A few years ago I began writing about my diving adventures, primarily to record my stories for my grandkids. I’ve considered the title “The Water Made Me Do It” for a book, should I ever finish my whole story and actually publish a book.

It’s a little hard for me to look back and realize that it was 56 years ago (1959) when I took my first breath underwater with Scuba gear. I was just 14 years old then and certainly fearless and clueless. I was going diving with a couple of older neighborhood pals from Richland, Washington. I made a deal with a former NAVY diver to purchase a used steel tank with a harness pack, and a used AquaMatic single hose regulator. I already had a mask and fins that I had used in a large lake when we were at Boy Scout camp for a week, and I had used them a few times in a local pond. I don’t recall if I had a snorkel or not. That was a long time ago.

Tom Hemphill, 1967

Tom Hemphill, 1967

I’ve seen a lot of changes in diving over the years, and it’s been pretty interesting. I didn’t take any formal lessons when I began diving. I read The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau and I watched every episode of Sea Hunt with Mike Nelson. My NAVY diver friend taught us a few things. I read every Skin Diver Magazine I could find and learned a lot from that as well.

In 1966 I purchased my first wet suit from Underwater Sports, a dive store in Portland, Oregon where I had move after high school and college. The best wet suits were skin rubber on both sides, no nylon lining. We used the layer technique with high-waist pants, pullover vest with hood attached and then the jacket. I never got cold, even in the winter when we drifted the rivers in +/- 36 degree water. Maybe I stayed warm because of youth and enthusiasm. I use a good dry suit now.

Graduating from wet suits to dry suits made a significant impact on me. In the 70s when I became more involved in teaching diving and underwater photography, I became a firm believer in dry suit diving. This was one of the greatest innovations in diving in the 70s and it made diving more enjoyable and much safer. However, it also made diving more expensive.

Another significant innovation was the submersible pressure gauge. I recall many time in the early years when I ended a great dive, climbed up the beach to the car, took my gear off, checked my air supply and discovered that I still had more than 1,000 psi of air in my tank. I could have stayed down another 20 minutes, but I didn’t know. Sure we had “J” valves on our tanks, some of the tanks anyway, but we tried to not push to the 300 psi level before ascending.

We started using “May West” vests, usually NAVY surplus, to provide some surface buoyancy in an emergency. The only time I had to use that device was when my goody bag was full of big rock scallops and I was struggling to get back to the boat. Then we got power inflatable BCs that made diving a lot easier, but it also created extra drag that made us a less hydrodynamic.

Before BCs, we did some intricate planning. If I planned to hunt fish at 50 to 80 feet, I would take some weight off of my weight belt and trim it to about 6 or 8 pounds of lead. I would make a surface dive, power kick down the first 30 feet or so, and level off at near neutral buoyancy. This worked well and as long as I was at depth. The “controlled ascent” was another issue. There are some controlled ascent techniques, but those stories will wait for a future article. The best method I used was filling a bag with scallops on the return to provide the ballast.

As an instructor, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the evolution of diver training. In the 60s & 70s, skin diving was dominate and a prerequisite for scuba training. Then there came the trend to reduce, and in many training programs, eliminate skin diving completely. My personal observation is that diver training evolved from mastering challenging skin diving and scuba skills to push-button, equipment operator diving.

I know that many instructors still train their students how to skin dive and they focus on extending breath-hold diving capabilities. However, many do not, and the short training programs with no skin diving and minimum water training is not working well, in my humble opinion. As a licensed dive boat Captain through the 90s and early 2000s, I witnessed the results of the minimum training programs.

Fortunately, I’ve noticed recently that more divers are becoming interested in breath-hold diving and there have been several articles published in diving magazines critiquing the short training programs that offer very little pool training. The evolution continues.

Northwest Diving History Association

I began visiting with Al Tillman (NAUI #1) in 1989 about setting up a diving museum somewhere in the northwest. We were both living in the San Juan Islands and Al would come to Friday Harbor to visit (and play handball) at least once a week. Al and Zale Parry (co-star on the Sea Hunt series) had been writing a lot of diving history for their Scuba America project. You can read about that project at www.divinghistory.com.

NW-Dive-History-LogoIn September 2010, we organized a NAUI 50th Birthday Party for the NW NAUI Members. We decided to get serious and carry on Al and Zale’s project. We held an auction and raised funds to start the project. We held several planning meetings through 2011, and in February 2012 we officially registered the Northwest Diving History Association as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation.

Mission Statement: Record and preserve the history of Recreational & Scientific Scuba Diving throughout our North Pacific, cold-water diving region, and provide the resources necessary to share the stories of the people and events, and exhibit the collections of equipment, books, magazines, photos and other memorabilia.

The cold-water diving region that we are focused on begins at about Monterey and continues north on the Pacific coast to include Oregon, Washington, BC & Alberta, Canada, Alaska and east to the Rockies.

We have several projects that are focused on achieving the mission. We have completed phase 1 of the web site development – www.divinghistory.org

Our association is not affiliated with any training agency or other company. Although we started the program with NAUI members, most of our members are affiliated with PADI, SSI and other agencies. Anyone that is interested in the mission should participate.

Our prime effort at this time is to gather the stories and photos of the diving pioneers from the 50s through the 80s. The diving pioneers are our most perishable resource. You can help get their stories, photos and other memorabilia.

Membership information and registration is available at www.divinghistory.org

Great diving memories. Thanks for reading.

– Tom Hemphill

Tom began diving as a 14 year old kid in a rock quarry in the desert of Eastern Washington State in 1959.   In 1971 he was certified as a NAUI Instructor. Tom founded Underwater Instructors, Inc. in the early 70s and opened a dive store in Vancouver, Washington. In 1983 he moved to Houston, TX and took a job with The Ocean Corporation as an Instructor for special programs. In 1986 he move again to California to work for NAUI as the National Sales Manager. In 1989 he fulfilled his dream and opened Emerald Seas Diving Center in Friday Harbor, Washington. Currently he is the Chairman of the Board for the Northwest Diving History Association and serves on the Board of Directors for NAUI.