Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Got the urge to submerge? At this dismal time of year, it's downright therapeutic, and any reasonably fit person age 10 or older can become a certified scuba diver for as little as a few hundred bucks.

The Washington area has more than a dozen dive schools, all of which offer the minimum certification requirements: 12 to 18 hours of weekend or evening class time and course work (yes, there are exams), about eight to 12 hours of pool instruction and a day-long series of "open water" tests you can take in a nearby lake or quarry, or -- strongly recommended -- in Florida and points south, where water temperatures are frequently above 80 degrees.

Three certifying organizations -- the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, National Association of Underwater Instructors and YMCA -- offer generally equivalent programs. A card from any of them will allow you to buy air anywhere in the world. Beyond a swimsuit, you don't need any gear to get started, but you'll want your own mask and fins for the pool work. (Do not buy any equipment until you've talked to a pro; correct fit is harder than it looks.)

Average physical strength is more than plenty. After all, the ultimate goal is to hover motionless over a coral ecosystem, looking at fantastic creatures and colors you'd otherwise need serious illegal drugs to see. Seniors, smokers and folks with certain medical conditions will need a physician's approval for lessons; most schools require it for all students.

Wherever you live, there's probably an outfit nearby. The top of the line in the area is SPE Dive School in Chevy Chase (301-657-2266, For the nearest YMCA, check

In Maryland, there's Scuba Adventure in Olney (301-946-0110,, Seahorse SCUBA in Wheaton (301-962-8100,, Aqua Ventures in Cockeysville (410-666-2326,, Brass Anchor in Frederick (301-663-9363,, Divers Source in Owings (301-855-3977,, Divers Den in Baltimore (410-668-6866, and Sea Colony Aqua Sports in Severna Park (410-544-3607,

In Virginia, check out the Splash Dive Center in Alexandria (703-823-7680,, Adventure Scuba Co. in Chantilly (703-263-0427,, Virginia Scuba in Manassas (703-369-0098, and Sea Ventures in Fairfax (703-425-7676, -- C.S.

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