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The Healthy Traveler

The Scoop on Scuba


The colorful advertisements, abundant in tourist brochures, are designed to seduce travelers visiting watery, warm-weather locations: "No experience necessary" read the scuba diving ads. But that doesn't mean "no training necessary," warn scuba experts.

During the past decade, about 100 Americans a year have died in scuba diving accidents, according to Eric Schinazi, a medical information specialist with Divers Alert Network, a nonprofit North Carolina-based safety and research association.

In 1996, a total of 89 U.S. recreational scuba divers died. Men outnumber women victims. In addition, 1,132 injuries to U.S. citizens worldwide were reported to the network from scuba accidents in 1995, Schinazi said, compared with 1,163 in 1994 and 958 in 1993.

Put into perspective, Schinazi and others said, scuba diving is a relatively safe sport. But there is much that beginners and veterans alike can do to minimize the risk of injury or death.

"Scuba is, by and large, self-regulating," without specific federal or state laws governing it, said Joel Dovenbarger, director of medical services for Divers Alert.

That makes it imperative for divers to ensure their own safety by training with qualified certified instructors and dive companies.

A number of organizations certify divers and instructors. Two of the largest and most respected are the National Assn. of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and the Professional Assn. of Diving Instructors (PADI).

NAUI was founded in 1960 and has 33,000 certified instructors or assistant instructors and 2,000 certified retail dive shops. PADI was founded in 1967 and currently has a membership of 70,000 certified instructors and 2,500 certified retail dive shops. Requirements for certification vary by organization. For example, students in the NAUI diver class spend 14 hours in a classroom and 17 in practical applications, including time in the water diving.

NAUI students must complete a diver class, scuba rescue class, master diver class, assistant instructor class or dive master courses before qualifying to take the instructor course, which requires 100 hours of work divided equally between the classroom and the water. Each year, the NAUI-certified instructor must complete 10 continuing education units to remain certified, said spokesman Randy Shaw.

To be certified by NAUI, dive shops must have a store with fully certified instructors on staff and facilities to sell compressed air, Shaw said.

Before attempting a dive on vacation, beginners should take a basic course from a certified dive shop or university or college, experts said. Among the options are a basic open water course, often given over a weekend, or a university-based course, usually lasting longer than a weekend.

There also are so-called resort or introductory programs at vacation destinations, which vary in content, according to Kevin Young, spokesman for PADI, and Dovenbarger of Divers Alert. These courses may or may not include certification at completion.

"You can scuba as part of a resort or introductory course without certification if you do so under the supervision of a certified instructor and in a controlled environment," according to Young of PADI.

In addition, some scuba equipment carries the designation of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI is a New York-based nonprofit independent membership organization that coordinates the voluntary standards process set by various industries. In the case of scuba equipment, ANSI works with the Recreational Scuba Training Council, the group charged with developing voluntary scuba standards, said an ANSI spokesman.

Beginning the trip in good health is a good idea, statistics suggest. The most common cause of scuba-related deaths in people over 40 is a "cardiovascular event" while diving, according to Schinazi of Divers Alert Network.

Diving to one's ability also is stressed. Limit initial dives to open water, Schinazi advised. Advanced skills are required for deep diving, cavern diving, shipwreck diving and night diving.

Novices aren't the only ones who may need instruction. "Most accidents happen to people who haven't been diving in four or five years and don't want to do a refresher course," said Shaw of NAUI.

His guideline: If a traveler has not done a dive in a year or two, it's time for a refresher course. At the very least, Shaw added, consider a trip to a pool with an instructor.

Experienced divers in unfamiliar locations should consider contacting a local dive center at their destination and taking an orientation dive, said Young of PADI. "Even talking to folks at the local dive shop can help," he added. They can steer travelers to the best local diving areas.

Inspect equipment before heading out to be sure it is in good shape, Schinazi advised. Basic equipment for a beginning scuba diver includes a mask and snorkel, buoyancy compensator, regulator and air cylinder.

Expect an equipment check right before the dive.

Beginners should seek a dive operation with a low instructor-to-student ratio, Shaw said. He suggests a 1-to-4 ratio during a dive for beginners. Others say a 1-to-2 ratio is ideal.

Whether novice or pro, the buddy system is encouraged. "During training programs, the buddy system is mandated by the [certifying] organization," said Jed Livingstone of NAUI. "Once certified, it's highly recommended for responsible divers." So is planning the dive and talking about procedures for reunion in case of separation from the dive buddy.

For more information call PADI at (800) 729-7234 or NAUI at (800) 553-6284 or the Divers Alert Network at (919) 684-2948.

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