By Alan Peterson
(Published Jan., 2001, Utah Outdoors magazine)
If 72 percent of earth’s surface is covered by water, isn’t it about time to visit the rest of the neighborhood?
I recently learned to scuba dive, plunging into a fascinating, mysterious, almost alien world. What surprised me most was the beauty and serenity of this new dimension. Even in a swimming pool, being underwater is a remarkable experience. The slowed motions and rhythmic sounds of breathing make even the most challenged person feel graceful and agile. I found an increased appreciation for every breath. Every air bubble is a shimmering, whirling work of art. And the underwater world is silent. Communication is so limited as to be nonexistent. You can only “experience.”
A person needs to certify to become a scuba diver. The certification process was easier than I expected, and enjoyable in its own right. And now, in land-locked Utah — the second driest state in the nation — I’ve found plenty of opportunity to dive. Flaming Gorge is a prime destination, and Bear Lake, Fish Lake and Lake Powell also offer good underwater conditions. Some of our warm springs accommodate diving even during the dead of winter — places like Seabase near Grantsville, the Crater at The Homestead, and Blue Lake on the Utah/Nevada border.
Of course, I’m hankering to get down to the exotic waters of the Caribbean and the South Pacific. That’s one of the problems with scuba diving — it’s addictive; you’ve got to have more and more and more.
My instructor, Ross Conner, retired Navy, certified to dive and instruct two years ago at age 50. Now he teaches classes for Salt Lake-based Neptune Divers. He found his niche there, below the water’s surface. “I knew I was too old to go into space. But being neutrally buoyant and soaring through the kelp beds and over reefs is like going into space,” he says. “It gave me my second childhood.” Since certifying, Conner has been training others or diving somewhere around the world almost continuously, logging 100 dives a year. “It’s the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done,” he effuses.
Taking the plunge
Linda Nelson, co-owner of Neptune Divers, says scuba has come a long way in recent years. Her certification dive, in the “good old days,” was a nightmare: The frigid water of Bear Lake, a drunk instructor and poorly fitting equipment. She swore she’d never do it again. The only reason she stayed with it was to be a dive buddy for her husband.
But what started out in 1971 as a miserable experience ultimately led Nelson to become co-owner, along with her husband, George Sanders, of one of Utah’s premier dive shops. In fact, that early experience provided a valuable lesson. Nelson works tirelessly to ensure that none of her clients have a repeat of her initiation. With a little education and experience, and a qualified instructor, scuba can be safe, rewarding and fun.
Nelson’s staff was very helpful in assembling a training schedule to accommodate my busy schedule, and the schedules of two good friends: Brad Pusey and Todd Summers, who were brave enough to go underwater with me.
Our certification was under the auspices of Scuba Schools International, one of several certifying organizations, including the YMCA and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. By completing a series of six classroom and pool sessions, five open-water dives and a written exam, we each earned certification cards. A c-card is necessary for filling tanks, renting equipment, etc. More than that, however, it demonstrates that a person has learned the basic skills necessary to be a safe diver.
Why all the emphasis on training and safety? One word: Physics. It is essential for divers to understand how the weight of water changes and compresses air. Not understanding those changes can be deadly. However, it is a simple matter to educate yourself and learn the rules and limits that keep you safe as you visit what Cousteau referred to as “the silent world.”
Though great swimming skills are not a prerequisite, our first session included swimming six laps of the pool and then staying afloat in the deep end for 10 minutes. It’s good to get a physical exam before undertaking that kind of exertion. Participants are required to sign a document indicating they understand the physical expectations and a questionnaire detailing any health issue that could create problems.
Our first pool experience focused on the snorkel, mask and fins, helping us get a feel for breathing and moving in the water. But even on the first night, we were able to go underwater with scuba gear.
Immersion in the sport
According to Conner, the experience that frequently makes or breaks a diver is removing the mask underwater. I’ve never been really comfortable opening my eyes underwater, so the thought of flooding, filling and removing my mask made me a little anxious. Another breaker is getting comfortable breathing through your mouth. Your nose always wants to get in on the act. But gradually learning skills that build on each other made even these obstacles seem minor.
As classes progressed, we learned several simple skills. Getting our ears to equalize meant the difference between a painful ache and a comfortable descent. We learned how to retrieve and clear our regulators, effectively utilize and care for the equipment, and the importance of proper weighting. We also learned how to handle emergencies underwater, like when you run out of air. That’s why the buddy system is so important. We learned how to quickly supply our buddy with air from the mandatory secondary air supply that we all carried. And we learned how to calculate the changes exerted on our bodies by breathing compressed air so that we could safely make repeated dives. We also learned the cardinal rule of diving: Never hold your breath. You have to give all of those gases under changing pressure somewhere to go all the time. Also important: Stay with your buddy, and know your limits.
In the midst of our training, my family took a trip to Yellowstone. For fun, I took my mask, fins and snorkel and had the opportunity to float and snorkel in the Firehole River. I have spent a lot of time fishing that river over the years but never had any idea how remarkable the scenery was under the water. At the swimming hole on the Loop Road, under the paddling feet of the surface swimmers, rainbow and cutthroat trout swim completely undisturbed. Black lava rock twists and contorts into channels and caves; moss and vegetation flow in the current like wheat in the wind. And I was the only one who could enjoy it. I could hardly wait to get back home and get certified.
Our final night was spent taking “the test.” No tricks. Just 50 straight-up, multiple-choice questions. Because Conner had prepared us using Jeopardy-style reviews, we all passed and began looking forward to the open-water dives that would make us certified divers.
The bottom line
Classes cost about $200 to $300 at different shops along the Wasatch Front. That fee usually includes study aids and the gear for your open-water dives. In addition, each diver is expected to purchase a mask, snorkel and fins, and you can easily pay $300 to $400 or more for top-of-the-line gear. Eventually, a diver will want to purchase at least a regulator and console (which includes depth and pressure gauges and a compass), and that can run $300 to $2,000. Or you can plunk down anywhere from $300 to $1,200 and buy a dive computer instead — it will do all of the calculating for you. You may want to buy a buoyancy compensator and wet suit. Also, a good dive watch is a necessity. Tanks are usually rented. I thought the cash register spun wildly when I went on a fishing trip! Until you are sure you want to make the commitment, you can rent all the essentials.
During our instruction period we could go to the dive shop and practice as much as we wanted for free. To me, scuba seemed very complicated at first because it is an equipment-intensive sport. But with practice, it soon became easy and lost its intimidation factor. In fact, I began searching for excuses for dive trips and additional training.
Neptune offers specialty classes in altitude diving, boat diving, search and recovery, wreck diving, underwater photography, night diving, navigation, deep diving and many others.
Looking back, I wonder why I waited so long. Lack of time, money, and a fear of the unknown kept me anchored to the ground and away from many of the wonders of the world. Now I know they are there waiting for me. And for you.
Scuba Information and Contacts:
2445 South 900 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84106
Phone: (801) 466-9630
Web site: www.neptunedivers.net
9390 West Hwy. 138
PO Box 1179
Grantsville, UT 84029-1179
Phone: (800) 840-3874 or (435) 884-3874
Web site: www.seabase.net
Scuba Schools International
Phone: (970) 482-0883
Web site: www.ssiusa.com
National Association of Underwater Instructors
Phone: (800) 553-6284
Web site: www.nauiww.org
Professional Association of Diving Instructors
Phone: (800) 729-7234
Web site: www.padi.com
3098 S. Highland Drive, Ste. 290
Salt Lake City, UT 84106
Phone: (801) 466-6299
Web site: www.ymca.com