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Four decades of underwater diving and still loving it

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-10-18

Jerry Fitzgerald, known as "Fitz" to those that know him, has been diving in Okinawa's surrounding sea for quite a long time. The retired Marine had passed through Okinawa a few times on his way to Vietnam - three tours for the veteran to be exact, including one with the 1st Marine Brigade in 1965, which was the second group of U.S. Marines to land there. After the Vietnam War ended, he again arrived in Okinawa in 1975, only this time it was not just to pass through. "Fitz" was stationed here for one year, where he not only enjoyed the fantastic marine life of the island, but he also met his wife Emiko.

Sitting inside of "Surf" on a rainy afternoon, Fitz, who could pass for a crew member aboard the Calypso, talked about those "good old days" of diving in Okinawa. "It was pristine back then, and there weren't many divers around," he said. "At that time the visibility was awesome. This island was as good as anywhere in the Keramas is today for diving."

Indeed there were very few divers at the time. You could only get equipment through the military, and even there, it was not yet widely available.

"We used to dive over at Green Beach a lot, which is now the Renaissance Hotel. There was nothing there back then, and it was one of the biggest shell collecting places you ever laid your eyes on. Maeda was also a good spot, and so was suicide-cliffs," recalled Fitz. "You could really go anywhere you wanted to - I remember a taxi from Camp Hansen to Gate 2 Street only cost three dollars and fifty cents!"

Fitz's diving stories actually start much before his arrival on Okinawa. He first began scuba diving in the early 1950's as a young boy. "My uncle, who was one of the original frogmen of the Navy taught me in Florida when I was twelve years old," explained Fitz. "There were no official diving organizations back then. There was only the Florida Skin Diver's Association, which began to certify divers in 1952, but most of the time you bought the equipment, put it on, and kind of just taught yourself."

Although diving equipment is very high-tech now, it was not the case forty years ago. "We had no depth or air gauges. You knew when you were running out of air because you didn't get any! We used the old J-valve, which was your reserve valve. It was spring activated and shut off automatically when your air supply became low. You then had to flip it back open, which gave you about three hundred to eight hundred psi of air to get to the surface," Fitz explained. "There weren't even any BCD's. We used what they called a Hawaiian harness, which was just a metal or wood frame that you attached your tank to. People would get a hold of life jackets from airplanes, and that was your BCD." This all happened at a time when scuba was still a mystery to most people - Jacques Cousteau had only invented SCUBA and began exploring the underwater world himself a decade ago.

Fitz received his first certification in 1960 from the YMCA. In 1961, he joined the Marine Corps and attended the Navy Dive School, where he furthered his underwater skills. After arriving in Okinawa in 1975, the diving expert married Emiko one year later and returned to the U.S. They eventually returned to Okinawa in 1981, and Fitz has been here ever since. He became a certified I.D.E.A. instructor in 1984, and has given many people the same experience of love for the ocean that he so much enjoys. He is also a strong supporter for more environmental education for divers. "I think education is a big problem. There are not enough instructors enforcing education to take care of the environment. You see many shell collectors turning over rocks, and disrupting the environment. Too many divers do not maintain good neutral buoyancy and they wind up breaking coral," he explained. "If you stress on the students while they are in the entry level class to take care of the environment, most of them will follow."

He also mentioned however, that, "The problem has become much better over the past five years. I hear instructors talking about it more and more."

Fitz continues to give the same valuable lessons to many first time divers. He can often be seen at the Sunabe sea wall leading a group of students into the water. He teaches anyone, who has an interest to learn about diving, and offers all level classes at convenient times. For more information on classes, please call 030-797-5228. Fitz hopes that all students will recognize the importance behind caring for the environment, so that others may also enjoy the beauty of the underwater world.

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