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Donna Tobias - 1st Female Deep Sea Diver

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 8/12/2023

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

For 68 years, the United States Navy’s Mark V diving suit was the elite standard of the deep seas. Its spun-copper helmet and attached breastplate housed four small portholes of caged glass, allowing the diver forward, upward, and peripherals views. This piece alone weighed over 55 pounds, but divers also wore canvas boots with lead soles that weighed 17.5 pounds each. This was paired with thick wool clothes, sturdy gloves, and a rubberized canvas suit that weighed 30 pounds by itself. Fully suited up, a Mark V Navy diver would be in a 200-pound behemoth of a suit. 

The innovative Mark V allowed for divers to safely salvage wreckage at previously unseen ocean depths—and for 59 of its 68 years, it was worn only by men.


Donna Tobias was born on May 22, 1952, in Los Angeles, Calif. to Marie and Elmer Tobias. Mother Marie was a stay-at-home parent while Father Elmer, a U.S. Army Sergeant and veteran of World War II, worked in manufacturing. Donna, who grew up with brothers Gary and Doug, enjoyed her proximity to the sea; she swam and snorkeled often.

Money was tight for the Tobias family, so, unable to afford college tuition, Donna worked as a school bus driver and with the local police department while attending Fullerton College’s free courses. Still in her early 20s, Donna enlisted in the U.S. Navy, “because it was the one on the water,” she said. She immediately set her sights on the Navy’s diving school.

“Even when I was talking to my recruiter, I asked about going to diving school,” she told the Los Angeles Times in an April 2001 interview. “He said no way, women couldn’t get in there.” Her 1974 enlistment first took her to Norfolk, Va.

Donna entered a Navy that was, bit by incremental bit, opening doors for women. On Aug. 7, 1972, Admiral E. R. Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations, issued “Z-Gram #116.” “My position with respect to women in the Navy is that they have historically played a significant role in the accomplishment of the Naval mission,” he wrote. “However, I believe we can do far more than we have in the past in according women equal opportunity to contribute their extensive talents and achieve full professional status.” 

More posts were made available to women, yet certain programs and jobs—like the diving school—remained steadfastly men only. That was, until a Colorado woman named Kati Garner joined the school in November 1973 and became the Navy’s first female SCUBA diver. Once she heard about Kati, Donna wasn’t going to accept any ‘no’s.

“I pressed to find out what a person had to do to become a diver, and they came up with a long list of things,” Donna said. “I just went through each thing one by one.” Recreational divers usually maintain depths of 60 feet or less. Advanced open water SCUBA divers like Kati went as far as 130 feet down. Donna wanted to join the deep divers who went to 200 feet below the ocean’s surface. 

She submitted her application and waited. Waited and worked as a hull technician and welder on the base. In January 1975, just two days before the new class would begin, Donna received word: She’d been accepted. She was officially the first woman ever accepted to the Navy’s deep-sea diving program.

“To be first is to relinquish the complicated specifics of your story and become a caricature, a stand-in for the ideals of a movement or for the hope and pain of a moment in history,” wrote Ann Friedman in “Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being First” for The American Prospect. Also, like Sally, many women blaze trails that are literally not built for them: NASA engineers had to redesign the space shuttle’s toilets to accommodate a different anatomy. 

At age 22, Donna weighed 135 pounds. “That suit was huge on me,” she said. “I’m 5-foot-5 on a tall day, and my feet are small. Those boots were tough. They weighed 17 pounds each, and my foot only filled half the shoe. I even had dreams about those shoes.” But unlike the space shuttle toilets, the Mark V diving suit could not be changed to fit Donna. Its weight and durability protected divers in the intense pressure, cold, and turbulence of deep waters. Instead, Donna had to work to fit the suit.

Donna Tobias
Navy Divers Hall of Fame

Program director Chief Pierce Chris West recalled in 2011, “I made her wear the 35-pound pair [of] shoes after working hours until she went to bed at night. ... By the end of the week, she was able to climb up and out with a minimal amount of difficulty.” On day one, he warned her she’d need to be “nearly flawless.” He also refused to allow photographs to be taken and no one in the media knew about Donna’s acceptance for another month. “This isn’t a circus,” she remembered him saying.

The training was grueling and intense. Few who started finished, with a barely a third of each class qualifying for certification. “They train this way because the sea is unforgiving,” Commander Hung Cao of the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center told writer Dr. Hillary Viders for Divers Alert Network. “The ocean doesn’t care who you are, where you come from, your gender or the color of your skin. It only cares that you are prepared.”

“I told myself they’d have to make me leave,” Donna said. “I wouldn’t quit. If you ever uttered the words, ‘I quit,’ you could never take them back, and there were plenty of eyes waiting to see me fail. I didn’t want them asking less of women, for anything.”

In time, Donna grew more comfortable in the bulky, heavy suit. “It was cumbersome on land, but in the water, you could move around; it was less of a problem,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “In the water, I felt safe in it. I can smell being in this suit—smell the air, the metal, taste it, you know? I got to be fond of it, in the water.”

Within a month, Donna had impressed and defied those waiting to see her fail. The local press, The Virginian-Pilot, first reported on her on Feb. 27, 1975, in an article titled “She’s Diving into her Navy Career” in their World of Women section. “When she graduates March 14, after 10 rigorous weeks of training at the Naval Surface Forces Atlantic Fleet Diving School here, she will be qualified for underwater salvage, ship repair, and rescue operations. The job is no less dangerous or difficult for the men. In their seventh week of training last week, 14 of 27 candidates remained,” reported staff writer Laura White.

“She has not complained once,” Chief West told the newspaper. “The men don’t [tease] her because she’s doing better than 85 percent of them. You tell her you want a job done and she is able to do it without your having to draw a picture for her.”

Naval Under Sea Museum

Though teasing may have been curtailed, sexism emerged in other ways. In 2001, Donna recalled that some of her male classmates, “couldn’t get over their own wonderment over how I could wear the metal breastplate, if it was an issue for my breasts. There were some that were so threatened—what would it say about them if a girl could do this?”

As in many male-dominated environments, “girl” and “woman” were insults to shame underperforming men at the diving school. According to The Virginian-Pilot, Donna “flinched, but said nothing” when these exchanges happened. “I’ve never said anything about it, but I’m 100 percent a feminist,” she said in 1975. “Not that I’m affiliated with any group, but it’s my way of life. I want to be a whole person.”

But even before she graduated, Chief West and the newspaper acknowledged that Donna had only punctured one men-only sphere in the Navy. Women were still prohibited from serving aboard ships, so Donna would receive a “shore billet, taking a place a man diver would rotate to after sea duty.”

Here, the Navy did not adapt as NASA would less than a decade later. Donna said in 1975, “I think it’ll happen in time. ... I don’t think they’d have to make all those big changes for women. But I’m not sure there’s enough privacy on a ship for me.” In fact, it was the 1990s and the combat activities during the Gulf War before the Navy retrofitted their ships to accommodate women by adding partitions for privacy and safety.

Despite the continued limitations, Donna was proud of what she’d accomplished. “When they first put all that hard-hat gear [the Mark V equipment] on me, I thought to myself, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’ But I don’t think I’m a token to West. I don’t think he kept me because I’m the first. I’m looking forward to graduation. Only when I’m standing there will I be able to say, ‘I did it.’” 

Donna graduated as the Navy’s first female deep-sea diver on March 14, 1975. (It's worth noting in the stories of Kati, Donna, and Sally that as soon as women were permitted women succeeded.) As she expected, however, that was as far down that path as the Navy would let her go. Instead of embarking on deep-sea missions and working the salvage projects for which she’d been trained, she moved to Groton, Conn. to be an instructor at the Submarine Naval Base in New London. This base has been active since 1868.

Donna seemed at peace with this new route. “I’d be lying if I said diving is what I want to do for my whole life,” she said even before she’d graduated. She was a person who sought challenges and new experiences. When she found one that interested her, she pursued it with determination and drive until the next new challenge presented itself. Even this groundbreaking venture into deep-sea diving didn’t faze her family who were used to Donna’s ambition and fearlessness. Her parents “aren’t surprised at what I do any longer,” and her brothers, she said, “just think it’s another thing Donna’s doing.”

Besides, there were new paths to blaze as an instructor, a career turn that required a waiver from the Pentagon, she said. At the New London base, she taught diving techniques, including emergency escapes. “She had to prove herself, to be twice as good at everything, and she was,” said colleague Master Diver Steven Lechner. “After she proved herself, everyone looked up to her and admired her, because they knew she was the only woman in the whole Navy at the time doing that.”

Photo by Petty Officer First Class
Andrew Gordon
Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

Donna packed a lot into her years with the Navy. According to her obituary, she “worked in ports on naval vessels, took part in search and salvage operations in Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, and participated in the sinking of a World War II ship to construct an artificial reef in Chesapeake Bay. She worked in the hyperbaric chamber, which treats divers suffering embolisms, as well as people with carbon monoxide poisoning and gangrene.” She saved lives.

The biases of other divers usually dissolved when confronted by Donna’s skill and competence. Trust is crucial when diving together; your partner might be the difference between success and tragedy. “The highest compliment is for someone to say, ‘I’ll go in the water with you,’” she said. “And some of those who resisted me the most at first, we became the closest in trust. I watched myself grow, and what was powerful over time was watching people become their best self.”

When little brother Gary joined the Navy, he ended up in a class taught by his sister. "It was tough. But they were always a little tougher on me, for some reason. I don't know why,” he joked in 2010. “They would always remind me, 'That's all the pushups you can do? Your sister can do twice as many. You can't run any faster than that? Your sister can run a lot faster than that,' and so forth."

Donna left the Navy in 1980, using the G.I. Bill to earn her bachelor’s degree in education, followed by a master’s in psychology and additional certification to teach students in special education. She brought her trailblazing energy to this new frontier. At the time, special-needs students were segregated from other students in her school system. “She led the charge to become more mainstream, more inclusive,” Louis Allen, her principal at New London High School, told the Hartford Courant. “Donna always spoke up.”

Her drive to fight for others came from having experienced pain herself. Close friend Judith Rosenberg said, “She had this understanding of what it is to face deep troubles and move through. She had done it for herself many times.” Throughout her life, Donna struggled with persistent depression.

“Depression symptoms can interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy your life,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. “[C]urrent research suggests that depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Most people with depression need treatment to feel better.” Hartford Courant reported that Donna’s depression “proved resistant to drugs, hospitalizations and electric shock therapy,” the traditional treatments at the time. In her younger years, Donna sought equilibrium in alcohol, developing a dependency. She got sober in her early 30s and maintained sobriety until her death.

In April 2001, Donna was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. This was the first time that her students and many friends and colleagues learned that they had a history maker in their midst. Donna told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really begun to talk about it. I didn’t want people making fanfare over me, because we were all going through it. It was an accomplishment for women. It was a door opening.”

In her free time after teaching, Donna still swam and snorkeled often. She was a drummer and singer for a band called the Loose Ends, and worked with a theater group called the Second Step Players. She volunteered with Art Reach, a group dedicated to fighting stigma and educating the public about mental illness. 

She retired from teaching when her depression became debilitating. On nice days, she joined her friends on the beach to catch crabs and fish. She began volunteering at Mitchell Farm Equine Retirement, a home for aging horses. Farm executive director Dee Doolittle told the Hartford Courant, “It didn’t take her long to fall in love with horses. They need so much care, and she had so much to give.” 

Virginian-Pilot, 1975

In her home garage-turned-studio, she created wood and stone carvings. Her home, friend Judith said, “It was a maze of art, an internal labyrinth. Everywhere you turned, there was something to look at.”

On Sept. 21, 2010, Donna died by suicide at age 58. Fittingly, her loved ones held her memorial ceremony on the beach, looking out across the sea. A full decade later, friends and admirers continue to post on her obituary website, sharing photos and memories, or even just wishes to have met her. Students who went online to track down a favorite teacher post their grief and the impact Donna had on their lives. One post is from a Chief Chris West.

“After an hour of discouragement and promises to make her life miserable, she left with my endorsement and approval, and the certainty that if anyone in her class made it through, she would be that one,” he wrote about when he first met Donna in 1974. “She did not let me down, and our friendship endured for 36 years. It is a colder world with her absence, but she left a light that continues to shine.” 

Another, from Emilio Soria, simply read, “Donna, you will always be in our hearts.” He signed it, “From a Deep Sea Brother.”

In 2018, the Submarine Naval Base New London named their new dive locker facility Tobias Hall in honor of Donna. The name suggestion came from the divers themselves. 


Divers Institute of Technology: Suit Up

Hartford CourantDonna Tobias Bravely Swam Against the Tide

Coffee or Die Magazine: Donna Tobias: The 1st Female Deep Sea Diver in US Military History

The Day obituaries: Donna M. Tobias

Los Angeles Times: Navy’s First Female Diver Took the Plunge

Connecticut State Office of Military Affairs: Sub Base Names Dive Locker after Navy’s First Female Deep-Sea Diver

U.S. Naval Undersea Museum: photosDonna Tobias: The First Female Navy Diver

Divers Alert Network: Year of the Military Diver

Find a Grave: Elmer Earle Tobias

Subase New London: History

Pro Adventure Guide: SCUBA certification

Naval History and Heritage Command: Z-Gram #116; dated 7 August 9172

The American Prospect: Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being The First

National Institute of Mental Health: Depression in Women: 5 Things You Should Know