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Hakai Diver Awarded Prestigious Rolex Scholarship - Hakai Institute

Hakai Diver Awarded Prestigious Rolex Scholarship

Neha Acharya-Patel will embark on a year-long journey to experience underwater science around the world.

Hakai diver Neha Acharya-Patel ascends from a dive off Quadra Island, British Columbia. Photo by Grant Callegari

We sat down with Hakai diver Neha Acharya-Patel to chat about being awarded one of three global Rolex Scholarships, her time with the Hakai Institute, and how she got into scuba diving.

Neha was always interested in diving, but her first foray didn’t quite match what she’d seen on TV.

“I always really wanted to learn how to dive when I was growing up watching The Blue Planet and National Geographic. My first dive was in a pond in Ontario filled with refrigerators and toilets. Not exactly ideal. I didn’t get a chance to dive again until I moved to Vancouver, and I was hooked.

I think it’s probably pretty similar to whenever you ask other people why they got into diving. It’s just this whole other world that we’re so intimately connected with, but that a lot of us are so out of touch with. For me, it’s amazing to have such a clear window into this whole other realm.”

After her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia and stints working as a diver on Vancouver Island and overseas in Malawi, Neha joined the Hakai Institute.

“I’ve been working at Hakai for just over two years. I was hired as a nearshore field technician and, because I had all of my diving stuff in order, they said I’d be working primarily on diving projects. During my first season I dove a lot, mainly in kelp forests. I also helped with all of the nearshore surveys in the rocky intertidal and soft sediment. Last year, I started also working in the genomics lab. I’ve always had an interest in genomics and so I thought it was a really good chance for me to develop that skill set, as well as continuing to dive.”

Neha Acharya-Patel gets cozy during a boat ride to a field site on Calvert Island, British Columbia. Photo by Kyle Hall

There were some unique elements to working at the Hakai Institute, and that led to some memorable experiences.

“I really enjoyed the fact that, at Hakai, there’s so much cross training and there’s so much opportunity to move between disciplines. Also, I love all the different people. I’ve made so many connections that I know I’ll have for the rest of my life. And they’ve been really awesome helping me develop both in terms of my knowledge base and socially, as well.

Then there are the countless wildlife experiences from diving with huge male sea lions that come to check you out during herring surveys, to diving in kelp forests that maybe no one has ever dove in before. Just the fact that you’re diving every day in this beautiful place that most people in the world don’t get a chance to go to. That in itself is just incredible.

I think one of the coolest creatures we saw was on a regular kelp survey at North Beach. We go to that site all the time, it’s pretty shallow, and there was a huge big skate just chilling in that spot. I’ve never seen one like that and I’ve never seen one again.”

It was a few years in the making, but in 2019, Neha was chosen as the North American Rolex Scholar from the Our World—Underwater Scholarship Society.

“In 2015, I did a course at Bamfield and the North American Rolex scholar for that year ended up doing a week there. So I met her and I started hearing about this opportunity. Since then it has always been on my mind and I’ve always wanted to apply for it. But when I started working at Hakai, I didn’t want to just work there for one year, so I worked for two years before applying. I just decided to try and then it worked out.

The Rolex Scholarship is basically built for young people who want to pursue a career in the field of diving, but don’t really know exactly what they want to do and want to understand the scope of the industry.”

She’s not quite sure what will happen during her year-long scholarship, but she knows it will be thrilling.

“I think one of the great things about this scholarship is that they want to make sure that you’re open to things changing on the fly. Right now I’m working with my coordinator to make a loose plan for the year. A big part of the scholarship is making connections so, maybe if you’re somewhere doing a certain experience and they offer you another experience somewhere, you have the ability to say yes to that. So it’s a pretty open thing.

This is their 45th year running, and they’ve established this pretty big network of sponsors and hosts that they already have, so I’ll probably be working with a lot of those that have historically worked with the scholars a lot. But in terms of where I’ll be going and when, it is still kind of up in the air. I do know that I’ll be going to the Philippines on a photo trip in the middle of June, which is pretty exciting.”

What comes after the scholarship is a question for the future.

“My goal since being in university is to go into academia or at least go back to school to study something. But what I’ve wanted to study has really changed over time. The more that I know is out there, the less I know what I want to study. So I’m hoping that this scholarship pushes me in the right direction and gives me clarity. I also want to keep an open mind, because this scholarship might expose me to something else that I’ve never even considered.”

We wish Neha all the best with good visibility and calm seas as she embarks on this journey.

* Interview was edited for brevity and clarity.