Early in my life in eastern United States, I took up exploring the underside of the surface in ponds, rivers, lakes and the ocean. Later, as an athlete and waterman in high school near Chicago, I became intoxicated by the scuba bug. Like most people when they are young, I lacked the time and money to make “exotic” dives as much as I wanted. Even a Florida road trip was often a stretch beyond “spring-break,” so my friends and I spent a lot of time exploring our underwater “backyard” – near-by Lake Michigan, smaller lakes, forest preserve rivers, rock quarries and so on. Later, when I lived more east and south in my late teens, I added ocean shore, beach and jetty diving to my local diving. As a student in Florida, I poured over the Divers Guide to Underwater Florida and had a mission to find and splash every spring, sinkhole and assessible shore dive described by Ned DeLoach in that compendium. That peaked my interest in becoming a certified cave diver, with Sheck Exley’s guidelines in “A Blueprint for Survival” resonating in and influencing my mind and practice.
Things have changed since those days obviously, and today I’m privileged to have a log book that lists some of the world’s most acclaimed sites. Yet, among them those early near-home dives stand out. They remain pinnacle memories that I would never trade for something “more exotic,” were it possible. Many of them were that good – and I still love to explore local dives with mask, fins and snorkel or scuba when I can– anywhere. It is amazing what adventure you can find and what you can learn about a body of water when you view it from beneath the surface.
If that’s surprising to you, you’re not alone. People who learn to dive later in life than I did often have the means to make their first dives some place like Grand Cayman, Koh Tao or the Egyptian Red Sea. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, it’s really awesome), but sometimes it leads to three “f” myths about what makes a dive great – you have to be able to see Far, the water can’t be Freezing (i.e. cool) and there have to be millions of colorful Fish. Not true!
I love great viz as much as the next diver, but it doesn’t define great diving. Which dive is better: An hour twiddling your thumbs alone in an air-clear swimming pool? Or, 30 minutes fossil combing in a river with your closest friend in one meter/three foot viz? Which will you remember, talk about, laugh about and share on social media? It’s about what you see and do, with whom – not how far you can see.
Warm water also doesn’t define great diving because it’s not cold water, but being cold that’s no fun. Take it from someone who’s dived under seven metres of Antarctic ice (yes, that was pretty exotic), with modern dive suits water temperature is no longer a barrier. In fact, if you let cooler water stop you, you’ll miss some of the most amazing dives –kelp forests, pristine wrecks, unique organisms and hundreds of other experiences you’ll never have in tropical ocean water.
Fish are amazing, captivating creatures, and one of the reasons we love diving. They should be there if they’re supposed to be there (being a PADI Torchbearer is all about ensuring this!). But, some dive sites appropriately have few fish, or no fish – so think purpose, mission or activity instead. Watching/imaging fish is a purpose, but so are watching/imaging backwater invertebrates, joining a Women’s Dive Day event in a flooded quarry, gathering/documenting trash littering sand dollar beds just outside the surf zone, learning search techniques in a bay, and exploring some place near home just because you’ve never dived there before.
Dispense with the far-freezing-fish myths and a whole world opens up. Along with local beaches, rivers and lakes, within a short drive you may find dive parks like Athens Scuba Park, Dutch Springs, Kraken Springs, Stoney Cove or one of Australia’s 58 marine parks. And, expect the unexpected – globally, local diving includes unique sites you won’t find anywhere else:
- Thanks to a human-made reservoir, Chinese divers can dive the Great Wall of China? (No, I’m not kidding).
- In North America, you can dive a flooded cold war relic missile silo about 20 minutes outside of Abilene, Texas. There’s another one in Washington state [Titan missile silo] if it’s more convenient.
- Off the coast of Cap d’Antibes, France, there’s an entire town underwater – in miniature. It’s the restored remains of a 1960s movie set with buildings no taller than a meter/three feet.
- If full scale is more to your liking, Lake Lyngnostøylsvatnet, Norway has an entire preserved village that was flooded more than 100 years ago, at about 10 meters/30 feet.
We’re just getting started, and this list could go on for pages. The point is that maybe you can’t go far now due to the pandemic, but so what? There’s interesting, great diving almost everywhere. You only have to look, or even better, contact your local PADI dive shop because they’ll know the top spots nearby, as well as the appropriate disease transmission risk reduction protocols that apply to diving at this time. Also, check out the COVID-19 Scuba Diving Status Map to see where diving’s open globally.
Nobel prize winning French author Andre Gide said, “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” True.
But sometimes you also won’t discover them unless you have the courage to look close to home.
Seek adventure. Save the ocean.
Dr. Drew Richardson
PADI President & CEO