Taking the plunge

It's possible to learn, practice scuba in Midwest

Sara Rich long had an affinity for the underwater world.

But she never really had been, well, under water.

And living in landlocked Kansas, Rich figured her pursuit of watery bliss would have to wait until she moved to one coast or another.

That thinking changed, however, earlier this year.

Rich had a vacation planned in Florida, and she started thinking about diving there. Her daily walk to work carried her past the Scuba Shack in East Lawrence, and one day she decided to stop in.

“It was very convenient,” Rich recalled. “They were so willing to accommodate me. I was on a short schedule. I said, ‘I’m leaving for Florida next week.’ I explained what my situation was, and they basically took care of it.”

Rich completed her coursework at the shop and her pool work at Coffin Complex on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus.

The open-water dive she needed to become certified was done in Florida.

“It was a definite confirmation,” Rich said. “I knew nautical archaeology was what I wanted to do. But I never knew if I had some latent psychological fear of water, so I wanted to test that out first.

“When I dove in Florida, the first place they took me to was a sunken ship. I saw the anchor of the ship, with the corals growing on it : it was the most amazing thing to me. I knew I was making the right decision.”

Aspiring scuba diver Kyle McGrath, a Kansas University senior from Wichita, braces himself against Emily Lysen, a Drake University senior from Lawrence, during a diver certification course. The class, run by the Scuba Shack, was held at Coffin Complex on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus.

‘Getting my feet wet’

Thus a career was born.

Rich, a Kansas University fine arts grad, is 34 dives into her 50-dive master diver certification. She’ll spend her summer in Malta, doing volunteer work for the Maltese government, and in western Kansas recovering petroglyphs in Wilson Lake.

“That’s how I’ll be getting my feet wet in nautical archaeology,” Rich said with a chuckle.

Then it’s off to Wisconsin, where she’ll pursue a masters degree in art history, with an emphasis on ancient art and archaeology.

“And I’d like to be able to work part-time in a dive shop,” she said. “That way I can keep diving – and do it at a discount.”

Rich made four of her 34 dives in Florida. The other 30 were within a few hours’ drive, either to Stockton Lake or at Oronogo, a diver’s destination north of Joplin, Mo.

“I never realized people dove in the Midwest,” Rich said. “I thought it was something that would have to wait until I moved to a coastal area. I think a lot of people are surprised you can dive anywhere there’s a farm pond. It takes a bit of explaining.”

The problem with diving in these parts is that the water tends to be cold, visibility is poor and – to be blunt about it – there’s not much worth seeing anyway.

“The problem is, once you go someplace where the water is clear and you can really see,” said Ted Hite, “it kills your interest when you’re in water you can only see four or five feet.”

Scuba Shack instructor Judy McGill, right, helps McGrath and Lysen assemble their gear before hopping into the pool. To be certified, an individual must complete coursework and pool work, then pass an open-water certification dive.

Back in the water

Hite’s diving tale is radically different from Rich’s.

Hite originally was certified to dive in 1972, but, “I never really did anything with it,” he said.

Life happened. He was working. He had kids.

Then a few years ago, Hite bumped into David Bach, owner of the Scuba Shack, and Bach talked about some of the dive trips he had coming up.

The diving bug bit Hite again, and he recertified, with a combination of coursework, poolwork and an open-water dive at Stockton Lake.

Since then, Hite has been to Florida, Cozumel, the Dominican Republic and Belize.

“When you’re diving, you’re basically a fish,” Hite said. “You breathe like they do. You’re going places you can’t see any other way, and in those tropical places, the marine life is plentiful. And, actually, it’s very easy. It’s not a physical, demanding sport. You go somewhere like Cozumel or Belize and go on a dive boat, there are all kinds of physical shapes and physical conditioning. You don’t have to be in great shape to do this – and enjoy it.”

Diving destinations

Bach, the Scuba Shack owner, disputes the notion there’s no decent diving to be done nearby, and he rattles off a list of destinations, like Stockton Lake in Stockton, Mo.; Oronogo, which is like a diver’s theme park, complete with a sunken airplane, a gorilla statue with Mardis Gras beads and other “artifacts”; and the Bonne Terre mine in Bonne Terre, Mo., near St. Louis.

“That’s one of the premier dive sites in the world, a billion-gallon lake with 17 miles of shoreline,” Bach said of Bonne Terre. “Jacques Cousteau has dived that. It’s a fabulous place to go dive, and that’s just in Missouri. That’s not too shabby.

gauges and regulators sit on the pool deck.

“People might say we’re stuck in the Midwest, but we have access to the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, Bahamas. I think of people on the West Coast. That’s cold-water diving. If they want to go to the East Coast, they have to go all the way across the country.”

Though Bach touts the nearby dive destinations, he admits a bunch of his students and customers are diving outside the time zone.

“Some people come in because they’re going on a cruise. They’re making three or four stops and realize, ‘I can dive at all these places,'” Bach said. “I have honeymooners. I had three ladies come in and did it for their 60th birthdays. They had a ball. There are a plethora of reasons.”

In order to scuba dive, an individual needs a basic open-water certification, or C card. Certification, Bach said, can be achieved in as little as two weekends – one weekend of training and one weekend at Stockton proving mastery of and comfort with the new skillset in a lake environment.

Scuba Shack also offers specialty classes beyond the basic open-water certification that Bach said made up 68 percent of his classes.

Bach also arranges and leads trips to warm-water dive destinations.

“I think there are a lot of people interested in doing it on vacations,” Rich said. “High schools, the college : spring breakers who want to get certified because they’re going to Cozumel or Florida or Cancun, people who might not dive more than four or five times in their whole life.”

And then there are those like Rich, who found what she wanted to be under the sea.

“I always was generally interested in marine life, period,” she said. “But there’s the aspect of it where it’s constant exploration. You’re going where you’re not designed to go. Divers often refer to themselves as aquanauts. It’s really just amazing to me.”