Just as the “Icemaggedon” storm was hitting this area last week, 30-somethings Katie and Jeremy Jones were returning to Washington after three months on the island of Útila, Honduras. Their airplane landed just one hour before flights were grounded.
They were returning to a different world than the one they had left behind in October, not so much because of the weather, but because of their goals and future plans.
Last year, after months and months of saving and planning, the couple quit their well-paying jobs — he was a paramedic, and she was doing clinical evaluations for organ and tissue donations with Mid-American Transplant Services — and moved to Útila to study to be scuba instructors.
At the same time, they also launched an underwater photography business, Blue Blanket Images, that specializes in capturing those unusual moments in people’s lives, whether it’s when they are scuba diving themselves or having an underwater Trash the Dress event. That’s a trend in weddings where a bride hires a photographer to capture her wearing her dress in a situation where it will be ruined — like in the ocean.
Katie and Jeremy did just that after they were married in September 2015. On their honeymoon to Riviera Maya, Mexico, in January 2016, they went swimming in a cenote (or freshwater cave), she in her wedding dress and he in a button-down shirt, vest and bow-tie. Italian photographer Sebi Messina (www.sebimessinaphotography.com) was there to capture the moment in a series of photos that look more like scenes from a Hollywood movie than a vacation.
Katie, who was an amateur photographer herself, was so impressed with the end result images that the experience inspired her to want to improve on the experience for other bridal couples or anyone who wanted an underwater photo shoot.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be awesome if we could offer this to other people?’ ” said Katie. “So many people don’t even know about this. When I posted a picture of it on Facebook, people were amazed. They thought it was Photoshopped.”
On that same trip, when Jeremy received disappointing news about a job he had applied for, Katie, in an effort to cheer him up a bit by suggesting the many other types of jobs they could do, blurted out that they should become scuba instructors. Jeremy liked the sound of that.
That night at dinner, the couple happened to sit with two people who are really into scuba diving, and they got to talking. It seemed like confirmation that they were on to something, the Joneses said.
As soon as they got home, they started researching how to make it happen.
“At first it was just an idea,” said Katie. “We talked about how we loved our jobs,” but also how they weren’t satisfied either.
“I didn’t want to keep sitting at a desk,” said Katie. “I wanted to be more active, I wanted to be in a warmer climate, and we had enjoyed so much doing the underwater photography, and the photographer was a scuba diver . . . so he stayed underwater doing the photo shoot, but I had to keep coming up to the surface to get a breath.”
Jeremy, whose job as a first responder was often hard on his spirit, was equally ready to try a new career.
Quitting His Job Was Hardest Part
In researching the best places to learn to be scuba instructors, the Joneses learned that their options included Útila, Honduras, or Thailand.
Although there are classes offered in the St. Louis area, the couple preferred learning in an environment where there is more worth seeing underwater than offered by the Midwest caves and quarries.
They actually took their first class, Open Water, in St. Louis last April. That included diving at Mermec Springs in Metropolis, Ill., where there is an airplane, school bus and more sunken underwater, but the Joneses wanted to experience diving in the ocean.
But before they could move to Útila for three months, the Joneses had to work out some things — like what they were going to do with their house in Villa Ridge while they were gone — and also save all the money they would need to live in Útila, since they didn’t want to have to work while they were in scuba diving instructor school.
They calculated that if Jeremy worked 10 overtime days in his job as a paramedic, that would be enough. By October, they were ready to go.
They had someone renting their house, a property management company overseeing that, and their bank account was sufficient to pay for school and living expenses the next three months. They had found a studio-type apartment on the island for $400 a month.
The hardest part of the plan for Jeremy was quitting his job.
“I am very much the type of person who always has a plan and, since I was 15, I’ve always had a job — usually several jobs — so to not have a job was unnerving at first,” he said.
Eventually it was freeing, but not until they had been in Útila for a while, and he felt secure that they had saved enough money to pay for everything they needed.
They did have work visas, so they could have tried to get side jobs if they needed to, but they really didn’t want to be working and going to school at the same time.
Although it may sound like a vacation to be living on an island, the Joneses said they worked as hard as if they’d had jobs those three months.
In addition to hands-on dives, their classes included taking tests in subjects like physiology (how diving affects the human body) and physics.
“They are not college-level physics courses, but you have to understand the physics of diving,” said Jeremy.
The classes were small. They were the only two students in their rescue class; their divemaster class had just 13 students total, and their instructor class had seven.
The Joneses are now certified scuba instructors and once they have certified 25 students, they will qualify as master Scuba diver trainers.
They have returned home to Franklin County as they look for jobs as scuba instructors, either at a school or possibly a resort. They are open to moving anywhere.
Blue Blanket Images
During their time in Útila studying scuba diving, Katie taught herself what she needed to know to be a successful underwater photographer. She purchased the equipment needed to take her Canon 70D camera underwater and then, through trial and error, video tutorials and books, learned what worked and what didn’t.
“You have all the different things about shooting underwater that you have to think about,” she said. “The deeper you go, the more colors you are losing. You also are losing light.”
Just turning on the flash isn’t the solution, she noted.
“You are going to pick up all the particles in the water, the dust, silt, sand . . . you have to think about where you are going to position the flash or even if you’re going to use it because you’re going to get all of that back scatter,” she explained.
And being an underwater photographer isn’t as easy as just making sure your camera can work under water, said Katie. Holding a camera and using the equipment will affect your diving technique. So you have to be aware and prepared for that.
“It’s hard when you are looking through your view finder to still think about everything else around you,” she said. “You have to constantly be with your buddy and maybe they are swimming off while I’m trying to get a photo of this fish.”
Figuring out composition is another challenge, said Katie, noting photos are better of fish swimming toward you rather than away.
Eventually, she did sign up to take an underwater photography class through their dive school, but by that point she had already learned more on her own than what was being taught in the class.
With the underwater photography business, the Joneses have brought their dream full circle — from their Trash the Dress underwater photo shoot to having clients hire them to shoot their underwater experiences.
“I really love it,” said Katie. “I love diving. I love the idea of having students and being able to share that with them, but then taking pictures of people and fish and whatever underwater, I love that.
“I love being behind the camera. I feel like you can see something differently when you look at it from behind a camera,” she remarked. “Getting the light right, the composition right, making sure you’re focused and the camera settings are right, is there a motion in this picture or is it too posed? How to bring all of those things together to make a great picture.”
‘Abandoning the American Dream’?
When the Joneses began this journey to become scuba instructors, they started a blog to keep family and friends informed of their progress. They called the blog “Abandoning the American Dream,” because they had a dream life — two good jobs and their own home.
But they wanted something different, so they “abandoned” that life to start a new one. In reality though, what’s more American than following your dreams?
The Joneses know they can go back to their old jobs if they need to, but they don’t want to do that.
“We started this journey trying to go a certain direction, so I don’t really want to fall back. I really want to keep going on this path if at all possible,” said Katie.
To read more about the Joneses’ experience and to see Katie’s underwater photography, go to www.blueblanketimages.com, where there are photo galleries of her images and also a link to the blog.
While the Joneses were in Honduras, they were able to participate in a dive with Diveheart.org, a nonprofit organization based in Illinois that provides educational scuba diving programs for people with disabilities, “with the hope of providing both physical and psychological therapeutic value.”
It was an amazing thing to watch, said Katie, noting on their dive with Diveheart.org, the client was a quadriplegic who had previously been a barefoot skier until an accident damaged her spine.
“It’s just the most awesome thing to watch someone who can’t do for themselves in an emergency, so she had a team of people someone behind her, handling everything there, someone in front of her, looking at her, making sure she was OK,” said Katie.
“It was just complete trust for her to want to experience it, and it was incredible to be a part of that.”
The Joneses said they are looking what it takes to become Diveheart instructors or adaptive buddies.