Wet-suited For Adventure Scuba Do You Do? You Can Venture Into The Deep And Stay Close To Philadelphia. So Put On Those Air Tanks And Dive!

Posted: September 08, 1989

Scuba diving in the Philadelphia area?

To those who think of scuba diving as something you do only on a tropical reef in Florida or the Caribbean, that phrase has the improbable ring of, say, surfing in Nebraska.

But, within a few hours of Philadelphia, opportunities abound for those who want to strap on air tanks and take on the challenge of the deep, in a diving season that runs through the end of October.

(The word scuba, for you trivia collectors, stands for "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.")

In Allentown, Reading and Lancaster, old quarries have been adapted for scuba diving. You can swim as deep as 120 feet and encounter objects put there for your entertainment. One quarry, for example, holds a 72-foot ship for recreational diving and wreck-divers' training.

Off the New Jersey and Delaware coasts, you can hunt on underwater plains for artifacts from hundreds of shipwrecks, or for lobsters and fish that sometimes weigh in the double digits.

On the ocean floor you might encounter the wreckage of a military observation platform that sank 28 years ago, or the remains of a ship made of concrete.

So the opportunities are there.

But is scuba diving for you?

Tom McElwee is a veteran diver and scuba instructor who over 23 years has helped more than 4,500 people in the Philadelphia area get national YMCA scuba diving certification. McElwee says the type of person who becomes interested in scuba has changed a lot over the years.

Scuba diving, he says, used to be almost exclusively the domain of men - the kind of men who might also take up skydiving, hang-gliding or rock climbing.

Now, says McElwee, scuba diving is more often a family affair, with one- third to one-half of most classes being made up of women, and with many

families diving together for recreation, not adventure.

"Safety is the first priority in scuba diving these days," he added.

Plus, advances in technology have made scuba diving easier. In earlier days, says one veteran diver, getting air was like trying to breathe through a straw full of cotton.

Because of these changes in image and technology, the number of scuba divers is growing every year. The latest figures from the Diving Equipment Manufacturers Association (DEMA) show that there are more than 2.5 million active divers in the United States, with about 500,000 new divers being certified each year.

If you're interested in scuba diving but want to get a feel for what it's like before you invest time and money, look for a "try scuba" night offered by a dive shop in your area. Interested people are invited to strap on an air tank and go for a scuba-assisted swim in a pool.

John Brown, owner of the Anchor Line Scuba and Dive Shop in Media, says that on the average try-scuba night, three or four of the 15 or 20 people who show up sign up for lessons.

So you're convinced. You want to strap on your tanks and go. Well, it's not quite that easy. Before you get into the water for your dream dive, you have to learn how to do it - and get equipped for the trip. That means stopping in at a dive shop.

Most such shops are full-service establishments that not only will allow you to try scuba diving, but will give lessons and arrange dive trips with experienced guides.

Many shops offer an 11-week YMCA-certification course designed to make sure divers are both knowledgeable and comfortable underwater. The course also teaches safety practices that could save a life.

The first five or six weeks of the course are devoted to learning swimming and diving techniques with a face mask and snorkel. That may seem like a lot of time, but most scuba deaths - there are 70 to 100 per year in the United States and the Caribbean - occur on the surface, after a dive is completed. Not being able to properly clear a face mask of water can be as dangerous as running out of air 50 feet down.

It is only in the last half of the course that scuba apparatus is used, and even then, the training takes place in a swimming pool, where students can be closely monitored.

The course costs between $125 and $150, plus an extra $80 or so for the final "check-out" dive, where the student dives for the first time outside a swimming pool.

In addition, students pay for a mask, snorkel, fins and weight belt, which they use in the course. You can get by for under $100 for these items, which you will need if you are going to continue diving.

In this area, most check-out dives consists of two days of diving at a quarry in upstate Pennsylvania, where course instructors can work under controlled conditions with the divers as they put all they have learned into practice.

The 25-acre Richland quarry at Willow Springs Park, between Reading and Harrisburg, is an ideal site for check-out dives because it is only 45 feet deep. The quarry offers an additional attraction for would-be wreck divers: the 85-ton, 72-foot ship Quest.

A wooden sailing ship turned submarine chaser in World War II, the Quest stood at Penn's Landing during the Bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia, billed as a "ghost ship."

After the Bicentennial, when the Quest was no longer wanted, McElwee, Brown and other divers hauled it out of the water, cut it in half, put it on trailers to move it, and then sunk it in the deepest spot of the Richland quarry.

Bainbridge Sportsman's Club, near Lancaster, and Dutch Springs, just outside Allentown, are other quarries used for check-out dives and recreational diving in water up to 120 feet deep.

All three quarries have picnic and swimming facilities; Willow Springs and Bainbridge have camping facilities as well. Dive shops near all the quarries sell and rent diving gear.

Once a diver is certified, it's time to think about buying additional equipment.

Many dive shops rent equipment for about $30 a day, but most serious divers prefer to have at least some personal gear.

Such gear often includes a regulator, a device that takes high-pressure compressed air (coming out of a tank at up to 3,500 pounds per square inch) and reduces it to a breathable pressure.

A wet suit is needed for warmth, especially in quarry diving or diving in mid-Atlantic coastal waters, where ocean-bottom temperatures in the 40s and 50s are common, even in the summer.

Wet suits are so named because they are not sealed off from surrounding water. They are warm because the thin layer of water trapped in the suit is heated by the diver's body and forms an insulating layer.

Divers need weights to help them descend, because the wet suit, the air tanks and natural buoyancy make it difficult to go below the surface.

Once the diver goes very far down and stays underwater for a time, some air is squeezed out of the wet suit, and the air tanks also become less buoyant. That is why divers need a buoyancy compensator, a vest with air pockets, to maintain neutral buoyancy.

The most avid cold-water divers may choose to purchase a dry suit, with rubber seals at the wrists, ankles and neck, instead of a wet suit. It is more expensive (about $500, compared with $150 for the least expensive wet suit), but it provides more warmth and does away with the need for a buoyancy compensator, because it is connected by a hose to the air tanks and can be inflated to maintain neutral buoyancy.

Throw in depth and pressure gauges, a knife and an underwater watch, and the total cost, if you go low-end on everything, is $600 to $700, in addition to the cost of mask, fins, snorkel and weights.

Air tanks cost between $150 and $300, and can be rented for about $5 per day; dive shops charge $3 to $5 to fill them, whether they're yours or rentals.

Once you have scuba certification, you can go wreck-diving in the Atlantic, if it suits your taste.

You can do that by signing up for an additional YMCA-certification course called Open Water II or by joining a dive club and going out on one of the club charter boats. These run on most summer and fall weekends out of many New Jersey and Delaware coastal towns, from Barnegat Light to Lewes, at a cost of $35 to $45 per diver.

Dive clubs are organizations of divers that offer everything from social events and contests to dive charters for members.

Through meeting and diving with more experienced divers, novices refine their skills; find out about diving specialties, such as underwater photography, spear fishing and lobster hunting, and gain a safety margin by being with people who already know the ropes.

One recent Open Water II class from the Anchor Line Scuba and Dive Shop sailed from Stone Harbor, N.J., on the 70-foot Captain Cramer, a sport-fishing boat during the week and a dive-club charter on weekends.

The boat's owner, Don Cramer, is a third-generation fishing-boat captain. He calls wrecks "oases in an underwater desert" because all manner of marine life, from plants to large fish, uses the wrecks as places of shelter and as feeding grounds.

In addition to the obvious opportunities for lobster hunters and spear fishermen, wrecks can be a bonanza for underwater photographers. In the Caribbean, crystal-clear waters allow relatively easy shots. That's not the case off the New Jersey coast, but with wide-angle lenses, underwater strobes and lots of patience, you can get striking results, according to Ken Kasper, a professional photographer and scuba diver.

Underwater cameras, Kasper said, cost about $500; you also can buy a waterproof housing for your camera for about $450.

"Poor man's gold" is what scuba divers call the brass artifacts found on some wrecks. But those divers will tell you it's not really the brass porthole or the ship's bell or the ship's compass binnacle they covet.

It's the drama surrounding the sinking of the ships, the thrill of reaching out to touch vessels that are part of American history, that keeps wreck divers coming back.

For wreck divers who have stood on the decks of ships such as the Varanger or the Tolten, both sunk by German U-boats off the New Jersey coast during World War II, history comes alive.

One of those divers is Gary Gentile, a Philadelphia construction worker turned author and underwater photographer.

Gentile has dived 68 times to the wreck of the Andrea Doria, an Italian luxury liner that sank in 1956 and now lies in 240 feet of water south of Nantucket Island, and 150 times to the hulk of the San Diego, a World War I cruiser lying in 110 feet of water off New York's Fire Island. He has written books about both experiences.

"In this society, where everything is so boring and humdrum, you can leave Philadelphia, drive to the shore, have a fantastic adventure in a completely different world and be back to civilization all in one day. You don't have to go on an African safari any more to satisfy your quest for excitement," Gentile says.

Some wrecks provide fascinating footnotes to history. One of these is the Great Isaac, a 185-foot concrete tug. Concrete ships were built during World War II because of steel shortages. This one survived the war, but sank in 1947 after being hit by a Norwegian freighter off Barnegat Light. It lies in 90 feet of water, and is an interesting dive both for wreck divers and for lobster hunters.

Another wreck provides an unforgettable sight to divers. It is the Texas Tower IV, the remains of an Air Force radar observation platform 75 miles east of Barnegat Inlet that sank in a storm in 1961.

Though the platform sank in 185 feet of water, it is still standing on one leg, and parts of the superstructure come to within 65 feet of the surface, making an eerie sight as divers swim down.

Many other wrecks on the East Coast lie in waters deeper than 130 feet, the depth many scuba experts consider the safe limit for sport divers.

Divers who stay at greater depths for long periods of time run into additional hazards besides running out of air before they regain the surface.

They must come to the surface gradually to avoid "the bends," when nitrogen that has been absorbed into body tissue comes back into the blood stream in large bubbles that can injure, or even kill the diver. When the diver must stop periodically to "off gas" this nitrogen safely, it is called decompression diving.

Many experienced sport divers feel that long dives at great depths - with the added dangers of the bends and of narcosis, a state of intoxication that affects most divers at more than 100 feet - are accidents waiting to happen.

But there are also divers like Gentile, who feel that decompression diving can be done safely.

What is it that keeps people coming back to scuba diving? After all, enthusiasts spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars just to be able to go underwater for a few minutes at a time in a hostile environment, with no promise of seeing anything more than they would see when standing inside a dark closet, if visibility is particularly bad.

McElwee, 61, who has also mastered bowling, fishing, fencing, skeet shooting, horseback riding, roller skating and skiing, puts it this way:

"Sooner or later, I always got bored with the other sports. With scuba diving, that's never happened, because nothing down there is ever the same twice."

FOR INFORMATION

Here are diving shops in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs:

ANCHOR LINE SCUBA AND DIVE SHOP 1032 N Providence Rd, Media, 566-2330.

THE AQUA HUT PLUS 4327 Main St, Manayunk, 483-8408.

DIVERS DEN NORTH 1108 N Broad St, Lansdale, 361-8181.

DIVING BELL 681 N Broad St, Philadelphia, 763-6868.

DUDAS DIVING DUDS 101 Bartrams Lane, West Chester, 436-0176.

MID-ATLANTIC SCUBA CENTER, INC. 3600 Street Rd, Bensalem, 245-0141, and 320 E Butler Ave, Ambler, 628-4935.

NORTH SHORE MARINE SCUBA 4232 Rising Sun Ave, Philadelphia, 324-0344.

PENN'S LANDING UNDERWATER SPORTS 1100 S Delaware Ave, Philadelphia, 462-7587.

UNDERWATER WORLD 495 Easton Rd, Horsham, 672-4180.

The following are upstate Pennsylvania quarries, and dive shops located near the quarry diving locations (in area code 215 unless otherwise listed):

BAINBRIDGE SPORTSMEN'S CLUB AND DIVE SHOP Bainbridge, 717-426-2114.

AQUATIC HORIZONS 1501 N George St, York, 717-848-6908.

YORK DIVERS 968 S George St, York, 717-846-0400.

SMOKEY'S DIVERS DEN 412 N Duke St, Lancaster, 717-393-5333.

DUTCH SPRINGS 4733 Hannoverville Rd, Bethlehem, 837-1618 or 759-2270.

SEA-WORLD DIVERS 1113 Union Blvd, Allentown, 432-6866.

WILLOW SPRINGS PARK Richland, 717-866-5801.

JOLLY ROGER DIVE SHOP INC. Millardsville Rd., Richland, 717-866-5535.

HARRISBURG SCUBA CENTER, 3997 Sunnycrest Dr, Harrisburg, 717-561-0517.

The following are dive shops in South Jersey (all in area code 609 unless otherwise listed):

ATLANTIC DIVERS Fire Rd, Pleasantville, 641-7722.

MAR-VEL UNDERWATER EQUIPMENT, INC. Route 130, Woodlynne, 962-8719.

NEW JERSEY SCUBA SUPPLY 1990 E Rte 70, Cherry Hill, 751-6702.

EAST COAST DIVING SUPPLY 1002 New Rd, Northfield, 646-5090.

HARBOR DIVERS 73 Tiller Dr, Waretown, 693-8999.

LANG'S SKI 'N' SPORT 106 Stanhope St, Forrestal Village, Princeton, 987-8882, and 1600 N Olden Ave, Trenton, 695-1970.

PRINCETON AQUA SPORTS 306 Alexander St, Princeton, 924-4240.

THE DIVE SHOP OF NEW JERSEY Delsea Dr, Hurffville, 589-2424, and Cloverleaf Plaza, Rte 73, Maple Shade, 667-6660.

TRITON DIVERS OF LONG BEACH ISLAND 44th St and Long Beach Blvd, Brant Beach, 494-4400.

Or write to:

NEW JERSEY COUNCIL OF DIVING CLUBS c/o Roy and Debbie Sorensen, 1 Lufberry Ave, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901.

*

And, finally, here are diving clubs in Pennsylvania and nearby states (in area code 215 unless otherwise listed):

ATLANTIS RANGERS Box 210, College Park, Md 20740; call Tom Allen, 301-258-0786.

C-Y DIVERS 1032 N Providence Rd, Media, Pa 19063; call Steve Brown, 566-2330.

CAPITAL CITY DIVE CLUB c/o Dave Loveless, 154 Quimby Ave, Trenton, NJ 08610, 609-585-3494.

DELAWARE U/W SWIM CLUB Box 5174, Marshallton Station, Wilmington, Del 19808; call George Buncich, 302-762-9222.

DuPESSDA SKIN & SCUBA DIVING ASSOCIATION Box 2394, Wilmington, Del 19899; call Tom Bennett, 302-322-9481.

MASC DIVING SOCIETY 3600 Street Rd, Bensalem, Pa 19020; call Glenn Rosazza, 245-0141.

PHILADELPHIA DEPTH CHARGERS Box 182, Philadelphia 19105; call Pamela Warner, 438-0749.

PRINCETON SCUBA CLUB Box 160, Princeton Junction, N.J. 08550, 609-924-4240.

WRECK RAIDERS SCUBA CLUB, 122 Monroe Ave., Penndel, Pa 19047; call James Boylan, 757-3793.

FIRST STATE SPORTS INC. 3313 Old Capitol Trail, Newport, Del. 19808, 302-998-6357.

OLD INLET DIVE SHOP 2204 Rte 1, Rehoboth Beach, Del. 19971, 302-227-0999.

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