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Saving the Ocean, One State at a Time: Jennifer Idol’s Quest

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Passion is a key component of finding a quest or adventure. Jennifer Idol’s love for the ocean led her to seek out a way in which she could devote a large portion of her life as an advocate for its preservation.

Tell us about yourself:

I’m a native Texan who spent my summers growing up in Florida, which led to me becoming a SCUBA diver. Then I graduated with a degree in design from the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas.

Four years ago, I combined these two distinct skills into one experience that I call The Underwater Designer. Around this time I set out on a transformative journey: to dive and photograph all 50 states.

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Photo © Aaron Bates

Why did you decide to undertake your quest?

Returning from a dive trip to Tobago in 2010, we flew over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The entire plane seemed to hush in silence. Perhaps I was just so overwhelmed that I shut out all noise, but I like to think that others on the plane were sharing in the enormity of this catastrophe. Below us, the Gulf of Mexico was burning, surrounded by tiny oil tankers desperately trying to contain the mess.

In Tobago, I had seen large trees of black coral and healthy reef systems. Contrasting that beauty with this destruction deeply saddened me. I was paralyzed in my seat, unable to reach for my camera and unwilling to take my eyes away from the fleeting scene. The only oil spill I experienced before was through the news as a child—the remote Exxon Valdez. However, this oil spill was in my backyard, on the doorstep of my home and in front of my eyes.

Time slowed as I took it all in. After we passed the scene, I deeply regretting not taking a photo. This moment fueled my determination to document all my underwater experiences so anyone can share our underwater world. No photo can do justice to an emotional experience, but I aspire to create work through photography and design that will help others connect emotionally to experiences and inspire them to also make a difference.

What fuels your passion for the ocean?

It’s easy to attribute my love for our waterways to my childhood experiences in swimming pools and on the coasts of Florida and Texas. I was born loving water. I was also born with a creative mind, a deep appreciation for beauty, and the ability to express both through art. When I am immersed in water, I feel excited to explore, amazed by what I see, and at peace in my soul.

More than half the oxygen needed to sustain us on land comes from our oceans. More than one million species live in the ocean. Our waterways are enormous, and they beckon for advocates who can translate the larger meaning into understandable parts.

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Photo © Jennifer Idol

What are the costs associated with diving in all 50 states, and how do you pay for them?

Thus far, I have spent an approximate $148,000 for my journey. Though that may seem like a tremendous amount of money, the annual cost is $37,000. I am quite frugal and camp whenever possible and try to invite other divers to share the journey’s expenses with me.

I work as a full-time Senior Designer and spend all my income outside of living expenses on my journey. I use my accrued vacation time for my travels, which means making long drives over long weekends. (When I began the journey, I started with a new car, which now has over 166,000 miles!)

Tell us about a low point in your journey:

The beginning of a journey is fresh with ambition and exploration. My friend Ben told me he’d dive anywhere with me, so we started the journey together. The end of a journey carries with it the momentum from experience and hope to reach that long-awaited goal. The middle of the journey is full of roads you’ve had to cross more than once, and doubt from being unable to see either the beginning or the end.

The middle of my journey was signified by my buddy Ben finding that his journey was complete without diving all 50 states. So, I set out on my own to complete my journey. I will forever be grateful to Ben for helping me find my way – but losing him as my companion was hard.

To overcome challenges in the muddy middle, I keep on going and remind myself that I’m in it for the long haul and not for short-term gain.

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Photo © Jennifer Idol

Has anything surprised you along the way?

A long-time friend and colleague became more than a business acquaintance along my path. Matt Fangman and I both served on our local chapter for AIGA (the professional association for design), culminating in each serving terms as president. We would meet regularly regarding milestones and achievements for our personal goals.

One day, that became more than a friendship and April 2014, Matt asked me to marry him. I didn’t plan for a relationship like this, or even suspect I’d find it along the way, but like my journey, I have found accepting opportunities in our lives is a great freedom and blessing.

Was it scary to make such a huge decision – saying “Yes!” – while in the middle of your quest?

Undergoing this quest required I accept opportunities and changes as they appeared in my life. Though journeys have goals, their course is seldom linear. So, accepting a new journey with my now fianceé, Matt, made sense because we were both in a place to connect.

Part of the fear of bringing in a new person, while you’re undergoing what feels like your purpose, is that you will somehow lose your way, your identity, or your independence. I struggle with feeling like I have to do it all on my own, and that someone being a part of that detracts from my achievement.

However, I’ve found that sharing my journey with friends along the way has enriched the experience. I have a partner in life, and in my quest, and it does not make my achievement any smaller by accepting a little help along the way. In fact by recognizing that we are never individuals, we are part of something greater. Life is full of changes. I cherish what was and look forward to what’s ahead.

What advice would you give someone starting a quest?

Let go of trying to control your experiences. While it is important to have parameters to a quest, those should be guidelines that provide structure so that you can be free to accept opportunities as they come. When I learned to let go and accept new directions, this quest became possible.

What is next?

I’ve gone diving in 40 states, with three states to complete in 2014 and the final 7 remaining to be completed in 2015.

Keep up to date on Jennifer and her quest at her site, The Underwater Designer, or follow along with her on Twitter @uwDesigner.

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