It’s like witnessing a metamorphosis while listening to Rachel Ousley describe her favorite place on the planet to scuba dive – Bonaire, the Dutch island in the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea.
Ousley’s quiet persona transforms from passive to effervescent, complete with sparkling blue eyes and immense smiles.
“It’s stunning,” exclaimed the scuba instructor/divemaster at Dive Pros in Pensacola. “It’s all natural, colorful reefs of purples, oranges, blues and greens, and many tiny tropical fish.”
Her second favorite scuba diving locale?
“We love going to Jupiter, Florida, to dive with the sharks,” Ousley said. “When we go, we are not caged in. It’s called live boating where they simply drop you in the water for about 45 minutes, and you drift with the current. Dozens and dozens of sharks come in and up to you. Lemon sharks. Tiger sharks. You simply push them away with your hands. It’s very cool!”
For Ousley, this is quite a feat.
“I used to be afraid of sharks, and now I love sharks,” she said.
This all seems leaps and bounds beyond adventurous when Ousley, 29, tells you she hails from “landlocked” West Plains, South Central Missouri, and grew up afraid of water.
“We did have lakes and rivers, and I grew up going to the river often,” she said. “It will sound kind of strange, but I have always been a little scared of water. That’s why I got into scuba diving to conquer the fear of the unknown.”
So, when Ousley’s husband, Mason, decided to leave West Plains in 2012 to study marine biology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, the couple packed up with no intentions of moving back, Ousley explained.
“Marine biology and scuba diving go hand in hand,” Ousley said. “When Mason got into scuba diving, he told me how amazing it is and how life-changing it is.”
Leaving her past unadventurous jobs at a restaurant, department store and kinetics plant farm where they belong, in the past, Ousley said she summoned her courage and submerged herself into a new life.
“I decided to learn how to scuba dive to literally conquer my fear of water and signed up for an open-water class in a pool at Dive Pros,” she said. “I had a wonderful and very patient instructor, Gary Toms. He was my open-water instructor and my instructor all the way up the ladder.”
Ousley and her husband are PADI-certified scuba instructors working at Dive Pros.
PADI stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors. It is the world’s largest ocean exploration and diver organization, operating in 186 countries and territories, with a global network of more than 6,600 dive centers and resorts and over 128,000 professional members worldwide, according to its website.
“I worked hard for my PADI credentials, taking physical tests and written tests,” Ousley said. “I was a diver for seven years before I got certification in 2020 because I wanted to get a lot of experience before teaching students.”
Today, while in Pensacola, you often find Ousley instructing or simply enjoying the sport of scuba diving at a vast array of Pensacola’s historic shipwrecks.
“The shipwrecks are scattered everywhere, and you can only get to them by boat,” Ousley said. “We actually have the world’s largest artificial reef, the USS Oriskany.”
It takes several hours to get to and from the largest vessel intentionally sunk to serve as a reef, Ousley said.
“Before being sunk in 2006, the USS Oriskany was a U.S. Navy Essex-class carrier stretching over 900 feet in length,” according to ordinarytraveler.com. “In sinking, the ship remained upright, providing divers both the opportunity to explore the ship and to witness the reef taking hold in its presence. The USS Oriskany regularly makes top ten wreck diving site lists and boasts the nickname The Great Carrier Reef.”
“The Oriskany is fantastic!” Ousley said. Divers get to see the massive wreck inside and out and abundant sea life including manta rays, whale sharks, goliath groupers, spade fish and amberjacks.
To feed her creativity and add excitement to her scuba diving adventures, Ousley always takes along her SeaLife DC2000 digital waterproof camera. It’s SeaLife’s most advanced underwater camera, complete with RAW imaging capabilities.
“I have taken a wild number of photos,” Ousley said, laughing. “My husband gives me a hard time because I will take 50 photos easily of each dive because I want to capture everything, such as seahorses!
“This past summer in Pensacola was a good season for seahorses,” Ousley said. “They are so tiny. When you find them, it is like finding a treasure.”
Ousley said her Missouri family supports her underwater love affair, and during one of their Pensacola visits she even got them into scuba diving gear for an open-water class at Dive Pros.
“I tell people to try scuba diving because if I can do it, they can do it,” Ousley said. “It changed the whole course of my life.”