Underwater Exploration Dives Deep Into the Soul

Susan Sterling and Terry Martin, Divers Den Dive Shop

Written for NH Women Magazine

Photo by Susan Sterling
Terry Martin and Susan Sterling, Divers Den Dive Shop – Photo Credit: Jamie Pollack Executive Director for Shark Angels

Below the glistening, yet sometimes fierce, surface of the New Hampshire Seacoast’s cool blue waters is a beautiful and fragile world all its own. A place where a kelp-covered sandy floor provides a playground for lobsters and elusive blue crab, seagrass beds gently sway back and forth to their own rhythmic flow, complicated rock formations make perfectly-placed homes for seaweed and periwinkle snails, and unbelievably endearing seals act like underwater puppy dogs happily exploring the depths below.

For centuries, humans have been fascinated with what lies beneath the world’s waters. It’s been passionately tugging at explorers’ heartstrings dating back to 1715 when Englishman John Lethbridge created an underwater diving machine, made from an oak barrel, allowing him to be submerged for up to 30 minutes reaching depths of 72 feet. Thankfully, present day advancements allow many with an interest in underwater exploration to take the plunge into the sport of scuba diving a lot more easily.

Yes, passion is where it all began for Terry Martin [PADI MSDT 311401] and Susan Sterling [Rescue Diver 20090Z7261], co-owners, along with their husbands, of Divers Den Dive Shop located in Hampton Falls. “I started scuba diving in 2002 and fell in love with it,” says Martin. “You become addicted to scuba diving, you always want to get back in the water.” Sterling was just 15 years old when she got certified in 1983. “I spent most of my next 15 years diving with my immediate family, until I married my current husband, who is also a Diver and Instructor at Divers Den Dive Shop.”

So, what does scuba diving feel like? Flying? Floating? Just regular swimming? Martin and Sterling gladly give captivating responses to this question making the idea of trying the sport a possibility. “It’s like when you’re jumping on a trampoline and there’s that small moment when you feel weightless,” explains Martin. “The equipment is light on your shoulders and back, the heaviness of the tank and [buoyancy control device] are lightened by the water.”

Well, what about diving at night? Is it scary? Confining? Impossible? “It’s not scary for me, but some people don’t like the dark as much,” says Sterling. “It’s much scarier to do a night dive off the coast of New Hampshire than the Caribbean. There are a lot of different species that are more likely to be out at night – like squids.” Martin adds that night diving certification is recommended.

A common thread these experts are quick to mention is the sense of peace both feel while diving – even when some dives are more complicated, or darker, than others. “Oddly enough, scuba diving is very relaxing,” Sterling says. “A few kicks with your fins and you just float through the water smoothly and effortlessly.” Martin says that for her, being underwater is peaceful. “[It’s] my own type of meditation. The best part is seeing all the different creatures that live underwater and nowhere else.”

It’s been said that if you can scuba dive in New England, you can scuba dive anywhere. With New Hampshire’s particularly strong currents, poor visibility, and cold waters, extra equipment can be cumbersome, but Martin and Sterling agree it’s worth it. “The water is always cold and the visibility isn’t great, but can be really good in the winters,” explains Martin. “We dive at the Isle of Shoals and get to see seals, who act like puppy dogs. There’s lots of lobsters, crabs, starfish, and some squid. You’ll also find hermit crabs, nudibranches, and different kinds of fish. The kelp bottoms of the ocean floor are particularly beautiful, but watch out for sea urchins.” 

Sterling adds that diving in New Hampshire also requires better navigating skills. “Diving in New Hampshire is a bit different [because the] ocean is colder and the water is darker than the tropics. There is still beautiful scenery. I love going out to the Isle of Shoals and diving with the seals, I believe that is my favorite dive spot in New Hampshire to date.”

Perhaps the frequency with which Martin and Sterling have dived in New Hampshire’s waters has in some way propelled their levels of individual experience and certification, which are both quite impressive. “I am a certified PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer (MSDT),” Martin explains. “On the road to becoming a dive instructor, I got my open water, advanced, rescue, and dive master certification. I also have a few speciality certifications: deep diver, nitrox, dry suit, and wreck diver. I have over one thousand dives total with teaching and recreational, been teaching since 2012, and have certified around 150 people.”

Sterling’s certifications include: Open Water, Underwater Photography, Enriched Nitrox Air, Advanced Open Water Diver. When asked asked how many dives she’s made, Sterling replies, “I honestly do not know how many dives I have done over the past 40 years, but it is well over 300 dives.”

This summer, Martin has been asked to assist with the D.R.A.G. Portsmouth (Divers Recovering All Garbage). The organization helps to rid the waters of hundreds of years of waste – and they find many treasurers along the way as well. “Portsmouth being around so long, has accumulated a lot of trash that has become treasure like bottles, plates, silverware, and pipes,” explains Martin. “During Portsmouth’s time as a major shipping area during the 18th and 19th centuries, it used the ocean for dumping trash into because it was convenient.”

One of the most unique benefits of scuba diving is the worldwide exploration available to anyone with the ability to travel to far off destinations. “My favorite place to dive…there are a few…but off the top of my head, I would say the Philippines,” says Sterling. “I love to take pictures – especially of coral and fish. In the tropics, you find colors that you will never find, unfortunately, in New England. I like to stay between 30 and 60 feet where coral and sea life are abundant. The deeper in depth you go, the more you lose color. My favorite time of day to dive is first thing in the morning. [There’s] nothing like waking up, cup of coffee in your hand, just as the sun is rising and the ocean is just waking up and the fish are just starting to stir.”

There must be something pretty magical about diving in Southeast Asia because Martin considers it a favorite spot as well. “I just love being in the water, but my favorite place overall was diving in the Philippines,” explains Martin. “The sea life there is spectacular and abundant, my favorite creature is the nudibranch. The water was warm and there was tons of visibility. We dove by boat at dive sites far from inhabited areas.”

When asked what the best scuba diving experience has been, Martin’s answer is concise. “The first night dive with my daughter was my best scuba diving experience,” she explains. “She saw a barracuda and [swam] right to my side for protection. Diving with my husband and daughter is great family bonding and meeting new friends is one of the best part of scuba diving.”

Sterling also considers shared diving experiences a top memory. “They are all enjoyable, but I have always wanted to see a manta ray, which I did in the Philippines and Fiji…that was memorable,” she says. “And, I do have to say we have group trips we do every year with the dive shop to different places [and] those are probably right up there with my most memorable moments as well. Sharing diving experiences with fellow divers, doing something you love doesn’t get much better than that.”

As co-owners of Diver’s Den Dive Shop in Hampton Falls, Martin and Sterling are able to provide experiences only a small fraction will see. Martin has worked at the business for most of her career and wanted to see the over-four-decade-year-old business carry on, which is one of the reasons these divers and their husbands took over ownership this past June – in the middle of a global pandemic. “Now it lives on with a new generation of divers,” Martin explains. “It’s really rewarding to see people who are really nervous end up loving to dive. I teach at my dive shop and at the pool nearby. Students need to complete knowledge, then pool work, and finally four open water dives. I teach age groups from as young as 10 to 75 years old.”

When asked if they have seen an increase in women taking scuba diving lessons, they agree there are more women participating. “Yes, it seems like the younger professional generation of women have more interest in scuba diving within the past two years,” explains Sterling. “I think the younger generation is looking for more adventure and have put off settling down right away after finishing their schooling as traditionally women used to do.”

Martin continues, “I would say it’s pretty consistent for women getting certified, but I’ve seen a lot more women recently become instructors. There are more female mentors for young divers to look up to and follow in their footsteps. I think more women have realized they can do it just as well [as], if not better than, men in the sport.”

With the outside world not nearly the same as it was a year ago, there is an escape from it all in the waters below. And, Martin and Sterling conclude that there is an underwater world waiting to be explored. “No matter the reason you choose to scuba dive, whether it be for recreation, travel, career choice…you have the ability to see a world that few others will ever see. The ocean is a gift that we should treasure, for its beauty, its ocean inhabitants, and its never-ending changing tides.”

You can find out more about scuba diving by visiting Divers Den Dive Shop at 97 Lafayette Road in Hampton Falls, or online at www.diversdendiveshop.com.

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