Diver Down

Deep float

The Valley is a land of contradictions when it comes to staying wet and keeping cool. For example, you hear that oft-quoted factoid that Arizona is tops in the nation regarding boats per capita. And despite the absence of natural bodies of water in our landlocked town, Phoenix is a prime spot for scuba-diving schools. Yes, really.

We scouted the best scuba joints, got a few pointers from the experts, squashed some myths and compiled this handy guide for those seeking underwater bliss. Enroll, get certified and dive in head or fin first, captain.

LEGENDS OF THE SEA

A popular fable amongst scuba newbies is that our hot summers spawn an elevated interest in the sport. Not so fast, says Bobbie Nicosia, owner of Aqua Blue Sports.

"The sport's popularity in Phoenix has nothing to do with the hot temperatures," she says. "It's because diving is available anywhere in the world, from our own Lake Pleasant and community pools in Kansas to the oceans in Mexico and Fiji."

The store's most popular certification option is a 10-day course on Tuesday nights. The tutelage includes home study with books and DVDs, practical pool training and the Lake Pleasant open-water class required for certification. It also offers the coursework training through its Web site (www.aquablue.com) and the final-exam dive can be done in San Carlos, Mexico.

And that old yarn about scuba being reckless and difficult to pick up? Not true either, says Nicosia. "In the '50s, scuba was considered a dangerous sport, but that's changed. It's very easy to learn how to scuba dive. All it takes is an investment in time and money."

URBAN OASIS

If you've ever done a double take while walking by Downtown Scuba, the Valley's newest dive shop, in Artisan Village, you're not alone. Just ask manager Sean Shelton. "Every day, people kind of look up at the sign and say, 'Scuba? In downtown Phoenix?' It's actually pretty funny to watch," he says.

The small spot opened in early 2007 with a slightly different approach to certifying students: The staff will work around your schedule. Get schooled in six days over a two-week period, which includes the baby-steps scuba training in the Artisan Village pool. Once certified, they partner with local scuba stalwarts All Wet Scuba and Oasis Divers in organizing monthly trips to San Carlos and more exotic locales such as Belize and Cozumel.

The space is also a First Friday destination with monthly artist openings featuring (yep, you guessed it) underwater photography as well as work by fine art shutterbugs. And, on every last Friday of the month, marine enthusiasts and master divers meet at Jillian's, the sports bar on steroids, where you may see trained aquatics masters drown themselves . . . in beer.

HAVE A LAKE PLEASANT DAY

Now that you're certified and purchased the necessities, including a mask, boots, gloves, fins and a snorkel, you need a destination. However, you're too strapped for cash to hightail it down to Mexico or the Caribbean for a weekend. What a wipeout, dude.

No worries, mate, because year-round diving is at your doorstep in Lake Pleasant's secluded coves. The views of active marine life are crisp and it's less than an hour's drive from central Phoenix. Be warned, summer scuba-ers: The best dive times are in the winter and spring months when water is released into the lake from Waddell Dam.

A quick and easy way to hitch a ride is with the Valley Dive-N-Boat Service. The company presents a full-vessel service with food, snacks, cold and dry storage and toilets. So jump aboard, sailor. Just don't rock the boat.

SCUBA GEAR AND LESSONS

Aqua Blue Sports, 4230 East Indian School Road, in business since 1955, offers a certification program for $410. There’s also an in-store aquatic-themed museum. Call 602-955-4120 or check out www.aquablue.com.

All Wet Scuba, 1006 East Warner Road in Tempe, trains newbies as well as experienced divers. Call 480-491-5357 or see www.allwetscuba.com.

Downtown Scuba, 610 East Roosevelt Street, Suite 141, teams with Oasis Divers, 4015 East Bell Road, and Ocean Planet Scuba, 107 East Broadway in Tempe, in organizing trips to San Diego, North Carolina, Key Largo, Belize and more. A full certification program starts at $500. Call 602-258-3483 or see www.downtownscuba.com.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, 41835 North Castle Hot Springs Road in Morristown, showcases scuba diving, fishing, windsurfing and sweeping views of the Bradshaw Mountains. Call 928-501-1710 or visit www.maricopa.gov/parks/ lake_pleasant.

Valley Dive-N-Boat Service offers weekend rides on Lake Pleasant for $59 per day. Call 602-770-0490.

 
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