Diver Medic Technician, Professional Scientific and Media Diver Gemma Smith is a leading ambassador for women in diving, and open and closed circuit Cave and Technical Diving Instructor and an expedition Cave Diver. Gemma has operated as a team diver and ‘Guardian’ for the projects scientists on the Antikythera Shipwreck, the Mentor Shipwreck and the Tulsamerican Aircraft wreck. Gemma is a published author and photographer within the diving community.
Gemma was recently hit by a driver as a pedestrian, causing multiple injuries including fractured vertebrae, bleeding in the brain and shattered legs. Despite all of this, she remains positive in her recovery and vows to dive again, despite whatever life may throw at her.
You began diving at the age of 17. What inspired you to pursue diving?
I actually followed a bit of an unusual and winding path into the world of scuba diving. Because of various health issues as a young teenager, from the age of 13 I was taught at home by my parents. I had always been interested in ‘extreme’ sports, and being home-educated gave me a new freedom to pursue interests outside of the normal school environment. I learned to fly planes, white-water raft, skydive, bungee jump, learnt indigenous people skills (including the traditional method of tanning deer skin, during which process I managed to contract septicaemia!). Basically I wanted to do anything I could think of that was outdoors and fun. Then when I was 17 I saw a photo of a cave diver, and thought it looked cool. I decided that I wanted to give diving a go. Unlike all the other sports though which I’d tried and had fun at, but then quickly moved on from, I never moved on from diving. It totally consumed me in a way no other activity ever had. It became my whole life.
You were the first female diver to explore the famous Antikythera Ship wreck. How was that experience?
Having the opportunity to dive the Antikythera Shipwreck over the last four seasons has been without question one of the highlights of my journey in diving. It’s just such an iconic site! Discovered by sponge divers in the early 1900s, dived by the legend that is Jacques Cousteau on two separate expeditions in the 50’s and 70’s, and now to be involved on a modern excavation on the wreck from which the world famous and totally unique Antikythera Mechanism (often referred to as the worlds first ‘computer’) was found is completely beyond my wildest dreams. Before actually diving the wreck the fact that I might be the first women on it didn’t even cross my mind. All I wanted to do was dive the site with the rest of the team and do my job well. It wasn’t till later that one of my teammates mentioned that he thought I may be the first woman to ever dive the wreck! I was amazed but also shocked! I think partly why it has taken so long to get a woman diving the site is because so few people dive there anyway, and twenty/thirty years ago when Cousteau and his team were there women were still not yet overly involved with ‘technical’ diving. Technical diving was still very much in its infancy anyway! I think its a great sign though that on the first modern excavation of the wreck we have female team members, and I have no doubt there will be more women diving the site in the future.
What have been some of your other most memorable dives and achievements to date?
Oh, I feel so lucky and so blessed with having been given so many opportunities over the years!! A memorable achievement happened several years ago when I was living in Grand Cayman. My regular dive buddy Phil and I were approached by camera housing manufacturer Nauticam to do the deepest-ever real-world test on one of their new housings. This involved taking a camera and housing down to 155m/500ft (new divers are generally limited to 18m) and seeing how the controls worked at depth. Phil was in charge of checking the camera, and I was in charge of running the dive. From a logistical point of view it was an enormous undertaking. We had a boat, designated in-water safety support, more gas than we could ever possibly want. This was all done on Closed Circuit Rebreather of course, but we still had to have sufficient open circuit gas that could be used if we had any rebreather issues. It does make you think, though, when you watch the minutes of deco turning to many hours for just a few minutes spent at the bottom. The fact that the housing worked and we actually got useable images was just a massive bonus. I felt very proud of that. One of the best dives I’ve ever done was a cave dive in a small cave system called Jug Hole in Florida. Part of the fun was having to load all our side mount gear into a small rickety trolley and wheel it all for half an hour through the Florida forest to arrive at this small spring in the middle of nowhere! As soon as you jumped in though, the water was crystal clear blue, almost like air. And as you dropped vertically through the shaft into the cave zone it really was like entering a new dimension. This cave was also the first cave I ever reached the end of the line in. Its not a long dive, or a difficult dive, but the whole experience was fun and felt like a bit of an adventure. A dive doesn’t have to be difficult or challenging to be fun. Some of the best dives I’ve ever done have ben in less than 30 feet of water. Having said all that I think the dive I am most proud of though happened last year off the island of Vis in Croatia. Working with the American government and the Defence Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency, our team was able to excavate a downed World War 2 B-24 Bomber plane and recover human remains. These remains have since been sent to America, been positively identified, and are now awaiting formal burial at Arlington. Now thats a dive that actually means something.
What has diving taught you about life?
I think diving more than anything else has given me a direction and a passion. Its part of me now, and I can’t imagine a time in my life where I won’t be connected somehow to the water. When I’m a little old lady I might not be doing 150m rebreather dives anymore, but I know I’ll still be diving in some form or another! Diving has opened up the world to me, allowed me to travel, see incredible places and animals, and meet amazing, likeminded people and ‘soul-friends’. Diving hasn’t just transformed my life, it IS my life. I think anything you find that gives you a direction and a drive, and makes you want to improve and better yourself, is a wonderful thing.
Who are some of your role models in the industry?
Oh, there are too many amazing and inspirational people to count! We are so lucky to have so many incredible role models in this sport, especially when we look at the early years; Lottie Haas, Zale Parry, Valerie Taylor, Mossy Powell … Any strong and tough female diver I think is a role model. This sport is still quite male-dominated, especially on the technical diving side of things, so any women going out there and doing it anyway automatically has my respect.
Your life recently changed as a result of a car hitting you, a pedestrian. How has this impacted your way of life?
Yes, its strange how life can sometimes throws the ultimate curveball at you. What I’m slowly realising is that so much of what happens in life is the result of what we choose to do when hard time strike. Last month I was visiting friends in The Faroe Islands. As my buddy Barbara and I walked home we were hit by a car. It turns out an elderly gentleman had had an aneurism at the wheel of his car. He’s foot slipped onto the accelerator and the vehicle came with full force at the two of us. Barbara got clipped on the side and broke several ribs, but by an unlucky throw of the dice I got hit straight on. The impact sent me flying through the air and straight into a signpost, causing massive facial damage. That is the least of my worries though! The accident caused two fractured vertebrae in my neck, a broken tailbone, a small bleed on the brain, and two shattered legs. Two weeks in intensive care later in The Faroes I was well enough to return to the UK. Another week in hospital and I am finally home. I had hoped the worst was behind me, but not quite yet!! My right leg has rejected the implant and I need further surgeries to try and save my leg. Strangely enough though I still see so many positives!!! I am alive, I have my mental strength still, and I WILL dive again!! My life may be different, but its not worse. This is just a chance to start again and build a new life for myself. Being brave isn’t not being scared, its being scared and doing it anyway.
What has this obstacle in life taught you so far?
I have already learnt more about myself in the last four weeks since the accident than I though possible. I am so much stronger and more determined than I thought I would be. If a few months ago someone had asked me how I would react if I was told I might lose a leg, I think I would have had a complete emotional breakdown. When I was told the exact same thing by the Doctor last week, I was upset, but then I started thinking of it as just another obstacle for which I would find a solution. I also felt incredibly lucky that I was looking at losing just the one leg!! Its fascinating how your priorities change, and how you learn to adapt.
What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan on achieving them?
Honestly right now my goal is to heal my body as much as possible, and to get as strong as I can. It may be many months until I can walk again, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start preparing for that and keeping as busy as possible now. Whatever happens with my right leg, I will dive again. There is no question of that at all. Even if I lose the leg and have a prosthetic leg instead, that won’t change anything. I am so lucky, and I am beginning to realize that. the accident could have been so much worse, and I need to remember that. I am going to stay positive and look forward to future dive adventures. The type of diving I do might change, but it won’t be lesser diving. Just different.
What would be your advice for people looking to overcome obstacles and pursue their dream life
The best advice I have received came from one of the nurses in the Faroe Islands. I was having a bad day and was scared for the future. She looked me straight in the eye and said “You are NOT your body”. That really hit home. Yes, my body is having a hard time right now, and its exact future is uncertain, but everything that actually makes me ‘Gemma’ is still intact. My mind, my spirit, my ambition…thats all still there. Life will probably be different in the future, but maybe this is actually an incredible opportunity to begin again. I am free to be and do whatever I want. I truly believe that if you want something enough you make it happen.
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