You Can Do This In Erie! — Scuba Diving
Why the diver's world is a much wider world
Widely known fact — most of the world is underwater. Little known fact — your passport into our mostly underwater world can be obtained right here in Erie, Pa.
It's called a diver's certification card — or "C-card" — and you won't want to lose it. C-cards are issued by various diver certification organizations such as PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), SSI (Scuba Schools International), NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors), CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques), and Scuba Diving International (SDI) and are a prerequisite for booking dives, renting scuba equipment, filling tanks, and in some cases employment.
Unlike your regular U.S. Passport, you can't just mail in for one — but you don't have to subject yourself to any painfully awkward photo sessions at your local post office either. What you'll want to do instead is pay a visit to the comparatively much more pleasant Diver's World at 1111 Greengarden Blvd. and enroll in one of their beginner-level training courses. There you'll likely cross paths with head instructor and owner Matt Dickey, who will let you know exactly what you're in for before you're in over your head.
"You can't just go diving without proper instruction, because there's some risks associated with the sport," says Dickey. "What we try to teach you is that if you have a problem, you can solve it underwater."
During a beginner-level diving course, you'll learn to become what's known as an "autonomous diver" — which means you can manage yourself and your dive equipment without any hand (or breath) holding. The course is delivered in a combination of classroom and pool sessions with some e-learning on the side and can unfold at a pace consistent with the pupil's working terrestrial life. No matter whether you schedule shorter weekday classes or longer weekend classes, there's no diving in open water until the initial certification is earned (Diver's World is affiliated with NAUI and SDI).
Contributed Photo by Diver's World
After that, it's all about the where and why you want to dive, and how serious you want to get — this will influence what equipment you will rent or buy, as well as what certifications you will pursue next. "So kind of the basics — you need a mask, fins, and some boots that fit you properly. The other stuff you can usually rent if you go somewhere if you don't want to haul it or invest in it," Dickey explains.
A specialized dive shop is much better prepared to advise you in these matters than a general sports department store and to also initiate you into the local diving community, which segues pretty naturally into a global diving community, as recently-minted divemaster Nicole Tupek can attest.
"Once you're a certified diver, you can hire a divemaster and a charter boat, get yourself a group together, and dive … you just find someone that's qualified and been there before and they can help you out," she explains. A divemaster (DM), also known as a dive guide, is a tier below dive instructor in scuba education level — something like a graduate assistant to the professor.
Wherever you go — Diver's World coordinates diving trips all over the world — you'd better come correct with an environmental suit rated for the prevailing conditions you'll be diving in (a topic that is covered at length in advanced scuba classes). In warmer waters at shallower depths, you might get away with your standard swimsuit and a rash guard (underwater shirt) or a dive skin — these are more so intended to buffer you from scrapes and stings than offer insulation. As you get into deeper, colder waters for longer durations, wetsuits are a must. The closed-cell construction of a wetsuit's neoprene foam material traps body heat in tiny air bubbles to prevent hypothermia. If you should ever plan on plunging into extremely frigid environments, drysuits are designed to be utterly water-impenetrable.
Those wishing to #DiveLocal consistently — and there are literally hundreds of reasons to do so, as Lake Erie is one of the world's wreck diving meccas — would be well-advised to invest in a thicker wetsuit (7 mm or 9 mm) and/or a drysuit. That's because in order to view all the most pristinely preserved wrecks, you need to dive below the thermocline, a thin, shimmery layer of fluid distinctly separating warmer (and therefore less dense) water heated by the sun from the colder water below. During an Erie summer, the temperature differential might surpass 40 degrees.
Tupek describes passing through the thermocline with the wonderment of someone who's swum through a portal into another dimension. "The water goes from murky and hard to see to perfectly clear visibility — you can see everything at the bottom."
Dickey elaborates: "If a ship goes down in saltwater, it'll degrade quite rapidly. But if it goes down cold, freshwater, it'll last a long time. We have some very unique shipwrecks from the 1800s and early 1900s in the Eastern Basin, and they're quite deep. They look like they're right out of a Disney movie — they've got crow's nests, masts spread out, ropes and netting hanging off of them. They're unbelievably beautiful. Those are a little beyond recreational diving limits, but they are something that you can experience in Lake Erie that you can't experience anywhere else in the world."
Historically, these are the kind of sights divers would have — and often did — die for.
Contributed Photo by Diver's World
Life Before Scuba
Mankind's first crush may have been the sea.
In our earliest days, we just held our breath and went for it, whether the "it" was oysters, sponges, or dinner — occasionally equipped with a 100 percent plant-based snorkel, if you reed my meaning. But as time wore on, we placed ourselves under significantly more pressure to know our crush on a deeper level — and come up with something other than ruptured eardrums, popped eyeball capillaries, and/or burst lungs. Wouldn't it have been much nicer to have emerged with some booty?
Apologies to all you romantics out there, but for most of human history, we've been far less interested in the mysteries of the deep than its economic opportunities — yes, I am sayin' we a gold digger. Commercial diving preceded recreational diving by many centuries, with salvage of shipwrecks being especially lucrative. And since naval conflict and maritime trade were once so prevalent, the seafloor was ripe for these pelagic pickup artists. While there were successes in the shallow end, the deep sea rejected their advances one after another, and sometimes quite brutally.
You see, tremendous forces are exerted on divers as they descend further into a body of water. First off, there's atmospheric pressure, which comes courtesy of Earth's atmosphere and clocks in at 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi) at sea level. Then there's the hydrostatic pressure of the water squeezing in on the diver from all sides. For every additional 33 feet of seawater or 34 feet of freshwater, a diver puts on top of them, the hydrostatic pressure increases by one atmosphere (14.7 psi). Thus the absolute pressure (atmospheric + hydrostatic) at those depths would measure two atmospheres.
Weird, harmful, and potentially lethal things start happening when the pressure inside the body's air spaces (lungs, ear canals, sinuses, etc.) is out of equilibrium with the pressure outside. This, aside from the obvious need to breathe every so often, were the fundamental inconveniences salvors had to workaround. Open-bottomed diving bells, first devised in the days of antiquity, were of some utility — the top of the bell trapped a bit of compressed air that divers could return to in a pinch, but they could only go so deep before their air pockets popped, and did nothing about the carbon dioxide buildup when divers exhaled.
Up until the late 1600s, it appeared we were out of our depth. But thanks to scholars such as Professor George Sinclair (diving bell theorist), Sir Robert Boyle (behavior of gases under pressure), and Abbe Jean de Hautefeuille (author of The Art of Breathing Underwater), we finally began to comprehend what we were dealing with. Englishmen Sir Edmund Halley (same dude the comet's named after) and John Smeaton both improved on French physicist Denis Papin's idea of using hoses to pump fresh air from above into submerged bells, with Halley's 1690 innovation correcting the Papin design's pressure equalization flaw, and Smeaton's 1788 updates streamlining the equalization process and bolstering safety features.
The modern diving bell has proven indispensable in underwater salvage, construction, engineering, and repair. Still, genuine free rein of the deep was always the dream (including one of da Vinci's). Attempts to make that a reality manifested in scores of zany contraptions and outlandish costumes drawn up by whimsical inventors, at turns hilarious and terrifying. Most were as epic failures in practice as they were in theory, but every so often shit stuck.
For instance, Englishman John Lethbridge's 1715 "diving engine" was essentially a man-sized wooden canister (manister?) with the outward appearance of an underwater cigar. But by golly, it had armholes, thus outclassing all previous underwater cigars in the element of dexterity. This was one of the first examples of what might be considered a diving suit. In 1797, a German named Karl Heinrich Klingert designed an underwater cigar with both arm and leg holes, and waterproof trousers almost became a fashion trend. Almost.
Diving suits became much more practical in the 19th century, with the 1828 release of "Deane's Patent Diving Dress." This stunning ensemble consisted of a helmet with generous viewports, weighted shoes to counteract buoyancy (essentially the opposite of Air Jordans), and a heavy fabric bodysuit to insulate the wearer from the scourges of the environment. It was great, but if you were the type of diver that liked to get your lean on, your helmet would flood with water and you would drown. Oops.
Contributed Photo by Jeremy Bannister
Contemporary Augustus Siebe literally closed the gap on his competitors in 1840, wisely sealing the helmet to the suit of his passive-aggressively titled "Siebe Improved Diving Dress" and also implementing an upgraded exhaust system. Siebe became the official outfitter of the 1839-42 salvage of the HMS Royal George in England's Portsmouth Harbor, a seminal campaign in the evolution of modern commercial diving. Salvors used underwater explosives for the first time, instituted a dedicated buddy system, and thoughtfully planned emergency medical procedures. It was tight.
Although these early diving suits offered greatly enhanced underwater mobility, they did not provide legitimate free rein because their attached, surface-fed umbilical air supplies kept divers on a leash. Armor-like atmospheric diving suits, while intriguing in concept (think climate-controlled, seafloor-stomping mech suit) and charming in their Stay Puft chunkiness, were too clunky to be considered practical in most applications.
The revolution in underwater independence instead arrived with the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or SCUBA, and in particular Jacques-Yves Costeau and Émile Gagnan's Aqua-Lung, the first safe, successful, and commercially available open-circuit scuba system, patented in 1945. The key innovation here was the on-demand breathing regulator (held tightly in the diver's mouth), which converted high-pressure breathing gas from a diving cylinder (carried on the diver's back) to the ambient pressure of the surrounding water.
What Can Scuba (Duba) Do For You?
In an open-circuit scuba system, exhaled breathing gas is vented out of the system rather than recycled with a rebreather, a vital component of closed-circuit scuba systems. With less equipment to lug around and less to think about, the Aqua-Lung and its descendants have made diving accessible to just about anyone, ushering in the era of recreational diving.
Not content to just enjoy the scenery, people were soon taking just about any hobby they had on land with them underwater — snapping photos and shooting film, playing poker and board games (with weighted cards and game pieces), sculpting, and even spelunking (for the more daring types).
All you need to join them is:
1. The essential wardrobe discussed earlier (mask, fins, boots, wetsuit)
2. A buoyancy compensation device (BCD) to hold your life support gear in place (and adjust your floatiness)
3. An optional (but highly recommended) dive computer. These wrist-mounted devices give readouts of depth, total dive time, ambient pressure, and remaining air, and also schedule decompression stops. Decompression stops help prevent the dreaded decompression sickness or "the bends," which is caused by ascending too quickly after breathing compressed air at depth.
4. Sufficient training for your desired diving niche (some can be quite technical), demonstrated with a C-card from a qualified diver certification organization
And there you go. You're (scuba) set.
The whole world — not just the continental trial version (with a pretty lame 29 percent of the map unlocked) — is your oyster. Just remember to clear your ears.
To learn how you can try scuba, visit Diver's World in-person at 1111 Greengarden Blvd. or online at scubaerie.com
Matt Swanseger (firstname.lastname@example.org) has ample treasure diving experience in the form of picking aquarium rocks off the bottom of his family's now-dismantled backyard pool.