Seven youngsters age 10-15 became certified scuba divers last week with Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures in Islamorada. But their final two check-out dives 25 feet deep on the reef were anything but routine: they were accompanied by a pair of moray eels, a half-dozen nurse sharks, and big schools of chubs and snapper.
“It was really cool to see the sharks and everything!” newly-minted diver Bernard, 14, of Islamorada said afterward.
And the best thing about scuba diving?
“Being underwater and looking at everything and not running out of air,” Bernard added.
For 23 years, Capt. Spencer Slate and his crew have been conducting a summer kids’ scuba camp out of their Keys shop. The five-day June session was taught by Captain Russell “Skip” Dawson, a NAUI/SEI course director and Captain Sky Fabel — Slate’s daughter, dive boat captain, and dive instructor. Slate was master of ceremonies for the final two open-water dives–the popular “Creature Feature” where he feeds and cuddles tame eels and sharks.
The pre-dive briefing on the boat heading out to the site was more about creature safety than dive skills.
“Do not reach out to the eel with your hand if he’s coming to you,” Slate told the students. “Don’t try to pick the eel up. I’ll bring him up to you and you can pet him. If you are stupid, he will bite you.”
Once at the reef, everyone descended and Slate banged on a tank to summon the eels– a six-foot-long green and a smaller spotted moray. They seemed a little hesitant, venturing out of their rocky lairs just long enough to eat some fish bits, let Slate pet them, and inspect the divers kneeling on the bottom. No animals nor people were harmed during the filming of the dive by Emmy-winning videographer Frazier Nivens.
For the second dive, the group visited with a half dozen easygoing nurse sharks to about seven feet long. The sharks gobbled the fish snacks they were offered, allowed themselves to be petted, and rested on the bottom between the kneeling divers.
That was a highlight for newly-certified advanced diver, Patrick, 15, of Key Largo.
“I like seeing sharks. I’m interested in sharks,” Patrick said. “I did the advanced course because I love scuba diving. I want to see wrecks and stuff.”
Added Marco, 15, of Tavernier: “I like that it’s another world that you can’t see on dry land and it’s only in specific areas of the world.”
Fabel said she really enjoyed teaching the kids.
“They loved asking questions,” she said. “That’s what I love about this camp.”
Captain Slate will offer two more kids’ scuba camps this summer: July 10-14 and Aug. 7-11. Limited to 15 divers, they are expected to fill up fast.
For more information, visit www.captainslate.com, and to reserve a slot in the next camp, call 1-800-331-3483.
Families who need a room during the camps can reserve at the Islander, a Guy Harvey Outpost in Islamorada. Call 1-800-513-5257.
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