“All stoke and smiles.”

That’s how PADI Pro Liz Parkinson describes people who “find their thing” and who are literally living their best lives – like she is. The ocean conservationist traveled the globe scuba and freediving. Then, her love of water took her to Hollywood

For example, Parkinson has worked as an underwater stuntwoman, dive instructor and stunt water safety advisor on various films, television series and commercials. Her film credits include various blockbusters, like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Reminiscence and F9: The Fast Saga. More recently, she worked on the year’s most anticipated film, Avatar: The Way of Water

A freediver with her mask up smiles with shark fins in the background in a black and white photo.
Liz Parkinson at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas with lemon sharks behind. Mark Rackley

How Cool Is That?

“It’s amazing to think about some of the incredible and random stuff I’ve gotten to do,” she said. “You never know who the next phone call is going to be, or where they’re going to ask you to go. One call, they said, ‘Next week, we’re gonna be in New Orleans, and you’re gonna train Hugh Jackman.’ How cool is that?”

Pretty darn cool. He was great underwater, she shared – a natural athlete. 

We caught up with this verifiable badass to talk about the other amazing places that her PADI training has taken her. “If you think about it, water pops up in a lot of places in cinema and television,” she said. “That’s what I typically do. It helps that I have the [PADI] credentials, too. I’m a PADI instructor – IDC staff instructor. And, I have a swimming background.”

Parkinson also helped write the PADI freediving program and has been an instructor trainer for that certification. 

A woman freedives next to a lemon shark at Tiger Beach
Liz Parkinson freedives with a Lemon Shark at Tiger Beach, Bahamas for Waterborn. Jason Washington

Where’d It All Begin?

“Diving is just my happy place,” she began. “It’s luckily my life. It’s where I’m my best me.”

A long-time swimmer before she was a diver, Parkinson recalls the first time she breathed underwater, in a pool in South Africa. “I thought, ‘I can stay here forever,’” she said. “I didn’t want to come up. Water was my life, and now I could breathe underwater.”

Then, in 2000, she earned her scuba certification in Oahu, Hawaii, where she stayed for a few years. She remembers being young, free and adventurous. She and her friends would jump in the car and find any cool spot to walk off the beach or jump off a rock to explore the ocean. One summer, she remembers hearing whale sounds while diving. 

“It was like we were in an amphitheater, like in the middle of a philharmonic orchestra,” she said. “It vibrated, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is why David Attenborough does this. I figured it out, guys. This is why David does this.’”

Becoming a PADI Pro

Becoming a PADI Divemaster was pivotal because it was the first time she was in a position of authority involving the water. Moreover, she learned how to be responsible for the safety and enjoyment of others. Eventually, she moved to Turks & Caikos to become a Dive Instructor with a small company. 

“Becoming a Pro gave me confidence because it gave me responsibility,” she said. “Once you pass that line, you are always looking out for people. It opened up a new world for me.”

A woman in a pink bikini freedives over a coral reef.
Liz Parkinson freedives on a coral reef.

Life on the Big Screen

Later, she took her PADI Pro training and applied it to her current work on movie and television sets. For example, she recounts her experience on Netflix’s TV series Thai Cave Rescue. “In Thailand, I worked with four actors who’d never dived before, and now, they’re the four main guys doing the rescue,” she said. “Two others also had to breath-hold. I took them all from never diving to looking like really experienced cave divers and freedivers.”

For that shoot, she was on location at Tham Luang Cave, where the heroic rescue took place. “To physically be inside the cave and put myself through the holes they pushed the kids through was truly amazing,” she said. “It made the story come alive for me…. I cave dive, and I’ve been in gnarly situations before, and I was blown away.” So, she channeled that into how she trained the actors to look while performing safely underwater. 

A woman walks chest-deep in water in a cave. She has a headlight on.
Liz Parkinson in the flooded entrance of Tham Luang Cave, Thailand.

Moreover, as any PADI Pro can tell you, it’s not always easy to introduce people to the water. Some take to it like fish, while others approach the underwater world like an alien planet that they aren’t sure they can trust. Furthermore, Parkinson has the added challenge that all of her students, or the actors that she’s doubling for, are being filmed for the big screen. 

“Many haven’t done action underwater before, and I want to make sure they aren’t doing the puffer face thing. They need to look relaxed,” she said. “I’m coordinating it and lining it up correctly so that everyone is on the same page. Then, the director says, ‘Action,’ and I get my ass out of the way so I’m not in the shot!”

Bringing Out Everyone’s Best

Today, most training she conducts for people in the entertainment industry is breath-hold. So, she’ll put actors and their stunt doubles through the course and teach them the basics of breath control, safety and how to line up their motions for the camera. She’ll push them to the point where they’re still comfortable, but where she can get the best performance out of them, she said.

“My job is to make sure the actor is comfortable,” she said. “My job is their safety and to help them bring out their best.” 

Sometimes, that means taking it in baby steps. Other times, it may mean taking the pressure off a breath hold. “I make sure they are comfortable and feel safe. I take their anxiety, so they feel good to do it and make an Oscar-worthy performance,” she said.

As an added bonus, many of her students – from her recreational instructor days and her industry days – inherit some of Parkinson’s lifelong love of the water. “I still get texts from people who say I’ve had such an impact on their lives years later,” she said. As for the four divers from Thai Cave Rescue, two of them left the set and went on to complete Open Water Diver Certifications with their kids because they loved it so much. “It was really great to see that!” Parkinson said. 

What’s Next?

As for Avatar, she can’t spill the beans quite yet, but she did share one thing: Jim Cameron has an incredible scientific and artistic brain. 

“When the trailer came out, I had this crazy feeling like I’d been there before, but I wasn’t really sure where it was,” Parkinson said. “I was on Avatar for two years. I know the motions and scenes, but I’m in a tank, and now they’re in this amazing world of Pandora. It’s amazing to see Jim’s imagination and how he envisioned it coming out on screen. Now, I see how he sees it. It’s exciting to see it come together.”

She doesn’t know what’s up next, and that’s part of the fun. She can get a call anytime, to go anywhere and train anyone.

“Being an instructor allows me to do what I do because I have the certification level required for me to do this,” she said. “It’s not all badass stunts. There’s random stuff too, but it’s all awesome. It’s what makes me feel alive.”

Are You Ready?

So, are you ready to live your best life and go Pro? Start here. Then, check out other scuba diving jobs open to you as a PADI Professional.

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