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Saturday, September 9, 2000

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Kalei Talwar checks her diving regulator as she and instructor
Buck Rollings prepare for a dive at Camp Smith. Thanks to
a policy change, the fifth-grader has become Hawaii's youngest
certified scuba diver.

Scuba’s ‘cool’
for 10-year-old

Kalei Talwar is Hawaii's youngest
certified scuba diver, though her
parents were scared at first

By Treena Shapiro

KALEI Talwar hunches over to haul half her weight in scuba gear to the far end of the pool, all the while stepping gingerly with two foot fins strapped to her size-4 feet.

But once she jumps into the water -- and expels her mouthpiece -- it's all smiles for the 10-year-old, Hawaii's youngest certified scuba diver.

At the beginning of this year, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors lowered the minimum age for scuba certification to 10 years old from 12 to promote scuba diving as a more family-oriented sport.

And shortly after her 10th birthday, Kalei was ready to take the plunge, starting with an introductory "resort course" on Maui, and recently completing a certification course at Ocean Concepts Scuba, Inc. at Camp Smith.

At 10 years and 2 months, Kalei is the youngest certified diver in the state, and second youngest in the country by one month. The youngest person is in California, according to Liz Westfall, general manager of Ocean Concepts.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Instructor Buck Rollings gives Kalei Talwar the signal to dive.

"It was fun," Kalei said of the weeklong scuba course, although "it was hard doing all the studying." To become a certified diver, students learn about gear and equipment, the underwater environment, atmospheric pressures and illnesses in the classroom. Then they apply their new knowledge in the pool. Then in the open ocean.

The work isn't too daunting, though. If another 10-year-old expressed interest in the sport, Kalei would say: "Just go for it!" The testing process prepares prospective divers for possible dangers, she said.

Kalei's dive instructor Buck Rollings, 29, said Kalei is one of the best students he's had since he began teaching a year ago. "She's one of the most comfortable divers I've had in the water," he said. "She's one of five divers I've taught that got a hundred on the (written) final, and that's amazing to me." Rollings said he got only 90 percent correct on the final himself.

Kalei, a Punahou fifth-grader, had spent the summer swimming almost daily and had already put in some snorkeling hours, but she said scuba diving is better. "It's kind of cool, because you get to go down deeper and you don't have to come up," she said.

Since learning to dive, she's seen manta rays "as big as cars," watched her father kiss a turtle, and seen shrimp, moray eels and a wider variety of tropical fish than she'd been able to see with just her snorkel and mask.

Both Kalei's parents have been diving for years, but their diving vacations changed once their only child was born. "One person went scuba diving, one person stayed on the shore," Kalei said.

"It wasn't much fun," said her father, Jay.

That doesn't mean the Talwars were overeager when Kalei decided she wanted to learn to dive, too. "We were scared," her mother, Carrie, said. "She's so little."

When Kalei did her first ocean dive with resort course instructors, Carrie and Jay jumped into the water with her. "It's kind of scary at first, because they're your babies and you're thinking, 'Oh my gosh,' " Carrie said.

But now that Kalei's certified, Carrie looks forward to a diving vacation for the whole family. "Now we can all go together, which is great," she said.

The family's next diving vacation probably won't be until spring, though. Kalei, who also rides horseback, sings for the Hawaii Youth Chorus and plays piano, has a new skill to master: skiing.

"We're going snow skiing at the Christmas holiday," she said.

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