Business Briefing: Scuba instructor provides safe space for LGBTQ divers

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday November 8, 2023
Share this Post:
Niko Kowell, who owns Narwhal Divers, teaches diving to students. Photo: Courtesy Niko Kowell
Niko Kowell, who owns Narwhal Divers, teaches diving to students. Photo: Courtesy Niko Kowell

Pursuing a career in Antarctic biology, specifically to study penguins, Danny Khor in January signed up as a volunteer with the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco's bayside Fisherman's Wharf shopping and dining district. Soon they started hearing rumors about another volunteer who runs a queer and transgender dive club.

"I was looking for a way to get into diving more regularly, so I started volunteering at the aquarium," said Khor, 24, who is nonbinary and queer.

It was how the Berkeley resident first met Niko Kowell, who is queer and transgender and had started volunteering at the aquarium in 2012. Now, on most Mondays, Khor and Kowell don their scuba equipment to clean the facility's large glass tank filled with sea creatures that visitors travel through via a moving walkway.

"You can see us cleaning the tanks and waving hi to the kids from the tank. Sometimes we scare them," said Khor, who moved to the Bay Area in 2021 after being named a RAY fellow at Point Blue Conservation Science and Ocean Conservancy.

Named after Dr. Roger Arliner Young, the first Black woman to receive a doctorate degree in zoology, the fellowship program is aimed at recent college graduates of color. Khor, who is Asian, grew up in Malaysia then moved to Florida. They graduated in 2021 from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in marine sciences and a minor in zoology.

"I love diving. I love the water," they said. "I grew up around water so being able to experience it in this way and like these crazy animals we don't get to see, and experience a world so out of reach because we are on land, I think is a privilege to have."

Having been certified as a scuba diver in 2019, Khor told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview that the diving community can be unwelcoming to minorities and people with disabilities. Having dealt with mental health issues their whole life, Khor finds solace and healing through scuba diving.

"I would describe the dive industry to being really similar to other outdoor sports industries dominated by white men, who are usually straight, cis, able bodied, and I am going to say not super empathetic," said Khor. "In the past I have been made to feel really unwelcome and not wanted because of not fitting into this model and expectations of a person I am not."

Khor has found the opposite to be true with Kowell, the owner of Narwhal Divers, which he launched in 2022 to provide a safe space for other LGBTQ people, particularly those who are trans or nonbinary, who want to get into scuba diving. A diver himself for more than two decades, Kowell is a certified scuba instructor who also specializes in adaptive dive instruction, which teaches able-bodied divers how to work with divers who have mobility issues or another disability.

"The way Niko has made space for us to exist as us in our full selves and advocated for us has made me feel really safe and build confidence in advocating for myself in spaces that feel a lot less friendly," said Khor, who will be traveling with Kowell to Cozumel, Mexico in December to finish their advanced adaptive dive buddies certification in open water.

They have been attending classes that Kowell holds in the pool where he works, the dive shop Bamboo Reef in the South of Market neighborhood.

"He has been really intentional about helping create an inclusive learning space," said Khor. "He has never made me feel bad or dumb or missing something for asking any questions I have."

Fostering inclusivity

Fostering such an environment was his goal when he set up his business last year, Kowell, 39, told the B.A.R. during an interview at Duboce Park Cafe near where he lives in San Francisco. He did so after leaving the nonprofit health sector where he had worked for 14 years.

For those new to diving, it can be a bit harrowing for people to walk into a dive shop and not see anyone who look likes them, noted Kowell. For gender-nonconforming people, being sized up for a wetsuit by their instructor can also be an uncomfortable experience, he said.

"I bring a level of sensitivity and thought around that. I get it might be uncomfortable, but you are safe with me," said Kowell. "I want to make sure you are as safe as possible."

The Cincinnati native has been diving for 20 years, taking trips to Florida and the Caribbean in his youth, and was certified as a scuba diver at the age of 18. (His mom had gotten him diving lessons as a high school graduation gift.)

"I spent a lot of time in the water fascinated by sea creatures," he said. "It was a way to explore a world people don't have access to."

He moved to San Francisco in 2008 after graduating from Antioch College with a psychology degree. Two years prior he had come to the city for an internship with the men's sex club Eros, and after relocating to California Kowell worked for San Francisco Community Health in its Trans Thrive program.

Burned out during COVID, Kowell decided to take the leap and go into business as scuba instructor. He was accepted into the Transgender District's Entrepreneur Accelerator Program.

Having formed a Facebook group to meet other queer and trans divers, Kowell knew there was a need for a scuba diving business that focused on the LGBTQ community. He landed on naming it after the narwhal sea creature because of its ties to certain animal mascot for queer people.

"I think unicorns are often associated with the queer community, and to me, a narwhal is the unicorn of the sea," explained Kowell, adding it was a way to signal, "Hey queer community, my business is queer and trans centered because I am queer and trans."

Anyone is welcome to sign up for his classes, noted Kowell, or join his scuba diving trips. He attends industry conferences to find LGBTQ-friendly diving resources and places that will be welcoming to travel to with his students.

"I feel I can't invite my community there if I haven't been there to check it out," said Kowell, who was recently in Baja California to spend a week swimming and diving with whale sharks.

He teaches at Bamboo Reef, the city's lone dive shop, every weekend. Since he started working there, Kowell has found his co-workers to be very welcoming and open to making changes to meet the needs of LGBTQ clients, like now having gender-neutral dressing rooms.

"Everybody there is pretty wonderful," he said.

One barrier to the sport is its high price tag, acknowledged Kowell, due to the equipment needs and travel costs. A diving trip he is leading to Puerto Vallarta later this month cost $1,150 for those who signed up early and $1,400 who didn't. It covers the lodging and diving costs but not airfare and meals.

He looks for ways to make it more economical for his clients and offers a sliding scale for some of the private lessons he offers. (He will book four people at a time for a beginner's class and will charge between $50 and $150.)

"I am trying to make it more accessible for the community because it is not a cheap sport," said Kowell.

To learn more about Narwhal Divers, visit its website.

Niko Kowell dives during a scene from a video he made promoting Narwhal Divers. Photo: Via YouTube  

DACHA opens its doors
In late October, couple Suki and Katya Skye welcomed patrons to their new restaurant near San Francisco's Polk Gulch neighborhood featuring fare from their Eastern European roots. After several trial run nights to test out their systems and allow their staff to gain some experience, the women held a special opening event October 30 for their DACHA Kitchen & Bar.

As last month's column first reported, the eatery is located at 1085 Sutter Street at Larkin Street. Its name refers to the country homes their Eastern European relatives own, as Suki Skye is of German ancestry as well as French, British, and Irish, while Katya Skye was born in Russia and immigrated to the U.S. in 2014.

In August, the women opened their DACHA Cafe & Bar inside Trellis, a coworking space South of Market that is partly queer owned. The cafe is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As for the restaurant, it is open for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. It opens for brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

To learn more about its menu, visit its website.

Got a tip on LGBTQ business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.