As we celebrate Pride Month and the importance of each and every person, we reiterate a lesson from our ocean: diversity matters.
(Bio)Diversity As A Strength
In the ocean, biodiversity strengthens marine ecosystems and makes them more resilient. Every organism — from a shark to a cleaner shrimp to microscopic phytoplankton — plays a critical role. Everything works together to maintain the health of the ocean.
Colin Howe, a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State University, explained this concept through corals. He said, “Coral reefs are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet — because of their diversity. Each individual animal, each organism, has its role to play. They all work together to benefit the ecosystem and make it strong.”
Reefs survive catastrophic threats like coral bleaching events because of their rich biodiversity, Howe said.
“Some corals will handle a bleaching event better than others. Some will bleach — a lot will. And some will die, but not all of them. And that’s where diversity matters,” he said. “When an ecosystem is under threat, having different animals that respond in their own unique way is critical so we don’t lose the entire ecosystem.”
“This is resilience. This is how diversity bakes in resilience. This means the reef will still be there despite this threat,” he added.
Diversity Keeps The Whole System Going
Amani Webber-Schultz, a Ph.D. student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said, “Put simply, …diversity in the ocean matters because ocean systems cannot continue to run without it.”
Webber-Schultz likened the oceanic system to a machine. “If one gear breaks, while the whole machine may not break, other parts begin to overcompensate for what has been lost and eventually break as well,” she said. “If you remove diversity from the ocean, the complex systems that run in it will similarly break.”
What We Can Learn From The Ocean
We can take these lessons from the ocean into our own lives. A diversity of people — of skillsets, socio-economic classes, races, identities, etc. — becomes a strength and an asset. We need different people with different perspectives to more fully understand and solve the big problems facing our ocean, like climate change, said Howe, who identifies as a Black/Afro-Caribbean man.
Similarly compelled, Webber-Schultz and three other Black female shark researchers founded Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS). MISS promotes diversity and inclusion in shark science, especially for women of color, because “…diversity in scientists creates diversity in thought, which leads to innovation.”
“To me, the word diversity doesn’t just mean diversity of how people look on the outside. It also means diversity in their backgrounds, careers, lifestyles, and ways of thought,” Webber-Schultz said. “When we have all these different perspectives and backgrounds, it creates more ideas and more ways to approach and solve problems.”
Annabel Gong, a master’s student at the University of San Diego and co-host of the LGBTQ+ STEM cast podcast, agrees. As a queer, Asian-American scientist, they told PADI, “A lot of LGBTQ+ people think outside of a binary. A binary doesn’t really exist, and we bring that type of thinking into science. That can mean looking at animal behavior in a different way that may be overlooked by a straight scientist. For a gay scientist, it may look very natural. So inclusion brings different perspectives to science.”
Increasing Diversity Above The Surface
So, diversity rocks. It keeps us alive and makes us stronger. Are we succeeding at protecting and celebrating it?
Groups like MISS are making great strides. They hosted their inaugural workshop in 2021 for women and people of color to gain access to shark research skills. Barnacle Busters LGBTQ Scuba Club was formed in 1988 to create safe, alternative activities for gay men and women. While the early days were “not always easy,” the diving industry has “come a long way towards inclusivity and diversity,” said dive coordinator Ralph Buck. And while Barnacle Busters is multi-racial, multi-gender and inclusive of everyone, “the battle is not over,” Buck said.
JD Reinbott, a coral conservationist, described his experiences. He said, “In the 5+ years I’ve been diving, I can count the number of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ divers that I have met on one hand. It’s almost like encountering a rare animal underwater — a moment of pure excitement but then you spend your next hundred+ dives waiting to see something like it again.”
For Reinbott, who identifies as a cis-gender openly gay man, the experience is sometimes “disheartening” because “we celebrate diversity in our oceans but when we surface from a dive, it often feels like that diversity stays deep down below the waves.”
Still, neither he nor any of the divers interviewed remain discouraged. Rather, they focused on how to encourage more inclusivity and open conversation.
Building A Brighter, More Diverse and Inclusive Future
Here are some suggestions:
- Add “who” to the mix of “where, what gear, and what might be in the water when talking about future dives. “Until recently we haven’t taken a step back to really consider who is joining us on those boats and what their varying backgrounds can bring to our underwater experiences but more importantly to our lives overall,” Reinbott said.
- Create more spaces specifically for diverse people to “just exist” without a “spotlight” on them, Gong said. Gong wants to see these programs run by the diverse communities they serve.
- Join an existing community promoting inclusivity like MISS or Barnacle Busters.
- Make swimwear more inclusive, Gong also suggested. “A lot of transgender, nonbinary and gender non-conforming folks suffer from body dysmorphia and/or gender dysphoria. Swimsuits are very form-fitting, and that’s something many of us struggle with. That’s often overlooked.”
- Host a Pride Dive Day, akin to PADI’s Women’s Dive Day, suggested Reinbott. Give LGBTQIA+ individuals, families and allies a day to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the oceans together in a safe and fun way. “I basically want to take a pride parade and make it underwater (minus the ungodly amount of glitter and single-use plastic),” Reinbott said.
- Dive operators and PADI Pros can list events that celebrate diversity on PADI’s Conservation Activities Locator under Community.