Lisa Mongelia, executive director of Islamorada’s History of Diving Museum — like her mentor Dr. Sally Bauer, the museum’s co-founder — is a contemporary Renaissance woman.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Mongelia moved with her family to Tampa where she attended middle and high school. At age 18, after earning certification at the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools Instructors College in San Diego, California, she became the first female dive instructor at the renowned Miami dive shop Underwater Unlimited.
Mongelia taught scuba for several years, married, raised two boys who are both divers, divorced and worked in law office management for over 30 years. Throughout the transitions of life, she continued teaching and started freelancing as a dive writer.
A writing assignment led her to the History of Diving Museum’s five-year anniversary event to interview Bauer.
Bauer and husband Dr. Joe Bauer founded the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum as a nonprofit educational institution in 2000. They also helped found the Historical Diving Society of the United States and the United Kingdom, and became known as the first to successfully raise clownfish and peppermint shrimp in captivity. The couple collected diving artifacts and conducted marine biology studies.
Sally Bauer was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2011. Today, she leads the museum’s board of directors.
Mongelia volunteered at the museum before diving in to become its executive director in 2014. She’s also a member of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's advisory council.
Her goals for the museum include increasing educational outreach and, through diving, leading Keys environmental initiatives. Recently she spoke with Keys Traveler about her passion for the ocean environment.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
Lisa Mongelia: As a teenager, coming to dive with my family and friends. We were a blended family with four teenagers in the house. As a bonding experience, our parents decided we would learn how to dive. We were always on the water and traveled to the Keys frequently.
KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
LM: I love our diving and cultural communities. It is amazing to have so many submerged cultural resources in our Keys waters. Each wreck tells a story.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
LM: My parents raised us to appreciate sports and culture, the city and nature, and to treat others with respect. Once I put on a mask and saw the thriving coral and abundant fish, there was no turning back.
KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
LM: When I met Dr. Sally Bauer, I was instantly drawn to her passion for diving artifacts. Her eyes glistened when she told stories of going on adventures with Dr. Joe. He was the idea man and she was the women to make it happen.
I see the History of Diving Museum as a bridge. Our visitors are amazed by the early pioneers and will hopefully be inspired to respect and help our environment. We want to learn from the past to benefit the future.
KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
LM: I’ve been diving for 40-plus years and have done beach and reef cleanups and fish surveys. I’ve seen the changes in the water, corals and marine life. I have to give back.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
LM: Like-minded people who put creative energies together to make a positive change. After (Hurricane) Irma, I worked with a group of incredible volunteers to create the Clean Seas Florida Keys program. Our goal is to remove marine debris with the safest possible protocols.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
LM: The success of Clean Seas Florida Keys reinforces the fact that people like to help. Our reefs are in better condition because of it. We also need to create more artificial reefs for habitats and shelter for marine life.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
LM: The sea is our future. Be proactive. Get involved. Listen. Think before you speak. Look at a multifaceted issue from all sides. Be smart enough to be flexible and willing to change your mind as new information is available.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
LM: The smell of salt air and a boat captain yelling, “Dive, dive, dive!” I love the ocean whether it involves retrieving marine debris, hunting lionfish, exploring a wreck or floating along in clear water watching turtles and fish swim by. We are blessed to have the world’s dive capital in our own backyard. Let’s do what we can so our children and grandchildren can enjoy it as well.
Wearing an early diving hood made by Miller Dunn Co., which manufactured the Mark V U.S. Navy diving helmet. Art McKee used one for salvage and treasure diving.
Mongelia with actor Samuel Jackson during a 2019 visit to the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada.