Poolside at the Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, deck chairs reclined under umbrellas, offering some respite from the baking heat. Fluffy beach towels, sandals and beading glasses of ice water also sat in the shade, right beside some less likely items: empty wheelchairs, unattached prosthetic legs and dive tanks.
The prosthetics belonged mostly to the members of the Costa Rican Paralympic volleyball team, who had traveled to the northwestern province of Guanacaste for “Sin Limites” (No Barriers), a discover scuba event for the disabled. The weekend was hosted by Connect Ocean, an all-abilities diving school, and Disabled Divers International.
On Saturday, the team explored the pool during an introduction to adaptive diving, and on Sunday, they would be in open water for their first real taste of the deep-water adventure sport.
Organizers said this is the first time a disabled discover scuba event has taken place in Central America.
While the rain poured in the Central Valley last weekend, the Guanacaste sky was clear and waves crashed against the Four Seasons’ two beaches.
Bobbing in the pool in small groups or relaxing on the warm stone edge, 23 athletes, including members of the Tico Paralympic track and field and cycling teams, teased each other about sharks as they waited for a turn to suit up and taste the plastic of a regulator.
Jennifer Bricker – a professional acrobat who was born without legs – and Tiffany Joiner – a U.S. woman who fell from a balcony and lost 75 percent of the mobility in her legs – also attended the event to complete their open-water certification.
“Diving is the only adventure sport that someone can buy off the shelf and not need any adaptation,” said Fraser Bathgate, the founder of DDI and an adaptive diving pioneer. “Water is the great leveler.”
That phrase would be a leitmotif for the first-time divers throughout the weekend. Instructors and students alike commented that the experience of floating underwater offered a liberating range of motion and weightlessness.
“I felt freedom for a few moments in the water,” said Christian Agüero, a Paralympic runner, still dripping from the pool as he balanced on one leg to take a picture of a friend.
Agüero, from San Luis de Santo Domingo, Heredia, lost his other leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 21.
“The first year after the accident, I was just figuring out my disability, what my limits were,” he said.
Since then, he’s set out to break those limits. Agüero styles himself a “semi-professional” athlete, running marathons, 10-kilometer races and short track events. In 2011, he traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, to compete in the Pan-American Games.
The opportunity to try scuba diving was just one more challenge he set for himself to overcome. But the experience affected him more than he anticipated.
“It was like flying, like a bird does, just relaxing,” he said, wide-eyed and smiling.
After the pool session ended Saturday, the divers met to debrief.
When asked to share how the first day felt in the pool, another diver, Belky Sánchez Faerron, who uses a wheelchair, agreed that the sensation was like flying. “It feels like a link between heaven and Earth,” she said.
To the sea
The excitement was contagious Sunday morning.
The rain from the night before had cleared, leaving a clear blue sky to rival the lapis lazuli waters of Bahía Culebra, in the Gulf of Papagayo, where the dive would take place.
Ernst van der Poll of Connect Ocean, the event’s organizer, rounded up the instructors to discuss the day’s dive. Buzos de Aventura, a diving company in Playa Hermosa, had donated the two red-and-white boats anchored offshore and all the gear for the event, and would take the new divers out to a rock formation off the beach of the Four Season’s property.
Shark jokes hadn’t lost their appeal as the group joshed around waiting for their final dive briefing, but all the instructors insisted that the dorsal-finned predator wouldn’t make an appearance.
A few of those in traditional wheelchairs snubbed the beach-accessible version with its bulbous moon-boogie tires, insisting on pushing their thin street tires through the wet sand.
Despite the heat from the sun, the water was cool – just over 71 degrees Fahrenheit – Sunday morning. The first-time divers would descend 6-8 meters.
“The first rule of diving isn’t remembering to take your iPhone out of your pocket, it’s to breathe,” van der Poll told his students.
As one group suited up, a second played a match of seated volleyball while a third headed out for sea kayaking hosted by Wheels and Arms, a program to raise awareness about adventure sports for the physically disabled in Costa Rica.
As the first group went out, DDI founder Bathgate came down to the beach in his wheelchair, nursing a paper cup of coffee, to watch the boats head out.
“When I started diving, I was in a really dark place,” he said, reflecting on his long recovery in a Dubai hospital after a rock-climbing accident. “Diving turned my life around over night. It gave me back my life and I want to give back to others.”
Today, DDI has dive centers around the world, from the United Arab Emirates, where Bathgate started the movement after becoming the first paraplegic certified diver, to Portugal, Germany and across Scandinavia.
Bathgate and van der Poll hope that last weekend’s event will help spark an accessible tourism movement in Costa Rica, including rock climbing, kayaking and other sports, and make the country a destination for adaptive diving and other accessible adventure sports.
Waves crashed against the shore, rocking the dive boats anchored just off the beach. Van der Poll made the decision that the pitching boats were unsafe for the athletes to board on their own. Some disabled divers wrapped their arms around the necks of volunteers who plodded through the surf to reach the boats, while others made their own way out into the water, hopping on one foot, before needing a final boost over the boat’s side.
Once on the water, even the instructors were amped up about the dive. James “JT” Timeny, a dive master from Oceans Unlimited in Quepos, Puntarenas, broke out into a bouncy rendition of the Muppet classic, “Mahna-Manha.” Do, do, do, do, do…
One by one, the divers rolled backwards from the boat into the ocean. Beneath the surface, they kicked and propelled themselves through water with their good limbs, and those sporting one leg came to resemble mermaids. Although nervous and breathing heavily at first – like any beginner – nearing the bottom changed everything. When humans enter an underwater world of vibrant tropical fish, moray eels and eagle rays, fear tends to take a backseat to fascination.
Van der Poll said that if any of the participants wanted to continue diving and get certified, he or any of the instructors who attended would help. He added that the Professional Association of Diving Instructors had donated over 30 vouchers for e-learning courses for the No Barriers participants.
Back on shore, Agüero, who had changed into his red-white-and-blue Costa Rican jersey, looked out over the water under the shade of the palms.
“I couldn’t go underwater at first, I was too nervous and would just pop back up and gasp for air,” he said. “But by the third time, I got it. I saw the floor of the ocean and felt fine. I never thought it would be like that, an abyss. I just kept concentrating on popping my ears as I went down and forgot about the depth.”
“The colors are amazing underwater, the blues, yellows, everything,” he continued, remembering the stingrays, trigger fish and snappers.
“Following the cable back up I came up slowly, slowly, and broke the surface.”