DAN Member Profile: Bonnie Toth

Hometown: San Clemente, Calif.
Years Diving: 37
Favorite Dive Destination: Socorro Islands
Why I’m a DAN Member: It gives me great peace of mind.

At the Diving Equipment and Manufacturing Association (DEMA) Show in November 2016, the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences will award Bonnie Toth with scuba diving’s highest honor: the New Orleans Grand Isle (NOGI) award for distinguished service to the dive industry. Musing about what this prestigious award will mean for her, Toth says she was totally surprised and hardly expected to make the short list of nominations, let alone win. But this is a woman who has dedicated her life to making the world a better place, or “paying it forward” as she likes to say, by “using diving as the vehicle — the way I transform my beliefs into reality.”

A female diver snaps a photo of a giant green mora eel
While diving Utila on a WDHOF trip, Toth was rewarded with an intimate encounter with a green moray eel.

Toth’s love affair with the ocean began after her service in the Air Force. “When I joined the Air Force after high school, I started skydiving and completed more than 200 jumps,” she explained. “After I came back to California, skydiving became too complicated to arrange, so I thought I should learn to scuba dive. I went from air space to sea space when I became a certified diver in 1979.”

The more Toth learned about the marine world, the more she wanted to become an ambassador for the environment she loved. “I studied graphic design and spent lots of time underwater along California’s central and southern coasts,” she said, “so I thought about how these two important aspects of my life could come together.”

During the 1980s, California was a hotbed of scuba innovation, and Toth’s design company led the way in influencing public perception about the sport. Today we all know about branding — the way media constantly promotes products and influences sales — but 30 years ago the process was a bit more subtle. Through her designs for clients such as Scubapro, Aqua Lung, Sea Quest and many others, Bonnie Toth Design helped countless divers decide which buoyancy compensator or regulator they would depend on.

Couple stands in front of Women Divers Hall of Fame
Bonnie and Doug Toth in the Women Divers Hall of Fame booth at Beneath the Sea in 2007, the year of her induction.

Her passion for the marine environment and her lively designs are rooted in her positive attitude. “When I meet with a client, I try to determine who their market is and why those people want to interact with the ocean,” Toth said. “Invariably people want to immerse themselves in an unknown world and exert a positive influence through their interactions.”

A two-day encounter with a female humpback whale and her calf — “who just stayed with our liveaboard in Socorro,” she said — strongly reinforced Toth’s connection to the ocean. “That was a life-changing experience for me,” she said. “I was dumbstruck by how the mother humpback kept her baby close yet obviously wanted it to engage with and get to know the curious humans who swarmed around the pair every chance they had. After that experience, I began to work even harder to use my design to send messages of hope and the potential for favorable changes, especially for the younger generation. That’s one of the reasons I now do a lot of pro bono work for the Ocean Institute at Dana Point; they are focused on educating children through inspirational interactions with the ocean.”

Toth holding giant award
Bonnie Toth was awarded the Historical Diving Society’s E.R. Cross Award in 2014 for distinguished service.

Toth said the success of her design business has allowed her to focus her attention on clients and areas of specialty that matter to her and have an impact on the future of our planet. After being inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF), she decided to use her organizational and design skills to initiate change within the organization. She has served on the board and as president of WDHOF, using her position to guide and mentor individuals who are working toward careers that involve diving.

“I feel that those of us who have been successful in the dive industry have an amazing opportunity to engage with and help the next generation of marine scientists, journalists, educators and artists realize their goals,” she said. “When the WDHOF scholarship program started in 2002, we awarded about $1,500 total. In 2015 more than $62,000 went to recipients who I believe will work for the betterment of the marine world.”

One of Toth’s other favorite dive trips inspired her to work with the Historical Diving Society, and she recently designed a poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet. “We dived at Bikini Atoll, and the experience of diving in that historical spot really motivated me to learn more about the history of diving,” she said. “Without knowing about our past, we cannot adequately prepare for the future.”

When asked why she became a DAN member, Toth replied, “It gives me great peace of mind when I travel to places that lack proper facilities and medical support.” While she hasn’t had to use DAN’s emergency services during her nearly 40-year diving career, she sees a lot of similarities between her work and DAN’s mission. “We’re both ‘divers helping divers,'” Toth said, “and we agree that through education we can support the sport we love.”

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2016