Growing up on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago piqued Dr. Diva Amon’s curiosity of the ocean. Today, she’s an admired marine biologist focussing on life in the deep ocean, and how human actions are affecting it.
Diva has dived to 1.6 miles below sea level (three times the length of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), is regularly the first person to see a species or habitat not yet known to the world, and is breaking boundaries as one of few woman of colour in her profession.
You may have come across Diva on your TV screen recently, too. She’s the expert who accompanied Will Smith into the deep ocean as part of his Disney+ series, Welcome To Earth.
We speak to Diva about her Caribbean upbringing, career highlights, the inspirational figures in her life, workplace advice, and more.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up on the gorgeous islands of Trinidad and Tobago in the southern Caribbean. Technically, I now split my time between Trinidad and Tobago and London, but actually I spend most of my time on planes or ships heading to meetings and fieldwork. Thankfully, my mum was a flight attendant so I was bitten by the travel bug at a very young age.
Do you think your upbringing influenced your career?
Yes, I grew up loving nature in Trinidad and Tobago. Hours were spent playing on the beach, snorkelling, and sailing. I would often look out to sea and wish I could pull away the water to reveal what was living down in the depths. The Caribbean was where my love for the ocean blossomed, but it wasn’t until years later while at university that I realised there was so much more about the ocean to love than what meets the eye in the shallows.
What motivated you to become a marine biologist?
I’ve always had a deep desire to make a positive impact for people and planet. Becoming a doctor seemed like a great way to do that while also letting me tow the Caribbean line, where doctors, lawyers, and engineers are prized. However, my mother encouraged me to pursue something I truly loved: the ocean and environment. Whether there was an ulterior motive to avoid the astronomical fees of medical school, we’ll never know, but I’m grateful she did.
How many countries have you dived in?
If we combine all the different types of diving that I do (freediving, scuba diving, and diving in submersibles), then it’s fifteen countries and all five of the world’s ocean basins. Most of my time at sea has been spent working in international waters, which comprise 64% of the surface of the oceans and nearly 95% of its volume.
How do you decide where you want to visit for deep ocean research?
For most of my career, it has been out of my control, dependent on PhD advisors, bosses, or production companies. Now that I’m finally able to carve out my own research projects, my number one priority is working at home in the Caribbean, given the reliance on the ocean and how disproportionately affected we are by the changes to ocean health. Parachute science is a huge problem in less economically developed countries so I am always mindful that there should always be a genuine, durable, equitable, sustainable partnership with local partners that is co-designed, co-developed, and co-implemented.
What has been your biggest ‘wow’ moment in your career so far?
There have been so many! Exploring the deep sea means that it is highly likely you’ll see a species, habitat or behaviour that no one on the planet has seen before, and that’s a truly humbling thing to be part of. Submersible dives are always really special, but taking Will Smith down into the depths as part of Disney+/National Geographic’s series ‘Welcome To Earth’ is also up there.
What’s the deepest ocean dive you’ve made?
The deepest I’ve ever dived was 2600 metres (or 1.6 miles) in the Caribbean’s Cayman Trench. I was in the Shinkai6500, which is a Japanese submersible made of a titanium sphere with 14cm thick windows. However, I routinely use robots to work down to 6000 metres.
And what did you see while there?
We touched down on an ethereal muddy white seafloor, dotted with bright purple sea cucumbers, then quickly journeyed to underwater hot springs (called hydrothermal vents) where a chemical-rich fluid powers an entire ecosystem of thousands of blind white shrimp and anemones.
What do you want the world to know about what you do?
The deep ocean is not only the world’s largest ecosystem, providing over 95% of all the habitable space on Earth, but it is also the least explored. There is no place on the planet that we know less about, and yet it is a vast reservoir of biodiversity, most of which is still undiscovered. Iconic places like the Okavango Delta, the Himalayas, and the Grand Canyon all exist in the deep ocean – we just need to find and then share them. The deep ocean and its life is absolutely essential to keeping our planet healthy and keeping us alive by playing supporting roles in everything from fisheries that billions of people rely on to regulating our climate.
Do you have any advice for people who also want to explore the oceans – via scuba diving or snorkelling – to ensure they do so responsibly?
Always be respectful of the ocean. Never touch marine life. Always take a buddy when exploring.
How do you start your days?
I have the terrible habit of jumping onto my phone to check my calendar, emails, messages, and social media as soon as I wake up. I definitely need to rectify this. Then it’s shower and a smoothie before doing anything else.
Describe your workspace/ workplace…
Every day is different! It can be anything from a research vessel in the middle of the ocean, or the halls of the United Nations, to my desk at home.
Identify something in your workspace that’s special to you
Being surrounded by nature is so important to me, so if I’m not out in the field, I always make sure my office is stuffed full of plants.
What’s your go-to uniform?
Every day is different given how varied my job is. It can be anything from a wetsuit, a bikini, or athleisure when in the field. If I’m at policy-focused meetings, for instance at the United Nations or World Economic Forum, then a suit or dress with big chunky jewellery. And if I’m working from home, comfort is priority, so a long flowing dress.
Photo: Michael Pitts
What are your workplace essentials?
My work place and work times change a lot but Trello, a Moleskine, green tea, and EltaMD face sunscreen are essential.
What time of day are you at your most productive?
I’m definitely a morning person.
What’s your go to lunch order?
I love a homemade miso noodle soup in a jar!
Work takes you most frequently to…
It is such a privilege to be able to travel around the world, but thankfully, my work has been taking me home to the Caribbean most at the moment.
What is the most rewarding part of the job?
So many: from answering questions about our planet that no one has before, to working with governments to create positive ocean changes, to being inspired by – and inspiring – the next generation of ocean stewards.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Both a blessing and a curse is how much I travel. While it’s great that you get to live and work all over the world, it means little time with loved ones whether family, friends, lovers, or pets. Also, time management…I still find it a challenge to say no, but I’m slowly getting better.
What are some of the hurdles you faced early on?
Deep-sea research is very expensive, which means it is mostly restricted to a small number of wealthy nations and a very small demographic. Nine out of ten times I’m the only woman of colour on board, and often the only person from a developing country. This can be isolating and up the pressure, and it has meant having to create my own path in a lot of ways.
If you were to write a two-line job spec for yourself, it would read as follows:
Marine biologist focused on the little-known habitats and animals of the deep ocean, and how our actions are impacting them. Works at the nexus of science, policy, and communication and has a deep desire to see stewardship measures applied to the deep ocean as well as the engagement of more of humankind towards this effort.
What did you study in school or university?
Marine Biology for my undergrad degree and Ocean and Earth Science for my PhD.
Do you have a mentor or inspirational figure that has guided or influenced you?
I’m very lucky to have the support of many incredible women in my professional and personal lives. My mum takes top spot though – she is the fiercest woman I know and has done everything possible to ensure her children lead a better life than she has.
What’s the most important work-related lesson you’ve learned?
That, ultimately, we’re all just people. Too often, groups with perspectives different than our own are divided into sides, such as industry versus NGOs. We must remember that everyone’s positions are molded by what they’ve lived and also deserve respect.
The best advice you’ve ever received:
From early in my career, I’ve had it drilled into me that as a scientist I should be objective and not advocate. I’ve struggled with this immensely, especially given the biodiversity and climate crises, and that scientists are holders of critically important knowledge in tackling these. But recently, I saw a tweet from Harvard Professor and climate-change expert Naomi Oreskes that clarified everything for me, it read: “I’ve just had my 4379th conversation with a scientist about using the word “activist”. Of course I am an activist. It’s irrational and immoral to be passive in the face of imminent danger”.
What are you working on right now?
Some of humankind are turning their sights to an entirely new extractive frontier of mining the deep ocean for metals. Given the unrestrained and rapid expansion, mining into the deep ocean has the potential to drastically alter the future of our already stressed ocean and we could lose species, habitats and functions that we do not yet know, understand or value. I’m trying to prevent this from moving forward.
What’s next for you?
So many things but I’m most excited for two reasons. I’m kicking off 2023 by sharing the deep ocean with a series of venues in the USA and Canada as part of the National Geographic Live Speaker Series. And then, as a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, I’ll be undertaking a three-year project to explore the deep ocean, advance marine conservation, and mentor and train early-career scientists in my home, Trinidad and Tobago. It’s going to be tough but I’m ready to grab this challenge with two hands.
Main image: Michael Pitts