Scuba diving is still mostly male, but Auburn’s Cindy Ross is helping part the waves for women

The first time Cindy Ross got the inkling to try scuba diving, she was told by someone of the male persuasion that she couldn’t do it.

“I was on a commercial dock at Redondo, and I was invited by the instructor for a tour of the dock,” said Auburn native Ross, who was in her late teens at the time. “I was there with a friend, and I said I wanted to learn to scuba dive and the guy said, ‘No, no, you no scuba dive. You date divers. Girls like you, you no dive.’

“Don’t tell me I can’t do something.”

Suffice to say that Ross has proved the guy wrong a few thousand times over. This year alone, she figures to prove him wrong at least 400 times – because by the end of December, that’s how many dives she expects she’ll have done.

And in an aquatic pursuit that’s equal parts challenging, stimulating and fun – but still unequally dominated by men – Ross is putting her unique and much-needed female stamp on it.

Meet GirlDiver. A 40-year-old mother of two grown kids. A 1985 graduate of Auburn High School who took part in drama instead of sports.

And now, she says, the only one on the world who promotes scuba diving for women.

“A lot of women are kicked out of other programs because they can’t keep up with the boys,” said Ross, who also trains a few men. “Women approach scuba differently. If a guy and a girl want to plan a dive, he’s going to want to go out to the end of the reef and back. She wants to see the fish.

“When people see my classes, I’ve had people tell me, ‘Your classes seem like so much fun.’ The only way I survive is to create fun.”

Heather Rogers, a public defender by trade, certainly is sold on Ross’ concept.

“It’s important to me to have a really great instructor who focused on individualized teaching. That she’s a female gave me a lot more confidence,” said Rogers, who became certified in June in time to go on her honeymoon to Aruba. “A couple of my guy friends said when I was in Aruba that there’s this thing called snuba (a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving).

“It was kind of fun to say, ‘Why would I do that when I’m a certified open-water diver?’”

Most people get into scuba to see what’s really beneath the surface of the world’s waters. Ross, befitting her march-to-her-own-beat style, got in with the idea of teaching people how to do it.

“I’m living in Colorado, and my then-husband said, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ said Ross, a 5-foot-1 dynamo who, on an average day, carts 12 tanks weighing 40 pounds apiece back and forth between her car and the dock. “At first, I thought whitewater rafting. Then I heard Jacques Costeau dove until he was 86.

“So I go home and announce that I was going to be a scuba instructor. My husband said, ‘This is Colorado.’

But of all the states that don’t border an ocean, Colorado has the most certifications in the country.

Ross’ mind was made up.

After returning to this area, she walked into a scuba shop one day in Des Moines, and made the same announcement. Two years and, by her estimation, $14,000 later, she was a scuba instructor.

“You’re putting a lot of money into something that doesn’t pay very much,” Ross said.


So the money isn’t of upper-tax bracket proportions. But Ross – who purchased the domain four years ago and since then has made it her well-known moniker — says there’s much more to it than just diving for dollars.

“You know there’s a great Pacific octopus under the boat,” she said with a grin. “And this year, I had one student, and we had a 2,000-pound stellar sea lion come and do a dance for us.

“You never know what you’re going to see underwater.”

Her students not only come in both genders (although a majority of them are women), they also come in all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds.

The one thing they don’t come in is large numbers – by design.

“In larger classes, 20 percent of the students fail. I want 100 percent success,” she said of her reason for keeping class sizes small. “For one woman, it was baby steps.”

Julie Nelson, who lives in Graham and works as an inspector for Boeing in Auburn, has seen the benefits of the personalized approach.

“My husband was pushing and pushing me to get certified. I said I’d go through my classes in Washington, but I wanted to go through my open-water (certification) in Hawaii,” said Nelson, 43. “I said I’m not going into Puget Sound. Then he found Cindy. She told me, ‘I’ll bet once we’re through the classroom and pool portion, I’ll get you out into Puget Sound.’”

Ross made her point.

Nelson got her open-water certification here. And about three weeks ago, they went into Puget Sound off of Redondo.

“We had almost zero visibility,” Nelson said. “She held my hand down to 57 feet – I was a little bit scared. She just stuck right by me. Once I’m down there with her, I’m not afraid. Once I’m under, it all goes away.”

Ross says there are 20 basic skills to surviving underwater. Students learn them through books and course materials in a classroom setting, then practice and get comfortable with their equipment in a swimming pool.

“By the time you’re in the Sound, this is equipment your familiar with,” Ross said. “You’re familiar with fins on your feet and breathing through a regulator.”


Baby boomers, says Ross, “are still the driving force of scuba.” But there is another group coming along – people ranging from 18 to 30 – who are going to be the next wave donning tanks, masks and fins.

“They grew up with skateboards and X Games, and they don’t see it as extreme and dangerous,” Ross said. “They want to try out adventure sports.”

While her pursuit of scuba is geared toward women, Ross said that the breakdown of participants on a worldwide percentage scale is 70-30 men. It’s even more pronounced in the scuba industry itself – 90-10 men.

But, “more instructors are coming on board who are women,” Ross said.

And more women are coming to them, in part because there are some things that are best discussed among themselves.

“A lot of what I do is image,” Ross said. “I’ve had women ask me, ‘What about your hair? I better figure out how to take care of my hair and my skin and my nails.’ They won’t ask a male instructor that.”

All the differences aside about who gets into scuba diving, their reasons for doing so are, for the most part, similar.

“Some of them, that’s what they’ve always wanted to do, but never have,” Ross said. “Scuba is on a lot of people’s list of 10 things they want to do before they die. There are a lot of people who want to scuba dive.”

Ross has no doubt she’ll always be a part of it. In addition to her Puyallup-based business, she also is a staff editor of the Copenhagen-based, internationally read scuba magazine XRay.

And she is becoming more widely known – though not always as Cindy Ross.

“I went to an industry convention, and a woman from Florida came up to me and said, ‘You’re GirlDiver? I’ve always wanted to meet you!’”

Building her business from the ground up, Ross said it has taken about a year to get it to the point where it’s now full time.

“Everything I’ve done has led to this point in my life,” she said in a reflective moment. Then, breaking into the smile that she wears most every minute, she said, “I was always chosen last for every team in grade school. If you had told me back then that I would make a living teaching a sport, I would have laughed.”

Nobody’s laughing now.

And certainly, nobody’s telling Cindy Ross what she can’t do.