A Pirate’s Life for Me

Dive Pirates offers people with spinal-cord injuries an opportunity to experience a sense of freedom by scuba diving.

Sean Barr’s voice cracks when trying to describe what diving means to him. He couldn’t imagine not being around the water. It’s the Marine veteran’s livelihood. A freak injury nearly took that all away.

In March of 1995, while people jumped on him during his unit’s goodbye celebration in Kanehoe, Hawaii, the dogpile collapsed. Barr landed on his head and snapped his neck right at his Adam’s apple, leaving him with a C-5/6 complete spinal-cord injury (SCI). He was 21 years old.

Diving again didn’t sound very promising, until he found Dive Pirates (divepirates.org), an organization that gave him, along with other veterans with SCI, the opportunity to deep-sea dive. It reinvigorated his passion. Now the Paralyzed Veterans of America member hopes to convince others to join, too.

“I think there’s a lot of men and women out there, whether that’d be a double amputee or an arm amputee or the blind or this or that, I think they think about the scuba diving thing and they see it and they’re like ‘Yeah, OK, yeah, that’s all fine and well but not for me,’” says the 40-year-old Barr, who works in the sub-sea construction industry. “And I just want to stop and go, ‘Wait, hang on a second. It is for you. It’s exactly for you. And we know how to get you in the water. We know how to ensure that you’re safe and that you have the most amazing time, but not compromising your safety in the water. And if you will trust us and do this and believe what we’re saying and believe that once you get to a certain level of comfort you’re going to find this to be one of the most amazing things you’ve ever experienced in your life.’”

Founded For Fun

Founded in 2003 by Barbara Thompson, Sophie Wimberley and Nettie Evans, Dive Pirates was formed as a way to take people, especially veterans, who had mobility problems to do something fun. For the past 10 years, every June, the group has put together major week-long trips to Cayman Brac in the Cayman Islands for individuals with disabilities.

According to Dive Pirates’ bylaws, the organization will pay for injured military veterans’ equipment, dive training (which can be done at one of its regional centers) and certification and flight, resort and meal expenses to go on their first trip. Divers can keep their gear, then must pay for subsequent trips. Anyone who is injured can apply. Funding comes from an annual Dive Pirates Ball in Houston, a membership drive and donations. Trained assistants help divers into their suits and move through the water.

But Dive Pirates is more than just giving veterans and other people with paralysis and injuries the chance to dive underwater. There are many bonding activities, too. Those include game nights, which feature games like on the hit television show Minute To Win It. Participants try to complete a task, like bouncing a ping pong ball onto a piece of peanut butter toast or throwing a playing card and getting it to stick in a cut watermelon, in one, two or three minutes. Whoever completes the most tasks is the champion.

Trivia and karaoke nights are held at the resort. Or there’s “bling bingo,” where whoever dresses up in the most jewelry receives a prize. There’s the Miss Dive Pirates contest and the Dive Pirate floatilla, where divers decorate themselves and their wheelchairs. Divers carry a donation bucket around at dinner and whoever captures the most dollars for votes, wins.

More action starts early on. Nearly every morning there’s a water balloon fight between the boats. People can bring their own water balloon cannons. Boats are renamed in pirate fashion and flags can be stolen and held for ransom. There’s even an underwater treasure hunt. Thompson’s sister, Theresa Brown-Cortez, serves as Dive Pirates’ executive coordinator. She says they’ve built a lot of tradition to give divers a new experience.

“It’s fun to let your hair down and be silly. It’s a camp environment. It’s almost like going to camp for a week,” Brown-Cortez says. “People come and make sure to pack a few goodies — maybe it’s glow lights, one of our contestants used a bunch of light sabers from Star Wars to decorate with. It’s just one of those family atmospheres we’ve created.”

Networking Opportunity

Besides being uplifting and fun, Nathan Gonzalez acknowledges Dive Pirates can help you network. Paralyzed from a motorcycle accident with a drunk driver in April of 2001, the former Marine heard about Dive Pirates after his doctor convinced him to meet Thompson at a local San Antonio restaurant’s event.  Thompson convinced him he could dive again. Since then, the San Antonio resident’s whole life and outlook have changed.

He’s been on several Dive Pirates’ trips and met people from across the country, including a friend with quadriplegia who dives all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand and South America. The 36-year-old also picked up new diving methods and apparatus ideas, like using webbed gloves.

“I used to have two people flanking me when I would dive and they would basically push me around. Like I would just point where I wanted to go and they would kind of just push me in that direction. They would kind of lay me in the sandbed and I would just look at all the sea life and I would kind of move on to the next one and just tell them where to take me,” Gonzalez says. “By the second time, I got tired of trying to signal them to move me, so I would just start [with my webbed gloves]. I would just paddle with my one arm. I get a good little kick out of it … When I would do that, my whole body does kind of a fishtail, so I was moving muscles in my legs and in my back that I hadn’t moved in years.”

Now he wants to buy an underwater scooter. His friend, Pete Gamble, uses one, and Gonzalez would like to swim assist-free.

“I didn’t think that was possible until I saw my buddy do it,” Gonzalez says. “He’s completely independent underwater.”

Tranquil Feeling

For Barr, all those months of training, including pool and classroom work, were worth the experience. Barr remembers his first open-water dive with his injury fondly. His dive buddies were always there — helping him zip up in his wet suit, move him out of his chair to the back deck, then pushing him into the water. With his mask on and regulator in his mouth, he flipped in the water and loves that tranquil feeling.

“I don’t want to get too cheesy about it, but it’s almost if you could just imagine sitting there and somebody just slowly pouring some lukewarm water over your head and your body just goes into sort of this trance state. You just all of a sudden you’re relaxed. Everything’s relaxed,” Barr says. “The world’s almost equal between you and I. If I want to turn around and look at something, I just move my arms and I swing around and I look at it. I swing around and I look the other way. I look up. I look here. I look there. It’s just this amazing, amazing feeling.”


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