Stephanie Wear

Lead Scientist for Coral Reef Conservation, The Nature Conservancy

Location: Beaufort, NC

"If this were a fairy tale, it would go like this: I’d be a dive-happy marine biologist who is more comfortable in the water than out of it. That’s not what happened."

I am a marine biologist who doesn’t dive. This usually surprises people.

The assumption is that all marine biologists dive. The reality is there are many non-diving marine biologists out there – whether they dive really depends on what they study.

I tried diving. It wasn’t for me. A potential advisor once told me that some people drive to work, but he dives to work and I was expected to do the same. So I did what women have been advised to for decades: I faced my fear. After a diving course and a traumatic open water dive, I was certified even though I inhaled water twice and left my dive buddy hanging waiting for air while I choked. I rushed to the surface in a panic. My dive instructor grabbed me to slow me down (going to the surface too quickly can be fatal). But it didn’t feel like I faced my fear. It just felt like I had survived.

Then I got certified as a scientific diver, with requirements that struck at the heart of my diving fears: I had to swim 30 feet underwater without my equipment (no mask, no air, etc.) and share air the entire time. I practiced in a pool until I was comfortable. Then I ventured out to the open ocean and passed every single requirement. But still, if this was my lean in moment, it didn’t feel great.

If this were a fairy tale, it would go like this: I’d be a dive-happy marine biologist who is more comfortable in the water than out of it. That’s not what happened.

Near the end of my SCUBA diving fieldwork for my graduate degree, I had one more bad diving experience that ended with me rushing to the surface.

I had hit my limit. I  didn't want to dive, plain and simple. What I didn’t know then is what this limit would teach me about leaning in. It is not just about facing what we fear most. It's about claiming our strengths and advocating for ourselves.

A few years later, I got a job in conservation in the Caribbean, a job which did not require me to dive – although I did have to snorkel on occasion which is something I love. My decision to stop diving became irrelevant and my fear a distant memory.

Four years later, after I thought it was long over, the diving issue resurfaced. I was up for a new position – a dream job. It would take me all over the world doing coral reef conservation. But according to my prospective boss, diving was a requirement for the job. Instead of giving up, I pressed him on the diving requirement. I asked him to detail why diving was so important to the position. Then I drew on the years of experience I already had doing ocean science and conservation while not diving, and made my case that I could do whatever necessary with a mask and snorkel.

This was my lean in moment. I measured my limits against my demonstrated strengths and advocated for myself. The job was mine. It felt amazing. I went on to take over leadership of the program, and was able to do all sorts of fantastic things without diving. It turns out, being a non-diving marine biologist is a huge asset for convincing wide audiences to care about our oceans. Many people think they need to dive to connect. By being a non-diver, I find all sorts of ways to connect people to our amazing undersea world.