The Interview: Jennifer Idol talks Diving all Fifty States of America, The Muddy Middle and why you'll never use a straw again.

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What does it mean to be an explorer? Explore is one of the key values of WanderWomenClub, here we unite in our love of discovery. Our desire for quest. For me, explore can mean so many things, in my meditation practice it can mean simply to sit and notice what comes up, It can mean to explore the whispers of my heart by honouring my feelings or it can mean a fierce commitment to walking this sometimes challenging inner path we have committed to.

But other times it can be a great glorious celebration of simply getting to explore this beautiful world of ours and the lessons we learn as we push ourselves to new horizons and new experiences.

This month's interview is a chat with a real life explorer, a WanderWoman who has put her love of exploring at the very heart of her life.

An Environmental Catastrophe,  A Moment of Guilt and and Extraordinary Response.

The horror of flying over and witnessing first hand the Deep Sea Horizon oil spill froze photographer Jennifer Idol to the spot and the guilt ofnot pulling out her camera to capture the moment propelled her to a remarkable response.  Driven by the desire to record, preserve and share the stories of our underwater world and thus help in their care and conservation Jen embarked on an extraordinary quest lasting 5 years and costing over $160,000 of her own money to become the first woman to scuba dive all fifty states of America as well as publishing her findings in her first book An American Immersion. We talk about the emotional and physical challenges of embarking on a journey, our society's culture of immediacy and how anything worth doing may take some time! How to keep the enthusiasm up when "the muddy middle" strikes and what we can all do to preserve this precious planet of ours.

I hope you all enjoy listening to this interview as much as I did recording it.  Hit reply or let me know in the comments below!

Listen to the podcast here: 

Or Read the Transcript Below:

WW: Jennifer Idol is known as The Underwater Designer -  the first woman to dive all 50 states of the United States of America and author of the book An American Immersion about her quest. Jen thank you so much for giving up some time today to be interviewed today by WanderWomenClub. I did just joke we were going to “dive” right in. So sorry for the horrible pun but as you say it is quite appropriate!

We met in the queue at the World Domination Summit where you talked to my friend about photography and I don’t think I realized you were then going to appear on stage talking about your quest! So then I was like “I have to interview this woman!” So thank you for joining me…i’m going to start by asking:

WW: When did you first discover your love of diving and the underwater world?

JI: Well first off, thanks for having me here, I’m very excited to talk with you and your audience and hope that everyone can get something from this podcast.

I started diving when I was 14 and I was also an artist from the beginning and I combined my skills as a scuba diver, artist and visual communicator.

WW: That’s something I wanted to touch on, perhaps before we get into your quest, as you seem to have discovered a sweet spot ….by combining your passion that you’ve had for many years with your talents and skills as well. Is that something that happened organically as you grew?

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JI: I’ve always wanted to follow where my strengths were, I thought that would be a more enjoyable path for me. So I earned a BA in Fine arts. I started on my own path wishing I could be a lawyer or a doctor who had their own job, something respectable. But knowing who I was and being true to myself I followed the path of Fine Art. And in that path I kept exploring new ways to connect with other people and joining the professional association for design and I volunteered with them for a decade culminating in a role with them as President for the Austin, (Texas) chapter.

WW: And you were diving as a hobby in that time?

JI: I was. It was a hobby, sort of my separate life. It was completely distinct to who I was as an artist and a designer. It was really feeding the adventure side of who I am. I love exploration and eventually the two kind of came together on a trip returning from Tobago.

I had decided I wanted to take my image making; since I had a career as a designer and as a photographer in events and corporate images; I thought it would be fun to take that experience underwater and started experimenting with locations.

Tobago was my first professional underwater photography trip where I was working with my professional materials underwater. I saw pristine coral reefs including giant black coral trees. If you know anything about black coral it is very very rare because people have harvested it.

It was very nice to see these 10 foot coral trees hanging off the coast off the island.

WW: And that was the first time you started doing professional photography underwater?

JI: It was. And now what urged me to bring these skills together was something I could never have foreseen or predicted.

 I flew over the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill on the trip returning from Tobago. As we flew over it I was in the window seat on the right hand side of the airplane and the captain announced we were flying over it.

Otherwise I’m not sure I would have known to look at the right moment.

WW: Right, tell me about that moment, what went through your mind?

JI: Well I was already feeling pretty jee’d up from my first professional photography trip and was exhausted but I had my camera in the seat in front of me and just felt frozen in my seat as I looked out to the right of me down onto the Gulf of Mexico. I’m a native Texan so this really felt like it was happening in my home waters. It’s off the coast of Louisiana but we all share the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern Coastal states.

WW: Right so it was waters that you knew well?

JI: Yes and I’d been diving in it.

JI: So when I looked down they had decided to burn off some of the oil on the surface, I could see these giant oil tankers in the area desperately trying to contain the spill. I felt rather helpless in the situation and what that fire meant for life underneath the water. And also the massive amounts of oil that are still there even today.

WW: So when thinking about your quest I don’t think I realized before that your awareness of the waters and the environment and the damage that we’re doing… I thought that came about or grew after you embarked on your quest is that right?

JI: Absolutely, I already knew how important our natural waters were,  I lived outdoors and I’d seen changes in the natural environment. But I think in that moment I realized I was taking for granted that other people knew what was going on and that really was what instigated my thinking of “what can I do to start sharing the stories of our waters and communicate so that we can prevent globally from anybodies’ local waters - suffering from bad choices?”

WW: So talk me through how you went from that moment of seeing this oil spill to actually coming up with the idea to dive all 50 states?!  

JI: Well I mentioned the camera under the front seat that I did not pull out from under it.  I am an obsessive image maker and did not pull it out and record it!  And you know you are flying along at hundreds of miles an hour so it was gone (the sight of the oil spill) in a matter of moments. I deeply regretted this.  I just couldn’t stop looking at it and I was frozen and I have a hard time wanting to capture grotesque images. I like to capture beauty, I really struggle with showing images of trash, showing images of injured animals, I simply want to fix whatever I see, and don’t like showing that hard side.

By the time we landed I was all kinds of emotionally guilty and frustrated with what I’d experienced and guilty because I hadn’t taken the photo.  I was like “Oh my gosh How can I fix this?”

So I thought, this is my local water and I want to start by sharing my local water with other local people…

…and then I went to a design conference with the AIGA and had some more conversations with people and talked about the plight of Deep Water Horizon and realized they had no frame for the scale of what that meant, how big the area was impact wise, in some of the ways that they hadn’t experienced other big floods and disasters. They are all meaningful but when you see it in person it’s somehow different and so I thought I’ll just start by showing all the local waters.

And I talked to a local dive buddy Ben Castro and he said “I’ll go anywhere with you!”

JI: So I thought, Great -  we’ll just go everywhere! We’ll dive the whole 50 states!
And so it started by saying “great we’re going to dive all fifty states and these are our parameters and here’s where it will take us….”

I didn’t know in the beginning moments what the story would finally look like, having not been to those places before.

I knew Texas and Florida but the rest of the country I hadn’t gone scuba diving in.

WW: So you weren’t aware of the types of water you’d be diving in or just how the quest would pan out I suppose?

JI: I wasn’t aware of the lessons I would learn, how the story would communicate or the identity of the natural waters or what some of the problems were in the rest of the country. Invasive species are a huge problem I realized,  I didn't know about certain algae and fish, some fish weren’t bad lessons but I just had no idea they even existed until I observers them and said what’s that!?

WW: Yes, so I was looking at your website and the amount of money that it cost, the number of photos you took…something like over 75,000 photos?!  

JI: On the website the statistics were up to a certain year, in the book at the back I listed the final stats for the full five years. 105,000 photos almost $160,000 dollar …

WW: and over 70,000 miles driving because America’s such a big country!

JI: My poor little red Ford’s gone a long way!

WW: I’m interested in exploring the outer and the inner journey and I wonder if you knew at the beginning what it would take would you have embarked on it in the first place?

JI: A better way for me to answer that would be to say if I did again I would have to have funding for the expedition. I wouldn’t self fund it again.

I thought Oh it’s not such a big deal to do but it took a tremendous amount of energy. I worked full time as a graphic designer for another company and I wasn’t able to take my company full time until I’d completed the journey.

WW: OK and the journey was about sharing the photos but did you have any goals beyond that? Were you trying to become a specialist in underwater photography at that point or was the quest really just about diving the states and sharing the photos?

JI: Initially it was about diving the states and sharing the photos but I always knew I wanted to create a book of it. I’d say very quickly during the first year it really resonated with me and I realized I wanted to do underwater photography for the rest of my life in a professional capacity.

So it was a business venture from the book from the get go but coming into my own with the photography was something that the first year showed me. I was like, oh wait, people are really responding to these images and its resonating with them.  

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WW: I think I’m asking these types of questions because generally anything big requires this extraordinary response and we don’t know what’s expected of us or how things are going to pan out or what’s involved or being asked of us- and it sometimes probably a good thing we don’t at the beginning! We can just see the first couple of steps.

JI: Yes can I elaborate on that a little bit? When I first created the book I thought I’d write a chapter every month of the journey but I was unable to write the story of the book until I had completed it, because I didn’t know where the narrative would take me or what I wanted to communicate with people. But I took photos and I had all the materials saved of the journey, like we’d pick up a pamphlet and I kept it n my pamphlet box from every destination.

WW: But you couldn’t see what the story was until you’d completed the journey

JI: Right

Early Obstacles

WW: I’m wondering if there there any fears or obstacles when you first began? Or any serious set backs along the way?

 JI: In my presentations I tell about the very first setback that I experienced which taught us, and I had sort of let go of my expectations just by going on the journey on the first place and begin open to where it lead, but on our very first day I learned to expect the unexpected because Ben who I started with called me on the first day to say he’d contracted H1n1 flu (swine flu for the Brits!)  which isa bad thing!

But then he told me that the doctor had given him an immunization so that he wouldn’t be contagious after his first day of travel!  Because we were both working and I had limited vacation time we were rather stuck with whatever days we had before us, we only had those dates. If we missed a trip-we just didn’t have the luxury to miss that vacation time so even missing a day would have prevented us.

We drove to Utah for our first trip which was a 24 hour drive so if you don’t …. We just didn’t have the vacation time to miss that first day. Or if you flying you fly out Friday, dive Saturday and fly back Sunday/Monday, you can’t afford for your baggage to get lost so that’s why a day’s delay wasn’t good with the flu so I grabbed a mask and we wore medical masks and put them in the back seat and we’re driving off the interstate which is off my home town of Texas we’ve gotten about 10 miles out of town to the suburbs, the speed limit is 70mph and I was going 75 mph I get pulled over by an officer. He came up to the car - right at the beginning we had H1n1 and are getting pulled over by an officer so we were very physically being reminded of getting stuck and obstacles!  And he says:

“What’s going on here?”

And I said, “well my buddy here has got H1n1 flu so I put him in the back seat,”  and he stepped back from the car and said “carry on!”

He wanted nothing to do with his illness and I don’t blame him!

WW: Well in the end it worked in your favour somehow? I think! how interesting…

JI: But there were also other things. We’d planned to dive North Carolina when Hurricane Irene hit the same week so we had to change our location and decided to dive Nevada instead. So there were tactical reminders of obstacles, it’s sometimes easier to see than the mental obstacles such as fatigue, the tangible reminders.

 WW: I was going to ask about that? Were there emotional obstacles? Points where you just felt like giving up or you lost enthusiasm for it?

JI: If you look at my book, the middle chapter in 2013is called :The Muddy Middle” that’s because when you embark on a quest that requires so much planning and endurance at the beginning you’re all excited and filled with the anticipation of the event you’re starting out on. By the time you reach the middle you can’t see the beginning of the road or the end of the road so you keep trudging along down the road and have to keep faith that you are indeed moving forward. And at the end you’re excited because you can see the end but at the same time you have this weird dragging of the feet because all of a sudden you are getting to the end of this thing that has given you purpose for five years, it felt like graduating college. All of a sudden I thought “oh my” I knew I was going to make a book but I didn’t have anything beyond this. And there is something comforting about giving yourself something you can depend on with purpose.

But the middle was a bit difficult. And tiresome. Which is actually how I got involved with the World Domination Summit.*

WW: (Laughs) Which is a great time to get involved with the World Domination Summit! But it is the classic dark Act 2 isn’t it? of a play or a book or our life. The classic Hero’s Journey. It’s when things go wrong or you’re in this fog and you can’t see where they are going to go or you hit rock bottom and you have to find your way out again. So was the World Domination Summit (WDS) one of the ways in which you got back some of that enthusiasm, what other ways did you use to keep yourself going when you were in that place?

JI: At the WDS I had the opportunity to get some feedback from the community that my journey was worthwhile.

WW: Aha!

JI: That came after I was selected for a special lightning round (where members of the audience who are up to extraordinary things are invited onto the stage to share their stories in a minute or less in front of the 5000 people in the audience.)  That was the largest group I’ve spoken to!  It was really encouraging even if it didn’t go anywhere with the audience, for me it really reinforced it. But in addition to that it was a turning point in my scuba dive. I love scuba diving and I love being under water and love the immersion side of it but the equipment I carry is quite heavy and when you’re working all the time and working tired it just becomes work all the time to be diving all the time for work only. Not for pleasure.  I started to lose some of the love I had for diving in that moment.

But in Oregon I ran into the clearest water in the country and it reignited my “this is why I do this!”

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WW: It’s supposed to be fun as well.

JI: You need to have fun while you’re working.

I mean the IRS don’t like us to have fun while you work but if you don’t have fun while you work you’re not going to create meaningful products and you lose the heart of it. You find yourself saying why are you doing this anyway? It’s like a love where you fall in love and then you forget why you fell in love. So you need to keep that with you and nurture the relationship you have with your endeavours.

WW: I definitely been through that myself. Somewhere along the line I think “this was supposed to be fun” somehow the mind games that we have that we play with ourselves that get lost in the “i should do this” or “ I have to do that” and the joy drops out of it, it’s really difficult to keep the motivation to keep going I think.

JI: Absolutely

WW: So I’m really pleased to hear about the feedback on the WDS as well and I remember you coming in on the lightening round, and that was early on in my relationship with that community and I was so blown away just by the audience members and what they were up to! Let alone the people on stage giving the key note speeches!

WW: Moving onto once you actually completed the quest….how did it feel? And can you look back and see if and how you’ve changed from completing such a journey?

JI: State Fifty was Michigan on the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. I think my qualifying day was Lake Michigan and we had the news there and they came on the boat and wanted to do an interview. And it was a really lovely piece one of the best local news pieces I’ve seen on their journey, they had integrity and that was really wonderful considering I have a conservation message to my work and I don’t like it to be politicised.

And it was just simply honest about the journey. So I had the excitement about it being the qualifying diveand it was happy but I like I mentioned but it was also “Wow its’ done…?”

So I did a silly thing, because I’m an explorer and it’s the only thing I know how to do…because I’m an explorer was just to move. So I did a tour of the local lighthouse and I went to the store and I had no real connection with that place except where that was where state fifty was so I bought these miniature lighthouses for friends and family and said “Yes this will signify the end!”

WW: Were you compelled to come up with something else, something bigger and better if there could be such a thing! or did you have a sense of closure of this quest completed?

JI: I had a sense of closure with the quest completed and part of that was knowing that I still had a book to produce and speaking engagements to share the story of the book, to schedule and deliver. So it was also odd because I finished it and it was done but I couldn’t then close that chapter because I had to spend another year telling the story. And we’re now- it’s been since August 31st we’re just a month past the year - just 13 months since I finished, the book came out in May and the soft back came out in early August. The product has just now come out and I’m struggling with the cultural phenomenon of immediacy. I’m seeing that thing of us needing things to be done immediately. I’m seeing that as leading to broader content but shallow. To create a journey like this took five years and there’s a lot of depth to the story. And the next story I’ll tell will also require some time and the journey going forward so I’m certainly looking for the next iteration of my work as an underwater photographer, a web designer, I want to create large installations of my work.

I am very keen to tell the story of our under water environment.

We are at a point of choice with our responsibility to keeping a blue planet and green life and oxygen. I’m very motivated to survive! I think this is a good pursuit. So It’s both finished and not finished. When you finish that final step you’re not really done, and that’s strange, to feel afraid that its only the one thing that you did. …Simply because you can’t see because of all the work you have before you. And for the quest in particular people think “oh you’r a bucket list person” people like to really categorise you and so they say:

Are you going to dive all the Canadian provinces? Are you going to dive all the continents? All the countries in Mexico? All the territories of the United States which are always changing?

WW: Yes It took me a while to realise there wasn’t fifty two states because when I was growing up there were!

So I’m interested in what you’re saying about immediacy. Because anything worthwhile does take time, the act of writing a book is a quest and a journey in itself, it’s not something that gets done in a month or so.


JI: Even though I produced the book in 3 months and I had an amazing editor - there are no short cuts. I was working 15 - 18 hours a day and left my job and went full time with The UnderWater Designer last September.  Then Ijust tampered with the book and while I was creating the book it was non billable hours so I needed to get it done quickly to get back to billable hours! So I was staying up til 2am writing chapters with bleary eyes and despite the extremely honest and heart felt editing that my editor did none of it was changing the content it was all changing the communication of the content, making so it flowed well and spoke in the same voice, consistency and literary style.

WW: And do you feel changed emotionally, has it affected the way you respond to things or you take action in your life having this quest under your belt?

JI: I certainly have a product and have an achievement that will always be with me. So there is a sense of self that comes out of it. We tend to define ourselves by our careers and what we have given our careers and things are fleeting but experiences are things that are never taken away from you.

Maybe your memory of the experience may change but that’s why artifacts of experiences are so helpful as we go on in life we can look back and say “ah yes that’s what happened” Its important to have an artifact not even for sharing with others but even for ourselves it’s important to have an artifact so you can be reminded of who you have defined yourself to be.  

WW: And that probably answers my next question as well, because you obviously had a clear vision from the beginning after witnessing the oil spill about sharing and communicating this beautiful underwater world. But even if that hadn’t been a goal, if the book hadn’t been there, I was going to ask if there was a value in just having a personal quest that one embarks on. I think what you just said speaks to that, it’s how we choose to define ourselves in life.

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JI: I think that’s what drives a lot of people’s travel, it’s having experiences even if you’re not doing it professionally, they’re trying to find a different perspective.

WW: So just circling back to something we talked about at the beginning and how you managed to find this sweet spot between your love, your talent, your passion and your expertise. I know that there are a lot of women out there that are following my site and will listen to this podcast who are still struggling to get back to their hearts and what lights them up I wonder if you have any advice for someone that’s in that situation?

JI: I know what works for me and talking to some people including my husband about how he finds fulfillment with his talents, a lot of it islooking at what are your resources? what do you have in the world around you?  and how can you use this to your strength?  and then…what do you care to do?

And it might not be your endgame for the first few things that you do, but every project and every step that you take to build on your talents and your resources can lead to more fulfilling work.

 So you won’t necessarily say “I want to help the ocean” that’s a big problem!  I can’t start with changing global economy. I have to look at where can I have impact and meaning it doesn’t mean any pursuit is any more or less worthy than another pursuit but having an iteration as a small part of something and still doing something and finding value in that.

WW: Yeah great and that also speaks to what I was going to ask next because I think that a lot of people particularly now, are very concerned about the environment but it feels quite overwhelming to look at the damage that’s been done and some people might be thinking: I want to do something that helps but how can one person do something that makes a difference? or can one person really change anything that’s going on? And I wondered how you felt about that and what advice you would give for that thought?

JI: Well on the sustainability side and conservation related issues, we all as individuals have contributed to the situation we are now in so we as individuals can also now get ourselves out of the situation that we are now in. And our individual waste is the biggest thing I see. I saw trash in every body of water and collected trash in every body of water I’ve been in, we had a Lake Travis clean up. You know I come up with 2 or 3 bags with every dive.  

And I didn’t dump that trash but I think about how I picked up the trash that a dozen people discarded so I’ve corrected twelve peoples individual actions by my one action. So if we all as individuals make one action we can over come some of these issues.

WW: That’s a great way of looking at it, I really appreciate that.

JI: Well there’s a thing like I don’t use straws. Plastic is a material that does not go away and it exists for ever. Unless its recycled and reused but the material is still there. And it breaks down into microscopic amounts that animals ingest and we in turn ingest them, so every way is eating plastic. So I don’t use straws. And I’ve noticed culturally there is a phenomenon of straws where waiters don’t even ask if you want one they just give it to you. So now I say “I want a water with no straw please” and they look at you funny and so I say “I don’t need a straw - my lips work!”

WW: Yes! Were there any places that you did in the lakes that stood out for natural beauty, waters that stood out for being untouched by humans and waters that stood out by having clearly been damaged by humans?

JI: I haven’t found a place untouched by humans but I have found some beautiful places. So even though we have touched places and you can see evidence of it I still appreciate the life that I see.

WW: And are you able to talk about what you are currently working on and how we can support it?

JI: I’m giving presentations on the book and anybody that reads the book and leaves amazon reviews will absolutely help support the cause and help me go on future expeditions and help me succeed. There are a list of engagements, stories I’m interested in telling. Expeditions I’m interested going on that are more specific than the fifty states, that are species specific so I’m working towards those species. I was able to swim with whale sharks this year, that was a long time pursuit and I have just started my knowledge in that area.

WW: How beautiful, wonderful.The book is “An American Immersion”

JI: Yes.

WW: Perfect, Jen it’s been wonderful to speak to you, thank you so much for taking time out today.

JI: thank you I appreciate it and I hope it helps give other people direction in their own pursuits.

WW: Absolutely its been really inspiring and and I’m wishing you the best of luck in whatever you take on next!

JI: Thank you

WW: Thank you

END.

If you’re interested in supporting Jen’s fabulous work you can find out more about her amazing quest at her website here. An American Immersion is her beautiful coffee table style book documenting her journey and available on Amazon at this link.*

Find out more about Jen here:

http://www.anamericanimmersion.com

www.theunderwaterdesigner.com

* This is an affiliate disclaimer. Sometimes (as with Amazon products) I make recommendations on products and services and if you purchase based on my recommendation I receive a little money back too. You never pay any more than you would otherwise- It's a bit like recommending a friend to a hairdresser and getting money off your next cut :) Please rest assured I only ever recommend products and services from people who I value highly and trust and want to recommend to you because I genuinely believe in the life enhancing effect they've had for me!

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