Down, deep down below the surface of the water is where you’ll find Kristi Bernot‘s happy place. As a scuba instructor, underwater photographer, and store manager for Cave Country Dive Shop in High Springs, Florida, she truly lives a life aquatic. It’s both her passion and her profession, which is why she just might have the best job ever.
While we’re diving deep into swim season with our colorful collection of swimwear, we’re also featuring chic and unique office-friendly styles that make dressing for the job easy. We thought Kristi’s oceanic occupation embodied the very essence of both of these stories, so we had to tell hers!
Read about what inspires and motivates her to get her feet wet every single day:
First off, what should we call you? Certified scuba instructor/underwater adventurer/photographer/scuba store manager….it seems like you wear many hats!
Good point — I stay pretty busy! I consider myself an underwater explorer and entrepreneur. I’ve experienced many aspects of the scuba industry.
How many years have you been diving? And how did you decide you wanted to become an instructor?
I’ve been diving since the spring of 2006, so just about a decade. Actually, how I got interested in scuba and how I got involved in scuba is a very interesting story:
When I was 11 and living on Oahu, the sea was my life. On my way to and from school, I would pass by the ocean and lagoons. During this time growing up, I was always interested in nature and watched a lot of National Geographic programs. One of my favorite episodes I owned on VHS was The Sharks. [The film] follows Dr. Eugenie Clark (who sadly passed last year) in her study of these underwater denizens. It captured her diving with these amazing creatures, and I was instantly drawn to it. So much in fact, my dream when I was a young girl was to be a Marine Biologist and study sharks like she had. She was my first inspiration and a motivating key that would start a lifestyle change for me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until years later that I would be able to finally obtain certification.
Later in my life, I met the person who would introduce me to the watery realm that has become my second home. The man I ended up marrying just so happened to be a scuba instructor! He soon became my primary instructor (and still is to this day). He has challenged me to be the best I can be. This was an approach to instruction which I needed. When I do something, I want to excel without having my hand held. I thrive on learning and growing using my own strength, so our educational relationship (which is a bit different when we are not in the water in ‘teaching mode’) worked very well for us. This is not always the case with couples diving together, but it works for us and we have since become a great dive team together.
As soon as I submerged myself in the water the very first time, I instantly knew I wanted to teach this sport and take it as far as I could. Since then, I’ve become certified as a cave diver, a rebreather diver, and an instructor. I’m always looking to further my education and learn something new or perfect something I’ve learned.
When did underwater photography come into the picture (no pun intended)?
One of my other passions in life is art. I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades with this hobby, working in many media: drawing, painting, sculpture, jewelry making…you name it, I’ve probably tried it. I picked up photography during college while studying graphic design. In fact, I made it a part-time gig doing portrait work for a few years. This time overlapped with me ‘diving into’ scuba for the first time, so it was a natural transition for me to want to combine these two interests. Before long, I was bringing my camera along on dives to capture what I was experiencing. All so I could share with those who could never, or would never do what I do. This has become especially helpful with cave diving. This is such a small aspect of this sport. There are many people who are curious about it, but have no real interest in ever pursuing it. With my images, I’m able to share with the masses what it looks like underwater and underground, and to tell the story of what cave divers go through to be able to see these places.
What’s a typical day like for you (either on the job as an instructor, at the store, diving on your own time, or any combination of these)?
I feel like I have two typical days; days where I am diving, and days where I am working at the dive center. At the store, we expect the staff to know all the ins and outs of all levels of diving. All our staff are cave divers and we are able to assist divers from the very basic beginner to the most advanced. First and foremost, we must remember that divers are here to have fun! This is an entertainment/customer service-oriented business. Most of our customers are on vacation, so this is their time to relax and get away from their regular day-to-day. Many of our customers are taking courses while in town also.
Our shop (Cave Country Dive Shop) is located about 15 minutes from one of the premier cave diving sites in the world: Ginnie Springs. People come from all over the world to visit. I’ve seen divers from Russia, South America, Australia, China, UK, Canada, you name it! It’s amazing to see how far these divers come just to visit what I consider to be ‘the real Florida’ outside of Disney. This keeps us on our toes. We stay busy filling tanks, fixing equipment issues as they occur, and operating complex machinery to mix breathing gases. At this level, there is a lot to learn and a lot to do. Most days are fairly busy and we make a great many contacts with people all over. I’ve actually started learning a few Russian phrases because one of our local instructors brings a fair amount of business from that area.
When diving, things are more relaxed and focused for me. It’s like a mini vacation from all the hectic bustle of life on land. Primarily I cave dive in my free time, though on occasion I free dive or scuba dive in open water. In the water, there are no cell phones and no email; there is nothing but you, your buddy (if you have one), and the environment. I find this very relaxing, as some ladies might a trip to the spa. I try to dive at least once a week to keep my skills up, and to de-stress. Being a mother, wife, and business manager can be chaotic! Even if it’s just an hour in the water, it makes a difference to my wellbeing. I’ve also become involved in a number of exploration projects in the area, which keep me actively diving in my spare time. That keeps me involved in the community and has gained me many new friends. I’m very happy to be doing what I love for a living.
What’s the craziest or most unexpected thing you’ve encountered while doing this?
One of the craziest things was coming upon an ancient human skull while cave diving in Mexico! The ancient people worshiped these places as sacred. Having seen these sites, I can understand the attraction.
What’s the toughest part of your job?
The toughest part is pushing myself to become a better diver. It’s not easy to further your skills at this level, but I always strive to excel. In the past year, I’ve done one of my longest dives to date, over five hours. I’ve done a small amount of exploration, and have continued to learn about new equipment.
Conversely, what’s the most fulfilling or rewarding part of your job?
For me, meeting like-minded individuals is one of the most rewarding parts. It’s wonderful to watch divers from different backgrounds come together on a project and work toward the same goals.
What’s something about the scuba diving and underwater exploration community that would come as a surprise? Something you didn’t expect to learn?
This is such a small community at this level! I’ve made friends who live half a world away because of this sport. I could visit places in most countries and know a shop or diver I could dive with.
Describe scuba diving in 3 words:
Breathtaking, spectacular, exhilarating.
What advice do you have for girls interested in a career or hobby like yours?
Most people don’t realize you can scuba dive just about everywhere in the world. Scuba isn’t limited to pretty fish in tropical seas. There are opportunities to dive literally everywhere! In lakes, rivers, quarries, springs, and seas. If someone is interested in scuba but isn’t sure they want to make a full commitment, there are discovery programs designed to try the sport without the full investment. Find your closest dive shop and ask, or if you’re going on vacation, see if your resort offers a program.
Most importantly though, if you have a dream, follow it! You never know where it will take you. And never be afraid to try something new.
+Feeling inspired? Plan a getaway to meet Kristi! And be sure to pack the your suitcase with our swim and resort styles.