10 January 2006

'Turtle Lady' Norine Rouse, female diving pioneer, dies at 80

Norine Rouse, one of the USA's first female diving instructors and a champion of sea turtle and reef protection off Palm Beach County's shores, died Tuesday. She was 80.

Although she didn't start diving until her 40s, Mrs. Rouse, known as the "Turtle Lady," became one of the area's underwater pioneers and a sought-after expert on sea life. She was one of a handful of people licensed by the state of Florida to swim with sea turtles and would steadfastly record and photograph their behavior for scientists' use.

"She loved sea turtles more than people," said J.D. Duff of the Scuba Club Inc. Duff met Mrs. Rouse in 1977, while in college, and she later hired him to his current job.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, she tracked the annual return of two loggerhead turtles, which she named Raja and Robert, to the same local reefs.

"Sometimes it seemed like she had a personal relationship with the turtles," Duff said.

When Robert the turtle returned each Christmas, Mrs. Rouse would don her trademark yellow wetsuit and take kitchen scrubbies out to clean him.

She was born in Savannah, Ga., the only child of a housewife and mechanic, on May 9, 1925.

After 20 years of marriage, she divorced and took up diving after watching a Jacques Cousteau film.

In 1966, Mrs. Rouse moved to Freeport, Bahamas, with $125 she had won on a television game show and became a diving instructor there.

"They hired me to show even a woman could do it," Mrs. Rouse said in a 2000 interview.

That very idea is what made Connie Gasque take up scuba diving. After seeing Mrs. Rouse on television in 1984, Gasque took up the sport and has been diving since.

"I owe my knowledge and love of the ocean to her," Gasque said.

Needing money and more challenges, Mrs. Rouse came to Palm Beach County in 1969 to teach diving to the scientists and crew of the Ben Franklin, an underwater research vessel. Later she opened the Norine Rouse Scuba Club of the Palm Beaches, where many of today's diving instructors got their start. Her first dive shop was in John D. MacArthur's Colonnades Hotel on Singer Island, and she later set up shop at the Buccaneer Marina, where she taught members of the Florida Marine Patrol to dive.

"The biggest thing was being comfortable in the water," Mrs. Rouse said. "I was more comfortable in the water than on land."

She led expeditions for television crews and magazine photographers.

"She didn't like to be photographed above water, but she loved it underwater," Duff said.

During a 1981 excursion in the Sea of Cortez, she rode a manta ray for the 18 most thrilling minutes of her life, she said. Later that year, she was paralyzed from the waist down from the bends, also known as decompression sickness, a condition afflicting divers who surface too rapidly. Doctors told her to give up diving, but she continued diving for rehabilitation. She was walking on her own after several months.

Mrs. Rouse admitted to being the type of diver who liked to stay down until the last few breaths of air remained in her tank. She always wanted to spend as much time as possible in the water.

After observing anchor scars on reefs near the shoreline of Palm Beach, Mrs. Rouse encouraged the Port of Palm Beach and the Coast Guard to restrict anchoring to certain areas. Her affinity for marine life was even more renowned. She abhorred spearfishing and would not help stranded spearfishermen unless they left their spear guns in the water.

"I would not allow one on my boat," she said in 1997. "We bent a few spears and made an underwater monument out there. We'd give a free dive (in exchange) for a spear gun."

Her zeal grew to mythic proportions. Accounts circulated about her skewering fishermen's fins with their own spears and pulling the mask off of one fisherman underwater. She said those stories were not true.

She recorded every dive, stopping at 7,650 in 1995, when the lingering effects of the bends forced her to stay ashore.

"The doctor thought I should quit diving because they really didn't have statistics on people my age," she said. "He said, 'Maybe 20 feet (underwater),' but that's not worth getting wet for."

She is survived by two daughters, Leslie Rouse, of Palm Beach Gardens, and Laurie Rouse, of West Palm Beach.

A memorial service will be held at the Marinelife Center of Juno, 14200 U.S. 1. A date has not been set. Her ashes will be scattered at sea by family and friends.

Contributions may be made to Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary & Hospital, P.O. Box 1843, Jupiter, FL 33468.

Source: www.bradenton.com/mld/bradenton/news/local


Post a Comment

<< Home