Sixteen disabled divers, many of them ex-US military servicemen and women who were injured in the line of duty, will be staying at the Brac Reef Beach Resort in Cayman Brac later this month for a week-long dive vacation.
The trip is organised by Dive Pirates, a Texas-based not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to train, equip and provide dive travel to individuals with disabilities.
Eight of the divers are returning to Cayman Brac at their own expense, the other eight are newly certified ‘classified divers’, trained and by Dive Pirates. A classified diver is a special category of dive certification issued by Scuba Schools International to divers with disabilities. This is an enhanced version of what used to be called Adaptive Diver certification.
“The curriculum evaluates each person and assesses which skills the can perform themselves and which ones they need assistance with,” explained Theresa Gomez, executive director of Dive Pirates. “They are then classified as class 1, 2, 3 or 4, depending on their individual abilities and the amount of assistance they require.
Classified divers are taught and certified along with a classified dive buddy, who will help them with the skills they are unable to perform independently. Whenever possible, Dive Pirates encourages spouses, family members or friends to become the classified dive buddy.
Although Dive Pirates will train divers with disabilities from any background, their focus is on injured military veterans.
“We love to give something back to the men and women who have given so much to their country,” explained Ms Gomez. Dive Pirates will be booking out the whole of the Brac Reef Beach Resort for a week this month. There will be around 80 people in the group, as the disabled divers will be accompanied by their dive buddies, families or friends, as well as Dive Pirates members who give up their vacation time to assist on these trips.
This will be Dive Pirates’ ninth trip to the dive resort. “Over the years, a wonderful partnership has grown between Dive Pirates and the Brac Reef Beach Resort and Reef Divers,” Ms Gomez said. “They are 100 per cent engaged in what we are doing.”
The resort and the dive centre has made modifications over the years to make it more accessible to people with disabilities.
“When we rebuilt after Hurricane Paloma we were able to make some of the ground floor rooms accessible to wheelchair users. The boardwalks leading to the shore are now concrete and all the dive instructors have completed additional training to handle adaptive divers,” resort General Manager Trudy Viers said.
The resort now hosts two groups of disabled divers each year, the other being Eels on Wheels, as well as a number of individuals who travel there independently.
“It’s a very unique experience,” said Ms Viers of the upcoming Dive Pirates visit. “The camaraderie is really heartwarming. For the staff, a group like this is more work, but we all genuinely look forward to it. It’s really fulfilling.”
In her role as executive director of Dive Pirates, Ms Gomez interviews the foundation’s recipients, when they first apply, to learn about them and their disabilities. She then joins them in Cayman Brac, where she interviews them again about their experience.
“Our divers who are confined to wheelchairs say diving over a shipwreck is like flying. The pain and pressure from their wheelchairs is diminished or gone for that period of time underwater and they feel mobile,” she said. “The joy, friendship and freedom they express after a week of diving is very heartwarming.”
Dive Pirates will be in Cayman Brac from 15 to 22 June.