People helping scubility diver into the water

Discovering Scubility: Diving Beyond Limits with the Northwest Chapter Paralyzed Veterans of America

By: Katherine O’Leary-Cole

Learning to Dive with the Northwest Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America 

Last fall as the waters of the Pacific Northwest chilled even further, we stuffed our Jade Scuba Adventures dive van “Scuba Blue” with every piece of dive gear that wasn’t tied down! We were headed to Utah for a week of certifying seven members of our local chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America in the much warmer waters of a geothermal hot spring. A spare wheelchair, lifting systems, countless tanks, three members of our staff, a support cat, most of our snacks, and a boundless passion for sharing our love of diving made the 14-hour drive from Washington to Salt Lake City. 

Thanks to financial grants from LifeWaters and Paralyzed Veterans of America, and to support from North American Divers, Homestead Crater staff, and Jade Scuba Adventures volunteers, dive participants were able to leave behind surface support systems and breathe, weightless in the underwater environment, many for the first time. Traveling to the 95 degree waters of the hot spring was crucial: it allowed our special group participants to start their training without the hassle of exposure protection, a significant additional burden for people with mobility issues. 

The lead instructors for this trip, Ashley Arnold (SDI Course Director and founder of Jade Scuba Adventures) and Jonathan Clark, share a dedication to helping every kind of diver get in the water. Their personal experiences have fueled a passion for helping others overcome their obstacles so they can see the best of the underwater world up close! For example, diving has helped Ashley work through many of her service-related issues and kept her exploring even when her mobility on the surface was extremely limited. 

Our seven dive students ranged in age from early 30s to 82 (!) with paralysis from wheelchair dependence to external braces. While many took their first breaths underwater during this training week, a few had slowly been easing their way into the sport or were returning with different mobility than they had during their initial dive training. Like with any dive class, students worked to deal with challenges from finding the right-fitting mask to learning to manage stress underwater. By the conclusion of the program we had certified seven new Scubility divers, four new Scubility Buddies, two new Altitude divers and one Scubility Surface Buddy!  

A unique perspective of SDI’s “scubility” program is a focus on what students CAN do. Sometimes, students in this program need to utilize different techniques or equipment to achieve the goal of diving in conditions similar to their training without the direct supervision of a dive instructor. For example, students with limited mobility in their legs may decide to forego the use of fins to propel themselves primarily with their upper body. Buoyancy strategies, weighting placement, and tasks typically controlled with the diver’s hands may need to be adjusted to compensate for this different propulsion method but it achieves the ultimate goal of helping those with a desire to get underwater do it!  

How to Support Scubility Diving 

According to the Scuba Diving International (SDI) website, “The SDI Scubility Diver Program is designed to give physically disabled divers the necessary skills and techniques used to conduct open water dives in conditions similar to their training without the direct supervision of a SDI Scubility Instructor. However, some SDI Scubility divers require supervision of a qualified SDI Scubility Dive Buddy.” Interested in joining the program as a participant or buddy? Visit the SDI website for more information on local training providers near you

Scubility Divers are certified on a scale of DB1 to DB3 depending on their level of self-rescue. For example, while a DB3 diver can safely use scuba equipment in an open water environment they do not have the ability to self-rescue or provide assistance to their dive buddy. This diver must dive with 3 adult certified divers, one of which must be a qualified SDI Scubility Dive Buddy. 

Scubility divers may need a range of assistance based on their particular strengths and weaknesses. For example, divers without the use of their legs may need assistance getting in and out of the water, carrying their gear to the entry, adjusting the trim of their body in the water, utilizing special dive gear, and modifying propulsion techniques. 

Divers that complete the SDI Scubility Dive Buddy Program develop the knowledge and necessary skills to effectively perform as a dive buddy for a Scubility certified buddy. Minimum requirements to start the training include proof of current CPR/First Aid, 18+, Rescue Diver or Advanced Diver with 40+ logged open water dives, excellent buoyancy control, and a desire to help expand the world for others. 

Diving in the Geothermal Spring at Homestead Crater, Utah

Circling back to the hot spring… Yes, you can dive in 95-degree water year-round within the United States! Even better, in the winter you can explore the snowy mountains all day and finish the evening with a relaxing warm dive. However, given the altitude changes, make sure you don’t do it the other way around! Homestead Crater is a 55-foot-tall beehive-shaped limestone formation. It covers a geothermal spring is heated by the Earth’s interior. Water seeped through the rock for thousands of years, was heated, and then percolated upwards with dissolved limestone minerals to create the formation about the spring. 

In the 1800s, after a failed attempt to farm his land, Swiss immigrant Simon Schhneitter had the genius idea to create a tourist destination from the hot mineral spring. Over time, an entry was bored into the side of the crater for easier entry. A hole at the top of the formation allows fresh air and sunlight to circulate in the crater while visitors peer in from above. Today, swimmers and divers carry their gear through a foggy tunnel to access the 67’ deep pool in the center. 

Diving at Homestead Crater can be a convenient and low-cost option for American divers seeking a warm-water dive. Staging areas, training platforms, and an in-crater compressor (that’s unique!) for air fills make this an excellent training site. The warm water and clear visibility provide a low-gear diving opportunity that can be helpful for students dealing with special circumstances, including physical limitations and anxiety. Homestead Crater has some limitations, including a lack of new things to explore and no nearby wheelchair-accessible restroom. Reservations are required. It’s a popular and busy spot. Altitude changes between the Crater and Salt Lake City make it prudent for divers to spend an hour in town before heading back over the pass. 

Excited about assisting with our next Scubility Certification Program for disabled veterans? Contact Ashley Arnold of Jade Scuba Adventures (360-233-6825) or your local dive shop to inquire about becoming a Scubility Diver or Buddy! 

Katherine and Ashley at Jade Scuba Adevntures VanKatherine is Jade Scuba Adventures’ Business Manager as well as one of our Divemasters beginning her IDC in May.
You can keep up with Jade Scuba Adventures via their website, Instagram, or Facebook.
For Katherine, check out her website and Instagram.

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