Elisabeth Maxwell: Alumna earns instructor certification while working with Scientific Diving Program

Elisabeth Maxwell, a University of Maine alumna, a research associate at UMaine’s Darling Marine Center and an assistant in the Scientific Diving program, has successfully completed the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) instructor certification. 

UMaine’s Scientific Diving Program provides support and training to scientists and students in using diving as a research tool. It is based in Walpole along the Damariscotta River at the Darling Marine Center.

Maxwell, who lives in Newcastle, received dual master’s degrees in marine biology and marine policy from UMaine in 2017. 

What was your path to getting your dive instructor certification? 
In 2011, I earned my Open Water Certification and the following year, I traveled to Mozambique and participated in a research project diving with manta rays. 

In summer 2016, I was a student in the UMaine Scientific Diving course, where I earned my advanced open water, rescue diver and AAUS Scientific Diver certifications. I enjoyed the program so much that I applied to be a divemaster intern in 2017. It was during this internship that I fell in love with teaching others about diving and knew I wanted to become an instructor. 

Participating in an instructor course is a big financial, time and energy commitment, so it took awhile before the right opportunity came along. Instructor courses are rare in Maine, so when a local shop was hosting a course in Portland, I couldn’t pass it up. I was especially excited because I was able to take the course alongside Colby Johns, whom I’ve worked with in the UMaine program since 2017 and who has become a close friend. 

I believe that the experience and training I received through the UMaine Scientific Diving Program was crucial for me being prepared to succeed in the instructor development course. I look forward to the many ways I can continue to develop as a diver and instructor, and I look forward to continuing my own training while also serving the diving community and leading others. 

How do you currently use your dive skills? 
I am fortunate to work in a position as a research associate at UMaine where I get to participate in scientific diving on a regular basis. Professor Damian Brady is based at UMaine’s Darling Marine Center. He and his students have several projects that require scientific diving skills for deploying or servicing instruments, collecting specimens or conducting surveys. Scientific diving skills allow our research group more flexibility in how we approach research questions. 

How do you hope to use your instructor certification in the future? 
I’m looking forward to helping others develop their diving career. I have been very fortunate to have had wonderful instructors and mentors who were supportive and encouraging. My greatest hope is that I can encourage someone else to persevere through the challenges inherent in diving. 

What has been your best dive experience so far?
I’ve been fortunate to have many memorable dives in Maine, Mozambique and British Columbia. In 2013, while in Mozambique, I was at a site called Giant’s Castle. It was a beautifully calm day with great visibility. Several minutes into the dive, I saw my first bowmouth guitar shark, an elusive species that I had been looking for all summer. I was so happy, I almost couldn’t believe it when a few minutes later, we ran into a smalleye stingray, one of the largest and rarest kinds to see in the wild.

To have two encounters with rare species in the same dive was spectacular, but when I looked up at the other divers in my group, they were all staring past me and eagerly taking photos. I looked down and there was a large pod of dolphins swimming past us. There also were two humpback whales swimming underneath our fins. I reactively pulled my knees up because they felt so close that I might have touched them. Back on shore, our colleagues might not have believed that we had such an amazing dive, but we had the photos to prove it.

What dive location is at the top of your dream list? 
I dream of diving in what is known as the Coral Triangle. This area just north of Australia includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. This region has some of the highest diversity in the world. It would be a beautiful place to dive, but there are also interesting research opportunities to look at human impacts on the marine ecosystem in the region. 

What has been the best part about working with the Scientific Diving program?
One of the things that I appreciate most about the UMaine program is the emphasis on proficiency. It is reflected in the way the courses are designed and the mentalities of the dive leaders. Christopher Rigaud, the UMaine diving operations manager, has shown a commitment to providing the best training possible for each diver who comes through the program.

What would you tell someone who is interested in doing their first dive, or transitioning from an open water certification to scientific diving? 
Go at your own pace. It doesn’t matter if you earn your open water and science certifications all in the same year or if it takes you five years. Each person has their own path so don’t feel pressured to follow someone else’s progression. 

Scientific diving can be very challenging, both physically and mentally, but there is a purpose behind every skill. You should approach every dive as “practice” to master good skills and proper technique.

How has diving impacted your career?  
When I first earned my open water certification, I expected to occasionally use diving as a hobby and more rarely as a research tool. But things changed when I participated in the scientific diving course at UMaine where I discovered a deep passion for scientific diving and realized that I wanted to make it a core part of my career. I love pairing diving with science because it gives every dive purpose. I’ve also been amazed by the scientific diving community, there is a clear focus on proficiency, safety and producing quality science, it is exciting to be a part of. 

Contact: Matthew Norwood, matthew.norwood@maine.edu