The First Rule is Don't Hold Your Breath Underwater
Photos by Ron Willis and Chelsea Hess-Moore
Compelled upward to gurgle on the water’s glassy surface, bubbles streamed out of my regulator and across my mask as I sat – completely content – on the bottom of the pool at the West Shore YMCA.
For us sans-gill land-dwellers, passing a few relaxed minutes on the bottom of any body of water is normally cause for some concern. But the surreal tranquility of the blue-tinted underwater view, the muted sounds of the warmed pool below the surface, the steady in and out of my regulator-assisted breathing and the feeling of near weightlessness, despite the heavy tank and other gear strapped to my back, combined to create an almost euphoric sense of comfort.
And, to think that little more than an hour prior, through the guidance of Ron Willis, Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Open-Water Scuba Instructor and co-owner of West Shore as well as Harrisburg Scuba, I overcame the basic human instinct to hold my breath underwater.
During the nearly three-hour Discover Scuba Program, run by Willis, the first and No. 1 rule everyone must learn about self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba) diving is to not hold your breath.
Participants in the program also learn the basics of scuba, like how to properly use and, if lost, recover your regulator, read your air gauges, communicate through hand signals, clear water from your mask, achieve a balanced buoyancy as well as a slew of safety rules.
In the better part of a week-day evening, I went from knowing nothing about how to scuba dive to feeling confident that I was ready for the five-week, open-water certification course.
Even though the scenery underneath the surface of the West Shore YMCA pool was little more than tiles, swimming-lane dividers and the occasional flailing bottom halves of swimmers kicking past was in no way as exciting as the prospect of seeing and interacting with corral, exotic sea creatures and shipwrecks, the appeal of scuba was as immediate as it was profound.
Knowing that any further diving on my part, especially in a non-pool environment, would require open-water certification, I still wanted to see more. Willis was kind enough to allow me to tag along to Bainbridge Scuba Center, a water-filled quarry along the mighty Susquehanna just off Route 441, to see experienced scuba divers in action.
“Bainbridge Scuba Center has a lot of fish in it,” Willis explains. “There are many underwater attractions – a sunken bulldozer, a concrete truck, an old dynamite shed, a long concrete tube, several little boats and lots of fish life. The water can be very clear there, and compared to a trip out of the country to dive, the price is very affordable.”
Willis, who has been diving for more than two decades and instructing for five years via his PADI certification, loves sharing, as he calls it, the gift of scuba.
“I just love to see people experience new things,” says the 46-year-old Duncannon resident. “I feel like teaching scuba is a gift we are giving to people because, in many cases, learning to dive can be life-changing. I’ve seen people who like to do scuba recreationally, and then I’ve seen people want to change their careers for it. ...To me, the passion is to take someone who has never scuba dived, expose them to the aquatic environment in ocean and fresh water and broaden their possibilities with diving. I get a big rush out of seeing them see their first fish underwater, and I watch their eyes go really wide in their masks. It’s an incredible feeling for both the student and myself.”
In addition to teaching others to dive, Willis explains his attraction to the sport.
“It’s a sort of therapy for me,” he says. “The aquatic environment is very passive and tranquil – there are no cell phones or cars or any of that. It’s an escape to essentially another world. I liken it to perhaps what astronauts experience being on the moon. When you dive, you’re underwater, using artificial life support and seeing things maybe no one else has ever seen before. It’s a very powerful experience for me, and I love to help people experience that same incredible sense of being part of nature.”
As tranquil and passive as the underwater realm may be, there are without a doubt many potentially life-threatening dangers associated with scuba diving.
“The dangers of scuba are real,” Willis cautions. “You are breathing off of a life-support system underwater, and you have to be aware of your limits. There are limits with the amount of air you have and also with what is called decompression sickness. These dangers are easily avoidable if you follow the training. We counsel everyone on what those risks are, how to counteract those risks and, more importantly, train how to avoid those risks. Any time you’re relying on a life-support system, you can have gear malfunctions and situations where perhaps a diver doesn’t follow the rules, and like many sports you can get hurt. You have to follow the rules. The risks are acceptable because of the training and education we give divers to be prepared if something does happen.”
There are certainly some scuba divers out there who experience a thrill from the dangerous aspects of the sport, but the real adventure and excitement comes from discovering and exploring the rarest pockets on earth.
“It’s a very adventurous sport,” Willis says. “Many times you get to see things very few people ever have, especially with night dives when different aquatic creatures come out. We dive shipwrecks, and sometimes there are artifacts where local laws allow divers to pull things up to the surface. There are many rare animals underwater; recently I came across a saw shark, which is one of the rarest creatures in Key Largo.”
Willis’ first dive was off of the coast of Key Largo, Fla., where he lived before moving to Pennsylvania in 1996. It was that experience which drove him to become more skilled and share scuba with others.
“I dove what is called The Statue of Christ of the Abyss in Pennecamp Park/Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, which is an 11-foot statue of Christ underwater, and there’s beautiful coral and fish everywhere around it,” he explains.
“That experience just captivated me. I knew right then and there that I wanted to dive more, excel through the ranks of diving and eventually become an instructor.”
Another important part of scuba diving is learning to rely on your dive partner. Willis emphasizes the importance of having a buddy along while you’re diving in case something does go wrong. In many ways, there is a strong trust that must be developed between diving pals because, in a very real sense, having another person with you can be the difference between life and death.
This trust breeds a unique camaraderie among other divers in the sport. Willis points to at least two couples getting engaged while on one of the many diving trips to points across the globe through West Shore and Harrisburg Scuba.
“We are all friends and interact outside of diving,” he says. “There’s certainly a community spirit behind it.”
Katie VanDerau met her boyfriend of two years through diving with West Shore and Harrisburg Scuba. She works at Highmark during the day, but enjoys scuba so much, she even helps with booking and planning diving trips in the evening.
VanDerau details her experience with the sport.
“It’s absolutely one of the most fascinating sports I’ve ever seen or experienced,” says the 38-year-old Harrisburg resident.
“I went from being the underwater diver who had a lot of anxiety about having my gear right, to being the diver who is super comfortable being in the water. What I like most is getting to see things few people get to and wouldn’t experience unless you were there doing it. It’s a pretty big thrill. ...A lot of people think that they will feel claustrophobic, that they can’t swim, that they think it’ll be cold. There’s always some sort of ‘what if’ to hold people back. But I would say that you’re not going to lose anything by trying it – it just might change your life. You’re opening yourself up to a whole new world.”
Jonathan Kline, VanDerau’s boyfriend, has been diving for more than 12 years and is a member of Harrisburg River Rescue.
“It’s a challenging sport, and it gets you pumped up,” says Kline. “Plus, it’s great to travel to dive. One of the best parts is going places and seeing things only a handful of people have. I recommend to anybody who likes excitement or adventure to give scuba a try – you won’t be disappointed.”
And when you’re ready for the open water, be sure to check out Bainbridge Scuba Center at divebsc.com.