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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 15, 2002

Beginning divers find they are not fish out of water

 •  Chart: The well-prepared diver

By Brandon Masuoka
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Honolulu Advertiser will begin a series of "start-up" articles for readers who are interested in learning the rudiments of popular Island outdoor activities.

In the coming weeks, The Advertiser will feature instructional stories on swimming, surfing, hunting and sailing.

Also in the coming weeks, The Advertiser will begin a series of "sign-up" articles for those interested in joining a social or recreational activity. Stories will include hiking, biking and running/walking.

If you want to suggest an article, call Brandon Masuoka at 535-2458 or e-mail bmasuoka@honoluluadvertiser.com.

• • •

In a classroom like no other, Lena Compton spent her Saturday morning attending lessons submerged in 30 feet of ocean water.

Under the watchful eye of her instructor, Compton learned the joys of scuba diving in the waters offshore Magic Island.

Matt Zimmerman, front, the general manager of Island Divers Hawai'i, says diving is a safe sport. "You have less injures per 1,000 people than a lot of sports."

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"It's very peaceful," said Compton, 19, who is a freshman at Hawai'i Pacific University. "You're floating around with the fish. I've snorkeled a lot and I always wanted to go down deeper and experience the reef at a different level."

Compton is not alone. Worldwide more than 800,000 people learned to scuba dive and received certification in 2000, an increase of 5.4 percent from the year before, according to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world's largest national diving organization.

Local diving experts estimate more than 200 scuba divers, including recreational divers, fishermen, researchers and the military, swim Hawai'i's waters daily.

Not difficult to learn

Local instructors say scuba diving is fairly easy to learn, has great health benefits and is relatively inexpensive to learn in Hawai'i compared to other states.

Lessons are separated into three sections: academic training, confined water training inside a pool or ocean shallows, and open water training in the ocean.

Beginners are taught such basic rules on how to breathe from a regulator, how to clear water from their masks while underwater and the importance of surfacing slowly to prevent injury.

Classes range from two days to two weeks. There's also one-day introductory sessions that allow participants to dive on the same day while escorted by an instructor. Upon completion of the classes — except for the one-day introductory dive — divers are given certification cards that allow them to rent equipment and fill scuba tanks.

Compton enrolled in a four-day course at Island Divers Hawai'i and was just a day away from receiving her PADI diving certification. Compton said the most difficult part of the day's lesson was mastering "neutral buoyancy" — or hovering at the same depth — while battling the currents and tinkering with equipment.

Another beginner, Tobias Huber, agreed, saying that instead of hovering, he found himself "twisting and turning" from the underwater surges. Huber, also an HPU student, said scuba diving allowed him to explore a new world 30 feet underwater, the deepest he's ever been.

"It's a funny feeling," said Huber, 23. "You're so deep. But you feel comfortable."

Safe recreational sport

Matt Zimmerman, general manager of Island Divers Hawai'i who is also an instructor, called scuba diving safe compared to other recreational sports.

"You have less injuries per 1,000 people than a lot of sports," Zimmerman said. "There is so much more injuries in football and soccer."

Four scuba divers have died during the past two years in Hawai'i, according to Advertiser records.

Richard Smerz, medical director of the hyperbaric treatment facility at the University of Hawai'i John A. Burns School of Medicine, said the amount of serious scuba diving injuries in Hawai'i are low compared to the amount of divers and the amount of dives they perform on a given day. Smerz estimated more than 200 scuba divers explore Hawai'i's waters daily with many of them performing multiple dives.

"There are very few incidents here," said Smerz, who added Hawai'i had a peak of 110 diving-related illness cases in the early 1990s. "We see a continuing downward trend in the number of accidents. That can be attributed to, what I believe, is increased safety training for the divers and more serious follow-through on the part of the divers to get more advanced training."

Training important

David Pence, the diving safety officer with the University of Hawai'i's Environmental Health and Safety Office, said diving training is important and recommended beginning divers perform at least a dozen dives, five in a basic course and another seven supervised dives. He also said that novice divers should avoid places such as Hawai'i Kai's Eternity Beach, Blowhole or Lana'i Lookout, which have strong currents, high waves and rocky surf entries.

"When folks get hurt at China Walls at Portlock and some of these other sites, it's because they don't have experience," Pence said. "If the diver hasn't been mentored through those situations, they're at risk of getting hurt."

Necessary equipment

Zimmerman said beginning divers need several equipment pieces: mask, fins, booties, a buoyancy compensator device, regulators with submersible pressure and depth gauges, a wetsuit, a weightbelt and scuba tanks.

Zimmerman said most diving shops will provide the equipment free to divers during the lessons. However, some shops may ask customers to buy some of their own equipment such as mask and fins. If customers wanted to buy their own scuba gear, prices range from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, he said.

"It depends on what you buy," Zimmerman said. "You can buy low-end stuff and probably spend $600 or buy high-end stuff and easily spend $5,000."

Mary Takasane, general manager of the Bojac Aquatic Center, said scuba diving is a great form of exercise and can help people lose weight.

"It's probably the easiest way to lose weight," Takasane said. "Swimming is one of the best exercises there is, and with scuba that's all you're doing the whole time. If you pass the medical (check) and if you're overweight, this is the greatest exercise without feeling like you're exercising."

Takasane said beginning scuba divers should not fear the creatures of the deep.

"People always talk about sharks and things," Takasane said. "It takes you forever to find one, if you do want to show anyone one. The animals are scared of you, you're the biggest item there."