The first time that scuba diving grabbed my interest was when I was a young boy of seven watching the TV show "Sea Hunt." I watched with total wonder as the lead character dove deep into the blue sea, never afraid to take on any foe. I sat in awe as the sunken ships came into view, and the large, colorful fish swam around our hero, as interested in him as he was in them. I learned to swim around that time-and I grew to love the water in pools, lakes and oceans. But diving remained something that was on TV or on the cover of "Life" magazine with the wonderful face of Jacques Cousteau staring back at me. Scuba diving never seemed like something I could do, until recently, when at the age of 50, I finally got the opportunity to try it.
My adventure began in Fort Lauderdale, Florida as part of the Ocean Fest 2000 event. Divers from all over the world come to the fest to meet other divers, exchange stories, buy and sell diving gear, enjoy great food , learn about certification programs, and of course…dive. I was as excited as a young boy at the thought of finally getting the chance to explore the underwater world that had eluded me for so long.
But why Fort Lauderdale? When I had thought about diving or even snorkeling the Caribbean or the Pacific came to mind. But after doing a little research I found out that that Fort Lauderdale is one of the best kept secrets when it comes to diving sites. With sixty-nine miles of natural reef in three tiers, and over two dozen artificial reefs planted over the last several years, Fort Lauderdale is a haven for both beginner and seasoned divers. Rodale’s "Scuba Diving" magazine calls Fort Lauderdale one of North America’s "Best Dive Destinations." In fact, Fort Lauderdale has the most comprehensive artificial reef system in the United States, with hundreds of dive sites easily reached from the shore.
My travel group consisted of four experienced divers and two novices-me included. But our first outing in Fort Lauderdale was easy enough for everyone as the six of us took a 90 minute water taxi ride through the canals of Fort Lauderdale, viewing the magnificent homes and miles of waterways. No wonder Fort Lauderdale is called the "Venice of America."
The next morning we were up early. Three of the certified divers in my group headed off for an 80-foot wreck dive a half-mile off shore. I, on the other hand, headed off to the swimming pool down the road for my first scuba lesson. Joining me were the other two people in my group–one a beginner like myself and the other, a more experienced diver. We met up with Jay Aamodt, an instructor for Ocean Promotion Scuba & Snorkel Adventures. In no time at all, Jay had us suited up in wet suits and in the pool teaching us the basics of scuba. A very patient man, he never seemed to tire of our questions and watched us intently as we learned to use the equipment properly and get comfortable breathing underwater. He was patient but firm that we learn the basics properly, including the underwater hand signals used to "talk" to fellow divers. I loved it! I felt right at home in the water even with 50-pounds of equipment strapped to me.
Three hours later we were marching across the white sand beach in front of the hotel towards the ocean. I must admit, that it was then that I felt my first hint of fear as we approached the water, where the waves were kicking up higher than I expected. Jay calmly talked us through every step as we filled up our vest with air, and swam/floated on our backs out about a hundred yards to the first reef, which put us past the waves. Jay kept us in a close group as he reminded us again to clear our ears as we prepared to descend 25 feet. Releasing the air out of my vest, I dropped down towards the coral reef, clearing my ears by blowing my nose lightly. We stayed close to Jay as he moved us along the coral reef, always counting heads like a mother hen, turning frequently to give us the "okay sign" with his hand.
Suddenly, we had entered another world as fish of every color and size came over to come to check us out. I’ve snorkeled many times before, but it did not prepare me for what you can see when diving even just 25 feet down. Schools of fish drifted by, lobsters poked their heads out of dark crevices, trumpet fish flew by and the colors just kept changing. It didn’t take long before I found myself part of the silence that surrounded me and felt myself becoming part of the fellowship that explores the underwater world. The 35 minutes underwater flew by way too fast. We took our time going back up to the surface, clearing our ears along the way. A feeling of true accomplishment and exuberance ran through me as I removed my gear on the beach.
Later that evening, while dining at a terrific seafood restaurant, 15th Street Fisheries, the whole group recounted the day’s diving events. I marveled as the seasoned divers regaled us with stories of diving trips where they descended down to watery depths of 150 feet. Would I ever be able to do that? But they seemed to just as impressed with the wreck dive they had taken earlier that day where they explored a drug-runners’ boat that had been sunk by some G-men. I couldn’t wait to get back out in the water.
Very early the next morning, the six of us climbed into a van and drove to a near-by marina. Waiting for us was Matt Brown, the owner of Ocean Promotion. After getting all our gear out of the van and onto the boat, we set off on the "Dry Martini", a refurbished diving boat captained by Walt DeMartini, a colorful but very professional sailor. As we made our way out of the bay towards the open ocean, the winds kicked up and the waves became pretty choppy. The seasoned divers seemed oblivious to it all, but Emily, the other new diver, and I were starting to turn a funny shade of green. Matt was there to take Emily and me out on our ocean dive, down to 40 feet this time. Finally the boat stopped and the seasoned divers quickly jumped in, eager to view a tugboat that had been sunk to 90 feet. Emily and I suited up as the boat rocked and rolled under us. Matt kept apologizing to us about the rough seas, but I truly loved it all. It was all part of the experience as far as I was concerned. But then, just as I was feeling pretty confident, I felt my stomach start to move and heave and I knew it was time to "feed the fishes." I hung over the side, and I soon felt a little better. I was determined that a bout of seasickness wasn’t going to stand in the way of this dive.
The other divers came back up from viewing the sunken tug, pulling themselves along a tie-line through the choppy waves towards the vessel. After the captain counted heads, the "Dry Martini" moved towards another site closer to shore along a natural reef. The "pros" were in the water in no time, leaving Emily and me with Matt. Unfortunately, Emily was feeling pretty sick at this point and decided to sit the dive out. So, Matt went into the water first, swimming along the tie-line. He motioned for me to join him. I stood at the back of the boat, watching the waves kick up around me, held my face mask and weight belt and stepped off the boat into the choppy waves. As soon as I hit the water I headed towards the tie-line and when I reached it, I immediately began to pull myself towards Matt. When I got there, Matt motioned for me to go slowly as I started down and to check my ears frequently. After going down about ten feet, the rough water above seemed to disappear! Below me, I could see my fellow divers moving over the beautifully colored coral, exploring crevices, and snapping photos. As I hit 30 feet I felt some pressure in my ears and stopped to equalize them. I then moved downward towards my diving friends. This reef was long and rich in blues and yellows, and a school of about a hundred large striped fish passed over and around me. Matt was with me every kick of the way, always checking to see if I was okay as we moved over the reef, marveling at the natural beauty we found there. Then the strangest thing happened – I heard music. The "Dry Martini’ had a sound system with underwater speakers. (Some of the divers liked the music and others didn’t.) It wasn’t until I was back on top that I found out that dolphins (maybe from hearing the music) had visited the boat when we were diving and swam around for a good five minutes.
Much too soon, Matt swam over and checked my air, then motioned for us to move back up the rope towards the boat. Letting air out of my jacket as I moved upwards, there was a strong part of me that did not want to come up yet. When I broke the surface, the waves had gotten even rougher, and it took some real hard swimming for me to get back up on the boat. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world – none of it. Getting sea sick, the choppy sea, it was all part of this amazing deep underwater experience that as a little boy watching "Seahunt" I had dreamt about. It wasn’t until later that evening talking with Matt and other divers that I found out that the weather is usually never that rough in Fort Lauderdale. But instead of feeling sorry I had experienced rough conditions, I consider myself fortunate to have had such challenging experiences.
That sense of adventure combined with a feeling of safety says everything about Ocean Promotion and their professionalism. Their introductory resort course taught me the basics of scuba diving and provided a first-time diving experience that I’ll never forget. My next step–to get certified.
For a few days after returning home from my Fort Lauderdale scuba diving experience, just before going to sleep, I would see schools of brightly colored fish dart past my eyelids. I like to believe I brought them back with me…but maybe I’m still down there with them at forty feet at the young age of 50.