Beyond the Comfort Zone – Faith Ortins Goes There

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    Faith chillin in Antarctica
    Faith chillin in Antarctica

    Scuba H2O Adventures Magazine recently had the good fortune to catch up with Faith Ortins, formerly of DUI and currently Managing Partner of Blue Green Expeditions.  And ‘catch up’ sums it up indeed, given Faith’s breathtaking travel schedule all over the world, leading her clients on once-in-a-lifetime expeditions to many of the most breathtaking locations worldwide!

    By Gary Lehman

    Those of us who are relatively active in the northeast dive community have surely attended events featuring Faith, who makes it her priority to make presentations (keeping her admiring audiences captivated) at so many annual northeastern states scuba diving venues.  But we can wonder — “…What makes this person tick?  What drives them forward?”   And, as is so often the case, there are always ‘backstories’ about leadership individuals like Faith, just waiting to be surfaced. And so it was a treat for DNN to snag her over breakfast, and get the scoop!

    Yes, we know that Faith is an explorer at heart, with a fierce and burning passion for the world’s oceans, habitats and residents.  She comes by it naturally and honestly – with a deeply-ingrained passion for the aquatic world and exploration, passed down through the generations of her seafaring Portuguese heritage. Some of us know that Faith broke barriers as a female wreck diver in a formerly-male dominated sport. Just maybe some of Faith’s feisty spirit imbues from her Massachusetts patriot upbringing!  Why do we get the feeling that – had Faith been around in the days of the American Revolution –  she would have been right in the thick of the action around Old North Church (“One if by Land, Two if by Sea” and the ride of Paul Revere);  the Battle of Bunker Hill in Charleston (“Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!”); and regally attired in American Indian clothes – last seen heaving bales of tea into Boston Harbor!

    Faith at age 14 was strongly discouraged by her parents as a young teenager from diving. Not because they wanted to hold her back, but because they were concerned parents, and genuinely wary of this sport with its inherent dangers.  So – to their great credit – they directed Faith that if she worked for and provided her own diving gear, then they would pay for scuba diving lessons in preparation for certification at age 15. (Perhaps they were secretly hoping that she would simply hang out with her girlfriends, finding other things to spend her hard-earned teenager salary on… But that was not to be, given Faith’s lock on and commitment!)  Back in the day, Open Water Diver certification was far in excess of what is required today.  Aspiring divers would have to remove all their gear at the bottom of the pool, surface, and return to the pool bottom to put their gear back on!  That requires steel concentration, considerable athletic prowess and focused situational awareness!  But none that deterred her. Faith related with a twinkle in her (was that naughty?) eyes that she told her parents she was “just going to the dive shop pool to practice” …when in fact, she was joining up with dive buddies at the dive shop to dive the cold (40F°) gray waters off Rockport and Gloucester — in April – in an ill-fitting, borrowed wetsuit no less!  One of the dive shop regulars who took her under his wing, letting her tag along on dives was Frank Scalli, who was one of the founders of Boston Sea Rovers and inductee into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. (This was one intrepid kid, and no wonder she got hooked on diving with mentoring like that!)  She attended her first Boston Sea Rovers conclave and discovered to her astonishment that one of the keynote speakers was none other than her dive buddy from the New England Divers – Mr. Scalli!

    Faith exploring sealife near the icebergs in the Antarctic
    Faith exploring sealife near the icebergs in the Antarctic

    Maybe that ill-fitting and near freezing wetsuit experience was the trigger which propelled Faith into her career centered on dry suits and polar diving!  In any case, she was a sophomore in high school, she was hooked on diving, and these experiences set the trajectory of her future life.   So, let’s fast forward to Faith attending superlative Brown University in Rhode Island; keeping up with and intensifying her diving; her graduation from Brown — and her first job – as a high school science teacher right there in Salem, Massachusetts near where she grew up.    In time, Faith put her teaching career on hold, and bought the dive shop managed by Paul Holbrook with her business partner David Caldwell.   

    Now that Faith had her own dive shop, the stage was set for her to focus her creative energies and begin her ascent to the stratosphere of the scuba diving industry!  Her guiding theme in all this was her love of the sport, the people in it, the beautiful undersea world, and an intense passion to protect the oceans.

    To these ends, Faith sought to build a diving community; bringing together like-minded adventurers committed to diving and to each other, and to the protection of the marine environment they shared a love for. There was also a payroll to meet and bills to pay; Faith and the store staff worked tirelessly to build the dive shop business. Building a culture of local diving and community in the northeast faced a challenge – colder water than southern locales.  Part of the solution:  DUI drysuits!  The dive store staff all used DUI drysuits to build awareness and to demonstrate to their dive students that local diving can be fun and comfortable – with the right gear. Thus, the cold-water barrier was overcome, and local diving become accessible AND fun for all!  The business gained traction, and the shop was selling a lot of dry suits; DUI took notice. 

    But there was a problem.  Faith kept insisting on customizations to drysuits for her customers, with modifications for female builds. DUI’s product engineering manager was annoyed by all the time-consuming requests. But Dick Long — founder of DUI — had the vision to realize that Faith’s customizations were a clarion call of opportunity, and visited the shop over a couple of days to meet with staff and women divers, in order to understand first-hand, the reasons behind the requested customizations. Thus, were born drysuits which were specifically designed for women’s physiques!

    When it became time to move out of the retail world, it was a natural fit to work with DUI – first as a sales rep and then sales manager.  In a remarkable marketing coup, Faith conceived the DUI DEMOTOUR – a ‘try and buy’ initiative, in which prospective customers could dive local waters and “test dive” a DUI drysuit.  Faith was counting on the belief that once divers experienced local waters and were warm, they would be hooked not only on local diving — but also on DUI drysuits.  Her hunch was right, and local northeast diving took off (along with DUI drysuit sales).  With this strategy, Faith broke the ‘dry suit barrier’ – which were previously thought to be intended only for professional applications such as technical and wreck divers. Over 170,000 divers participated over the 19 years of the program and hundreds of volunteers worked together to make it all happen.

    Faith is evangelical about the use of drysuits for recreational divers, and worked hard to instill that passion in dive stores and their staff around the world. She and DUI certainly deserve a significant amount of the credit for the mainstreaming of drysuits. It is one of the many reasons Faith was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2010.  Faith went on to become worldwide sales team leader for DUI, speaking worldwide and overseeing DUI sales professionals the world over.

    While still at DUI, she partnered with her long-time friend Paul Holbrook to develop dive expeditions that would give DUI owners a great place to use their DUI drysuits!  As time went on, exploring the world and sharing her passion for the oceans by bringing people with her became all-consuming. So, Faith left DUI to become managing partner of Blue Green Expeditions with Paul. But you won’t book a regular trip to the Bahamas with BGE.  Their vision is to help people step beyond their comfort zones and explore off the beaten track. BGE’s expeditions venture to marine environments less-traveled and more remote: including Tasmania to see the beautiful, alien sea dragon; Iceland and Greenland; the Solomon Islands; Azores; Guadeloupe Island to witness the white sharks up close; Newfoundland; Cuba; diving in Alaska with salmon sharks; ancient and historic Croatia diving — and – the Arctic regions and Antarctica (What a perfect way for Faith to leverage her personal experiences and mentor her clients in the ways and means of polar region diving, using DUI dry suits!).

    Does Faith have a ‘favorite’ dive location? The answer is resolutely YES–ALL of them!  For each dive destination features unique and captivating sea life and/or beautiful visual landscapes. And challenges. Her passion is sharing these magnificent places and their creatures with others.  Whether it is giant Pacific octopuses, colorful nudibranchs of the northeast, darting salmon sharks, Stellar sea lions of the Sea of Cortez, retracing Shackleton’s epic and stunning journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island in the Antarctic – these are our marine environment legacy to understand, enjoy and protect.

    But BGE’s expeditions are not just about the marine environments; they include the people, history, culture and beat of life of the regions visited to create a comprehensive and fulfilling experience – to last a lifetime.  And equally importantly, to inform the expedition clients about the marine wonders – and challenges – for the region visited.   Faith and Paul are committed to the idea advanced by Senegalese poet and naturalist Baba Dioum, who observed that “In the end, we will protect only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” 

    And thus, we have come full circle.  Faith remains at heart a teacher.  She has taught science to high schoolers, instructed new divers, lead experienced divers, taught customers and sales staff, and is now embracing the dive community through BGE – and also via her enthralling presentations to thousands of divers worldwide – to witness the beauties and challenges faced by our world’s oceans.   Divers all over thank you Faith, for your many contributions to our sport, and to people everywhere — and our subsurface friends and neighbors for your work on everyone’s behalf!