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Scuba class teaches kids how to take the plunge

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Shelly Bristol can't remember not knowing how to scuba dive.

"My father owns a dive shop," the 36-year-old mother of two said. "So he started me at an early age."

At 7, to be exact.

Many children barely can dog paddle at that age, let alone dive. But the Florida Scuba Rangers want to change that.

Florida, with dozens of spring-fed rivers, hundreds of miles of coast line and the only coral reef in the continental United States, is a scuba diver's paradise. People travel from all over the world to dive in the state's waters, so why not introduce children to these natural wonders?

"As long as they follow the rules, scuba diving can be as safe as bicycle riding or skateboarding," Bristol said. "It all depends how well you train them."

The Scuba Rangers program is taught under the auspices of Scuba Schools International, one of the nation's top scuba certification agencies. The first course in Florida was taught in April 1999.

The program originated in Louisiana and Bristol is only the 15th instructor worldwide to be certified to teach the class. In addition to being a scuba instructor, Bristol completed a three-day Scuba Ranger class. She has been trained in first aid and CPR.

"I also had to undergo an extensive background check before I could teach children," she said. "That is required of all instructors."

Children 8 to 11 who complete the five, four-hour sessions receive a certificate that certifies them as "qualified" to dive. "This means that they are only allowed to dive in a pool in the presence of an instructor," she said.

At age 12, the child can go through an open-water certification program (the same one adults do) and receive a junior open-water certification, which enables them to dive up to 60 feet in the presence of a parent or guardian.

"Then when they turn 15, they can go on a check-out dive and trade their junior card for a regular certification card," Bristol said.

Bristol just finished teaching her first class, which had only one student, Cara Lantz, age 9. "She came in feeling fairly comfortable in the water," she said. "But when she left, her parents couldn't believe the difference. There was no holding her back."

Scuba Rangers learn many of the skills their adult counterparts do, including rescue and air sharing. The classes are kept small; no more than eight students.

Scuba Rangers training doesn't stop after the basic class. Children can achieve rankings, from Night Ranger, Maze Ranger, Civics Ranger and Shark Ranger, all the way to Master Ranger. With each specialty completed, children receive a T-shirt and qualification card, which indicate the skill levels achieved.

The 12-year-olds who complete Scuba Ranger training can become Scuba Explorers. These older children go on field trips and attend monthly meetings.

"The kids do more than just learn how to dive," Bristol said. "They learn some light physics, physiology and all about currents, waves, tides and marine life."

The course schedule follows a structured format. Session 1 covers swimming and snorkeling; No. 2 covers snorkeling and scuba; Session 3 covers scuba photography; No. 4 is all scuba; and in Session 5, the Scuba Rangers demonstrate their skills for their parents. Scuba Rangers use smaller compressed air tanks than their adult counterparts (30 or 60 cubic inch tanks vs. 80 to 100 cubic inch tanks) and all other equipment is provided.

The cost for the class is $295; classes are held on Saturdays. When the school session ends, classes also will be available on Tuesday and Thursday. The next session starts June 3.

The classes are taught in the pool at Jim's Dive Shop, 9385-C Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg. Parents can call Bristol directly at (727) 393-DIVE (3483). "It is really up to the parents to determine whether or not a child is ready for something like this," said owner Jim Fentress, who has taught thousands of adults to dive over the past 30 years. "Some children may be ready at 8 or 9. Others may have to wait. It is a decision that only a parent can make."

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