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Scuba diver: Off the clock with Karen Parisien

Karen Parisien diving in the south Sulawesi Sea, Indonesia, and diving at the Keystorm wreck in the St. Lawrence River

Karen Parisien, Assistant Director
Division of Comparative Medicine, Faculty of Medicine


Karen has been with the University of Toronto (U of T) for almost 30 years.


What do you do off the clock?

I am so privileged to be able to share my passion for scuba diving. I am a member of the Hart House Underwater Club (HHUC) and a NAUI ( National Association of Underwater Instructors) scuba diving instructor. This provides me with the perfect opportunity to satisfy my love for teaching with my love for scuba diving.

The club offers scuba diver certification courses twice a year (September to December and January to April). All the instructors and assistants volunteer their time to teach these courses. It’s an amazing group of people. When summer comes we have a very active diving season where we get to enjoy some of the best cold water wrecks in the world right here in Ontario.

How did you first become interested in scuba diving?

On my first vacation to Australia in 1982, I found myself on Heron Island — a beautiful coral cay 90 km off the coast. I made my first attempt at snorkeling. When I looked down and saw that amazing underwater world, it was like this instant connection to a magical place. I was mesmerized by the scuba divers below me and I knew this was something I had to do. Within a week of my return, I had signed up for a scuba diving course and I haven’t stopped diving since.

In your opinion, what is the site that ranks the best for diving?

That is probably the hardest question to ask any diver.  I have been truly lucky to dive in many amazing locations around the world. I was diving off Darwin Island in the Galapagos last summer and I have to say holding onto a rock in a ripping current, watching dozens and dozens of hammerhead sharks pass right by you or to have a 30-foot whale shark appear suddenly out of the depths, almost running into you is pretty awe inspiring. I do love warm water though, so I often think of Fiji and drifting along the massive walls of brilliantly coloured soft corals.

Any recommendations for anyone interested in taking up scuba diving?

I have to be honest — as a safety-conscious instructor, who teaches at a long established club with an incredible safety record — please don’t do a resort course! That’s just my opinion. Diving is full of joy but it is serious business until you know what you are doing. If you want to take a course, shop around and ask relevant questions. How long is the course? How much in water time do you get? What’s the instructor-student ratio? How long has the instructor been teaching? Since there is no incentive or reward for us, I can honestly say if you want to learn to scuba dive, check out the HHUC. We are happy to answer your questions even if you don’t train with us.

What (or who) inspires or influences your work?

What inspires me is each and every student that comes to the surface after their first scuba experience — who are just joyful and effusive and excited about seeing the bottom of a pool. I want to instill in every student that this amazing underwater world is under constant threat, and if we are going to be in that environment we have to be good guests. Stay for a visit, do no harm and return home safely.

Photos: (left to right) Parisien diving in the south Sulawesi Sea, Indonesia, and diving the Keystorm wreck in the St. Lawrence River. / Photo credits: Courtney Gibson, M. Chaley, and O. Cheng. Nominated by Deborah Huntley, manager and project officer at the Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs.