14 October 2005

Take the plunge, learn how to scuba dive

For most of us, achieving such a state of grace is a stretch. But perhaps the late Jacques Cousteau wasn't so far off. After all, scuba diving brings humans as close to weightlessness as anybody but astronauts in space and angels ever gets.

Cousteau helped pioneer scuba (an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving, helped invent the gear that cut the air-giving umbilical cord tethering humans to the surface and, through his documentaries, exposed audiences to watery wonders from all over the world.

The feeling of weightlessness is but one reason why so many are drawn to scuba diving, and not just the most fit among us. Although a person should be in good health to scuba dive, it isn't necessary to have "Into the Blue" actress Jessica Alba's bikini-perfect shape or actor Paul Walker's six-pack physique.

In fact, water's buoyancy is a great equalizer, allowing those who don't exactly fit into government-issued height/ weight guidelines, the young and the old, and even many who have disabilities to share a dive boat and drift 60 feet deep right along with buff types.

"You can learn to scuba dive as young as 10 (with restrictions), and last year we certified a 75-year-old man and his 72-year-old wife," said Rick Rowett, general manager at Dolphin Scuba Center in Sacramento. "Scuba diving is also a good activity for the physically impaired, and we've certified paraplegics."

Certification a must
By "certifying," Rowett is referring to the course that anyone who wants to scuba dive must complete. The Open Water Diver certification card is the payoff for completing the beginning course offered by, among other agencies, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. The PADI Open Water Diver card is recognized at dive shops and air-fill stations all over the world. It allows people to get scuba tanks filled with the compressed air necessary for breathing underwater and to charter trips on boats that carry them to dive sites.

Experiencing and becoming part of an underwater world full of unique creatures, colors and shapes is another reason people are drawn to scuba diving.

The artists who created Disney's "Finding Nemo" used the real creatures of the underwater world as their models. Clown fish appear (and act) like Nemo and his father, Marlin. No, they don't talk, at least in any language humans understand. However, when the tiny creatures charge out of their anemone homes right up to the face masks of divers, the message is clear: "Get out of here - you're trespassing!"

Little to fear but fear itself
In spite of the attractions of scuba diving, many people shy away. Some of the apprehensions are not based in fact, others are. Almost all concerns can be overcome (other than health problems that preclude diving).

One deterrent is the fear of the creatures that might be encountered. Yes, coral can sting and some creatures can bite, but a scuba diver using care and taking precautions has little to fear. Shark attacks, while they make headlines, are rare, and rarer still for scuba divers. A scuba diver at eye level with a shark is less likely to be mistaken for a shark's preferred foods: fish, seals and sea lions. In addition, a scuba diver is more likely to be aware of what is swimming around than a swimmer at the surface.

Another deterrent might be cost. The student diver is required to purchase a minimum amount of equipment needed to take the PADI course: Fins, mask and snorkel can be purchased locally for from $100 to $300.

And what about training?

* Group lessons: If you're comfortable and confident in the water, this is an option. They can be taught in a combination of home and classroom study and pool work, then progress to the required minimum of four open-water dives. Some courses entail meeting regularly over a period of several weeks; others are more intensive "executive" courses that are held over a weekend. Prices range from around $100 to almost $200, plus the cost for an instruction manual and training video. The cost can fluctuate depending on whether the open-water dives (under the supervision of your instructor) are done along the coast or in Folsom Lake.

* Private or semiprivate lessons: These cost more ($199 to $279) but are better for people who have anxieties about scuba diving and need more personal attention than provided by the group experience.

Ruth Lawrence of Cool took that route. Though she has no qualms about jumping a horse over a 5-foot-high rail, a near-drowning in a pool as a child made her wary of water.

"I'm a lousy swimmer, and water is not my element," Lawrence said. "I hate water, or so I thought, but my instructor, Drew Wilson (of Dolphin Scuba Center), made me feel safe. He made me feel competent."

Lawrence took a popular option to complete her certification. She did the course and confined-water requirements locally, and the requisite open-water dives in a place where the water was warm and clear. That option allows the student to concentrate on practicing and demonstrating the many skills required for certification while avoiding having to don a constrictive wet suit, hood and gloves, which would be required to ward off the cold of California coastal waters, and having to deal with entries and exits through surging, murky waters.

There are potential downsides to this "referral approach" that aspiring divers should anticipate. One is that you will be dealing with a different instructor from the one you had at home. And many of the best tropical dive areas are in developing nations where the upkeep on rental equipment (a regulator, a buoyancy control device, and depth and pressure gauges) is not as rigorous as in the United States. Therefore, students are advised to rent this expensive equipment (retail prices range from about $600 to more than $1,000) in the U.S. before traveling.

Another option is to take the entire course at a tropical resort, which is usually more expensive (up to $500) and also includes the cautions noted above.

Exotic locales beckon
With the certification card (initially a temporary card) safely in hand, it's time for the payoff: Traveling to some of the most exotic and beautiful places on earth. Belize and Bora Bora are worth a visit even if you get no closer to the water than sitting under a palapa on the beach sipping piƱa coladas. But only to gaze out at the azure waters or to snorkel at the surface is to miss the best these places have to offer.

Humorist Dave Barry once tried to describe what surface-bound people are missing: "I will spare you a gushy description of the dive itself, except to say that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you've been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent."

While Cousteau might have overreached a bit with his comparison to angels, Barry misses in the other direction. Entering the tent of Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth doesn't begin to arouse the awe and wonder experienced when one ventures under the surface of the sea and becomes not just a spectator but a participant in truly "the greatest show on earth."

Source: www.sacbee.com


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