ENCINITAS — Resident Barbara Allen gained a license to teach scuba diving in 1957. Little did she know, the certification would later open the door to worldwide travels, a career and a lifestyle.And recently, her passion for diving earned her a spot in the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
Allen always had an affinity for the water. Growing up in Los Angeles, Saturdays were reserved for the beach.
“My parents would pile my brother, myself and anyone in the neighborhood who wanted to go to the beach into the car,” Allen said. We would spend all day body surfing and swimming.”
A competitive swimmer, she also lifeguarded at a Los Angeles city pool in high school and college. Although she had never been scuba diving, her boss at the pool saw potential. He encouraged her to take the Los Angeles County Underwater Instructor’s Course in 1957, which required weeks of intense physical and mental training.
Allen became only the second woman at the time to complete the course. In the process, she fell in love with scuba diving. She soon found exploring offshore reefs with colorful fish swimming through them gave her a rush. And there was a good vibe to most divers.
“I found this kinship with ocean people,” Allen said. “They were just a different breed. They’re very open, positive and often very helpful.”
Soon after, she landed a job as a scuba instructor and befriended Bud Browne, a pioneering surf photographer and filmmaker. They traveled to Hawaii and eventually met a who’s who list of surfers and divers. Names like John Severson, who founded Surfer Magazine, stand out in Allen’s mind.
“Hawaii was the place to be at the time,” Allen said. “I met wonderful people who are legends.”
After moving to San Diego in the early 1960s, diving led her to another favorite hobby: underwater photography.
While working as a secretary at San Diego-based General Atomics and teaching diving on the side, she became active in the fledgling San Diego Underwater Photographic Society. Famous photographers like Ron Church were also a part of the club, and their influence rubbed off on Allen. Not long after, she won club awards for her pictures of sea life and marine topography.
Her underwater photography skills were put to good use in 1964, when she visited Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — a trip she remembers well. The clear, undisturbed water offered glimpses of turtles, exotic fish and black coral. Toting a camera in waterproof housing, she captured the ideal conditions.
“It was 60 feet visibility with 75 degree water — it was wonderful,” Allen said.
In 1967, she joined a Westinghouse ocean research laboratory team in San Diego. One of the team’s first studies involved surveying and photographing plants and marine life in kelp beds offshore of Del Mar, La Jolla and Point Loma. They even went as far as Key West, Fla., to monitor how a water outfall near a power plant impacted flora and fauna.
At a conference in Long Beach, Allen demonstrated Westinghouse’s new semi-closed circuit, mixed-gas rebreather — a technology advance that allowed divers more time to examine deep reefs.
Allen said diving has changed over the years, largely because of the equipment. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many dove with only a mask, fins, regulator and a tank.
“I had a wetsuit and it was considered sissy,” Allen said with a laugh.
Now, there’s more equipment for added safety and divers can stay underwater for greater lengths of time, she noted.
In the 1970s, she moved to San Francisco, where her camera lens documented how pink dye, which mimicked sewage, circulates in water. Other environmental studies followed. And she later held a variety of careers in diving, including issuing and monitoring lagoon boating permits part time for the city of Carlsbad.
She hasn’t been on a dive in five years, but has especially warm memories of long trips through the South Pacific. In 1986, for instance, she surfed and dove quite a bit during a yearlong jaunt through Australia in a van. Thanks to a network of oceanography contacts built up over the years, she had plenty of offers of places to stay and access to spare diving equipment.
According to the website for the Women Divers Hall of Fame, the organization includes, “The most notable women leaders and innovators in the diving community.”
Being inducted is “icing on the cake,” Allen said.
“It’s special to be recognized among your peers as a pioneer,” she said.