When it comes to playing in the water, I'm game for just about anything-sailing, surfing, skiing, kayaking, canoeing, stand up paddle boarding....
But "under" water - now that's a different story. I've watched enough Shark Week videos to be leery of what lies beneath. Still, there is that inexorable lure of the last frontier, the mysterious aqua netherworld that covers three-quarters of the Earth.
For us oxygen-needy land dwellers, exploring that part of our planet requires a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, otherwise known as a scuba system. It would be great fun to fin around with the fishes. But scuba diving offers another side benefit. I could experience weightlessness without having to launch into orbit in a rocket-propelled tube.
As much as I have enjoyed snorkeling over the years, swimming on the surface doesn't compare to dropping into the deep. With a scuba diving certification, I could see the sunken Chinese junk at the bottom of Lake Jocassee, collect million-year-old fossilized Megalodon shark teeth in the Cooper River and swim through the 470-foot World War II USS Vermilion lying in the waters off the coast of Myrtle Beach.
Ready to take the plunge, I signed up for Columbia Scuba's PADI Open Water Diver course offered in two weekend segments. You start out training in a pool and then test your newly learned skills in some kind of open water setting like a lake, quarry or ocean.
But before you slip into your wet suit, there's some classroom work to be done. When I registered for the course this fall, I was handed a 250-page manual that covers everything from assembling your scuba equipment to basic diving skills to hand signals used to communicate underwater. I was required to read the book and complete five quizzes before our first class.
Students need to have their own skin diving gear - mask, snorkel, fins - which run about $200 to $300. The rest of the diving equipment - regulator, buoyancy control device (BCD), weights and tank - is provided by Columbia Scuba.
Once we were fitted for our gear, we went to work reviewing the material in the book. The real fun began when we hit the pool at Harbison Recreation Center. The training is conducted in baby steps, allowing students to get their feet wet before diving into the sport.
We started out breathing through the regulator on dry land. Next we got into the shallow end of the pool and merely put our faces in the water. From there, we submerged with our heads barely below the surface. It was exhilarating listening to the sound we made breathing underwater (think Darth Vader) and watching the cute little bubbles emerge from our regulators as we exhaled. I was loving the experience and couldn't wait to try it in a real open water environment.
During the first weekend of classes we learned how to enter the water from a raised platform, such as a boat or wall, equalize our ears to relieve the pressure, clear our mask underwater and establish neutral buoyancy.
The next weekend we headed up to Devils Fork State Park's Lake Jocassee, known throughout the Southeast as a premiere location for all levels of scuba dive training. Instructors Nanette Stewart and Matt Slaughter had prepared us so well, it was a breeze completing the required skills. Most of the testing was done on wooden platforms erected some 25 to 30 feet below the surface.
In Jocassee's cool, clear mountain water, visibility is usually more than 15 feet. Kneeling on the platforms, we watched as fish swam by oblivious to our underwater exercises. In addition to learning how to dive with a scuba system, the Open Water Diver instruction also prepares you for miscellaneous mishaps that could occur while diving - the regulator is kicked out of your mouth by your buddy, your mask falls off, you run out of air. Not likely to happen if you follow proper procedures, but better to be prepared.
During the two-day open water training, we also had the opportunity to practice both a boat and shore entry. We tested our navigation skills using a compass to set a heading and then return to the same location. And we had the chance to visit Jocassee's famous "Bones Family".
To celebrate the completion of the course, six of us made our first unsupervised dive in the cove next to the Devils Fork remote divers' boat ramp. As we swam about, we came across a group of plastic anatomical figures bearing the sign "Jocassee Skeleton Crew - Graveyard Shift".
Divers clearly have a sense of humor. Other signs found elsewhere in the lake include "Clemson Underwater Basket Weaving Meets Here" and "Cow Crossing." In the teak Chinese Junk I mentioned earlier, divers have generously contributed a variety of trinkets to the old sailboat's treasure chest, including Mardi Gras beads. There also are 40 plastic flamingos marching across the bottom of the lake, an Indian motorcycle and a basketball goal equipped with a bowling ball.
As soon as it warms up, I'll be back at Jocassee to check out some of the dive sites we missed on our training trip. I might even try for a slam dunk!
Columbia Scuba PADI classes
Columbia Scuba is a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center, offering the entire range of diver training courses. PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, is by far the biggest and most recognized certification agency in the world.
Open Water Diver: The course costs $375 and includes study materials and the use of a scuba unit during in-water training. Must be at least 15 years old, in good health and in reasonable fitness.
Discover Scuba Diving: A two-hour introductory course for those who want to test the waters. All the equipment you'll need is provided, including fins, mask and snorkel. The cost is $50 and will be applied to the Open Water Diver course fee if you sign up within 30 days.
Other Classes: Columbia Scuba offers instruction in cavern diving, deep diving, night diving, wreck diving and underwater photography. Classes also are available for children as young as 8 years old.
For more information, call (803) 788-9166 or visit www.columbiascubasc.com.