The Waters that Connect Us

By Buster Waters

My desire to scuba dive goes back to when I was a child watching the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau on TV. I longed to be able to swim with the exciting marine life.

At twelve, I learned my father, had taken a job rebuilding a deck at a local dive training center called Ripp Tide. I was more than eager to help him, even though it was a Saturday.  Ripp Tide was located at an old rock quarry in Pelham, Alabama.

“Son if you’re gonna get in the water, let me get some scuba gear first!” 

When we first arrived at the quarry, my impulsive adolescent body made a bee-line for the water. Before I made it too far, I heard a laughing voice beckon, “Son if you’re gonna get in the water, let me get some scuba gear first!” I quickly did a 180 and started heading towards the voice that was still snickering.

The source of this very personable voice was a tall slender man with a mustache. He introduced himself to me as Arnie Ripp. When I told him my name, he said, “Buster Waters. Well, that is the best scuba diving name I have ever heard.”  

Arnie quickly picked up on the strained relationship I had with my father following my parent’s divorce. Arnie made a deal with me that, if I found a way to get to the dive center on weekends, he would teach me to scuba dive.

1,261 dives later, I was still hanging around and helping out at Arnie’s family-owned scuba shop. 

Ripp Tide’s Scuba Shop was located just down the road in Homewood, Alabama. That is where I began the Homewood Explorer Adventure Team (HEAT) program twenty years later. Experiencing the adventure of life under the water had transformed my life and I knew it could impact other youth as well.

The HEAT Program 

I founded HEAT to teach young adults to be confident and let them know they can accomplish anything if they want it badly enough. I wanted to help young men and women learn to take care of each other and be kind to each other in a very hostile world.  

Youth in the HEAT program were from all walks of life and varied socio-economic backgrounds. They grew to work in harmony together. They learned that regardless of their skin color, what neighborhood they lived in, or what they believed or did not believe, we always had each other’s backs.  They realized that together, they could make their world a better place.

Our diversity made the team stronger. These youth learned so many invaluable life lessons as they discovered the majestic undersea world through scuba diving.

Soon the HEAT program branched out into teaching young people the freedom of flight, the exhilaration of mountain climbing and the peaceful solitude of camping among the stars. Anyone could apply to be a part of the grant- and community-funded HEAT program and they came through a variety of paths. Individuals would write essays stating why they wanted to be in the program. At other times, the court would recommend them for the program over incarceration. Sometimes, I would meet a young person who just needed some direction and I would invite them to join the no-cost program.

“Ground Rules”

Once selected, the HEAT members were required to fulfill community service hours with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Special Olympics. Scuba certifications, flying lessons, books, training materials, use of equipment and travel costs were all covered. The rules were simple for staying in the program:

1) Have respect for oneself and every human no matter the race, religion, or social status.

2) Stay off drugs and stay in school.

3) Vow to make the world a better place and take care of each other as you stick together.  

Diving’s buddy system taught kids the lessons of equality and broke down the barriers that would have separated them from others later in life. Air is no respecter of persons. When you are out of air, you quickly understand how much we are alike and can help each other in tough situations.  

Over the years, I, along with the HEAT team of volunteer dive instructors, witnessed the dramatic testimony of how scuba diving can transform lives. Many of the HEAT youth went on to study medicine, environmental protection, science and law enforcement. Others joined the military. Most of these young adults had never been out of their neighborhoods. HEAT carried these kids all over the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean to explore life and to scuba dive.

Giving them a different perspective from their neighborhood, made them have higher aspirations 

I have been privileged to meet some of the most incredible scuba pioneers who graciously volunteered their time, talent and equipment to give the gift of diving to the next generation. Over seven years, we certified 514 youth in scuba diving.

Arnie Ripp and Dennis “Skinny” Hallmark would chaperone dive trips, hold pool classes and unselfishly provide equipment for the kids to use. Chaperones would also be trained in excellent scuba skills in order to help protect and watch over our kids in the water.  Even HEAT’s flight instructors, like Stewart Bieber and Mark Luther, who donated flight time to teach young people the joys of flying, wanted to be trained to scuba dive so they could volunteer as chaperones on dive trips.

Training the Boy Scouts 

One of my favorite scuba adventures was when I trained Boy Scouts in scuba diving. This would allow them to go and dive at Sea Base, the Boy Scout High Adventure Camp in Islamorada, Florida.

I trained and took the first African-American Boy Scout Troop to ever dive at Sea Base- Troop 181. Some of my Scouts had street names like Pac Man, Pickle,  and Rock. This historic event was documented by Jeh Jeh Pruitt of Fox 6 News in Birmingham, Alabama. It became a filmed legacy for these boys to look back on.

I also taught Jeh Jeh to scuba dive and he became a trusted and invaluable chaperone for future HEAT trips. He, along with the others who invested in these young lives, became their heroes and their mentors. When I think back on the sheer bravery of these men, it boggles my mind. The magnitude of the personal sacrifice they displayed day in and day out.

An Underwater Proposal 

My love for diving and my love for the water all coursed together when I proposed to the future Mrs. Waters. We were 85 ft/26 m underwater on a shipwreck in the Cayman Islands. Skinny Hallmark, who had helped with the HEAT program, also helped disguise my underwater proposal as a normal dive trip.

In sands by Captain Keith Tibbets, a huge 330 ft/100 m long Russian frigate, I placed a treasure chest with a diamond ring inside it. After my best buddy and future wife cautiously picked up the treasure chest, I held up a dive slate that read, Will you marry me? Check one…Yes or Yes with two little checkboxes. Fortunately, she checked both boxes to alleviate any doubt. My dive proposal flowed flawlessly until I realized I had exhausted my air. Luckily, my now fiancé was right there to share hers. Air never tasted sweeter. Watch the video here.

Water covers 72 percent of the Earth’s surface. The waters of the world have connected me to some of the most wonderful people, taken me to the most magical places, and allowed me to feel the deepest emotions.

Now that I’m decades past 12 years old, and have experienced a couple of thousand more dives, I continue my love of scuba diving. Like Jacques Cousteau, my wife and I have explored beautiful parts of the ocean around the world. Helen Keller said, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” I’m glad my 12-year old self-started the adventure of scuba diving.

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