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As We See It

Weekly Q&A: Scuba instructor Bill Duckro on shark dives and why he loves Lake Mead

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Business casual: Bill Duckro in his regular work attire.
Photo: Steve Marcus

I can see the surface shining enticingly above me when my ears start to hurt. Not a sharp jab, but a persistent pressure that won’t give up, like descending on an airplane with a head cold. I want to swim for the light only about 18 feet away, but without speaking, Bill Duckro says no.

I listen because Duckro is a scuba instructor and because he’s a man with thousands of dives under his weight belt, 1,200 students certified by his North Las Vegas shop, Scuba Views, and the kind of gentle confidence that makes you believe. Together we ascend a few feet until my ears equalize, then it’s back down, sinking slowly away from the surface, Duckro patiently coaching me as I wait for my body to agree to its first ever open-water scuba dive in Lake Mead.

How did you get into scuba diving? I got into scuba diving when I was 51 years old. I got into it because my brother had been a diver for years and years and years. We were on a cruise; he wanted to dive but no one else was a diver so he had to snorkel. And he made such a stink when he got back on board the boat that I said, “I’ll get certified so you’ll have someone to dive with, since we’re going on the same cruise next year.” He’d been diving for 10 years. I got certified that April, and by the time we got on the cruise again in January I had more dives than he did.

Eventually you turned diving into a career. What did you do before that? I’m 67. I’m an ex-chief of police; I’m a minister; I’ve done so many things in my life it’s unbelievable. I did all the weddings at the Excalibur hotel for 17 years. I’ve married somewhere around 30,000 people in my lifetime.

Could you tell which couples would make it and who wouldn’t? I could tell the ones who were definitely not going to work, and I actually talked several couples out of getting married. Marilyn and I have been together for so long, that people ask me all the time—particularly when I was doing weddings—what’s your secret in having a long-term relationship, a long-term marriage? Well, there’s two things: 1. Marry somebody better than you. That wasn’t hard for me to do. 2. This is the person that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, and so you need to be nice, you need to be calm. My mother gave me the greatest piece of advice right before we walked down the aisle, which was if you try to do one thing that makes her happy every day, you’ll have a successful marriage. And so, that’s pretty much the motto that we live by.

Did you fall in love with scuba diving immediately? I fell in love with it and just have taken it to my heart. When I first got into scuba diving I weighed about 265 pounds. Just through scuba diving I’ve lost all kinds of weight. I stay in pretty good physical shape for my age. It was a life-transforming thing for me.

What part of scuba diving really drew you in? The challenge of it to begin with. When I learned to dive when I was 51 I had all the anxieties that you can imagine. More than most people have. So, it became a challenge to me. … If something is challenging to me I try to get involved and try to work it through until I can master it. Another thing was, once I got underneath the water and started filming and started seeing these beautiful animals under the water, I was enraptured.

Some people think that diving is crazy, that it’s too dangerous. Why? As soon as your family and friends find out you want to scuba dive, the first thing they say to you is, “Are you nuts? You know what’s down there? Sharks are down there. They’re going to start nibbling on your toes and up through your legs and before you know it you’re just going to be this nose hanging in the water.” Well, once you become a scuba diver you realize that sharks are not dangerous. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them. Simply because of the bubbles you expel scares them. And the truth of the matter is, sharks are predators. What’s the first rule of a predator? Most amount of food, least amount of energy. ... I’ve swum with a 17-foot tiger shark in Fiji. [But] I don’t really like shark dives. I think it’s stupid. I really do. There’s a whole industry around it. ... I just don’t think it’s wise to teach predators they need to come around man for food.

Have you ever had a dive go wrong? I’m always taking responsibility for other people. And I’ve actually had to save some people. That’s just part and parcel of who and what you are. You either take what you’re doing seriously or you don’t. And I take it very seriously. When people are having problems, I’m right there.

When you’ve had to save people, is it usually a beginner who gets nervous? No. The dangerous place is when people get around 50 to 100 dives and they think they know it all. In scuba diving, it sounds ridiculous to say this, but they wind up diving over their heads. What that means is not that they’re in water over their heads, but they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing because they have confidence in something they shouldn’t have confidence in because they don’t know it well enough yet. I had a person who was wearing a dry suit who I had to respond to and save underneath the water. We were at 130 feet and it was a successful time for me to save him. I brought him back up to the surface. After this happened, because he was wearing a dry suit and I really don’t understand them that much, I went out and bought a dry suit so I could understand them a little bit better and help people more.

You had a heart attack two years ago. Did you have to stop diving? Well, my recovery was just amazing. I had a heart attack and a four-way bypass, what they call a cabbage. And the first thing I did was call DAN (Diver Assistance Network) and say how long should I be out of scuba diving? They said a minimum 6 months to a year.

That sounds like an incredibly long time for you. Oh yeah, simply because I’m the only instructor here. So that would have devastated our business. I did bring a couple of instructors in for a short period of time, but I was actually back in the water teaching in eight weeks. It’s not because I’m a bullhead, which I am. It’s because three of my five doctors were divers and they all said to me, “Bill, you’re not a normal 65-year-old man. Let your conscience be your guide. Watch your body.” They all released me.

Did you have to change how you dive at all? No. I still do the things that I do. I’m a professional diver. I go beyond recreational limits when I have a job to do. And I dive 350 to 500 dives a year. So, I’m just a diving fool.

You teach at Lake Mead. Are people shocked that you can dive there? Everybody is. People consider Lake Mead to be a very dirty lake, and it isn’t at all. The green that people consider is dirt is just algae. As soon as the water temperature hits 72 degrees the algae starts to bloom. ... It’s a very deep lake. Even though the water level dropped down over a hundred feet, there are places out there that are almost 600 feet deep.

What’s down there? What do you see when you dive there? There’s still lots and lots of stuff on the bottom of the lake that they used to build Hoover Dam. You’ll see the train hopper; you’ll see all kinds of things down there. When you’re diving with someone like myself who dives the lake all the time, it’s like a big history lesson. It’s a wonderful, wonderful dive. And people who are divers who live in Las Vegas and have never dove out there are missing something spectacular.

How well do you know lake at this point? Pretty well. But you have to understand, Lake Mead has 700 miles of shoreline, so even as old as I am, you’re not going to cover that much of it. There are just thousands and thousands of dives out there that you can do.

Now that you’ve been diving for 16 years, do you feel completely comfortable underneath the water? The best way to answer that is to tell you what we do when we do search and recovery. What we generally do is we have a diver underneath the water, maybe two or three, and that diver is tethered to someone on the boat. That person on board the boat is watching the bubbles as they’re coming up, and they’re actually counting the person’s respiration to make sure that the person is not starting to get stressed. I breathe 11 breaths underneath the water a minute. A normal, average adult male at rest will breathe anywhere from 16 to 20 breaths per minute. I breathe less underwater than the adult male breathes when he’s sitting watching TV at home. So, I’m very, very comfortable in the water.

What does it mean if you’re doing a search and rescue dive? If I’m doing a search and rescue dive, I’m looking for a person. Usually Metro will take [care] of that because you want the authorities involved in stuff like that ... If the person’s been down for a while, it’s not a search and rescue, it’s a search and recovery. And usually Metro will handle those types of things. But have I had to go down and take care of people? Absolutely I have. And I have no problem in doing that. It’s just something that you do as a diver. ... I do what I do because I’m an ex-ghetto cop, a chief of police, so that’s just how I react to things. It’s just inside me. Years and years and years of doing it. Instead of taking care of automobile accidents, you’re taking care of divers.

Being in trouble under the water is a very vulnerable position. How do people react when you help them? Some people are very grateful. Some people are in disbelief that this happened. Some people completely ignore that it happened and don’t want to talk about it and don’t want to get involved in it. I’m not quite sure what that’s about. The human emotion runs the gamut.

Do you have a dive that stands out as your best ever? I had a friend who asked me once, “Has this become a job to you?” And I said, “No. Anytime I’m getting wet and blowing bubbles I’m having fun.” I just love what I’m doing. My big payoff is people who come in, maybe they’re a little nervous, maybe they’re a lot nervous, they don’t understand how this works and how that works, and watching these people grow right before your eyes, that’s the payoff. That’s why I’m here doing this.

Scuba Views 3220 N. Rancho Drive, 645-0516.

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Sarah Feldberg is the editor of Las Vegas Weekly magazine. A veteran journalist, Feldberg previously worked as the Weekly's web ...

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