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ISSUE 120 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/6/2006

The life aquatic with John Campion

By David Henke
Variety Editor

Friday, October 6, 2006

On Friday I was sitting with John Campion in his office in the Informational and Instructional Technologies (IIT) department watching him write furiously on a piece of scrap paper. He scribbled out some numbers, multiplied them and looked up.

“I think I've spent about three months underwater,” he said to me, then grinned sheepishly and held up the piece of paper on which he had written his calculations.

A moment ago, I had asked Campion to estimate how many minutes he had spent underwater over the course of his life. His answer was hardly surprising, considering that Campion has logged more than 2,600 scuba dives over the last 27 years.

Campion is St. Olaf's resident scuba diving instructor. He teaches Scuba Diving, a quarter-credit Physical Education Activity course that meets every Friday in Skoglund. The class is divided into three segments: classroom instruction, pool training and open water training. The last aspect of the course – the open water training – consists of four dives in Square Lake in Stillwater, Minn. All 21 St. Olaf students enrolled in the course this semester will have completed their open water training by Oct. 22.

The course, which has an equipment fee of $295, tests students psychologically, physically and academically. All the students involved in the course must complete a written test and a series of underwater challenges. Upon completion of the course, students become certified Open Water Divers under the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).

Campion said he hopes that the relatively long timeframe of his course will help his students learn all of the skills that are necessary for a successful dive (many recreational dive courses are completed in two or three weekends), but he acknowledges that there is some risk associated with the activity.

“Scuba diving is a hazardous activity, but it's also a fun activity,” he said. “I just hope that I'm producing safer divers by teaching a longer course.”

For most of his life Campion has enjoyed access to an underwater world that many of us will only experience through photos. He began diving in 1979 while he was a math and physics major at St. Olaf. In the summer between his freshmen and sophomore years he enrolled in a scuba diving course offered through a community education program. Upon completion of the course, Campion became a basic PADI-certified Open Water Diver.

The following year, he became a certified Advanced Open Water diver, and began diving regularly with Marshal Kirckof, a divemaster and instructor who ran a dive shop out of Owatonna, Minn. As an Advanced Open Water Diver, Campion was certified to dive independently anywhere in the world and descend to a maximum depth of 100 ft. underwater.

Campion continued to move up the diving hierarchy; in 1985 he bought Kirckof and Associates, the dive shop that his mentor, Marshal Kirckof, owned and moved the business from Owatonna to Northfield. He became a fully certified Open Water Dive Instructor, and began teaching extra-curricular scuba diving courses at both Carleton and St. Olaf.

Now being underwater is Campion's second nature.

“I've always liked being underwater,” he said. “It's like you're in an empty auditorium. It's so peaceful and quiet.”

Over the years, John has explored extraordinarily diverse underwater environments. He has descended to the bottom of a flooded, 145 foot deep open pit iron mine. In winter, he often cuts holes in the ice on numerous lakes and swims in the crystal-clear, frigid water under the ice sheet. As part of the Advanced Open Water class he teaches, he takes students through hulking shipwrecks on the bottom of Lake Superior.

“Each lake is its own world,” Campion said. “It changes every time you visit.”

Campion is comfortable in almost any dive environment. As an instructor, he hopes he can help students acclimate when they are immersed in underwater environments.

“In many respects, the most dangerous thing down there is yourself. Being relaxed and having fun makes it a safer environment,” Campion said.

As part of his training, Campion is CPR and Medic First Aid-certified. He has also received EMT training. Divers are also encouraged to use a buddy system while underwater.

“You can learn a lot about your stress limits [when you're underwater], but you also get a sense of your capabilities,” he said.

When asked what his favorite part about being a dive instructor is, Campion said “watching people realize that they can do it, that they can dive.”

Once a person completes an Open Water certification course, they are certified for life. There is no age limit for diving; any person can dive, as long as they are healthy enough to meet the physical and mental demands of underwater exercise. “It's a lot like driving a car,” Campion said, “after a few months of driving, you are comfortable doing it. Scuba becomes natural like that.”

Scuba diving has been growing in popularity worldwide. Each year PADI issues nearly one million Open Water certifications around the globe. The organization has roughly 135,000 professional members and 5,000 dive centers in 175 countries. The PADI instruction booklet is printed in 20 languages.

The growth in the popularity of diving as a recreational activity is having an increasingly adverse impact on underwater environments around the world.

Campion is aware that human interaction with fragile marine environments poses an environmental problem, but he believes that diving magnifies an individual's environmental conscience.

“It makes you more aware of your footprint on the environment,” he said.

For Campion, the ever-changing underwater landscape is the most interesting aspect of diving. One of his favorite memories diving came during a dive at night when he was swimming through bioluminescent algae. He swept his hand through the water in front of his face and the algae “lit up like stars.”

“I like diving anywhere,” Campion said. “There's gorgeous scenery above and below the water.”

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