Diving with A Purpose: A Conversation with Marine Scientist Dr. Albert Jose Jones

HMSC Connects! Podcast Episode 12 Transcript

SPEAKERS: Dr. Albert Jose Jones, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund 00:04
Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard Museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. For the final episode of our oceans month, we have a guest that I'm incredibly excited about. His name is Dr. Albert Jose Jones, and he's a living legend. He's a marine biologist by trade, a retired professor of Marine Science at the University of the District of Columbia. But the common thread throughout his extraordinary life is scuba diving. This fall, he's giving a virtual talk for HMSC about his work with Diving With A Purpose, a group he helped form of Black scuba divers who locate and document sunken slave ships around the world. Their work is uncovering the largely forgotten history of the harrowing journeys made by millions of captured, enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to asking him about that work, I also wanted to learn more about how his early love of nature ultimately led him to a lifetime in the ocean, and how he's used that passion to educate and inspire thousands of divers and non-divers across the world. Here he is. Dr. Albert Jose Jones, welcome to the show.

Dr. Jones 01:53
My pleasure. My pleasure.

Jennifer Berglund 01:58
How did you first become interested in natural history?

Dr. Jones 02:02
I was the kid in the neighborhood with all the animals--all the cats and the dogs, 50 pigeons, turtles, aquariums, terrariums. When my foster parents sold their automobile, they gave me the garage. So I turned the garage into a zoo. I was just interested in animals from the very beginning--interested in living things. But also, I was interested in botany because my foster father was an amateur horticulturist, and he taught me a lot. So by the time I was eligible to go to junior high school, I already knew all the common names of the plants, flowers, and trees.

Jennifer Berglund 02:39
You are also a bit of a fisherman when you were a boy.

Dr. Jones 02:42
Oh, I thought I was. The fish were perfectly safe around me. A lot of the boys fished. You know, they would save their money up. A lot of us served newspapers, so we'd save our money up until we got enough money to go to Western Auto and buy a fishing rod. Since there were a lot of rivers around Washington, you could actually walk to the river. We knew the
Anacostia River flowed into the Potomac River, and the Potomac River flowed into Chesapeake Bay, so when we go down to the Bay, we started learning more about the ocean, and not just about the freshwater. So little by little, we started branching out--branching out from the rivers to the tributaries, tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, and Chesapeake Bay to Ocean City, Maryland. So, we started moving out, moving out, moving out, based on our pocketbook and our age and transportation. My favorite book was the National Geographic, and I grew up during the Cousteau era, so we were glued to the television when Cousteau came on. And also Sea Hunt. Everybody loved Lloyd Bridges. And that's how I got interested in scuba diving. Every kid in the neighborhood, you could see them running home to see Sea Hunt. So one of my thrills of my young life was when I met Lloyd Bridges at one of the dive shows in person.

Jennifer Berglund 04:01 Oh wow!

Dr. Jones 04:06
In junior high school, the principal was very good about bringing in speakers. There was always some speaker coming in, talking about something. So we got exposed to a lot of professions, and vocations and avocations. A gentleman came from NOAA, NASA, one or the other, and he was talking about marine biology. And I said, "oh, wow, I like that! Sounds great!" You know, talking about traveling all over the world. And see, tying that traveling all over the world to National Geographic, and all the animals that you get exposed to studying marine science on a formal basis. I said, "all of this is sort of coming together." So that really sort of delimited a whole lot of things. Not worry about all this other stuff, let's get concentrated on one thing, so I started concentrating on the marine sciences. That gentleman hadn't of come there, it probably wouldn't have happened. He made it sound like you just got to do this tomorrow. After finishing high school, I went to college for a year, but then I needed to get a way of financing going to college, so I thought, "my brother's already in the service." So he said, "why don't you just just join the Service, and you get the GI Bill?" So, he explained to me what the GI Bill was. I had no idea what a GI Bill was. So, he said, "would you like to travel? You'll travel, you'll save up money, you'll get your education, you'll come back out, you'll finish up college." So, I said, "okay, that's a good idea." So I go into the Service, and I was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and on the base they had this huge lake with floating platforms on it. The platforms were separated--25 yard platforms, 50 yard platforms, and 100 yard platforms for swimming laps. It was not like swimming in a pool because you're swimming in deep water. So, they had lifeguards on each platform, and you started off by swimming a 25 lap back and forth until you got accustomed to being out in the open water, and then you graduated to the 50 yard, then the 100 yard platform. So, I was out there swimming one day, and one of the guys said, "boy, you can go a long time. Next time they give the combat swimming class, you ought to get into the combat swimming class." I said, "what's that?" He said, "well, every once in a while, they give a combat swimming class, and they teach you how to dive." I said, "okay." So next time they gave a class, I said, "I'm going to go get in the class." And that's what I did. I got in the class, and they taught us how to dive.

Jennifer Berglund 06:29
Eventually, you were deployed to Korea. What was that like?

Dr. Jones 06:32
I was a combat infantryman. That's a rough one. Those that are guys who are right on the front line fighting. For every one person you see up there on the front line fighting, there are 20 people in the rear. It takes a lot of people to support that one person up there on the on the line. The person up there on the line is usually a medic, or he's infantryman, tank. They're the people on a very front. You get past them, you get into enemy territory. All together, it was like three years, then my time was up. So they either send you back home, or convince you to reenlist.

Jennifer Berglund 07:07
And there was no way you're gonna reenlist.

Dr. Jones 07:09
No. I'd accomplished my goal. I had put in more than enough time to get the GI Bill, and that's really what I wanted to do because I had nobody to send me to schooling. I knew once I got in, I wouldn't have to worry about graduate school. I figured I'd get good enough marks, and I did. After that, I just started getting scholarships and fellowships and Fulbright scholarships and things like that. I got a chance once again to travel around the world, but now I was traveling around the world. Instead of being in the military, I was traveling around the world becoming a scientist.

Jennifer Berglund 07:42
Back when you were in school, not only did most marine scientists not dive, but there just weren't very many divers in the first place.

Dr. Jones 07:51
You're right because diving is not that old. Especially recreational diving is not that old. Back in the early, mid-50s is when diving started to be introduced to the United States. And if it wasn't for Cousteau and Lloyd Bridges and Sea Hunt, it probably wouldn't, it wouldn't have took off. Because they didn't just go down there and dive, they went down there with cameras, and put some eyes under the water, so it introduced people all over the world to a whole new biome. When I got back from the military, I was going to the dive shows around the country, and the sports shows. Almost all of them had at least one booth that was a scuba diving booth. And that scuba diving booth was manned by the area divers, wherever it was, you know, California, Washington, DC. And they always had this little bowl where you put your card, or you put your name, and they would call you. And so, I talked to the guys on the booth, put by name in the bowl. The guy came to me and said, "give me another one." He said, because they make a point of not getting back to the African American candidates, and I'm gonna get back to you. And he did. He got back to me, invited me to the local meetings, and I went to the local meetings. And I dove with him for over a year, and then one day the same fella came back and said, "you know, you need to start your own club." I said, "oh, no. I don't want to start any club, no, no." You know, people like to join things, but they don't want to be running something, you know. So he said, "well, you're going to find out that, sooner or later, you got all these guys, especially Black people and Hispanics, that come in and want to learn how to dive, and the clubs don't pick them up. They just sort of ignore them." So I say, "I don't know.

I haven't had any problems." He said, "you haven't had any problems because you learned in the service, and they know you know more than they do." I was the Vice President. That second year I was in it, I was the Vice President of the Council. At first, I didn't want to do it, but then I said, "well, you got all these people out there. I can dive, and I'm having fun." You gotta have some way of learning this stuff. You just can't go to the dive shop and learn, there wasn't a dive shop. So even if there was a dive shop, now you're diving on your own. You don't want that, you want to dive with somebody, hopefully a club. People who dive in clubs stay in diving longer. It makes a difference if you're diving with somebody you know. So I decided, okay, I'll start a club. So I started a club. Even when I talk to veteran divers, they have no idea how long African Americans have had dive clubs. I say, "oh no, no. Even in the mid-50s and late-50s, there were African American dive clubs in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, California." African American divers have been around since the beginning the diving--recreational diving, not military diving. That's different. So, clubs like the Underwater Adventure Seekers have been around a long time. I think the record books would show that there are maybe 10 clubs in the world that have been operating for 60 years. We trained a whole lot of people during that time. We've trained way over 3,000 divers. And they've been all over the world. My crew has been to over 50 different countries.

Jennifer Berglund 11:09
Later on, I think it was in 1991, you formed the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. Can you tell me about the formation of that? And what was the impetus?

Dr. Jones 11:21
Surely, surely. A golden opportunity presented itself in 1989 when I received a call from Ebony Magazine. They wanted me to send them some photos of Black divers, so I sent the pictures. And they called back and said, "we want to do a full-fledged article." So they did the article, which was followed up by an article from Ebony Man Magazine, which is no longer in existence, which was followed-up by an article in Underwater USA, which is like an international dive [magazine]. So all of a sudden, we're out there where people can see us. So, the phone started ringing, and we started getting letters. Every Black diver in the world thinking he's the only Black diver because he hadn't seen any other other ones. So, we said, "maybe this is the time to try to organize these people again." Now, we knew people in different places around the country. So we said, "okay. We're going to bring them here on Martin Luther King's birthday weekend, and we're going to form a national association because now there's a whole bunch of people out there. They're writing to us now, we're not writing to them." And we invited them here, and that's what we did. So, in 1991, we brought representatives from all over the country to Washington DC, and we formed the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. NABS is now pretty big. It has over 3000 members. So, we do a lot of research, especially in coral restoration and underwater archaeology. They've won all kinds of awards, including White House awards. It started with a few people in my front room in my dining room, and branched out and got bigger, bigger and bigger, and bigger, and bigger. So had it not been for that one fella who said, "you need to found your own club." You know, if it weren't for UAS, the Underwater Adventure Seekers, there wouldn't be a NABS. Those first divers that we dove with, these were hardcore divers. I mean, they'd dive anywhere there's water, including your toilet box, they would dive, you know. These were no nonsense hardcore divers.

Jennifer Berglund 13:31
There’s a wonderful initiative called Diving With a Purpose, and you were one of the founding members of that too. DWP was sort of founded because of this one ship, the
Henrietta Marie. Is that correct?

Dr. Jones 13:44
Yeah. The Henrietta Marie. During the first years of NABS, we were doing all of our conferences in Florida because the weather is always warm that time of year, November being the month that we do our conferences. And I received a phone call from the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society in Key West, and he said, "you know, we've been working on a slave ship, and we've got all kinds of artifacts. Would you guys like for us to bring them to your conference?" I said, "hey, sure! Great! You know, that's one other thing that we can do to make it interesting." I said, "what's the name of the ship?" They said, "it's the Henrietta Marie." I said, "you know, I hadn't read about it in any of the magazines." They said, "oh no, we've been back and forth. We haven't been out there for a long time because we were looking for, not for the Henrietta Marie, we were looking for the Atocha, which is a gold ship, and then we just sort of accidentally stumbled on this one, but since we're all being paid to go out and search for the gold ship, you know, we sort of put it on the back burner." So they brought the artifacts to the Summit, and when we saw those artifacts, especially the shackles that were small enough to fit on little kids, it really got to people, you know. So, a couple of us got together and said, "you know what we got to do. We need to make one of our national projects to find these ships and map them. Not bring up stuff from the ships because we're not archaeologists, and we don't want to ruin anything. We don't want to be salvors. But we want to find these ships." So we picked Cuba, Brazil, Florida Keys area, Senegal. And I made it a point of going to all these places on my own before we took anybody looking for ships. We realized that, also, that it's hard enough to find them because they've been out there for two and 300 years. The Henrietta Marie's from 1701, so we're talking about, like, 300 years. So it's not just sitting there for you to swim up on it and find it. And plus, they're all wood. All of them being wood, they would easily disintegrate, or either become food for cellulose-digesters-- worms and bacteria, fungi, mold, whatever can break down cellulose. So, if you're going to find one, it's going to be under the subsurface, and so the Henrietta Marie is actually under the subsurface. It's sort of like an accident that they had the metal detectors, and they kept getting pings on the metal detectors, and they started digging, and they found the shackles. And they started digging more, and they found this, and they found a sword, then they found. They finally found a bell, which is the grand prize, because once you find a bell, you know what ship it was because the ship's name is always on the bell.

Jennifer Berglund 16:21 Oh, I see.

Dr. Jones 16:22
So everybody's always looking for the bell, but they almost never found a bell. But on the Henrietta Marie, the bell was almost, like, sitting on top. Now, it probably hadn't been sitting on top since 1701, but the shifting sand would cover it, and uncover it, and cover it, and uncover it. We wanted to do something. We didn't know what to do. We were sort of upset by...we
wanted to see the artifacts, and after we saw them, it sort of sort of broke everybody's heart because they realized, "hey, that could have been their ancestors on the Henrietta Marie." So it really bothered us. So, we said, "we want to do something to remember these people and their journey." And there weren't any slaves on the ship when it went down, but that's not the point. It had made several voyages back and forth, so it brought a whole bunch of them. Obviously, a whole bunch of them died too. Then they offloaded a whole bunch of them down in Barbados and Jamaica. So, as far as we were concerned, it was like a grave site. So we wanted to do something. So we said, let's put down a plaque. Now, when you think about a plaque, you think about something that's maybe a two by two, you know. And we said, "no, no. We want to put down something that's important. Something that's big." We just had a pedestal designed, and put the plaque on the pedestal. The pedestal was almost a ton. So, we're talking about something that's pretty big and heavy. And so, we had no money in the coffers to be doing a new--it was a new organization! This is like the second year of the organization. But once we start asking for money, money started coming in. Kids were sending in a dollar. The boat captains were saying, "well, you can use our boat free." The concrete company said, "well, we'll make the pedestal for you, and we'll make it and we'll deliver it." They put it on a barge, and everybody chipped in--little kids, all kinds of people, black people, white people, whatever. The day that we put it down, we had more press on the boat than we had divers on the boat. Everybody, everybody wanted to get on the boat. It was big. It made almost all the big newspapers in the country. And so, the Henrietta Marie really launched us into this adventure of going around the world, finding slave ships, and mapping them.

Jennifer Berglund 18:35
Do you remember what the plaque said? Because I think it's just so beautiful.

Dr. Jones 18:38
Not word for word, no.

Jennifer Berglund 18:40
It said, "Henrietta Marie. In memory and recognition of the courage, pain and suffering of enslaved African people. Speak her name and gently touch the souls of our ancestors."

Dr. Jones 18:53
Right. Yeah, two of our members wrote that. When I first read it, I said, "Wow! This is really deep." And we did a similar thing in South Africa on the Sao Jose. That was another slave ship that we've been working on. If you come to DC and you go to the African American Museum, and go down in the bowels of the Museum, you see a big display on the Sao Jose with some of the the artifacts that we helped bring up. We went to Mozambique, brought the soil from Mozambique to Cape Town, and put the soil from Mozambique over to the wreck of the ship. So it's like the people--there's no bodies there, of course--but it's sort of like they're going back home because we brought the soil and put it all over there.

Jennifer Berglund 19:47
So much of your work has served to empower and nurture Black communities. How do you see your role as a leader in these endeavors? And how do you see the importance and the impact of this work?

Dr. Jones 20:01
Well, first of all, I didn't do all this by myself. I always have to make that point because people say, "how do you do all this? You've done all these things." But it's always been a teamwork, so I didn't do it all by myself. I had a lot of help. Sometimes it's not even the diving. You know, when people say, "well, you teach people to dive, and you get more people to dive." It's exposing them to new experiences and knowledge. One of the reasons the University of the District of Columbia was formed was to get more minority students into the science field. So, using diving as an example, most people who dive know somebody who dives. They didn't just open up a telephone book and say, "let me see if I can find diving." Now, some people probably did that, but most of them, somebody told them about it. It's the idea that if you never see anybody that looks like you that does something, you probably won't do it. Not that you can't do it, where do you start? You got to start someplace. I would like to see more and more students, more and more people in general, get these advanced degrees in the sciences-- science, math and engineering. Because there's a big shortage--there's always a shortage. You want to make yourself different. I know that just the fact that I've got that scuba has made all the difference in the world.

Jennifer Berglund 21:31
Dr. Albert Jose Jones, this has been absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Jones 21:39
Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I appreciate your asking me to do this, and I hope that we can recruit just one more person to join those ranks of the scientists, and engineers, and mathematicians.

Jennifer Berglund 22:03
If you'd like to learn more about Diving With A Purpose, there's a link to a fantastic short film about them in the description of this episode. Check it out! And don't miss Dr. Jones and Diving With A Purpose Board Member, Jay Haigler, during their HMSC virtual event this fall. We'll be announcing those dates soon. And by the way, next week, we're beginning another theme. In honor of the hundredth anniversary of women's suffrage, we're dedicating all of our podcast interviews to women's issues and accomplishments, featuring exclusively women's voices. We'll be hearing from historians, scientists, and even an Egyptologist. Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Dr. Jones for his wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening! If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next week!

Transcribed by https://otter.ai