These divers search for slave shipwrecks to discover their ancestors

It's been 400 years since the first enslaved Africans set foot in present-day America. In this short film, meet a group of vibrant scuba divers determined to find, document, and positively identify slave shipwrecks. In the process, the divers are also discovering deep connections to their ancestry.

An in-depth, multi-episode podcast and magazine cover story dedicated to documenting some of the thousand slave ships that wrecked in the Atlantic Ocean started at a museum. A few years ago, a photo of Black women divers at the National Museum of African American History and Culture captured the imagination of Tara Roberts, then a soon-to-be National Geographic Explorer.

The group in the photo was from Diving With a Purpose, a nonprofit that teaches divers how to locate shipwrecks and preserve the heritage of the African diaspora. When Roberts, who is also a storyteller, editor, MIT Open Documentary Lab fellow, and, of course, diver, reached out to the group, she was invited by founder Ken Stewart to join one of DWP's diving expeditions. That invitation started the journey that led to Roberts's becoming the first Black female Explorer featured on the cover of National Geographic.

We spoke to Roberts, a former editor for CosmoGirl, Essence, Ebony, and Heart & Soul magazines, to learn more about stepping into her first cover.

What’s the story behind the cover?

Into the Depths is a multilayered journey from the discovery of historical artifacts through deep-sea exploration to the process of taking on the role of a storyteller. Roberts says placing herself into the story allowed for a more personal perspective and experience. 

"Stepping into this work in particular, it feels like I’m centering more into myself and into what I think I’m here to do,'' she says.

Typically, Roberts says her work has been focused on women’s empowerment and gender equity. She has worn the hat of advertiser, editor, manager, and even publisher of her own magazine, Fierce, which she started with the tagline “Too bold for boundaries.” Her goal was to allow other women to be fully represented as the formidable humans that they are.

This time around, however, she was interested in turning inward. Roberts explains the importance of going underwater and placing herself in the groundwork.

“I’m reporting on stuff that I’m doing, and I’m wrestling with, and I’m thinking about,'' she says. 

Having grown up reading National Geographic as a little Black girl from Atlanta and being amazed by the exploration of the world, Roberts hopes that when other little girls who look like her see the cover, “it gives them permission and lets them know this is a possibility for them,” she says.

Roberts also wants the reader to see this as “a story of triumph, a story of agency.” She says Black history is often talked about through a voice of pain and trauma, and the story just stays there in that voice. But this story aims to touch and heal, ultimately shifting the narrative by putting the community and people most affected by a story in charge of the storytelling. (Learn more about why the storyteller matters.)

“I want people to be inspired by these divers, by this work, and want to come join us and discover more.”

What’s featured on the cover?

Roberts worked with Brooklyn, New York-based portrait photographer Wayne Lawrence to capture the cover featuring her portrait. With her gaze directed at the camera and everything below Roberts’s eyes submerged in the Florida Keys’ water, the audience is forced to focus on her role as a diver and storyteller.

Capturing the cover posed some challenges as Lawrence, Roberts, and the other divers featured in the story had to stay in the water for the perfect shot. Roberts describes strong currents pushing her around while kneeling in the shallow water, the weight of the diving gear, and Lawrence braving the cold November water without a wet suit. 

Lawrence had a clear idea of the serious shot he wanted, which meant no toothy grins, Roberts says. The team tried several locations from Key West, Florida, to Edenton, North Carolina, where Roberts’s family is from; ultimately, editors decided on the powerful image taken in the waters at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West.

Before the cover photo was taken, Lawrence took some images at Higgs Beach nearby, purposefully choosing a historic location with a strong connection to the project. 

Higgs Beach is a resting place for enslaved Africans that were illegally transported to Cuba in 1860. The U.S. Navy intercepted the ships and rescued the men, women, and children, but more than 200 died from illness before U.S. authorities could send them to Liberia, creating a mass grave on the beach. A marker for the cemetery was finally erected in 2001.

Roberts and the team felt they had to honor ancestors while keeping warm in the cold water. They played music to bring a good vibe to the shoot, she says. 

What’s next

Roberts plans to continue the work of discovering wrecked slave ships. “There’s as many as a thousand wrecks out there and less than 10 have been found,” she says.

Through the Into the Depths podcast, Roberts says there is “more space to tell a bigger and fuller story”—although she expects to someday dive even deeper by telling this story in a book.

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