Native North Dakotan Shirley Ortman was 19 before she learned to swim.
“I’m a pretty good swimmer, but I don’t enjoy it,” she says. “And I do not like to lie on the beach; I’m bored silly.”
Ortman isn’t happy next to the water or splashing around in it because the sweet spot for her is several meters beneath the surface, “where you see the most.” She’s a scuba diver with master diver certification and approximately 600 dives under her (weighted) belt since she took up the activity in 1995.
“I’ve been to a lot of places but my all-time favorite is the Galapagos,” she says. “It’s for advanced diving; it’s heavy currents and you have to drop down quickly and hang on to a rock to watch stuff go by.”
She’s seen an incredible variety of flora and fauna, including countless species of fish and hammerhead sharks, but she especially enjoys seeing sea turtles in their element. “I get goosebumps thinking about it,” she says.
Ortman was in her 40s when she tried scuba for the first time. At 68, she is still an active diver.
“I’ve dove with people up to their mid-80s,” says Dean Hollis, who founded DiVentures, an aquatics and scuba center in Omaha (now with six locations in five states). “We offer a lot of aquatic activities suitable for older adults.”
Water exercise classes and lap swimming are low-impact with minimal pressure on the joints, Hollis says, and the DiVentures pool is a warm 88 degrees. The center also offers snorkeling and scuba instruction, and trial classes for the hesitant or curious.
“You can get in the pool and breathe underwater, and just see what it’s like to experience scuba,” he says.
“You can get your toe wet, so to speak,” Ortman adds.
Although scuba diving isn’t a practical regular fitness regimen, especially in the Midwest, it’s a great way to stay active and engaged at any age, Ortman says.
“The nice thing about diving is that it’s all about relaxing,” she says. “There’s not a lot of stress put on the body.”
And there’s always more to learn. Ortman recently took a stress-and-rescue course to sharpen up.
“You really need to hone your skills so you don’t get sloppy,” Ortman explains. “Now I feel that I have better ability to take care of myself. Or, if I see somebody else in distress, I could identify that and assist.”
The quarry in Iowa where stress-and-rescue instruction took place was one of the few times she has dived inland—outside of the 14-foot pool at DiVentures.
“The water at the quarry was murky and cold, but I’m a little bit of a snob,” she says. Most of her dives have taken place in warmer ocean waters, like Hawaii, Tahiti, or the Bahamas.
Ortman has booked group scuba excursions through DiVentures and companies like LiveAboard, where she can share stories with other scuba divers and enjoy the diving subculture.
Landlubbers often ask how deep she’s gone (close to 130 feet, about the size of a 12-story building and the maximum depth for recreational diving), she says, but other divers understand that it’s more about what you see.
“These are immersive trips,” Ortman says. “Everyone is always excited to talk about their experiences, and the trips are always fun.”
Visit diventures.com for more information.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.