Diving with a Purpose

By Jay V. Haigler

jay haigler wearing diving gear
Photo courtesy of Jay Haigler

As I check my mask and regulator one last time and slip beneath the waves, a whole new world unfolds before my eyes. Here in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, colorful fish dart this way and that amid coral reef colonies.

But I'm not here to enjoy the scenery. I'm part of a team of scientific divers working with the sanctuary to unlock the mystery of an early 20th century shipwreck that lies broken in sanctuary waters off Key Largo, Florida. Months after our field survey mission at Elbow Reef, the identity of the mysterious shipwreck is confirmed to be Hannah M. Bell, which sank in April 1911. I am thrilled that this century-long mystery has been solved and grateful to have had a role in the outcome. I always look forward to my next adventure in a national marine sanctuary.

During the survey of Hannah M. Bell, I was working with divers from Diving With a Purpose. Diving With a Purpose started in 2005 as a volunteer archaeology program under partnership with members from the National Association of Black Scuba Divers Foundation (NABS) and the National Park Service. The program has evolved into a community-focused non-profit organization dedicated to the stewardship of our ocean and Great Lakes resources through education, archaeology, science, and underwater exploration. We provide education, training, certification, and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archaeology and ocean conservation. A special interest of ours is the protection, documentation, and interpretation of African slave trade shipwrecks, and the maritime history and culture of African-Americans.

Thanks to a strong collaboration with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, our members have received nautical archaeology training, and now use their skills to help NOAA survey and document historically-significant shipwrecks and maritime heritage sites across the National Marine Sanctuary System. In addition to the survey of Hannah M. Bell, we have also worked with sanctuaries to document a Tuskegee Airmen crash site in Lake Huron.

Our partnership with national marine sanctuaries helps support and develop the next generation of marine conservation leaders. Gray's Reef and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries have been host sites for Youth Education Summits sponsored by NABS. These summits bring together youth with an interest in marine science at national marine sanctuaries. The summits provide these young people with educational experiences that enhance their knowledge of and respect for marine life, while promoting safe and skilled exploration of the ocean through snorkeling and scuba diving.

Last year, I was proud to be among a group of members representing Diving With a Purpose and the National Association of Black Scuba Divers who spoke publicly in support of the proposed Mallows Bay – Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. Why? Mallows Bay contains an extraordinary collection of shipwrecks from the Revolutionary War to the present, and is also an important ecological habitat. Also, I believe that sanctuary would provide opportunities for underserved youth in the Washington, DC, area to get on the water and experience the great outdoors.

When I first became a scuba diver more than 13 years ago, I enjoyed simply being underwater and seeing the amazing diversity of marine life. However, over time, I wanted something more meaningful from the sport. Diving With a Purpose and working with national marine sanctuaries has afforded me opportunities to take my scuba diving passion to another level, learn about the rich maritime cultural heritage of our great nation, and share this information with others.

Jay Haigler is the diving safety officer for the National Association of Black Scuba Divers and a director and instructor with Diving With a Purpose.