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Swimming Pool Serves As Scuba Training Ground
Instructors help participants get their masks de-fogged and ready to use in the Escalon pool at the start of Saturdays Discover Scuba class.Times Photos By Marg Jackson

A passion for scuba diving and a desire to share that with others prompted Michael Dodge to start hosting local scuba diving lessons many years ago. Originally offering the lessons out of a former garage business along McHenry Avenue, Dodge previously worked at a few different shops in Modesto but came to Escalon to open Aquatic Discount Scuba in 1997.

“It’s a unique little treasure,” Dodge said of having a dive shop so far from the ocean.

It is precisely that distance, however, that prompted him to start the ‘Discover Scuba’ lessons, which give participants a chance to explore underwater, two-and-a-half hours from the ocean.

The last several years have seen Dodge provide the lessons at the Escalon Community Pool, in cooperation with the City Recreation Department. Classes are offered twice during the summer in Escalon, the introduction taking place on a Saturday, a two-hour lesson that goes over the basics of scuba diving. Dodge and his crew also do the introductory classes in Ripon and Manteca, scattered throughout the summer.

The final class for 2016 in Escalon was this past Saturday, July 23 and saw about a dozen scuba enthusiasts in a wide range of ages attend the class. There is a minimal fee and all of the money goes to the Recreation Department; Dodge provides the equipment and instruction free, the registration money going to the city to help in other rec program areas.

Participants must be at least 10 years of age and Dodge said typically when they have the class in Escalon, several other certified divers use the opportunity to pay the small fee and utilize the pool for diving as well, practicing their skills.

“Classroom work is the first step in certification,” Dodge explained of attendees, noting they can start their road to diving certification in the course.

Later, Dodge oversees dives in the ocean to continue the certification and, each summer, leads a contingent of divers on a trip to practice their craft. He and his wife Jennifer, also a diver, recently returned from their 2016 trip and are already planning for 2017, when they will go to St. Lucia.

“Some kids have been coming every year,” Dodge added of the summer scuba classes. “Basically we do it for Parks and Rec and to help give people an experience they might not otherwise have.”

Aquatic Discount Scuba is along Highway 120, near the Main Street intersection, in an area that is considered California Street.

Among those in the pool on Saturday was David Hansen of Manteca, a newly certified diver, who was getting in some diving practice while young grandson Aiden Gonsalves, 2½, was close by in the pool, under the watchful eye of grandmother Patricia Hansen.

“We just got certified in March,” Patricia explained. “We just had an awesome, awesome experience.”

Aiden’s parents, Matt and Jennifer, were taking the Saturday class and those attending were broken into two groups, with Dodge and dive master Jeff Goschen each working with a half dozen people.

Dodge said while the Saturday class is basic, it does hit all the important points.

“They learn how to breathe underwater, clean their mask, use the regulator,” he said. “We try to keep it at a five to one ratio (participants to instructor) so that we have good supervision under the water.”

Also gone through were a series of hand signals that the new divers could use to let instructors know how they were doing under the water. Younger divers wear a tank that weighs about 20 pounds on the surface but is buoyant under the water; the older divers have a tank that weighs about 35 pounds on dry land.

Personally, Dodge started diving in 1986 and became an instructor in 1994. His ‘day job’ prior to retirement was as an assistant superintendent at several schools throughout the Valley and now he works as a consultant, helping school districts apply for and secure grants.

But it is the opportunity to teach people about the wonders of diving and underwater exploration that brings him the most joy.

“I like them to see what it’s like to dive,” Dodge said.