If you have the good fortune to meet Riley Young and ask her about SCUBA diving, you will be greeted with a wide smile and her passion-filled story about overcoming challenges while learning to dive. Riley’s determination to conquer fear and manage anxiety about being underwater and reaching her goal of becoming a diver was the reason she was selected to participate in Project Neptune 100. While in the underwater habitat, Riley earned her Young Explorers Aquanaut Certificate with Dr. Joseph Dituri and her NAUI Jr Advanced Open Water Diver rating with Dr. Kama Cannon (NAUI #56812). According to Riley, “It all comes down to facing fear and trusting your teachers and yourself if you want to accomplish anything.” And that is just what she did!
“I wanted to dive so badly,” Riley explained. “I came from Michigan and had not been in the ocean much at all before moving here. I just could not stay down underwater, even in the pool. I hated that I was afraid. I made the decision after too many unsuccessful pool sessions that I was just going to have to find a way to not be afraid of being underwater anymore.”
Riley is a member of DiveN2Life (NAUI Dive Center #AF1158) where she is developing her diving knowledge and skills and studying to be a scientific diver. She likes being a part of a team, rather than trying to figure everything out by herself. “At DiveN2Life the teachers take all the time we need and work with us for as long as it takes to learn skills and understand the math and science, but students work hard and have to be motivated to do it. I told myself, I trust Ms. Kama and the other teachers, so now I need to learn to trust myself. We are responsible for our learning and have to speak up if we need help. I had to learn to share how I was feeling with my teachers and team.”
Team-learning and diving for science as a member of a high-functioning team requires participants to feel safe speaking up about struggles they experience. Because DiveN2Life utilizes a team-based instructional and learning model, students learn to identify how they are feeling and eventually develop understandings about why they are having those fears or feelings. Students and teachers are paired together based on individual needs, as well as teaching and learning styles. Fear of being underwater is not a new challenge at DiveN2Life; Marsella Munoz (NAUI #63530) experienced similar challenges when she joined the program at age 12, back in 2016. She stuck with it and has been a member of the team ever since, completing her NAUI Instructor certification in 2022 with DiveN2Life Course Director Inman Campbell (NAUI #54277). Even though she was born in Key West and lived there her entire life, she was terrified of the ocean. Marsella recognized her younger self in Riley and knew she wanted to be on her Open Water Diver team.
Marsella asked Riley, “Do you remember your defining moment, when you realized you had to make a decision to dive and actually face your fear?” She replied, “I do! I remember when we traveled up to West Palm Beach to dive the Blue Heron Bridge and you drove all the way from college in Tallahassee to be my dive instructor. I was so afraid and nervous. I could not equalize my ears because I was so scared. I got so mad at myself that day. I saw everyone diving the reef and I really wanted to see it, but I couldn’t get down. You were with me the entire time and so patient. After that day, I was like, that’s it! I cannot be this afraid anymore.”
Riley went on to conquer her fear and did complete her NAUI Jr Open Water Diver rating with Marsella, and she has been diving with DiveN2Life as often as possible ever since. When the invitation arrived to represent Florida Keys middle school students with her teammate Rhyanna Rispoli (age 13) at Project Neptune 100, she asked if she could arrange to complete her Jr Advanced Open Water Diver certification during the 24-hour saturation dive. The night dive was planned during the overnight experience, making her the first DiveN2Life student to complete a NAUI certification during a saturation dive.
“It was really exciting,” Riley said, “to be invited with Rhyanna to be the first Aquanaut of the Project Neptune 100 Mission. We learned how to collect plankton during a science dive and brought them back into the habitat to identify using Em1 microscopes. Collecting marine organisms while diving is something I have never done before. We also went on a dive to search for sea horses in the lagoon. My favorite was the night dive. I feel like night diving was the perfect way to complete my Advanced certification because I love being underwater at night. I never did a night dive before. It was so relaxing just focusing on where my light was and not worrying about the bigger picture. We saw lobsters, crabs, and so many fish. We also saw jellies and they light up, which was really fun to watch!”
Riley is currently working on her NAUI Rescue Diver course. When asked about her next diving goals, she smiled wide and said, “I love all of it! I definitely want to be an AAUS Scientific Diver, work on Nitrox, and explore different gear—I want to learn to use a full face mask, can I do that next? I want to be a NAUI Dive Instructor, too, because I really like when I share what I can do and have learned with the newer students. I realized that I like teaching and I know that I really know something when I can show other kids how to do it.”
Both young women have advice for other youth divers who experience fear or feel anxious when learning. Marsella said, “Life starts at the end of your comfort zone. We all feel nervous at first. Diving when you are nervous places you just outside your comfort zone and if you decide to try it, you might discover something you really enjoy in life.”
Riley added, “Keep diving as much as you can and if you really want to do something, you have to decide to do it and make it happen. You have to talk about the problems you are having and trust your teachers. They won’t let anything bad happen to you, but you have to trust them. Join a youth diving program and say yes to as many chances that come your way, especially the once in a lifetime experiences like Project Neptune 100.”
For more information about NAUI diving and leadership programs, visit https://www.naui.org