DEEP SEA DIVER
Born Dorothy Adell Reider in Long Beach, California, her family lived just one block away from the Pacific Ocean. Her parents were Laura Davis and Francis Reider, who owned a sailboat and motor boat hire company. Her father had wanted a son to join him on his seafaring adventures but when Dottie was born he decided he would do all the activities with her instead. “He wanted to turn me into the boy he never had”.
And her father would take her out to sea on the family boat ‘The Dottell’ even when she was just a toddler. “I managed to fall overboard at least once a day, but Dad said I did it on purpose whenever he said ‘No, you may not go in the water”.
Dottie’s parents divorced when she was just 3, and she lived with her father on a 28-feet yawl.
She was also raised by her grandparents and aunts. “I never knew who was going to be looking after me next…I guess this is one of the reasons I became so self-reliant early in life”.
Her grandfather had built a bathhouse by the sea for the use of his family. He was also prominent in the local tourist board.
Her mother Laura was a Girl Scout Commissioner and Dottie was to become a girl scout herself. She played the bugle and did the Reveille each day when on camp.
She had learned to row a boat by the age of 5.
When Dottie was 6 years old, they were anchored off Catalina Island. Her father dropped a coffee pot into the ocean, which was at a depth of about 15 feet. He then claimed he had a cold and couldn’t go into the water so told Dottie to dive in to retrieve it instead. ”Just hold your breath”. She was already a capable swimmer but had never dived before. She retrieved the pot but was astounded by the fish swimming in the sea. When her father told her to get back in the boat she refused, saying she was going back underwater to see her “new friends”.
“It wasn’t too long after that that I was making dives at depths that I couldn’t believe, picking up shells and salvaging things”. Then her father gave her some spears and made her first diving mask as a reward. It was made of a fire hose, glass, tape and an old inner tube.
Aged 7, Dottie saved her 5-year-old sister Jeanne’s life when the younger girl fell off the boat. She could not swim like Dottie. “I dropped my pole and jumped over the bridge. I managed to keep her head above water”.
She soon started making her own masks and fins. Dottie quickly became an expert at spearfishing, diving for lobster and other types of fish for her and her father to eat. Other people began to pay her to retrieve dropped items from the sea, or to catch them some fish.
She had some trouble with a group of boys who tried to bully her, so her father taught her how to box. “One day I fought back and gave a few bloody noses and black eyes, using my fists as my Dad had taught me. Afterwards I was looked on as an unusual girl…not to be messed with”.
By the age of 9 she was running her own water taxi business.
Her father tried to enter her for the Junior Olympics when she was 10. She was not accepted but was determined to get to the Olympics some day.
Aged 11 she was injured in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. She was home alone, doing her homework in front of the fire, when the earthquake struck. A flower vase fell from the mantlepiece and knocked her out. When she came round, she picked up Mouchy the cat, and her pet rat and fled to the ‘sanctuary’ of her father’s boat. 120 people died in the disaster.
As a teenager she entered spearfishing competitions up and down the coast of California, as the only female competitor. She was an expert in catching groupers (who could grow to 7.5 feet and could weigh 400lbs) and lobster – which netted her quite a lot of money.
She was a member of an aquatics team, three boys and three girls, who put on water skiing displays at Long Beach. She once broke her leg but continued with the team. They had to zip her into a suit with the plaster on her broken leg and she performed her tricks one-legged.
She graduated from High School in 1939 and then studied marine biology in college. She applied to join the police and then the coastguard but was turned down as a woman. Dottie then spent a year in secretarial college. But she hated office work and quickly left her first job.
Dottie applied for a job working on a fishing boat but the skipper refused to have her as awoman. But he owed Dottie’s father a favour and the skipper was ‘persuaded’ to take her. She was just 19. It was a two month trip and she did nothing but gut fish. The boat survived a terrible storm. At the end of the trip, “I got the bus home looking very dirty and certainly not feminine. I was just thankful that I was alive.”
In 1940 she married Don Gath. They were to have two sons, Darrell and Donald.
During the Second World War Dottie worked at Douglas Aircraft as a riveter – she liked to say Rosie the Riveter was named for her (although she knew it wasn’t true). She was the only woman working on the shop floor. And as there were food shortages she kept spearfishing for food.
When the war ended she and Don got divorced.
For a while she made money by modelling swimwear.
In 1951 she married Jake Frazier and had two more sons, David and Daniel. She was quickly divorced again and brought the boys up on her own – but motherhood did not stop her diving. “One friend of mine had a flag. She would wave it when she needed me to come back to shore to breastfeed my youngest son.”
Dottie was an expert in free diving and skin diving. She did not take up scuba diving until the early 1950s – just as it took off as a popular participation sport in the USA. Initially she was unconvinced, feeling wearing the gear, “was for sissys – for people who couldn’t hold their breath long enough to catch their dinner.”
She warmed to scuba diving. In 1955 Dottie tried to join an LA-based underwater instructors course. She sent off her cheque for the fee but received a response saying the course was for men. Women were not allowed. She was infuriated.
She phoned her close friend Jim Christiansen, a noted local diver. He asked if her cheque had been returned. When she said no, he came round, drove her to the course, threatened legal action and sat in on the whole course to ensure she received no more prejudice. And she finished top of the class (Jim came second). Thus Dottie became the world’s first qualified female scuba diver.
Her first clients were a group of 8 male doctors who signed up for a two-day course, not realising their instructor was a woman. The morning the course started she had just given a talk and was running late, so she turned up to the class in a cotton dress, wearing silk stockings and high heels. They were unimpressed – but Dottie offered to do the first day for free and give the money back to anyone who asked for it, at the end of the day. “I can teach you far more than most instructors”.
Nobody complained, and they all came back for the next day. She said she had worked them harder than they’d ever been worked before. “I was proud of my first class…and of my new career as the first woman scuba diving instructor in the world.” And her reputation spread.
She was a founder member of the ‘Beach Neptunes’ scuba club in 1950, reputedly the first such club in the world.
In 1952 she won an underwater fishing competition by catching a massive electric ray.
Because she had two young children she created the ‘Aqua Familias’ club, to enable people to go diving with their children.
She went diving with a group off the coast of Mexico. All the others had returned to the boat, but Dottie continued chasing a fish, which she speared. She turned around and there was a Great White Shark following her. She dropped her speared fish and looked the shark in the eye, then swam towards it. This startled the shark who veered away, just giving Dottie the time to swim to her boat, where she was hauled aboard just as the shark came back for her. She admitted she was terrified. She had nightmares for months afterwards.
At the same time, Dottie worked for the ‘Penguin Dive Shop’ at Long Beach. She quickly bought the store and ran it for 15 years. She designed her own diving gear and equipment. She designed the first wet suits for women. They were so popular she had her own factory producing them. She eventually supplied the US Navy and the official US Divers.
She also ran a bar and pool hall and became an expert snooker, billiards and pool player. She entered many billiards competitions. She continued to water ski and also enjoyed snow skiing in the winter. She surfed and played tennis and racquetball to a high standard.
She also became the first female member of the Long Beach YMCA board of directors.
She went gold dredging in the Sierra Nevada mountains and loved hunting. She would eat rattlesnakes. She thought they were a good addition to clam chowder.
On one occasion she was attacked by a wild boar when on Catalina Island. Luckily, she had her spear in her hand and she managed to kill it.
She also trained and qualified for ‘hard-hat diving’. This is underwater commercial work. She pursued it for just two years. It was very lucrative (and she bought a house outright with just 2 years wages), but it was too much. At just 5 feet tall and weighing just 100lb (just under 8 stone), she found the equipment too heavy for her.
She got married for a third time, to Cyril May, in 1972. He shared the same birthday as her but was 7 years younger. By then her earlier partners, Don Gath and Jim Frazier, had both died.
All four of her sons became professional divers. Darrell was the first to be taught by her and they became Long Beach’s first mother-son diving team. Unfortunately Darrell was to predecease her.
Her boat once broke down at sea. The Harbour Patrol offered to tow her to land. “Heck no! If I can’t fix it I don’t belong out here.” She then jumped into the sea holding her toolbox.
She was also an avid collector (and rider of) motorbikes. Harley Davidsons and Honda Goldwings were her favourites. She had a 6-foot pet boa constrictor called Buddy and she used to go for rides with it wrapped around her neck. She also took Buddy swimming in the sea with her.
In 2012 she finally got to fulfil another ambition. She competed at the Senior Olympics, winning 4 gold medals for billiards.
In her 90s she went to Long Beach Town Hall to renew her motorbike licence. The young lady at the desk saw her age and refused to give her a new one. “You can’t drive a motorbike”, she said.
“How do you think I got here?” was Dottie’s reply. At this point the Mayor walked in and said, “That’s Dottie Frazier. Of course you must give her a licence.”
She wrote her autobiography entitled ‘Trailblazer’. She was asked what she was most proud of. She said, “In the 1950s I was the only woman diver. By the 1970s there were still very few women. Now 50% of instructors and 50% of divers are women”.
At the age of 95 she was still going ziplining and is believed to be the oldest person in the world to do that. She sold her last motorbike when she was 96. She had just had a bad fall which put her out of action for 2 months. She said, “Nothing’s going to keep me away from more adventures. I’m a survivor.” However, she felt large motorbikes was a step too far. She wore a T-shirt that said, “Assuming I was like most old women was your first mistake.”
She had a treadmill in her house that she continued to use every day.
She loved gardening and grew most of her own fruit and vegetables. She was working in her garden just a couple of days before she died. “There’s no age limit to gardening. I don’t want to quit for a while”.
And she was inducted into the Diving Hall of Fame. She noted the longevity of many of her diving friends. “A lot of the original divers have made it to a great age. Being underwater does things to your spirit”. She estimated she had taught over two thousand scuba divers.
She was also given an ‘Amazing Woman’ lifetime achievement award by the newspaper Press Telegram. It was at the award ceremony she admitted for the first time that she had suffered agonising back pain for most of her life.
She had one final ambition which was to reach 100 years old. Her father had died one month short of his 100th birthday. His dying words to her were, “I didn’t make it to 100. Now it’s up to you.”
However, she fell just a couple of months short of it, dying while Cyril was holding her hand. Her 100th birthday party went ahead without her there (but there in spirit).
RIP – Repeatedly Instructing (in) Pacific