Scuba diving may seem to many as an activity more suited to youngsters but 65-year-old dive instructor Christy Ooi believes that one is never to old to take the plunge. In fact, the sun-kissed and adventure-loving senior believes that scuba diving is a “gentle sport” that’s perfect for seniors who want to keep active without the risk of injury to their joints.
“Each dive lasts for about 45 minutes and divers swim at a leisurely pace. Diving is a low-impact exercise that’s suited to seniors. The only difference is that you are underwater,” he says.
Ooi has been a scuba diving instructor for over three decades and doesn’t plan on hanging up his fins and putting away his wetsuit anytime soon.
“I’ve been diving for 30 years and I’ve lost track of the number of dives I’ve been on. Once you learn how to dive, you never want to leave the water. I’ll continue to dive as long as I can,” says Ooi passionately.
Becoming a dive instructor wasn’t something Ooi dreamed about as a youngster. After this secondary education, he studied drafting and worked for 15 years as a draughtsman in an architectural firm. But he grew bored with his office-bound job. He wanted a change.
By then, Ooi had already obtained his scuba diving certification. It was the 1980s and scuba diving was deemed as an expensive hobby for the “elite”.
The water sport was perceived as being a sport for the extremely adventurous, those who liked taking risks. Ooi reckons that he was one of the first few Malaysians to learn scuba diving here.
“I was bored with my mundane and routine job that had me sitting in the office for 15 years. I was looking for some adventure in life. So, with my diving instructor’s certificate, I decided to take a leap of faith ... to dive into uncharted waters,” he shares.
The jovial father-of-one went on to obtain his Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certification in 1990 and became a dive instructor. Ooi has absolutely no regrets about leaving his career as a draghtsman.
“Life is all about choices. Though my career switch may have seemed unconventional years ago, I am happier. As a dive instructor, I can dictate my own working hours and lead a less stressful life. Plus, I get to be a beach bum and soak in the sun and have some fun,” jokes Ooi.
It was Ooi’s love for the outdoors that fueled his passion for scuba diving.
“I grew up before the Internet era. As a child, I spent a lot of time outdoors, catching tadpoles in streams and fishing with friends. So, I suppose I signed up for scuba diving because I wanted to reconnect with nature, specifically the underwater world,” explains Ooi who takes his students to the east coast for their dives.
According to the Divers Alert Network (DAN), an American non-profit scuba diving and dive safety association, older divers (those over 50 years old) now constitute an increasingly large percentage of the global dive community.
“Two main factors are responsible: divers who took up scuba in the first flush of its popularity 30 to 40 years ago have aged, and second, today’s older generation is typically wealthier and more active than ever before, and is adopting diving as the pastime of their golden years,” says DAN in their webpage.
According to the association, seniors who started diving in their youth are likely to be safer in the water than many younger divers, because of their experience: they’d be able to deal with a range of problems and scenarios that younger divers may be unfamiliar with.
Still, Ooi advises fellow seniors who want to scuba dive to make sure they are medically and physically fit.
“I have students who are in their 70s and they have never experienced any issues learning how to dive. However, I would advise the elderly to undergo regular health check-ups before signing up for a scuba diving course,” advises Ooi.
As a dive instructor, Ooi too needs to keep himself in shape, not only physically but also mentally.
“I keep up to date by reading articles on diving websites, especially articles on water safety,” says Ooi, who is trained to administer emergency first aid, and is also a rescue diver and divemaster.
Scuba diving also provides seniors citizens with an avenue to socialise, he says.
“Scuba diving is the best way to meet and interact with like-minded people. After each trip, divers always make it a point to gather for food and drinks. Everyone is happy to share their dive stories and adventures and also divulge tips.”
Over the years, Ooi has forged good friendships with many fellow divers. One of them is dive instructor Loo Kit Choong, 63. The two have known each other for four years and have gone on several diving trips together in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Loo considers himself to be a late bloomer when in comes to scuba diving, having taken up the sport only after turning 50. He was inspired to learn to dive after meeting a group of divers in Redang Island, Terengganu.
“Those guys looked so cool in their wetsuits, and it seemed like they were having so much fun in the sea. I decided to follow in their footsteps,” says Loo, a retired sales manager.
Loo was hooked on first dive and has never looked back since.
“Every island has it own beauty and nothing compares to being in pristine waters and appreciating the rich diversity of marine life. I especially love untouched islands like Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Island and Komodo Island, and Sabah’s Pom Pom Island and Mabul Island. Diving is very addictive. One you start, it’s hard to stop,” says Loo, who earned his PADI instructors certification when he was 57.
He too thinks that age shouldn’t be a hindrance to picking up scuba diving.
“Scuba diving is like any other sport. The only difference is it’s underwater and one needs to be able to swim and be confident in the water,” he says.
Loo has been a part-time diving instructor since 2007. The job, he says, keeps him busy and allows him to earn “extra pocket money”.
“I enjoy organising dive trips, and working with different tour operators on the different islands in the east coast, Sabah and Indonesia. But the best bit is meeting people from all walks of life, especially those who love the outdoors. Plus, I love teaching people not just about diving but also conservation.”
On each of his dive trips, Loo makes it a point to do sea and beach clean ups.
“I can’t stand seeing thrash strewn in the ocean. Besides, it’s our diving playground and so we must try to keep it pristine for the others to enjoy,” says Loo.
As much as he loves diving, Loo confesses that best trips are the ones he goes on with his sons, Loo Shen Quang, 33 and Loo Jey Quang, 27.
“My sons have busy work schedules and hardly have any free time. During these trips, we get to relax and enjoy each other’s company. We get to strengthen the family bond too.”
Loo reckons that more seniors should “step outside the confines of homes”, reconnect with nature and get active.
“People are too caught up with social media. Rather than be in the virtual world, explore the outdoors. Reconnect with nature through activities like hiking and swimming. It’s a great form of exercise to keep healthy.”