It’s 7:45 a.m. on a Thursday at the Florida Sea Base in Lower Matecumbe Key. Boy Scout packs from around the U.S. line up in front of the scuba dorms for the morning flags ceremony before their day of activity — whether it be scuba or sailing. I line up with a Troop 1324 from Houston, Texas, which I joined recently to accomplish something sitting atop my list since coming to the Keys — obtaining my scuba certification.

Thanks to the Florida Sea Base and Executive Director Mike Johnson, I was graciously given the opportunity to join up with troop members to go through class. I’m no boy scout. And even though I’ve never belonged to a troop, I sure felt like I was part of one with six scouts, a crew leader and his son making up the Houston group.

We’d enter the galley together to get our morning, afternoon and evening nourishment. I even started wearing blue shirts to fit in with the group.

With the scouts’ arrival July 17, we meet our dive instructors, Phil Kelly and Claire Ramsey, who will be teaching us the scuba basics in the classroom, in the pool and out in the ocean. Days one and two are spent with our eyes in the PADI Open Water Diver book. It was back to school in a way, with reading, quizzes and tests. Passing all with flying colors, it’s on to getting fitted for scuba gear.

A portion of day two and all of day three are in the pool where we spend the majority of our time. They say the first breath under water is a memorable one. No doubt it was. One thing I found out while doing pool work? I have no problem sucking in air.

With one more underwater activity to do before the lunch hour on day three, I approach 500 psi in my tank. I ascend to the surface at instructor Kelly’s request. I manage to get in the last exercise before we hop out for some food.

“Scuba Jim loves air!” instructor Kelly says. Amen to that, instructor Kelly!

With pool work complete, it’s out on the ocean for open water dives on days four and five. We spend the weekend at Long Key, and Pillars of Atlantis to Labyrinth Deep and, last but not least, Alligator Reef.

With 40 feet of visibility at Alligator, schools of fish, nurse sharks and a barracuda underneath the dive boat eyeing our presence, we conclude our sixth and final dive. It’s there where I realized just how much I was missing in my backyard.

Getting certified through the Sea Base is an experience I’ll never forget, between the late night dive on day three, the first giant stride into the ocean, swimming with the fish at Alligator and completing my certification. Instructors Kelly and Ramsey were unbelievable, with all the expertise, patience and energy they brought to the group every day.

Spending five days on the Florida Sea Base in Islamorada, I came to realize just how much of a gem this place really is. Every day, scouts leave with everlasting memories of their experience while new ones arrive eagerly awaiting an adventure.

A big thanks goes out to the Florida Sea Base, scuba director Joe Angelo, my dive instructors and staff for one heck of an adventure.

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