The places Mark Posey and Lee Tidwell have visited over the years are among the most desirable vacation destinations in the world.
The Bahamas. The Florida Keys. Tahiti. cozumel Indonesia.
However, the photos, videos and stories they brought with them are from another world.
A video of dozens of sharks circling as the sound of air bubbles and ocean currents fill the microphone. Colorful photos of lionfish, coral and moray eels. Tales of incredibly close encounters with leviathans.
“Ten feet below me was a giant whale shark. It was 33 feet long,” Tidwell said. “It came towards me and stopped. I just petted it. It was the most surreal.”
Posey and Tidwell are part of a community of diving enthusiasts in Vicksburg and Central Mississippi. Visiting the underwater world has been her passion for decades, and every journey beneath the waves promises something new.
“I’ve been diving some of these sites for 12 years and I never get tired of them because you never see the same thing,” Posey said. “I’ve had schools of dolphins, manta rays, barracuda… you never know what you might see. It’s the anticipation of what you’re about to see.”
GET WET FEET
Posey, 67, started scuba diving in 2000 but initially wanted to do so for commercial rather than recreational purposes.
“My best friend had a big boat in Destin. He decided we needed to learn to dive so we could work on the boat and the marlin. He never completed his certification, but I did,” Posey recalled with a laugh. “When I first dived bridge debris in Destin and saw the sheer volume of fish, it was like being Jacques Cousteau.”
It wasn’t long before Posey was off on recreational dives throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic. Along with his wife Robyn Lea, he has accumulated 351 dives ranging from the Texas coast to the mid-Atlantic Bahamas and down to South America.
Future trips are planned to Indonesia and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and his favorite spot is an island called Bonaire, about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela.
All of Posey’s adventures are recorded in a small notebook that accompanies him on every journey. It includes both technical details of the dive and notes on the sights he saw.
Posey has also developed into a talented underwater photographer. After about 50 dives, he began experimenting, and a small waterproof camera that captures video and still images is now part of his standard equipment.
“Sometimes I forget how liberating it is not to take the camera with you, but just to dive in and enjoy it,” he said.
Tidwell, on the other hand, put on a scuba tank for the first time in 1988 at the age of 24. She has always had a love for water and decided to take it to the next level by getting her scuba certification at a dive shop in Jackson.
“I just wanted to learn. I worked at ERDC. I am an engineer. I guess I just wanted to know how it works,” Tidwell said. “Seeing those old underwater movies as a kid and loving the water so much made me want to dive and it was a new thing in Jackson at the time. If it’s something I want to do, I just do it. I was born wanting to be in the water.”
Since then, Tidwell has made about 100 dives, from the Gulf of Mexico to Tahiti. At the former, she petted the whale shark, 22 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. The latter quickly became her favorite dive site.
“I always wanted to go to Tahiti for my 40th birthday, so we did it,” she laughed. “We’ve been back seven times.”
Diving has also become a family hobby for Tidwell and her children. Her son Blake and daughter Morgan are both certified and have a number of dives to their credit.
“It’s really a wonderful thing to do with your family when you’re a merperson,” she said.
For Tidwell, diving is only part of the fun. One of her charms, she said, is traveling to different countries and experiencing different cultures — not just the local ones, but those that gather from around the world.
“I like going to places where there aren’t even people, if the boat isn’t full and you can see the culture,” she said. “In most places we go we never see other English speakers. They have Italians, Russians, Spaniards…people from everywhere.”
TO LEARN DIVING
While it can be an immersive experience, scuba diving is also inherently dangerous and requires some training.
Completion of a scuba certification course is not required by law in most states and countries, but is highly recommended and most boat operators require it before letting anyone dive.
Deep South Scuba in Jackson offers two-day, 16-hour certification courses that range from $200 to $450, while Bayou Divers in Monroe offers courses from $250 to $500. For those going on vacation, many resorts also offer classes.
Most beginner courses include classroom instruction, several dives in a pool, and an open water dive as a final exam.
Different certifications are required for diving in the open sea and diving in freshwater lakes or rivers. Often associated with poor visibility and obstacles, the latter is much more technical and difficult. Other certifications are required for deeper dives.
The certification course focuses on the basics, but even these are essential to making sure what comes down comes up safely. Diving isn’t nearly as easy as strapping on a tank and jumping down into the water, Posey said.
“You learn how to set up your equipment, emergency procedures and things like that. You have to understand the principles to dive safely and breathe compressed air,” Posey said. “You can get certified in two days if you have a one-on-one teacher. For me it took three or four rides in a pool and one ride in open water. You don’t have to be an Olympic swimmer or a Navy SEAL. You have to be able to swim.”
One of the most difficult parts of diving is understanding some basic chemistry.
Scuba tanks use compressed air, which is a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. Modern equipment tracks it with a handheld computer, and monitoring the right mix is a key component of safe diving. Some mixtures can be fatal if inhaled below a very certain depth.
When divers ascend too quickly, the change in air pressure can also cause nitrogen bubbles to form in the bloodstream. As the bubbles spread throughout the body, they cause a potentially fatal condition called decompression sickness, or “bends.”
Avoiding decompression sickness is relatively easy. Divers must spend a certain amount of time at certain depths when surfacing in order to dissolve the nitrogen in their bodies and equalize the pressure.
Most dives last between 30 and 60 minutes and rarely go below 90 feet to allow time to return to the surface slowly and safely. The limit for recreational diving is 130 feet.
“You have to understand that so you don’t go down too fast, stay too deep, stay down too long,” Posey said.
Other important lessons in certification courses are how to deal with emergencies such as equipment malfunctions or the detachment of a mask. Diving in pairs is also taught to students to help in such situations.
Tidwell said she once shared a regulator with a dive buddy whose own equipment malfunctioned.
Most rigs include a primary mouthpiece as well as a backup for this type of situation.
“Your mask can fall off at 90 feet. You don’t leave your mate,” Tidwell said. “If your mask falls off or your computer dies, you have your buddy to help you.”
Other perils of the deep may also rear their ugly heads. Submerged fishing line can entangle a diver and is often found along the Gulf Coast, Posey said. He carries a small knife in his dive vest to cut himself out if necessary.
And while sharks inspire fear, smaller organisms are far more menacing.
Commonly found in the Caribbean, lionfish are highly venomous. Coral is razor sharp and can cut deep with just a touch. Corals, jellyfish, and other venomous species can sting and paralyze a diver when they are most vulnerable.
Among the many lessons to be learned, Posey said, is to tackle sea life with your hands.
“You don’t want to touch anything down there. Fire Coral will make you glow. Lionfish are poisonous. There are animals that will bite you,” Posey said. “The motto is to only take pictures and leave only bubbles. I only take garbage that doesn’t belong. And even then, sometimes I don’t. Even bottles that something might have moved into.”
THE REWARDS OF DIVING
Even the simplest dive is fraught with danger, but the rewards are worth it for Posey and Tidwell. From the journey to the dive site to the sights that can only be seen underwater, every journey into the deep promises a unique exhilaration.
“The sheer number of colors in marine life is mind-blowing,” Posey said. “You are weightless. If you’ve ever dreamed of being like a bird, diving will make it possible… In water, you break free from gravity. It’s 50 pounds of gear and once you hit the water it’s gone.”
Diving is also an activity that seems to have no age limit. Posey has many plans for more dives, even as he nears 70. Indonesia, the Maldives and Iceland are all places he would like to visit before hanging up his regulator.
“They’re on my bucket list. I want to do Iceland, but it’s a different water up there. I have to get certified for a dry suit because it’s so cold,” he said.
Tidwell, 58, had cut back on her scuba diving in recent years due to the COVID pandemic and some broken bones she sustained in a snow skiing accident.
However, she has plenty of room in her dive log and hopes to add one entry in particular.
“I hope to be able to dive with my grandchildren,” she said. “That would be great.”