Five teenaged scuba divers took turns guiding Seth Wade underwater in the deep end of a swimming pool near Tarpon Springs recently. They made sure Wade’s regulator stayed firmly in his mouth and that his feet and legs didn’t scrape on the concrete bottom. Wade did nothing to help them.
“You’re talking a ton of trust,” dive instructor/safety officer Scott Crawford told the teens. “You’ve got a quadriplegic trusting you not to drown.”
Wade, a 27-year-old disabled U.S. Navy veteran from Tampa, is not a quadriplegic. He’s actually an independent paraplegic and certified scuba diver who has no use of his legs, but navigates efficiently underwater using webbed gloves. On this hot summer day, he was serving as a test subject for members of ScubaNAUTS International taking a certification class to become buddies for disabled divers.
ScubaNAUTS, established in 2001 on Florida’s central Gulf coast, promotes personal development of kids aged 12-18 through scuba diving, marine science, and community involvement. With about 50 members of chapters in St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs, Tampa and Sarasota, the group has been helping combat-wounded military vets plant coral in the Lower Keys for the past five years. ScubaNAUTS have gone on marine-related educational field trips to Washington, D.C. and Hawaii and plan to help one of their alumni build and monitor an artificial reef in the Gulf.
At the local country club pool, instructor Crawford was training the ‘nauts as Class III dive buddies. That means they would be certified to accompany quadriplegics with no use of arms or legs on scuba gear accompanied by a dive professional. They got to practice their skills on Wade.
“One at a time, you’re going to swim Seth around. He’s going to make pretend he’s a quad,” Crawford instructed. “One person’s on the surface and two in the water to help the diver into the water. One person in the water is going to steer him and hand his tank. Another person is going to be for safety in case something happens.”
Zack Morris, 16, of St. Petersburg had a question for Wade.
“When people try to help, how much is too much that it irritates you?” Morris asked.
“I’ll let you know,” Wade replied. “Most people will tell you, ‘let us do our own thing till we ask for help.’ Just tell ’em, ‘I’m here if you need me.'”
Zack nodded in understanding.
Crawford drilled the students on controlled emergency ascents for disabled divers who run out of air. He made them take off their fins and swim underwater without kicking. They took turns lifting each other in a sling, lowering it into the water, and then returning it to poolside.
Mia Foisy, 16, of Tarpon Springs– a ‘naut for the past five years–said the training will be a big help when the group returns to the Keys next summer for more coral restoration with the vets.
“They’re really so self-sufficient that you don’t have to help them,” Mia said. “But taking this class means you have the skills to help if something does happen. I want to be able to help anybody who wants to dive.”
Added Noah Heskin, a 16-year old ‘naut from St. Petersburg: “I love diving with the vets. Being able to be certified and knowing I can help them if the time comes means a lot.”
As for Wade, certified as an open water scuba diver about a year ago by Crawford? He’s been diving every chance he gets. He’s travelled to Deerfield Beach, Fla. and to the Cayman Islands, thoroughly enjoying the underwater world.
“I saw an octopus!” Wade said happily. “When I saw that, I could die a happy man.”
He hopes to join the ‘nauts and his fellow vets for coral planting next summer.
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