In Praise of Older Divers

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Burt Jones & Maurine ShimlockBoth of us hit the big 60 a few months back.  We didn’t think it mattered much, we felt great and have stayed in shape between dive trips by swimming, hiking, and practicing yoga.  Besides, as our friend Brian Skerry so tactfully reminded us, “60 is the new 59.” Encouraging words indeed.

But just after Burt’s birthday we came down with dengue fever.  There’s no doubt you are sick when dengue hits. Blinking my eyelids, even breathing at times, felt like way too much effort. According to our friends living in Bali (seems the disease has become a right of passage among Bali’s expat population), having dengue meant a recovery time of at least two months, probably longer.  It took me about two weeks to even feel like getting out of bed, much less taking a short walk or swimming a few laps in the pool. All of a sudden we felt and looked our age.

Problem was we were scheduled to lead a dive trip to Komodo National Park, and while we very much wanted to get back in the water, we had doubts about our strength and abilities.  Then we spent some time with Gladys Howard. Gladys is the owner of Pirates Point on Little Cayman, and as her almost 25 years in the dive industry prove, she is one unstoppable lady.  She’s 78 and has had two knee replacement surgeries, an artificial joint in one of her fingers, and a lot of shoulder problems. She went  with us to Komodo and planned on completing 20 dives.  She made 23, including a few in Komodo’s famously unpredictable currents. The dragon walk on Rinca Island worried her a bit; it’s a hotter-than-hell two-hour walk over rough ground.  She completed the whole walk, and motivated two 17-year-olds to finish when they wanted to turn back. Throughout the trip Gladys amazed us with her energy and attitude, and diving turned out to be  just what we needed to feel physically and mentally healed.  Dengue brings a bit of depression with it, and dengue patients are especially susceptible because they spending so much time lying around. Just watching an incredible reef scene unfold while we floated through Komodo’s “Fish Bowl” with the mantas was the perfect antidote for our dengue-induced blues.

Gladys isn’t the only “older” diver we’ve encountered lately.  Naomi Stern and Mary Jane Stoll (both a decade or two beyond 60) are inspirations.  On our last trip together I believe Mary Jane logged more dives than I did!  There are quite a few of us hovering just beyond the 60 year old mark, and most are exceptionally active people. It’s hard to believe Howard Hall is 60 after witnessing his marathon rebreather dives during the filming of Under the Sea 3D, Deep Sequel. By the time you read this post, Burt and I will be on an exploratory survey of  Cendrawasih Bay, a remote part of Papua’s Bird’s Head Seascape.  Dr Gerry Allen (well over 60) will be on board as part of the science team. Despite a bone-crushing run in with a kangaroo while bicycling downhill (really!) and various and sundry mountain climbing falls, Gerry is still lives to be “out there” on the cutting edge of topical fish research. I think it’s important to remember that experience counts in scuba diving;  experienced divers make fewer mistakes;  they understand and respect their limits.

The people we know who are “getting better”, not older, stay in shape in order to dive.  For some, like Howard Hall and Gerry Allen, their living depends on it.  For others like Gladys, Naomi or Mary Jane, diving makes their lives worth living and keeps them on the active list.  Don’t stop diving just because you don’t feel like making five dives a day like you did a few years ago.  Enjoy three and have a scotch after dinner.  Don’t stop diving because your back and knees can’t take climbing the ladder in full gear.  Hand it off, and save your energy for the next dive.  After all, age does come with a few privileges!

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16 comments for “In Praise of Older Divers

  1. Peter restivo
    September 7, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you I keep telling all the young people I dive with I’m not old I just been here longer then you ! Peter Restivo –64 years old

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  2. September 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Burt & Maurine,
    So glad to hear you’re feeling better! I have SO MANY “older” diving clients who can dive me under the table…it’s a sport that is kind to the knees, hips & backs once you’re in the water, and as you suggested, handing up gear is the way to go! The thought of no longer diving because I’m “too old” is depressing….I intend to keep on diving for many, many, many more years!

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  3. Bret Gilliam
    September 7, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I can still briefly poke fun at my elders… I will turn 60 on Feb. 3, 2011. But until then, I’ll continue to take every opportunity to make the worst possible jokes about Depends, blood thinner drugs in place of what we did in the sixties, loss of memory, ear hair, urinary control, etc. But if you want inspiration, just look at my doddering dear friend Stan Waterman who will turn 88 in April. Stan’s still at it and going great!

    And I would like to add that Howard Hall and Burt both have way too much hair for men their age.

    As Bob Dylan phrased it perfectly in his timeless song from 1965 (My Back Pages), “But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

    Now what was I talking about and where in hell did I leave my reading glasses?

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  4. September 15, 2010 at 7:44 am

    We’re just a gnat’s younger than you guys and proud of it as travelling divers. We intend to keep going until there is nothing left to see in the ocean, so that should give us another couple of centuries!

    Seriously, there was a liveaboard we did just as I was hitting my 40′s. On board were two “oldies”. He was 80-something and had had a triple heart bypass. She was just 80 and had had her hip replaced earlier in the year. They have been an inspiration ever since and their story is related to every potential senior diver we ever meet.

    Burt and Maureen, hope you are over the dengue.

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  5. Bob Bodkin
    September 23, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    When I went out to Truk the first time, in 1987, I saw a retired guy about 70 cruising happily above the wrecks. Boy was he old! I’m going back again for I believe the 7th time next February, to celebrate my 69th birthday. I celebrated #68 in Truk this February just past with a Deep Week charter. I always return to the Odyssey, too. My non-alcoholic-equivalent of relaxing after a day of diving with a scotch!

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  6. ellen jacobson
    September 23, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Just returned from a week in Cozumel of very good diving; I am 72 and my companion is 78 though neither one of us is as old as other 72 and 78 year olds. We did 15 dives and had a ball. Although it grieves me not to be able to carry my own tanks anymore, once I’m in the water all is well and there is always someone there to grab my gear before I board the boat. We dove the Philippines last year and will return next July. We also ski during the winter. I’d like to encourage other ‘mature’ divers in good health to keep on diving and would love to see an article about divers in their 70′s and 80′s who still enjoy my favorite sport.

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  7. Sandra Walzer
    September 24, 2010 at 1:55 am

    This Summer, while diving on a cattle boat in Florida that contained a few divers, some snorklers and some doing their certification dive, I had a gentleman ask me as I came up from a dive, “how old are you”? Told him I was nearly 73, which I will be this Sunday. He looked at me and said, “wow, I’m only 56 and I can’t even get in there and snorkel”! Got to love those youngsters. I keep thinking it’s time for me to hang up my fins, and then I read blogs like this, and I say no way.

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  8. September 24, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Thanks to everyone who wrote and wished us a speedy recovery from dengue. We are over it and proved that older divers do it better on our exploratory trip to Cenderawasih Bay. We averaged 6 dives/day, mostly on scooters, and still couldn’t keep up with Gerry Allen who is 68! Bret, I’m marking February 3, 2011 on my calendar. Expect a few ear hair jokes!

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  9. Rich Harrison
    September 25, 2010 at 2:44 am

    Thanks for your story, My last long trip was to Palau 2 years ago and I did well and dove some dives young divers passed on, but I turned 68 this year and was thinking of selling my gear. After reading your story I think I’ll visit the dive shop soon and book a trip.

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  10. ROBERT LEVINE
    September 25, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    LOVED THAT STORY.I LIVE, WORK AND DIVE NEW JERSEY. WEEKLY YES WEEKLY WEATHER PERMITING.KEEPS ME IN GOOD SHAPE PHYICAL AND MENTALLY JUST ABOUT HITTING THE 60. LESS HAIR AND WHATS LEFT IS JUST ABOUT ALL GRAY I DIVE WITH BUDDYS HALF MY AGE.TRAVEL AROUND THE GLOBE DIVING.TRUK, COCOS, TAHATI, MEXICO ECT.I LEARNED ALONG TIME AGO I DO MY OUN DIVE PROFILES. I KNOW WHEN I AM DONE.DO NOT PUSH THE DIVE COMPUTER . HANG, HANG AND HANG.I HAVE LEARNED NOT TO BE IN A RUSH..THE OCEAN AND FISH WILL WAIT FOR ME..THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS MAKING RESAVATIONS. FOR MY NEXT DAYS DIVING ADVENTURE.I GO TO THE BENEATH THE SEA EXPO EVERY YEAR.READ MY UNDERCURRENT BIBLE MAKE UP MY MIND WHERE I AM DIVING ..MY BEST DIVE IS MY NEXT DIVE..

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  11. Naomi Stern
    October 12, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Well, I turned 81 on a camping trip in New Mexico in July. Went diving at “young” Gladys Howard’s resort on Little Cayman in August. Am off to Morocco in December (as I JUST gave up skiing….two fake knees, one staph infected knee (that doesn;t mean I have three knees!), and a fake hip make it impossible to get up by myself when I fall (which I am known to do). I’m off to Uepi in April, and hope to return to Indonesia (for my 8th, 9th ?) time next fall. Thanks for the good words, Maurine and Burt. You are both great people and wonderful to dive with.

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  12. Roberta Finke
    October 19, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Thank you all for your encouraging stories. I too am a “senior” diver; just turned 76 while diving in
    the southern Red Sea on an exploratory two week dive trip up to the Sudanese border (where we were
    escorted to a small Sudanese navel base for having invaded Sudanese waters and trying to dive a wreck that lies partly in Sudan and partly in Egypt). I didn’t start diving until I was 54, and therefore consider that I have a great number of years ahead to “get wet” as I’ve only been at it for 22 years. I agree with
    everyone’s ideas of how you keep diving on into the future, safely and happily. And I get all kinds of
    attention and help from the divers in their thirties, forties, etc. What a great way to turn a disability
    into a tremendous advantage!

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  13. October 19, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Had to give up diving after 1500 dives at age 72. Went on to topside photography with all the fun new tools for photo editing. At 81 still traveling a lot and enjoying my photography!

    Enjoyed driving with you in Indonesia years ago.

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  14. Sharky McShark
    October 28, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Reading this makes me happy…and I’m a “young” diver at 35 years old.

    My parents and I essentially picked up the sport at my urging when I was 12…followed shortly by my younger sister. I am truly blessed that many of my fondest memories are of being on the dive boat with my family.

    As I’ve grown and started a family of my own, I find my house full of framed pictures from the underwater world and mementos of my travels. I’m surrounded by reminders of the shimmering beauty beneath the waves and I often find myself wondering if “the next trip” will be the last one.

    Such thoughts sadden me. I honestly can’t imagine what it will be like to one day back-roll into the water with the knowledge that, due to the ravages of age, my parents will never again be able to join me in the blue.

    And then I read this.

    And I smile.

    Because I know that many more shared back-rolls await.

    Thank you for sharing, Burt & Maurine….

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  15. January 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    I am 78 and a diving instructor. I enjoy diving and teaching diving to my grandchildren and college students. I won’t take the time to describe all my pysical problems which are no more or no less than most any other 78 year old. I was very pleased and happy to hear I should have a few more diving years. I am ultra conservative now and enjoying every minute underwater.

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  16. barney
    March 19, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    the two owners of BuoyancyQuest told me that they were 118 when they filmed the videos on their website. And the man is almost 20 years older than the woman.

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