Diver takes a plunge into business Scuba instructor opens school, store

June 27, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

For three decades, Jim McCallister spent countless hours exploring the depths of the sea and teaching others to do the same.

From the Florida Keys to the Cayman Islands, he worked in resorts as a scuba instructor and shared his students' fascination with stunning coral reef formations, underwater marine and plant life and shipwrecks.

Now, the 54-year-old Harford County native has come home to share his experience and knowledge with an ever-growing group of diving enthusiasts.

Last week, he culminated 18 months of planning by opening Scubamerica, a combination scuba equipment store and diving school. Inside Scubamerica, a 4,000-square-foot building housed in a former muffler repair shop, diving will be taught in a classroom area and a 10-foot-deep pool.

Mr. McCallister said he wanted to settle down and let the younger professional diving instructors have a crack at the resort trade.

Since returning to the United States for good in 1991, he continued to work as an instructor and met some people who encouraged him to open a store. With their financial backing, he invested $150,000 and took the plunge.

"This sport has grown tremendously over the past 30 years, and it continues to," he said.

Three decades ago, he said, Baltimore area divers had only one scuba store to go to, Joe Dorsey's Diver's Den in Parkville. Today, nearly a dozen such stores operate in the area.

Diving enthusiasts will find Scubamerica outfitted with all the latest equipment, including a full array of masks, fins, boots and wet suits.

The store has a staff of 11 part-time employees and is managed by Diane Weller, who is also an assistant instructor. "All of our employees are divers," she said, "so they are very knowledgeable and will provide excellent service to our customers."

Mr. McCallister said having a pool at Scubamerica will enable students to apply what they learn quickly without having to travel to another site.

"It takes time for students to become accustomed to the various pieces of equipment and to the point where it becomes second nature," he said above the din of jackhammers breaking up concrete flooring in the area that will become the pool in a matter of weeks. "We work at a pace suitable to each student."

A basic seven-week course, with two classes a week, costs $225. Additional costs range from $175 to $350 for a mask, snorkel, boots, fins, gloves, weight belt and weights. During the instruction period, the store provides a wet suit, a hood, a flotation jacket, a mouthpiece, gauges and an air tank.

Classes, taught by four instructors certified by the National Association of Underwater Instructors, will be scheduled every day of the week.

In addition to classroom instruction, which includes the use of film and video cassette, the course includes six pool sessions and culminates with an "open-water" weekend.

The open-water session is conducted at either Willow Springs, Pa., or Haymarket Quarry in Virginia.

Students willing to pay the tab can spend their open-water session at one of five resorts in the Florida Keys or at resorts in the Caribbean.

That depends on how much a student wants to spend, Mr. McCallister said. "We neither encourage or discourage such trips," he added.

But ask him to explain the appeal of such exotic destinations, and he gushes about his underwater adventures.

"I wouldn't trade my time working in the Florida Keys, Grand Caymans or any other Caribbean resort for anything," Mr. McCallister said. "I've seen some of the most spectacular underwater sights imaginable."

He recalled strange lights drawing him to an underwater cave off the Senegalese coast. Closer inspection of the cave, dubbed "Devils Hole" by natives, revealed little creatures attached to the walls emitting a glow much like that of a firefly.

"I've been extremely fortunate to earn a good living from something many people would consider simply a hobby," Mr. McCallister said. "Along the way, I've been able to teach diving to thousands of people."

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