Famous Female Divers: Zale Parry

To this day, Parry continues to inspire and encourage all those with an interest in diving and the underwater world.

Men may outnumber women in the scuba diving community, but what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. This series examines the remarkable achievements of famous female divers, and the contributions that they’ve made to numerous fields, including science, technology and conservation.

Zale Parry

When it comes to famous female divers, American-born Zale Parry was one of the first. Brought up on the shores of a Wisconsin lake, Parry’s future aquatic career was inevitable from an early age. In the 1940s, her love of water inspired her to take up skin-diving, and from there, it was an obvious transition into scuba as the sport gained popularity during the 1950s. Parry began scuba diving in 1951, when her future husband, freediver Parry Bivens, bought one of the very first Aqualungs to America. A short time afterwards, Parry and Bivens designed and built California’s first civilian hyperbaric chamber, which they used to test new scuba equipment as it emerged on the market. Together, they were the first to complete a 1,000-foot (300 meter) test dive, and in 1953, their equipment-testing company Scientific Underwater Research Enterprises was born. Like most diving pioneers, Parry continually pushed the boundaries and redefined the limitations of the new sport. In 1954, she set a new deep-diving record for women while testing the Hope-Page non-return valve mouthpiece in open water. She reached 209 feet (64 meters), and, based on her success, the equipment she was testing became a standard regulator feature thereafter. The coverage of this event was huge, including a photo of Parry on the cover of Sports Illustrated in May 1955.

Also in 1954, Parry enrolled in the L.A. County Underwater Instructor Certification Course (UICC), which produced some of the very first scuba instructors. Parry became the third woman to graduate from this course and put her new certification to good use when she was selected to appear in the television series Kingdom of the Sea. At the end of each episode, Parry appeared in a 5-minute segment dedicated to promoting water safety. She swiftly became renowned not only for her good looks, but also for her expertise as a scuba diver, and in 1957 she was cast without an audition in a new television show called Sea Hunt. In it, she acted as a stunt double for the series’ damsel-in-distress during underwater scenes, and also as an actress in her own right. She also filled the role of the show’s technical director, assisting with underwater filming and even teaching the show’s star, Lloyd Bridges, to dive. Thereafter, Parry appeared many more times both as herself and as a stuntwoman in feature films, television series and commercials.

According to legend, while researching a role in the film Underwater Warrior, Parry took a training test at the U.S. Navy’s submarine training tank in Pearl Harbor. She was the first woman ever to reach 60 feet (18 meters) without equipment, which was the qualifying depth for underwater demolition-team divers at the time. Over the years, Parry continued to explore different aspects of diving, and is also renowned as an accomplished underwater photographer and a major supporter of the arts. In 1957, she co-founded the International Underwater Film Festival, and three years later became the first woman to be elected as president of the Underwater Photographic Society. As a writer, Parry collaborated with Albert Tillman to co-author a book detailing the history of recreational scuba. In recognition of her contributions to the sport, Parry is the recipient of awards ranging from the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences (AUAS) Distinguished Services award in 1973, the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) Reaching Out award in 1993 and the Women’s Scuba Association Scuba Diver of the Year award in 1999. She has been inducted into both the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame and the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, and holds the lifetime position of Ambassador At Large for AUAS.

To this day, Parry continues to inspire and encourage all those with an interest in diving and the underwater world. She is an experienced lecturer and an ardent advocate for marine conservation, and is perpetuating her legacy through the annual Zale Parry Scholarship. Through AUAS, $3,000 is awarded each year to a college student hoping to pursue a career in diving, specifically in the fields of ocean exploration, dive equipment technology, hyperbaric research or marine conservation. Ultimately, this scholarship helps young people follow in Parry’s footsteps, and perhaps to create the next generation of diving icons.