Underwater Wakulla- September 28, 2017

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First Flight Underwater By GREGG STANTON

First Flight Underwater by Gregg Stanton

All summer long I have been training people to venture below the surface of the water. The student commitment is no small matter. They must spend up to 16 hrs. in a pool mastering skills and 16 hours in lecture understanding this new world, in addition to on-line studies (like reading books) and taking exams for basic scuba and Nitrox, before they ever see the real thing. Once all of that is completed, students are rewarded with 4-5 checkout dives, two full days of diving; their first flight underwater.

I remember my first underwater flight, a drop from the surface down to a reef 60 feet below our boat, a period of surprising calm (as compared to the surface waves), accentuated by repeated attempts to equalize the pressure in my middle ear. The constant distracting noise of my exhausted breathing gas complicated my descent into darkness as the water absorbed colors. The feeling of weightlessness was overwhelming, I put my arms out and guided myself toward a sandy patch and landed ungracefully. Much has changed in 54 years, but not the first flight.

Today I teach my students that the ocean floor is not your friend, that we must fly above the reef much like the fish, to avoid injury to ourselves and the residents we have come to visit.. The critical diving skill is buoyancy control, trim and swim kicks to efficiently hover/move above the reef. My first flight underwater was with a new safety tool called a safety vest, taken from a submarine. It was big and bulky, and made us the laughing stock of Hawaiian divers. No one else used them but our Pearl Divers Club.  Now, everyone uses a Buoyancy Control device on all dives.

In my early days of diving, we carried crowbars with which to rip up the reef in search of beautiful shells, spear guns to shoot almost anything that moved, and bulky cameras to document what we saw. Today students are taught to take only empty shells, never damage coral reefs, spear very selected fish, and pick up trash whenever it is found. Cameras are encouraged, but later when better skills have been mastered. My classes have a clean up dive towards the end where we know trash collects.

This last class went to Panama City Jetties because off shore conditions were poor post Irma. The rivers were swollen with run off as well, closing favorite freshwater sites like Morrison Springs and Orange Grove. In Vortex Springs, a controlled fresh water site, students demonstrated skills, had a chance to make buoyancy mistakes over a rocky floor, and prepare for the ocean dives the next day. The tides were on a low cycle, but high enough to permit a great dive to 60 feet. The water was a warm 78 degrees, with 30-40 foot visibility and little current during the afternoon. The second Gulf of Mexico dive out the outer Jetties permitted students to bring in a huge amount of trash lost off the beaches and concentrated in 40 feet of water. Several finds were recyclable, like a fine mask, rope and towels.   

How things have changed, yet remain the same, and for the better!