Nearly 31 years ago, newlyweds Bruce Farmer and JoAnn Gearhart Farmer spent an idyllic honeymoon scuba diving in the gentle currents and exploring the coral reefs of Bonaire Marine Park in the southern Caribbean.
The trip made such an impression on the Columbia residents that when Farmer partnered with his brother, Fred, and two other “gentleman divers” to open Columbia Scuba six months later, Bonaire would become an anniversary getaway combined with an annual dive shop excursion.
At the time, “there was nothing like it in Howard County,” Farmer says of Columbia Scuba, which opened in 1986 on Little Patuxent Parkway. The landlocked dive shop started small, with mostly East Coast trips for shipwreck diving, oyster collecting, spear fishing and lobster hunting.
As the local scuba community grew, Farmer’s business grew with it. Now located on Dobbin Road, Columbia Scuba runs several dive trips a year to exotic destinations like Bonaire and Belize, along with weekend trips closer to home. Several thousand divers turn to the shop for training, gear and a network that shares their wanderlust, love of underwater photography and desire to use their skills for the public good.
“There are almost no age barriers in diving — we all do the same thing,” says Farmer, whose shop has taught students ages 12 to 71.
On a recent trip to Roatan, Honduras, the divers were almost as varied.
“I had a very eclectic but good mix of people on the trip ranging in age from the 20s into the 60s,” says Bruce’s son, Rob Farmer, who joined the business five years ago after serving in the Army and as a police officer.
But before diving into open water, Columbia Scuba students train in the pool.
Senior staff instructor Pablo Garcia-Ojeda describes the thrill of teaching scuba skills to newbies: “The first time they put their head under water and breathe, the eyes go big, and the smile is incredible,” he says.
On a recent Thursday evening, staff instructor Frank Lewis, assisted by dive master Andrew Baker, took a group of six novices to the Columbia Swim Center for a three-hour confined water session.
The group practiced the buddy system of suiting up (in wet suits, buoyancy control vests, masks, snorkels and fins), their entrance and safety routines. Then they experienced the exhilaration of breathing underwater for the first time.
“It’s a really cool experience when you’re used to fighting to breathe as a swimmer,” 23-year-old Jason Budde said.
During the last half hour, the class enjoyed a playful free swim with Lewis and Baker standing by.
After five classes, students can complete four open-water dives at locations like Hyde’s Quarry in Westminster to earn their certifications — allowing them to reap the rewards of the sport.
Some years ago, on a trip to Costa Rica when the Arenal volcano was active, Farmer said 12 divers were thrilled to see lava being thrown into the night sky and boulders rolling down the mountain.Columbia Scuba dive instructor Terry Papavasilis, a park ranger in Lancaster, Pa., loves running trips off the coast of Wilmington, N.C. to World War II shipwrecks and diving 30 miles offshore in search of fossilized teeth from megalodons, prehistoric sharks as large as Greyhound buses.
“When you realize you’re the first human who’s ever touched [a megalodon tooth fossil], it’s a feeling that I can’t put words to,” she says.
Papavasilis, like several other Columbia Scuba divers, also puts her skills to use as a volunteer. She’s part of a public safety dive team in the Pocono Mountains.
Farmer says Columbia Scuba divers volunteered at Columbia triathlons for 25 years — clearing underwater safety hazards in Centennial Lake before events and standing by in powerboats ready to perform rescue operations — and at the cardboard boat regatta races at Lake Kittamaqundi.
Lewis, a master scuba diver trainer who lives in Ellicott City, trained with a program for teaching disabled scuba divers for the Handicapped Scuba Association, which he hopes will fit into Columbia Scuba’s future, and serves as dive operations coordinator for the Fifth District Volunteer Fire Department in Clarksville.* “I feel excited about the trust the shop places in me — it’s gratifying,” he says.
But some say the scuba community of divers is one of the biggest lures to the sport. Parents, children and grandchildren dive together, and married couples have found their spouses in the community, according to Farmer.
As much as Dwayne Grady loves diving — he started taking classes at Columbia Scuba in 2014 and has worked his way up to dive master — he says the culture of “really cool, friendly people” is an equal draw.
Grady persuaded his reluctant wife, Joi, to try diving; now they celebrate New Year’s Eve with dive friends.
“I didn’t believe humans belonged in the ocean,” Joi Grady says. “Now I find it very relaxing.”
“I call it the superman effect; when you’re underwater you feel like you can control gravity and go up and down at will,” Dwayne Grady says.
Pat Kohl, of Columbia, hopes to go to Belize with Columbia Scuba in the spring.
“They had a social a few months back with some wet suit people,” he says. “It was a great chance to get together with some of the folks I had trained with as well as to meet some new dive buddies.”
Those who are curious about scuba diving will have a chance to check it out later this month at Columbia Scuba’s last Splash Party of the year. On Nov. 16, certified instructors will present a low-intensity intro to the basics, provide equipment and take novice divers into the deep end of the pool to play underwater.
Students who decide to enroll in open water classes can connect with a community of divers that have been training and traveling together for decades.
Columbia Scuba Splash Party
Nov. 16 at 8:30 p.m.
Columbia Swim Center, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia
Ages 12 and older; advance registration required.