Learning to Scuba Dive at a tiny Caribbean resort

Melanie learns scuba at Bohio Grand Turk

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

Relax and breathe!

That could be the mantra for de-stressing everyday life. But here on tiny Grand Turk Island — part of Turks and Caicos (www.turksandcaicostourism.com) — where many believe Columbus first made landfall in the New World, the words are PADI dive instructor Hilary Sutton’s instructions to my 19-year-old daughter, Melanie, as she prepares to do her first of four open-water dives that will lead to her certification as a scuba diver, joining her dad, brother and me, and some 18 million PADI divers around the world.

We’ve come to the 16-room Bohio Resort (www.bohioresort.com/) so that Mel can complete the course she started online at www.Padi.com. That we’re getting a few days of just mom and daughter time is an extra plus. PADI is the largest dive organization in the world. (You have the option of taking the $120 online course and completing it at a resort or sign up for a classroom course — typically more expensive — that could also include the confined and even open-water portions of the instruction.)

We meet best friends Emily Needham and Carla Kadzin, two young women from Long Island, who took such a class before they arrived. Needham said she spent last summer, “with a textbook in my hand rather than a drink. It was more intense than we thought and that made it more interesting.”

They took the course courtesy of Emily’s dad, John Needham, a diver who wanted to encourage his daughters to embrace a sport he enjoys. Over the next four days, his older daughter, Catherine Brigham, and her husband, Harry, are completing their course (it costs roughly $450) along with my daughter Melanie, learning how to manage their scuba gear and get water out of their masks without surfacing. They practice skills, like sharing air and replacing their mask, towing another diver in the pool or off the beach.

“As a divorced parent, I don’t have as much day-to-day interaction with my family,” explains John Needham, a marina owner, who paid for the diving courses, as well as the trip for everyone, including his non-diving wife and another close friend. “That makes a trip like this all the more special.”

“This is the first family vacation we’ve had in eight years,” said Catherine Brigham, acknowledging she was nervous about being able to complete the course once she got in the ocean. (She did just fine.) “This is so special,” she said. “I’m grateful this is something that we can share from now on.”

Like tennis, golf or snow sports, diving is a life sport and one that can be shared with kids (they can get their junior certification at age 10, though you must be 13 to take scuba lessons online and 15 to upgrade to PADI Open Water Diver certification) and adult children. Before committing to the course, try out diving with a brief (less than three hours) resort course to see if it is something you’d like to pursue. Brigham added that she was glad for a family vacation where they are doing more than “staring at each other.”

They didn’t come seeking fancy digs. In fact, it’s just the opposite — simple rooms painted cheery, bright Caribbean colors, the beach so close you go to sleep and wake up to the sound of waves and a barefoot beachfront bar that offers a can of bug repellent, because you will get bitten, especially at dusk. The restaurant is just as casual (we eat all of our meals here) and you can order anything from a pizza to lobster quesadillas to fresh grouper and steak. Thanks to South African Chef Jurika Mehnde, it is considered the best on the island. My goal is to not put on shoes the entire week,” joked Scott Flaherty.

The Turks and Caicos Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (www.tcspca.tc) can even arrange for you to adopt a puppy or kitten that has been temporarily living with “foster parents.”

Scott Flaherty, here from Richmond, Va., with his wife Melissa, explains that divers seek out resorts where the diving is stellar and the dive operation safe. These islands, of course, are surrounded by one of the most extensive coral reef systems in the world (65 miles across and 200 miles long) and under the National Parks Ordinance vast areas have been designated as marine park. Here on Grand Turk, the reef is just 500 yards offshore, which means there are no long boat rides to get there and between dives we can return to the resort for the required surface interval.

Bohio managers Tom and Ginny Allan, Canadians in their 50s, treat us all like family. We make instant friends with the other divers, sharing meals, rum punches and, of course, dives where we are awed by the underwater life along the Grand Turk Wall — the varieties of coral, the sting rays, the flounder hiding in the sand with just their eyes visible, the octopus on a night dive.

“It was one big party underwater,” Carla Kadzin said excitedly one morning after the first dive. But with diving, like anything else, all doesn’t go as planned. Emily gets a cold and can’t dive the next day; Carla has a problem with her ears.

Everyone, meanwhile, cheers on the novices. We’ve just finished the most spectacular dive of the day called “anchor,” so named for a 10-foot anchor deep in the water that is probably more than 100 years old. Somehow, I miss seeing the anchor but am awed by the swimming sea turtle, hog fish, huge grouper, an underwater eel garden and all kinds of other big and little fish — blue and purple, silver and spotted.

“Let me introduce our newest PADI diver,” instructor Hilary Sutton says when we get back on the small Bohio boat. After six sections of e-learning, two mornings in the resort pool and beach and four dives mastering the equipment and skills, Mel is now a certified diver. We all applaud. She grins.

If only we didn’t have to go back to the snow.

(For more on Eileen and her daughter Mel’s diving adventure, read her Travel Diaries

© 2011 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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