The Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) honored Jessica Keller as the DEMA 2018 Wave Maker at the annual DEMA Trade Show and Convention last November.
By Rick Stratton
Keller was recognized for her exceptional work with the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center and creating an underwater activity booklet designed to encourage young people to learn and care more about the underwater environment.
The Wave Makers Award, first introduced by DEMA in 2017, recognizes professionals who have been working in the diving industry for five years or less and have made significant contributions to the industry. Jessica was nominated for the Wave Makers Award by Dan Orr, President of the Academy of the Underwater Arts and Sciences, who honors recipients with the NOGI Awards each year. Orr met Keller at a Lee Selisky future leaders in the diving industry event several years ago.
Orr was tremendously impressed by Keller’s work and desire
to help young people appreciate our underwater resources.
“I thought that this is the kind of person who we should be recognizing for her potential and achievements thus far,” he says.
Because of Orr’s position on the DEMA Board of Directors, he was aware of the board’s desire to find and recognize future leaders in the diving industry, so he nominated Keller for the Wave Maker award in 2017 and again in 2018. Board member Rosemary Lunn nominated Keller in 2017.
For Keller, who self-admittedly grew up in a small farming community in rural Indiana, surrounded by the Amish, cornfields and hog pens, “the idea of having a career underwater was not even an option for me.”
According to Keller, she was unsure what she wanted to do for
a career but knew she didn’t want to be a farmer. She attended college at Indiana
University in Bloomington where joined a scientific scuba diving program.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I like to swim. I was on the swim team and have been a life guard,’” she says. “’Scuba diving sounds great – plus I don’t have to take a math class – I’ll take diving instead!’”
“It was during the first couple of classes during the scientific diving course, where my professor showed this Animal Planet video where the dive team was flown in by helicopter, into the jungles of the Dominican Republic. They repelled 50 feet down into a sink hole, then dove 100 feet down to find these pristine artifacts carved by the Native Americans before Columbus. I was hooked! That was it! I found that I could work as an underwater archeologist or diving scientist, so I changed my major and have been following that dream ever since,” Keller describes.
In 2008 Keller graduated with a degree in Underwater Archeology and Anthropology, moved down to the Florida Keys, and worked at a dive shop in Key Largo. There she became a divemaster and eventually a dive instructor. She learned a lot about recreational diving, driving boats, safety, saving coral, “and all kinds of other really incredible stuff.”
Keller returned to Indiana University to become a visiting faculty member and guest lecturer, teaching the classes that she had taken as an undergraduate student, while earning her master’s degree in Recreation, Parks and Tourism studies.
“Diving is a small world, but underwater archeology is even smaller. I found out about the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center because of the research that I’d been conducting while a grad student. The thing that drew me most to the job is that the Submerged Resources Center, is responsible for the stewardship and protection and conservation of sites like the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. My grandfather served in the war, the history of our nation, the lives that were lost at that terrible event – I had a personal connection – I knew it was a long shot – it became my dream job.
“I became persistent and eventually met the Chief of the SRC, Dave Conlin at a conference, and he offered me an internship. Of course, I took it, so I Interned for the Park Service for a couple months, and they ended up hiring me on in the fall of 2012.”
The Submerged Resources Center, based in Denver Colorado works
in any National Park with water access: 184 of the 413 National Parks that have
significant water resources. The Submerged Resources team travels all over the
country to assist National Parks to inventory and evaluate submerged resources
in the National Park System and to assist other agencies, nationally and
internationally, with underwater heritage resource issues through the use of
remote sensing surveys, mapping, documentation, or natural resource management.
“The National Park Service mandates that each park is responsible for everything on land and underwater. But since most people don’t go underwater, it’s hard to appreciate or know what’s down there. We need specialized equipment for that.
“We come in, we dive it, and if it is a submerged resource, we do the archeology, we map it out, we do photogrammetry, archival research, and if it is something important, we will put it on the national registry of historic places or come up with some type of protection plan for it.”
In 2012 Jessica applied for a $2,000 Women Divers Hall of Fame marine conservation grant. Awarded the grant, Keller had the option to use the funds for a variety of programs that she was currently running or to school expenses. She wanted to use the funds for something that would make a difference and have a long-term impact. While brainstorming with her boss, Conlin, they came up with an Underwater Explorer Junior Ranger Program, a program that is well established throughout the National Park Service.
But Keller wanted to do something broader that would include both fresh and saltwater – because to her, “Everything is connected, the riverways run to the ocean like the arteries of our body, bringing water (blood) to life. that also involved salt-water, something new at that time.”
“While I grew up in Indiana, I did not realize the significant of the creek or pond in the backyard,” she says. “But through this booklet, you can gain an appreciation of the water you have around you. Whether it’s a pond, lake, river or ocean, you can learn about it and begin to understand how it’s all connected. You can begin to understand that you as a kid or as an adult, can make a difference.”
The Junior Ranger Underwater Explorer booklet – an explorer’s activity guide is a 36-page full color booklet designed to reach younger generations to create and foster an interest in the ocean. Translated in both English and Spanish versions, the guide has been printed more than 65,000 times and is in more than 60 different National Parks. The booklet is free to download at https://www.nps.gov/submerged. Anyone can request printed copies of the booklet: scouts, civic groups, clubs; whoever is interested in learning more about the underwater environment.
Keller credits the success of the booklet to the variety of
support that she had creating it.
“There was a lot of support by the Ocean and Coastal Resources branch as well as the Submerged Resources Center,” she says. “A lot of offices participated in producing the booklet. The success is largely credited to the support from the National Park Service.”
Jessica credits her personal success to the power of mentorship:
“I have had so many mentors who have led me to where I am today. I have had guidance through school, diving or just great friendships. I have had so many important conversations with people who I have worked with, the advice that they have shared with me has been invaluable and they still impact me in my decisions today.
“Having a mentor can made or break your career. I am very fortunate for the mentors I have had, and I want to be there for someone else. Having someone take interest in you and spend time with you, making you feel important and believing in you makes all the difference in the world – I am a testament to that!”
Keller has had conversations with the other Wavemaker nominees about her mentorship ideas and hopes to work with them and others to expand the mentorship role in diving. Winning the DEMA Wavemakers award was a big honor for her.
“I believe the future of our diving industry lies in our younger generations and in the powerful role of mentorship. I am very humble and honored that so many people believe in me and support what I do in the National Park program. It is very emotional to win the award and definitely a highlight of my career, but I could not have achieved it without the support of many other people. No one can do this alone, it’s all about a community of people working together and helping each other. “