Continuing Your Dive Education

By Stephen Frink

Research recently conducted by the National Travel Monitor revealed 'vacationers seeking underwater adventure now outnumber those seeking fun on the tennis court, golf course, or ski slope.' However, unlike skiing, golf and tennis, scuba diving requires a certain level of education for safety and even more for pure, relaxed enjoyment. Ocean Divers of Key Largo, Florida, has long recognized this need for professional certification and has formulated a program of continuing education tied into the recreational aspects of a Florida Keys dive holiday.

Ocean Divers' Recreational Infrastructure: Ocean Divers has long maintained that scuba instruction should be fun, so rather than tie students to excessive hours in a classroom, its courses maximize time spent in the ocean. The 7,000 square foot dive complex is on a deepwater canal with quick, easy access to the south end of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

The best reefs and wrecks off Key Largo are five to seven miles offshore. Obviously this is not a shore dive destination, so dive boats are a critical component of Ocean Divers' formula for success. The Ocean Diver is a 50 foot fiberglass V-hull vessel and the Big Red is a 50 foot aluminum catamaran. Both vessels have large twin diesels for speed and reliability and are well equipped with amenities, such as tank racks, camera table, freshwater showers, walk-through transom and an oversized dive platform with dual extended ladders.

The whole dive complex, including a well-stocked retail area, gear rental cage, guest gear storage and classrooms, is at the water's edge. The massive air compressor system with nitrox capability handles tank fills; tanks and weights are available right on the boat. There is a functioning hyperbaric chamber on the premises, although it is for education rather than treatment. Operated by Dick Rutkowski's Hyperbarics International, these programs teach advanced levels of mixed gas technology (especially nitrox) and ongoing physician certifications. Just to make things even more convenient, there is a restaurant for breakfast and lunch and Sharky's Beer Company for an after dive cocktail.

Education Programs: As would be expected of any quality dive operation, basic open water scuba certifications are easily booked on demand. Full certification courses are offered under the auspices of PADI but referral education (also known as open water completions) can be done under PADI, NAUI or SSI. In fact, these referral programs have become increasingly popular at Ocean Divers. This allows students to work with their dive shop back home for the technical, classroom portions of their scuba certification. Even the pool sessions can be done back home. But, instead of doing the open water dives in a cold, dark quarry or lake, you can finish the course diving the reefs of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary under the supervision of an Ocean Divers' instructor. You learn the same skills but within the environment of a tropical dive holiday.

At the entry level, Ocean Divers introduces the sport of scuba via resort courses. More appropriately known as the Discover Scuba Course, this program allows a non-certified diver to explore the basics of scuba in the classroom, pool and along a shallow coral reef (under the close supervision of an instructor), all in the same day.

However, Ocean Divers is committed to advanced diver education. It has purchased a number of Scubapro Dive Link underwater communication devices, which allow the instructor to speak to the student underwater rather than rely on hand signals. Imagine the convenience, safety and enhanced educational possibilities these devices can provide!

Specialty certifications are constantly in demand at Ocean Divers. These expand on the specifics of a particular underwater activity and, given the diversity of its underwater resources, Key Largo is a perfect place to expand skills. For example, the Wreck Dive specialty gives students the opportunity to dive the remains of the Benwood, a World War II era freighter, or the Bibb and Duane, a pair of 327 foot Coast Guard cutters intentionally sunk as dive attractions in 1987. The Duane settled upright in 120 feet of water, while her sister ship now rests on her starboard side at 130 feet. Both have attracted abundant marine life, including a colorful encrustation of sponges, hydroids and hard corals. While they are obvious destinations for Wreck Dive specialty certifications, they are also popular underwater classrooms for Deep Dive and Nitrox specialties.

The Underwater Naturalist specialty is also popular at Ocean Divers, probably owing to the Keys' tremendous population of tropical marine life. These waters have been protected from coral collection and spearfishing since 1960 and, as a result, enjoy healthy populations of schooling fish such as grunts, snappers and goatfish, as well as colorful reef tropicals such as angelfish, butterflyfish and moray eels. Key Largo is a great place to observe the bizarre and unusual as well. Here, I have photographed the rare Blanket Octopus (Tremoctopus violaceus) and Mola mola. Divers are constantly bringing home stories of Whale Shark sightings and, for decades, the rare and fleeting appearances of Great Hammerhead Sharks on the world's most popular dive site, Molasses Reef. This year a Great White Shark was caught in 300 feet of water off Pickles Reef. Granted the shark was just utilizing the offshore Gulf Stream current to migrate to cooler waters (it would never be seen by sport divers along the reef), but it does further illustrate the diversity of life populating the waters offshore Key Largo.

One of the most popular courses of all is the Underwater Photo specialty. Operated in collaboration with Stephen Frink Photographic, this combines classroom work in camera maintenance and operation, TTL exposure theory and offers an in-depth insight into how to improve fish, macro and wide angle underwater photographs. The E-6 compatible slide film is quickly processed by Frink Photo's in-house lab so a student can see what is right and wrong with each photo while it is fresh in this/her mind. Most of the classes are taught by resident photo pro Mike Waters but once a year I offer my popular Nikon School of Underwater Photography in Key Largo with Ocean Divers. The next scheduled session is June/July 1998. These classes offer the PADI Underwater Photo specialty, as well as a diploma from the prestigious Nikon School.

For those seeking career preparation for the recreation dive industry, Ocean Divers offers its PADI Career Development Center. With only 11 such centers worldwide, this designation reflects Ocean Divers' ability to train dive instructor candidates at the highest levels. Ocean Divers offers an IDC (Instructor Development Course) to prepare instructors to pass the PADI IE (Instructor Evaluation). In addition, because Ocean Divers is a busy dive resort with complete infrastructure, it can offer a wonderful RITC (Resort Instructor Training Course) to prepare candidates for the real world of resort dive operations. Since Ocean Divers is so well connected in this realm, its placement connections are impeccable.

Dive/Lodging packages: Ocean Divers has enjoyed a long and close collaboration with Key Largo's most popular dive resort, Marina Del Mar. Marina Del Mar is adjacent to Ocean Divers on the same deep water canal. Its proximity allows divers to stroll from their room to the dive boat dock. If guests choose to utilize Ocean Diver's guest gear storage room, the dive preparations are nearly effortless.

Marina Del Mar offers 76 rooms and suites, as well as a 42 slip marina. Other amenities include a large waterfront restaurant and lounge, conference facilities, lighted tennis courts, a Nautilus fitness room and a huge heated freshwater swimming pool. A sister property, Marina Del Mar Bayside is nearby. Featuring 54 double rooms and two villas, Marina Del Mar Bayside also features dive/lodging packages with Ocean Divers. Whichever resort is chosen, there are attractive price incentives.

For more information about any of the Ocean Divers recreational or educational programs or dive/lodging packages for Key Largo, please call Ocean Divers at (800) 451-1113 or (305) 451-1113. The fax is (305) 451-5765 and the e-mail address is oceandivers@aol.com. For general information, check out Ocean Divers' Web site at www.oceandivers. com.