Dive refresher course: Not just blowing bubbles

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KOHALA COAST, Hawaii -- Among the activities many repeat visitors to Hawaii look forward to is scuba diving. For most of them, the chance to blow bubbles occurs just once a year, if at all.

That can make diving more special -- and more dangerous.

Every year, divers die because they let fundamental skills get rusty, then didnt react calmly and prudently when a minor glitch came up.

I didnt want to be one of them. So, after not having dived for more than a year, I signed up with Mauna Lani Sea Adventures on the Big Island for a refresher dive. Before it was over, I had good reason to be glad Id reviewed my skills with an instructor.

Like a number of Hawaii dive businesses -- especially ones that get a lot of resort business -- Mauna Lani Sea Adventures offers a guided refresher dive along with its other tours. Those other tours range from intro dives for first-timers to guided dives, day and night, from shore or boat for experienced, certified divers.

Gary Simons, a divemaster for 24 years, had the dubious pleasure of leading me and two other guests from the Fairmont Orchid Hawaii through our refresher. (The Fairmont, like the other properties at the Mauna Lani Resort, offers free shuttle service between the hotel and the dock.)

Our predive classroom was a shaded, dockside picnic table. There, for about half an hour, Simons got us reacquainted with fundamental diving skills.

Under his gaze, each of us did a dry-run of clearing our mask underwater, inflating and deflating our BC (buoyancy compensator) vest, and recovering our regulator. Simons easy-going manner made it fun, but he left no doubt that hes dead-serious about safety.

We learned his Three Most Important Rules of Diving. Simons says:

  • Never hold your breath.
  • Equalize the pressure in your ears early and often.
  • Go slowly.
  • Soaking all this up, we three students suited up and slid into the ocean with Simons.

    Hawaii does not have the best diving in the world, but the Kona and Kohala coasts of the Big Island offer drop-your-jaw underwater scenery. Within a few kicks of shore, the clear water revealed to us a rainbow world of coral and darting fish.

    Soon, Simons decided it was time for zero-G aquabatics. With perfect weightlessness, he somersaulted forward and backward. We imitated him, but with somewhat less grace. This was so much fun we didnt realize that Simons was having us practice an important scuba skill: buoyancy control.

    After swimming along for a while, our instructor stopped and demonstrated that we were now going to practice clearing our masks and recovering our regulators.

    One at a time, the other two divers carefully filled and cleared their masks, then released and recovered their regs. Simons signaled his approval with the universal thumb and forefinger OK.

    Now it was my turn. I decided to show off and remove my mask completely. Thats when I somehow knocked my reg out of my mouth. Everything went and I couldnt breathe.

    This is exactly the type of situation from which divers up on their skills easily recover -- and where inexperienced divers can panic and really ruin their day.

    Simons says never hold your breath, so I slowly blew out tiny bubbles as I reached back, found my dangling air hose and brought the regulator to my mouth. I purged the water and inhaled. Better already.

    Strapping on my mask, I blew in air to clear it, blinked and saw Simons, poised right in front of me, clapping silently in slow motion.

    The cost of the refresher dive is $65 per person. For more information, call Mauna Lani Sea Adventures at (808) 885-7883, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.hawaiiseaadventures.com.

    To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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