Below the surface

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While diving, Katz said she found some oddly-placed, “Roman-looking statues that someone put there for some reason,” she said.

Not many people dare to delve far below the ocean’s surface. Even prepared with the proper self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (s.c.u.b.a.), most people opt for the less risky exploration above sea level. Decatur students Cali Katz, Alex Gottardy and Tyler Smith dauntlessly chose to become certified divers.

Katz has been eagerly awaiting the chance to go scuba diving for as long as she can remember. She began the certification process shortly after her fifteenth birthday in May of last year. Before jumping straight into the water, however, a prospective diver must take a diving class.

The diving class teaches the many risks and perils of scuba diving. Diving instructor Shirley Sellers has been teaching National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) certification for nearly 24 years, and diving for nearly 30. “Most of the dangers are related to pressure and volume changes,” Sellers said.

Gottardy, one of Sellers’s former students explained, “You’re not allowed to go down very fast because the lower underwater you go, the air in your blood expands,” he said. “You could have a heart attack.”

A diver must be alert when rising, too. “You can’t rise too quickly because your lungs will over-expand, and you risk decompression sickness,” Katz said.

Perhaps the most obvious danger is running out of air.

“You have to be very observant and cautious,” Katz said. “You could be diving, having a good time and then suddenly realize you’re out of air.”

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Because of this and the other dangers, scuba diving makes full use of the buddy system. “If you run out of air and you don’t have a buddy,” Katz’s smile vanished, “you’re screwed,” she said.

If one of the air tanks runs out, the divers “share breathe,” Gottardy said. “You have to grab hold of your partner and then you share a tank.” The divers would take turns breathing from one regulator.

“You don’t stray away from your buddy,” Katz said. “If they’re too far away and can’t hear you and you don’t have enough oxygen to swim to them…” she just shook her head with a sort of “you’re a goner,” expression.

Abhinand Shankar, a certified adult diver, said that when you run out of air, “you want to go up as fast as you can swim, but at the same time, if you’re below a certain depth, you have to decompress.” To do this, the diver rises only a few feet, waits there for a moment, and then continues up. “If you don’t, it can be painful,” Shankar said. Symptoms of decompression sickness can range anywhere from joint and muscle pain to amnesia.

“And of course, it depends on where you go diving, [if there is any] hazardous marine life. But there really isn’t any,” Sellers said. “I’ve been diving a long time and there’s not much in the water that wants to have anything to do with you while you’re scuba diving.”

Divers can hear only muffled sounds underwater and are unable to tell their buddies, “Hey look, that fish looks just like your aunt,” or anything like that. Instead, they communicate through hand gestures. A thumbs up means “take me to the surface.” The okay sign, index finger and thumb together, means “everything’s good,” Gottardy explained. “A lot of the time I’d get them mixed up and I’d give a thumbs up and they’d take me up,” he said.

Hawaii’s sandy beaches lured Katz and her family into the certification process. “We knew we were going to Hawaii that summer,” Katz said, “so we thought it would be fun to go [scuba diving].”
Hawaii’s sandy beaches lured Katz and her family into the certification process. “We knew we were going to Hawaii that summer,” Katz said, “so we thought it would be fun to go [scuba diving].”
Katz took her diving tests while vacationing with her family in Hawaii. She was nervous for her first open-water dive as waves slapped against the side of the boat. “They seemed way bigger here than they did from the shore,” she said. Here, people start to feel a little panicky. “They’ll try to take off their mask and air,” Katz said. “But their equipment pulls them down.”

In one of the diving tests, Katz had to take off her mask, clear it and put it back on. “It was scary,” Katz said. “I couldn’t breathe through my nose and I couldn’t see anything.”

Knowing the risks never hindered Katz’s fun. “It’s calmer under the water than it is at the surface,” she said. While swimming in Hawaii’s clear blue waters, she saw Hawaii’s state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, majestic sea turtles and “feathery coral.” A barracouta even reared its ugly head at her as if to say, “What’re you staring at, punk?” with its glassy eyes and sharp teeth.

Despite the many dangers, Katz still looks forward to her next dive. “[Diving] gives you this close encounter with animals – it’s a cool experience that you can’t really get with anything else,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like you’re flying because you can just put your arms out and float weightlessly.”

Gottardy took a week long class with Sellers at the YMCA. His first open dive test was in a Florida hot spring. Even with all the training, he still felt nervous. “There’s always that looming fact that if you drop your weight belt, if it somehow fell off, you could really injure yourself internally from the air in your body expanding,” he said.

The nerves wore off almost immediately. “After 10 seconds, I got used to it so quickly. It was just so relaxing,” Gottardy said. “It’s interesting because it’s really dangerous; a lot of things can go wrong, but it’s also really relaxing down there. It was like being in space, because I could just float around.”

Gottardy dove into a grotto, a little underwater cave. “It was really pretty,” he said. “I think I saw an octopus, and that was the highlight of the trip.”

Katz said she hopes to return to Hawaii for college and continue on her path to become a higher certified diver. “I would be interested in getting deep water certified, but it is really dangerous.
Katz said she hopes to return to Hawaii for college and continue on her path to become a higher certified diver. “I would be interested in getting deep water certified, but it is really dangerous.

Shankar also took his diving test in Florida, but he prefers his second trip. He and a friend dove off the coast of Miami where he saw a wrecked ship. “It was one of the ships that had gone out of service, probably a Navy ship,” Shankar said. “It had plants growing all over and schools of fish around it.” The fish were all sorts of colors, “but I remember the bright yellow.”

Shankar says he hopes to dive with sharks in South Africa this October. “I want to see them without harming their habitat,” he said.

Smith also wants to dive with sharks. He has yet to see one in his 30 to 40 dives but knows there is a large population of tiger sharks around Bermuda, which is where he dives. Smith is bound to run into one sooner or later. “In five minutes underwater you’ll see 10 times as many animals as you will walking,” Smith said. “The ocean is just incredible.” The turtles he’s seen “kind of glide lazily,” he said. “They make you feel stupid in your fins.”

Smith is an advanced open-water certified diver, and as such, is allowed to begin specializing in a certain kind of dive. He likes deep water diving because, “I like the challenge of it,” he said. “It’s just more mysterious down there. It’s more unknown.”

He feels at home in the water.

“I’ve grown up around divers,” Smith said. “I’ve never had a fear of the water. The ocean does scare me, but not enough for me to not dive in it. Your blood runs blue underwater. You look red up here, but everything past 60 feet starts to turn blue. It’s just so relaxing.”

Photo courtesy of Shirley Sellers.
Photo courtesy of Shirley Sellers.

Relaxing must be the universal description of scuba diving. “It’s relaxing and it’s beautiful,” Sellers said. “I got into scuba diving to get away from my corporate job. To get away from the telephone. I tried snow skiing, but of course I got caught in the lodge on the phone for work. And I thought, ‘there’s got to be a better way.’” Her sister was a certified diver and suggested that Sellers give it a try. “It worked out because there’s no phones underwater. It gave me peace and I got away from work,” Sellers said.

She began teaching because, “I love to see the first time I take a student down in the ocean and they get all excited,” Sellers said. “I just love that feeling. I like to share this with people and see their expression when they experience what I experience.”

Sellers has traveled to most of the Caribbean, the Red Sea, California and Baja for dives. In the Cocos islands, off the coast of Ecuador, she saw pinnacles of underwater rock formations. “All around those little pinnacles, there were nine species of shark. They were all shark dives, which is really cool.”

Besides sharks, Sellers also swam with seals, sea lions, dolphins and whale sharks. “I love them all,” she said.

Sellers, Katz, Gottardy, Shankar and Smith all entered a completely different world the moment they dove below the ocean’s surface.

“For me, [diving] is the closest thing to heaven and God that I can get,” Sellers said. “It’s beautiful, it’s quiet, it’s serene. You’re totally within your own self.”

Katz said the scariest part of her open-water diving test was when she practiced share breathing. She and her brother panicked.“He couldn’t get the regulator out,” Katz said. Photo courtesy of Cali Katz.
Katz said the scariest part of her open-water diving test was when she practiced share breathing. She and her brother panicked.“He couldn’t get the regulator out,” Katz said. Photo courtesy of Cali Katz.