First woman cave-diver enters Hall of Fame

Penelope Powell, recognised as the first female cave-diver (WDHOF)
Penelope Powell, recognised as the first female cave-diver (WDHOF)

British diving pioneer Penelope ‘Mossy’ Powell, a woman born in the Edwardian era, is one of seven divers to have been inducted into the Women Divers Hall Of Fame (WDHOF) in its “Class of 2024”. 

Powell, who died in 1965 at the age of 60, has been recognised posthumously as the first woman cave-diver, and co-author of the first cave-diving book, The Log of the Wookey Hole Exploration Expedition.

At the age of 31 she was designated “Diver No 2” for the first successful cave dive using breathing equipment in Britain. It took place at Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset’s Mendip Hills on 18 August, 1935. 

With everyone in the team vying to be No 2 to its leader Graham Balcombe, and severe time constraints for the dive, “it was finally decided that the best way was to give the place to the woman of the party,” he explained at the time.

“Royally has the choice been justified. Cool, collected, showing no fear, she has carried out every task with an assurance and reliability that none could better.“

The only problem on the three-hour dive over a distance of 52m, which was broadcast by BBC radio, was the poor fit around Powell’s wrists of her diving suit, which had been designed for a man.

“She has to safeguard me against any accidents or sudden drop as I go forward. I am at the end of our line and am proceeding only with the safeguard of No 2 Diver,” explained Balcombe to listeners. Powell dismissed her role in the record-breaking dive as “unimportant”.

Safety promotion

Meanwhile DAN Europe’s executive vice president Laura Marroni from Italy was inducted into the hall of fame for her efforts to promote diving safety.

First female cave-diver honoured
Laura Marroni of DAN Europe

“Over the past few decades, much has been done to increase the safety of our sport,” said Marroni at the induction ceremony, which was held on 23 March at the Beneath The Sea show in Seacaucus, New Jersey.

“This includes divers’ education, procedures and technological advancements in scuba gear, but also emergency response, scientific research and first-aid training for diving accidents. 

“Today, I am particularly proud to be able to work with our extended team of DAN researchers, analysts and volunteers on new projects focusing on enhanced dive profiles analysis and new telemedicine tools, for the benefit of the community.”

Marroni, who grew up by the sea, started diving at eight and became a technical and cave diver. The economics graduate took on the role at DAN Europe and led research projects focused on understanding the physiological effects of diving on the human body. 

Five from the USA

The other five inductees were all US divers: Ronnie Damico, Elizabeth Kintzing, Mikki McComb-Kobza, Robyn McGinn and Samantha Whitcraft. 

Instructor-trainer Ronnie Damico is described as a female pioneer in diving safety and leadership who started as diving officer for the USC Catalina Marine Science Centre in 1979. 

Elizabeth Kintzing is an instructor and diving and underwater science facilitator who has carried out saturation diving in the Aquarius undersea lab, sub-ice diving in Antarctica and used rebreathers to research in 100m-deep coral reef environments during her 35-year career.

Mikki McComb-Kobza has had a 40-year career in shark conservation and advocacy and is said to use innovative techniques and citizen science to increase understanding of white shark behaviour and distribution. She is executive director of Ocean First Institute. 

Robyn McGinn was the first US government civilian employee to graduate from Navy Dive School as “Class Honour Woman” and is diving life-support systems programme manager for the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving. She also manages the Navy’s Diving Depot.

Samantha Whitcraft is a marine conservation biologist and environmentalist, who created “the first classroom-at-sea” in Gardens of the Queen in Cuba. She is executive director of the Sea of Change Foundation.

Marroni, Whitcraft, McComb-Kobza and McGinn at the induction ceremony (WDHOF)
Marroni, Whitcraft, McComb-Kobza and McGinn at the induction ceremony (WDHOF)

The WDHOF was founded in 1999 to recognise divers deemed to have made outstanding contributions to the exploration, understanding, safety and enjoyment of the underwater world. It has 263 “Members in the Hall”.

Also on Divernet: 70 years ago, Honor Frost dived into a well…, Alex Hildred: Mary Rose Diver, The Woman Who Thinks Like a Manta, Andrea ‘Queen of Mantas’ Marshall suffers stroke

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