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TAKING THE PLUNGE

To get away from the stresses of the city and for a temporary escape from increasing mundane responsibilities, sometimes we need a little adventure.

Though adventure can be hard to find, Club Aquarius gives people a chance to live life to the fullest by scuba diving.

The New Port Richey club brings adventure in an unusual way. The 3-year-old organization has no president or officers but allows members to make important decisions about the club's future.

That's the way it was meant to be, said Wayne DeBellonia, one of the organization's founding members and owner of Sunny Seas Scuba.

"This is a dive club for divers," DeBellonia said.

Club Aquarius was started because most divers don't know what to do after they become certified, DeBellonia said.

Many people don't know other divers, and they struggle to find good locations to continue the sport. The organization not only offers dives in exotic locations but introduces participants to potential dive partners.

The club meets once a month. The focus mainly is on having a good time and getting prepared and excited for the next trip. The atmosphere resembles a party, with drinks and sandwiches provided for members.

The outings are easy to get excited about. Upcoming locations include Cozumel, Mexico, Bimini and the Florida Keys.

This weekend, the club is going to West Palm Beach to drift dive the reefs. With sites in the Gulf, members will see crystal clear water and an abundance of sea life.

"We'll have anything from 60-to 100-foot visibility," DeBellonia said.

"With all the nutrients in the stream, it's just like being in the tropics. So you don't have to spend thousands of dollars to get to the Virgin Islands or Cozumel," he said. "We have this in our own backyard, and people don't realize it."

Despite the exotic locations the club travels to throughout the year, the local dives are nothing to scoff at, DeBellonia said.

"The misconception is _ and I had this misconception when I first came here from the beautiful Virgin Islands _ when you see that green water, you don't want to dive in that stuff," he said.

"But when you get out there and find some good spots, you can have anywhere from 25- to 40-foot visibility. We have natural reefs, artificial reefs, even shallow-water and deep-water wrecks. We have a great variety out there."

When Club Aquarius leaves Florida, it often goes in style.

The Cozumel trip includes a cruise, private boat for diving, multiple dives and plenty of time to see the sights and sounds of Mexico.

The organization's membership is rather exclusive, to keep the friendly atmosphere intact.

Not only does one have to be a certified diver, but new members are, for the most part, admitted by invitation only _ and through the certifications given by Sunny Seas Scuba in New Port Richey.

Friends and family of the newly certified divers are welcome in the club. If they go through the classes and want to join for the annual fee of $40, they get store discounts and offers on outings.

The group has 45 active members. "For this little area, that's pretty impressive," DeBellonia said.

Becoming certified is not difficult. The beginning course lasts two weeks and includes a home study kit, pool dives and all other materials necessary for certification. The classes are designed for safety and to ensure people learn a sport they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.

"The most satisfying part of this whole business is taking someone who knows nothing about scuba diving and seeing that big smile on their face at the end of their certification dives and seeing them continue diving and making this a lifetime sport for them," DeBellonia said.

Getting started takes an investment of about $400 for a mask, snorkel, fins, weights, weight belt and the materials for the $189 course. The rest of the equipment, such as air tanks and buoyancy compensators, can be rented from most shops.

DeBellonia said anyone looking for some excitement will be happy with what scuba diving and Club Aquarius have to offer.

"Underneath the water, there's so many things that people don't know are in there," he said. "They have a fear of Jaws and everything else.

"The No. 1 question from students is, "Do you ever see sharks?' Yes. We pay big money to go to the Bahamas and swim with these sharks. They are so used to divers there, no one has ever been hurt.

"People get into this for the adventure," DeBellonia said. "People work all day long, they're bored with their work and they want something to break the monotony _ something to get them going. This club does it."

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