Mary Miller: Diver, World Traveler, Teacher

When a passion for diving the world’s oceans beckoned, this fourth-grade teacher followed, living her dream and learning to travel smart.

by NEA Member Benefits

Mary Miller will never forget the thrill she felt on her first open water dive, jumping from a rocking boat into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea.

She was in the Turks and Caicos to explore the islands’ famous underwater walls, and it was love at first dive. “I’ve always loved the ocean, and been a strong swimmer, but I didn’t expect to love diving so much.”

Mary’s determination to explore the world’s hidden depths has taken her on a journey of underwater exploration. Over the last decade she’s completed more than a hundred dives around the planet, fostering a lifelong passion for protecting the world’s oceans and inspiring her work as a fourth-grade elementary school teacher.

How she got started

The 38-year-old NEA member has always loved the ocean and swimming. Eleven years ago, her dad gave her a Scuba Schools International certification course for her birthday and Miller completed her first dive: a short foray into a cold quarry near her Columbia, Maryland, home. An algal bloom had turned the water murky, and she navigated herself into the side of a boat. Despite the unglamorous start, Miller was hooked.

Photo courtesy of Mary Miller

Not long after this first dive, Miller left the United States to teach at an international school in Cairo. Ten years teaching abroad opened up a world of underwater opportunities. Living in Egypt introduced her to the Red Sea, which quickly became her favorite diving destination, and a two-year stint in Latvia sent her to Estonia in search of seals. Two years in Colombia saw her diving in the Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatán’s freshwater cenotes, and exploring the sculptures that are part of the Cancun Underwater Museum.

Under the water, Miller is in her true element. “It’s peaceful and quiet, and you never know what you’ll discover,” she says. “You feel like an explorer, and you get to see things most people don’t.”

Doing good while having fun

Diving isn’t without its risks, but Mary’s training and experience mean she’s confident in her ability to overcome any problems. “It can be challenging. I’ve run out of air a couple of times, but I just buddy breathed with whoever was with me at the time.”

Mary’s passion for diving has made her aware of the environmental damage wrought by climate change and pollution. As well as being an outspoken advocate for protecting the world’s oceans, she’s made changes in her own life, like cutting down on her use of single-use plastics. She even collects litter on her diving excursions.

“I stuff plastic bags and other things I find when I’m diving into my diving vest, or into my wetsuit. When I take off my wetsuit after the dive all this litter falls out.”

Photo courtesy of Mary Miller

Miller returned to the U.S. two years ago, settling in Atlanta to teach fourth-grade children at a charter school. The school’s project-based learning philosophy means she’s free to bring her experiences into the classroom, and she loves to tell her students about her underwater forays. “Whenever we see a picture of someone diving, I joke that it’s me—even if it’s a man. “When the children know that you’ve had these experiences, it’s more real to them.”

As well as using her diving experiences to bring the underwater world to life for her students, Mary is teaching a new generation of learners to care for the world’s oceans.

“I tell them about the ocean and how amazing it is, and how we can look after it by doing things like reducing single-use plastics. Switching to bamboo toothbrushes, or refusing a plastic bag is something simple they can do. Or just asking for a drink without a straw, next time they’re at a restaurant.”

Her students have picked up on her enthusiasm, and over the last few months some have started bringing their lunch along in reusable sandwich bags. They’re also passing their knowledge along to their moms and dads.

How you can do it, too

Although the globe-trotting teacher has shelved her backpack for now, her diving adventures are far from over. Close to home, there’s the Florida Keys to explore. The Keys’ 120-mile island chain is home to the United States’ only living coral barrier reef, and its teeming with marine life. “The Keys is a varied place to dive, there are shipwrecks and coral formations and great white sharks have been spotted there, which is something most divers would love to see.”

Photo courtesy of Mary Miller

Another destination Mary’s hoping to visit is a series of dramatic dive walls just outside of Tacoma, Washington. The ominously named Dead Man’s Wall is a sandstone face that starts at a depth of 90 feet and plummets to around 150 feet. “Visibility isn’t great there because of the river, but on a good day you can see octopuses and lingcod.” In the same region you can visit Day Island Wall, home to a curious colony of wolf eels. “Divers feed them, so they now think humans mean food, and will approach people.”

Further afield, she’d love to swim with great white sharks in South Africa, or with turtles in the Galapagos Islands.

Diving isn’t the cheapest hobby, but there are ways you can save a few dollars if you’d like to try it. Though a lot of U.S.-based divers head to the Caribbean, it’s the most expensive place to go. Miller suggests looking farther afield at places like Southeast Asia, the Red Sea or Tanzania, where costs are lower. To save valuable vacation time, look into doing your diving certification before you head out, but if that’s not an option, she urges would-be divers do their homework, reading up on diving companies to ensure they’re reputable. Most divers in the United States get certified at a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) center. NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) and SSI (Scuba Schools International) also offer dive certification courses.

Miller says that you can also cut costs by avoiding packages. “Book everything yourself: Stay in hostels, or contact the dive shop—the diving community is welcoming and friendly, and I’ve stayed with dive shop owners who rent out a room,” Miller says. “It works out cheaper than doing a package.”

Miller urges any would-be divers who are unsure about taking the plunge to book a trial session. “If you’d like a chance to explore another world, it’s cheaper than going into space! It’s quiet, it’s freeing and a truly unique experience.”

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