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Scuba diving or hookah rigs carry equal risks, experts say

As authorities search for the body of a St. Petersburg woman who disappeared while lobster fishing in the Florida Keys, her family is left with many questions.

Before disappearing Saturday while diving near Big Pine Key, Louann Greene, 33, was using a hookah rig, an underwater breathing device that requires no certification and is commonly used by tourists or first-time divers.

"I've lived here for 20 years, and I've never heard of these hookah things," said CeCe Ingle, Greene's sister-in-law. "If people are putting their lives on the line, there need to be some kinds of precautions in place. Who regulates them, if anybody?"

No one regulates hookah rigs, which essentially do the same job as scuba diving tanks. Most diving experts agree that hookahs are no more dangerous than scuba gear, and that there is nothing illegal or wrong about hookah rigs.

Like most open-sea ventures, they say, it boils down to a simple rule: Proceed at your own risk.

"There are no state and federal laws governing diving," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro. "I mean, you would think it's good common sense that you would need some training before doing something like that."

The commission does enforce some diver safety, such as requiring dive flags to be displayed and policing boater speeds in diving areas. And some self-regulation occurs in the diving world.

Many dive equipment shops, for example, will not fill a scuba tank or rent gear without seeing a diving certification card, obtained from a recognized training organization. For liability reasons, Bill Jackson's, a sporting goods store in Pinellas Park, won't sell its scuba gear or hookah rigs without seeing certification.

Most diving charter boats refuse to take out people who aren't certified, said Capt. Mike Miller, who runs a dive charter boat out of Seminole Marina. Some do crash "resort courses," involving a few hours of classroom and water instruction for noncertified divers.

Lobster season, especially the popular two-day miniseason that takes place a week before regular season, is known for accidents, Miller said.

Five people died in various diving mishaps last year. Four died in 2006. Miller couldn't recall a season in recent years without a death.

But generally, Miller said, "diving is safer than bowling."

"It's safer than tennis and golf," he said. "It's when people go outside the boundaries of training that injuries happen."

The hookah rig, while common for those who skip training, isn't necessarily the enemy, experts say.

Experienced and certified divers sometimes favor the device, which provides compressed air taken from the atmosphere. Advocates find it ideal for depths of 90 feet or less. They say it is less cumbersome to breathe through a tube connected to a compressor than it is to carry a heavy tank on one's back.

Hookahs have been blamed in lobster diving fatalities in the past. Last year, 32-year-old Carlos Urruchaga of Miami died using one during the two-day lobster season, and 66-year-old Joan Radford of Coconut Grove died during the 2006 mini­season after using the hookah system.

It's still unclear exactly what happened in Greene's case. When her husband tried to pull her in by her air hose, it quickly became clear that it was no longer attached to his wife. The last time her family saw her, she was crying for air, and then she sank.

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Scuba diving or hookah rigs carry equal risks, experts say 08/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 1:33pm]
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