HSU divers take over Van Damme

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Posted by on May 02, 2005 at 12:14:07:

If you were driving past the beach at Van Damme State Park last weekend you might have been surprised to see several dozen frogmen coming out of the water in what looked like a reenactment of a scene from the Jules Verne novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." But on closer inspection you would have seen a sign on the beach announcing the Humboldt State University SCUBA diver program.

Friday through Sunday, 26 beginning dive students, five leadership students working on their dive master certifications and five instructors trained in the water off Van Damme beach. Head instructor Rich Alverez brings students down from Eureka on a regular basis to do the open water training portion of the class.

HSU diver training instructors prepare to take their students out for the second dive of the day on Saturday. Head instructor Richard Alverez, center, and Steve Lackey, with the yellow fins, stressed water safety and for abalone divers at least a minimum amount of dive training. James Humecky photo.

SCUBA courses (SCUBA stands for self-contained, underwater, breathing apparatus) are offered as a minor at HSU and there are a number of levels, including beginning, advanced, rescue and research diving as well as dive master certification and dive instructor. The courses are offered during both spring and summer semesters. Information on the program can be found online at www.humboldt.edu/~marinelb.

Alverez has been teaching at HSU for 11 years and is assisted by Fort Bragg resident Steve Lackey who has been an instructor at HSU for about 15 years. While Alverez has done most of his diving here on the North Coast, Lackey has had the opportunity to take his skill to places like the Yucatan in Mexico where he and his wife Kim gave diving classes and tours.

There is a good focus on diver safety in the HSU program. Students spend at least 20 hours in the classroom and have 10 pool dive sessions where they learn to manipulate their gear before attempting to get into open water. They also learn about tides and currents and how to read conditions from the beach before getting into the water.

The buddy system is stressed and every student has a partner who helps to inspect their gear before going out and who keep track of each other in the water. During the dive sessions there is always a beach master present who uses a roster to check divers in and out of the water to avoid leaving someone behind.

Some divers say that the diving off the North Coast is some of the best in the world. The conditions in the area, like numerous rivers that empty an abundance of nutrients into the coastal waters, ensure that there is plenty of plant and marine life to see. But the same conditions can make diving difficult. Visibility is often very low and cold water temperatures, rough seas and swift currents can make diving here uncomfortable and, at worst, life threatening.

One of the benefits, according to both Alverez and Lackey, is that divers who learned their trade on the North Coast of California are well respected in the diving world because of the conditions they learned in. They can take their certification anywhere in the world and go to work.

About 25 percent of the students from the HSU diver training program end up working professionally in the field, said Alverez. The rest use the course to augment their major.

With the opening of the season, Alverez and Lackey also stressed the importance of learning diver safety, even if you are only snorkeling for abalone. An abalone diver faces many of the same dangers as a tank diver but none of the training is required.

They suggest getting a hold of a dive shop in your area and taking a short training tour with a professional dive guide to familiarize yourself with water safety measures and local diving conditions.

For more information on local diving and diving instruction, call Sub-surface Progression in Fort Bragg at 964-3793. For weather and ocean conditions, call the Coast Guard station in Noyo Harbor at 964-6611 or go to www.srh.noaa.gov/data/forecasts/CAZ002.php?warncounty=CAC045&city=Fort+Bragg.

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