Andy Silverman on exploring shipwrecks and teaching the next generation

Named for the 19th-century railroad magnate, the 238-foot Dean Richmond steamer set sail from Toledo, Ohio, on Friday, October 13, 1893, carrying zinc and lead amid its cargo. The ship never made it to its Buffalo, New York, destination, but sank about 110 feet off the coast of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Ninety years later, in 1983, wreck-hunter Garry Kozak found the Richmond after a nine-year hunt. To his disappointment, the rumors of copper on board did not pan out. There was also less zinc than he'd hoped.

Thirty-five years after that, the ship is providing a treasure of a different kind. Recreational divers are still exploring the wreckage for enjoyment.

“Sometimes you'll see china on some of those wrecks,” said diver Andy Silverman, who owns the Columbus Scuba instruction center and retail store in Clintonville. “They also become artificial reefs for marine life. … You'll see the biggest conglomerations of fish. Often we find these wrecks because fishermen have found them first.”

The remaining artifacts are protected and must remain on the wreck. “Unfortunately, sometimes people will pillage it,” Silverman said.

Columbus Scuba will take certified divers to see the Dean Richmond as part of a “Shipwreck Diving” event in the Great Lakes region on Saturday, July 21. In the span of 10 hours, divers will also visit two other Lake Erie wrecks: the John J. Boland and George Whelan.

Silverman was first introduced to scuba diving at age 15 while on vacation with his parents. “It was just amazing being able to breathe underwater and get that close to the animals,” he recalled. “A stingray swam right by me and I was hooked.”

After graduating from Ohio State, the New Jersey native spent a year working as a dive master in Australia. He has since completed about 6,000 dives all over the world, exploring caves from North Florida to the Yucatan Peninsula, but never encountering anything like the predicament that befell the junior football team that became trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand earlier this summer.

“There have been a couple times when I was a little spooked, but nothing that was earth-shattering,” he said. “I had a light go out one time and I had to switch to a backup. … Things look very different on the way out than on the way in, so sometimes your mind can play tricks on you.”

But with proper instruction, recreational diving is not dangerous, he stressed.

“There are risks in everything that we do, but, proportionally, more people get hurt playing basketball [and] football,” he said. “[It's] much like driving a car. If you never drove a car before … and I gave you the keys to my car and I sent you out in rush hour traffic, there's a pretty good chance you're not coming back.”

Instruction has become a passion for Silverman. He opened Columbus Scuba in 1999, and issued more than 1,200 diving certifications in 2017 alone. The staff members teach in pools and quarries throughout Columbus and beyond.

“We're certifying 10-year-olds,” Silverman said. “This year we'll have seven different scuba camps. … Every one of those kids has the most incredible experience.”

“I get cold super easy so it wasn't the best experience for me the first few times, but I've grown to love it,” said Silverman's 16-year-old son, Tyler, who works at Columbus Scuba and cites Roatan, Honduras, as one of his favorite trips. “It's relaxing.”

Columbus Scuba Manager Shelby Brown agreed.

“All you hear is your breathing. It's like therapy,” she said.

Even for a diver as experienced as Silverman, there is much left to conquer, namely the Red Sea and Chuuk Lagoon — the site of numerous sunken World War II military ships and aircraft — in the Central Pacific Ocean.

“It's exciting,” he said. “Three-quarters of the Earth is covered with water. … Everything on land has been explored.”