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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 3)

The specialty courses certify divers for a particular area of interest. According to PADI's Young, the most popular specialties are wreck diving, underwater photography, night diving, search and recovery, and deep diving. Wrecks fascinate many divers, but, unfortunately, they often lie in water that's too deep. (Deep diving certification allows divers to descend 130 feet, the absolute maximum for sport diving.) Night diving is very popular, because many aquatic creatures are nocturnal. "You should check out the night creatures, such as octopus and lobsters--things that only come out after dark," says investment banker Polenz. Also, many parts of the color spectrum are filtered out as daylight travels through deep water, and using a flashlight at night is the only way to see the true colors of the deep.

Many more specialty courses are offered, and some agencies allow students to create their own subspecialties, so the list is truly endless. Mainstream offerings include underwater navigation, underwater naturalist, cavern diver, ice diver, dry-suit diver, altitude diver, drift diver, underwater ecologist, reef diver, underwater archaeology and river diver. Not all dive shops are equipped to teach each specialty, as some are dependent on having the natural features available. You need a wreck to do a wreck dive, and you can't ice dive in Florida. If you are interested in a particular specialty, find an area where that specialty is popular. "In Cozumel, Mexico, drift diving is excellent," says Polenz. "The boat drops you off at one end of a reef, and there are currents parallel to the reef. You just go down and hang there motionless, and the current carries you along the reef, so you get to see a tremendous variety of aquatic life effortlessly. It's almost as if you are standing still and all these creatures and coral are parading past you."

One of the hottest courses is enriched air diving, or NITROX. "Technically, regular diving uses NITROX, which just means a mix of nitrogen and oxygen, which we have in the air we breathe," says NAUI's Randy Shaw. "But for divers it refers to enriched air, where there is a higher than normal oxygen to nitrogen ratio." Enriched air allows divers to remain below the surface longer and decreases the risk of decompression illness, or "the bends," which is the most well-known diving malady.

The deeper you dive, the greater the pressure exerted upon your body. This causes your body to absorb nitrogen. When you return to the surface, nitrogen is released into your body tissue. If you rise too quickly, rapid decompression can cause severe neuralgic pain, breathing distress and even paralysis or death. Enriched air diving lowers the nitrogen content of the air you breathe, theoretically lowering the risk of the bends.

All recreational diving is known as no-decompression diving, which is much different than that done by commercial and Navy divers. Adhering to the training and depth recommendations provided by certifying groups allows recreational divers to virtually eliminate the risk of decompression sickness and other diving injuries.

Fortunately, diving is much safer than most people think. According to PADI literature, "The risk of injury is much less today for diving than for other adventure-oriented sports like snow skiing.... The greatest danger facing today's recreational diver is usually sunburn." Bruce Delphia, who works the emergency hot line for Divers Alert Network (DAN), agrees. "There's a saying that it's more dangerous driving to the dock than diving, and that's probably true. Each year there are fewer than 100 deaths to U.S. citizens from diving." There are an estimated four million active recreational divers in this country, and DAN's statistics include fatalities to military and commercial divers as well.

The network, which is a part of the Duke University Medical Center, is a clearinghouse for diving information. Hospitals throughout the world contact its hot line for advice when confronted with dive accidents, and DAN provides the industry with many of its most widely used safety recommendations. Membership in DAN costs between $25 and $35 and is highly recommended for all recreational divers.

The world is filled with treasures that await divers who fall in love with the undersea environment. In California, divers swim through jungles of giant kelp. Micronesia offers a lake with two million nonstinging jellyfish. In Puerto Rico, "fireworks" go off every night in a unique bay filled with phosphorescent aquatic life. The list goes on and on. As Clive Cussler says, "Adventure is where you find it."

Larry Olmsted is a PADI advanced diver who frequently writes about travel, golf and outdoor recreation.
Great Dives

Excellent diving can be found in numerous locations around the globe. Here are some of the best:

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