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Cayman the Ideal Dive Destination for Divers with Disabilities

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Aboard a spacious Red Sail Sports boat are from left to right Stay-Focused members: Brian Siemann, Jenn Poist, Gail Gaeng, and Tatyana McFadden. Brian and Gail are Stay-Focused mentors and will be in Grand Cayman again this summer diving

Aboard a spacious Red Sail Sports boat are from left to right Stay-Focused members: Brian Siemann, Jenn Poist, Gail Gaeng, and Tatyana McFadden. Brian and Gail are Stay-Focused mentors and will be in Grand Cayman again this summer diving

Known for its excellent diving and customer service, Cayman has also built a solid reputation for accessibility and catering to divers with physical challenges

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Famed for its spectacular diving and professional dive industry, Cayman is also proud of its reputation as an accessible and reliable destination for disabled divers. Its warm, clear water is free of currents, and Grand Cayman offers a variety of dive experiences ideal for divers with disabilities, as Cody Unser discovered more than a decade ago. Confined to a wheelchair since she was 12 years old, Unser, of the famed racing family, says scuba diving changed her life.

Dive boats pull up on Seven Mile Beach for easy loading. Photo courtesy Red Sail Sports.

Dive boats pull up on Seven Mile Beach for easy loading. Photo courtesy Red Sail Sports.

“Physically it takes me away from the chair; being in the water frees me from the grips of gravity. Everything else leaves my mind and I focus on something new and exciting,” she says. “I’m free!”

Now 27 years old and a graduate student, Cody is an advocate of diving for the disabled, reaching out through the Cody Unser First Step Foundation. In 2011 the foundation teamed up with Johns Hopkins Medicine, a group of recovering veterans and the Cayman Islands for a 4-day pilot study on how scuba has a positive impact on people with spinal cord injuries, the first conventional study of its kind. With 26 people in the group, Cody remains impressed with how Cayman accommodated them.

Ryan Chalmers prepares for a dive in the Cayman Islands. Chalmers says diving has given him the freedom to grow in other areas of his life. Photo courtesy Stay-Focused.

Ryan Chalmers prepares for a dive in the Cayman Islands. Chalmers says diving has given him the freedom to grow in other areas of his life. Photo courtesy Stay-Focused.

“The dive operators know what they are doing with disabled divers,” she says. “They were so comfortable with us, no hesitation at all. They treated us like they would any other divers, gave us a sense of inclusion, no segregation. It made it more enjoyable for all of us – we had a blast!”

Ryan Chalmers is the most experienced diver in Stay-Focused, an organization that teaches teens and young adults with disabilities to dive, he too has high praise for Cayman’s dive professionals.

“There is a fine line when it comes to working with someone with a disability,” he says, “sometimes you can be to helpful and sometimes you can’t be helpful enough and the staff in Cayman do a great job learning and understanding what the different needs are for each person with a disability. They make an effort to not just get you through the dive, but make it as comfortable and fun as possibility just like they do for the able bodied population.”

Ryan Chalmers celebrates his completion of Ocean Frontiers' "Green Shorts Challenge" which required him to visit all 55 dive sites on the East End of Grand Cayman. Photo courtesy Ocean Frontiers.

Ryan Chalmers celebrates his completion of Ocean Frontiers’ “Green Shorts Challenge” which required him to visit all 55 dive sites on the East End of Grand Cayman. Photo courtesy Ocean Frontiers.

Ryan earned Rescue Diver and Divemaster certifications with Sunset Divers and he is the first disabled diver to complete Ocean Frontiers’ “Green Shorts Challenge” by diving all 55 dive sites on the East End – no small feat because the challenge takes most divers at least 150 individual dives to complete over several visits to the island.

“It was impressive to see Ryan and his dive buddy Roger Muller check off every dive site,” says Ocean Frontiers co-owner Steve Broadbelt. “As dive operators we are in a unique position to provide a freedom of the bounds of gravity to these spirited new divers. It is inspiring to see the determination to break down these barriers and put their trust in us to share the underwater world. We are very proud to have Ryan as the first disabled diver and he’ll certainly not be the last.”

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation group at the Kittiwake Wreck, one of Grand Cayman's most popular dive sites. Cayman prides itself in being an accessible destination. Photo courtesy Cody Unser

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation group at the Kittiwake Wreck, one of Grand Cayman’s most popular dive sites. Cayman prides itself in being an accessible destination. Photo courtesy Cody Unser

Red Sail Sports Operations Manager Rod McDowall says Cayman’s dive culture includes a full understanding of the needs of all divers, including the disabled. “As much as the beauty of the underwater world is the most significant attraction, there has always been a psychological ‘third dimension’ that allows divers to escape into another world, both physically and mentally. It gives us great pleasure to help divers with disabilities make this entry into another world and have the escape they deserve.”

“It is one thing to take abled-bodied, new divers in the water to show them the underwater world, but to take a paraplegic, quadriplegic diver, or someone missing a leg or arm, into a weightless atmosphere, or introducing a vet with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome to a calmness of the underwater world – it’s priceless,” says Sunset House General Manager Keith Sahm.

Cody Unser meets one of the residents of Cayman's famous Stingray City. Photo courtesy Cody Unser First Step Foundation.

Cody Unser meets one of the residents of Cayman’s famous Stingray City. Photo courtesy Cody Unser First Step Foundation.

“The facilities in Cayman are awesome,” says Shelley Unser, Cody’s mother and head of the foundation. The group stayed at the Marriott Grand Cayman, which offers accessible rooms and facilities, and when they asked to use the hotel’s seaside pool for pre-dive pool work, the hotel agreed to it. “They took a huge gamble by letting us take over the pool, but the guests seemed to love it!” she said. “It was a big motivator for everyone because we could see the ocean from the pool.”

Stay-Focused President Roger Mueller says they have been running programs to Grand Cayman for 11 years, and the organization has certified more than 70 people. “The diving teams at Red Sail and Sunset House, in particular, have been instrumental to our success. We have exceeded necessary ratios between Instructors/Dive Masters and divers on every trip, and they are experienced and comfortable in working with persons with disabilities.”

The weightlessness of being underwater frees disabled divers from their physical challenges during a dive. Photo courtesy Red Sail Sports.

The weightlessness of being underwater frees disabled divers from their physical challenges during a dive. Photo courtesy Red Sail Sports.

Mueller also praises Red Sail Sports, Sunset House and Ocean Frontiers for having dive boats spacious enough to allow mobility. Diveheart is another organization in the community for disabled divers with partnerships in the Cayman Islands, including Divetech.

“I know when I send divers with disabilities there they will be working with instructors and divemasters who know how to handle someone with a disability,” says founder Jim Elliott. Diveheart will be in Grand Cayman from December 6 – 13, 2014 at Cobalt Coast Dive Resort, and disabled divers can dive with Divetech, learn to dive, or take a buddy or instructor program.

A smiling Ryan Chalmers enjoying a dive in the calm clear water of Grand Cayman. Photo courtesy Stay-Focused.

A smiling Ryan Chalmers enjoying a dive in the calm clear water of Grand Cayman. Photo courtesy Stay-Focused.

The things that make the Cayman Islands special for able-bodied divers show the destination’s variety and abundance of diving opportunities for anyone who wants to become a diver. Cody Unser says the sport changed her life and this has inspired her to share her experience with others who are disabled. Her foundation helps set up Intro to Scuba courses at select military bases where wounded soldiers are recovering.

“It gave me confidence, a sense of independence that I thought I would never have. We want to get people out of their comfort zone and give them the sense that they can travel. People don’t realize the power of the intro to scuba.”

“Now that I am a Dive Master and able to help teach scuba diving, that has given me the ability to grow in so many other aspects of my life,” says Ryan Chalmers.

Ryan Chalmers with the dive staff at Sunset House. Ryan completed his Rescue Diver and Divemaster Certifications with Sunset House, making him the most experienced diver with the Stay-Focused

Ryan Chalmers with the dive staff at Sunset House. Ryan completed his Rescue Diver and Divemaster Certifications with Sunset House, making him the most experienced diver with the Stay-Focused

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation group participated in a 4-day study on the positive effects of diving on people with spinal cord injuries. Photo courtesy Red Sail Sports.

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation group participated in a 4-day study on the positive effects of diving on people with spinal cord injuries. Photo courtesy Red Sail Sports.

 

About Us

The Cayman Bottom Times is news collaboration by five leading dive operators to promote the superb diving of the Cayman Islands, and keep the diving public informed of important developments and events. Divetech, Ocean Frontiers, Red Sail Sports and Sunset House in Grand Cayman, and the Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman, all members of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, represent more than 100 years of solid experience in a destination that is recognized as the birthplace of recreational diving. With a unique combination of deep wall and shallow reef diving, several wrecks, and world-famous Stingray City, the Cayman Islands has cemented its place as the top diving destination in the Caribbean.

Offering diverse and wide-ranging dive programs on both Grand Cayman and Little Cayman, the members of this dive group represent the best Cayman has to offer; Divetech (www.divetech.com), Ocean Frontiers (www.oceanfrontiers.com), Red Sail Sports Grand Cayman (www.redsailcayman.com), Sunset House (www.sunsethouse.com) and the Southern Cross Club (www.southerncrossclub.com).

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The Cayman Bottom Times is news collaboration by five leading dive operators to promote the superb diving of the Cayman Islands, and keep the diving public informed of important developments and events. Divetech, Ocean Frontiers, Red Sail Sports and Sunset house in Grand Cayman, and the Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman, all members of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, represent more than 100 years of solid experience in a destination that is recognized as the birthplace of recreational diving. With a unique combination of deep wall and shallow reef diving, several wrecks, and world-famous Stingray City, the Cayman Islands has cemented its place as the top diving destination in the Caribbean. Offering diverse and wide-ranging dive programs on both Grand Cayman and Little Cayman, the members of this dive group represent the best Cayman has to offer; Divetech (www.divetech.com), Ocean Frontiers (www.oceanfrontiers.com), Red Sail Sports Grand Cayman (www.redsailcayman.com), Sunset House (www.sunsethouse.com) and the Southern Cross Club (www.southerncrossclub.com). For more information on The Cayman Bottom Times contact Adela Gonzales White at Adela.G.White@comcast.net or call (941) 350-8735.

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