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Beneath The Waves

From Technicolor Fish to Ghostly Shipwrecks, Scuba Diving Reveals a Whole Other World
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 2)

Mask, fins and snorkel are the basic equipment of the diver, and because they're easy to transport and more personalized, most divers invest in these items even if they decide to rent the rest of their gear. A basic setup costs from $100 to $250. Many eyeglass wearers have their masks outfitted with prescription lenses, and contact lenses work fine for diving.

The investment of time and money often scares off would-be divers who are unsure whether they will enjoy the experience. In response, many shops offer what are known as resort courses, half-day affairs that get the diver into the water quickly. There is some brief poolside equipment and theory instruction, some in-pool training and a shallow dive in which the instructor closely accompanies the group. Resort courses, which can be had for as little as $50, are an excellent way to experience the sensation of diving for the first time. PADI offers a Discover Scuba Diving program and NAUI offers Passport Diver classes. These classes can be used for credit towards your basic certification if you choose to pursue the sport.

Other required equipment include a tank, a regulator with an "octopus," depth and pressure gauges, a watch, a weight belt and a buoyancy control device, or BCD. The regulator consists of two parts--a first stage, which attaches to the air tank and controls the pressure of the air flow, and a second stage, which is the device that you put into your mouth to breathe. This is equipped with automatic valves that deliver air when you inhale and allow you to exhale into the water. For safety reasons, an alternative air source is required in case you have a problem with your second stage, so there is a duplicate dangling from another hose. This two-hose setup is called an octopus. Also hooked into your first stage is a gauge that monitors your air supply. Finally, your tank also inflates and deflates your buoyancy control device. The BCD is usually a vest, with the tank attached to the back. Inflating and deflating your vest allows you to ascend, descend and maintain neutral buoyancy. Since a person is naturally buoyant, and the air tank increases buoyancy, a weight belt is required to allow you to sink. The amount of weight you carry is determined by your own weight and the weight of the equipment you're wearing.

A final important piece of equipment is an exposure suit. In warm tropical waters, divers often wear nothing but a bathing suit. In cooler waters, they add items ranging from a vest to full-body wet suits. Most wet suits are made of neoprene, which provides insulation but also increases your buoyancy. The colder the water, the more layers you wear and the more weight you need. As a result, many people find cold-water diving uncomfortable because the gear--rubber wet suits, hoods, gloves and bulky weights--may be cumbersome. This is one reason many people choose to do referral dives; some divers practice the sport only while vacationing in tropical climates.

In truly frigid climates, some divers opt for dry suits, so called because they offer total protection from the water, and divers can wear jeans and sweaters underneath. While water temperatures rarely drop below freezing, anything that's less than 60š F is considered cold.

People take dive trips to nice places," says Clive Cussler, a novelist and an avid diver. "Everyone goes where there is 200-foot visibility and 80-degree water. I like to go somewhere else." Cussler has authored more than a dozen best-sellers featuring scuba diving secret agent Dirk Pitt, including Raise the Titanic, Inca Gold and Sahara. "It's tough diving for the average sport diver, but one of my favorites is the Great Lakes, where there are about 55,000 recorded shipwrecks, many of them in 100 to 150 feet of water."

Cussler began diving in Hawaii in 1951, just as Cousteau's work had transformed the activity into a sport. After reaping the financial success of his novels, Cussler put quite a bit of his royalties back into the sea. He fulfilled his lifelong passion of searching for shipwrecks of immense historical value and founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency, a nonprofit group devoted to discovering lost ships. His most recent book, The Sea Hunters, is his first nonfiction work, and details some of his more interesting searches. Between dives, Cussler uses his time on board to enjoy fine cigars, a habit he has indulged in for several decades.

Except for certain medical restrictions, almost anyone can learn to dive. Asthma is the biggest prohibiting factor, as are other respiratory problems, insulin-controlled diabetes, nervous system disorders that can cause seizures or blackouts, and sinus or ear problems.

Basic certification--you must be at least 12 years old--entitles you to rent equipment, participate in organized dives in fair-weather conditions and go 60 feet down. For certified divers, most dive shops offer one-, two- or three-tank dive trips, usually on boats. The number of tanks correspond to the number of dives, and trips typically last less than half a day. The group of divers on the boat is usually accompanied by an instructor, especially if there are interesting sights to explore in the area. Certified divers can find these offerings in almost all resort areas, and many dive shops run shuttles to transport divers to and from their hotels.

The next step for divers is advanced certification, which features more sophisticated diving techniques. As divers advance, courses require less time in the classroom and usually none in the pool. Advanced certification can be acquired in as few as two days. Further specialties can often be obtained in one day. Content varies widely among certifying bodies, but the advanced curriculum usually includes a deep dive, an underwater navigation dive, a night dive and two or three elective dives. After taking the advanced class, divers can descend to 100 feet and participate in numerous specialty classes.


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