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Planning to go scuba diving this summer? Be in shape

Summer's a busy season for the Tampa Bay area's scuba shops as veteran divers and newcomers to the sport get ready for tropical vacations and the upcoming lobster season in the Florida Keys.

"Everybody wants to learn how to dive as soon as lobster season rolls around," said Rocky Welch, an instructor with Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park. "But scuba diving is not a casual sport — you have to take it seriously."

Professionals such as Welch and Bill Hardman, who writes a spear-fishing column for the Tampa Bay Times, follow a regular fitness regimen that keeps them ready for the reefs.

"The first thing I tell people is that if they want to dive, don't smoke," said Hardman, a 54-year-old former attorney who now operates a St. Petersburg scuba shop called Aquatic Obsessions. "Diving is all about cardiovascular fitness. If you smoke, your air consumption is higher and that means less time on the bottom."

Scuba diving has inherent dangers including nitrogen narcosis, or the so-called rapture of the deep, and decompression sickness, also known as the bends. But these maladies are rare compared with something that is far more common, but also potentially dangerous: simple dehydration.

"People are on vacation and they want to stay up late, have a few drinks, and they pay for it the next day," Hardman said. "Dehydration can promote nitrogen bubble formation in the bloodstream, which can lead to decompression sickness."

Hardman recommends divers of all ages and skill levels get adequate rest and drink plenty of fluids — but none containing alcohol — before diving.

"You are paying a lot of money to be there," he said. "Why not get the most out of your experience?"

Good cardiovascular fitness will also give a diver more "bottom time," scuba-speak for a longer, more enjoyable underwater experience. Divers routinely encounter strong currents that can be taxing, somewhat like hiking up a steep hill.

Veteran spear fisher and former Navy diver Ray Bourque takes his scuba fitness regimen seriously. "I spend a lot of time in the pool with fins on," the St. Petersburg investment manager said. "I also run and hit the gym on a regular basis to help stay in shape."

Bourque, 53, said older scuba divers should be especially careful. The recreational dive tables that offer guidelines for the depth and duration of dives were developed by the Navy, which used young, fit sailors as its test subjects.

"As we get older, our bodies change," Bourque said. "I have to work hard to keep my weight down and stay fit enough just to keep up with the younger guys."

Hardman echoed Bourque's advice. "Something as simple as stretching before and in between dives can go a long way to keeping you healthy," he said. "I can't tell you how many people I know have had to have knee surgery after they finished a dive and slipped on a wet deck."

Divers should prepare for their sport like any other athlete, Hardman said. "You wouldn't just run out and play a game of softball or flag football without any warmup," he said. "Scuba diving is no different — you have got to be prepared."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@tampabay.com.

Learning to dive

If you want to learn how to scuba dive this summer, don't settle for the least expensive or shortest course. Shop around and talk with friends who dive. Think of it this way: If you were learning how to skydive, would you sign on with a school that advertises the cheapest parachutes?

Even before you investigate scuba instruction, consult your doctor to make sure that you are physically fit enough for diving.

Lobster season

Divers who participate in the two-day "mini" season for lobster, scheduled for the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July, are often called bug hunters. That's because their prey is the Caribbean spiny lobster, or Panulirus argus, and like all crustaceans, comes from the same phylum as insects, Arthropoda.

These creatures share several common traits, including jointed appendages, antennae and mouth parts, as well as rigid external skeletons that molt or shed as they grow.

Those diving for lobsters need to know how to measure them. The minimum length of the carapace (the shell that covers the body) must be 3 inches for the lobster to be harvested. Lobsters must be measured in the water, so divers must have a measuring device with them at all times.

Between April and August, female lobsters carry eggs directly under the tail, and any lobster that is bearing eggs must be released.

The bag limit during the mini season is six per person per day in Monroe County, including the Florida Keys, and Biscayne National Park; and 12 per person per day in all other areas in Florida.

Planning to go scuba diving this summer? Be in shape 06/26/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2014 6:11pm]
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