Jimmie Wheeler didn’t set out to run a scuba company that takes people around the world to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but it’s turned out to be a great gig.
“I was in school at UT and was a manager for the swim team in the ‘70s. The pool manager position opened at the swim center, and I got that,” says Jimmie. Part of being pool manager meant teaching a scuba class. “I got my first certification in ‘78 because my brother was getting married in Fort Lauderdale and needed to get certified, but then I got NAUI* certified in ‘79, and worked for ten years as pool manager and scuba instructor under Coach [Ray] Bussard.”
By this point, Jimmie was already connected with Dion Keith, the original owner of Ski/Scuba Center on Sutherland. A friendship developed over the years, and eventually, Jimmie joined the staff as a full-time scuba instructor. Soon after, he was on his first scuba trip to the other side of the world.
“One of the first trips I ever did was to Roatan off the coast of Honduras. It was an eye-opener,” says Jimmie. “Traveling to a third-world country was one thing, but seeing the reefs was amazing.”
Jimmie bought the Ski/Scuba Center from Dion in 2009 and has carried on with the instruction and scuba trips the business has become known for in Knoxville.
“For the most part, one of the things we encourage is just to learn how to dive. That’s one of the philosophies of our SSI certification,” says Jimmie. “It’s all about the experience.”
To get started in scuba diving, the first step is to cultivate a curiosity. The Ski/Scuba Center offers a Try Scuba class for ages 10 and older for those who are interested and want to get their feet wet before committing to a certification program. The three-hour class is conducted in the shallow end of the Ski/Scuba pool, and all the equipment is provided (bring a swimsuit and towel). Classes are held regularly throughout the year on select weekday evenings and usually one Saturday a month. If the Try Scuba class whets your appetite for more, the fee of the class will be applied to the full Open Water Scuba Certification class.
“With the Open Water course, you start with studying at home, watching videos, and taking some quizzes. Then you come in for a classroom session and we review everything. The pool sessions are for practicing skills and using the equipment,” says Jimmie. “The final part is an open water dive. We go to a quarry in Philadelphia, but there are two other quarries we can use – one in Sweetwater and one in Gray. We do five dives over a two-day period.”
It's usually at this point when participants discern whether scuba diving is right for them. Jimmie calls the open-water dive a decision-making moment. Some folks achieve the first level and go no further, but others get hooked and jump feet first into a whole new realm of exploration.
“It’s a great family activity, but sometimes it’s a bucket list thing for people. Sometimes they get certified and start going on the trips, and then they want to take other advanced classes,” says Jimmie.
For many customers, the Ski/Scuba organized trips are the best way to have a worry-free scuba diving experience in a pristine tropical location, such as Fiji, the Philippines, Honduras, Bonaire, and other spots in the South Pacific, such as Truk Lagoon, where a World War II naval battle unfolded and led to myriad shipwrecks. There are also planned trips to Florida’s Crystal River and West Palm Beach.
“Sometimes we go to the Sinks in the mountains or even the Wye. If we have enough interest, we’ll put a trip together,” says Jimmie. “We just swam with whale sharks in the Philippines [in February]. It was incredible.”
For more information, visit SkiScuba.com.
*All three major diving organizations – The National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), The Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI), and The Scuba School International (SSI) – provide instruction for fundamental, advanced, and rescue certifications. The Ski/Scuba Center is an authorized PADI instruction center, as well as a full-service SSI member training center.
“For the most part, one of the things we encourage is just to learn how to dive. That’s one of the philosophies of our SSI certification. It’s all about the experience.”