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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Into The Deep

Sixteen years ago during a highly advanced technical cave dive, Evansville native Larry Babcock was swimming in an underwater cave called Little River in Branford, Florida, when the steel twin cylinders of air he was wearing hit the cave ceiling and busted a manifold. Babcock then broke several cardinal rules of cave diving, including adventuring off line, a guideline a diver follows to return to the surface. In zero visibility, he managed to isolate the leak and save one cylinder. Babcock was left with little air and soon was forced to hold his breath for more than 100 feet under water until he reached another cylinder waiting for him.

It is moments like this that have placed cave diving on the short list of the most dangerous sports in the world. Babcock, the owner of Aquatech Scuba and Travel Center who has logged more than 6,000 dives, is quick to dispute that claim.

“Cave diving has a bad reputation,” says Babcock. “If you’re trained properly and you don’t break the rules, you can have multiple failures and still get out.”

Today, the 54-year-old uses those experiences to educate the hundreds of students taking classes through his business. Aquatech teaches courses ranging from Try Scuba, an introductory class, and beginner levels to highly technical diving, such as Babcock’s cave dive in Florida.

Babcock was introduced to scuba, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, late in life on a group vacation to Cancun, Mexico. In his mid-30s, he balked at the idea of joining in the activity — he was content laying on the beach with a drink in hand — until he finally stopped resisting and gave it a go.

Larry Babcock, owner of Aquatech Scuba and Travel Center, has logged more than 6,000 dives in places all around the world. Above, he is capturing pictures in Cozumel, Mexico. The 54-year-old says his favorite type of diving is cave diving as seen below in the underwater caves of Tulum, Mexico. Photo by Sue Miles, photo of Mexico cave by Steve Garrado.

“I really tried it to make the group be quiet,” says Babcock with a laugh. “Once I got down there and saw all the colors, the reefs, the fish, I loved it immediately. I felt like it was something you would do at Disney World. The reefs had so much color, so many reds, oranges, and yellows, and the tropical fish had so many colors. I was thinking ‘Wow!’ It was peaceful.

“Although I was apprehensive, once I was down in the water, the whole thing changed. This is my life. This is what I do.”

Babcock says he never was a water kid in his youth. His mother often discouraged him and his sister, Diane Freeman, from going into water past their knees because of a fear of drowning.

“Our mother had us terrified of water,” says Freeman, who manages the daily operations of Aquatech and has worked there for the last 15 years. “We would walk out to our knees, and she would say, ‘Get back here!’”

A graduate of Bosse High School, Babcock played basketball year-round while in school and became a mechanic by trade. He opened his own automotive business, Muffler & Auto Express, 2100 S. Weinbach Ave., in 1981 — a business he still owns today. The owner relies on the help of 46-year-old Danny Hayes, manager of Muffler & Auto Express, who has worked at the store since he was 17. Babcock says he wouldn’t be able to operate both businesses successfully without an employee like Hayes whom he trusts completely.

After Babcock’s first diving experience in Mexico, he was hooked. He began traveling to Panama City, Florida, once a month for long weekends and spent time off the coast of North Carolina on the Outer Banks, an area coined “the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” because of its navigational challenges and numerous shipwrecks. His résumé of dives includes two legendary wrecks — the SS Andrea Doria and Hitler’s Lost Sub.

The SS Andrea Doria was an ocean liner for the Italian Line and is considered the “Mount Everest of scuba diving” because of its depth of 236 feet off the coast of New York.

“It is a technical dive,” says Babcock. “It was 100 miles off the coast of New York. The water is very cold and dark with strong currents — it takes a lot of equipment just to dive it.”

“Hitler’s Lost Sub,” or German U-Boat 869, is a German submarine off the coast of New Jersey where three divers have lost their lives trying to identify the U-boat at around 230 feet deep.

“I like exploring things,” he says. “These wrecks haven’t been explored a lot, and there’s still a lot of artifacts to be found. Of course, the sub was a little different because I viewed it as a graveyard. I really didn’t want to go in there and start pulling things out there. Of course, people did, but I wasn’t comfortable with that.”

Babcock became instructor-certified in 1996, and two years later, he opened Aquatech in a small warehouse located next to his automotive shop. Aquatech is a full-service dive operation, offering training from eight different instructors, equipment sales and repair, and dive travel accommodations.

“When I opened the store, there were four dive shops in Evansville. They were everywhere,” he says. “I had a pretty big nut to crack, and turns out we are the only ones left after all these years.”

After owning an automotive business for several years before owning Aquatech, Babcock says he quickly learned the companies were completely different from the moment a customer walked in the door.

“I’m used to the automotive business, so when people come in they usually have car problems, and they didn’t want to be there,” he says. “People want to be here. It is two different spectrums. It is a different type of clientele.”

“We meet a lot of nice people,” says Freeman. “They are all so excited about scuba. The diving community is like a family. They will just swing by and stop in and say, ‘I just had to say hi.’”

Babcock’s first large client was instructing and scuba dive-certifying biology students and professors from the University of Southern Indiana before a study abroad trip to Belize. Teaching teachers was intimidating, says Babcock.

“My first classes were with college professors, and it was a hurdle for me,” he says. “But it all worked out great. They enjoyed the class, and they continued to bring people back. Next thing you know, I had people coming in, and I grew out of that store pretty quick.”

The owner of Aquatech Scuba and Travel Center also works with his sister Diane Freeman, who has managed the daily operations of the store for the last 15 years. Photos by Zach Straw.

Aquatech relocated to 4313 E. Morgan Ave., Ste. A, in 2006 and Babcock credits the store’s longevity to customer relations and filling all the needs of the customer in a one-stop shop.

“In order to run a successful dive shop, you have to offer training, have a store full of inventory to sell or rent them equipment, and once they become certified and buy the dive equipment, you have to give them a place to use it, so we are a big dive travel company,” he says. “We offer more of a spectrum, and we are full-time instead of part-time. Our hours are posted and we are open during those hours.”

Aquatech certifies more than 200 divers a year in the Tri-State area at the beginner level, and around 40 percent of those divers go on to take additional classes and achieve certifications at higher levels. The scuba center offers Try Scuba classes, which allow participants to decide whether a scuba diving certification is right for them. Divers spend two hours in the pool at the Downtown YMCA, 222 N.W. Sixth St., experiencing scuba in the safety of a familiar setting. Babcock says the quality of Aquatech’s training is what sets the company apart from others. If divers wish to brush up on their skills through repeating a class, Aquatech offers it at no charge. When a diver finishes a course through Aquatech, Babcock guarantees they will feel safe, comfortable, and ready to begin his or her underwater adventure. All of the scuba center’s classes are taught at the Downtown YMCA.

Sharon Walden of Grayville, Illinois, echoes the feeling of safety from Aquatech’s “unbelievable training.” The 57-year-old always wanted to scuba dive, which she calls “a bucket list item.” In 2011, she attended an introductory Try Scuba class to see if it was for her.

“In a 3-foot pool, they put a tank on you, and you try to breathe with a regulator,” says Walden. “I was ready to dive right in. I signed up for a class the next day.”

Walden recently completed her 100th dive in February and has traveled all over the world through trips organized by Aquatech. She says there is a distinct difference between those who have been trained through the Evansville scuba center and those who went elsewhere.

“Being around divers who have been trained by Larry, they are so safe and well-trained,” says Walden. “If you get in trouble, you know what to do. Others who haven’t just don’t have a clue. Larry and his staff train you correctly. It makes you feel good.”

Walden also explains scuba diving opened her up to a whole new group of friends, including Henderson, Kentucky, resident Sue Miles. The two met for the first time as roommates on a dive trip in Honduras.

When Miles’ husband passed away, she says “it rocked my world.” Miles felt like she was living her life in limbo for two years, until she decided she needed to focus on the parts of life that gave her joy. That’s when she decided to give a long-time desire a chance.

Sharon Walden and Sue Miles hold hands while diving together at Socorro Island in Mexico. The friends first met as roommates in Honduras through a dive trip organized by Aquatech Scuba and Travel Center. Photo by Dan Epler.

“Aquatech is more than just a business and more than just a shop to buy equipment,” says Miles, who received her certification from instructor Tammy Storm at Aquatech. “They involved me as if I was family. We are so lucky to have them. We are so lucky to have someone of Larry’s caliber in Evansville.”

In addition to certifying recreational swimmers, the scuba center also trains Boy Scout troops and many of the fire department divers on search and rescue operations. The fire departments also purchase their dive equipment at Aquatech. Aquatech’s instructors have extensive experience with more than 10,000 logged dives combined at locations around the world.

“Most of the stuff we do is recreational, and that’s what pays the bills in Evansville,” says Babcock. “We have eight instructors, and we also are an instructor training facility, which is hard to find anymore.”

“I give the Super 8 (Evansville East Hotel) a lot of business across the street for people coming in to take classes,” he says laughing.

Most of his business from technical courses comes from out of the area. People will travel from all over the world to attend classes taught by Babcock. He is the first Hollis Rebreather Cave instructor in the world. The number of instructors on the system is less than 10. The fully-closed system absorbs the carbon dioxide of the user’s exhaled breath and recycles the unused oxygen. Rebreathers “opened up a new world,” says Babcock, allowing divers to go further and longer without bubbles produced. Without bubbles, his videography and interaction with marine life has improved.

One of the most common misconceptions with scuba diving is that sharks are dangerous, says Babcock. He shares experiences of being surrounded by hundreds of sharks and never being bothered. He’s been bitten by only one deep-sea creature, which was a clown fish or “Nemo,” as Babcock jokes.
In addition to instructing dive classes, Aquatech also offers dive excursions to exotic locations, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Galapagos, Mexico, and more. Babcock leads international trips about four times a year with smaller trips organized throughout the calendar as well.

“What brings joy to me is seeing these people who have never been on scuba before and watch them progress,” says Babcock. “I have a lot of people who come up to me and say, ‘Do you realize how many people you have brought enjoyment to?’ I had never really thought about it. You change people’s lives.”

For more information about Aquatech Scuba and Travel Center, call 812-479-5764 or visit aquatechdivecenter.com.

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