Volunteer divers say state forcing them away from helping at parks

Dennis Doucette, who plays the role of the prince in mermaid shows, washes windows of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park’s underwater theater. The actors are commercial certified divers.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Dennis Doucette, who plays the role of the prince in mermaid shows, washes windows of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park’s underwater theater. The actors are commercial certified divers.

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — For more than 16 years, Bill and Peggy Goldberg have made regular 150-mile round trips from Citra in Marion County to Homosassa Springs to wash windows.

But these are no ordinary sheets of glass.

Surrounded by thick schools of fish and curious manatees, the Goldbergs and other volunteer scuba divers would drop into a scenic spring and scrub algae from the windows of the Fishbowl observatory at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County.

Now, the Goldbergs, along with almost all of the 40 or so volunteer divers, have quit. They have been forced out, they say, by a new state rule aimed at improving safety but which the volunteers say is overkill.

Since March, the state has required all volunteer divers working at state parks to be certified as commercial divers. That means mandatory physicals, first-aid classes and tests, including swimming 400 yards in 12 minutes or less.

That is excessive for the work they do, the former volunteers say.

At the Fishbowl, "All you have to do is swim 15 feet in any direction with equipment before you could stand up in waist-deep water,'' Rick Walker, a volunteer and a scuba instructor wrote in an e-mail.

Divers at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park who clean the windows for viewing the world-famous mermaid shows work at similar shallow depths.

Maybe so, noted a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, but the rules must apply to everyone.

"In order to ensure the safety of staff and volunteers while they are performing diving activities, DEP implements the same standards for divers statewide,'' Kristin Lock said.

In an e-mail to park dive coordinator Jeanne Conrad, Peggy Goldberg noted that the conditions at the Homosassa Springs park are "similar to a swimming pool. To now be classified as a commercial diver to use a Walmart scrubbie to clean windows of algae in five foot of water is absolutely ludicrous.''

Conrad responded by making a larger point: "I can't imagine taxpayers being happy with a free, well-run volunteer program being turned into an expensive, overmanaged mess.''

• • •

In August 2008, eight people with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary were looking for mooring sites for a coral reef restoration project off the Dry Tortugas. During a routine dive, one of the divers drowned.

An investigation by the DEP's inspector general found that the victim may not have been fit to dive. He was overweight and a smoker, and autopsy results showed recent cocaine use and use of an antidepressant.

The report also concluded that the DEP and other affiliated agency programs failed to provide clear guidance on safety procedures. That finding led to the DEP's decision to require commercial certification.

Volunteer Martin Dunn said the state is using one unique incident to rewrite long-standing rules.

"Now the diving control board and all other involved agencies are going to cover their asses with paperwork and enforced regulations which make no sense in describing our actual dive duties,'' he wrote in an e-mail to fellow divers.

Volunteer divers used the "buddy system'' where two divers look out for each other underwater. The state now requires four-person crews: Two scrub, one floats on the surface ready to help, and the fourth supervises.

This doesn't sit well with some divers.

"Only if I am a diver on a given day do I get to dive, which is the reason we all volunteered in the first place,'' Dunn wrote.

Art Yerian, manager of the Homosassa Springs park, said he hoped the divers would have understood why the rules were changed.

"It wasn't to punish them,'' he said. "To be a commercial diver in the open water, if you can't swim 400 yards, well, if something goes wrong, you've got to be physically fit.

"Anything that makes it safer for our employees and our volunteers is a wonderful thing,'' Yerian said. "I have a hard time arguing with that.''

The 400-yard swim is something all divers have to pass when they get their "open water 1" certification. For some, however, that was years ago.

Avis Craig has volunteered for 10 years to wash windows. She tried the swim test recently but could not because of recent knee surgery.

"I'm still going to try again,'' she said. "I just enjoy doing this.''

Yerian said some divers simply don't want to jump through what they consider meaningless hoops.

"It's the change,'' he said. "These divers like things to be the way they have been. They don't want the government telling them what to do.''

• • •

Count Peggy Goldberg among them.

"Thanks to the bureaucrats, they have done a fine job of ending the diver program in the parks,'' she said. "Common sense has again left the building.''

Dunn said he would come back if the rules change.

"If there is any way short of the proposed lunacy . . . I would still be interested in diving,'' he wrote. "If not, great indelible memories are burned into my psyche and that will suffice.'

For now, there are just two volunteers and six park workers eligible to wash windows at the Homosassa Springs park. The state has been sending a crew, at $350 a trip, to help.

Instead of being cleaned once a day by volunteers, however, the Fishbowl is cleaned only once a week, leading to complaints from visitors about conditions at the park's main draw.

Over at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, mermaids have been pressed into window washing duty, replacing volunteers. The mermaids also had to get commercially certified, but manager Toby Brewer said that was no problem for them.

"They swim like fish.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Volunteer divers say state forcing them away from helping at parks 06/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 10:48pm]

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