You won’t find a better diving partner than Albert José Jones, says his colleague Jay Haigler, who describes Jones as “scuba fit”—aerobically agile, in full command of the muscles in his body as it cleaves the currents of the ocean.
A native of Washington, D.C., who earned his diving certification in a Howard University pool, Doc Jones, as he’s known, changed the complexion of the elite sport in 1959 when he founded Underwater Adventure Seekers, the first club for African American scuba diving enthusiasts. His efforts then and throughout his career as a diver, explorer, and scientist opened the door for Black divers to explore the ocean—and their own history—in ways that hadn’t been done before.
In fact, when Haigler last dived with Jones in 2019, near Key West, Florida, they were celebrating two milestones in African American diving: Underwater Adventure Seekers was 60 years old, and Diving with a Purpose (DWP), an organization that documents shipwrecks from the transatlantic slave trade, had been launched 15 years earlier.
“What does the future look like because of Doc Jones?” Haigler asks. “It looks more representative of the world we live in. It looks like a place where any young Black girl or boy who is curious about the sea and curious about their history can call themselves an explorer. It lets them know they have just as much of a chance to view the remarkable world beneath the surface of the ocean.”
A junior Doctor Dolittle
Jones, a Purple Heart recipient and a marine biologist, is surprisingly modest about his influence. To hear him tell it, his life’s work was just the natural progression for a boy who mastered swimming in city pools and loved diving into creeks and ponds, collecting frogs and turtles and lizards, and any other critters he could get his hands on.
How Jones went from a junior Doctor Doolittle to a legend in the fields of marine archaeology and underwater exploration is an intriguing chapter in African American history, one bookended by inventiveness born of racial constraints and discoveries made by those who pushed through them.
He created Underwater Adventure Seekers for a purely pragmatic reason. Existing diving clubs in the 1950s and 60s simply didn’t allow African Americans to join, and the costs associated with scuba diving often deterred people curious about the sport. Jones, having achieved his certification and become deeply immersed in his own passion for diving, says he had no choice but to try and create equal access.
“I knew there were others like me who loved the water like I did, who had the same desire to see the world, too,” Jones says. “It didn’t make sense that people who felt as strongly as I did about it would never even get the chance to see what the world looked like beneath the water.”
Haigler first met Jones in 2004 at a D.C. chapter meeting of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, which Jones co-founded in 1991. Haigler says that encounter changed his life. He and his wife Vanessa had sampled diving during a Cayman Islands vacation earlier that year but felt isolated as the only people of color on the excursion.
“But when I walked into a room and saw 70 people who looked like me, and all of them loved diving as much as I did, I was like, ‘Okay, game on,’” Haigler recalls. “I knew right then that this was more than just a sport for me.”
By making scuba diving accessible for African Americans, Jones made it possible to reframe the narrative about the transport of Africans to the Americas. He and his fellow adventure seekers have explored the sunken wreckage of ships, handled rusted chains and manacles that may have bound their ancestors, and navigated through the waters that either conveyed Africans to a new land or received their bodies during the ocean crossing.
Haigler, a founding board member of Diving with a Purpose, points out that Jones’s commitment to training men and women like him created a pipeline into fields where African American representation has been minimal or non-existent. For example, the organization has strategic partnerships with groups like the Society of Black Archaeologists, to help train members for careers in research and museums. The National Park Service, another partner, provides technical and financial support for some of DWP’s endeavors.
In fact, when Haigler contacted Ayana Flewellen, co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists in 2012, the collaboration seemed pre-destined. Less than one percent of all archaeologists worldwide are African American, Flewellen says, and the opportunity to meld the science with the lost history of African Americans was too good to ignore.
“We're trying to break open the mold of who's formally trained in this space,” Flewellen says. “There’s an extra layer to the work, almost a spiritual connection to the people whose stories ended at the bottom of the ocean.”
“It feels like really sacred work,” says National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts, who wrote about DWP for National Geographic. “And it also feels like work that is full of agency, that is full of power. There's something about us as regular folks who raised their hands and said, we want to be a part of helping to bring this lost history up from the depths and back into memory. We're not going to wait on somebody who doesn't look like us to put it in a book and tell us that that's what our history is. We're saying that now we have power, we have agency to be able to go out and find that history and say, it's important.”
As Haigler puts it, all these currents lead back to one diver: Albert José Jones. He hopes to partner once again with the man who carved a door to the sea, placed it in a frame and flung it open for so many African Americans, both the living and those whose voices whisper beneath the waves.
“Watching him in the water, it’s perfection,” Haigler says. “It’s like seeing Moses with the tablets. It’s an honor and a privilege.”