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Powerful Water Women You Should Know

These incredible female scuba divers are driving a sea of change for our oceans.
By Tiffany Duong | Updated On July 12, 2022
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Powerful Water Women You Should Know

Carlee Jackson underwater survey

Carlee Jackson, a co-founder of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS), conducts behavior surveys on nurse sharks in Caye Caulker, Belize.

Courtesy Image

PADI Women’s Dive Day has saluted female divers seven years running. In the run-up to this year’s July 16 celebration, we’re honoring the women making a tangible difference for our oceans. Impressive individually, together these rising stars are bringing a tidal wave of change to diving and our seas!

1. Callie Veelenturf

National Geographic explorer, sea turtle biologist and Rights for Nature advocate

Veelenturf helps turtle topside

Callie Veelenturf measures a juvenile hawksbill sea turtle that was caught as fishing bycatch in Panama.

Tiffany Duong/Ocean Rebels

American scientist Callie Veelenturf helped pass Panama’s new Rights for Nature law, guaranteeing rights for the ocean and other environments. This legal framework allows for anyone, even non-Panamanians, to sue in Panamanian court if nature is destroyed. Rights for Nature can be used to hold corporations, governments, and people legally accountable to and financially responsible for their impact on the ocean, Veelenturf says.

“Recognizing ocean rights is so important because it directly changes the way in which society interacts with the ocean,” she adds. “It addresses how we combat climate change, govern and protect the ocean, approach endangered species conservation, talk about sustainability, plan coastal development and invest our funds.”

The biologist recently spoke at the United Nations about this movement and is spearheading expansion efforts to other countries. She is also helping develop a Universal Declaration on Ocean Rights to present to the UN General Assembly in September 2023.

2. The Founders of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS)

A woman- and minority-run nonprofit diversifying marine science and increasing access opportunities for minorities

Founders of MISS on research vessel

The MISS founders lead their shark tagging expedition on the Field School’s research vessel. From left to right: Amani Webber-Schultz, Jasmin Graham, Carlee Jackson and Jaida Elcock.

Field School

Driven to leave the world a better place than they found it, Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS) is actively and audaciously making the ocean research space more accessible and inclusive for all. Founded by four Black female shark scientists—Jaida Elcock, Jasmin Graham, Carlee Jackson and Amani Webber-Schultz—MISS provides peer networks, mentorship, professional workshops, and funded fieldwork opportunities.

The community they’ve created welcomes people’s “whole selves,” with their intersectional identities, into the marine science space. MISS hosts an annual, expense-free training for minority scientists on a shark research vessel. Participants contribute to actual scientific studies and gain critical research skills and experience.

“Biodiversity is important because it keeps the marine ecosystem in balance. Diversity in science is important because, without it, we can't have innovation,” the MISS Executive Board said. “Innovation comes from a diversity of thoughts and ideas and you need a diversity of people to generate a diversity of ideas.”

3. Autumn Blum

Cosmetic chemist, founder of Stream2Sea and recent inductee into the Women Divers Hall of Fame

Blum diving

Blum is in the business of simultaneously saving our skin and the sea.

John Nussbaum

Autumn Blum self-identifies as a “mad scientist.” Her creations—personal care items under the Stream2Sea brand—honor her love for the ocean and her more than 20 years of experience as a cosmetic chemist. Her sunscreens, sting gels, hand creams, shampoos and other care products are non-toxic and safe for marine life and humans. She’s setting the standard for healthy and safe products across the industry.

“We all need to protect our blue planet, taking whatever steps are within our power – and my hope is that using safe sunscreens and body care will be a ‘gateway’ to other steps to encourage personal action to promote conservation,” Blum says. “And choosing safer products is definitely better for your body, which I call a triple win.”

Stream2Sea also collaborates with conservation organizations to act, educate and advocate on behalf of our oceans. In the end, Blum says, “we are all responsible for our choices and our actions in this world—and I believe in hope.”

4. Julie Higgs

Reigning spearfishing national champion and member of Team USA Spearfishing

Badass doesn’t even begin to describe Julie Higgs. Not only is she a freediver, scuba diver, spearfisher, and surfer, she’s also a firefighter paramedic.

In May 2022, she competed in and successfully defended her Spearfishing Nationals title, winning both top mixed team and female Nationals Champion. She’s broken several International Underwater Spearfishing Association world records in several categories. Finally, she’s also a celebrated member of Team USA Spearfishing.

Her Instagram and YouTube channels showcase a life lived in, on and below the water, with great love and respect for the fish she catches. On a recent May adventure, she saw two endangered sawfish feeding on a bait ball. Realizing how rare the encounter was, she repeatedly free dove down to film the animals. These videos may be the first of wild sawfish actively hunting by using their rostrum to stun fish.

5. Alannah Vellacott

Marine ecologist and biracial diver working to explore shipwrecks associated with the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Vellacott on water-entry ladder

Alannah Vellacott was a principal diver in Samuel L. Jackson’s series Enslaved, about the human cost of the transatlantic slave trade.

Courtesy Image

“I’m a marine scientist so it's important to have a scuba skill set,” said Alannah Vellacott. “Being Black is another layer on top…[since typically] we aren’t seen in those spaces….” As a mixed-race Bahamian diver, Vellacot has felt underestimated, tokenized or forced to be a representative for the group. She contends with these difficult identity questions through her work with Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a non-profit training divers to conduct marine archeology. DWP focuses on the African Diaspora, uncovering the stories behind slave shipwrecks.

This work developed into Enslaved, a six-part documentary in which Samuel L. Jackson and Vellacott explore slave shipwrecks to expose their terrible truths.

“This work matters so that it doesn’t get forgotten. …History doesn’t want to be forgotten,” Vellacott said. “Getting the stories accurate can give closure to a lot of people of color and help direct humanity in the correct direction.”