Scuba diving as therapy

Barry McMahon is retired and lives in Ottawa. He's the proud father of 3 daughters and a grandfather of 6 with an insatiable curiosity about all issues relating to promoting Human Dignity and Family


In less than a week I will be traveling to a small island in the Caribbean for some physiotherapy. It’s now an annual excursion that has impacted my quality of life in ways only a fellow quad would fully appreciate. As I pack my gear for the flight, my imagination is overwhelmed in anticipation of being submerged in the warm salty ocean drifting among coral, exotic sponges and a medley of mysterious creatures. It’s a celestial experience with endless marvels.

Barry McMahon diving in Bonaire.
Barry McMahon diving in Bonaire.

About 8 years ago when I was 58 the thought of me scuba diving was just a silly fantasy usually emerging after a few drams. I spend all day everyday sitting in a power wheelchair due to what is referred to as post-polio syndrome. My four limbs are paralyzed. So even though I am totally comfortable being in water it is limited to me floating around. Never did I think of exploring the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau as many of my generation did. Never, that is, until I met Hubert Chretien of Freedom at Depth.

Hubie has this rare character that really does not see people’s disabilities. Instead he focuses on what his students can do. He has an adapted house with a pool in Gatineau, Quebec and teaches diving exclusively to people with disabilities and scuba instructors who would like to do the same. He has been doing this full time for decades. Even while his parents resided at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, he would use their pool to teach his students.

Applicants must complete a very detailed medical check-up before being accepted for training. There are several disqualifiers.

He has taught many amputees, paraplegics, people with high-level paralysis, cerebral palsy, thalidomide survivors, even a blind diver! Each individual surmounts challenges in often-ingenious imaginative ways.

Scuba diving is a dangerous sport, no doubt about it. Therefore the training is thorough and obsessively detailed. And that’s how we’re trained.

Trained under the strict course material developed by the Handicapped Scuba Association, I am a certified HSA “C” Level diver, meaning that since I can’t swim and need significant assistance, a trained primary dive buddy and a secondary dive buddy is required at all times for me to dive. The primary will assist with my gear, in the descent, the swimming, the buoyancy and trim, and the ascent. The secondary is there to assist the primary in emergency.

My equipment is standard issue, except I have no use for fins. Once I have attained proper trim and buoyancy at our chosen depth, I can then drift with the current on my own. I maintain depth control using the air volume in my lungs.   My primary dive buddy is constantly no more than a few seconds away. I have completed over 100 dives.

Recently I have begun using an underwater scooter. It certainly is an energy saving device for my primary dive buddy, especially going up current. It also allows me to stop and stare at my leisure. It too has its dangers so must be used cautiously.

While I am diving, all the post-polio symptoms disappear. The constant pain and general discomfort disappears, my usual overall weakness is un-noticeable, and I feel alive and energetic (maybe from the breathing techniques used during the dive). The exhilaration felt while submerged in zero gravity is respite from the usual 24-7. My arms and legs get a great workout in a way that would not be possible out of the depths. Maybe the atmospheric pressure difference being at depth has therapeutic benefits on muscle tissue, ligaments and joints? Who knows? All I know is that it works like no other physiotherapy I have experienced. And every dive is an adventure, unlike a neighborhood pool.

After one week of 2 dives per day I am a new person, ready to take on the world. My surface life is a whole lot better. And it lasts quite a while after I return to the frozen north.

My southern dive destination has been the island of Bonaire, part of the Dutch Antilles – with Aruba and Curacao. It’s a world-renowned dive destination because of its protected reefs and National Marine Park. The undersea wildlife is spectacular. In fact, if you don’t dive or wind-surf, you might get a bit bored, not like the sister islands at all.

I believe more attention needs to be given to scuba diving as therapy. The idea is catching on all over the planet. Organizations such as Freedom at Depth have a wealth of experience working with a variety of disabling conditions and seeing the amazing benefits.

In a few short days I’ll be blowing bubbles in the warm south sea, maybe coming face-to-face with a barracuda, or a hawksbill turtle, or just staring at a coral head with its complex community of under-the-sea whatever they are.

4 thoughts on “Scuba diving as therapy

  1. Such an inspiring story! I have heard of water physiotherapy through light exercise, walking in a pool... but I have never heard of scuba diving. Scuba diving is like a mental therapy for me and I am very happy to know that it helps your physio. Keep diving, Barry!

  2. I am an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer with Rheumatoid Arthritis and CRPS. I can attest to the incredible power of scuba diving as physiotherapy. It takes the stress off of painful joints and promotes an overall sense of well being. And, I believe that salt water is therapeutic. Thank you Barry for this wonderful article and for being an inspiration.

    1. Joseph woo

      Scuba diving is a fantastic way to relax
      I had been diving for over 27 years and it had taken me to places which I would not had been
      Now with my back problems I have difficulty in carrying my equipments
      I missed my diving
      Keep diving Barry.

  3. Ellen F

    Great article Barry. I also love to dive and find it almost like a meditative state. I really enjoyed hearing your story and learning about Freedom at Depth. Here's to many more transcendent dives!


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