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Healthy Men

Diving for pleasure
Donning scuba gear is great for fitness, but watch those bends

By Johnny Lucas

Unless you've been certified, you're crazy to go scuba diving. Your mental health is largely irrelevant: "certification" in diving means taking a course, passing the tests and getting comfortable in scuba gear under the watchful eye of an instructor who knows what he or she is doing.

Scuba Diver Respectable dive outfits around the world will not rent equipment to you or let you on their dive boats without first seeing your certification card. But at some resorts--the sort of places we're all thinking of running away to this time of year--you can get underwater without even proving you can swim.

This is called "resort diving" and is frowned upon for two reasons: first, even though you're supposedly under the eye of a dive master and have severe restrictions on what you can do underwater, it's a whole other world down there and you can easily get into trouble. Secondly, if you try "resort diving" and like it, you will have to requalify for your certification in a real course, and you'll have lots to unlearn.

Why not do it right the first time? Real diving certification can be earned in five days, including three or four open water dives at the end. Making a winter holiday around getting certified is perfect: you come home with a new skill, and the thrill of beginning a new sport. The PADI site contains a directory of places where you can learn.

Largely because of certification programs, diving is a very safe sport. The Divers Alert Network has stats showing that diving is 10 to 100 times safer than skiing.

Of course, we've all heard of "the bends". This painful condition can occur when nitrogen leaves the circulatory system at the joints and limbs, causing the sufferer to "bend" over in pain. The bends is related to the depth of a dive and the speed of ascent, and so is preventable when you know what you're doing.

But if you're looking for the downside of the deep, there are complete accounts of the medical hazards on the great Web sites maintained by Dr. Ernest S. Campbell and Dr. Edmond Kay.

Harry Cox of Bermuda is the most authoritative diving expert I know. Cox has been diving all around his island home for 40 years. I was diving the reefs and wrecks around that great little pink island in October and got a chance to spend a rainy afternoon with this great raconteur.

Cox has discovered gold on Bermuda's wrecks and has also come up with a very healthy respect for the watery realm. He frames his advice to divers in terms that are more psychological than physiological.

"[Jacques] Cousteau told me that 40 meters is for women and children." But Cox calls the top 33 feet of water "the killer feet". He points out that if you were to surface from that depth without exhaling, (going up 33 feet can take only a few seconds), the pressure differential would mean that when you reach the surface, the air in your lungs would take up twice as much space as you've got for it. No human body was built to accommodate this.

In his years of diving, Cox tells of his most life-threatening experience: in just a few feet of water. While diving a wreck, he loosened some debris that immobilized him by pinning him across his neck. "I could actually reach my arm out of the water, but it didn't do me any damn good because it was my head that was stuck." Cox hacked his way out of that one before his air supply ran out and was back in the water for more that afternoon.

An archive of 10 years of diving mishaps in Ontario, (curiously maintained on the server of Monash University in Australia), lists drowning and air embolisms as the medical causes of death while diving, but it's the "contributing factors" which tell the tale: ignoring the buddy system, lack of training, overconfidence, alcohol, and above all, panic. All our reflexes such as running for cover or screaming for help will get a diver in even more trouble if tried even at moderate depths.

Scuba diving is a great sport, it's safe, and it's the closest thing to an other-world experience you're going to get until the day the spaceship carrying Elvis comes to take you for a ride. But if you're not comfortable with it, or if you think that you might act dumb--don't go near the deep.

Health Links Button For more information on men's health, diving and sports & fitness visit these HealthyWay™ Health Links

Johnny Lucas is a Toronto writer who has been certified since 1992

illustration by Kathryn Adams

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