Diving Right Into Scuba

It sounded like the dream business trip. After jetting to a posh resort in Boca Raton, Fla., to cover a commodities convention, I'd tack on two days at the end to go scuba diving. Just one problem: I didn't know how to scuba dive. And with only two weeks before the trip, conventional four- to twelveweek scuba classes were not an option.

Out of luck? Hardly. Thanks to home video and the willingness of scuba shops to cater to erratic schedules, would-be divers too busy to sit in on regular classes can still safely make their way under water--if they sign up for a custom-tailored executive scuba class. At prices of $250 and up, executive courses cost roughly double the rate for group instruction. Students also pay about $30 for books and must own fins, snorkel, and mask. The open-water portion of training can cost extra, too, often $100 or more for equipment rental and boat fees.

HOMEWORK. The personalized format allows for flexible scheduling and individualized attention. "The people who do this are busy professionals or medical people on call or people in the arts who have erratic schedules," says Lorraine Nelson, instructor at Pan Aqua Diving in New York, which charges $450 for executive classes, vs. $250 for group lessons. Most shops accommodate unusual time demands at no extra cost, but Sport Chalet in Los Angeles charges tough-to-schedule customers $1,500.

Executive courses contain all the information conveyed in the standardized program formulated by certifying bodies such as the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. The key difference: Students watch videos at home and are required to do more homework, so that the classroom and pool work can be completed in two four- to six-hour sessions. Certification is necessary for more than just safety's sake. Reputable dive shops require proof that a program is certified before they allow students to rent equipment or schedule dives.

Here's how personalized executive classes get. I finished my last session at 11 p.m., eating Chinese food with my instructor from Scuba Systems of Skokie, Ill., while proving to him that I could correctly read charts that should prevent me from contracting the dreaded and dangerous "bends" that divers get when they rise to the surface too quickly. During instruction in the dive shop's well-heated pool, I watched an instructor hurry my classmate through his session so he could make a plane.

Classroom work focuses on the science of the sport: the effects of underwater pressure, the danger of tides, the protocols of safe diving. In the pool, I learned to don, use, and doff my tank, buoyancy vest, and weight belt. And I learned how to respond in emergencies, with a heavy and sometimes ominous emphasis on out-of-air scenarios. No daydreaming here. Something about the concept of being 50 feet under water with no air rivets your attention.

Once I completed the classroom and pool training, I was ready for the required five open-water dives. The skills here are the same as those in the pool. Students clear their masks of water, learn to share air with an out-of-air buddy, and make an emergency ascent, holding their breath through 30 feet of water. But the waters of a lake or ocean are far different--and can be much more intimidating--than those of a pool.

For me, the dream business trip didn't work out. Small-craft warnings in Florida scuttled my plans. Instead of clear-blue Atlantic salt water with 100-foot visibility, I had to train in a flooded quarry in northern Illinois, with visibility of 20 feet. On my first dive, instructor Clive Basson poured Cheez Whiz into my hand, and we fed the dozens of panfish that circled around us. I felt a ticklish tugging at my ear and turned to see a six-inch bluegill dart away. I laughed, and a bouquet of bubbles floated to the surface. I was hooked.

      Name                   Phone number      Price
      Hollywood, Fla.      305 981-0156        $250 
      New York             212 496-2267        $450
      Skokie, Ill.         708 674-0222        $300 
      SPORT CHALET                             $750 to
      Los Angeles          310 657-3210      $1,500