On Saturday afternoon, as customers inside La Cañada’s Sport Chalet shopped for shoes, attire and sporting goods, a small group of women were breathing underwater for the very first time.
They knelt at the bottom of the store’s instruction pool, communicating silently with hand signals as enormous bubbles clamored upward and burst into the hot summer air. After a few laps around the bottom, the three students and instructor rose to the surface.
PHOTOS: Scuba lessons for women at Sport Chalet
“That was so much fun,” said La Cañada resident Taylor Carbonetti, taking off her swim mask. “It’s so cool. You keep thinking, ‘I’ve got to come up for air,’ but there is air.”
Every third Saturday, from noon to 2 p.m., Sport Chalet offers free introductory scuba lessons for dive-curious women and girls age 10 and up. Female instructors are on hand to answer questions and familiarize students with the rules of diving. After that class, the pool is open until 6 p.m. for anyone else who wants a free lesson.
The idea is to give those who’ve always wondered about scuba the chance to see if it’s something they want to pursue, explains diving instructor Lisa Jover.
“This is a scuba experience. Once a month we offer up the pool to see if they like it,” said Jover, who’s been a certified instructor since 2006. “There are people who always wanted to try it and there are people who do it because they’re getting married or want to go on vacation.”
La Cañada resident Lauren Galantai, 18, and her 13-year-old sister, Megan, were of the former category. They heard about the class at the store the week before and came with their mom, Joyce.
“I really wanted to do it,” Lauren said. “I think it’s really cool.”
“I’m kind of scared,” Megan confided, adding that she didn’t want to get it wrong.
Her worries are not unfounded — scuba diving is a complicated pursuit. There are masks, wetsuits and fins, not to mention air tanks, vests and hoses for breathing. Divers need to acquaint themselves with the basics before they even get in the water, including communication signals and methods for reducing ear pressure. Assistant diving instructor Andrea Horwatt offered the students a tip.
“Pinch the nose on your face mask and exhale through your nose,” she said. “You may hear a little pop, and the pressure in your ears should go away.”
Later, as the group swam with Jover, Horwatt explained scuba’s appeal. She herself was planning a snorkeling trip to Belize when she saw a magazine article on the nation’s primo diving opportunities. She got her certification and has had countless memorable memories since.
“It’s an otherworldly experience,” Horwatt said. “You’re flying through an alien environment and you’re seeing all these amazing animals. It’s incredible.”
After the class, Carbonetti explained her attraction to scuba. She recalled watching with awe the 1965 James Bond movie “Thunderball,” which featured a spectacular underwater fight scene. It wasn’t until a snorkeling trip to Hawaii in 1989, however, that her desire was cemented.
“To be down there with all that life, I didn’t want to keep coming up. I wanted to stay down there,” she said. “So to have this (class) in our own backyard — how great is that?”
For those like Carbonetti who get hooked that first time and want to dive deeper, Sport Chalet offers a scuba certification class, the marine equivalent of a driver’s license, for a fee. That class includes three workshops, three contained diving sessions and two days of open-water dives at an area beach.
Although the Galantai sisters were exhilarated at completing the first lesson, they’re going hold off on certification for now.
“I’m going off to college,” Lauren explained. “Maybe (it’s) something for the future.”
Megan was a bit more hesitant.
“I would do it again,” she said, “but not in the ocean.”
The next free lessons will be offered Sept. 21. For more information on Sport Chalet scuba instruction and certification, visit www.sportchalet.com/category/scuba+dive+center.do or call (818) 790-9800.