Gemma Smith is a female scuba dive role model of our time; a technical diver, caver diver, Elite Instructor, PADI Ambassadiver, expedition leader, and the first woman ever to dive at the world famous Antikythera Shipwreck – which yielded some of the most important ancient sculptures ever to be found on the seabed. At only 27 years old she has achieved more in her diving career than most will in their lives and has been a constant inspiration to all – no more so than the Girls that Scuba community who have followed her expeditions and stories from the beginning.
On March 14th 2018 Gemma was involved in a car accident – without even being in the car – while walking along the road in The Faroe Islands. What happened next changed her life forever.
We speak exclusively to Gemma about her accident, her diving background, the support of the community and what it is like being a female in the technical diving/recreational diving industry.
Diving has the ability to give to people whatever that person needs at that time in their life. This is why I will always be forever grateful I am a diver. Its truly in my blood now!
Gemma started diving at the age of 17 when she saw a photo of a cave diver and thought it looked cool.
“I had always been interested in ‘extreme’ sports, and being taught at home gave me the freedom and the time to pursue interests outside of the norm. I learnt to skydive, fly planes, white water raft, bungee jump, kayak, anything I could think of that was outdoors and fun. I decided to give scuba diving a go. Unlike all the other sport I’d tried and had fun at, but then quickly moved on from, I never moved on from diving. It gripped me in a way no other sport ever had. It became my whole world. I found the challenge of it exciting”
“I don’t think it is possible for anyone to ever be bored as a diver, and in the ten years I have spent working full time in the diving industry I have found this to be true. Diving has the ability to give to people whatever that person needs at that time in their life. This is why I will always be forever grateful I am a diver. Its truly in my blood now!”
I was visiting friends in The Faroe Islands when my life truly changed forever. On 14th March I was walking along the pavement with my friend, heading to her house. I remember laughing and chatting, and then blackness. I have no memories at all of the actual accident or the aftermath,
Gemma’s diving career was in full flow having been recognised by big brands who would now support her travels and adventures allowing her to dive in places not many others had explored. Her travels had taken her to The Faroe islands where the accident happened.
“… so everything I know has been picked up second hand from the doctors, nurses, and people on the scene at the time. It turns out an elderly gentleman driving his car had had an aneurism. No previous medical history, it came totally out the blue. Unfortunately when this occurred his foot slipped onto the accelerator, and the car swerved uncontrollably off the road and sadly straight into us. My friend Barbara got hit at a angle and was thrown several feet away, breaking three ribs and fracturing four vertebrae in her back. I sadly got the full force of the car into me. It flung me through the air into a signpost, causing massive facial damage and a bleed on the brain. The impact from the car broke my coccyx, both of my legs, and my foot. While one break was clean and the healing process was fairly straightforward, the right leg was far more complex. The bone had crumbled into pieces very close to my ankle. This leg is still proving difficult, and has already had six major surgeries to try and save it. My last surgery involved the fitting of a second metal plate to stabilise the bone, and the grafting of a large flap of tissue from the opposite thigh to cover the removed skin and tissue that had been taken away because of a huge E-Coli infection.”
Gemma jokingly then adds: “I never do things by half!”
We wanted this interview to be about encouragement and inspiration – so we finished the conversation of the accident at that and went forward to highlight Gemma, not only as the proud diver she still is, but as a source of motivation to others.
We asked Gemma about her experiences as a female diver and what challenges she has come across. This question came from our mission to continue to empower more females to go further in diving and inspire the many more who are thinking of trying scuba diving for the first time.
I think showcasing awesome women divers will inspire more women, just as I was inspired. The more women we have in the diving the less we will encounter issues.
“While there is undoubtably a gender gap in the dive world, the first thing to say is that I don’t think this is a bigger gender gap in diving more than many other ‘adventure’ or ‘extreme’ sports. I think the reason many women feel that they can’t pursue these sports is the perception in some circles that it isn’t ‘feminine’.
Carrying heavy scuba cylinders, wearing bulky wetsuits or drysuits with undersuits, learning technical aspects of a sport are still considered unfeminine. I think we need to change the definition of that word, and make people see that women are just as capable, and that being ‘girly’ and a hardcore diver are not mutually exclusive.
I think the best way to inspire other women to start diving is to have role models. Other women who they can look up to, who are out there doing amazing dives. Who are inspiring. I know when I started wanting to progress my diving I was told that I would never be capable of being a technical ever because of my size.
One of my instructors took me aside and showed me Jill Heinerth’s website, with all her pictures of her amazing dives. He told me if she could do it, so could I. I think showcasing awesome women divers will inspire more women, just as I was inspired. The more women we have in diving the less we will encounter issues. Of course, over the years I have encountered my share of sexist comments and uncomfortable situations. It used to make me upset, but now I can laugh and just ignore it. I’m choosing to just focus on trying to get more women into diving, and their actions and ability will speak louder than anything.
Gemma’s journey and accident has been widely covered on social media – mainly due to her high-spirited updates and pictures, but something that has been hard to go unnoticed is the unbelievable support from the scuba dive community.
“I have been utterly blown away by the support of the diving community through the last few weeks. From manufactures such as Fourth Element bringing out a t-shirt in my honour, to my dive friends and buddies fundraising and cheering me on, I have been overwhelmed with good vibes and positivity. People truly have pulled together in the most beautiful way, and more than ever I feel truly lucky to have such an amazing extended dive ‘family’ around me”
Her GoFundMe page has already raised nearly £7,000 which goes towards a stair lift and a number of other aids which the NHS cannot provide – a large majority of that coming from members of the dive community.
We know how much your support with either of these incentives would be hugely appreciated by Gemma and the close ones around her.
Although it may be hard for her to think about her future at the moment she seemed keen to make sure everyone knows;
“Its incredible I am even alive right now, and I will never forget that, and because of what happened I have actually been really inspired to try and encourage people from all walks of life and backgrounds to get into diving.”
Then goes on to say that her hope and dreams for the future have to start realistically.
“Honestly right now my biggest hope is to be able to walk. That is top of my list, and will be realistically for the next few months. The infection in my leg was so bad at one point the surgeons thought losing the leg was a real possibility. The fact that right now it seems to be under control, and the operations appear to have been successful, makes me feel like the luckiest girl in the universe.
It may take a while but I know in my heart and soul I will be diving again
I don’t care how long it takes, nothing is going to keep me out the water! One thing this experience has taught me is just how resilient and determined the human spirit is, and how much passion I have for what I do. Throughout everything all I have thought about is getting back to my diving. The thought of being underwater again has been my main focus and my biggest push and determination to get better. I love the thought of introducing more people into the dive world, and maybe showing them the wonder and power that diving can bring to their lives.”