Central Valley Scuba Center Offers Class on Sign Language for Divers
One of my favorite pastimes is scuba diving, and one of my greatest frustrations when diving is my inability to communicate underwater.
I have found myself in many situations with my husband and dive buddy, where I’ve tried to explain something to him underwater but couldn’t. I’ve even resorted to ripping the regulator (breathing apparatus) out of my mouth underwater to yell the words. It doesn’t really work.
Then I met scuba divers Nancy Delich and Stephen Roberts.
Delich lost her hearing when she was 11 months old. As a little girl, she was terrified of water.
“If I closed my eyes, I lost contact with the world because of my hearing loss,” Delich says. “That time was horrible for my parents, because if they washed my hair and I closed my eyes, I would scream bloody murder.”
Delich overcame her fear of water through swimming. As a teen she began swimming competitively and, when she was 19 years old, she was one of 21 American athletes to compete in the International Deaf Olympics in Budapest, Hungary.
Delich went on to earn a master’s degree in social work and was working on a second master’s degree in transforming spirituality in Seattle when she met Roberts, a Fresno State communicative disorders professor, pediatric audiologist, scuba instructor and dive shop owner. They realized they had a lot in common, including their dedication to advocating for the deaf culture.
The two struck up a friendship. They emailed each other – Roberts in Fresno and Delich in Seattle – while she completed her master’s degree and then a doctorate in educational leadership.
The discussions often turned to scuba diving.
“He told me about his passion,” Delich says. “And I could trust him. So I was willing to try it. And it was just a whole different world underwater.
“You can’t understand it until you experience it.”
Roberts certified Delich as an open water diver. She fell in love with diving and couldn’t get enough. She went on to earn certifications in navigation, deep diving, night diving, as a rescue diver and finally as a master diver.
All the while, as Roberts was teaching Delich to dive, she was helping him improve his fluency in American Sign Language (ASL).
When Delich suggested a tutor, Roberts tried one and his sign language improved – so much so that they began using a form of ASL while scuba diving. Other students saw them communicating underwater and they wanted to learn.
“The deaf community takes great pride in communicating easily under water. They have an advantage underwater,” Delich says.
With the help of SeaSigns Underwater Communication in Florida, Delich and Roberts created a sign language specialty course for scuba divers. It’s an adaptation of ASL with only 140 signs, but it’s enough to communicate more and enhance the diving experience, Roberts says.
Delich says that sign language started with fourth-century monks who took vows of silence but still communicated using a form of sign language. It wasn’t ASL, but it worked, much like the sign language Delich and Roberts use to teach their scuba students.
“We don’t have philosophical discussions under water,” Delich laughs. “And that’s one of the things I tell the students. They are somewhat intimidated. ‘Can we learn what we need to know in four hours? And can we remember?’”
Roberts and Delich make it easy for students to learn. She has students connect to the reason for each sign.
It could be something as simple as, “Look – there’s a yellow star fish with a broken arm,” Delich says. “I can go right to it and see it, and I can go back and say ‘Yes, I see what you’re talking about.’”
About the same time Delich was earning her certifications at the Central Valley Scuba Center in Tulare, Roberts was certifying UC Davis pre-med student Randi Pechacek, who went on to take more advanced classes, including navigation.
That’s where she met Delich, and the two teamed up as buddies.
“I dove with her and it was strange not being able to communicate with her,” Pechacek says. Delich wears cochlear implants, which she can’t use before or during a dive.
Delich began teaching Pechacek some signs that the two could use underwater, and eventually Pechacek took the underwater sign language class from Delich and Roberts.
Pechacek says learning to sign made diving more fun.
“It opens a world of communication. You can discuss details of your dive, whether you want to go up or down, or turn at the starfish. It’s incredibly helpful for not only navigation, but just describing what you’re seeing.”
“When she learned how to sign, she got so excited,” Roberts says of Pechacek, laughing. “I couldn’t get a sign in edgewise.”
There are limitations to underwater sign language. Dark, thick gloves make it hard to differentiate between one finger and two, especially against a dark wetsuit. Facial expressions are difficult if not impossible to read because the regulator covers the mouth, and the dive mask obscures the eyes. Without those important cues, a message can easily be misunderstood.
Roberts and Delich say that after students earn their recognition card, they need to practice the signs and dive with a buddy who has also taken the course.
Delich says students also need to continue to be aware of their surroundings, and remember to enjoy their dive.
“It’s a hazard to take this class,” she says half-jokingly, adding that sometimes all divers want to do once they learn underwater sign language is talk with each other.
“We’re diving. Don’t forget that.”
By Faith Sidlow
About The Central Valley Scuba Center
The Central Valley Scuba Center is located at 2025 E. Tulare Ave. in Tulare. For more information about the sign language for divers course, call (559) 687-8266 or go to centralvalleyscuba.com/Sign_Language.html.