By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The first thing you might notice about the island’s newest dive shop, Hilo Ocean Adventures, is the 5,000-gallon swimming pool — inside the store.
The solar-heated, 4-foot deep pool is the centerpiece of Kevin Cornwell’s new business, where Cornwell begins training students how to scuba dive.
“We start all of our open water students in the pool,” he said, because “the ocean is scary.” It’s much easier for students to learn the techniques of diving and deal with anxieties when they’re starting out in a warm indoor pool, he said.
Cornwell, 49, a former computer technician with a lifelong love of the outdoors, said goodbye to the computer world a couple of months ago and is now living out his undersea passion.
Cornwell has been diving for 33 years, has taken an estimated 2,500 dives, and has explored the waters’ depths on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. He’s been scared by giant tuna, swam with sharks, and been kissed by wild dolphins in the Bahamas. “Every dive I see something different.”
The in-store pool is not all that distinguishes Hilo Ocean Adventures. Cornwell applies a strong environmental ethic to his business and students. “We’re trying to promote environmental consciousness,” he said. “It’s a beautiful aquarium out there (in the ocean). Let’s take care of it, and it will take care of us.”
Photos lining the store’s walls are striking underwater shots taken by Cornwell, who also teaches underwater photography and carries a full line of underwater cameras and equipment. Snorkeling, by contrast, is just about the same as looking at the picture window, he said. “You can’t describe what’s in the store by just looking at the window dressing.”
Cornwell is also attuned to starting kids in scuba diving and offers classes with a free mask for youth from ages 10 to 17. He’s eager to bring his enthusiasm for diving to schools and community groups, especially kids. “I’m thrilled to share with other people.”
Not many dive shops cater to children, Cornwell said. Families are welcome at Hilo Ocean Adventures though, and he’s started a children’s dive club for encouragement. Getting youngsters diving is a big priority at HOA.
Cornwell has lived in Hilo with his wife and two sons for 11 years, working as a computer administrator for the observatories on Mauna Kea. But opening a dive shop has been high on his list of “things I would like to do before I die.”
Cornwell worked part time as an independent dive instructor before opening the store. Now the irony of owning his new shop is that he’s bound to to the business end while certified instructor Mike Popadic is conducting classes. “Diving for pleasure is different than running a business,” he said.
Cornwell, 49, also visits schools and lectures to students about ocean awareness. “I love what I’m doing,” he said with the enthusiasm of a kid himself.
Prospective dive students can get an introduction to the pool on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays by showing up with a bathing suit. “They can jump right in.”
Cornwell, a vegetarian, doesn’t eat fish and takes only photographs and rubbish from the ocean. But he doesn’t bemoan others who may feed their families with sea life.
“Our goal is to get our young kids to recognize this resource for what it is. If you need the resources that God has given us, OK, just don’t abuse it.”
Cornwell is committed to saving endangered sea turtles, and he’s worried that authorities may lift certain protections because the population of sea turtles is growing again. “If we don’t take care of them they’ll go right back on the endangered list,” and he’s encouraging legislators to continue protecting sea turtles. “People spend a lot of money to get here just to see the turtles,” he said.
Classes are offered in beginning and advanced open water scuba diving, and in numerous other specialty categories such as rescue diving, wreck diving, full-face mask diving, night diving, search and recovery, emergency oxygen procedures and more. “I’ve done all these things,” he said.
“We’re also very safety conscious. If we can’t be safe, it ain’t much fun.”
Mavarick Kang, who owns Line-X Protective Coatings next door to Cornwell’s dive shop, is still excited about earning his open water certification two months ago. “Now I’m getting my advanced certification,” he said. Kang, 39, had snorkeled before but was amazed at the undersea world that opened up with scuba. “It’s a good drug,” he said. “I just got addicted to it.”
Kang and his son, who’s preparing to depart soon for Navy Seals training, “were the first ones in” Cornwell’s new instruction pool,” Kang said. “He loves it, too.”
Kang purchased some of the best equipment available and, including the $800 certification class, figures he’s invested $3,000 in his new hobby. “It could have been $1,500,” he said.
The shop is closed only on Saturday to observe the Seventh-Day Adventist Church’s sabbath. “Sometimes though,” Cornwell confessed, “worshipping underwater is as enlightening, peaceful and rejuvenating as going to church.”
While Cornwell loves diving, he is still trying to make the business hum. He’s taught about 160 kids to dive since becoming an independent instructor. “Now I don’t get in the water as much.”
Cornwell is now talking to diving instructors for disabled people and will be offering classes for the disabled in the near future. “I’m very enthusiastic about that,” he said, which is true to his simple approach to diving for everyone: “There’s the ocean, you want to dive, let’s go.”
Hilo Ocean Adventures opened in mid-August at 170B Wiwoole St., behind Blane’s Drive-In in Hilo.
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.