Topside with One of the World's Most Active Divers

As president and CEO of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Drew Richardson spends most of his days diving. Richardson has a Ph.D. in education and degrees in oceanographic technology and environmental science, and he previously headed the Underwater Technology Department at the Florida Institute of Technology. We caught him between dive trips to talk about his passion for the sport.

How did you get involved in SCUBA diving?
I come from a water background, a competitive swimmer, water polo player, and lifeguard. It was just logical to get into diving. My grandparents had a summer cottage on a lake, where a mask and snorkel were a given. Sea Hunt and Jacques Cousteau were on TV, so it was in my consciousness.

The underwater world is extraordinary, and I wanted to share it with other people, so I then became an instructor. Once you're an instructor, the cool thing is you start giving back, sharing something that you love, introducing people to a place that is usually out of sight and out of mind.

What are some of your most memorable dives?
I remember massive schools of hammerheads in Micronesia and Mexico, just hundreds of them filing past. It's incredible, you feel your place in the world and the trophic level becomes blurred. That kind of experience is even more precious now, as sharks are being overfished.

Under the ice in Antarctica is an incredible environment — wilderness that has only barely been explored. It holds so much diversity: soft corals that rival those in Micronesia in color and size, macro-flora, seals that can hold their breath for an incredible amount of time. We had to drill through seven meters of ice just to get to the water. There is no baseline of comparison, for much of it is untouched by humankind.


What is your role at PADI?
I'm a bit of a cocktail academically, with environmental science, business, and adult education, and I draw from all of that in my professional responsibilities. One of my main areas is to protect the PADI brand and to ensure that safety is always at the forefront. I work with a team establishing offices around the planet. We use locally adapted programs, all aligned under the PADI brand. So someone trained in Poland is trained in the Polish language and culture but would have the same knowledge and skill set as someone training in Toronto.

What are some barriers to people becoming divers?
Everyone knows you're not supposed to breathe underwater, so you have to get past that inherent fear. People tend to worry about equalizing their ears. Some people think they are going to sink. We can deal with all of those.

Every diver needs to go through a basic medical checklist, but otherwise it is just a matter of patience and repetition. The system we developed at PADI is a sequenced way of building on skills, from the classroom to a pool-like setting to open water. We've been able to execute that across 175 countries and 23 million souls, so we know it works.

What are your goals for the future?
To get more people diving. Opening up diving to all kinds of folks, such as diving as a therapeutic modality. Studies with people with post-traumatic stress syndrome or traumatic brain injury are finding that immersion and diving have therapeutic results.

There are issues we want to influence. PADI has two 501 (c)(3) arms, Project Aware, which focuses on marine debris and shark conservation, and a foundation that gives grants to diving medicine and physiology. We are seeing some unprecedented changes in tourist trends, people coming from China who have never seen a palm tree. We're finding that there is an interest but no knowledge, everything is so new. The marine conservation element built into our training is a good way to get people to start thinking about it.

People tend to love what they see, and divers can speak for the trees, if you will. Anyone who has a voice and influence can start to turn the needle a little. The more people we can bring in, the better, not just more for the sake of having more divers but for a purpose. There are lots of inspiring stories out there and work to be done.