Andy Ogburn can’t remember a time when his father, Larry, now 73, wasn’t scuba diving. Though raised in the inland town of Camden, Larry grew up with the desire for underwater exploration. Andy says that his father kept clippings and scrapbooks of divers as a boy. As soon as he could, Larry taught himself to scuba dive around 1957.
For many years, he simply “dabbled” in it — although, as one of the only scuba divers in the 1960s, he was sometimes called to look for people lost in the nearby rivers, lakes or ponds.
In the 1970s, Larry took his young family down to the Florida Keys with the expectation that they would scuba dive together. However, Larry learned that in order to dive there, certification was necessary. This motivated him to not only become certified when he returned to his native Camden, but also to begin instructing and certifying others. He started teaching out of his garage, and eventually opened Wateree Diving School and Supply in Camden. In 1977, he moved the business to Columbia and opened Wateree Dive Center — and the rest is history.
In some capacity, Andy has worked at the dive shop most of his life. “I had the pleasure of growing up in the business and working with my best friends, my parents.” He worked at the shop part time in middle and high school and also while attending the University of South Carolina. “In the 7th grade, I recall walking to town after school to open the store until my dad got off of his day job to come to the dive center and work evenings,” he says. Andy and his family have been on too many scuba diving trips to count with his mother, Serena, as their “travel expert” who plans the trips.
Forty-plus-years later, the Ogburns — all of them — dive together. Andy’s sister, Lizabeth, and her husband, John, dive along with their son, 17-year-old Thomas. “My dad certified Thomas when he was ten years old,” says Andy. “My wife, Shane, and 12-year-old daughter, Caroline, also dive.” In fact, Andy met his wife in a Myrtle Beach dive shop that he ran for a short time.
“Really, the whole core of divers in Columbia is like one extended family. It’s a close-knit community. And the neatest aspect of it is that divers are such a diverse group of people. You can’t pinpoint any particular demographic.”
Some of the people regularly acquainted with the Ogburn family — through dive trips or their shop — include retired physician Tripp Jones, first female United States Coast Guard diver Linda Moroz and Dr. Marshall Fields.
Tripp Jones began diving after his wife and sons, who learned to dive before him, talked him into it. “After my first lesson with Larry, I came home and was watching the Discovery Channel about some of the first divers on the Monitor, the Civil War iron clad, and there was Larry on the show about diving. Wow!” Tripp felt it was meant to be. That was 22 years ago.
Tripp says he is sort of a local, unofficial dive ambassador in that he will talk to anyone about scuba diving who cares to listen. For his family, scuba diving has been a bonding experience. “When my kids were teenagers, what teenagers want to be seen with their parents? But it was cool for them to do stuff with us because we went traveling and diving together,” Tripp says.
Tripp’s sons are now 36 and 38 years old. One of his sons now resides in Panama City, Fla., and is a scuba diving instructor. “It’s just such a neat thing to do — my family has loved it. And it was really a de-stressor,” he continues.
Linda Moroz, a diver now for 30-plus years, says that she cannot remember a time when she didn’t enjoy diving. After becoming a certified diver through Wateree Dive Center, she so desperately wanted to dive that she joined the Coast Guard to be closer to the water. While in the Coast Guard, she attended the Navy surface-supplied diving school in California because the Coast Guard does not have its own diving school. As a member on the Coast Guard dive team, she was one of the divers who participated in the recovery of the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger when it exploded during it’s launch in 1986. She became a commercial diver and started a commercial diving business working with engineers. Now she concentrates on recreational diving, including a trip last year to Fiji.
“Every dive is awe-inspiring, peaceful and unique,” Linda says. “And there is such camaraderie with other divers.” She feels a kinship with the Ogburns, especially Andy, whom she likens to a younger brother. She tries to participate in as many dives as possible with other Columbia divers.
Marshall Fields is one of a handful of scuba divers in the area who is captivated with scuba diving because of the thrill of seeing sharks up close and personal. Most divers, according to Andy, either unintentionally or purposefully avoid encounters with sharks. Marshall, on the other hand, seeks out these opportunities. “Sharks are arguably one of the most maligned and misunderstood of all creatures,” Marshall says. “I’ve been diving for eight years, and I’m enamored and enthralled with their beauty.” He expresses that even though it is very rare for sharks to attack humans, the media focuses most attention on sharks as human predators.
Marshall pursued diving after his son, Adam, became a diver and wanted something for them to do together. He says he instantly became hooked, was certified through Wateree Dive Center, and travels to at least three dive spots outside the United States each year — plus, he dives in Lake Murray and on the coasts of North and South Carolina fairly regularly.
His interest in shark diving emerged when he went for a dive trip to the Bahamas and participated in a shark adventure dive. “If you show them respect and don’t panic, they are so interesting to observe,” he says. “The young ones are especially curious.” He enjoyed getting up close to tiger and lemon sharks while visiting the Bahamas, and has gotten in a cage to view Great White Sharks in Mexico.
“It’s still peaceful to me to dive with sharks. They are such majestic and interesting creatures,” he says.
Local divers not only travel long distances to dive, but also enjoy Lake Murray, the favorite local dive spot. Divers report that some areas around the dam, though the water is sometimes murky, are visually interesting. Dive trips in driving distance include the waters off North and South Carolina, as well as Florida, but the Cooper River in South Carolina is sought after for its Native American artifacts and prehistoric sharks teeth.
Popular far-off scuba diving locales are the Bahamas, Bonaire (near Aruba), Cayman Islands, Dominica, Honduras and Truk Lagoon, which is about 600 miles from Guam and is a favorite wreck diving site due to shipwrecked Japanese vessels. “It is one of his favorite places to dive,” Andy says. “There are more than 60 Japanese vessels that were sunk there after World War II — creating a vast coral reef. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
In May, Serena took a group to Dominica. “Anywhere it’s warm and clear there is always good diving,” Andy says. “Of course, we all enjoy wreck diving, but mostly, we dive for the pleasure of experiencing resplendent species of marine life.”
Learning to Dive
According to Master Scuba Diver Trainer Robert Hopkins “Hop” Ridgell, the manager and an instructor with Columbia Scuba, those interested in diving can become certified through a variety of options including private or group classes. “Whenever and wherever,” Hop explains. “Spring is when the certification season cranks up, and it runs through the fall.” Typically there is one instructor per about eight students. Students learn the “do’s and don’ts” of diving in required classroom, pool and natural water instruction.
Columbia Scuba, like Wateree Dive Center, is a full-service shop not only offering lessons but also gear as well. Columbia Scuba is owned by Lucy Dunbar, who is a master instructor.
Hop points out that “newbies” must learn all about the equipment and the technique of diving, as well as how to handle certain problems that might arise. “Unlike getting your driver’s license, the laws that you must abide by with scuba diving are laws of physics, and those laws can’t be broken. It’s not as simple as strapping a tank to your back and jumping in the water. You have to understand the effects of pressure on your body and how your body metabolizes the compressed air you’re breathing, which is 79 percent nitrogen and your body doesn’t metabolize nitrogen.”
Instructors evaluate each person on a case-by-case basis to determine comfort and skill level before certifying. For some, aspects of the certification process must be repeated in order to make newbies feel more confident, comfortable and safe. Putting in the classroom, pool and natural water time doesn’t guarantee a person will be certified in the allotted time, but all instructors are eager to see you succeed, even if it takes a little longer.
“At first, many beginning divers approach their open-water checkout dives with great trepidation,” says Hop, “and then they come away from those dives with giant smiles, sharing fun stories about the dives. It’s particularly rewarding to expose new divers to the sea.”
After someone acquires a basic certification to scuba dive, Andy Ogburn says there are then a variety of cool classes that interested parties can take. These classes include limited visibility, buoyancy control, underwater navigation and underwater photography.
Few dive students decide that scuba diving is not for them, but some do make that decision. Of the thousands of students that Wateree has taught, there have been very few problems. Sometimes, when medical issues seem to be an obstacle or a detriment, they can be worked around depending on the individual.
For those who are not sure about scuba diving, there are discovery classes in area pools that give people a taste of diving in shallow conditions.
Individuals can take scuba diving to a professional level, like Linda did at one time, or keep it strictly recreational. Many, like Andy, are interested in wreck diving and underwater photography. Others simply enjoy the abundance of marine life.
Andy enjoys teaching because it is his opportunity to pass on the ability to scuba dive to others. Since it has brought such closeness to his family and fellowship among other divers, he wants to motivate others.
Hop says teaching scuba enables him to share his enthusiasm with others. He proclaims himself an “adventure freak” and says that anticipating what he will see keeps him looking forward to each new dive. “I have always had a wanderlust, a deep down sense of adventure — wherever I might find it,” Hop says. “I’ve always enjoyed the Star Trek feeling. ‘To boldly go where no one has gone before.’ In this tech-driven world, where many people now find adventure by exercising their thumbs while sitting on the couch in front of a giant television screen, we know more about the moon than we know about the undersea world on our own planet!”
For Andy, scuba diving is as natural to him as walking. Every day he can dive is a good day. “I’ve just never known a life without diving. I never get tired of it … it’s a major part of who I am.”