Home Donate Diving With a Purpose Preserves Maritime Heritage, Protects Coral Reefs

Diving With a Purpose Preserves Maritime Heritage, Protects Coral Reefs

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Kenneth Stewart at the City of Washington - photo by Matt Lawrence

Celebrating 16 years in 2020 is Diving with a Purpose (DWP): a driven non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and protecting submerged heritage resources through underwater archaeology, and protecting coral reef beds in southern Florida for future generations. DWP’s unique focus is to protect, document, and interpret African slave ships and the maritime history and culture of African Americans. A global endeavor, DWP has become over 500 participants strong, and it strives to teach future divers marine archaeology and coral restoration.

Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Kenneth Stewart

DWP provides a three-pronged approach towards its mission. Its flagship program focuses on maritime archaeology training wherein students are taught underwater mapping and trilateration (mapping sections of shipwrecks. Alongside the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), DWP has combatted the decline of coral reefs by teaching participants how to plant precious coral beds. Its youth program, Youth Diving with a Purpose (YDWP), imparts these missions onto youths and helps them prepare for the future.

Over time, DWP has developed close relationships with other organizations and programs who work toward similar goals. These include Iziko Museums of South Africa, SAHRA (South African Heritage Resource Agency), the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS), the U.S. National Park Service, NOAA, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, CRF, The George Washington University, the Smithsonian’s Museums of African American History and Culture, and The History of Diving Museum of Islamorada, Florida.

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, DWP is managed by a staff of dedicated volunteers who operate day-to-day functions and engage in scuba diving missions. The organization is largely funded by grants, including from the National Park Service, as well as donations.

We spoke with Kenneth Stewart, DWP co-founder and board member, about the program, its origins, current project, and future endeavors.


John Tapley (JT): Thank you for meeting with me, Kenneth. Take us to the beginning. What were the origins of DWP?

Kenneth Stewart (KS): In 2003, I got a call from a young lady named Karuna Eberl who was producing a documentary called “The Guerrero Project”. She wanted to introduce black divers for her documentary and she asked me if I knew any. At the time I was a rep for the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. I had a list of divers she could interview. I couldn’t go, but five or six people went to be interviewed for the documentary. The documentary is about the slave ship Guerrero and the ongoing feud between salvagers and archaeologists: they have a difference in opinion on what to do with the artifacts.

When Karuna finished the documentary, I asked her if we could have the premiere here in Nashville and I was excited about that. She said “yeah”, so we promoted it and had the premiere in December of that year. I showed up and met a young lady, the star of the documentary, Brenda Lazendorf, who at the time was top archaeologist at Biscayne National Park. We immediately hit it off and became very good friends. Her parting words that day were, “Ken, I’m a lone archaeologist in this park and I need some help documenting all these shipwrecks in the park.”

I thought about it and sent another email to the same folks who originally went down to film the documentary. My words were, “Are you tired of the same old diving? Let’s dive with a purpose.” That’s how it started. Over the course of the next four or five months I worked with Brenda to put the program together. We had about six or seven people attend for the archeology portion of it. Erik Denson, Rod Singleton, and Early Thorton took to it like ducks to water! That’s how it started.

Erik is the lead instructor of DWP. He has put our manual together and takes the lead on all our missions. We’re going on our 16th year of partnership with NOAA and the National Parks Service.


JT: What goes into your maritime archeology training program? What does the program mean for you as a diver?

KS: We teach scuba divers how to identify and map underwater shipwrecks – that’s how it started. I’ve been diving for a while, and it’s about looking for something different. As a new diver, you’re excited, but after a while, each reef starts looking like each reef. You’re looking for something new and adventurous, and I think DWP has brought that new level of excitement to a lot of divers. People come to DWP because they love diving and they love history. With our quest to find the slave ship Guerrero, mapping a ship that hadn’t been found… was exciting for us, especially for our African American divers. Unfortunately, Brenda passed away in 2008, and if she knew where the Guerrero was, she took it with her. We still haven’t found it.

With that has come some partnerships. We’ve partnered with an organization called the Slave Wrecks Project, which is an international organization that does the same. We’re able to assist them by sending some of our well-trained divers to help them. One of the main places we’ve gone to with them is Mozambique Island. There’s a ship they think they’ve found that will add to our resume of ships we’ve worked on. We’ve been working mostly with NOAA and the National Marine Sanctuary – there’s not a lot of slave ships in the sanctuary, and if there are, we don’t know about them. There’s a lot of steamships and wooden hull vessels; to our credit, we’ve been able to document and identify a couple of them. One was the Hannah M. Bell, another was the Shenandoah, and another one last year. Next year, we’re working on one called “Hens and Chickens” that has not been identified. We’re hoping to map that ship and help NOAA officially identify it.

There have not been a lot of slave ships found; Guerrero has not been found. The Henrietta Marie was found in the ‘80s but has been excavated and researched. One we’ve been involved with in South Africa, the San Jose, has been identified and we know the history of it. What we really want to do is look for ships that haven’t been found or piggyback with folks who have found them. We’ve been involved with the Clotilda, the last known slave ship that touched these shores in Mobile [Alabama], but it doesn’t require the documentation and extensive research we have because it’s in three feet of water. There’s a town [near Mobile] called Africatown: the descendants of the Clotilda started it.

Hopefully people will come to DWP and say, “Hey, we have a ship we want documented. Can you do it?” We can document and research a ship from beginning to end. When we first started, all we could do was map, and now we can map it, give you a site map, and if you want, we can research it.


JT: DWP isn’t just for current scuba divers. You also train youths in marine archaeology. Tell us about your youth diving program, YDWP.

KS: I have a local group called Tennessee Underwater Project and Development Group – I’m in my 25th year doing it – and we teach young people how to dive. In 2005, I brought two young men from my project who were master scuba divers. I knew they could do it, and they blew everyone away with their diver skills and mapping. The one thing they didn’t have was their peers. This went on for a couple years and Brenda loved it – she was ecstatic! That encouraged me to bring young people from my program, and they excelled.

I was in South Africa working on the San Jose, and I’m on this boat with a young lady named Justine Benanty and a gentleman named Dave Conlin, Chief of the Submerged Resource Center for the National Park Service. I said I would like an all youth program so they could have peers and bond and talk. Dave gave me some money and we fundraised, and YDWP started. They pay very little, a registration fee, and after that we’ve been able to cover their expenses, so they don’t have to dig out of their pockets.

With that, we make it very clear there’s things they have to do. They have to write, and we teach them life experiences, inspect their resumes, and all they need to succeed. The ages are 16 to 23, and it’s usually been 16 to 18-year-olds. We’ve branched out internationally, so we have people from Mozambique and are partnered with Costa Rica; we’ve had someone from Peru and another from St. Thomas. We’re loving to have this new group of young people. We’re trying to teach the next generation of ocean conservationists and advocates for our marine history.


JT: DWP has been engaged with the Coral Restoration Foundation, working to plant coral in the Florida Keys and Caribbean. How did that aspect of DWP get started and how are DWP members involved?

KS: In 2011, myself and five others took the CRF course. It was the way to go. The maritime archaeology is a good program, but it doesn’t give you the same feeling as coral restoration. It’s hands-on and you really get to see your accomplishments. We took that and decided we needed to continue it, and we did it three times a year. We partnered with the CRF and did it with at least 15 people each time, with the adults and the youths.

We’re going to expand the coral reef program to create our own. Kramer Wimberley, who is a PADI Instructor, is putting together a program. We’re hoping PADI will recognize it as a specialty card (like the archaeology program; an underwater survey card). It will encompass coral identification, fish identification, and mapping a coral reef. In 2020, archaeology and coral reef programs will all be on the same boat! We’ll have 20 doing archaeology, mapping “Hens and Chickens”, and 10 folks doing identification and mapping! It’s exciting.


JT: It sounds like 2020 is shaping to be a banner year for DWP. What else are planning for next year?

KS: Partnering with Costa Rica, we’re going to have a two-fold mission in May. They have a slave ship they’ve already identified, and they don’t know all the information on it; and we’re going to try and help them get a coral reef program online: they don’t have one yet.


JT: DWP is also planning a Tuskegee airmen memorial ceremony in Lake Huron, Michigan next year. Could you elaborate on that?

KS: It was originally Erik Benson’s idea and I don’t want to steal his thunder. Four years ago, Michigan State archaeologist Wayne Lusardi got word on a Tuskegee airman’s plane that went down, identified who it was by a serial number on the door. There are many airplanes that went down, and there are two they know of. We mapped that plane like we do with ships.

We want to build a memorial – and are almost there money-wise – and want to have the unveiling in August of next year. We want to try to bring Tuskegee airmen or their families up for it. It’s very important to our organization, and personally to Erik. We’re excited about it. It’s in tribute to these great Americans who loved their country, but their country didn’t love them. They sacrificed a lot and they’re just beginning to get the recognition they deserve. There’s not many of them around: a lot of them are approaching 100 so we need to get this done.


JT: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us this afternoon, Ken. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

KS: I got a call from a gentleman yesterday, and he said to me, “Do you allow any white people in here?” I tried to tell him that, obviously, you haven’t been to the website, and we are not a discriminatory organization. It just so happens a majority of us are African Americans and we would love to have everybody! This isn’t a closed organization. We’re giving out information.

On the conservation side, climate change is big. What we’re trying to do now is develop the next generation of climate change activists. With the young people, we’re there. Our main focus is to develop young activists who can affect climate change with what they’re doing and change what’s going on with our oceans.


Solidifying the future of the world’s oceans while intricately detailing cultural heritage, DWP has flourished into a beacon for underwater archaeology and coral restoration. Through the hard work and dedication of volunteers, it has met its mission and is expanding into even farther, deeper, reaches throughout the world.

For more information on Diving with a Purpose, including ways to volunteer and donate, visit divingwithapurpose.org.