Sarah Richard

‘I lived at Bexhill-on-Sea from the age of 4, which is quite relevant because my whole life revolves around the sea these days. The sea was just part of the scenery, and we would spend all our time on the beach. At school I had no definite idea of what I wanted to do in life, and my parents were great, not pushing me in any particular direction. I didn’t go to uni, but I just knew I wanted to do something unconventional, even if I wasn’t sure quite what it was.

I started scuba diving when I was 19, and by the age of around 22 I wanted to see the world. My first trip, with a friend, was to Asia. It was just before mobile phones became such an essential part of our lives; using internet cafes to write home, which seems like ancient history, we used a website which offered travel opportunities in exchange for work, for example offering free accommodation in exchange for working in a hostel. Any money I did earn, I spent on scuba diving, and by then, I knew I wanted to do something in that world. For me, it just seemed such a natural activity; it felt very normal, wherever I was in the world. In many countries, there could be differences in culture, like language, food, dress, etc, but in the water I felt completely connected and at home. I think being in the water is just in my nature. I never had to try to love it.

The conventional way into working in scuba diving is to become an instructor, which was never something I wanted to do. Despite that, teaching was what I ended up doing, mainly because there weren’t any other jobs. I was a dive master, earning $20 a day, on a boat in Micronesia, and soon realised this was definitely what I didn’t want to do. But it was where the idea for Girls that Scuba started.

On the charter boat, the guests would come on board for a week, dive every day, then go home. They were all men, and mostly middle-aged, and I realised just how male dominated the business was. The sport didn’t look appealing for women, or fun for women, and I felt I had little respect from the men I was instructing. I thought, I’ve tried to find a career in diving, it’s not for me, and I quit, and moved to Hong Kong. But then I realised that there must be other women who feel the same as me, and perhaps all we need is some way for us all to come together. That was 2016, a time when Facebook groups were really becoming a thing. Within those groups you generally find some kind of community, and I thought about starting a group, if only to try and find a group of women friends to go diving with. So, I started a Facebook group, called it Girls that Scuba, then shut my laptop and got on with my life.

The next morning, I was absolutely shocked to find we had 100 members. I couldn’t believe there were so many women who felt the same way as me. At the heart of all of this was a community, and the amazing thing about the internet is that it enabled the reach of that community to be worldwide. We now have about 700,000 members. Over 7 years we have become the world’s largest female scuba diving community. It’s been an incredible, empowering journey, and has enabled many women to go scuba diving who otherwise wouldn’t. It’s a closed group, so only women or those who identify as women can belong, a safe space within which they can find out information of all kinds. We call it the Google of scuba diving.

There are 3 members of staff and myself, and a lot of work is done by freelancers. All the design work is outsourced. The numbers keep going up, which is a lot to do with our generation now; people are very influenced by media, from Tik Tok, and Instagram, through which we are constantly showcasing positive imagery of women and scuba diving, making it look fun. So, we’ve now got a new generation of women coming into it through media, changing the image of the sport into something much more enjoyable for that generation.

I always say to people new to the sport that firstly it’s about safety, then it’s about fun. You can’t just start diving, you do have to go through courses and get certified, which does put a few people off because it takes time and commitment. It’s still an extreme sport in which you rely on equipment to enable you to breathe, and you need to know what to do if it goes wrong. Once the training part is over, the biggest part of what we do now is running group holidays for women on what hopefully turn out to be the trips of their lifetimes.

The best locations to dive are where the water is warmer and clearer, which tend to be the more exotic parts of the world. Indonesia, Thailand, Egypt and the Maldives are some of the best. Most of what I love about scuba diving in warmer places is the wildlife you see under water; the sharks, the massive schools of fish, the amazing diversity of life, as if you’re in a documentary film about what lives in this “underneath” part of this world which covers 70% of the planet. The 0.2% of the population who scuba dive are the only ones to see all this, and that’s why if you enjoy it, you can soon be addicted to it.
We are enabling more people to experience close up the wonders of the undersea natural world, and we’re careful not to create disturbance to it. In the 15 years I’ve been diving, I’ve seen the effects of water temperature increase, particularly on coral, and plastic pollution, and I wonder in another 15 years what we’ll see. We have a large media platform now, which we use as an environmental information source, and we support charities working to restore coral reefs. We are also in the sport because we love the marine life, so we discourage eating the fish we’ve come to see.

In 2020 my husband Joel and I moved to Jordan to pursue a project for my business. We packed up all our belongings, moved to Jordon – and 4 days later Covid broke out. Obviously everything stopped, and we were strongly recommended to leave Jordan, where the government had imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Nobody was allowed out for anything. We returned to England, with nowhere to live, but Joel’s parents had a place near Dalwood, Axminster, so we moved in to the small Airbnb they owned. Joel lost his job in hospitality, and my business was massively curtailed. We lived there for 18 months, then Joel got the opportunity to buy the café in Bridport, Soulshine, and thankfully my business recovered and increased after the pandemic was over.

A year ago, my son Seb was born in Dorchester, so my priority now of course is being a mum. I have taken a massive step back from the business, particularly the travelling side of it. But being part of a great local community, bringing up my son has been a lovely experience—although a million miles from some of the exotic locations I’ve been used to. Taking Seb with us, we have managed a couple of trips for my work, once, when he was 12 weeks, to Jordan, and again to the Maldives when he was 4 months. It’s great to be able to involve my family on the trips abroad—I really want Seb to see his mum leading this kind of life, the diving, the travelling; so often that’s the dad’s role.

The world of diving was always one I wanted to work in, but it was never my intention to be where I am today. I have no background in business and didn’t know how quickly something like this could take off. Effectively I’m running an international business from my laptop in my home, in which every day is a learning curve. I’d be happy with a future which means we can just continue what we’re doing, to just stay on the same level would be incredible. But it’s not about me; it’s about the community of women in the sport we have brought together.’