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RECREATION / IRENE GARCIA : Plunging to Depths

Bob Taylor, a scuba diving instructor since 1967, says first-time students have a variety of reasons for wanting to dive, but all have one thing in common.

“Everybody comes in stressed,” he said. “I don’t care [what] their comfort level [is] in the water or how well they can swim. It’s a sort of fear of the unknown.”

Another sure thing, Taylor says, is that there’s always at least one person in every class who asks about sharks.

* What are the chances of running into a big, dangerous shark when you’re 30 feet under?

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* How often do divers get mauled by the predators, which can be up to 45 feet long?

“The chances are almost nonexistent,” said Taylor, a Palmdale resident who teaches in the Valley. “I’ve encountered various sharks through the years, but I never felt threatened.”

In fact, recently Taylor and a group of intermediate students spotted a six-foot blue shark while diving near the Channel Islands. It was surprising, Taylor said, to see such a big shark in such shallow water.

“We were in less than 20 feet of water and I have never seen a blue in that kind of water,” Taylor said. “I’ve only seen them in open water, with several thousand feet below me.”

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As they had been instructed to do in class, Taylor’s students flashed their small lights at the shark and it swam away.

Just like Taylor said it would.

Many first-time divers agree that their first underwater experience dispels many of the myths and fears they may have had before taking lessons.

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Before hitting the sea, three classroom sessions and three pool diving sessions are required. Those sessions cover everything from basic equipment functions to safety in deep waters.

“The classes are great because they train you for every potential emergency situation,” said Priscilla Rouse, a former Cal State Northridge softball player who recently completed her sixth ocean dive. “I remember it being kind of scary for a split second, but all you have to do is breathe when you’re down there.”

Rouse, a computer software engineer, had considered taking scuba diving lessons for years and finally took the plunge in late September.

So far she loves it. The 31-year-old has explored the waters of Catalina and the Channel Islands. Her deepest dive was 64 feet.

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“You go under there and it’s a whole different world,” Rouse said. “It’s really awesome to see things in their own habitat.”

The best part of diving for Taylor is the connection he feels to nature. A private investigator, Taylor was a Ventura County police officer for 10 years and served on the department’s search-and-rescue dive team.

Taylor teaches about six students a month this time of the year. He uses a pool in North Hollywood for training sessions and likes to take students to Ventura County beaches.

“The more experienced divers get, the more comfortable they feel in the environment and the more they enjoy it,” Taylor said. “It’s always therapeutic for me. It’s just relaxing.”

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Many local instructors believe Southern California has some of the world’s best diving.

Catalina and the Channel Islands are known for their scenic kelp forests and vast marine life.

“When I dove in Catalina a couple of weeks ago I saw horn sharks and a 2 1/2-foot eel,” Rouse said. “It was incredible.”

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Chances of spotting more marine life are greater in the fall and winter even though more people dive in summer months.

“This is the best time of the year to dive because there’s great visibility,” said Rod Francis, an instructor in Van Nuys.

Currents help keep visibility at about 100 feet this time of year. The water temperature averages about 65-68 degrees, which divers say feels comfortable in a wet suit.

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Scuba diving accidents are rare, say many area instructors. If divers stick with their partners and practice what they learn in class, they are unlikely to encounter trouble.

But accidents are not unheard of.

In early October, for instance, an Oxnard man died off the Channel Islands in his first nighttime dive.

The 35-year-old man was a newly certified diver in about 15 to 20 feet of water when he was separated from his dive partner. When he rose to the surface, he became entangled in a large concentration of kelp. Officials speculate that he might have panicked before drowning.

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In early July a San Pedro man and his 14-year-old son died and three other divers required decompression treatment after a rescue off Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.

These are highly unusual incidents, Francis said.

“It’s fun and safe. That’s why it’s getting to be a family sport,” he said.


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