The First Rule is Don’t Hold Your Breath Underwater

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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.

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.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.

In the better part of a weekday 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 the ocean and freshwater 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.”

As tranquil and passive as the underwater realm may be, there are without a doubt many potentially life-threatening dangers associated with scuba diving.

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.”