed a total of 587 pounds of marine debris from the park's sea floor.
Sarah Von Hoene, of the National Park Service and a participant in the project, explains that these "marine debris" encompass a plethora of objects that are discarded in the ocean. This could be rubbish like soda cans, car tires, monofilament fishing line, toilets, nets, or plastic bags, which can cause significant damage to coral reefs and marine life. The group removed such debris from sites throughout Biscayne National Park, including Horseshoe Reef, where they collected approximately 100 pounds of lobster trap pieces and abandoned line, as well as Pacific Reef, where they removed monofilament fishing line, an assortment of bottles and cans, and various other items. According to Von Hoene, monofilament fishing line is particularly important to find and remove, as it can cut through soft corals and wrap around other marine creates, like turtles and fish. The team also visited the wreck of Alicia, part of the Biscayne National Park Maritime Heritage Trail. There, the group removed large amounts of monofilament fishing line and abandoned anchor line. In all, the team collected a total of 464 pieces of marine debris, along with 1,082 feet of line, wire, and rope.
In addition to their diving training and mentorship, the veterans participated in continuing education opportunities, including a presentation by the Coral Restoration Foundation on coral restoration and planting efforts in the Florida Keys. They also listened to a panel of all-women active and retired U.S. Navy divers discuss their careers, an event offered by the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
Projects like these are mutually beneficial for veterans and for the National Park System. Scuba diving has been proven to reduce symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders. A study in 2015 showed that veterans who went scuba diving experienced an 80% decrease in their PTSD symptoms compared to their non-diving peers. Several of the participating veterans discuss the therapeutic benefits of their experiences in this post from the National Park Service, including Esmerelda Ortega, who spent 13 years in the Marine Corps as a meteorologist and oceanographer. According to Esmerelda, "participating in this project is providing me the opportunity to continue gaining the independence I lost and having a clear path to make a difference provides me a sense of accomplishment and advances my journey towards healing."
The diving expeditions at Biscayne National Park are part of ongoing efforts to introduce female veterans to "second careers of service" in our national parks. The endeavors of these divers are just one example of a long tradition of women transcending traditional boundaries and participating in far-reaching acts of national service: be that in the military or in the National Park Service.
This project was funded as part of NPF's Women in Parks initiative, which helps the National Park Service tell the stories of women in national parks. We thank Biscayne National Park for hosting this project and helping NPF to further these efforts.