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A Giant Stride for Womankind: The WDHOF Celebrates its 20th Anniversary

Now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, the iconic “Women Divers Hall of Fame,” representing some 244 inspiring divers in 21 countries, has raised more than $500,000 that it awards in scholarships and grants to up and coming water women around the planet. Come get the lowdown from British diving content creator Vic Brown.



By Victoria Brown
All photos courtesy of WDHOF

For 20 years, Women’s Diving Hall of Fame, WDHOF, has been championing women divers who make outstanding contributions to the dive industry through the exploration, understanding, safety, and enjoyment of our underwater world. The Hall has honored the expertise and experience of 244 inspiring women hailing from 21 countries all across the planet.  

The organization has evolved from humble beginnings into a force within the diving world, and has become one of the most impactful organizations in the industry. They have a reputation for promoting opportunities in diving through scholarships, training grants, mentorship opportunities, and access to a worldwide network of industry contacts. 

It All Started with a Good Idea

This year marks the 20-year anniversary of this iconic movement. The organization is celebrating the many years of philanthropic work and dedication, including reaching the milestone of $500,000 in fundraising since their incorporation. This money has helped to fund past scholarships, including the 63 scholarships and grants that the organization has pledged this year. They are not stopping there. The sisterhood has launched a new initiative they have creatively called 20 for 20, which will see 20 grants of $1000 awarded to women of all ages to complete their open water course in 2020. This is a truly international affair with inductees coming from across the globe, showing that the international reach of the WDHOF is growing. 

The six founders of the WFHOF.

The idea behind the organization was born in New Jersey in 1999 when Armand “Zig” Zigahn, President of Beneath the Sea Inc. (BTS), was planning a big celebration for the close of the millennium. As we moved into a new century he wanted to mark the occasion by celebrating the greatest women divers at the time with a one-time celebration. This was a tall task, as there were so many high-achieving women divers, so a committee was selected to draw up a shortlist. The original six included Dr. Hillary Viders, an award winning writer, speaker, and educator; Patty Mortara, co-founder of Women Underwater; Carol Rose, President of The Underwater Society of America (USOA); Jennifer King, President of the Women’s Scuba Association; Ray Tucker, Chief Financial Officer; and Zig Zigahn. They set to task, and The Women Divers Executive Committee was born. It was also known by those on the ground as Mission: Greatest Women Divers of the 20th Century.

The response was overwhelming: so many women were held in high regard by their peers, even at a time in the industry when there were comparatively fewer women in diving.

Advertisements were placed in dive magazines calling for people to send in nominations of women whom they felt were excelling in their chosen diving fields. The response was overwhelming: so many women were held in high regard by their peers, even at a time in the industry when there were comparatively fewer women in diving. It was then the job of the committee to track down all of the divers on the list, many of whom were nominated without contact details, and with some working so far underwater that they were nearly impossible to reach. 

After the lengthy hunt for each nominee, the committee had gathered their treasure: a photo and bio from each of the nominated divers, and a collection of 76 outstanding women who made the inaugural roster that would become the of WDHOF. It was a grand and momentous affair; Norma Wellington, a jewellery designer, created a gold pin with a temporary logo, and Patty Mortara designed the certificate for the award. Bios and accompanying photographs were arranged on the wall of the Meadowlands Expo Center throughout the WDHOF Member luncheon at Beneath the Sea Expo weekend, stoking a mini-media frenzy. 

The WDHOF at the BTS (Beneath the Sea) expo in 2018.

With the success and popularity of the campaign, the committee could see great value in the mission and decided that this was to be more than just a one-time celebration. They proceeded to formalize the organization, creating a new name and a logo inspired by Zighan, who had exclaimed about one of the committee, “That lady really looks like she means business, not like a girly girl… she looks strong enough to wrestle me to the ground.” And so the WDHOF Hall of Fame was born. 

In 2001, the WDHOF incorporated as a non-profit and quickly set about fundraising, with Kathy Weydig honoured as the first President-Treasurer of WDHOF. Five years later, Weydig was awarded founder status, recognizing her central role in these early years.  During the 2001 BTS show, another 36 women were inducted, and it was the first year the sisterhood added the DEMA Show to the calendar to welcome the inductees who couldn’t make the BTS show in New Jersey. They have featured at both shows ever since.  The philanthropic mission of the organization was decided upon shortly after its inception, with four scholarships offered in 2002, the year in which another 16 women were admitted into the Hall. 

Underwater photographer and “Duck Mistress” Cathy Church exploring the marine environment while allowing the ducks of the Derby some well-earned rest. 

The early success of the WDHOF can be attributed to their fundraising efforts, which have also fuelled their continued growth. Every March, during its 20-year history, the committee plans the WDHOF luncheon during the BTS expo; items are auctioned on behalf of WDHOF during the traditional BTS Fish & Famous Gala. In 2003, Weydig expanded upon these traditions and produced the highly lucrative Duck Derby fundraising event held at DEMA, which featured Cathy Church as the “Duck Mistress” and a celebrity guest host. Fast forward a decade, to the celebration of their ten year anniversary: Fundraising efforts were doubled, and a year-round program of events kicked off at the BTS show with a cruise on the Hudson River. 

Evie Dudas

That same year, Julianne Ziefle collated the sold-out WDHOF Diver’s Palate Cookbook, illustrated by Bonnie Toth, the “resident graphic genius.” Meanwhile, Darlene Iskra led another committee in the development and publication of the ten-year anniversary WDHOF commemorative book, wherein members collected the signatures of their peers, showing the ever growing strength and  momentum of what was becoming an established movement. This was cemented when Evelyn Dudas led the first dive trip that year to Bonaire, staying at Captain Don’s Habitat, a resort that regulates its impact on the environment. The trip was such a success that it has been repeated every subsequent year with groups going on to visit destinations including Mexico, Grand Cayman, and the Florida Keys (to visit Sally Bauer’s History of Diving Museum). The profits from these trips contribute to the funding of scholarships. 

A group of divers who attended one of WDHOF trips to Iceland.
Sally Bauer at the History of Diving Museum, Florida

By 2011, the ducks were all tuckered out, and the Derby became the Tropical Dreams and Paradise Sunsets party at trade show DEMA. Despite this risky move, it was another successful year. By 2015, the commemorative book was back again, only this time it was bigger and better. That year the WDHOF was over the moon to announce the scholarship program had to date awarded over $250,000, divided among well-deserving recipients.  Fifteen years in, it was clear that fundraising was going well, diver trips were oversubscribed, and the organization was making waves in international waters. Despite these victories, the WDHOF made it clear that “The Women Divers Hall of Fame’s greatest asset remains its members: women of all ages, nationalities, races, religions, and fields of expertise. We are sisters bound by our love of the sea and commitment to excellence.” 

“We are sisters bound by our love of the sea and commitment to excellence.” 

For example, during 2015, Chantelle Taylor-Newman, who had been introduced to WDHOF in the previous year while on a course with mentor Andrea Zaferes, immediately recognized the power of the organization and made the revolutionary move to take a booth at the London International Dive Show as an associate member in order to spread the good word of the WDHOF.  She went on to represent WDHOF at Dive Show Birmingham later that year and exhibited each year until 2018.  She fondly reminisced in an interview, “In 2015 I was invited to Beneath the Sea with Andrea to meet the Women Divers Hall of Fame members. This was the 15-year anniversary of WDHOF and my introduction to a unity of powerful women.”

Chantelle Taylor-Newman, The Diver Medic, is committed to “providing individuals with the confidence, knowledge and practical skills necessary to deal with any diving based medical emergency.”

The same year, she was inducted into the organization for her unprecedented work in increasing diving safety awareness worldwide. Today she is still the only instructor accredited to teach the DAN Europe Recreational DMT course that she created. After Taylor-Newman joined the WDHOF, she was put in charge of the Global Outreach Committee with a view to expand into Europe and further afield in order to raise the international profile. She felt the organization was too American-centric, commenting, “There are so many worthy divers outside of the USA, there is great value in helping the name become more recognized,” she said. Taylor-Newman also puts her money where her mouth is: She awards a grant for a Diver Medic Technician course each year, and has done so since 2016. 

A Truly International Affair

Some say Cristina Zenato can speak “Shark”.  Having worked for so long in understanding their behaviours, Cristina boasts a world first, a magic touch able to induce a state of relaxation in the Caribbean Reef shark so it appears to be napping in her lap. 

There were already a handful of inductees from around the world before Taylor-Newman’s induction, such as Jayne Jenkins (UK/Australia), Audrey Mestre (France), Marguerite St-Leger-Dowse (UK), Cristina Zenato (Italy), Vreni Roduner (Switzerland), Simone Melchior Cousteau (France) and Linda Pitkin (UK). However, in recent years there has been a noticeable increase in international members being inducted into WDHOF; for example, in 2018, technical dive journalist Sabine Kerkau was the first German to be admitted, alongside Belgian photographer Ellen Cuylaerts and Mexican non-profit founder, Dora Sandoval. 

The previous year, the induction included marine conservationist and ocean advocate, Sharon Kwok Pong, from Hong Kong, China. This flurry of activity has been accredited to the work of Taylor-Newman in her role as the Global Outreach committee head. This year Parisian-born Hélène de Tayrac-Senik—founder of the Paris Dive Show—made the grade, further building on the international expansion of this innovative brand. Taylor-Newman encourages nominations by highlighting that the “WDHOF is a great conduit to get places and be recognized by people, as long as they are aware of the organization…to be in the WDHOF it is a phenomenal achievement, and all the members are out here supporting each other and other people. That is the way in.  It’s about giving to the industry, not taking away.”

The organization also has an international reach in their fundraising efforts. As of 2020, WDHOF has awarded a total of over $500,000, to 421 individuals from all over the world.

The organization also has an international reach in their fundraising efforts. As of 2020, WDHOF has awarded a total of over $500,000, to 421 individuals from all over the world. This year, 63 individuals will draw from a pot of $79,000. The programs are so popular that some grants or scholarships are seeing up to 40 to 50 applicants, which helps to raise awareness of the organization. As Bonnie Toth noted, “Marine Science grants are always popular.” Although the scholarships are competitive, they are not unachievable; WDHOF creates a grant for every ten eligible applicants, making sure the funding follows where the demand is.  

A number of the sponsors are also members themselves. Margo Peyton founded Kids Sea Camp in 2000 and disperses four to five training grants per year, each valued at $500. And this year, with the 20 for 20 initiative, the board was able to boast that “No one else in the industry is doing anything else of this magnitude.” Recipients of the scholarships and grants submit a report with photos for the WDHOF newsletter, so members can see the positive outcomes for people taking this training and the amazing benefits of these funding streams.

WDHOF: An Agent of Change

Margo Peyton, Sea Kids Camp, facilitates children and families to adventure beyond their wildest dreams. 

These reports will of course be added to the large library of good news stories that the organization rightfully holds dear. In 2018, ten-year-old Lorelei Short found herself enamoured by ocean exploration after completing the PADI Bubblemaker experience.  Her dream of learning to dive was realized that year when she was awarded a learn-to-dive scholarship by Ocean Wishes Foundation & Kids Sea Camp, which enabled her to plunge into her open water course. She plans to complete her qualifying dives when the weather warms up. Her enthusiasm is infectious.  “This is an incredible experience and I want to thank you for making it possible by granting me the funds to participate. This is an experience that most people don’t have. It was amazing to go underwater and take those first breaths! This would not have happened if I had not received the grant; so, thank you so much,” she reported!

“It was amazing to go underwater and take those first breaths! This would not have happened if I had not received the grant; so, thank you so much.”

A year earlier, experienced diver Chelsea Bennice, Ph.D., was the winner of the Elizabeth Greenhalgh Memorial Scholarship in Journalism, Graphic Arts, and Photography sponsored by WDHOF Member Deb Greenhalgh Lubas. The funds allowed Bennice to take an underwater photography workshop to sharpen her skills, and since then she has used her photographs as a community outreach tool. Bennice has more than doubled her online following and increased engagement with her community, consequently drawing greater attention to her invaluable scientific research. 

More recently, Reanna Jeanes was the recipient of the 2019 Undergraduate Marine Conservation Scholarship, sponsored by Blue World & Oceanic Research Group and WDHOF Member Christine Bird. Jeanes’s research focused on whether macroalgal species out-compete coral colonies, making them susceptible and vulnerable to outside influences. She had this to say about her research: “In September 2017, Hurricane Irma scoured much of the macroalgae in the Florida Keys, presenting the unique opportunity to observe macroalgal succession on coral reefs. We surveyed ten reef sites quarterly in the year following Hurricane Irma, focusing on regions with varying abundances of initial Dictyota and Halimeda species.”

The same year, marine biologist and keen scientific diver Aurelia Reichardt was awarded the 2019 Recreational/Public Safety Diver Medical Education Grant (UK & Europe) sponsored by The Diver Medic (owned by Chantelle Taylor-Newman) and DAN Europe. She completed the DAN Recreational Dive Medical Technician (DMT) training, an advanced first aid course aimed at recreational divers. Looking back on her experience Reichardt commented, “As a result of the WDHOF scholarship, I was able to make professional connections with other divers as well as with Chantelle Newman, the Diver Medic and DAN Europe. I am keen to continue my Diver Medic education and look forward to participating in the DAN Diving Emergency Medical Responder (DEMR) course in the future.”

Band of Sisters

Explorer Jill Heinerth has helped women across the world break through the barriers they encounter in their careers.

The support offered by this dynamic organization is not always financial;a large part of its work is the peer-to-peer support and mentoring.  Canadian explorer-in-residence, Jill Heinerth, has been a member since the beginning, and she, along with Patty Mortana (founding member) produced a magazine called Women Underwater‘ which connected the pioneering women tech divers scattered around the globe. 

For Heinerth, the WDHOF has provided personal support, and offered an opportunity to be a part of a network for younger women in the industry. Heinerth focuses her mentoring efforts within her field of cave diving, and has helped women break through the ice ceilings they encounter in their careers. When interviewed, she asserted that “For many women, there have been gatekeepers, biases, and financial issues that stood in their way. I want to remove those issues and help them to achieve what I know they are capable of.” 

“For many women, there have been gatekeepers, biases, and financial issues that stood in their way. I want to remove those issues and help them to achieve what I know they are capable of.” 

Pioneer and American ichthyologist Eugenie Clark was known as ‘The Shark Lady’ for her dedication to shark behavioural studies. 

The collegial nature of the organization is palpable. In an example of admiration between members, Bonnie Toth was thrilled to meet marine biologist Eugenie Clark at one of the last BTS shows she attended. Toth had even brought along her old dog-eared copy of The Lady and the Sharks (1969), not missing the opportunity to get it signed; upon seeing the book, Clark exclaimed, “I can’t believe you still have this book!” Dottie Fraizer, the first scuba instructor in the USA—now ninety-eight years old—says she is still having a great time. Although she’s not teaching scuba for Los Angeles County anymore, she values being a part of this thriving community. Evelyn Dudas, also a member since the first induction, has been an active participant in the industry since 1962 and holds the title for the first woman to dive the ill-fated Andrea Doria wreck. She’s also responsible for the 1980s-era expansion of Dudas’ Diving Duds into a full-service dive facility for recreational and technical divers, all while raising her children on her own.  

Dottie Fraizer, USA’s first ever female Scuba instructor.

Dudas talks about how she was initially hesitant to be a part of a woman-only movement, recollecting, “I was not a big supporter of women’s movements. You did your job and you got credit for what you did… [but] I was impressed with the idea of the scholarship(s).” In spite of her hesitancy, Dudas’s induction in 2000 to the WDHOF turned out to be a positive experience and highlights the value of their philanthropic work. She has been an active member since its creation. Jill Heinerth seconds that sentiment, commenting, “I’m extremely proud of the outreach and support that WDHOF offers to our community. Scholarships, grants, and recognition can be life-changing for younger women. I hope that one day we won’t feel that there is a need to have an organization that specifically recognizes women, but right now it’s very important!” Her comments illustrate the progressive attitude of the members and the organization as a whole. These margins are too narrow to mention all of the women that have propelled the WDHOF forward over the years. It is evident this is a collective effort of like-minded and generous women who are experts in collaboration.  

To the Future and Beyond

“It is the ‘sisterhood’ that binds us together. Many of us are still diving. Many of us are not.”

President Mary Connelly and Chairman Bobbie Scholley have announced that the 20th anniversary awards will take place at the Beneath the Sea show. While the show was originally scheduled for this spring, it has been postponed until October 2020 due to COVID-19.  Although this is a hurdle of sorts, this network of inspiring women is well versed in overcoming adversity, and the members have a rich history of supporting each other and the underwater community. In their 20th year, there is a real sense that the Women’s Hall of Fame is an integral and permanent part of the dive industry landscape. The picture behind the scenes is as impressive as the standing of the brand. This is an organization that truly cares and that acts on that compassion. This sentiment comes through even in their internal communications, with a recent newsletter reading: “It is the ‘sisterhood’ that binds us together. Many of us are still diving. Many of us are not. But we do not want to lose touch or contact with a single one of you. You matter to us. Plus, we need to remember that, in the water or out, our ocean planet needs us to be the voice of responsibility and compassion.”  We look forward to watching how this dynamic and impactful organization goes about this mission, and hopefully many of us will contribute to their growth in whatever way we can. 

“In the water or out, our ocean planet needs us to be the voice of responsibility and compassion.” 

WDHOF at the NOGI Dinner during the 2018 DEMA SHOW in Las Vegas, Nevada.

If you would like to be involved with this historic organization, the best way to show support is to become an Associate.  Being an Associate allows you access to opportunities to socialize and network one-on-one with WDHOF officers, trustees, and members at dive shows, entry to seminars and special events, a stylish associate lapel pin, and listing in and admission to the online special of the newsletter.  

Above all, your dues go toward the outstanding contributions that allow WDHOF to grow the organization’s outreach and support the next generation of future divers. 

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Dive Deeper:

Avidly exploring the underworld since she was twelve, Victoria has been a professional diver for sixteen years and is now based back in the UK following many years touring the snowiest peaks and deepest green seas. From safety diving on media projects to creating content for the coolest brands in the diving industry, she has diving written all over her. 

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