LIFE DEALS ITS CARDS AS IT SEES FIT. Some people get rich; others stay poor. Some live to 100; others don’t reach their teens. Some stay healthy; others, such as Franklin D Roosevelt and Ian Dury, contract polio.
That’s what happened to John Parmiter but, like his famous counterparts, he didn’t let the virus stop him.
A teenager in the early 1950s, John was a keen swimmer. He grew up on a farm, and would swim in the river after working in the fields.
He believes he contracted the polio virus there.
It struck when he was 17, and it took him four years to recover, but the disease left him with weakened muscles.
“Both my parents moved Heaven and Earth for me, and gave me the determination to do anything,” he says. Even as he approaches his 80s, he still swims 4-6km a week and, last Christmas, completed his 1000th dive.
John started diving in the 1980s when, at 54, he took part in a try-dive session organised
by community service organisation Swindon Lions Club, for which he was a zone chairman, in association with Swindon BSAC and OK Diving Services.
Despite his weakened body, John would walk for miles using sticks, but he was hardly obvious diver material. Once kitted up, he was encouraged simply to stay in the shallow end of the pool with one of the BSAC instructors.
“I thought there must be something more to it than sitting there blowing ruddy bubbles,” John recounts. “So I turned over and went up and down the pool half a dozen times.”
The surprised instructor acknowledged that John was a bit of a natural in the water. But it was a year or so before he began a PADI course with OK Diving Services.

WITH A 6FT 4IN FRAME, no hip structure and a much-reduced muscle mass on his right side, John discovered that he was far more buoyant on his right.
“It took me a long time to achieve balance,” he explains. “There was a lot of struggle. I can’t run, I can’t climb a mountain and I can’t jump a five-bar gate, but who wants to do that all the time”
His pool training was protracted, as he and an assistant worked on his kit configuration and balance. There were no recognised disabled-diver training programmes at that time, so they had to figure it out for themselves.
The easy open-water option would seem to have been the tropics, but warm-water dive trips were less common in the 1980s, and Red Sea resorts were still developing. So John went to Stoney Cove.
“When I got there, I realised how much of a buddy sport diving is,” says John. On that first visit he was kitted in an old Viking suit, and his instructor and assistant pushed him in his wheelchair down the slope by the old toilet-block and into the water. Here he gently floated off the wheelchair and into the freedom of open water.
He spent an hour under water completing his various exercises without incident. Getting out was another matter. The other divers floated him into the chair easily enough, but had to get John and his scuba gear back ashore over a foot-high lip of concrete.
They were struggling when into view came a group of what, back in the day, were known as Bob BSAC divers – more hair on their arses than in their bushy beards, shoulders like Aberdeen Anguses and enough anchor tattoos to hold down the Spanish Armada in a storm.
They got him back ashore and, acknowledging how hard diving was even for them, expressed their admiration for what John had achieved.
From PADI Open Water Diver, John became the first European to be a certified andicapped Scuba Association diver. He dived regularly in the UK year-round: “I’ve dived Stoney in 3°C and all that!” he laughs.
He often dived with Caroline Timms, who ran Stoney Cove Diving and fitted the dives in between her courses. “Caroline was interested in helping me, which was brilliant,” says John. “In fact everyone I’ve met is so enthusiastic to help me, and still is.”
His case was interesting in that he had all his limbs. “Amputees have full muscular ability, and therefore balance in the water,” says John, as he shows me his debilitation, which includes impaired movement in his right hand.
He uses standard diving kit, but only his own, because he knows where everything is and how it works and feels.
His right leg is not good enough for finning, so he uses only a left fin. This once made him popular with his younger brother, also a diver.
“I bought him a pair of fins as a present one year, and then he came and asked if I still had my original Dacor fins. ‘I’ve lost a fin,’ he said, ‘so if I give you the one you bought me, could I have your Dacors’”
His buddies are often approached under water by helpful divers who assume that John has lost a fin. “I’m tempted to put a notice on the back of that one saying: ‘Yes I know I’ve only got one fin’!”
John has learnt about his best kit configuration and diving style through trial and error, and seeking advice on how to dive well within his limitations. On the night dive for his Advanced OWD course at Stoney Cove, Caroline asked him to swim to where the pub lights were shining in the water, and to return to within a metre of where he left. He managed it first time. A lot of able-bodied divers have a hard time managing that with good balance and two fins.
When Caroline left Stoney, John started to dive at Portland with skipper Budgie Burgess. New problems included getting back into a RIB.
“They used to have one bloke in the water, another on the boat,” John explains. “They took my equipment off in the water, and then I’d come over the side like a sack of coal and land in the bottom of the boat.”
Portland started a period of UK sea diving that saw John visit West Bay in Dorset, Snowdon in Wales, Babbacombe in Devon and Fowey, Kennack and Porthkerris in Cornwall. In each place he found learning curves for himself and the dive centres.
He visited Porthkerris, a dive centre on top of a steep stony beach, with his dive club. As he sat at the top looking down the steep wheelchair-unfriendly slope, the skipper told John he wasn’t sure how he’d get him into the water.
“Well you’ve got a tractor, haven’t you” John said, referring to the launching vehicle. “Does it have a bucket on the front”
The answer was yes. “Well,” said John, “bring it here, drop the bucket on the floor and I’ll get
in the bucket.” Which he did.

IN 1996, JOHN TRAVELLED with his club to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt and enjoyed a week at the Oonas Dive Club.
He wanted to return, but had no one to go with the following year. John prefers to dive with people he knows and trusts, so in 1998 he contacted Oonasdivers, the UK agent, to see who still worked at the centre and would be willing to help him.
Oonasdivers couldn’t have done more for him that year, he says, and Oonas Dive Club provided a private instructor/guide. He has been back almost every year since, is always given a private guide, leaves a set of kit at the centre and even gets the same room.
If you have ever stayed in Room 15, you will notice the extra hand-rails. These were specially fitted for John. And going up to the room are extra banister rails, installed after John had a fall in the UK and injured his shoulder. The club staff asked what he needed and provided exactly what he asked. They do this with pretty much anything from new wooden stools in the shower to getting on and off the boat, he says.
John has catalogued all his 818 dives in Sharm, and his buddies. Divemaster Simon Bell was with him for only 27, but he particularly remembers him. “I always ask the guides what I can do to improve my technique, and Simon was ruthless. I learned so much from him. In fact, I learned so much from all of them.” He has done 242 dives with current guide Amy Oxtoby.
Diving with a disability puts unknown stresses on the body, so divers must take an annual medical. Hyperbaric guru Dr Phil Bryson at the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth devised John’s diving regime, which includes diving air tables with nitrox, a maximum 20m depth and only two dives a day for six days before a day off.
This is written into his dive insurance, which is otherwise a standard travel policy.
John Parmiter is an immensely popular man. Amy Oxtoby describes him as “her best buddy ever”. His insurer Dive Master said it would meet any claim he put in because it believes he
is straight and honest, and sponsored his travel costs for his 1000th dive. Phil Bryson called him an inspiration. Which is why so much fuss was made about that landmark dive, which took place at Ras Mohammed and was followed by a party in his honour thrown by Oonas Dive Club.
Had John considered going elsewhere for a holiday “I don’t want to,” he replies. “The staff know me, the boat crews know me and I know them. I’ve even known the boat skipper since he was a boy.”
Now on his 11th logbook, John’s next target is 300 dives logged with Amy and 1000 hours of bottom time (his current total is 935).
“I’ll keep diving until I can’t dive any more,” he says. “There’s only two people who will decide when I finish, and that’s the doctor or me. I have to face it. I’m getting older and it’s getting more difficult, but it’s not insurmountable.” How much more inspiration do you need

KIT INNOVATION
In the early 1990s there was no specialist kit for divers with disabilities, so John Parmiter had to find his own way.
He and his instructor developed a harness weightbelt, for example.
“I had a shot weightbelt, but I couldn’t keep it on as I have no shape to my hips.
So they got hold of some old car seat-belts and made me a harness, much like the ones you see today.”
When diving in UK seas, John used a hook on a lanyard to help him deal with current throughout a dive. It was much like the reef hooks made popular in the South Pacific.
In Egypt, to deal with the extra height of a new dive-boat, John wears an extra weight harness (without weights).
He dekits in the water and the gear is handed up to the boat crew, who then grab the extra harness to pull him aboard.

UNDERWATER TREATS
John Parmiter doesn’t go in for the big species that need wide-ranging dives, or swimming in big currents. This suits his guide Amy.
“She likes nudibranchs like I do,” he says. “I can understand the holidaymakers coming out to Sharm and wanting to see everything big – the sharks, giant Napoleons and turtles – and they’ll go like bats out of hell.
“But divers are beginning to realise that they miss so much by tearing around. They’re now watching and looking and learning.”