SC diving champ opens little-known other world to children, families

rburris@thestate.comJune 21, 2014 

Diving champ Margo Peyton discovered the mystical world of the sea as a kid on Cape Cod and now she spreads her love of the oceans all over the world – to Russian families in pristine places such as St. Lucia, to German families in top-flight resorts such as Palau, in Micronesia, and to generations of families in Columbia.

Peyton operates family-oriented dive vacations held at some of the world's most beautiful and posh locations and since 2000, a yearly children’s dive-training camp that puts kids into the sea world as young as 4 years old.

Peyton runs Kids Sea Camp Inc., and Family Dive Adventures and the Ocean Wishes Foundation out of her offices in Columbia, certifying an average of 375 youths worldwide each year.

Over time, the master dive trainer instructor says she has taken 5,000 children into the ocean to achieve dive-certification status with no dive accidents. This year, the Hall of Fame diver’s Kids Sea Camp was chosen as one of the world’s most family-friendly diving experiences by Suba Diving magazine readers.

Peyton, a mother of two, started the 2014 vacation diving season off this month in Utila, Honduras and is now in Galapagos. Other week-long, arranged dive vacations for Family Dive Adventures and Kids Sea Camp include Professional Association of Diving Instructors-approved dive centers and Five Star resorts in St. Vincent, Yap, located in Micronesia, Palau, the Caymans, Bonaire and St. Lucia.

Her specialty is kids and families.

“I approve the centers because not all facilities are for kids,” Peyton said. “Many are not. Many won't accept them. As a matter of fact, on the coast or even down in Florida you can call up a dive operator and say I want to take my 11-year-old son, who's a certified diver, out in a boat (to dive) and they're going to tell you ‘no.’”

That's because Professional Association of Diving Instructors regulations allow children under 12 to dive only to a maximum depth of 40 feet, Peyton said. “That's good,” she said, “because some operators don't have any (regulations), and there are a lot of accidents out there.”

PADI, founded in 1966, is the world's largest recreational diving membership and diver training organization in the world, and Peyton, by many accounts, operates the largest dive event in the world, touching 1,600 people or more each year.

Peyton founded the business because of her love for diving and the ocean, she said, but also to fulfill a need for someone to cater to the needs of families and children.

“At any given family event, we could have three generations, all diving together,” Peyton said, including grandparents, their kids and grandkids.

Families book trips from all over the world, including Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Caribbean Islands and elsewhere, Peyton said. They come for diving – both the recreational experience and training – snorkeling, and the cultural exchange. Trips can cost anywhere from $1,500 for one person into the tens of thousands of dollars for families.

All the diving and snorkeling weeks are vacation-based, but all are also educational. “Even though our focus for the families is on scuba diving, it's very educational based (taking on issues of) climate change, over-fishing and imperiled animals.”

More than 80 million sharks are finned each year, Peyton pointed out, adding that sharks are a big part of the health of oceans. “So, in many of our destinations we actually get in the water and dive with sharks – even the little kids do.”

That inspires young divers, she said, because so many negative myths abound about sharks. Peyton and her 8-to-10-member dive team teach young divers about respect, ocean etiquette, and all manner of safety. “We make them better divers,” Peyton said.

Whenever her vacationing divers are going to interact with marine life, whether it is mantas, sharks, and sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, or wild dolphins, she and her team first teach them about those animals and their behaviors, Peyton said.

So, divers leave a vacation smarter about each species and every environment they encounter, Peyton said.

The other fascinating factor about a Family Dive Adventure vacation, Peyton said, is the local cultural exchange that occurs at each location between the vacationing divers and their children and local families.

“The main reason that I believe people dive is – have you ever watched Jacques Cousteau? And as you sat there in your living room watching your TV, he took you on an adventure that you knew – sitting there in your living room – you could never go on?”

Underwater documentaries such as Cousteau’s appeal to viewers and dreamers alike because they immerse the viewer in another world, Peyton said, which holds the key to diver's love for the sport.

“It is the only place on planet Earth where you, as a terrestrial, can enter into another world. It's like becoming an astronaut. It’s the only true (available) escape to another world, being here on Earth. You become a guest in another world.”

Peyton said her business grows each year and has a 75 percent repeat booking rate. Some of her patrons started out at 5 or 6 years old when she started the business 15 years ago, and today those divers are 19 or 20, but still dive with Family Dive Adventures.

Peyton was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame Class of 2009, because of her work with children. When she travels to St. Lucia for the Kids Sea Camp week in August, it will mark the first time the world class Anse Chastanet Resort has allowed kids to stay there, Peyton said.

“The thing I like about it is, when you come on a Kids Sea Camp week, you go to the beach. You leave your Rolex watches behind, your fancy cars behind, and you put on a wetsuit just like everybody else,” Peyton said.

“It's a lifestyle. Scuba diving is a recreational lifestyle. It is something that, when you experience it in a good way for the first time, you'll never stop,” Peyton said.

Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398. Twitter: @RoddieBurris

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