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Local woman dives into male-dominated scuba field

Courtesy Photo Megan Cardell gives the peace sign during training on May 14, 2019, at The Ocean Corporation in Houston, Texas.

ALPENA — Megan Cardell doesn’t walk on water. She walks underwater.

“A commercial diver is just a construction worker under the water, and diving is just your elevator to get there,” Cardell said, referring back to what her diving instructors told her.

The master diver just graduated in August from the Ocean Corp. commercial diving school in Houston. She is a master diver in both the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), both recreational, and she is a certified commercial diver with the Association of Diving Contractors International.

She also received her commercial diver certification with the Association of Commercial Diving Educators.

Cardell, 26, said only about 2% of commercial divers are women.

Courtesy Photo From left to right are Great Lakes Divers owner Capt. Nick Myers, Hailey Schalk, and Megan Cardell photographed on the shore of Lake Huron in 2017.

“I’m just not as strong as the men, so that makes it harder, but, other than that, all the men in the field are super nice,” said Cardell, an Alpena native.

Cardell got her start working under the direction of Capt. Nick Myers, owner of Great Lakes Divers and Dive Charters in Alpena. It’s a full-service dive shop for recreational and technical diving for sport.

“We provide training in free diving and scuba diving through dive master status, which is the beginning of the professional grade of the sport diving side of things,” Myers said of the company, which started in Rogers City but now is based solely in Alpena. “We’re the longest continuously running dive shop in Northeast Michigan.”

Cardell took Myers’ class at Alpena Community College in the spring of 2017, then started working at the shop that summer.

“My friend Hailey wanted to take the class,” Cardell recalled, speaking of Hailey Schalk. “I’ve always really liked the water, and then, when I tried it, I was like, ‘Yeah. This is it.'”

She said commercial diving involves “simple stuff, honestly. Putting pipes together, inspecting, a lot of stuff like that.

“The big job that I just got home from, we inspected where they’re gonna put a cable in the sea floor, so we just had to go down and make sure there were no rocks in the way, or coral reefs or anything like that,” Cardell explained. “And then, like, water towers, water treatment plants, laying pipes for oil rigs is a big one.”

She said the oil industry uses commercial divers all the time.

“They put divers down on Line 5 all the time, to do inspections” Myers said of Enbridge Inc.’s oil and natural gas pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac.

“The big one around here is buoys, and making sure they’re there, and that they’re OK,” Cardell said, adding that cleaning and inspecting the exterior of commercial vessels is common, as well. “There’s a lot of search and recovery, too.”

Cardell is working part-time now, but looking for a full-time job in the field.

“It’s hard for a newcomer to break into it,” she said. “I have started working with some of those guys, but it’s easier to just get on with a big company, make a name for yourself, get experience, and then try and come home when you’re already established.”

Myers explained some of the background around diving, and why it is a male-dominated field.

“As far as the sport diving, it came out of the military, and it was sort of seen in the 50s and 60s as sort of a macho kind of thing,” Myers said. “Then we had ‘Sea Hunt,’ the action television show,” starring Lloyd Bridges. “So, at the time, it was sort of this macho adventure thing.”

“And the sport has evolved,” Myers said. “You’re seeing more and more women get into the sport, and currently, in sport diving, women are the faster-growing segment of the dive population … so we’re really kind of close in the sport diving to achieving some parity there, but it’s taken a long time.”

More women are getting into commercial diving, too.

“The numbers, in women, they are going up, though,” Cardell said. “Because, at my school, I think it was 35 years old or something like that, and my class was the first class to ever have two women at the same time. They were making it a huge deal, and they were all excited about it.”

She noted that fewer women get into it “because it’s so physically demanding.”

Myers and Cardell agreed that Alpena is an incredible place to dive, with the expansive underwater treasure that is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

“Having the Sanctuary right outside our back door makes this a great place to learn to dive,” Myers said. “Our students get to learn in a world-class dive destination that brings people from all over the world to explore our wrecks.”

“Growing up with the sanctuary and the Great Lakes right in our back yard is something people might take for granted, but it really is special,” Cardell added.

Cardell loves the feeling of being in the water, “just chillin’.”

The technical term for that is “achieving neutral buoyancy,” Myers added.

“You’re basically weightless,” he said. “You’re neither floating nor sinking. And, short of going to outer space, that’s the only place on planet Earth where you can experience that feeling.”

“There’s nothing like it,” Cardell said.