Scuba diving is a thrilling sport that pushes participants past their limitations, unveiling a captivating environment few experience. Pursuing these submerged zeniths is not without a few hurdles: scuba diving is a rigorous activity that demands training, expertise, and good old-fashioned grit; know-how on where and when to explore; and a commitment toward heightening one’s skills. Safety is tantamount to diving, and one fleeting instance of human error or an incoming swell can spell disaster. For 15 years, the Rocks, Rips & Reefs (3Rs) program out of Los Angeles, has offered a free series of comprehensive public safety training sessions for scuba explorers, while imbuing them with a greater understanding and appreciation for the watery worlds that rest in their own backyards.
By John Tapley; photos courtesy Jesse Rosas
Three-R sessions focus on scuba diving in near-shore environments and are managed by long-time instructors who showcase some of Southern California’s most prolific dive destinations. Participants are shown the ins-and-outs of properly entering and exiting these sites, and are taught how to conditionally approach (or abstain from) the waters. Core to its mission, 3Rs instructs students on the best practices for safely diving and contextualizes them based on the location and weather conditions.
The 3Rs is one of three programs managed by the Los Angeles County Underwater Unit, which according to its website, “maintains and provides educational services and experience programs to train and educate SCUBA divers, freedivers and dive leaders in local oceanographic patterns and processes for safe exploration of the coastal and offshore island waters of Los Angeles County.”
Seasoned scuba diver and 3Rs Program Director and Lead Instructor Jess Rosas explains the mechanics of 3Rs:
“The [Long Beach] Scuba Show determines our scheduling so we can get divers as they get back in the water but we generally run it from May through September. We pick a location that mimics nearshore environments – not just beach diving, but nearshore – and things you would see on the island like rocks or trees. We go to different ones that represent it: the reality is that divers dive near shore, and if you’re on an island, they’re not dropping you in the middle of the ocean; you’re diving by a land mass of some sort. With the same skill sets we have here, you can learn to adapt them for diving whether off the boat or an island like understanding currents and turbulence.”
Rosas continues, “We spend a lot of time in the surf zone getting that rhythm and motion. We start off the process with sensory acclimation: no scuba gear, masks or fins. We should them, based on swell and conditions, which way they should be facing. It’s designed to get water on the face and moving around: that’s the best [way] to introduce people to a behavior they can use outside of 3Rs.”
The 3Rs is designed as a continuous, step-by-step program – going back to its old school roots – and encourages participants to keep the momentum going. Rosas compares the program to other types of athletic training.
“It’s not something that you do once because diving, in terms of today’s standards, is at odds with what we know as basic recreational science or kinesiology,” says Rosas. “In order for the body to adapt to certain physical behavior or activity, you have to practice at it. SAID (specific adaptation, imposed demands) says it takes the body six weeks to adapt to a model of conditioning.”
The 3Rs program is free to the public; and as often happens with dive communities, divers who complete the program become volunteers themselves. Volunteers are not restricted to former attendees; 3Rs often enjoys the expertise of independent instructors or those affiliated with dive organizations and businesses.
“If somebody who goes through the program is really interested in helping, the County trains them to come back and help and they do staff training,” says Rosas. “People coming into the sessions for three hours who have never been to this and want training with acclimation help because they were there themselves. We educated more experienced divers, too.”
“We try to push people into programs like the county’s advanced diving program, where they’ll get a lot of practice in the application of oceanography and skill level,” he adds. “We want them to come back to a safe environment where they can practice in, and also get local knowledge because conditions change every year.”
3Rs isn’t restricted to the physical aspects of good,
near-shore scuba diving. 3Rs instructors impart critical knowledge on the many
environmental conditions that can enhance or hinder a dive trip, and how to
effectively read them. Before each 3Rs session, volunteers detail weather
charts and explain how to match data against different types of conditions.
Over time, participants can quickly spot weather pattern changes and learn the
most efficient ways to deal with different situations.
“A cornerstone of the program is that we also teach people using oceanography and weather science: when to go diving. We plug into the weather sites people should be utilizing and educate them [on] ideal weather models that suggest less turbulent, safer conditions. We have a good process of doing that and have ties with NOAA and deep ties with CDIP (CoastalDataInformation Program), which is funded by Scripps… the buoy arrays off the Santa Barbara Channel off the Southern California bight. Southern California, in respect to weather data and ocean conditions, has more weather sensing and real time buoy monitoring information than any place in the world.”
In addition to providing these services to the public at no cost, 3Rs has been instrumental in connecting scuba divers throughout Southern California. Local dive clubs will often schedule a 3Rs session into their itinerary. Rosas and Underwater Training Unit Director Gary Hild will visit club meetings and discuss changes to the local environment; 3Rs also participates in dive industry events such as the Long Beach Scuba Show.
The 3Rs program originated with the establishment of the Los Angeles County Underwater Unit. As with other emergent technologies, scuba diving and its principles took some time to properly practice. Its freshman decades, the ‘50s and ‘60s, were bright with idealistic solutions to perfect scuba diving while coastal communities had to adapt to growing trends, and the resultant difficulties for public safety and rescue operations. Scientific and military interest in scuba diving bloomed during these years, and in 1953, organizations such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institution of Oceanography utilized the waters off LA; in turn, this interest popularized recreational scuba diving. Los Angeles County struggled to meet these new demands, as diving-related accidents became commonplace, and presented two options: either ban recreational diving from the area or create educational resources for better, safer practices; they chose the latter. Alongside local Parks and Recreation services, LA County formed the Underwater Unit, which became immensely popular in a quick span of time.
“Everybody used the LA County playbook and standards, but the county was only interested in certifying people within it,” says Rosas.
Today, the Underwater Training Unit manages three programs: the recreational Underwater Instructor Certification Course, an annual Advanced Diver Program, and 3Rs.
3Rs’ origins draw from the same water as the Underwater Training Unit. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography had trained with LA County’s program from the start, and in the early ‘70s San Diego scene, freediving was all the rage.
“The San Diego diving community and scientists from Scripps were trying to teach people how to get in and out of surf and dive in near shore-based environments,” Rosas explains. “At the time, recreational scuba courses required a shore-based entry; it was referred to as beach diving, but it was shore-based so you had to make an entry from shore and execute a dive.”
As local divers and these groups worked on improving diving conditions in San Diego, they were notified of The Greater Los Angeles Council of Divers, which set a gold standard for beach improvements and access rights through its R3 program. Arrangements were made for council instructors to work with the Underwater Training Unite and promote local diving. Decades later, in 2004, 3Rs was officially incorporated as a formal program.
Fifteen years later, and 3Rs is still going strong, sharing a passion for scuba diving enhanced by a deep, driven commitment toward knowledge and physical improvement. Rosas would like to see this longer, comprehensive model toward local diving embraced in other parts of the world.
“I think the uniqueness of the county program is a model for anywhere. In the ‘80s, by the time you got an advanced card through most agencies, you had about 20 dives signed off; and there were intermediate diving levels, too. [Today] there’s not enough time to practice at the certification level or to get this institutional oceanography knowledge.
“By going to the same spot, you can apply these concepts over and over: you haven’t been to this beach during an extreme high tide or low tide or under a strong south swell; you haven’t dived at this spot during the spring or winter. There’s a lot of variables that are out here and intensities are getting stronger. We’re willing to share this process with everybody, and we think a paradigm should mirror ours: when to dive and how to be more comfortable in the water.”
As of this writing, six 3Rs events are scheduled for the remaining season, and each will be involved with a local dive club. Upcoming sessions include: Shell Beach, July 13 with Bottom Bunch Dive Club; Goldfish Point, July 27 with Dive Animals Scuba Club; Sunset Cliffs, August 10 with San Diego Divers; Marine Street, August 24 with Beyond Land Adventures; and S. Casa Beach, September 7 with San Diego Dive Club.
For more details on 3Rs, visit the Los Angeles County Underwater Unit website at www.lacscuba.com/3rs.