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Westminster teen, certified in rescue diving, set to attend Hawaii prep school for sea turtle research

Charles Wolford, who turned 14 on July 14, participates in an Atlantic Edge Scuba Diving class.
Charles Wolford, who turned 14 on July 14, participates in an Atlantic Edge Scuba Diving class. (Courtesy Photo)

Charles Wolford was just 6 years old when he was introduced to a scuba diving adventure game for Nintendo Wii called Endless Ocean.

The game places its players in the role of a scuba diver exploring the ocean with the freedom to explore special locations such as shipwrecks and underwater ruins, discover and interact with sea creatures, and complete fish logs.

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Wolford, a Westminster native who finished middle school at Gerstell Academy, said it is unlike any video game he’s ever played.

“You’re exploring the ocean with fish, sort of, and you use your Wii remote to feed them, which is really cool,” Wolford said. “It was really cool to hear what the sound was like when you breathe in and breathe out, which sounds pretty realistic.”

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It was realistic enough for Wolford and he wanted to do it for himself in real time.

Wolford, who turned 14 on July 14, became a certified rescue diver through Atlantic Edge Scuba in Gaithersburg on July 12. He was recently accepted to the Hawaii Preparatory Academy, a co-educational, private, international boarding school in Waimea, Hawaii.

He intends to join the HPA’s Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program to aid in scientific efforts focused on the recovery of endangered sea turtles.

Students in seventh grade and above are eligible to participate, according to the HPA website. Typical research trips involve capturing turtles in shallow waters, taking biometrics and completing heath assessments as well as inserting passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags into the turtle’s hind flippers.

Data collected by HPA students and their instructors helps produce a deeper understanding of feeding activities, home range, growth rates, and other critical conservation data.

“It makes me excited because this is the only high school in the United States that allows kids to do sea turtle research,” Wolford said. “I’ll be doing some of that, along with taking honors geometry, honors biology, and Spanish. In the coming years, I’ll be taking traditional Hawaiian and Chinese.”

Wolford received his Professional Association of Diving Instructors scuba diving certification from Atlantic Edge when he was 10 years old. Before he could become a certified rescue diver, he had to get certified at the Advanced Open Water Diver level.

The rescue diving course consists of two parts, knowledge development through independent study and open water training. Wolford’s instructor, Amanda Burleigh, said buoyancy is a very important factor in diving and it helps divers improve their safety and control their breathing while in the water.

“You need to be at that nice, proper weight so that way you can get down and hover over corals without inflating your BCD [buoyancy control device],” Burleigh said. “If you inflate and deflate all the time, you’re using all your air in your tank and you won’t be able to stay down as long as the rest of the people.

“Being properly weighted and having good buoyancy is key.”

Burleigh has been a certified open water diver since 2014 and started working at Atlantic Edge in 2017. She received her diving instructor certification in 2019 after completing a variety of necessary programs to aid in her instruction.

Burleigh said Wolford’s progress in the water has sufficiently increased from when he first started.

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“For a younger kid doing this course, it’s a lot of focus,” Burleigh said. “It’s a lot of effort and it’s physically and mentally exhausting. Rescue is one of the most serious courses out of all of them and I really encourage everyone to go up to rescue diver because it makes you more aware of your surroundings and everyone else.”

Wolford participated in the Coral Restoration Foundation’s Coralpalooza event in the Florida Keys last summer, where he got to plant coral and help restore coral reefs with about 250 divers. Together, the divers returned 1,760 corals to the wild, according to the CRF website.

“Be prepared to have to do a lot of work, but also be prepared to have some fun as well,” Wolford said. “It seems hard at first, but don’t give up. Just keep on doing it if you truly want to do it because in the end, you’ll be able to go down to at least 60 feet.

“Now, mind you, that is freezing cold, but it’s very fun to go down really deep and do things underwater and be able to breathe.”

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