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Divers brave chilly waters to keep New Year's Day tradition alive

Cold, clear water draws divers like moths to a flame even on a day with air temperatures in the single digits and teens, according to divers participating in the New Year Day Underwater Dive at Hyde’s Quarry.

The dive, organized by Undersea Outfitters, took place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day at the quarry on Jasontown Road just outside Westminster, drawing 14 divers who donned dry suits and scuba gear before dropping below the surface.

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The 9-acre Hyde's Quarry is owned by the county and has been leased by Undersea Outfitters and used as a training facility since 2007. Formed on the site of a limestone pit, the 50- to 60-foot-deep lake hosts scuba students on weekends from April through November, giving them an opportunity to swim through an underwater playground constructed by the company — with a school bus, a Jeep and an airplane under the water.

Mike Raley runs the quarry for Undersea Outfitters. He said the airplane was an Eagle Scout project that was originally suspended above the water. Raley warmed his hands over an open fire with Sherri Ierley, owner of York Divers in Pennsylvania, looking over the lake as divers entered and exited the water. Raley said everyone who dives does it for a different reason.

“For some it is just the feeling of being underwater. There is so much to see. For others, it is underwater photography. I like to hunt for fossils underwater,” he said, noting that he’s found them in the Potomac River, rivers of Virginia and along the coast.

Ierley said she wouldn’t miss being there. It is an annual event for her.

“I come out to support my divers,” she said, noting that 12 of the 14 divers in the water at 10 a.m. were from her facility. “Our guys just really enjoy diving and they take every opportunity, regardless of how insane it is, to go and get in the water. This has been an annual tradition for us for 20-some years, whether it is here or wherever we had access to the water.”

She said the feeling divers get when diving is hard to describe.

“The opportunity to be underwater is amazing,” Ierley said. “It is quiet. It is peaceful. That whole feeling of being suspended — it is total stress relief. Until you do it you can’t really put into words what it is like to be under there, even though it is freezing cold.”

But there is more than just what the water offers.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie between the divers,” Raley said. “It’s a community, so there’s a sense of belonging to something. Everybody likes to belong, and this is a really fun group, an outgoing group.”

Westminster resident Travis Dixon appeared from beneath the water with a smile on his face. He and his wife, Kim, both love to dive, but he alone participated in the New Year’s Day Dive.

“She’s not as much into the cold, but it was more pleasant in the water than out,” he said. “It was 38 degrees at the bottom today. That’s 30 degrees warmer than the air temperature. Once you are in it is OK. Only your face gets wet.”

Dixon said he was surprised at the number of active fish on a day as cold as this one. He’d seen a large school of blue gills at about the 18-foot range.

“I went [down] about 50 feet today, to the bottom,” he said. “Once you realize the control and maneuverability that diving gives you in the water, it completely changes the underwater experience. You have control of three dimensions underwater. You’re not going to sink.”

Raley said divers in training usually take five to eight classes before their first certification. That includes about 10 hours in the water and four or five check-out dives to demonstrate required skills. Diver certification advances by levels from Open Water to Advanced Open Water, to Dive Master, and then Instructor level. From there, divers can take myriad specialty classes, everything from photography to navigation, ship diving, technical diving, (learning to dive around icebergs and other challenging land structures) and more.

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Divers gathered inside an onsite trailer to slip out of dry suits and chat, a Mr. Heater blasting warmth. Among them was Ed Carter of Abington Township, Pennsylvania, a Dive Master waiting for the paperwork showing his Assistant Instructor status. He’s been diving for 12 years and has participated at least a half-dozen New Year Day Dives.

“I love these guys. It would be no fun if we were out here by ourselves,” Carter said with a laugh. “We do it just because nobody else will. It’s something that only crazy people do.”

His voice turned serious.

“It’s more just practice, learning how to work your gear when you are cold. When you are down there your brain sometimes slows down a bit, but it is warmer under the water,” he said. “It’s definitely something you have to prepare for. You have to be comfortable with your skills and be prepared for emergencies because if something is going to go wrong, it is going to go wrong in conditions like this.”

Dive Master Chris White, of Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, agreed. He’s been diving for six years.

“This is a group of people who have seen things that most people won’t get to see unless they try scuba diving,” he said. “This is my first New Year’s Day dive. It might be a little cold, but it is a good way to start the year off. It will wake you up.”

White said he has been on trips to dive in the Caribbean, Honduras, Costa Rica and Jamaica — all with York Divers. They also take two trips to North Carolina annually.

“This last trip there were about 15 sand tiger sharks in the water. That was one of my top things,” White said.

Ed Rash, of Glenville, Pennsylvania, was on his 10th New Year’s Day Dive. The 15-year-diver listed the reasons diving has a following.

“It’s the adventure,” Rash said. “It’s something that you don’t have to be super-physically fit and you see a lot of things underwater, the water life, the rock formations. ... You are weighted but weightless. It is so peaceful.”

Rash, who is also waiting on his assistant instructor paperwork, said he had no hesitation about the weather.

“It is the challenge,” he said. “It is getting out there and advancing your skills.”

And of course, Rash said, it is about sharing the adventure.

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