Some staffers take ocean-ed underwater

This past Friday, a little after noon, a small group of Capitol Hill staffers, along with two outside advisers, met for a closed-door meeting to strategize, plan and discuss a subject close to all of their hearts: scuba diving.

It was the inaugural meeting of Capitol Hill’s first scuba club. A bipartisan club created less than three months ago but already 60 members strong, it is officially sponsored by Ocean Caucus Co-chairmen Reps. Tom Allen (D-Maine) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.).

The caucus itself has no official role in the club, as members of Congress are not allowed to be in it. But congressional clubs do need sponsors to exist, so the congressmen agreed.

“As far as why he is a sponsor, he recognizes the importance of learning about the ocean through hands-on experience,” said Scott Baker, Inslee’s spokesman. “He’s not a scuba diver, and he’s not a member of the club.”

For a scuba club, arrangements for the first meeting were oddly secretive. The group needed some convincing to allow a reporter to get in the door.

There are only two serious requirements for membership: You must be a congressional staffer, and you must love the ocean. Beyond that, members come from a variety of scuba backgrounds: some have been diving for years, others were certified less than two months ago, and the group’s president, Amanda Murphy, an aide to Inslee who handles oceans and environmental issues, has yet to get her license.

Sitting at a table sprinkled with back issues of Divers magazine, the small, jovial group took the first five minutes of the meeting to hammer out the club’s mission statement. The end result, scrawled boldly on butcher paper, is “to learn about marine and freshwater environment through scuba diving.”

Settling on an official title and acronym proved to be more complicated (CDC is already taken) and were left for meeting No. 2.

Creating the club itself, despite the amount of interest, was a feat.

“The idea has been around for a while,” said Florida transplant Leda Cunningham, dive outreach coordinator for Conserve Our Ocean Legacy, who has volunteered to advise the group. She explained that at first it had been difficult to dispel the perception that diving is a frivolous and expensive sport.

“Diving is a tool scientists use to learn about ocean ecosystems. This club is for educational purposes as well as for fun,” she said.

Her thoughts were echoed by Joseph Pouliot, communications director for Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee: “Our committee handles ocean issues, and it’s nice to see firsthand the things we talk about.”

A New York native, Pouliot was one of half a dozen club members who were certified at the Splash Dive Center in Alexandria in April. Part of their training involved a trip to Lake Rawlings — an abandoned quarry-turned-dive site — where the group did a prerequisite open-water dive in 60-degree water.

“The cold was tough, and it was a little claustrophobic,” recalled James Hague, staff assistant on the Science Committee’s Research Subcommittee. “It gets easier, though — after you get over the shock.”

According to the Lake Rawlings website, underwater attractions include a bus, several boats, two cars and a few statues — there are some fish and snails too. If you want to find the boat used in the Keanu Reeves-Gene Hackman flick “The Replacements,” it’s at the bottom of Lake Rawlings. Not exactly a pirate ship or a coral reef, but it clearly was enough to get both Hague and Pouliot hooked.

Of course, being 100 miles away from the Atlantic isn’t exactly conducive to outings with one’s mask-and-snorkel, and that’s where the club comes in.

“I’ve always had an interest in scuba diving,” Pouliot said, “I love water, the ocean and swimming. But it’s not like other sports. It took having a structure to actually get out and do it.”

Hague agreed, adding that he was looking forward to planning trips that might take the group farther afield, as well as eventually doing some more advanced wreck diving on his own time.

At first glance, the North Atlantic may not seem ideal for diving, but Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina have a wealth of interesting wrecks and marine life. In addition, the Gulf Stream can make diving off the coast almost tropical — in the 70- to 80-degree range during the summer.

In the meantime, the consensus was to begin out of the water — maybe a trip to see “Into the Deep” at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s IMAX theater or a visit to a local aquarium to take a fish-identification class.

To learn more about the Congressional Diving Club, contact club President Amanda Murphy at amanda. murphy@mail.house.gov.