Gemma Smith: The first woman scuba diver exploring the secrets of the Antikythera Shipwreck

Interviews, Shipwrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Diver Gemma Smith Photo Credit: Brett Seymour

Technical diver Gemma Smith is the first woman ever to dive at the world famous Antikythera Shipwreck, which yielded some of the most important ancient sculptures ever to be found on the seabed, as well as the Antikythera mechanism or astrolabe.


Originally thought to be one of the first forms of a mechanised clock or an astrolabe, it is at times referred to as the world’s oldest known analog computer.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Gemma puts diving first, irrespective of gender and goes on to say that “I want to say to any women who are thinking of taking up diving, be fearless!

Don’t let the opinions of others hold you back!

The underwater world is magical, so don’t miss the opportunity to experience it!”

Sculptures retrieved from the Antikythera Shipwreck

History of the Antikythera Shipwreck

In October 1900, a team of sponge divers led by Captain Dimitrios Kondos decided to wait out a severe storm hampering their return from Africa at the Greek island of Antikythera.

While there, they began diving for sponges off the island’s coastline wearing the standard diving dresses — canvas suits and copper helmets – of the time.

Elias Stadiatis was the first to lay eyes on a shipwreck 45 meters down, who quickly signaled to be pulled to the surface.

He described the scene as a heap of rotting corpses and horses lying on the sea bed.

Thinking the diver was drunk from the nitrogen in his breathing mix at that depth, Kondos himself dove, soon returning with the arm of a bronze statue.


While waiting for the storm to abate the divers retrieved as many small artifacts from the wreck as they could.

Together with the Greek Education Ministry and the Royal Hellenic Navy, the sponge divers salvaged numerous artifacts from the waters.

By the middle of 1901, divers had recovered statues arbitrarily named “the philosopher”, the Youth of Antikythera (Ephebe) of ca. 340 BC, a “Hercules”, Ulysses, Diomedes and his horses, an Ermes, an Apollo, a marble statue of a bull and a bronze lyre, much marvelous glasswork.

Many other small and common artifacts were also found, and were brought to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

The death of one diver and the paralysis of some others due to decompression sickness put an end to work at the site during the summer of 1901.

The French naval officer and explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau would later dive there, in the fall of 1976, to search and recover many more artifacts.

Archaeologists examine artifacts from the world famous Antikythera Shipwreck

On 17 May 1902, however, the former Minister of Education Spyridon Stais made the most celebrated find at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

When examining the artifacts that had been recovered, he noticed that a severely corroded piece of bronze had inscriptions and a gear wheel embedded in it, which proved to be the world’s most ancient computer and continues to puzzle archaeologists and scientists to this day.


Here’s what Gemma Smith has to say about her experience diving at the Antikythera Shipwreck, during the latest edition of the Antikythera Project, which evolved during the previous weeks.

Diver Gemma Smith during a surface interval Photo Credit: Michael Tsimperopoulos

When did you start diving and why?

I started diving when I was seventeen.

I’d always been interested in adventure sports, and had tried skydiving, white water rafting, and bungee jumping among other things, but none of them really thrilled me, and I always moved on to something else.

It wasn’t till I decided to have a go at scuba that I found my passion! It felt like I had found something that I really connected with.

Gemma Smith cruising with her scooter Photo Credit: Phil Short

You are the first woman diving at the famous wreck; how do you feel about it? What would you say to women around the world who would like to scuba dive but have reservations, or think that it’s just a “man’s activity”? How tough is it to scuba dive in demanding conditions and with elaborate technical gear?

In one way I’m very proud to say that I’m the first female to dive on the Antikythera shipwreck.

On the other hand, I think it would perhaps be better to say that just as a diver I’m proud to be on the wreck.

Once you’re in the water, doing technical dives comes down to skill, practice, and having the right mindset.

Nothing to do with gender! I’d love to get to the point where people see women’s achievement as being incredible purely because of the achievement, not because of whether the person who did them was male or female.

To all the women who want to scuba dive but worry that maybe they can’t, I’d say ‘just go do it!’.

When I first started diving I was told that I’d never make it as a technical diver, because of my size and the amount of gear. I’m making it my mission to prove those people wrong!

Yes, I have to work a little bit harder to carry the 60+ kg of gear on the surface, but as soon as I’m in the water I don’t even feel it.

I always tell people that if I can do it, they can! You don’t have to be special, just determined.

The Antikythera Project Team Photo Credit: Brett Seymour

Being part of an international team of archaeologists, scuba experts etc. is surely inspiring. What are your feelings and thoughts about it?

It’s a complete privilege to be here among some of the most knowledgable people in the world. I’m just trying to absorb and learn from as many people as possible.

That’s the great thing about opportunities like this.

You get to realise how little you know, and let that spur you on to learn more.

Gemma Smith with lots and lots of diving gear Photo Credit: John Fardoulis

Imagine that you find a significant archaeological item during your dives; does this cross your mind? Do you dream about it?

Of course! It would be an incredible achievement for the whole team to find some thing significant.

I think people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that what’s been achieved already is amazing.

We’ve got a dive team of over ten people diving every day at 50m of depth on a 2000 year old site.

That’s pretty special, and groundbreaking for what can be achieved in underwater archeology.

Is it your first time diving in Greece? If not, where have you previously been? What would you say to divers who would like to visit Greece?

No, this isn’t my first time diving in Greece.

I was lucky enough to spend some time on the island of Kythera a few months back.

The team were doing some pre-Antikythera training on another shipwreck, the Mentor, in preparation for this project.

The history of Greece is amazing, and the warm water and good visibility makes for fantastic diving.

Describe your daily routine before, during and after a dive. Scuba diving is a team effort, you have the surface team, your dive buddy, who happens to be your partner as well. 

A lot of the day is spent preparing gear! We get up early and precheck all the rebreathers to make sure that they’re functioning properly, and are safe to dive.

Then we load the boat with rebreathers, stages, dry suits and other accessory equipment needed for the day, including metal detectors, underwater scooters, and artefact bags.


It’s a whole team effort. The archaeologists, the divers, the cameramen, the boat drivers, it takes every single one of them to make a project like this work.

My job on the dive is to act as a team bottom diver and a ‘guardian’ for the archeological divers.

This allows the expert archeologists to concentrate on excavations and handling finds, knowing that someone is watching their back.

It’s great being able to work on jobs like this with my husband. We travel so much for work, if we didn’t work together we’d never see each other!


Once we’re on the boat working though, he’s just another team member. I’ve got my responsibilities, and he’s got his.

There’s not a lot of time for hugs and kisses when you’re working at 50m!

I just really want to emphasise again what a privilege it is to work with such a team, and what an incredible learning experience it is for me!