- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

Dale Fox teaches his students to breathe underwater. As an instructor at American Water Sports of Virginia in Falls Church, he gives scuba lessons.

“The only thing that will really hurt you in diving is holding your breath,” Mr. Fox says. “It’s the law of physics. Your lungs will try to double in size as you go up in the water.”

Although beginning scuba divers may be a bit overwhelmed, instructors ease their tension by teaching them the skills for successful diving. After mastering the initial course, students can improve their knowledge with more advanced classes.

The standard, basic open-water certification that’s given by diving organizations such as the Professional Association of Diving Instructors or the National Association of Underwater Instructors includes class work, pool work and open-water work, says Harrison Starn, manager of American Water Sports of Virginia.

For students ages 12 through 15, a junior scuba certification is available. The only difference in the license is that teenagers cannot rent an air tank or sign up for dives without an adult’s permission. In addition, divers ages 10 and 11 can obtain a junior scuba certification, but their dives are limited to 40 feet. Until teens receive their adult license, they dive with adult supervision.

The school offers its $225 beginners course at least one weekend per month. Knowing how to swim and being in good health are prerequisites.

Classroom activities include learning about dive gear, such as understanding how to use and care for a tank, regulator and buoyancy compensator.

The students also learn to read dive tables, which list the depth and duration for which a diver can stay under the water. The body of water, the temperature of the water, the clarity of the water and the size of the oxygen tank all make a difference.

“It’s not as complicated as it sounds,” Mr. Starn says. “A lot of times the kids tend to be better students than the adults.”

After the class work is completed, students move to the pool. They learn to put on their scuba gear and experiment with swimming in shallow water. Emphasis is placed on whether the students have learned the required skills, not on the amount of time in the pool.

The students learn techniques such as removing their masks and putting them back on while underwater, how to share air with someone while diving and how to do self-rescues.

The skills learned in the pool eventually translate to the ocean, a lake or a pond, Mr. Starn says.

“When you go out to do an open-water dive, you aren’t learning anything new,” Mr. Starn says. “You’re just doing it in open water. There are no surprises.”

Sometimes students take group trips to the ocean with instructors to complete the four open-water dives required to finish the certification, says Maureen Rayman, owner of Aquatic Adventures in Alexandria.

The open-water dives are not to exceed 60 feet in depth. Most training is conducted at about 30 feet. While completing the certification, only two open-water dives are permitted per day.

Throughout the year, Mrs. Rayman and her husband, Marty, take students to exotic places suited for scuba diving, such as Fiji.

“They can increase their diving education on their vacation,” Mrs. Rayman says. “Instead of doing it at your local lake, you can get certified with the pretty fish and pretty corals and the nice warm water.”

In July, the Raymans will journey to Bonaire, located in the Dutch Caribbean, with a class. While there, some students will complete their open-water certification, while others will take specialty classes involving underwater photography, underwater navigation or wreck diving.

The cost at Aquatic Adventures for the initial class and pool work is $179 or $219, depending on the days of the week the students choose.

Students should plan their open-water dives before completing the class and pool work, says Stan Riveles, a diver in his 60s from Arlington. If the person doesn’t complete the four open-water dives within 30 days of finishing the initial classes, the professional association certifying the diver will require a refresher course.

Mr. Riveles took classes with American Water Sports of Virginia this winter and completed his certification in Hawaii in March. He first became interested in the sport during an earlier trip to Hawaii when an instructor allowed him to take an informal dive.

“My wife and I were snorkeling, and I saw a whole bunch of people scuba diving,” Mr. Riveles says. “Most of them were young guys and young girls, but I saw this older guy who was the instructor and thought that was right up my alley.”

Although divers may initially fear the deep-water part of the test, the class work adequately prepares them for it, Mr. Riveles says.

“It’s a sort of struggle with your own fear factor,” Mr. Riveles says. “You have to keep yourself under a certain amount of control. There are very few people for whom this raises no issues. Most of us try to address the panic impulses and breathe deeply and focus and get used to your equipment.”

If divers panic, they shouldn’t get in the habit of swimming immediately to the surface, says Kevin Dougherty, 29, of Arlington. Although Mr. Dougherty hasn’t completed his deep-water dives, he anticipates putting this principle into practice in May, when he will complete his certification in Florida. He says his experience in the pool has prepared him.

“At the beginning, I was scared,” Mr. Dougherty says. “You have air attached to you. You don’t need to freak out. Remain calm and do what you’ve been taught.”

After mastering the initial open-water dives, it’s fun to go on private scuba trips, says Dawn Sword, 29, of Arlington. In 2000, she took beginner classes at American Water Sports of Virginia. Since then, she and her husband, Eric, 31, have traveled to Central America and Australia for personal trips.

The couple also have taken more advanced classes in other specialties, such as advanced open-water diving and deep diving. They are working on earning their nitrox certification, which will allow them to breathe other gases that can extend the duration of their dives.

“The more you learn about scuba diving, the more you can appreciate it,” Mrs. Sword says. “It’s a continuing education.”

The courses are meant to make students comfortable in the water, says Mike Parker, director of Scuba Professional Education Dive School in Chevy Chase. Entry-level courses there cost $225. Although students may not enjoy the classroom work as much as the diving, it’s vital for their safety.

“When you dive, you’re in another world,” Mr. Parker says. “It’s like you’re not on this planet. People like it for stress release. They want to go somewhere to relax and not remember what’s going on in Washington.”

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