Saturday, February 12, 2011

Under the sea: scouts from landlocked Arizona ditch their desert gear for scuba gear and head to the gulf of Mexico.

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Beneath a pelting rain; the dive boat bounces atop eight-foot waves in the Gulf of Mexico. The six Scouts on board are from Troop 219, Phoenix, Ariz.--a dry kind of place.

Rain this hard and waves this large are rare for this western section of the Gulf. The Scouts cling to the sides of the boat for clear life. Some of them are seasick.

But this is the moment for which they've been training. They completed 20 pages of homework before they even arrived at Laguna Station on South Padre Island, Tex., and aced a 100-question test once they got there. Be Prepared, indeed.

They've accomplished a grueling week's worth of water-based dives and drills. Now, in a boat headed nine miles offshore to hitch onto a 300-foot-high natural gas rig platform, they are finally ready to perform the three ocean dives necessary to earn scuba certification.

The going is rough. Just getting in and out of the boat in the middle of the ocean is a chore. The boat's ladder is unusable due to the bruising waves. So off the rear dive deck they go, one by one, with 40 pounds of diving equipment for each Scout.

But once they finally do get themselves underwater--50 feet underwater, to be exact--it's an entirely different world.

the descent

The Scouts--divided into small groups, each with an instructor close by at all times--descend slowly through the clear blue water. As the rig's platform disappears above them, marine life begins to appear below, thriving around the artificial reef.

The only sound now is their breathing. Each of their lives depends on a tank of compressed air.

"The oil rig was amazing," says 15-year-old Life Scout Josh Heifer. "Underneath the surface it was calm and almost majestic.

"It was like being in another world."

First comes the coral a animal that looks more like a rock as it grows in warm seas. Then comes all the wildlife that is attracted to the coral, in this case, mainly a fish called the lookdown.

It gets its name from the appearance that it's always "looking down" as it swims. It's a silver fish about the size and shape of a dinner plate.

"There, were literally thousands of lookdowns," Josh says, "and an eight-and-a-half-foot barracuda.

"Along the rig there were barnacles and tiny little yellow and purple fish darting in and out of them. The atmosphere was hypnotic. It felt as if we were down for under three minutes, but it was 30. It was so incredible."

None of this would have been safe without the proper training. It began with the studying back home and continued when the group arrived at Laguna Station.

proceed with caution

The Scouts tested their swimming skills with a 225-yard swim and a 10-minute survival float to teach them good breathing habits. Their first full day of scuba lessons and drills began at 6:45 a.m. ... in a swimming pool.

Actually, the first three days of training at Laguna Station take place in the pool. It's critical that divers get used to the process of breathing underwater and managing their tanks and other equipment before actually hitting the deep blue sea.

What the Scouts learned is all based on physics and how the body uses oxygen. With every foot a diver descends, the pressure on the body increases.

You know how your ears pop in an airplane as the air pressure in your ears equalizes with the air pressure in the plane? Diving underwater can have a similar effect on your body.

Additionally, the air in a scuba tank isn't like the air we normally breathe. It's compressed, which means there's a lot more of it stuffed inside the tank than what it would normally hold if it were left open on land.

Breathing compressed air causes nitrogen gases to develop in the bloodstream. This isn't a problem unless a diver ascends too quickly or stays underwater too long, in which case the nitrogen can form bubbles that can cause trouble.

To avoid this, the Scouts use dive tables that show them how long they can dive to particular depths. The tables also show them how long any dives over the next 12 hours may last, because the stress on the body has a cumulative effect.

Being prepared is key. There's little room for indecision--and no room for panic when you're 50 feet underwater.

"In my mind, being underwater with a tank didn't seem possible," says Life Scout Jeremy Berini, 15. "You don't really think about breathing when you're walking around every day, but underwater you have to make sure you have that tank and it works.

"You cannot make a mistake underwater because your life and someone else's could depend on it."

well worth the effort

What they finally see below those white-capped waves is mesmerizing.

It's similar to snorkeling, only everything is much, much closer.

"Being able to experience fish up close, watching how they swim and how they react when their territory is invaded," Jeremy says. "Being in the big, blue ocean and realizing how big it really is ... I felt so small in that huge body of water.

"It's like you're in a dream and don't want to surface because you will wake up."

Vijesh Tanna, a 14-year-old Life Scout, sees phosphorescent jellyfish and huge schools of fish so close he could touch them.

"It's nothing like you feel on land once you're down there," Vijesh says. "You don't feel time passing. You could stay there all day."

on land and in water

A typical diving course includes sessions in a classroom and in a pool. You learn the "why" and "how" in class, then put it into practice in the water.

Modern dive training: uses methods and techniques developed over decades to produce safe recreational divers.

Every certified dive instructor at Laguna Station is required to be current in CPR and first-aid techniques. Many instructors have had advanced training in dive medicine.

know before you go

Laguna Station is owned and operated by the Rio Grande Council. The scuba certification program is open to all Scouts.

They also offer weeklong sailing, fishing and island adventure programs. Participants must be 13 years old by Jan. 1 of the year attendance. Scuba participants must be 14 by the date of attendance.

Participants must be able to pass the official BSA swim test.

Land-based highlights include making homemade root beer and eating meals catered by a nearby restaurant. Dolphins, shrimp boats and freighters pass near the beach camp every day.

For more information, call the station at (956) 423-0250 or click (on wwww.boysite/links/lagunastation.

Other BSA high-adventure bases along the West Coast, Gulf Coast and East Coast offer scuba certification programs. Talk to your Scoutmaster about selecting a destination appropriate for your troop

Source Citation
Kelly, Caitlin. "Under the sea: scouts from landlocked Arizona ditch their desert gear for scuba gear and head to the gulf of Mexico." Boys' Life July 2007: 16+. General OneFile. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.
Document URL

Gale Document Number:A166308006

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