Danna Moore–The Power of Divers, Diving & Data

Clear Story 02 – Danna Moore – Director, Global Operations – Project AWARE

 Danna Moore, preparing to dive, San Diego, California

Danna Moore, preparing to dive, San Diego, California

Text and Photography by Jason Murphy – Co-Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director


A Maverick Spirit, A Community Mindset


California is a state of mind, so the saying goes. Diving in California certainly is.

In California, the suburbs reach right down past the Pacific Coast Highway to the ocean’s edge, where sand drifts onto the sidewalks, making them slippery for blocks. Where there are cliffs, concrete stairs descend from paths between people’s driveways to the golden sands and crashing surf below. One of these places is Laguna Beach, where I spent the morning with Project AWARE’s Danna Moore during one of their signature Dive Against Debris debris underwater collection and survey events recently.

California diving has a big shore-diving component. Divers assemble their gear out of the backs of their vehicles and make their way down to the beach in the heat of the morning, preparing to enter the cool California waters wearing thick seven millimetre wetsuits, hoods, gloves and the attendant extra lead weight that cold water gear requires. After a final buddy-check, dives begin with a not-always-dignified backwards walk through the surf. Then, once the crashing waves are behind you, the jade waters of the Pacific open up, revealing their secrets.

There is an independence of spirit to all diving. The first rule of diving is to always make sure you are well situated, that you are composed and your gear is in order, so that if anything goes awry you are in good shape and in a position to help your buddy. Properly done, diving is a relaxing activity, but things can go sideways quickly for even the most experienced diver. If they do, you are in a completely alien world, one whose atmosphere you cannot breathe. Only your skill and ingenuity are available to get you safely back to the surface; the ordinary world you’d only recently escaped from.

Not just a state of mind, then, but a state of independence; an independence rooted in a community of divers brought together by common interests, rules of conduct, understanding of the inherent dangers of what they do on the weekends, and their love of the ocean.

The emphasis on shore diving in California breeds another level of independence on top of that. In some places, some divers have never been shore diving in their lives. Instead, they get delivered to the dive site by boat, enjoy the ease of allowing the boat crew to assist them in getting to the dive platform and helping them out of the water with their gear when they are done.

Shore diving requires that you (and your dive buddy–divers rarely dive alone) do it all yourselves. Not everyone owns their own tanks, but many do, transporting them to and from their local dive shop for refills. If you are renting gear, the dive shop can be a few blocks from the shore, often further. Then, after getting as close as you can, you gear-up on the street and make the trek, clad from head to toe in neoprene and carrying 50 pounds or so of hardware, to the water’s edge.

Not just a state of mind, then, but a state of independence; an independence rooted in a community of divers brought together by common interests, rules of conduct, understanding of the inherent dangers of what they do on the weekends, and their love of the ocean.

AWARE Diver

Project AWARE began in 1989 as an initiative of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), one of the world’s most popular diving training and certification organizations. They saw an opportunity to use their network to begin educating divers on ecological best practices and campaigning on environmental and conservation issues.

Like everyone who likes to enjoy the natural world by getting out into it, divers have an impact on the environment they explore, and this impact can very easily be a negative one. The mantra, “Take only photographs, leave only bubbles,” now shared worldwide by millions of recreational divers is a relatively recent innovation championed by organizations like Project AWARE. But It is a philosophy that a few still either too lightly or actively disagree with.

Thirty years on and Project AWARE is an independent, stand-alone NGO. The connection to the much larger PADI organization is still there. Project AWARE’s head office is tucked inside that of PADI’s, just south of LA.

Project AWARE now boasts a network of 800,000 to 1 million divers and adventurers globally, through whom they promote a broad range of issues, including diver environmental awareness, marine debris retrieval and tracking, and a focused approach to critical species conservation—particularly sharks and rays.

In 2017, over 11,000 divers participated in over 1,400 hours of underwater Dive Against Debris surveys worldwide, and more than 1 million items of trash have been removed from the ocean. Over 40,000 followers on Twitter and 130,000 followers on Instagram are not only testament to the organization’s reach, but also to the enduring fascination of scuba diving for so many.

Danna is Project AWARE’s Director of Global Operations—she runs the show in other words—and I came to California to talk with her during Project AWARE’s AWARE Week, their new, annual, week-long, global celebration of everything that divers do to help conserve the environment they care about, promoted and run in partnership with PADI.

Danna describes AWARE Week as “A crazy… all at once, drive to get everyone into the water.” She also understands that it’s really about bringing emphasis to activities that concerned divers and dive operators are engaged in year round. “I guarantee that, even if you’re not a part of the AWARE community, you go out and you’re a diver and you see a piece of trash you’re gonna pick it up.”  

It’s also true that the engagement that AWARE Week draws from is driven not only by divers’ desires to have access to pristine environments to explore, but also by the need for tourism operators, specifically dive operators, worldwide to be able to deliver on that desire in order to support the economic futures they and their communities seek.

 Danna Moore, diving during a Dive Against Debris survey event at Laguna Beach, California

Danna Moore, diving during a Dive Against Debris survey event at Laguna Beach, California

Across the globe, AWARE Week sees participating dive operators engage in awareness activities that include the Project AWARE Specialty Certification (offered through PADI), Dive Against Debris events, the Adopt A Dive Site program, and Shark and Ray conservation efforts. They also collect a huge amount of data on marine debris and other aspects of ocean health via a burgeoning citizen science program, resulting in the world’s largest database of marine debris.

It is this level of constant concern, engagement and participation from divers and dive operators that allows Project AWARE to punch above its weight in many areas.

Change Begins at Sea-Level

Project AWARE has a team only 15 strong, but it has a reach that crosses oceans and earns it a seat at the table for major agreements such as the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES,) one of the most successful pieces of conservation policymaking ever, and the 2011 Honolulu Strategy, a high-level framework for the prevention and management of marine debris. It is also involved in policy making discussions at the community level in many locations around the world.

Integration into the PADI diver training system is key. It keeps Project AWARE top of mind for divers, and it feeds into the organization’s brand, emphasizing its connection to diving, fun and adventure—helping to “break the cycle of negativity,” as Danna puts it, that environmental NGOs often find themselves locked into.

Danna understands this on a fundamental level. She was new to diving when she joined Project AWARE, but she has lived with the ocean all her life. Her father was a surfer and she was, too. As a result she has an instinctive feel for how the ocean captivates, excites and motivates us. She is pragmatic when it comes to human behavior though–“It has to be fun, rewarding and easy,” she says.

The opportunity as she puts it to “experience the pristine environment” is one of the main attractions of diving, as a result it is in the direct economic interest of dive operators to take a stand to maintain and improve that environment.

She also acknowledges that Project AWARE has unique power in its community: a community that is in the water every week, is almost completely supportive when it comes to the idea of ocean conservation, and is willing to take the extra step–to take action–on a consistent basis.

Relationships with dive operators work on a deeper level, too, though. Project AWARE is part of the economic landscape for the dive industry.

Danna explained how it works to me: The opportunity as she puts it to “experience the pristine environment” is one of the main attractions of diving, as a result it is in the direct economic interest of dive operators to take a stand to maintain and improve that environment.

This link between conservation and economics may seem weak, opaque even, until you begin to understand just how much the living environment is worth in economic terms.

For example, a 2011 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that a reef shark in Palau is worth around US $110 for its fin, which is a lot of money to a subsistence fisherman in the developing world, but that same shark is worth far more—US $1,900,000 over its lifetime—as a living source of tourism revenue.

So, while conservation happens at sea level, Project AWARE has found that policy change also begins there, because it is at sea-level that economic impacts are felt first.

They have found it is easier for conservation efforts to be effective when policy makers feel direct pressure from businesses in their community who rely on the marine environment than it is for NGOs to attempt to have top-down influence on local issues. The relationship that Project AWARE has with dive operators gives them a crucial role in the process, as advocates and as suppliers of data to back up the case for better stewardship, and as a facilitator of similar actions worldwide.

Changing the Narrative

Danna describes herself as a “market based environmentalist,” and she sees firsthand how Project AWARE can make a difference by highlighting the economic importance of environmental stewardship. In her words, this kind of economic argument is, “the crux of why we can provide a different [type of] value at the policy level.”

Events like AWARE Week not only help drive enthusiasm for diving and “fins on” conservation, they also help to steer people towards using diving operators, buying and renting diving equipment, and filling dive boats.

Repeat this action over and over and you will start to change the conservation narrative from one of economic conflict to one of economic growth. That’s the idea, anyway. Backed by Project AWARE’s growing role in fostering citizen science and data collection, it is an idea that Danna–and she tells me–the whole Project AWARE team, is working to make a reality.

It is hard to argue with facts. And, if you own the facts, thanks to the dedication of hundreds of thousands of divers worldwide, then you can supply that data strategically in support of dive operators who may be seeking local political action in favor of conservation efforts because they see such actions as necessary to their future. Back these facts up with the force of the Project AWARE brand, and send representatives from the organization to local council meetings to speak in support of the locals who are leading the charge, and you have a whole suite of empowerment tools at your disposal.

Strategies around shark and ray protection—an area less compatible with direct action by recreational divers—are different. Here, their focus is on education, direct policy engagement by Project AWARE itself, and other ‘fins-off’ activities.

This NGO backed citizen science also helps governments establish baseline data for marine debris in their areas and creates a mechanism, particularly through Project AWARE’s Adopt a Dive Site program, for monitoring how this situation trends over time.

Danna calls it, “informed policy based on citizen science backed-up by community engagement.” Powerful stuff.

Danna sees initiatives like the Project AWARE mobile app as an opportunity to not only collect marine debris data more efficiently, but also as a way to more effectively reward divers for their engagement: Divers get to build their profile and see how much debris they collect—how much good they do—over time.

A True Cost Economy

Strategies around shark and ray protection—an area less compatible with direct action by recreational divers—are different. Here, their focus is on education, direct policy engagement by Project AWARE itself, and other ‘fins-off’ activities.

Over a quarter of all sharks are endangered or threatened, but mako sharks top Danna’s list of priorities in this regard at the moment. Makos are one of the most intensively fished and highly traded sharks and, like most shark species, are hard-hit as by-catch from other deep-sea fisheries.

Makos are found in many of the temperate oceans of the world, with populations in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, as well as the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, where they are critically endangered.

Conservation of vulnerable species is an area where Danna feels like divers can be the underwater eyes of the world, able to share their knowledge and understanding about an environment to which they have a unique level of access.

Danna has some things she’d like to see in the future. On the subject of citizen science apps, her one criticism is that “everybody has an app!” She’s in favour of a more integrated approach to citizen science and data collection with fewer apps covering more issues. She tells me that the Project AWARE team is also working to encourage local dive communities to keep Project AWARE informed of their conservation actions so that she and the organization can be further empowered to make divers feel rewarded and appreciated for doing the positive things that they do, and so that they can provide data and branding support more forcefully.

Ask her the big question though, the ‘if you could change one thing’ question, and she says it always comes back to the same thing for her – a true cost economy.

She believes passionately that if we understood the true value of the living environment in concrete, economic terms, and the true cost of behaviours that negatively impact that environment, we would disincentivize destructive practices dramatically.

A System of Empowerment

The conversations I had with Danna occurred over three days: Once in her corporate office, where our first meeting turned into a brainstorm on data strategy; once at the Dive against Debris event at Laguna Beach, and then on a boat during an afternoon of diving off San Diego.

From Danna in particular, I get a strong sense of how the whole scheme fits together as a system; including only what is absolutely necessary, but with each component playing a vital part in support of the entire mission.

During that time we experienced a rich mix of lessons learned in how to be effective as an NGO, all gathered during a fascinating set of experiences:

  • Activate your community

  • Get the branding right

  • Become a part of the economic viability of your stakeholders

  • Collect and aggregate data

  • Use your data and your brand to empower communities at sea-level

  • Leverage the unique insight—their eyes in the water—of your community to get yourself a seat at the table on issues that can only be meaningfully engaged on a higher level

Of course, it helps if yours is a community millions of divers strong, and if you have a means of introduction to that community via a relationship with one of it’s major certification bodies.

It’s a similar model to that which I’ve seen from other communities of interest, Surfrider in particular. If you love something, you will seek to protect it.

What strikes me about Project Aware is not just how much they get right, but how they seem to have all the bases covered. From their website, their agenda looks deceptively simple—something that comes I think from an acute sense of how efficient they must be to be effective—but the agenda items they focus their energies on are of key importance, and they do it in such a way that they can leverage their resources to the maximum.

From Danna in particular, I get a strong sense of how the whole scheme fits together as a system; including only what is absolutely necessary, but with each component playing a vital part in support of the entire mission.

From her point of view it is a system of empowerment and for putting leadership in the hands of those at sea level who are best positioned to know what’s right for the ocean in their area. It stems from a deep love of the ocean, a realistic but optimistic view of the value of the living environment, and from a deep conviction that people will respond in positive ways if you give them the right support.