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It would not be unexpected for users of American Sign Language to point out that a benefit of ASL over other languages is that it can be used underwater.
For entrepreneur Thomas Koch, ’12, this advantage is the basis of his company, Aqua Hands, which offers deaf people and other fluent signers the opportunity to learn to dive using American Sign Language, beyond the several dozen hand signals usually taught to divers.
Based in Florida, Aqua Hands has a staff of 16 professional deaf divers that teach a wide range of diving courses throughout the country and Europe, and especially within the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and some of Florida’s famous springs. Courses offered include Open Water, Adventure Diver, Advanced Open Water Diver, Rescue Diver, and Master Scuba Diver, along with Divemaster (professional level) and the Instructor Development Course (IDC), all with full communication access both underwater and above.
Aqua Hands also works with Project AWARE, an organization that addresses ocean threats, with programs aiming toward ocean clean-ups, especially plastic debris. Koch is also committed to shark conservation efforts.
“We are heavily involved in Project AWARE,” said Koch. “When we do dives, we see a lot of debris. I plan to participate in beach clean-ups with hundreds of other divers.”
Koch, a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Course Director, established Aqua Hands in 2010. According to PADI, the Course Director rating, which he earned in 2015, “is the highest and most respected professional rating in recreational scuba diving.” Koch is the only deaf person worldwide to earn the Course Director certification, and is one of a very select group of PADI AmbassaDivers worldwide.
Koch’s love for the water began at the age of two, when he jumped into a pool before learning to swim. A native of Houston, Texas, he visited the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory with a family member, this while working for Boeing after his first stint as a Gallaudet student in the late 1990’s.
During his sophomore year in 2000, Koch studied photography under the direction of Johnston Grindstaff, ’87 & G-’91. Then, while focusing on sports photography and working as a staff photographer for the Tower Clock, Koch envisioned starting a scuba diving business.
During an interview with Melissa Yingst, ’00, on “What’s Up, Gallaudet” (September 1, 1999), Koch spoke prophetically.
“In 20 years, I look forward to being somewhere in Florida or in the south, and have my own house and own scuba diving business, and also an underwater photography business as well.”
For several years, Koch owned a construction business, but as housing values crashed in 2010, he focused his attention toward becoming a Divemaster and eventually a Course Director.
“It took me seven years to become a Divemaster, but should have only taken days,” said Koch. “I was rejected by different people who lacked patience with my deafness.”
While living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Koch gained his Divemaster certification. After moving to Florida, he attended a Diving Equipment Marketing Association (DEMA) conference, and met Tom Ingram, CEO of DEMA and father of Rebecca Jasinski, ’15. At that time, Koch never planned pursuing Course Director certification, but just PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor.
“Tom Ingram was very important, as he brings all Scuba Professionals worldwide to DEMA annually. He could sign, so I saw a great opportunity for growth.”
Another person important to Koch’s advancement was James Morgan, PADI Vice President of Training. While Koch sensed reluctance at first from Morgan, he was eventually asked to become a PADI Course Director.
“When James Morgan and I met, he said, ‘You have only been an Instructor for two and a half years and already taught over 300 people. I think you should become a Course Director.’”
With hesitation, Koch wondered what audience he could earn as Course Director, especially with the potentially small number of deaf divers.
“James said, ‘Who said only deaf? Hearing people wrote to PADI how amazing you were.’”
With Aqua Hands, Koch now recognizes the popularity of scuba diving among the deaf community, and the advantage they have as far as communicating underwater.
“Before I was an instructor, I knew only a few deaf scuba divers. Now, I know more than 1,000—truly wonderful and exciting.”
Aqua Hands has provided instruction not only to between 500-700 deaf divers, but to 300-400 that are hearing, though it has taken some effort for Koch to win over hearing clients.
“I remember in the Cayman Islands, around 2000, being on a cruise with two deaf people, and a hearing family of four. The family realized I was a deaf diver, and complained that I should not be diving. A crewman who was a Divemaster on the boat asked me for my certification. I showed my Rescue Diver Certification, so he just let me dive on my own with my friend.
“Later, they apologized profusely once they realized it was easier being deaf underwater than hearing—wonderful learning experience and exposure.”
Koch, who earned a B.A. in Communication Studies, remembers his experience at Gallaudet, which allowed him to develop organizational skills, how to work and interact with a diverse community, coordinate events, and use photography and video to promote Aqua Hands. Koch has YouTube videos filmed at various dive locations, including a dive in the Bahamas showing amazing footage of Koch feeding sharks for the first time. The video emphasizes marine conservation.
With Aqua Hands, Koch sees an opportunity to provide contracts, job placements, and internships. His staff includes three alumni from Gallaudet: Amanda Huff, E-’08, Lisa Jarashow, ’14, and Jennida Willoughby, E-’21, who earned her PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor certification in April.
Ryan Maliszewski, Gallaudet Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute (GIEI) director, recognizes the powerful impact Aqua Hands creates in regard to deaf entrepreneurships.
“As director of the newly stood up GIEI, I am inspired by Koch’s story,” said Maliszewski. “Aqua Hands is an epitome of turning a passion or hobby into a full-time business. This is particularly beneficial when deaf people are faced with unemployment or job promotion challenges, where they can turn to self-employment opportunities, thus creating new economic wealth for themselves and others on many levels.”
February 2020 will be the 10-year anniversary of Aqua Hands. Koch is looking to expand internationally, and is taking a look at providing instruction in Asia.
To learn more about Koch, read his PADI bio here.
Photos courtesy of Thomas Koch.
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