- Associated Press - Monday, October 2, 2017

MAGNOLIA, Ark. (AP) - In the decades following the invention of the Aqua-Lung in the early 1940s by French naval officer Jacques Cousteau and engineer Émile Gagnan, scuba diving steadily rose in popularity as a way of seeing unknown, underwater worlds firsthand, as well as a recreational activity nearly anyone of any age could enjoy. For the first time in history, people could breathe easily and dive freely under the water’s surface for long periods without the hindrance and danger of top-water hoses and colossal iron bodysuits or death-defying small submersibles.

In the 1960s, Cousteau launched an endeavor that would spread the sport of scuba diving even farther: his own television program titled “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” With whimsical classical music and wondrous cinematography, millions around the world became captivated by previously unimaginable underwater activity.

The Banner-News reports that for Southern Arkansas University scuba instructor Clay Raborn, diving has been a lifelong passion. His path to scuba certification took years, but it led him to a life filled with family fun and professional enjoyment.

“I was always just fascinated with scuba diving,” said Raborn. “As a kid, it’s all I ever wanted to do. I thought it was the neatest thing in the world, and I wanted to see the other 80 percent of the world that is water.”

Raborn - a Springhill, Louisiana, native from a modest background - would spend every Christmas season as a boy contacting the area dive shop and training center in Shreveport for scuba certification pricing.

A few years later he received a surprise that would lead to his first scuba experience. When Raborn was a teenager celebrating a birthday, his mother, Laura, paid for a pool session at the facility.

“My brother, my mother and I all got in the water, and we swam around,” he said. “It was great.”

Although Raborn had been in full scuba gear, he was still not a certified diver. Just after high school, he enrolled at Southern Arkansas University. For years, he and a few faculty and staff members worked to bring scuba classes to SAU, to no avail. Finally, just after Raborn graduated from the university, an instructor was hired and classes were offered. In a stroke of bad luck, Raborn had missed his certification opportunity, as he was no longer a student. But all options were not gone.

Raborn was hired as a police officer in Hope in 1997, and a connection was made to complete his dive training. He began diving on Lake DeGray near Arkadelphia and finally achieved his years-long goal of scuba certification.

On his off weekends from mid-April to mid-October, Raborn could always be found on or under the surface of DeGray. He was neither a spear fisherman nor a daredevil, just a scuba enthusiast who loved the experience of being with the fish.

“I had 10 tanks, my gear and little barge that literally did not have a chair on it - just a deck,” he said. “I had all those tanks, and if somebody wanted to dive with me, that was great. And if not, I’d dive alone all weekend. I just loved it.”

While diving one day near DeGray’s dam, he surfaced to find another scuba enthusiast waiting. The two struck up a friendship and dove the rest of the weekend together. All the while, Raborn had no idea that his new acquaintance was a scuba instructor at Southern Arkansas University.

“Johnny Whatley was the guy, and he used to teach scuba at the college,” said Raborn. “He told me I was pretty good in the water and asked me if I would be interested in diving more with him and teaching some. I jumped on it and said, ‘I’d love to!’”

Soon after meeting Whatley, Raborn began his PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) IDC (Instructor Development Course) training. After weeks of intense classroom work and hours upon hours spent in the water, he gained his master diver certification and began co-instructing evening scuba classes at SAU.

In 2004, Raborn was tapped to become the lead scuba teacher for the university. He started with only six students but current class sizes regularly reach around 20 students. The sessions are usually split into two 10-person groups. Half meet at the SAU pool on Monday nights and half meet on Tuesday nights. The class counts for one university credit hour.

“I give grades, we have quizzes, and we give tests,” said Raborn. “They’re getting credit for it, so we really teach.”

By the end of the semester, students will have earned their lifetime PADI scuba certification, pending passage of the course. The SAU dive crew has also constructed an underwater training ground below the DeGray Lake surface which is used for open water dives.

“We’ve got a little scuba park down there,” said Raborn. “We built a PVC pipe Christmas tree, we have several platforms, and have all kinds of stuff. We even used to have a giant PVC shark.”

Aside from his SAU duties, Raborn still dives regularly on trips and weekend outings. The sport has become not only a way to relax but to spend vast amounts of time with his scuba-loving family.

“I love Monday nights. I look forward to it all week,” he said. “It’s our family outing. We go to class, have a burger, and sit and visit. It’s a great family time.”

Raborn thought so much of scuba diving and its effect on his family, he even proposed to his wife Jill last October while under water.

“She had just started diving, and I told my kids to hang out with me under the water for a few minutes,” he said. “I proposed to her there at SAU and she nodded. I took that as a yes.”

To date, Raborn has made scuba trips to multiple continents and countries including the Philippines, Hawaii, Florida, and the tropics of North America. His favorite spot is Cozumel, just off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. With its ice blue Caribbean vistas, combined with awesome underwater scenery and reasonable prices, the destination cannot be beaten, according to Raborn. He, his family and his diving friends make the trip to the island annually.

“Every spring break we go down there,” Raborn said. “It’s just a great mix of students and friends. Jill and I even had our honeymoon there last year. Yes, we took 22 people on our honeymoon.”

Although some people may be hesitant as beginning divers, Raborn believes most anyone of nearly any age or body type can become competent and comfortable in the water. He’s seen people who were once terrified at the thought of scuba diving become extremely smooth and easygoing under the water’s surface.

The family bonding aspect of the sport also cannot be ignored, according to Raborn.

“It is one of the very few activities that the whole family can do together and all have fun,” he said. “That’s really kind of a rarity now.”

The SAU scuba instructor’s love of diving still shows through in his daily life. Rarely does a weekend go by that he is not involved in some aspect of the sport, whether teaching or under the water himself.

“For me and my family, it’s just the best,” he said.

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Information from: The Banner-News, https://www.bannernews.net

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