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When scuba diving took off in the 1960s, equipment was crude. There were no buoyancy compensators or dive computers, tanks were worn on thin canvas straps and the twin-hose regulators didn’t deliver air reliably if you went too deep or swam on your back. Wetsuits were made from tacky rubber and to slither into them you had to coat your body in talc. But the sport was immensely popular, thanks to Jacques Cousteau, James Bond and Mike Nelson. Movies like Thunderball and TV shows like Sea Hunt captured people’s imagination with scenes of underwater derring-do, dodging sharks and exploring shipwrecks. Dive watches became symbols of masculinity and adventure. Then, somewhere between Cousteau and Zissou, diving lost its edge.
I’m not sure if it was the neon neoprene of the 1980s or the increasingly cautious tourism industry, but diving became uncool, the sport of rich old guys. But it shouldn’t be that way. Diving, while incredibly safe, is still one of the most extreme adventures you can undertake. The underwater world is beautiful and bizarre and sometimes ominous, with a menagerie of creatures even James Cameron couldn’t dream up (on second thought…). The sensation of weightlessness can only be experienced underwater. The sport requires enough cool life sustaining equipment to keep any self-respecting gear whore happy. In other words, short of joining NASA or signing up for a Virgin Galactic flight, scuba diving is your best option for an “outer space” experience. No other sport rivals it — not skydiving, not rock climbing, not bungee jumping — for its sheer “foreignness”.
So why isn’t diving more popular? After all, we live in an age of extreme sports and GoPro videos. I would argue that diving’s portrayal by certification agencies and dive shops is, pardon the pun, watered down. In an attempt to not scare people off, the message is “diving is fun!” and the accompanying images are of appropriately diverse groups of people laughing on the deck of a boat or snapping a photo of a Nemo-esque clownfish in a waving anemone. The certification process typically consists of a couple days in a classroom studying a glossy textbook full of disclaimers and reassuring phrases that read more like a cautious self-help book than a manual for underwater exploration. Then it’s a day or two in the pool and a couple of easy dives in a murky lake. Stamp the logbook, sign some release forms and off you go for your annual dive while on a Caribbean cruise. Mike Nelson is rolling in his grave.
No other sport rivals diving — not skydiving, not rock climbing, not bungee jumping — for its sheer “foreignness”.
Diving is so much more. While most people opt for tropical ocean diving, with its promise of clear, warm water and colorful reefs, you can dive anywhere there’s water, even if it’s frozen. This past winter I dove under two feet of ice on a Minnesota lake, an experience that combined some of the gear and techniques of mountaineering with diving. While I never felt unsafe, it was possibly the most extreme activity I’ve ever done. And I was home in time for dinner. I’ve dived pristine wrecks in the cold waters of the Great Lakes, in sunken blue holes in the middle of the Caribbean and with tiger sharks in the Bahamas. One could argue that any of these activities, taken on its own, could be considered as “extreme” as BASE jumping off of a skyscraper. Yet diving is safer, thanks to advances in equipment and proper training in risk mitigation and contingencies.
I want to see the sport I love increase in popularity. I want people to see it in the same dynamic, thrilling light as they do downhill mountain biking or rock climbing. It can happen. In fact, there is one type of diving that does have a “sexier” vibe — freediving. This style of diving, also called breath-hold diving, is booming. Witness the 14 million views for Guillaume Nery’s “Free Fall” video, in which he dramatically dives into a Bahamian blue hole, backed by a moody soundtrack. Free divers swimming with great white sharks, free divers chasing each other around on a submerged wreck: all are popular search results on YouTube. And guess what? Free diving is enjoying a huge uptick in popularity.
So how does scuba diving regain its mojo? I’m not arguing for exaggerating its dangers. But more coverage in adventure publications would help (we’re doing our part). So would some re-branding by dive equipment companies, certification agencies (PADI, are you listening?) and dive shops. Ironically, more stringent requirements for certification would make diving not only safer but bolster its image as an adventurous undertaking worthy of some effort. The current Advanced Open Water course should be combined with the basic OW criteria, so that rather than push through underqualified novices who are liabilities to their buddies, it would produce confident, competent divers ready to go out and explore the undersea world and tell stories about it. And hey, how about more, and better, movies that feature diving? Let’s face it, Into the Blue is a guilty pleasure on DVD, but what has there been since Jessica Alba and Paul Walker searched for sunken treasure? Maybe the next Bond film will put 007 underwater again, where he belongs, instead of just at the beach in his trendy trunks.
The point of all this is that scuba diving gets people in the ocean, and the ocean is in trouble right now. The more people enjoy it, the more they’ll want to protect it. Not to mention it’s just an incredible sport — extreme even, I would argue. Diving has changed my life, and I want more people to experience it. A friend of mine once told me that the difference between diving and sitting on the beach is like visiting the circus. You can stand outside the big top tent and wonder what’s inside, or you can pull aside the flap and step in.