Legends of Diving Articles


Ella Jean Morgan
First Black Woman Dive Instructor

Ella Jean Morgan

Born in Belize City, Belize on January 17, 1939 to missionary parents, Ella Jean Morgan certainly qualifies as a truly International Legend of Diving.  Certainly the exotic location she was born and raised in, as well as the facts that her mother was a native of the Cayman Islands and her father haled from Jamaica, helped provide an international landscape that fostered an openness in Ella Jean that would move her to break racial and gender barriers in the dive industry.

The daughter of Seventh Day Adventist Missionaries, Ella Jean spent the first six years of her life in Belize, before moving with her family to Nicaragua and Costa Rica during her formative years.  She came to the United States twice to attend school over the years, but spent much time in Jamaica. Though never having gone scuba diving until attending college in the United States, Ms Morgan attributes her love of the sea and desire to dive to the time she spent snorkeling in the Caribbean during these younger years.

After visiting a friend in California, Ella Jean decided to make it her home and enrolled in college at Cal State in Los Angeles.  Fascinated by the sea and all things in it, she earned her undergraduate degree in biology while taking as many field courses available dealing with marine biology.  It was at this time that she took a course in diving at Cal State and became certified in Open Water in 1970 through L.A. County. Some years later, in 1983, Ella Jean Morgan became certified as an Instructor though L.A. County, thereby becoming the first black woman instructor in the world, as far as International Legends of Diving can determine. That same year, Ella Jean became cross-certified through NAUI, as well.

Ms Morgan recalls that throughout her LA County Instructor course, a different instructor taught each lecture that made up the course.  One instructor that left a lasting impression on Ella Jean was Dr Sam Miller, who lectured on the legal ramifications of diving. During the 3 month long LA Instructor course, a weekend was dedicated to learning from the great Jim Stewart at Scripps Institute in San Diego, Ca.

It is worth noting that there was no "affirmative action" in diving. The LA County instructor course had a diving skill test that a candidate had to pass successfully to be accepted into the course, as well as a specific skill level to graduate. For example, a year or two after Ella Jean completed her course, four young black male divers tried to get into the course, but only one did. That young man didn't meet the skill level to graduate, however, and had to repeat the entire course the following year. It is obvious that Ella Jean's accomplishments can be attributed to her and her alone.

It was in 1981, after joining a dive club in Glendale, California, that Ella Jean met Erin O'Neil, a woman that would prove to be not only a lifelong friend, but a business partner, as well.  One of the officers of this club started a class for dive masters and assistant dive instructors. The class consisted of five men and two women, the two women being Ella Jean and Erin O’Neil, and they proved to be the only two to pass the course successfully.  They went on to complete the LA County Instructor Course together in 1983.

After becoming instructors, the two women went on to teach at a dive shop called Scuba Dooba Dive.  Less than a year later they started their own dive shop called Morgan-O’Neill Underwater Company, which stayed in operation from 1983 until 1996.  The two friends were dedicated to maintaining high standards for each student that passed through their door.  They enjoyed many colorful experiences over the years and had the opportunity to teach many in the entertainment industry.  They attribute this to their flexibility, providing customized schedules for instruction at any time of day or evening. 

Due to their own personal experience as women divers in a sport dominated and mostly taught by men, Morgan and O’Neill became very passionate about finding alternative methods of instruction, while still holding to the highest standards of safety.  Ella Jean noted that when she was a student herself, that many of the techniques for diving, such as placing a tank on by lifting it over your head, made it more difficult for a woman than necessary.  The two women became specialized in training women and men and boys with smaller builds.

It was in the late 1980’s that the two wrote several articles about these issues for San Diego Discover Diving.  There was such tremendous reader response that the publisher asked the women to write a book, which was published in 1992 under the
Ella Jean Morgan
title “When Women Dive: A Female’s Guide to Diving and Snorkeling.”  The book was well received and sold out quickly.  It took the two women years to buy back the rights for the book from the publisher, but they did so successfully and they hope to update and reissue the material, though the basic principles espoused in the book still hold true today.

Another career highlight for Ella Jean began in 1989 when she began to teach commercial diving at Oceaneering.  She became the Chair of her Department in 1992 and rose to the position of Department Dean in 1995. Ultimately, the school was purchased by National University in 2003 and Morgan was made Vice President in charge of the L.A. campus.  Morgan spent 19 productive years at the school until her retirement in 2008.

When asked about any racial or gender prejudice she may have encountered over the years, Ms Morgan recalls losing a job as a Philippines treasure hunter in the 1970’s when they learned she was female. She also notes that the Instructor Course she passed was definitely weighted in favor of the build and physical strengths of a man and clearly put the women in the class at a disadvantage. An example she cites is that of an exercise with a weighted bag in 30ft of water.  On a breath hold dive the diver was to empty their lungs into the bag then return to the surface for another breath of air.  The diver would then descend and fill the bag again and repeat this process until the bag came to the surface.  Obviously, this exercise favored men with larger lungs; some men could do this in only two dives, where it took the much smaller Ella six dives!  Of course, this was due to the fact that a woman’s lungs are smaller than a man’s and not due to a lack of skill.  However, a woman with smaller lungs lost points in that exercise through no fault of her own.

In another experience in 1970, Ella Jean found herself to be the only black person and the only female on a dive boat.  She couldn’t help but absorb some of the comments of those who doubted her place on that excursion, but she said that when some of them were rescued by her later, their attitude quickly changed.  Remaining undaunted in the face of such prejudice, Ella Jean let her skill and not her words touch the hearts of those who doubted her. 

It is no surprise that, due to her many contributions to the dive community, Ella Jean was inducted into the Woman Diver’s Hall of Fame in 2000.  Having taught hundreds of students over the years, Ella Jean is most proud of the fact that she has never heard of any of her students being involved in a diving accident.  This was the goal that she and Erin O’Neill held out for themselves when they began teaching so many years ago.

Another highlight of her years spent at Oceaneering was meeting her husband, Frank Boulanger, also an instructor at the school. Frank had served in the Navy and as a commercial diver before coming to the school.  The two married in 1993 and still work as consultants in the dive industry. 

Ella Jean and Frank are more active as divers than ever before since Ella’s retirement in 2008. In 2010 alone they have travelled to Bonaire, Mexico, and to Belize to name just a few dive locations.  Active and and passionate about life at the age of 71, Ella pursues diving, hiking, quilting, and underwater photography with equal enthusiasm. 

Ella Jean and Erin O’Neill have accumulated hundreds of underwater photographs of marine life over the years.  They have developed these into marine life slide shows to share with various schools and colleges.  They made the switch to digital photography and continue to share their wealth of photographic treasures with up and coming generations, fueling the next generation’s respect for the sea.   It is easy to see why Ella Jean Morgan is ranked among the International Legends of Diving, her lasting contributions continuing to this day.

(ILD would like to thank Ella Jean Morgan for the information provided for this article.  Photos courtesy of Woman Diver’s Hall of Fame & OceanCareers.com) 

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