Mike Coots was 18 when he was bitten by a tiger shark while bodyboarding in Hawaii, almost losing his life in the process of losing most of his right leg. Now a PADI diver, underwater photographer and shark advocate, he is committed to changing perceptions about sharks and lobbying for their protection.
“By diving with the same species that attacked me, I could draw attention to sharks and why they’re important to our ocean,” he says. “Tiger Beach also offers the visual beauty and clear water of the Bahamas.
“When you go under water, the weight of the world disappears. You’re in this incredible 3D world; it’s like floating in space mixed with a Disney movie, and PADI is the key to entering that world.”
Today is International Disabilities Day (3 December), and the training agency is taking the opportunity to remind divers of its declared mission to make both scuba and freediving accessible to all through its pro-level PADI Adaptive Techniques Diving and buddy-level Adaptive Support Diver specialities.
The first of these courses takes dive professionals through classroom, confined- and open-water workshops to boost awareness of differing abilities and explore adaptive-teaching techniques to apply when training divers with physical and mental challenges. The pros learn to adapt course content to accommodate virtually any student diver, says PADI.
The second speciality is designed to teach friends and family adaptive techniques for diving with a buddy who has a disability, with many students taking the course to learn to support a particular person. Mike Coots is one of four examples of divers who PADI says have been empowered by adaptive teaching.
Luke Menasco has had cerebral palsy (CP) from birth but is able to enjoy surfing as well as scuba diving. “Getting PADI-certified has been one of my biggest physical accomplishments I’ve tackled with CP – and something I’m very proud of,” he says. “I’d love for someone else with CP to read this and use it as motivation to help them realise that diving could be possible for them as well.”
Cody Unser is a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver with the spinal-cord disorder transverse myelitis, and founded the First Step Foundation. She works with US PADI dive-centres to help certify as OWDs individuals with spinal cord injuries, and says she has experienced first-hand how scuba diving can help individuals to overcome any mental or physical challenge.
“People with disabilities should not have to wait until non-profits like ours have the funds to get certified,” she says. “PADI dive-centres have the power to literally change people’s lives by simply training their teams on adaptive diving techniques and incorporating this into their course offerings.”
Triple amputee Bryan Anderson became a PADI Open Water Diver with his dive-buddy and former battalion commander Robert Tardash, with whom he had served in Iraq in the US Army in 2005. Nearly two decades later they reunited as divers following Anderson’s injury.
“You’re in the water just like everybody else – all the fish and animals – even though I’m a triple amputee,” says Anderson. “Being in the water made me feel like I was a part of it, and not different in any way.”
“There is a sort of alchemy to diving,” commented Robert Currer, the PADI course director who supported Anderson and Tardash’s adaptive diving journey. “It takes those who pursue it, regardless of physical or cognitive ability, and, through a blend of adventure, practice and patience, it transforms them into something stronger, more courageous. It rekindles the child-like awe in our hearts.
“Bryan had many of those qualities in spades but sitting on the back of that boat basking in the glow of his triumph, I saw even the incredible Bryan Anderson grow just a little more indomitable. I saw him become a diver.”