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Sunday, January 22, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Snuba' Diving Offers A Chance To Experience Rapture Of The Shallows

Swimming in the deep waters of a lake or ocean, I sometimes get the creepy feeling that a ghastly creature is lurking below, eying me hungrily as I ruffle the surface of its dark, watery world.

The stuff of sci-fi fantasy, I know. And, yes, I never should have watched the shark-horror movie "Jaws."

But sometimes reality is as unsettling as my imagination. I almost abandoned snorkeling forever when a manta ray, a devilish-looking, flat fish about five feet across, cruised within inches of me as I snorkeled in the waters off Mexico's Baja California. I shot out of the water, screaming.

Still, I keep getting lured back into the water, especially the balmy ocean of Hawaii or Mexico, to swim and snorkel. What winter-chilled and rain-sodden Northwesterner can resist a toasty tropical ocean?

Luckily, on a recent trip to Hawaii, I stumbled across a way to beat back my nervousness of the deep. I went "snuba" diving into it.

Diving made easy

Snuba is a cross between scuba diving and snorkeling. It's diving made easy, even for children as young as 8.

A snuba diver breathes through a 20-foot-long air hose which is connected to a compressed-air tank that floats in a small raft on the surface.

Just like a "real" diver, a snuba diver uses a face mask, fins, weight belt and breathes through a regulator/mouthpiece which governs the air flow.

But, unlike a scuba diver, there's no cumbersome air tank on the diver's back. Instead, the tank is cradled within the 4 1/2-foot-long raft, which is tethered to the diver with a lightweight shoulder harness and is easily towed by the diver.

"My mother did snuba on her 71st birthday. My son did it when he was 9. It's diving for almost everyone," said Michael Arnell, president of Snuba International which is based in Placerville, Calif. "If you can snorkel, you can snuba dive."

Unlike scuba, no pool training or formal certification is required. After about 20 minutes of instruction, a snuba diver is ready to begin exploring the underwater world, always accompanied by an instructor/guide and usually in a group of 4 to 6 divers (with two divers per raft, sharing an air tank).

Restricting the snuba dive to 20 feet of depth keeps it safe and easy.

"Most of the colorful fish are in the top 20 feet.The deeper you get, they lose the color. And it's deep enough to experience most of the thrill of diving, but not worry about decompression and so on," said Arnell.

Some medical conditions can prevent people from snuba diving, including heart, lung or sinus problems. It's also not advised for pregnant women.

But children as young as 8 can snuba dive, physically and legally, as long as they're comfortable in the water. (The minimum age for starting scuba, as dictated by physical maturity and companies' liability insurance, generally is 12.)

Snuba also is easier for small adults who can find the heavy scuba tank too overwhelming. And it's a good, easy way to test the waters for those who are thinking of trying scuba.

More than 700,000 people have gone snuba diving since it was invented six years ago by California diver Michael Stafford, who was inspired by a diving system used for gold-dredging around Placerville, in California's Gold Country east of San Francisco.

Snuba is available in the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island (and likely soon on Lanai) and in some areas of Japan, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Israel. Snuba International, which leases the equipment to operators, is hoping to expand into Mexico, Belize and to other warm-water resort areas where tourists are plentiful.

Trying it out

An hour before I tried it, I'd never heard of snuba.

I had signed up for a half-day snorkeling excursion aboard the Body Glove, a tour boat that offers snorkeling and diving off the Big Island of Hawaii.

As we motored up the Kona coast, a dive instructor gave an enticing spiel on snuba.

I decided to be brave. If there was something scary down there in the water, I reasoned, there would be safety in numbers and the guide would be right beside us. And once I actually dived into the deep, perhaps my fears would drift away.

The Body Glove anchored in choppy waters just off the rocky shore. Young, bronzed staff members scurried around, fitting us with masks and fins. Several scuba divers, who already knew what they were doing, leapt in. Snorkelers floated on the surface, rearing up to shout that the waters were loaded with tropical fish.

Ten of us wannabe divers who had signed up for snuba gathered around our instructor on the stern. A quick rundown on the equipment, breathing and underwater safety signals and we were ready for the 30-minute dive. (In Hawaii, a half-hour snuba dive usually costs about $40 to $45, in addition to any tour-boat charges).

The first group of four snuba divers sank into the water. Then came the second group's turn. One woman popped up almost immediately, unnerved. "It was just too strange, breathing under water through that thing," she said, and retired to the deck to sun bathe.

My turn . . .

Only two of us were signed up for the last snuba dive of the day. And my would-be diving partner was lying on the deck, groaning from seasickness.

It was just me and the dive guide.

And it was magic.

I sank into the water, the 8 pounds of lead shot in my weight belt taking me down. Unnatural as it seemed, I really could breathe under water. My breath purred in and out of the regulator, the air bubbles floating toward the surface. They looked like a column of little silver parachutes going the wrong way.

The instructor in his scuba gear eyed me as I descended toward the rocky bottom: we traded the OK hand signals.

I pinched my nose and blew gently to relieve the pressure building in my ears. Twenty feet down and almost touching bottom, I was still warm, even without a wet suit, in the 80-degree water.

As I moved through the water, I could feel the slight tug of the air-tank raft as it followed me up on the surface. But with the raft to myself, I could swim easily and freely. (With two people per raft, they must move in tandem and are side-by-side when at the maximum depth of 20 feet).

I rolled on my back, almost weightless, to peer at the waves breaking on rocks at the surface. Down under it was quiet and achingly peaceful.

Sun filtered through the water, clear enough that I could see 20 yards or more. Tropical fish undulated past. A bulbous parrotfish, bright blue and green. Pouty-lipped triggerfish. An orange-spined tang, sleek and elegant with orange and yellow stripes on its black body. A swarm of skinny, silvery needlefish.

We skimmed the rocky bottom, swimming several hundred yards to an underwater sea arch. Shafts of sunlight outlined the 20-foot-tall arch. On the other side was a mysterious gloom.

I felt as if I were in a Jacques Cousteau diving movie, in a National Geographic TV special come to life. And my fears of the deep had evaporated.

Too soon the instructor beckoned: time to head back to the boat.

I surfaced babbling with excitement and ready for more. Ready, I think, to go further into the deep and start scuba diving.

IF YOU GO SNUBA DIVING --------------------------------

For more information on snuba diving in Hawaii: -- Big Island Two boat-excursion companies offer snuba on the Big Island - Body Glove Cruises, (808) 326-7122, and Fairwinds, (808) 322-2788, which heads to a scenic marine sanctuary. There's also a beach-based snuba dive; phone Snuba Tours of Kona, (808) 326-7446). -- Maui: Companies offering snuba on Maui include Pride Charters, (808) 875-0955; Maui Classic Charters, (808) 879-8177; Island Scuba, (808) 661-3369 and UFO Parasail/Snuba, (808) 661-7836. -- Oahu: Three snuba excursions are available. Phone Snuba Tours of Oahu, (808) 922-7762. -- Kauai: Dives through Snuba Tours of Kauai depart from a beach near Poipu: (808) 823-8912.

For general information, contact Snuba International, P.O. Box 1418, Placerville, CA 95667; phone (916) 621-2024.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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