Steamboat Springs Bankers laughed Jim Johnsen out the door, convinced he was a fool for wanting to open a scuba shop in Steamboat Springs, a mountain town nearly 7,000 feet above -- and 1,200 miles from -- the nearest ocean.
More than 2,000 diver certifications and dozens of exotic vacations later, Johnsen and his wife, Janeen, are the ones doing the laughing. Steamboat Scuba and Water Sports LLC has successfully found its niche in the community and is now in its ninth year of operation.
"People in mountain towns like Steamboat tend to live an active lifestyle," Johnsen said. "When they go on vacation -- usually to a warmer beach destination -- they get tired of laying in the sand and want to do something active such as diving."
According to Johnsen, Colorado has more certified divers per capita than any other state in the country. On the flipside, Florida has the most skiers per capita. At first read, that seems wrong, but vacations often serve as escapes. For Coloradans, that means ditching their skis and parkas for flippers and swimsuits.
Steamboat resident Steve Clark, originally from Southern California, completed his diver certification eight years ago and has logged 210 dives off the coasts of Fiji, the Cayman Islands and Venezuela, among other places.
On one dive 350 feet underwater near Cabo San Lucas in early December, Clark scratched the bellies of giant manta rays.
"Just a couple weeks ago in Cozumel (Mexico) I had a couple porpoises swim by," Clark said.
Though Clark didn't complete his certification with either Jim or Janeen, he has traveled to various places around the world with the owners of Steamboat Scuba and Water Sports.
"I respect them both as instructors," Clark said.
"You're in real good hands. If you go on trips with them, you use the equipment you trained with and have already developed an underwater rapport with them."
Spencer Roos is starting to create that rapport. The recent high school graduate is enrolled in beginning lessons, working to complete the first two phases in the three-step certification process.
All new divers are required to pass a knowledge home-study course with quizzes and instruction, as well as demonstrate basic scuba knowledge through three pool dives.
The first two steps can be done at the shop and at the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Center pool for less than $200.
The final stage -- four open water dives -- also can be completed relatively close to home at Homestead Crater near Heber City, Utah, for about $175.
The Johnsens can certify a diver on one of their vacation getaways or through any certified instructor around the world. A scuba diving certification lasts a lifetime.
"I have been snorkeling, but a lot of times I wanted to be underwater and not just on the surface," Roos said. "I saw a ray in Toga and thought, 'Wow, I wish I was down there to see it up close.'"
Three-fifths of the world is water, but what lies beneath the waves is still a mystery for those on land, creating anxiety for some. In reality, improvements in teaching techniques and equipment have made scuba diving safer and easier to learn than when Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan perfected the aqualung 60 years ago.
"The thought you have to be a strong swimmer to learn to be a scuba diver is a myth," Johnsen said. "You have to be comfortable in the water. You don't need to be incredibly athletic. Scuba diving is a passive interaction with everything in the underwater world, from sea life to coral to shipwrecks and whales."
Scuba diving is a bit like hiking. Certain equipment and provisions are required and certain safety measures need to be observed. Adhering to the guidelines creates the opportunity to immerse oneself in an environment far from a living room couch.
Lucky hikers may see a docile black bear in its natural environment on a hike. Lucky divers may swim with dolphins or sharks in their world.
"One of the most beautiful things about diving is it's you and the water," Johnsen said. "Instead of looking in the aquarium, you're in it."