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Tommy O’Brien... On Diving

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Diver Reveals Underwater Mysteries
[Dallas Suburban News]
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Tommy O'Brien, Suburban News. November 6, 1985. David Parks photo.

Take a Dive...

HARVEYS LAKE – Many rumors surround the popular recreation area of Harveys Lake. “It is so deep that no one has ever reached the bottom...Full of strange fish...Treacherous currents...Sunken cars.” So the tales go.

To discover the truth an editor and a more experienced diver sought out Tommy O’Brien, who for 24 years has been owner and instructor of the Harveys Lake Diving School. According to Bill Woolbert, local boat dealer, O’Brien knows more about the lake than any other person in the area.

So the Times Leader team approached O’Brien and asked him to take them down to see the sights. The only catch was that one of the team, while a good swimmer and a so-so sailor, never dived before in his life. That didn’t bother O’Brien. “Give me a couple of hours and I’ll get you ready to go down,” he remarked through a big Irish smile, “and I’ll also check out your buddy.”

The last remark was O’Brien the diver talking. O’Brien doesn’t rent his equipment to just anyone who comes along. His standards are high. He has seen divers injured or drowned through carelessness. Diving is his life and he knows the water is an unforgiving mistress.

True to his word O’Brien started in on the both of us on a sunny morning. After drills on land he had us in the water at the five-foot depth. By early afternoon we were diving and ready to visit some of the sights below Harveys Lake.

It was old hat to the photographic part of the team. He had been there before, but to me it was one of the most thrilling sensations I have ever felt. The feeling of freedom of finally being able to actually move with the fish and almost become part of the lake was overwhelming.

To be able to move from one depth to another with just the raising or lowering of the head and to turn right or left with a slight twist of an arm was like floating through air.

In free diving without air tanks the diver is constantly reminded as he holds his breath that his place is above water. He is only below for that short span that he can hold his breath. He is an intruder beneath the water. But, with your own air supply you become part of the lake and experience the freedom to stay below as long as your air will sustain you.

The first visit was to Noah’s Ark, an old cabin cruiser sunk just off the shore of O’Brien’s school in about 15 to 20 feet of water. The old boat sits majestically on the bottom as if tied to a dock waiting for its first sail of the summer.

Calico bass and sunnies darted back and forth as we entered their domain. As we neared their spawning circles they darted away only to turn and make sure that we were following them away from their eggs.

And a little message to the fisherman – there are some big ones down there ready for the hook and bait. O’Brien isn’t much of a fisherman, and even though he does some spear fishing off the Keys, he can’t understand why anyone would want to harm the “little ones,” as he calls the fish of Harveys Lake.

July 1975

Back on the beach to re-charge our air tanks and a quick cup of coffee, O’Brien took the team out on his pontoon boat that can haul 10 or more people with all their diving gear.

Across the lake we lower anchor atop the area to the submerged old dry dock, where the steamers of the [Lake] Transit Co. were pulled from the water late each fall for overhauling and winter storage.

O’Brien explains that it took four days to pump the water from the submerged docks so work could progress on the steamers the Natoma and Nacoma. “They were the queens of the lake along with the [steamers] the Wilkes-Barre and Kingston,” O’Brien explains. In those days the street cars brought the visitors up from Wilkes-Barre to the Oneonta Hotel from where they boarded steamers for their final destinations at Hanson’s or Point Breeze.

Beneath the water the old drydock has formed hiding places for fish and tunnels where the scuba diver can twist and turn and explore the old woodwork of past days. About a quarter of a mile from the old dry dock, O’Brien explained, is the foundation and logs of an old cabin, notched and in some cases held together with spikes. But, O’Brien explained, without wet-suit hoods, a dive to the bottom to see the sight would be too dangerous. “Cold water without hoods,” O’Brien explains, “is bad business.”

Another sight at the bottom of the lake is a 16-to 17-foot “Christmas Tree” standing there “as if in a living room,” O’Brien claims. It is festooned with lost lures from the unwary fisherman.

As we neared O’Brien’s dock, we saw a couple of neighborhood kids standing behind the fence, waiting for the diving master to return. He quickly pressed them into service unloading the boat and with a smile explained “I give them a couple of tanks of air and gear every now and then and I get plenty of help around here.” O’Brien has taught most of the kids to dive and constantly works with them to improve their skills.

O’Brien has taught scuba diving at Harveys Lake since 1948, when he opened his school on a shoestring budget. Since then he has become a fixture at the lake, working out of his present location right at the Sunset area since July of 1955.

An article by David Phillips and Alan Tepper in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, June 28, 1979. Reprinted with permission.

 

Copyright 2006-2007 F. Charles Petrillo