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Like an airborne bird or swimming fish, Nate Northup is no longer bound by gravity. He feels weightless. Surrounded by quiet, he is mindful of every breath.
'It's a counterintuitive experience to land mammals,” Northup said. 'There's that thrill and exhilaration you get from breathing underwater.”
That's what he feels every time he dives under water. With a finite amount of air in one's scuba tank, divers must conserve air and become adept at relaxing and controlling their breath and muscle movements.
'A lot of (diving) is getting out of your head and relaxing, being present in that moment,” Northup said. 'It is a very meditative experience.”
It's that calm that has compelled him to log more than 120 open water dives. During the last 13 years, he's dived in various settings, from the clear, chilly waters of the Great Lakes to the warm saltiness of the Caribbean.
'It really is a whole new world under the water,” Northup said.
HOOKED THE FIRST TIME
Like many divers, Northup's first experience with scuba diving came on vacation. As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, he went to Jamaica with friends in 2007. He and his friends took a free, one-hour crash course on basic diving skills.
'It wasn't even my idea at first. I was just kind of going along with it as a fun thing to try,” Northup said.
The class then headed to a nearby reef. Northup, wearing swim trunks and basic scuba diving gear, spent about 45 minutes in the ocean on that first dive.
'Upon getting in the actual open water in the ocean, I just immediately fell in love with the feeling and all the underwater sights,” he said. 'I was hooked - I was hooked from the start.”
Growing up in La Crosse, Wis., Northup spent a lot of time on the water - canoeing, fishing and boating on the Mississippi River.
A year after that Jamaican vacation, he talked a friend into taking an introductory scuba diving class with him as an elective college course. Once a week that semester, the students met in the classroom or in the pool.
The final weekend of the class, a diving certification was scheduled in Devil's Lake, Wis.
It was early November, and the temperature was in the 40s. He and the other divers wore thick wet suits to protect them from the cold. He completed his certification as an open water diver that weekend, and over the past decade has advanced to a Level 5 certification, which denotes that he has taken special continuing education courses and logged at least 100 dives.
COLD WATER DIVING
Since becoming certified, he has spent many hours diving in Wisconsin lakes and in Lake Michigan. An estimated 6,000 ships have sunk in the Great Lakes, some dating back to the 1800s and even the Revolutionary War era, Northup said. The fresh water and colder temperatures help preserve the wrecks.
'The water is so clean, and the visibility is so good. It's just like being in the ocean,” he said.
In addition to seeing wrecks and underwater sites, Northup enjoys interacting with nature under water.
Even on that first dive into Devil's Lake, he saw crayfish and inquisitive smallmouth bass, investigating every movement to see if it was food. He said divers can apply what they see and learn to fishing.
'Just seeing fish react to different things underwater, you can get a better idea of how to present your lure,” Northup said.
A CAREER SWITCH
After college, Northup taught middle school and high school for several years. Then he and his wife, Claire, moved to Iowa City in 2017 so she could finish her Ph.D. in environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.
The Northups couldn't have timed their move to Iowa City any better. While he was working as a substitute teacher in the Iowa City school district, Diventures, a Midwestern chain of full-service scuba and swim centers, began construction on its North Liberty location.
Northup decided to take his passion for diving and follow it into a new career. He was hired to manage the retail sales location. When the aquatic facility opened in the fall of 2019, Northup became an open water instructor.
'Between all of our divers at Diventures, we have an incredible wealth of knowledge,” he said. 'It's such a fun thing to be part of.”
WARM WATER DIVING
Northup has made about 40 open water trips throughout the Midwest and different parts of the world, many through Diventures.
For 2021, the company has tentatively scheduled trips to the Caribbean as well as to the Red Sea, South Africa and Fiji.
'It's such an incredible opportunity to travel,” Northup said. 'My favorite ocean dive has been drift diving down in Cozumel.”
SHARING THE LOVE
Northup's wife, Claire, shares his love of scuba diving. Originally from Seattle, she became a certified diver in Puget Sound when she was a teen.
On their honeymoon in the Florida Keys, they dived together along a rocky reef and saw a variety of small, colorful fish plus eels and a sea turtle.
'It was really breathtaking,” he said. 'Seeing every color fish and coral, it's a completely different world. It's so exciting and beautiful. That's what gets a lot of people hooked.”
Northup can hardly wait for his son, Wally, who turned 1 in January, to be his next 'dive buddy.”
With a new baby and the pandemic, 2020 was a slow diving year for Northup. He took a couple of trips to Wisconsin and spent time shipwreck diving on Lake Michigan.
'We're looking forward to taking some trips this coming year and getting back into some warmer waters.”
Diving: the basics
You can learn to scuba dive year-round here in Eastern Iowa.
Prospective divers must pass an untimed distance swimming requirement - a few lengths of the pool - and be able to tread water for about 10 minutes. Then divers sign up for a class that fits their schedule, either one night a week for three weeks or a full weekend. Private classes are available.
Not sure if you want to commit that much time? During Diventure's one-hour Try Scuba class, students learn about gear, hop in the pool, review a few basic skills, and then enjoy the rest of the time being weightless underwater.
The key, Northup said, is getting comfortable breathing underwater. Instructors teach students how to relax and breathe normally, trusting that their equipment has been well-maintained and will function.
Beginning divers are required to come with their own mask, fins and a snorkel, which can cost on average $300 to $400. Diventures provides the rest of the gear: buoyancy compensators, regulators and oxygen tanks. Most newly certified divers rent this additional equipment as they decide what type of diving they plan to do and what equipment they prefer.
Address: 1895 W. Penn St., North Liberty
Phone: (319) 665-2741