Panama City Holds NOAA Diver Training Course

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It may not be the peak tourist season in the Panhandle, but some scientists are calling Bay County home for a few weeks while they become certified professional divers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is teaming up with FSU Panama City so that researchers can grab their fins, masks and tanks.

The NOAA Dive Program enables students to take their ocean research to a whole new level under the sea. It used to be held every January in Key West, but there have been some changes and Bay County will benefit.

“And it makes sense, because Bay County, especially Panama City, is the hub of diving and ocean research throughout the world,” Michael Zinszer, Director of Advanced Science Diving at FSU, said.

“The Navy Dive School’s here, so we thought, ‘Hey, that’s a perfect spot,'” Mark Pickett, the manager for NOAA’s Diving Training Center, said. “And the costs are much reduced from Key West, so this year we’re giving it a shot for the first time here in Panama City.”

It’s not about becoming commercial divers, but rather professional divers, and that happens in no more than a three-week course. NOAA scientists study anything from coral reefs to climate change, but first they need training that the organization provides.

“We can take beginner students and start them from week one, or we can take students with previous scuba diving experience, and they can come in after that first week, and they can be trained in the two-week time frame,” Pickett said.

Students and instructors from afar are thrilled to be collaborating with FSU Panama City and the numerous diving facilities in our area. Katie Mahaffey, an instructor with the NOAA Dive Program, was previously in Seattle.

“It’s a great diving community,” she said. “The water’s fairly warm, so that’s a nice change for us.”

While men dominate the diving industry, Mahffey says even though it can be a challenge, she sees it as a positive.

“There isn’t a whole lot of female presence in the diving community, so that can be an asset for me,” Mahffey said. “Coming in, I can provide a different point of view, and it’s always nice to be able to prove I’m just as tough as the guys sometimes.”

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