- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

Early on a misty Sunday morning, when most people are lying in their beds, a stream of cars arrives at a quarry near Haymarket, Va. The deep-water divers-in-training begin to unload scuba gear while others, who have camped overnight at the site after the previous day's training session, crawl out from tents and prepare breakfast.
It's a typical day at Washington's closest scuba-diving site: Millbrook Quarry.
For scuba divers, Washington and its environs are a prime location, offering inland test-dive sites, offshore wrecks and enthusiasts' clubs. "D.C. is a wonderful area for a diver to live and enjoy diving here as a year-round activity and not just something to do on vacations," says John Wall, owner of the Dive Shop in Fairfax, which sponsors the training sessions at Millbrook. "We have close quarries for testing out new equipment and taking classes, and nearby beaches only a short car drive away."
At Millbrook, the would-be scuba divers gather around a bright blue plastic tarpaulin as they wait for their instructor, Darin Lutbecker, to emerge from his tent. Tarps are scattered atop grassy patches next to the gravel road that surrounds the abandoned quarry, now filled with water. The tarps provide clean surfaces on which divers assemble the equipment used for underwater exploration.
Mr. Lutbecker, who works for the Dive Shop, climbs out of his tent and is greeted by the eager faces of five students ready to complete their training and become certified scuba divers.
"Let's get in the water and wake up," Mr. Lutbecker calls out to them.
About a dozen agencies worldwide certify scuba divers. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors is the largest. Others include the YMCA, the National Association of Underwater Instructors, Scuba Schools International and Scuba Diving International.
Mr. Lutbecker and the Dive Shop use Scuba Diving International. But all of the associations offer similar instruction to certify divers. The lessons can take place during two weekends and may even be compressed into one long weekend. But the preferred course takes place over two weeks.
On four or five evenings during the two weeks, students hit the books, watch videos, and receive lectures and tests on the various aspects of dive theory and practice. After most classes, the lesson continues at an indoor pool, where students learn to assemble and use the equipment while in and under the water. The program finishes with four to five training dives that test the students in real-life situations.
Those who would rather finish training in a more exotic or warm location, such as Florida or the Caribbean, can do so at a dive center that uses the same certification agency.

The students slide and wiggle into their wet suits as more vehicles arrive. With smoke filling the air from cooking and divers unloading equipment from trucks and SUVs, chatting and socializing, the wooded setting maintains the feel of a large tailgate party. Everywhere, the busy process of assembling the equipment to survive underwater continues.
Scuba stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. The basic equipment consists of a tank of pressurized air, a regulator to control the flow of air to a mouthpiece with an internal valve that opens and closes with each breath, a depth gauge, a pressure gauge that measures the amount of air in the tank, a mask, fins and an inflatable vestlike jacket called a Buoyancy Compensator, or BC.
The BC works as a life jacket on the surface. Beneath the water, thumb-operated valves inflate and deflate the jacket to stabilize a diver's position at a selected depth. A weight belt acts to conteract the inherent buoyancy of the diver, air tank and wet suit.
All the divers wear 7-millimeter thick wet suits, hoods and gloves to fend off the cold. Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water next to the skin. The layer heats up to body temperature, and the suit acts as insulation; the thicker the suit, the greater the insulation.
With all the students geared up, masks and fins in hand and looking quite uncomfortable wearing the heavy tanks strapped to the BCs, Mr. Lutbecker leads the group across the road and down a path to a flight of stairs leading to the water. At the base of the stairs, the divers waddle into the water and sit down on rocks and a small wooden deck at the water's edge. Mr. Lutbecker reviews what will happen during the dive as everyone pulls on their fins.
"Did everyone defog their masks?" Mr. Lutbecker asks.
A mild, soaplike solution is smeared onto the lens of the mask to keep it from fogging when underwater.
Scott Page, a mail carrier from Fairfax, and Tim Ernest, a systems analyst from Arlington, fit the masks over their faces and slip into the water with the rest of the group. An upcoming trip to the island of Curacao, in the Caribbean, prompted Mr. Page to learn to scuba dive. Friends who always raved about their diving experiences sparked Mr. Ernest's interest. The two have been buddied up for the course.
Recreational diving is designed for people to work with a partner so that if one person has an equipment breakdown or encounters some other problem, the buddy can provide the necessary assistance.
The art of "buddy breathing," in which two divers take turns breathing from one mouthpiece, is usually unnecessary. Most regulators come with a second valved mouthpiece, know as the octopus, which is attached via a long hose and is also supplied with pressurized air. If one diver runs out of air, the buddy just hands him or her the octopus and the two ascend to the surface facing each another. Such situations are rare, however, because current technology is practically foolproof and because divers are trained to monitor air consumption continually.
Assistant instructor George Caridakas leaps into the water from one of the higher rocks and swims out to a white buoy to complete the cluster of divers. The quarry resembles a large, tranquil pond. Groups of white barrels bobbing on the surface in sets of four, however, disrupt the serenity. The buoys, plastic barrels, mark underwater platforms where divers can practice underwater skills, such as buddy breathing or purging water from masks.
Mr. Lutbecker gives a thumbs-down to signal the descent into the 90-foot-deep quarry. The divers press the deflation buttons on their BCs and fall into the murk. Using the ropes that hold the barrels to the platform as guides, they slowly drop while clearing their ears.

The deeper the dive, the greater the pressure. To keep undue pressure from building up against eardrums, a diver must equalize, or clear, his ears. This is done by either stretching the jaw to open up the eustachian tubes or by squeezing the nostrils together while exhaling to gently push air against the inside of the eardrum. This is not as difficult as it sounds; scuba masks cover the nose but with a flexible membrane.
If a diver is unable to equalize, the intense pain caused by pressure against the eardrum will force him to abort the dive. People with certain ear conditions, consequently, cannot dive, and those with head colds or clogged sinuses also shouldn't dive.
None of Mr. Lutbecker's students has problems equalizing and all arrive safely on the platform at a depth of 30 feet. He looks into the eyes of each student and makes an OK sign with his hand, meaning, "Are you OK?"
Each responds with the same OK gesture. Mr. Lutbecker then guides the pack toward one of the sheer rocky walls. Mr. Caridakas takes up a position in the rear to make sure no one is left behind.
Visibility isn't the best maybe 15 feet, sometimes less than 10 feet. But visibility, or "vis," is rarely good in quarries. In the turquoise seas of the Caribbean, the vis often reaches more than 100 feet and sometimes 200 feet. On a good day in any quarry, vis might hit 50 feet.
But the low visibility brings unexpected rewards. Out of the quarry darkness, a fish may appear as though it materialized out of nowhere. A faint blur might suddenly take on form in this case, a huge metal pipe, part of the drainage system of the original mining operation. The pipe marks the turnaround spot for the group, and it retraces its path along the wall. The divers stop for a moment to check their buoyancy. They hover, weightless, next to the wall like astronauts in space.
The quarry contains other structures far more interesting than metal pipes for divers to view and enjoy. The Dive Shop, which maintains the site, has sunk a swing set, airplane, cabin cruiser and bicycle in the quarry. They're working on acquiring a hang glider to sink. Numerous fish also reside at Millbrook blue gills, crappie, large-mouth bass, catfish (a few of which are longer than 4 feet), and crayfish. Four beaches allow divers to enter and leave the water.

After a half-hour, as the cold water starts to take its toll on some of his students, Mr. Lutbecker returns to the platform and signals thumbs up to start the ascent. The water is about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But below 40 feet the temperature drops to 50 degrees, and at 50 feet it falls to less than 40 degrees. Distinct boundaries called thermoclines separate the layers of water. At 15 feet, the ascending divers perform a "safety stop," pausing for three minutes, to help prevent decompression sickness, the dreaded bends.
Mr. Lutbecker again gives a thumbs up after the three minutes, and the group breaks through to the world of sunshine and air. Each student in turn swims over to the dock, pulls off the fins and climbs out.
"It was cold," one woman shouts.
Another diver about to enter the water says, "Someone was supposed to turn on the heater last night. I guess they forgot."
Once on shore, Mr. Lutbecker points out how far they went, and Mr. Ernest and Mr. Page are surprised. Laboriously climbing back up the stairs, Mr. Ernest says that getting out of the water seems to be the only hard part of diving.
All the divers return to the tarp and begin changing over to fresh tanks for their last dive of the day to complete the course.
Mr. Lutbecker discusses the plan for the final dive, and 40 minutes later the group traipses across the road, down the stairs and into the underwater world. To make it seem more alien, Mr. Lutbecker leads his students to a structure known as the space station, a boxlike arrangement in the shape of the letter P formed from white PVC pipes. The students form a line and swim up, through and out of the construction like hamsters climbing in a Habitrail.
And then it's over. Mr. Lutbecker returns to the shore with a fresh batch of certified scuba divers ready to explore farther reaches of the watery world within our world.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide