Can Diving Help Heal Trauma and Abuse?
April is Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month in the United States. To honor those impacted, Holly Gibbs presents InDEPTH readers with a true story of sexual assault and trafficking that offers some insight into how diving has helped some survivors, including herself, return from the dark places that abuse took them. It’s a profile in courage you will surely find inspiring.
by Holly Gibbs. Images courtesy of Holly Gibbs.
Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of abuse and violence. If you’re seeking support from sexual trauma, help is available. In the U.S., you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit www.rainn.org/resources.
In 2005, I was in my twenties living in Southwest Florida and working as the technical director of a microbiology laboratory. Despite spending very little time outside or on the water—other than drinking rum runners at the beach tiki bars—my boyfriend at the time had signed us both up for an open water certification class as a surprise gift.
This class was one of the hardest things I had ever done physically and mentally. What I didn’t know at the time was that, as a survivor of child sex trafficking and other trauma, I had a higher risk of suffering from panic and anxiety disorders. As a first-time diver, this significantly impacted my stress level during the course.
I knew I had to dig deep if I was to complete this class. And I did.
April is recognized as National Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month in the United States. Although this may be a difficult topic for many readers, sexual violence affects many people in the diving community. Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted; and every 9 minutes that victim is a child.1 Sexual violence impacts people of all ages, races, and genders.
Unfortunately, I went on only a few more diving trips after completing my first course. I saw lobsters in the Florida Keys, collected sharks’ teeth in Venice, and explored an underwater cave. As I got older though, my stress and anxiety worsened, and I no longer pursued scuba diving. That is, until I was inspired by another survivor of sexual violence who is also an expert on trauma.
Meet Emily Waters, LCSW, MPA, PhDc
Emily Waters is a mental health and medical professional—she’s also a survivor. She decided to share her inspiring story to help raise awareness about sexual violence, highlight how resilient victims can be, and explore how she found long-term healing in scuba diving.
After graduating college in 2012 with a Master of Social Work and a Master of Public Administration, Emily Waters wanted to celebrate, so she took a month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand.
In Cairns, Emily signed up for a Discover Scuba Diving trip on a whim. “I was absolutely terrified,” she said. “I was extremely claustrophobic and not keen on the idea at all. I thought it would set off a huge panic attack. But I was on holiday in Australia at the Great Barrier Reef and decided to give it a shot. I fell in love immediately.”
After this first experience underwater, Emily continued to pursue diving trips around the world. “There is a peace and serenity when all you can hear is the bubbles you make and the sound of the wildlife,” Emily said. “That quiet and sacred place became my sanctuary—and it continues to be. There is a feeling of relief and surrender when you are allowed to share this space beneath the surface, watching sharks, giant turtles, and a myriad of flora and fauna.”
Before discovering this magical world, however, Emily had lived a lifetime of mayhem.
“I started life as a premature, safe surrender baby and spent three months in the NICU,” Emily explained. “I was adopted, and my family lived in constant chaos. My adoptive mother was severely mentally ill. She displayed symptoms of paranoia, prosecutorial complex, and lack of empathy for others. When she was up and about, our home was filled with violence. I would later understand that she had schizophrenia, among other disorders.”
Studies show that people who experience trauma in childhood—particularly abuse, neglect, parental separation, and substance use or mental health disorders in the home—are at a higher risk of experiencing negative health outcomes later in life, including ongoing exposure to violence and other forms of trauma.
Unfortunately, this was true for Emily.
By age fourteen, Emily was staying away from home as much as possible, working full time as well as attending school. She says that when she left home at age seventeen, she had no plan.
“I began to work more and more, and I took a few classes at a local college,” Emily explained. “I was using methamphetamine to stay up for 22 hours straight five days a week for two years.”
Emily says she felt like she was finally gaining some footing, and then, at age 18, she experienced a violent sexual assault. While out with friends, she got separated from her group.
“I was raped, beaten, and left for dead,” Emily explained. “I crawled up from the ditch where I had been thrown and knocked on many doors until I found someone who would answer. They left me standing bloody and mostly naked on their doorstep. This is how I lost my virginity.”
After this traumatic experience, Emily continued to survive on her own. She worked, attended school, and coped with her post-traumatic stress symptoms by using alcohol and other substances. She was soon targeted by human traffickers, including members of a violent organized criminal enterprise who used beatings, death threats, and sexual violence to control their victims, including Emily.
Human trafficking is a form of violence in which a person is forced—via violence, fraud, or coercion—to provide labor, services, or commercial sex. Commercial sex describes any situation in which something of value is exchanged for sex, such as money or drugs.3
Emily’s story is dark and tragic. But where there is trauma, there is often resilience.
The Road to Recovery
Emily is a survivor. In 2001, with help from a friend, she managed to escape. “I simply disappeared,” Emily explained. “I bought a plane ticket to another state, and after numerous harassing phone calls, I changed my number. And the traffickers never found me.”
Emily spent several months in a treatment center for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This included three months in inpatient care and four months in a sober living environment. It wasn’t easy, but Emily was determined to succeed.
“During the time I was trafficked, I lived in a constant state of panic and hypervigilance,” Emily explained. “My experience was a classic form of complex trauma. As part of my treatment, I worked with trauma therapists who used eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, brainspotting, and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy as techniques to work through my experiences and help with diminishing flashbacks and triggers. These techniques also helped me to understand that the abuse was not my fault.”
After several months of homelessness, recovery and healing efforts, and working several jobs, she was able to put a security deposit down on an apartment and pursue a career in trauma therapy.
Healing Under the Sea
Back to Australia in 2012, where Emily celebrated graduating with two master’s degrees and discovered her passion for scuba diving. After returning to the States, Emily completed her open water certification.
At the time, Emily was living in California and working in South Central Los Angeles as a paramedic. She explained that, as one of only two female paramedics in the region, and the only one who was able to speak Spanish, she was constantly requested during her 24- to 48-hour shifts.
This high level of intensity followed Emily for the next ten years—from California, to Texas, to New York—where she provided around-the-clock care to survivors of sex trafficking and administered training and technical assistance (TTA) to other professionals such as law enforcement officers, legislators, and health care workers. Emily continued diving internationally, but she knew she wanted to dive more frequently.
“When I worked as a paramedic,” Emily explained, “the phone would ring at any time day or night. Later, when I moved to New York, I continued to be on-call 24 hours a day seven days a week, unless I was out of the country. And then, after I was provided with a satellite phone, I was expected to be on-call even when I was traveling. I was burning out.”
Emily found a local dive shop in New York where she began diving weekly. She quickly completed her advanced open water certification and other specialty classes.
“While the conditions in New York don’t provide the clearest visibility,” Emily said, “I was able to do further training, gain more confidence underwater, and most importantly, have at least a few hours per week when my cell phone was locked in the glove compartment. I craved that time away from the noise; I just needed quiet. Oddly, when people ask me why I started diving and training, my first response is usually, ‘No one could call me while I was underwater.’
Although Emily found the respite and continued healing that she needed with local dives, she struggled with the challenging water conditions in New York. Like many survivors of violence, Emily faced long-term physical health effects which affected her ability to dive. For example, Emily explained that when she was a victim of sex trafficking, she sustained fractures to three vertebrae in her neck that later required reconstructive surgery.
“As a result of the surgery, I’m unable to look up and down,” Emily said, “I can only move my head from side to side. This prevents me from maintaining a horizontal profile underwater, which is considered the proper posture. So, when I’m diving, I’m typically more vertical than horizontal. Otherwise, I can’t see what’s around me, which is a safety issue.”
Emily explained that she had to modify diving protocols and equipment to accommodate.
“I can’t walk around with a BCD or tank on my back,” she said. “Divers typically walk into shore or jump off a boat this way, but I usually can’t do this because of the strain on my neck and shoulders. So, I basically chuck my equipment in the water and then jump in to go get it.”
Emily laughed, “This freaks some people out, especially in choppy water, but I always explain that I’m good; I’ve got this.”
As Emily’s healing journey continues, she still works with survivors of violence and provides TTA; however, she left the situation where she was constantly on-call.
“I was pouring everything I had into helping others,” Emily said, “I wanted to help others find the path from victim to survivor, but toward the end I was giving up too much of myself. I need to ensure that my own physical and mental health is in a good place.”
Diving remains a source of peace for Emily—and the underwater world a place of healing. “Scuba diving was the first thing I can recall that was just mine—where I could just feel free and enjoy myself.”
Today, Emily continues to dive on a regular basis both in the States and abroad. She recently completed her Divemaster certification in Bonaire and is continuing an instructor course in New York. Emily’s goal is to specialize in adaptive diver training so that she can help divers with disabilities or histories of trauma who must adapt diving procedures, techniques, or equipment.
Emily is an inspiration to survivors of sexual violence across the world, including myself. It’s been over 15 years since my last scuba diving trip. However, after watching Emily’s adventures on social media, I’m ready to get back in the water. I reached out to my local dive shop to enroll in a refresher course, and I’m looking to book a scuba diving trip soon.
To learn more about how you can raise awareness, prevent sexual assault and violence, and become an ally for victims and survivors, visit www.rainn.org.
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), About Sexual Assault, www.rainn.org/about-sexual-assault (accessed February 26, 2023)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html (accessed February 26, 2023)
- United States Public Law 106-386: Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Includes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
DescentProject.com: Descent Dutch ice freediver Kiki Bosch dives in the world’s coldest waters without a wetsuit as therapy for the trauma of sexual assault, and to inspire (2020) others.
Into The Planet Podcast: Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in Scuba Diving by Jill Heinerth & Robert McClellan (MAR 2023)
Diver: Sexism: Alive and well in scuba diving by Jill Heinerth (2015)
Holly Austin Gibbs graduated Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in 2000 with a Bachelor’s in biology. While working in Southwest Florida as the technical director of a microbiology laboratory, she received her open water certification. In 2014, Holly published a book called “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery” (St. Martin’s Press), in which she shares her experience as a victim of child sex trafficking. After traveling across the country and speaking on the topic of sexual abuse for many years, Holly is looking forward to returning to scuba diving. Holly and her husband, Ben, now live in Richmond, Virginia, with their chihuahua, Bumper.
The Aftermath Of Love: Don Shirley and Dave Shaw
Our young Italian poet-explorer Andrea Murdoch Alpini makes a pilgrimage to visit cave explorer Don Shirley at the legendary Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. In addition to guiding the author through the cave, Shirley and Alpini dive into history and the memories of the tragic loss in 2005 of Shirley’s dive buddy David Shaw, who died while trying to recover the body of a lost diver at 270 m/882 ft. The story features Alpini’s short documentary, “Komati Springs: The Aftermath of Love.”
Text by Andrea Murdock Alpini
🎶 Pre-dive clicklist: Where is My Mind by Pixies🎶
South Africa, Komati Springs.
On October 28, 2004, two cave divers and long-time friends, Don Shirley and David Shaw, planned a dive at Boesmansgat (also known in English as “Bushman’s Hole”) a deep, submerged freshwater cave (or sinkhole) in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Dave dove to 280 meters, touched the bottom and started exploring. At that time, Shaw had recently broken four records at one time: depth on a rebreather, depth in a cave on a rebreather, depth at altitude on a rebreather, and depth running a line. While on the dive at Boesmansgat, he found a body that had been there for nearly ten years, 20-year-old diver Deon Dreyer.
After obtaining permission to retrieve the body from Dreyer’s parents, the two friends returned three months later. They enrolled eight support rebreather divers (all of whom were close to Don) and Gordon Hiles, a cameraman from Cape Town, who filmed the entire process—from the preparation on the surface to the operation at the bottom of the cave. The surface marshal was Verna van Schaik, who held the women’s world record for depth at the time. Little did they know that Dave would not come back from his 333rd dive, one that he himself recorded with an underwater camera.
Researchers have determined that while attempting the retrieval, Dave ran into physical difficulties with the lines from the body bag and the wires from the light head. The physical effort of trying to free himself led to his death for what is believed to be respiratory insufficiency (see video below). Don Shirley nearly died as well, and apparently was left with permanent damage that has impaired his balance.
Nearly 20 years later, our own Andrea Murdock Alpini visits Don and has this to say:
February 2023—I arrive at the mine owned by cave expert and pioneer of deep diving, Don Shirley. The place is fantastic—the wild nature, the warm water, and the dives are amazing. Every day I spend at least 230 minutes underwater, filming the mines and what is left of man’s influence in this beautiful and God-forgotten corner of Africa. Every day I have time to talk, plan dives, and prepare the blends together with Don Shirley.
The following is a part of the story that links Don Shirley to South Africa. Stories and places intertwine between Komati Springs, Boesmansgat (or “Bushman’s Hole”) and then the fatal dive with his friend Dave Shaw.
Monkeys arrive on time every 12 hours. They showed up last night at about 5:00. They came down from the trees in large groups. They start playing, throwing themselves from one branch to another, chasing each other. Mothers hug their little ones. Some of them play with oxygen cylinders, the smaller ones instead with methane gas tanks, the ones we use for cooking. We are surrounded by gas blenders of all kinds.
A herdsman’s hat rests on the workbench. Two hands with delicate, thin skin take adapters, cylinders, and whips.They open and close taps. Notebooks report all the consumption for each charge, strictly written in liters with the utmost precision. Impressions: An Amaranth t-shirt, an unmistakable logo, that of the IANTD. A pair of jeans and then some boots. He has a slight physique, he is lean and athletic with a beard that is white now, and a few days’ old.
While he works carefully, I do not disturb him, for I know well that when mixing, one is not to be interrupted, at least this is so for anyone who loves precision. Then, when he’s done, we have time to talk a little bit together.
We sit at his desk and then go to the board to plan the dive in the mine.
Don shows me the map of the first level. He explains some important facts to me, then his hands pull out a second sheet with the plan redesigned from memory of the second level at 24 m/70 ft deep. “This is the guitar level,” he says.
At first I don’t understand. He chuckles. I look at the shape he drew and, yes, that floor plan is a cross between a Fender Stratocaster and a Picasso guitar. Anyway, it’s a guitar, no doubt.
We begin planning the dive together. It’s exciting to hear him talk; he speaks in a soft, elegant tone, and it moves me. I look at his index finger moving. I listen to his words, but I also look at his eyes.
He gives me some advice but also tells me, “This mine is more similar to a cave. I have left it as it is. I want people to explore it and not follow any lines.”
Freedom of thought, plurality of choices. Acceptance of risk, inclusion of the other in what belongs to you. It’s clear that Don’s vision of diving is uncommon. Freedom is beautiful, but it is the most dangerous thing there is, if mishandled.
The next day, we have an appointment at 7 o’clock at the lake. Before diving this morning, we saw where the “Tunnel of Love” originates on the surface, a curious gallery which I came across underwater. There are two parts of the mine that survived the destruction of the mining facility after its closure. One of these is the tunnel where we are going, the other part is perched in the middle of the mountain.
Don explains that the tunnel is now frequented by the wild animals who go to drink there, so we follow their trail. The water has flooded everything up to just a few meters below the surface of the bush. Don cuts the underbrush that makes the path difficult. He wears his faithful herdsman’s hat and never takes it off. The ground begins to tilt slightly, a good sign that we are about to arrive. A series of stones suggest that here the path has been paved. “It was covered in wood,” Don explains.
The path that started from the building where the miners lived is now demolished. Following it, we arrive at what was called “The Tunnel of Love.”
The tunnel that was the mine’s main entry point. Narrow and difficult, the tunnel led to level one—now underwater at a depth of 18 m/60 ft.
We turn on the headlamps and enter. A small colony of bats flaps its wings upon our arrival. The water touches our boots. Some roots filter from the rock and stretch to the resurgence. The scenery is evocative.
Don kneels, peering at the water, and something. He looks at the water and something changes within him. Something has changed in our shared dialogue.
It’s as if Don takes on another language as he speaks. He always looks straight ahead. His vocabulary changes, and with it his tone of voice. We talk about politics, economics, the future of Komati Springs, the origin of the name of the place, the history of the mine, but we never mention two topics: diving and Dave Shaw.
Don’s a real caveman. I know that those who love caves are not ordinary people. We who do are a little bit mad to do what we do and love, but he’s different. He is comfortable here; he has found his dimension.
I remember asking him a question when we were inside the Tunnel of Love, breaking one of the long silences: “What thoughts are going through your mind?” He seemed to have reached a meditative state, a kind of catharsis. He replied, “I am just relaxing. This is a peaceful place. “
Around nine o’clock, we travel again to the lake, leaving the dry caves behind.
The first dive lasted 135 minutes, the second 95 minutes. Once the equipment is set up, I return to the cottage to dry everything and recharge the cylinders.
Don’s hands this time are again without gloves. Before we start mixing, we walk into his office.The walls are lined with articles he has published over the years.
He shows me the medals for valor he got when he was on duty in the British Army. When we return to a small corridor that acts as a barrier, my eyes fall on two photographs. “Is that Dave?” I ask. “That’s him. We were here in Komati,” Don tells me. “You see? This is his hat,” and he points to what is on his head.
The Consequences of Love
These are the consequences of love, I think. A friendship that transcends time, life, but also death.
It’s time to prepare the blends for tomorrow. As the oxygen pumps out, Don asks me, “Have you ever seen our Boesmasgat’s diving slates?” Obviously, I had never seen the decompression tables of that famous and tragic dive to 280 m/920 ft depth at 1,600 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) altitude.
“Hang on a sec.” Don picks up a small black box with a yellow label and brings it to me. He opens it. “These are the original dive charts. These are mine; these are Dave’s.” The box also contains the famous blackboard with the inscription, (“DAVE NOT COMING BACK”) from the documentary, as well as a pair of underwater gloves used in that dive, and then the heirloom of his CCR computer that broke due to excessive hydrostatic pressure.
He exits the room. He leaves me with those emotionally charged objects in my hands. I can’t see them any differently. They obviously have historical value; but, for me, the human sense prevails. I look at the decompression tables, touch the gloves, and think about the hands that wore them, that read the various whiteboards, and I imagine the scenes of that time.
I place everything back in the box. I hand it to Don as I would hand him a precious urn. In part, it is one. I find it hard to express myself in that moment. He understands why.
At this point I ask him, “What was the true meaning of that extreme dive that Dave wanted to do? Why did he do it?”
“He just wanted to explore the bottom of that cave,” Don said. “Wherever Dave went, he wanted to get to the bottom. That’s how we’ve always done it together. So that’s what we did here at the mine.”
Don then tells me a series of details and information about that place, about the geological stratification of the cave; he talks a little about the owner of the land where the famous sinkhole is located, and finally he talks about many other aspects of their failed dive. I promised to keep it to myself, and I will do so, forever.
Such is a connection that endures over time.
Wikipedia: Dave Shaw
YouTube: Diver Records Doom | Last Moments-Dave Shaw
Wikipedia: Dave Not Coming Back (2020) A critically acclaimed film that centers on diver Dave Shaw’s death while attempting to recover the body of Deon Dreyer from the submerged Boesmansgat cave in 2005.
Shock Ya: Don Shirley Fondly Remembers Scuba Diving with David Shaw in Dave Not Coming Back Exclusive Clip
Outside: Raising the Dead (2005) by Tim Zimmerman
Other stories by the prolific Andrea Alpini Murdock:
InDEPTH: Finessing the Grande Dame of the Abyss
InDEPTH: Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive
InDEPTH: I See A Darkness: A Descent Into Germany’s Felicitas MineInDEPTH: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, published in the Fall of 2022.
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