Rego Park scuba driver sells undersea dreams

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When scuba instructor Brian Ju takes to the oceans, his body is sealed in a black neoprene wet suit. A harness of calibrated tanks, tubes and regulators sprout from his back and during most dives — many of which descend to 100 foot —- a school of four or five students swim by his side.

The submariner’s odyssey, however, began modestly. It started with a snorkel.

Ju, a Nassau County resident and the owner of New York Scuba Divers on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, says teaching novices to become confident, capable divers is his raison d’etre, his life’s mission.

“That’s the whole reason I stay. People want to learn diving — that’s the reason I’m here,” he said.

Since Ju began teaching professionally 10 years ago, he has launched more than 1,100 students into the depths of the underwater world. They begin slowly, at local YWCA swimming pools in Woodside or Jamaica, learning the fundamentals of breathing, buoying, and emergency tactics before they enter the ocean, or what divers call open water.

Ju, who is known beyond New York for his relaxed demeanor and quiet confidence, says he can teach anyone to dive. Ju has coached the water-phobic, paraplegics, 10-year-olds and those nearing their 70s. “Some people are good naturally,” he said. “Some people are not.” And that’s where Ju comes in.

Each weekend, Ju travels with his students and other divers to one of many sites off Long Island, Pennsylvania or New Jersey to hone skills and search out the shipwrecks that pepper the Eastern coastline. There is no set number of classes, Ju said, but for $165 and equipment fees Ju will teach until the student is comfortable in the water and ready to take the diver’s certification exam.

Down beneath the boulevard, in the basement office below his shop, Ju sits in a leather chair. The room is cool and cavernous. All sound from the road above has vanished. Ju, originally from Seoul, South Korea, says the awe of submerged sea life and its constant discovery is what lures him to the waters.

Ju says he is always scouting out fish and reefs and underwater wrecks, but his most memorable dive was perhaps the most serene of them all. It was 20 years ago and he was with a friend exploring the shallow waters around Korea’s Guemun Island. When they descended, however, the water was murky. Ju saw only mud, silt and plants.

He was ready to resurface when his friend convinced him to lie still, belly-down, on the floor of the sea. As he did, the mud settled and slowly from within the billowing leaves of the sea plants, thousands of tiny fish, the size of his thumbnail, began to emerge. They surrounded him with colors of cobalt, orange, coral and yellow. “Hundreds of different colors,” he recalls.

And they were just as fascinated with him as he was with them. Ju remembers the scene with a broad smile and slowly taps the tips of his fingers against his glasses. The school of miniature fish had swum up to Ju, still lying motionless, and fearlessly swam up against his mask in exploration.

“So I really became a part of the underwater world,” he says. “It was so peaceful.”

Ju, 39, began his aquatic affair as an 8-year-old in his home country. As a boy, then named Byung Min, he spent summers several miles south of Seoul in the undeveloped port town of Pusan, where his father owned a sock factory. There he was introduced to snorkeling by college boys. They armed him with a snorkel, a mask, and a rod, and before long Ju spent his days spearing abalone, sea cucumbers and urchins. Each day he returned home and grilled his prey for lunch.

By the time he reached college, studying physical education at Yonsei University, Ju joined the university scuba team. It was 1980 and a time of social unrest in South Korea.

The year before, the country’s president, Pak Chon Hi, was assassinated, and from there everything changed, Ju says. The country’s military took control as the interim government. And as students protested, universities from around the country, including Yonsei, closed down.

In 1980 in Kwang Ju Square the army opened fire on protesters, killing many of them, Ju says. But he wasn’t there, nor was he interested in the demonstration. When classes ended, Ju took his scuba team and headed for the islands.

“At that time I didn’t have anything to demonstrate for,” he says. “Actually, I enjoyed the free time.”

Ju came to the United States in 1984 and after taking his master’s degree in physiology at the University of Michigan at Lansing, he arrived in New York. At the time, his English was poor, and as he entered different scuba shops in the city, found few of them receptive to him.

He wandered into various stores, and was for the most part ignored. ‘I wasn’t treated as a diver,” he says.

Eager to recreate a scuba community that was accepting of him, he founded the Korean Divers Club. Over the course of the next few years he became certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors and part owner of what was then the Sea Horse scuba shop in Rego Park. Ju eventually became its full owner and in 1999 changed its name to New York Scuba Divers.

Now he dives with Americans and immigrants of Columbia, Ireland, Israel, Greece, Japan — “anywhere you have water, there are divers,” he says. Over the years Ju has befriended more than a thousand beginner divers and in doing so says his feelings of alienation have dissolved.

“Before that time, I was just a stranger, an outsider. Now I can live in America. I have a lot of friends and we trust each other,” he says. “We cannot go diving without trust.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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