Stefanie Titus is a free-diver, scuba diver, underwater photographer and director of the environmental non-profit Sea the Bigger Picture. She recently qualified as a Dive Master and she also runs her own business, Salt and Petal Pantry.
Where does she find the time? Let’s find out…
Q: You’re a passionate free-diver as well as a scuba diver. Please tell us what makes free-diving special for you.
A: Free diving is vastly more visceral and sensory than scuba — you are immersed in the cold, relying on your own body and physiology, it makes you more aware of the light, the mood of the ocean and being one with the kelp forests.
When I was growing up many of my uncles were fisherman, they dived for crayfish and did other exciting ocean things that I really admired whereas my family mostly visited the beach for special occasions.
As an adult I moved away from Cape Town for a while, and when I came back, a new friend introduced me to free diving. So free diving was really my introduction to wild ocean spaces.
Q: Did you have any initial worries about trying out scuba?
A: I was concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy scuba because the technical aspect could take away from the pure physical joy of free-diving. I was also concerned about the environmental impact— there’s much more consumption in scuba because it is equipment dependent, so you buy and use a lot more stuff. And the bubbles — those also have an impact on the underwater life. But I knew scuba could buy me extra time underwater for research and filming so I weighed up all the pro’s and con’s and decided that I wanted to engage in that space.
Q: Where did you do your first scuba dive and what was it like?
A: I thought my first dive on scuba would be in the magical kelp forests of False Bay, but when the time came, it was in Sodwana Bay in northern KZN.
My first dive was surreal. Kelp forest, my usual environment, is like diving through a multi-storey city — action all the way from the kelp crowns at the surface right down to the seabed. Sodwana felt more like being in a giant, swimming pool but with a *very* interesting floor!
It was over-stimulating in a way that is hard to describe — free-diving feels like flying in the water, but scuba was more like sky-diving. I saw (hard) corals for the first time, incredible reef topography, 10-15 unfamiliar fish species passing by me every second. There was so much fish and coral diversity and so much colour, all an unspoilt, luxurious, warm water environment. I was VERY emotional afterwards; I even get emotional talking about it now. It was so different, so incredible, 100x better than anything I could have anticipated. I felt a huge wave of gratitude pass over me, as I realised the immense privilege I had ahead of me — 3 months of training to be a dive master in these insanely pristine conditions.
It was calm, relaxed, I was in complete awe and I will remember it for the rest of my life in the same way I’ll always remember my first kelp forest encounters.
Q: The journey to Dive Master — it’s a hectic set of qualifications to get there! What was the initial motivation? Has it been worth it?
A: Scuba was a natural extension of the free diving and conservation work what I was already doing, and I was offered a unique opportunity to get trained, so I took that.
The highlight was the many, many hours in the water, 55+ minutes at a time, and the pristine environment. I got to dive alongside Zambezi bull sharks, white-tip, black-tip and grey reef sharks, free-swimming moray eels, octopi. The fish diversity was just nuts!
I often took my slate down to sketch things I saw, and also took loads of photographs and clips. The lowlight was the physical exhaustion amidst storytelling and mentorship sessions.
Another hard part was not being able to share the experience with my free diving “family” who had coached me through the underwater world in Cape Town. I wanted to share this amazing world I was seeing with them, but they were far away and this experience was my own and one to share with a set of new, incredible women which turned into a huge highlight and growth opportunity.
Q: What’s your next move, scuba-wise?
A: I am looking forward to Dive-Mastering in Cape Town, getting to know the kelp forests on scuba.
I hope to start freelancing with a dive operation that I am familiar with and ultimately I know I will use my qualification to help new people access the underwater world.
Q: What advice would you have for anyone who is curious about scuba diving?
A: I would say, “Just go and do it!” I want anyone who is curious about it to try it. You won’t be sorry, it’s a different and very versatile dive discipline!
Q: What is something you’d like to tell people about that’s special about being underwater?
A: Ah, everything is special underwater! The feeling of flying, the feeling of skydiving, the feeling of being so closely part of the ocean. I think the ocean touches us all in similar (yet different) ways. There is a connection and longing for the water.
To live without diving now would take away the richest part of my life and what drives me and keeps me doing beach cleans and intense work in the conservation NPO space as a volunteer. Being involved in the ocean-loving community has made me a more compassionate, engaged human, as a daughter, a lover, a friend. There is something so magical about going underwater and immersing yourself in the ocean sounds of shrimps cracking and whale song.
It’s so important as adults to maintain some sense of wonder and meaningful interaction and connection. It is a gift I wish I could give every person, especially those who struggle with anxiety, who are burdened by their own minds, who struggle with happiness and really need something that breaks them open.
Q: Tell us a bit about Sea the Bigger Picture (StBP), what the organisation does, what you love to do as part of it, how and why you got involved.
A: My journey started when I bumped into a volunteer with #SeaTheBiggerPicture just before a beach clean up at Cosy Bay. I joined the clean-up on a whim and I met the whole crew there that day, including my now-husband-to-be.
We all joke that I showed up one day and just didn’t leave! I went from attending beach cleans to helping with planning, organising, coordinating and partnerships. Writing and organisational strategy with them grew from that and then into mentoring as part of Defenders of the Blue (the youth citizen-science program) until finally they asked me to become a director.
I consider becoming a director “my best personal promotion” which is so weird — we so often measure success by money but this is the most dedicated I have ever been to a task yet without ever being paid! Being involved has pushed me and grown me in ways I could never put a price tag on and the organisation and I have kept growing alongside one another over time.
At #STBP we are passionate about access to the ocean for kids from marginalised communities. We want them to see that cool and adventurous sports can be for everyone, not just those who historically have means (as a result of South Africa’s apartheid engineering). We want them to believe that it can be part of their culture and identity, that they are allowed to try. That science and maths are for them but also that they can excel in anything if they want to whether leisure or the artistic side of things. And we do it in the most ethical way possible, accepting funding from the right sources so we don’t become just another greenwashing organisation.
#STBP is an ocean initiative geared towards mitigating marine pollution and also pollution of all kinds. Our two main programs are beach cleans and Defenders of the Blue which is a youth citizen science program. We want the kids in the program to see people whose faces and experiences mirror their own leading their teams and showing them the power of critical thinking and observation in media, sciences, maths and all natural spaces.
Q: Anything else you’d like to tell us?
A: We really need women, especially more women of colour stepping into their power and ownership – to grow legacies for the future. I want little girls, our future women, to explore their curiosities, even their scary ones. Of course this applies to boys as well.
Anyone who wants advice or connection, please reach out to me (Stefanie) or #SeaTheBiggerPicture, we welcome anyone who wants to explore their curiosities about the ocean and conservation space and we are happy to share and partner to make that happen.
There is a place for everyone in our natural world and my wish is that each person who seeks it, will find theirs.
Thanks so much for your time, Stefanie! Looking forward to diving with you sometime soon 🌊💙
You can find Stefanie and StBP online in the following places:
On Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/soutvissie/
Salt & Petal Pantry: https://saltandpetal.com
Sea the Bigger Picture: http://seathebiggerpicture.org/