Take A Dive

…exploring scuba in the Lowcountry

By Chris Sokoloski

Not everyone immediately associates scuba diving with the South Strand of South Carolina. But one of the best opportunities to explore ocean depths is available right here.

“You have to think outside the box sometimes when you come to the Atlantic,” said Jennifer Poore, co-owner of Express Watersports in Murrells Inlet, which began renting diving equipment in 1997 and started running its own diving charters a year later. “I think with the coastline, people would naturally think that there would be diving. I think it’s a treat here to dive in the Atlantic.”

Poore has been diving for more than 20 years. She finds the activity to be quiet and peaceful, something that she says takes you away from the realities of the world. “You’re able to become one with your surroundings,” she said.

Some of the diving equipment essentials include mask, fins, booties, weight belt and weights, snorkel can, primary and secondary regulators, submersible pressure gauge, dive computer, wetsuit, buoyancy control device and tanks.

Getting Certified

Before strapping on some gear and jumping into the water, divers must be certified. To sign up for an Express Watersports diving course, a person must be at least 10 years old, able to swim 200 yards and capable of treading water for 10 minutes.

The three-step certification process includes training in an academic setting, in the water, on land and in the water offshore.

The academic portion can be done either online or in a classroom, which usually takes five or six hours to complete. Some students finish the academic portion at home before their vacation, so they are ready to complete the training and go diving when they get here.

Step two requires being tested by a certified dive instructor in a pool, which is performance based. “If it takes four hours, great; if it takes 10 hours that’s fine too,” Poore said.

Some people arrive on vacation having already completed the academic and pool testing steps. In that case, Poore said, the student would still have to take a short class in the pool so the instructor can make sure the person is up to speed before moving on to step three – which is hitting the open water!

To complete step three, Poore said students and instructors do four open water checkout dives, usually two dives a day for two days. “We’ll do those same skills we did in the pool; now we’re going to do those out in the ocean,” she said.

People who are unsure whether they really want to go through the whole certification process can also choose a “discover scuba” class, which allows them to learn the basics and what it feels like to breathe underwater.

“That way you can get your feet wet and make sure it’s something that you really want to do,” Poore said.

Different Depths

The first level of scuba certification is open water, which allows people to dive up to 60 feet with a dive buddy. Poore said diving any deeper than 60 feet requires advanced open water certification, which allows a diver to go to 130 feet – the recreational limit.

“Basically, that’s just more training,” Poore said. “It’s more hands-on, more experience in getting some deeper dives in, that type of thing.”

Express Watersports doesn’t offer training beyond advanced open water certification because there isn’t a great demand for it. Poore points out that you can sail 40 miles off the South Carolina coast and still be in about only 110 feet of water.

Medical Considerations

During the certification process, potential divers are required to complete a medical questionnaire. Poore said that if a person suffers from certain medical conditions – such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, pneumothorax or decompression sickness (also known as “the bends”) – a doctor’s note would be required to sign off on training.

Another restriction is not being able to dive and fly in the same 24-hour period to avoid decompression sickness. However, it is permissible to fly into a location and then dive within the next 24 hours.

Where To Dive

Express Watersports has about 40 dive sites they visit, ranging from 10 miles to about 40 miles offshore.

In this area, the sites visited are mostly wrecks from World War II and the Civil War, including tugboats, freighters and airplanes. Some of the wrecks have been intentionally sunk by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources through its artificial reef program.

Express Watersports’ sites for novice divers include:

  • Bill Perry, which includes a tugboat, a Navy landing craft and a shrimp trawler
  • 3 Mile Reef, which includes 20 Army personnel carriers
  • Pawleys Reef, a 48-foot tugboat
  • Bruce Rush Reef, a 65-foot fishing boat
  • Captain Dan Reef, a 75-foot steel shrimp boat
  • Copper Pot Wreck, a 160-foot steamer
  • Goldfinch Reef, which includes a 150-foot Navy vessel
  • The City of Richmond, a five-deck passenger ship

Express Watersports also offers trips that require divers to have advanced certification. These sites include:

  • The Hebe, a Dutch freighter
  • Greenville Reef, which includes a 105-foot tugboat, a 175-foot Navy vessel and a 106-foot fuel barge
  • St. Cathan, a British submarine chaser
  • USS Vermillion, a 470-foot troop carrier
  • Anchor Wreck, a 275-foot freighter
  • Pipe Wreck, a side wheel steamer
  • BP-25 and NYC Subway Cars, which includes a 280-foot tanker

It truly is an entirely different world under the ocean. And while photos of what other people have seen on dives are wonderous and beautiful, wouldn’t it be amazing to be there for yourself? It only takes three steps!