Diving provides bonding, confidence-building and fun for the entire family.

Family scuba diving can reveal a new world of awe and adventure, according to husband-and-wife team Dwain Gardner and Mary Stanford, owners of Captain Nemo’s Dive Shop in Columbia.

“The ocean is a great equalizer,” Gardner says. “Kids are unstoppable, and it’s often beginner adults we have to encourage. Diving opens your eyes to how capable young people can be in the water. Suddenly, your child becomes your buddy, and they can be just as good or better divers than adults. On the other hand, some adults will ask, ‘Am I too old?’ We have customers from 12 years to 80-plus. It is a confidence builder for all ages.”


Gardner bought the store more than 30 years ago. In fact, the store is where he met his wife, Mary, who signed up for the first certification class he taught there. The couple dated four years, married in 1989, had two sons and raised them in the store. Diving is what they do as a family.

“Our boys grew up in the store,” Gardner says. “It seemed weird to them when one day they realized not everyone dives. We socialize in the diving world, so it is all they knew. While we recommend children waiting until age 12, our youngest began diving when he was 10, only out of necessity. He could either stay behind in the hotel room during trips or go with our group. On his first dive, Mary swam around with him attached to her hand — not because he needed it but because it was an easier way to keep up with him.”

Captain Nemo’s offers a certification class that costs around $385 per person and normally entails two days for class and pool time and then a two-day dive. For some, certification may take longer, but Gardner encourages every diver to work at his or her own pace. The class teaches divers to be self-contained and competent: safety first and fun second.

“We are certified through international agencies, so we train on their behalf,” Gardner says. “Some people start off well in the water, while others may not. If training doesn’t initially go perfectly, it doesn’t matter. We keep working with clients until we’re comfortable with their skill level and they’re comfortable. We teach to standards, and we won’t allow anyone in open waters until they are fully ready. We spend however long it takes.”

According to Gardner, diving is not a Tarzan activity or something that requires an immense fitness level or skill. It’s a sport most people can do successfully regardless of age.

“In the old days divers had to be very well versed in watermanship, be good swimmers and physically strong,” Gardner says. “The old gear was so poor. Nowadays, we rely a lot on our gear, so skills in the water don’t have to be so great, and it has opened up this activity to just about anybody. Today’s gear is not only superior, but it is stylish. You can even look good being a diver.”

Upon certification Gardner encourages divers to go on one of several diving trips, both fresh and salt water, offered through Captain Nemo’s. Although the scuba certification teaches enough to keep divers safe, Gardner stresses the importance of diving with experienced instructors.


“The key is to get certified through our shop and then go on one of our trips,” he says. “When students have Mary and me and the rest of the group, many of whom have vast amounts of experience under the water, they can progress quickly.

“We are right at your elbow for the entire week, and by the end, you’re good because you’ve done multiple dives,” Gardner continues. “And more importantly, you have done multiple dives well. It becomes positive peer pressure. When you sign up for the next trip, you’ve got experience to help the novices, and the cycle repeats.”

Depending on the destination, a typical day is spent diving in the morning and then heading back in time for lunch. Afternoon and evening are freed up to explore terrain and other local activities.

“People are always asking if they can go on our trips because they are not divers,” Gardner says. “We take people who don’t dive or even snorkel because it becomes a real good vacation for them, too. There are plenty of things to do and plenty for those who want to just dive and dive and dive. Non-diving family members have options, too, so it works out for everyone. We call it escorted travel.”

Dest_Scuba2Gardner recommends self-contained resorts for families, such as the July trip they’re taking to Anthony’s Key Resort on the Western Caribbean island of Roatan. Parents can relax, and kids can be with others their age.

“We tell people to just show up at the airport on time, and we will take care of the rest,” Stanford says. “There is nothing like the bonding you can experience as a family or couple. To be down there and see some of the special things we see and to be in awe of nature and to share it with other people is amazing. It often brings people to tears. They say, ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’ Diving is a life-changing experience.’”

According to Gardner: “You can’t fake scuba. I enjoy how it brings so many different types of people together. We have surgeons, electricians, billionaires and even a homeless man. Friendships develop that you would never expect. It’s also economical because
once you’re certified and own your gear, it only takes $5 to fill up a tank.

“I’ve been helping people dive for more than 37 years,” he continues. “It is a unique opportunity to do something special and a fortunate way of living. Some people are lucky enough to find their spot, and I did. It’s all I have ever wanted to do. Diving is just fun.”

For more information on diving certification, trips and gear, visit captnemos.com/classes.html.