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November 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Are You Too Old to Dive?

or do some dive operators just practice age discrimination?

from the November, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Many Undercurrent readers are veteran divers who have been around the block, so to speak, when it comes to diving the world over. But "veteran" could also be code for a "senior" diver. Yes, many of us are Boomer age and above, but then again, most are still plenty fit for diving and rarin' to go to Raja Ampat, Cocos Island and other remote parts of the globe for your underwater fix. But are there some dive operators who think divers over "a certain age" are just too old to dive?

We pondered that question after hearing from subscriber Jon Cheris (Wellsville, PA), who wrote us that the Royal Caribbean cruise line now has a maximum age and body weight for passengers taking dive trips through its vendors. "According to PADI, there are no restrictions; however, the cruise line will not let you book if you are too 'old.' The age limit ranges from 60 to 80, depending upon the country."

While booking a Bahamas cruise with Royal Caribbean, Cheris also wanted to schedule some dives during his trip. Royal Caribbean offered dives through Stuart Cove, but once it found out Cheris was over age 60, they said he couldn't dive. "Royal Caribbean claims it is the dive operator's rules, and I spent quite a while on the phone with them until I hit a dead end months before our sail date. At first, PADI blew me off, but when I said I would next go to AARP and Undercurrent, they quickly got their regional vice president involved, who said it is the cruise line [making the rule]." Cheris just contacted Stuart Cove's and booked a dive with them directly. "I understand the hazards and liability of diving," he says. "I see hungover young adults who are less fit to dive than I am. Some say there are physiological changes that make diving more challenging on the older diver. However, Divers Alert Network ran an article in Alert Diver just before we left that indicated it is safe for older divers. I plan to keep on diving just as long as I feel fit to do so. Arbitrary age limits are ludicrous and discriminatory."

So we asked readers in our mid-monthly e-mail if they had had an experience with a dive boat or resort that made them feel "too old," and whether they encountered dive operators that discriminated, consciously or not, against senior divers.

"I've faced the assumption that
anyone over age 55 is out of shape
and a candidate for cardiac arrest."

A couple of readers say they, too, have experienced cruise ships' restrictions on divers. When booking a cruise last spring with Holland America, Frank Stile (Canyon Lake, TX) was told the age limit for Bonaire diving was 60. Stile, age 80 ("and still going strong"), called Holland America's home office, then talked to cruise staff while aboard. "They were sympathetic but non-responsive. Fortunately, I arranged private dives with Wanna Dive prior to the cruise. They were great." Bob Halem (San Jose, CA), who is 70, never experienced the age issue, but he has experienced the weight issue. "I'm over 250 pounds and have seen weight limits on cruise ship diving offerings (never directly from a dive operator). When I checked, it was only because of wetsuit and equipment sizing concerns. When I announced I had all my own gear with me, the issue disappeared."

Some dive shops are asking older divers for letters from their doctors stating they're healthy enough to dive. When Philippe "Fifi" Kunz, who runs the Caicos Adventures shop in Turks & Caicos, found out that subscriber Courtenay Weldon (Indianapolis, IN) was age 72, he required a letter from her doctor or cardiologist that she was fit to dive. "Having read many stories of divers having heart attacks, I thought it was a reasonable request," she says. But what happens to the healthy but aging diver who shows up, only to learn the operator thinks he's too old and wants a letter from a doctor? It's happening. While renting a house in St. Kitts, Nancy Smith (Sherrills Ford, NC) was told by the first dive shop that she needed a doctor's clearance to dive with them. "I was 62 at the time and my dive buddy was 71, and we are both in good health and experienced divers, but getting medical clearance two weeks before a trip was not something we wanted to deal with. Solution: Another dive operation, smaller but excellent service."

If you want to head the medical-letter issue off at the pass, consider sending it to the dive shop ahead of time or bringing it with you on your first day. Richard Floyd (Austin, TX), who is 74, did take that precaution last year of having his cardiologist give him a written statement that he was healthy and clear for diving and other physical activity. "I have not had to use it, but am hoping that if there ever is an issue regarding age, the doctor's statement will help me negotiate a favorable outcome."

Some readers who wrote us are tired of condescending talk from dive operators concerned about their ability to dive. "The kind of discrimination I've faced is the assumption that anyone over 55 is out of shape and a candidate for cardiac arrest," says Mary Wicksten (Bryan, TX). "I do not need to be hand-held. Don't expect me to be the first person back up -- I get great air time because I swim regularly and have excellent neutral buoyancy. I am more than willing to back out of dives that I consider to be dangerous, even when the divemaster insists it's going to be great. But what I really loathe to hear is the line that starts with 'At your age...'"

Age should not be the issue for dive operators -- it should be experience and a steady head. Fit young divers who are ignorant or inept can be more of a death risk than a Boomer diver who know what she or he is doing, says Mary Young (Lexington, TX). I've experienced age discrimination on both sides -- dive crew assume I am old and know nothing, to being kicked in the face by teenagers with fins who think they are racing and shout while snorkeling. I won't mention the photographers or video people of any age who simply jump ahead of the pack. Diving will be a dying sport, but not because the old divers are going to die. Not enough new ones are being properly trained to replace them."

Karen Vander Ven (Pittsburgh, PA) has had the opposite experience of these divers, saying the older she has gotten, the less discrimination she has faced -- and she chalks that up to just plain experience. "I got my first dive certification at age 55. As I started diving in Florida, often showing up at the dive shop by myself, I would be closely scrutinized. The staff would want to see my log, along with a doctor's letter 'clearing' me to dive. On one trip, when I was in my 60s, all the other divers on the boat, who were obviously younger than I, were chattering with each other, but I could sense them staring at me, and then I 'got it'. They were wondering whether I could get back on the boat. When I came up, most were already back up, seated and staring. I prayed I could get up the ladder without any help at all, and I did. After I had sat down, the climate changed. People started talking to me. 'Did you have a good dive?' 'How long are you here for ?' As I moved into my 70s, things changed. I would be paired up with a new diver to help if needed. But with some joint trouble, it actually did get harder to get back on the boat with my heavy BC., so I would ask the crew to let me take my rig off in the water and hand it up to them. No problem! No hint that I shouldn't be diving. On other dive trips, I began requesting help getting rigged up at the stern so I could just roll off into the water. No problem again; everybody was helpful. I am now 77. My diving 'career' may be coming to an end, but my decision is not from any hints or statements from anybody else. I have been warmed by what I've seen as 'anti-age discrimination'. The older I have gotten, the less there has seemed to be."

Randall Price (San Antonio, TX), who is 67, at first decided not to advertise his age, as he sometimes is the oldest person on the boat. "I don't want to be treated 'specially,' and I always want to carry my own weight, at least as long as I feel safe doing so. It is amazing how many offers of help -- carrying your tank, hgetting on the skiff -- that you receive from crew and fellow divers once your age becomes known. This speaks well of our diving community. This used to bother me, probably because it reminded me that the day I would need help was getting closer. But I think I've 'grown up' and now graciously accept any help offered. What can it hurt?"

The good thing about being a "veteran" diver is that you tend to know what wise decisions to make while underwater, and you also know when to call it a day -- or a dive career. Long-time subscriber Dick Jacoby (Willowbrook, IL) came to that conclusion while aboard the Nai'a in Fiji last April. "I am was 84, with recent bone surgeries that caused maintaining an even keel on board to be more precarious than I liked. I needed the full width of the staircase, for example, and on occasion I needed both hand rails for up or down trips. Due to my underwater photo business, I had been diving 44 years, and having weathered recent surgeries, I hoped I could still do it. The result: I could do it, but the payoff wasn't worth the effort. Currents were only mildly stiff during the week, but enough to keep my stiffer body working harder than I wished. The crew were watchful, without getting in the way, and their guidance was never heavy-handed. The trip was among the better ones in my experience - just not for someone with bones like mine."

Someday, it will be time for all of us to hang it up. In the meantime, stay fit, stay alert, and make smart decisions about whether to dive.

-- Vanessa Richardson

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