by Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
A woman gets thrown over a balcony by her abusive boyfriend. The fall breaks her back, leaving her disabled. A young Marine, while home on leave, gets hit by a drunk driver, rendering him paraplegic. A baby is born in Russia and spends part of her childhood in an orphanage before being adopted by an American couple. Both her feet and hands never fully formed in the womb, giving her a unique disability and appearance. What do these people have in common? All of them have found refuge in an organization that gives them the training, equipment, and knowledge necessary to become certified adaptive scuba divers.
The saying, “the perfect storm” refers to the simultaneous occurrence of weather events that, if taken individually, would be far less powerful than the storm resulting of their chance combination. According to Sophie Wimberley, a regional medical science liaison for a large company and advanced open water instructor, the Dive Pirates organization she co-founded with her long-time friend and dive instructor Barbara Thompson, the general manager of a project management consulting firm in the subsea oil & gas industry,
came together for many different reasons, but none in particular.
Consider it a perfect storm of their own making. “To this day I still can’t say why it was so important to me to start this organization. One thing led to another and it just seemed like the right thing to do. We could do it, so we did it; we discovered a need and decided to fill it. There was no grand plan,” Thompson said. Both Wimberley and Thompson had been scuba diving for years and kicking around the idea of the Dive Pirates, which originally was going to be a social club. “Barbara used to joke that in order to gain admittance, prospective members would have to play a practical joke on somebody,” Wimberley said.
The specifics of how the Dive Pirates idea transformed from being a carefree social club to a life changing organization, differs slightly depending on who you’re asking. Thompson says the idea came from an acquaintance who worked at a V.A. hospital and suggested she begin teaching young veterans of the Iraq war how to scuba dive as a form of rehabilitation. According to Wimberley, however, the decision was less coincidental and more of an emotional realization she had while sitting alone in a Denver hotel room. “I’ll never forget it,” Wimberley said. “It was shortly after the Iraq war began and I was sitting in my hotel room watching a news program about the veterans coming back from the war; many soldiers were coming back missing limbs. I immediately called Barbara and told her we had to get involved somehow.”
It has been reported that the number of amputees returning home from the war in Iraq is the highest since the Civil War. Though 90 percent of the wounded survive their injuries, they are returning to civilian life with amputations, major head injuries, and post traumatic stress disorder. Coincidentally, adaptive divers are usually those with spinal cord injuries, neurological disorders, or amputations. The certified open water divers and dive leaders who volunteer their time and services to the Dive Pirates organization do not teach “handicapped scuba.” Adaptive diving is just that because it adapts the same training received by able-bodied divers to a person’s disability. Adaptive divers are accompanied by a “buddy” of their choosing that goes through the training process with them. Escorted divers, on the other hand, suffer from severe immobility or blindness and must be accompanied by a four-person dive team that includes at least one diver with leadership training in life saving or dive instruction.
The Dive Pirates began in 2003 and now have chapters all over the country, but it wasn’t until 2005 when they became a certified charitable foundation for adaptive scuba that they began actively recruiting and focusing on those injured in Iraq. The first marine injured in Iraq has been diving with the Pirates since 2005. Other war heroes include twenty-nine-year-old Dawn Halfaker, a former Army first lieutenant who was one of the first women injured in the war. Halfaker lost her right arm at a mere twenty-four years-old when a rocket-propelled grenade was shot into her Humvee.
According to Wimberley, water is the great equalizer. It is the one thing capable of making a disabled person feel able-bodied, as they float along weightlessly and peacefully just as everyone else. “Our participants want to be included as part of a group. Adaptive divers want to be integrated and not excluded from society,” Wimberley said. “We’ve heard gut-wrenching stories from some of our divers about being treated like less-than a person when they return to civilian life. This organization isn’t about me, or Barbara, or the board of directors, it’s about the people we’re helping. Scuba diving isn’t going to take away their pain or erase what happened to them, but it’s a positive step in the right direction.”
Saying that the Dive Pirates are changing lives is not an overstatement. Many of the participants would have never gone scuba diving if it weren’t for the organization. Aside from the cost of the gear and training, the idea of then being able to travel to a tropical location such as the Cayman Brac would seem out of the question and impossible for a disabled veteran with a small income. The Dive Pirates make all of this possible. An adaptive diver and their buddy can offer up any amount of money they can afford for their scuba gear, whatever they can’t afford is paid for by the organization. Each participant is also guaranteed a fully paid trip to the Cayman Brac, where they will stay at a resort and scuba dive on a daily basis.
According to Thompson, one of the unexpected pleasures of starting the organization has been seeing people pushed out of their comfort zones in a way that will ultimately benefit them. Learning to participate in such an unfamiliar activity and traveling to a faraway, exotic location can seem overwhelming for a disabled person who may have lost some of their self-confidence as a result of their injury, but the act of participating alone is life changing. “People who participate don’t have to say thank you,” Thompson said. “We can see we’ve made a big difference once they come out of the water for the first time. Just imagine spending a majority of your time in a wheelchair; being weightless in water would feel like freedom.”
Wimberley’s goal for the Pirates, aside from receiving an endowment to maintain the organization long-term, is to provide each and every adaptive diver with an exceptional experience- which is why they are taken to dive in the Caribbean Sea, as opposed to diving locally. Exceptional experiences, especially those inclusive of taking a large group of adaptive divers to an island paradise for some leisurely scuba diving, are not cheap. The training, gear, and trip cost about $4,000 for each adaptive diver and their buddy. Fortunately, donations, membership fees paid by able-bodied participants, and fundraisers such as their Music for Soldiers event, their golf tournament, and annual black tie ball in Houston, TX bring in the money the organization needs to stay afloat. “The process of becoming a charity isn’t easy, but thankfully we’ve encountered many patriotic Americans who want to support those who’ve served their country and have come home injured,” Thompson said.
Scuba diving isn’t just a novelty that a handful of fortunate, able-bodied souls get to experience while on an island getaway. Sophie and Barbara want Dive Pirates participants to become life-long divers with their buddies, as it provides them with an almost-magical way to interact. “They’re diving in silence and the only way to communicate is through sight and touch,” Wimberley said. “Scuba diving allows them to explore the world around them. It feels like peace on earth and they can be a part of it for a little while.”