As she floated 40 feet below the ocean's surface, amid the kelp beds oil California's Channel Islands, Julie Perez came upon a school of bright garibaldi fish weaving like a ribbon through the swaying green forest. Perez hung motionless as the fish enveloped her, hundreds of orange Hashes moving as one.
Finally the fish turned and swam away, and Julie Perez, scuba diver, mother, travel agent, horseback rider—and quadriplegic—left the freedom that the sea affords her for the reality of life in a wheelchair. Perez, 35, who suffers from a neurological disorder, has only limited use of her arms and legs. Scuba diving changed her life, as it has changed the lives of thousands of disabled people around the world.
"Diving feels like flying," says Perez, who as a child enjoyed watching Sea Hunt and Flipper on television. "I like to explore and be active, but my wheelchair limits me. Once I'm underwater and weightless, I can go wherever I want."
Michelle Galler, a self-described "former beach bunny," thought she would have to abandon the ocean forever when she was seriously injured in a skiing accident. Now confined to an electric wheelchair, Galler, who is in her 30's, like Perez found her way back to an active life through diving. "Being hurt that badly was like having to grow up again," she says. "Diving played a big part in bringing my life back together. Diving is my freedom."
Giving freedom to the disabled is what led dive instructor Jim Gatacre, 52, to begin teaching scuba to those who would otherwise not be able to venture into the water. After severely injuring his arm and losing the use of it partially 22 years ago, he began teaching a course at UC Irvine that became the basis of a diver-certification program for the handicapped. And in 1981 he formed the Handicapped Scuba Association, which now has more than a thousand members nationwide. In addition, roughly 800 dive instructors in 26 countries have taken a training course devised by Gatacre that certifies them to instruct disabled divers.
"They call sports for the disabled 'adaptive' sports," says Gatacre, who is still the HSA's president. "But scuba diving is adaptive for everyone, able or disabled. Everyone has to adapt to a new environment underwater. That levels the playing field."
In fact, the participation of able-bodied divers is essential to the HSA's certification course. A safe dive, regardless of a diver's physical ability, relies on the buddy system. The HSA certifies disabled recreational divers at three different levels, based on the divers' ability to function as buddies to other divers. Level A divers, for example, can rescue other divers and assist in underwater emergencies. Many paraplegics, with full use of their upper bodies, qualify at this level. Level B divers can take care of themselves but are unable to assist their buddies. Each Level B diver must dive with two other divers, who look out for each other as well as the disabled diver. And Level C divers, usually quadriplegics, need help with their equipment and in moving around underwater. They too must each dive with two buddies.
HSA divers learn the same scuba skills that able-bodied divers do, but they must make some adjustments. Underwater, they learn how to make the most of whatever limited motion they have. For those with some use of their arms, underwater strokes become longer, with more gliding in between. Also, because all divers rely on pantomime to communicate with their buddies, divers without use of their hands learn to use nods or blinks or eye rolls, while those with some hand movement adapt standard dive signals.
Methods of entry into the water vary for disabled divers: Many plunge in with a forward rather than a backward roll; some use a ramp, others are carried or boost themselves over the gunwale.
Most disabled divers need little special equipment. Tanks, vests, regulators and masks are usually standard issue. And much of the gear that disabled divers have adapted for themselves was developed for able-bodied divers in manufacturers' endless quest for easy-to-use gear. Webbed gloves, for example, allow hands to act as fins; nose-purge masks—easier to clear without being removed—save a diver from having to ask a buddy to help with this tricky underwater maneuver.