Citrus County, Florida is well recognized in the scuba diving world for its strong, driven community, which has fervently promoted good environmental stewardship and education. Scuba diving plays a significant role in helping protect the fragile aquatic ecosystem through hands-on action; connecting with the underwater landscape instills an appreciation for this delicate, yet enrapturing zone. Scuba diving can also be challenging to access, especially for youths who may have limited choices. Banding together for its backyard waterways, the Citrus County community has established an affordable scuba program for a local learning institution: the Academy of Environmental Science (AES).
Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Mike Engiles
The AES SCUBA Program is a new project, founded in April of 2018, which offers full scuba certifications to students, and is made possible through a joint effort between AES and the Citrus County Marine Science Station and watersports operators Crystal River Watersports and Crystal River Kayak Company.
We spoke with Mike Englies, owner of Crystal River Watersports, who molded the program.
John Tapley (JT): Take us back to the start. What was the inspiration behind the certification program?
Mike Engiles (ME): Citrus County’s MSS is a center for field trips and aquatic and marine education, for all youths in the Citrus County public schools. The AES is a charter school partnered with the local school district. I originally approached the marine science station about trying to work in Discover Scuba or some introduction to the underwater world – they were already doing snorkeling in the Gulf and the springs and looking at the ecology. Some of the [students] were much younger and [scuba training] didn’t seem feasible: they’re there for a day and it would be hard to work a school day in.
AES and the marine science station are literally across the street from each other. [MSS Supervisor] Mr. Earnie Olsen contacted and brought in the director and principal of the academy, Zachary Leonard, along with myself and another gentleman involved with Crystal River Kayak and Dive Company. Mr. Leonard indicated he’d love getting the kids involved in scuba – it’s an environmental science academy and they’re sitting on the water, so it seemed like the next step.
We first had an intro meeting last April and we were scared since there were only six people in the room. We realized they were rotating around clubs and teachers and we ended up with 40 freshmen signing up for the program; with sophomores, the number went to 70.
We provided Mr. Leonard with the background and educational materials and outlined the physics, physiology, ecology, and everything else so he could match them with Florida’s educational standards. It was a good fit, and it evolved to where we’re teaching the academic as part of their HOPE (health opportunities and physical education) program.
JT: What are some of the mechanics of this program? How does it fit into the students’ usual curriculum?
ME: We’ve been going out there during their school day, four or five times a quarter, and present the scuba academics. During school days, they’re bussed to a county pool where we do confined water training. We do open water training on weekends and we’ll go to one of the area springs (like Blue Grotto and Manatee Springs State Park) for that… potentially, education trips to the Keys and Mexico.
JT: The certification program started nearly a year ago. What are some milestones you’d like to share with us?
ME: The interest has been good. We certified 27 students during the first two quarters and we currently have 15 in the class; we’re anticipating that during the fourth quarter, which started this week. We’re looking at around 60 students getting started during the first year of the program.
JT: How is the program financed?
ME: Parents have to buy personal gear for the students and pay for the certification card, otherwise donations and the community are governing the other aspects. We’re donating our time and are not making a profit off the program.
JT: As someone who has been involved in the dive industry for decades, personally, what is your takeaway from the certification program?
ME: Citrus County is referred to as Florida’s nature coast, and the number of students who have never been out on the water is kind of astonishing. When you introduce anyone to the underwater world, there’s that “oh, wow!” factor and the enthusiasm level of a 14 or 15-year-old is pretty tough to beat! It’s a brand new experience, and certainly more so in the open water. We have the privilege of introducing them to a whole new world, and we see wide eyes and excitement: high-fiving their instructors and posing for pictures. Students and parents are appreciative of it, and the parents recognize the impact of opportunities.
The AES SCUBA Program is currently accepting sponsorship opportunities at varying levels. Funds from the program go directly toward enhancing the program. For more details, visit the academy’s website at https://aes.citrusschools.org/curriculum/scuba_program.