"Scuba diving is safer than bowling," says Mike Branchflower, a longtime diver and instructor for the local business Dive Magic. "That's what the figures say, anyway. There are less accidents per year among divers than bowlers." Diving is not only a safe sport, it's popular--even in Idaho. Branchflower estimates around 15,000 people in Idaho are certified to dive.
"It's a great way to explore," he says. "It's kind of like Star Trek: You can go where no one has gone before."
The first step to submerging yourself without having to hold the hand of an instructor is to become PADI (Professional Association of Divers International) open water certified. Several companies in Boise offer courses to become qualified divers. A PADI open water certification costs about $300. Classes generally involve a textbook session in which students become familiar with equipment, a fair amount of pool time learning the basics of diving and several open water classes in which students prove their capacity to dive without an instructor. The safety measures these courses teach are, in part, why scuba diving has such a good track record for safety, Branchflower says. "You have to develop a trust of your skills and of your equipment. PADI teaches problem solving, so that if you do get into a problematic situation, you'll know how to fix it."
Branchflower says most people obtain their certification so that they can scuba dive while traveling. "A lot of people are what you'd consider warm-water divers. In warmer climates, the colors underwater are just outrageous. Take the brightest red or green that you've ever seen and imagine that everywhere."
But you don't have to leave the state to explore the wonders of the water world, says Jim Cole of Boise Water Sports. Cole has been diving since 1980 and has been an instructor since 1982. He and other teachers from the Orchard store take students to Redfish or Alturas lakes in the summertime. He notes that Idaho has a lot to offer divers. "There are nice ponds here in town; there are places near Hagerman," he says. "You're really only limited by your imagination. There's a lot of water in Idaho."
Cole's preferred place to dive locally is the Boise River. Despite high currents and low visibility, Cole says that the river is a great spot to hunt for treasures lost by summer boaters. "That's one of the best parts of the river: all the schwag that you can find."
Divers in Idaho often find more signs of human life than they do aquatic life and those signs are more likely to be to be Coke machines or rusty vehicles than they are treasures. In the past, a popular scuba diver's haunt was the town of Roosevelt in central Idaho. Roosevelt was submerged by water and mud in 1909 after a massive mudslide caused a flood that swallowed up the small mining town. Divers could descend beneath the surface of Roosevelt Lake and see fascinating old buildings, hitching posts and other remnants of the town's golden days. Over the years, the remains have disintegrated and much of Roosevelt has been covered by silt, but today divers can still see the foundations of buildings and a few recognizable structures.
Although most divers depend on the summer months to explore the lakes and rivers in Idaho, some of the best diving occurs in the middle of the winter, according to Cole. His company is one of several in town that specializes in ice diving instruction. Because of the heightened technical aspects of the activity, ice diving requires advanced certification in a specialty course. It involves cutting a 10-by-10 triangle into the ice and then lowering divers through the hole where they will spend an average of 35 to 40 minutes submerged below the surface. Divers wear dry suits and are loosely tethered to attendees above the surface for safety. "I think it's incredibly safe," says Cole. "There are enough precautions in it that we don't have accidents."
People get into ice diving for different reasons, Cole notes. "Some people really like the technical aspect of it. Others just do it to try it once or twice." They're usually surprised at how beautiful the underside of an ice surface can be. "Mostly, you're just looking at the ice itself," Cole says. "It's like going into a crystal castle."
Whatever an individual's motivation for getting into the activity may be, both Branchflower and Cole agree that diving courses are becoming more and more popular in Boise. Cole says that while many Idahoans save their diving excursions for tropical waters, they often find an array of options in the rivers and lakes near home.
"Diving is like pizza," he remarks. "It's all good; it's just different. We all have different opinions about what might be too cold or what we prefer to see while we're diving. It's not all about warm, super clear water."