By Jennifer Idol
As I flew over the Gulf of Mexico on a return trip from Tobago, the pilot made an announcement. We were flying over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I sat on the right side of the plane in a window seat and pressed my face against the window. As I looked down, I saw an array of oil tankers surrounding water that flamed as they desperately tried to contain the spillage. I did not take a photo. Instead, I burned the image into my mind.
The moment the sight receded into the distance, I deeply regretted freezing in my seat and gazing downward without capturing the scene. This spill took place in my backyard. As a Texan with nearly 20 years of diving experience, I knew our underwater environment would be immensely impacted.
In addition to my skills as a diver, I was also a professional designer and photographer. I spent a lifetime training my eyes to see through a lens, but was not a scientist. How could I make positive change in an immense underwater world with such big events? The problem seemed overwhelming, so I decided to combine my communication skills with diving and set out on a journey to tell the story of our local waters.
Undertaking a self-led expedition
I could not reverse time by flying around the planet counter to its spin or produce revolutionary scientific solutions for evaporating pollution. However, I could set out on a quest that would capture people’s imaginations. I determined diving all 50 states would help reveal the beauty in our local natural resources. Though a large goal, I split the quest into smaller annual achievements. I planned to complete 10 states each year for five years. This seemed reasonable.
I maintained my career as a designer during the quest and divided my limited vacation time across long weekends. Since the purpose was not simply to complete a state, I sometimes visited many sites on additional trips. I wanted to truly illuminate the beauty of these waters through my underwater photography.
To afford the trip, I spent all my income beyond expenses on the quest and camped or drove whenever it assisted with finances. I also took buddies with me who divided travel and lodging costs with me. My first buddy on the journey, Ben Castro, completed 27 states with me. Over the course of the journey, I dove with more than 74 buddies and was enriched by all who I met.
Highlights and lessons
I proved my hypothesis that beautiful diving across our country was waiting to be revealed when I found great diving in nearly every state. I learned about zebra and quagga mussels, invasive species that smother every hard surface underwater, including native mussels and habitat for vegetation. It is imperative we do our best to clean bilges from boats and not transfer these fast growing bivalves to other fresh water ecosystems.
Wildlife such as horseshoe crabs, paddlefish, and plumose anemones captivated me. I adored watching horseshoe crabs shuffle across the seafloor. In Maine, I learned red lobsters do not clearly contrast with green water when they live in red kelp. On my coastline, I was introduced to the most endangered of sea turtles, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. This smallest of our sea turtles makes Texas one of two nesting grounds in the world, the other in northern Mexico.
I saw the clearest water I’ve yet to find in Little Crater Lake in Oregon. Though the spring-fed lake is small and cold, it glimmered like a crystal goblet. The journey would take me on my coldest dive as I completed an ice-diving certification in Ohio and on my warmest dive in the geothermally warmed Homestead Crater in Utah. I also reached my greatest depths on the USS Oriskany from the coast of Pennsylvania.
The images I created began to depict a more complete picture of diversity in America. Though nature knows no borders, the states were geographically distinct and appeared different from one another. I intentionally dove in a multitude of environments such as caves, springs, quarries, lakes, rivers, oceans, and in different climates.
From the outset, I planned to share my story through a book, presentations, and my images. I now tour to tell the story and show what I learned to any interested group. My book was released in its hardcover form in May 2016 and the softcover will soon be completed.
Completing the quest
In four years, six months, and two days, I completed my quest. I applied rugged passion and dedication to complete a five-year journey in which I became the first woman to dive all 50 states. My book, An American Immersion, relives my journey. It shows what motivated my quest and how I transformed from a successful designer into a conservation artist to help the world around us. I overcame time and financial obstacles to illuminate our underwater resources through vivid photography.