Bar Bulletin

April, 2003

MSBA News

Beneath The Waves
By Patrick Tandy

“I was always a water bug,” Janine Rice explains from a high-and-dry conference room in the Legal Aid Bureau, Inc., building in downtown Baltimore, where she has worked since last fall. “I just love being in and on the water.”

In the water, particularly; Rice is speaking of her passion for recreational scuba diving.

“The minute I was in the water and I saw the fish and the coral, that was it,” she explains of a fateful snorkeling excursion in Puerto Rico during the 1995 MSBA Mid-Year Meeting. “I was hooked.”

But Rice was only breaking the surface of an obsession that would take her to much greater depths.

“When you’re snorkeling, you’re on the surface,” she says. “I wanted to be down where the fish were.”

And so down with the fish she went. On another MSBA Mid-Year trip the following year, this time to Puerto Vallerta, Mexico, Rice took a resort course, which is, as she explains, “where you spend something like 20 minutes in the pool learning the basics, and then they take you out on a very basic beginner dive.” Another diving trip in 1997 helped to cinch her rapidly growing interest.

“It was obvious I wanted to be a diver,” she says, “so I came back that summer and got my open-water and advanced scuba certifications at a quarry in Northern Virginia, in cold, dark, murky water – thank goodness, because if you can dive in that, you can dive in anything.”

Despite her Maryland roots, Rice’s own inclinations led her to more tropical climes. “There is diving to be done in the Atlantic, but it’s cold water,” she says. “They’re murky conditions, and I personally have a preference for warm water.”

“Any time I took a trip, if there was a warm-water destination involved, I took my dive gear with me,” she adds. “For example, I went to an ABA conference in Miami, and I took my dive gear and went diving in Miami.”

It was during the 2001 MSBA Mid-Year Meeting to the islands of Turks and Caicos, an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, that Rice decided to reconcile her obsession and her lifestyle.

“I went diving every single day, and by the end of the week I had gotten to be good friends with the dive staff,” she explains. “I was like, ‘What does it take to live on this island?’ and ‘How much do you get paid?’ So I figured out the cost of living and what they were making and I was like, ‘I could do that.’”

And so Rice followed her dream to become a scuba instructor, pursuing romance and a job opportunity as a dive instructor in the islands. The Howard County native closed her practice of four years later that spring and moved to south Florida. “I had family down there, so I stayed at my family’s house for 30 days while I was doing my scuba instructor school,” she explains. When both the job and the romance fell through, Rice decided to stay in south Florida, where she spent the next year working as a dive instructor in Miami Beach.

“The beautiful thing about Miami Beach is that it is such an international and cosmopolitan city,” Rice says. “I got to teach people from all over the world. I didn’t feel like I was living in the United States, and that was amazing. People from South America, Europe and Asia – one of my best friends to this date is a woman from London. She’s going to be one of the bridesmaids in my wedding.”

And it was while living and working in Florida that Rice developed an appreciation for wreck diving.

“The guy who was teaching me how to be a dive instructor was very heavy into wreck diving,” she explains. “So, as a result of hanging out with him and doing what he did, I got hooked into it.”

“I’d only been diving in the area of one wreck up to that point [prior to moving to south Florida], and that was in Roatan, which is off the coast of Honduras,” she says. “It was a shore dive; what you would do is walk right out the beach, submerge and go down to about 40 or 50 feet, and there was this wreck, the Prince Albert. [I] really wasn’t all that interested in wrecks; it was just beautiful because the coral was growing on it. It served as an artificial reef.”

And as wrecks, both accidental and deliberate, are havens for sea life of nearly all forms, their exploration afforded Rice the opportunity to foster other related interests, namely sea life and underwater photography.

“I do have a passion for seeing something I haven’t seen before and figuring out what it is,” she explains. “As a result of the people that I hung around with in the beginning, I learned how to identify animals. I wanted to know what it was I was looking at. Some of the time they would tell me, but then I got to the point where I wanted to learn for myself. You can teach yourself, like I did, or you can take courses in it.”

But for Rice the ultimate draw of scuba diving is something less tangible.

“The peace and quiet,” she says. “It’s absolute serenity. Sometimes it’s so quiet you can hear the shrimp popping. Obviously if you have loud, noisy people around you it’s not quite as peaceful and serene, so I tend to go off, if I’m on my own, doing my own personal diving. I love trying to find the tiniest organism that I can, and so I’ll just stay in one place and kneel there for five or ten minutes and just look at one thing.”

So what makes a dive? “Whenever I see an eagle ray,” Rice replies instantly. “They’re called eagle rays because they look just like graceful birds flying through the water. [T]o me, an eagle ray is the most graceful of god’s creatures on the planet.”

“What else do I love to see?” she muses. “Turtles, of course. And sharks. But my absolute best experience? That’s hard to say because they’re all so good. I would have to say that my most memorable one would be when I was diving [in Turks & Caicos] and my friend was doing his advanced nitrox [a compound of ‘enriched’ air] technical diving. He was doing a decompression stop where he couldn’t move or leave, and I was off doing my recreational diving, and there were two reef sharks and a bull shark. And they came and swam right by me. It was awesome! I don’t have a fear of sharks at all. In fact, if I see one, I’ll usually find a way to get closer to one. But a bull shark – and that’s the only one I’ve ever seen – has a great deal of testosterone, more than the average shark, and as a result they’re highly aggressive. So they came by the group of divers and then they circled around and they went back and there was my friend, hanging out, stuck at 60 feet, not able to go any higher, and these sharks came up right behind him. He was down lower than I was, so I watched it, and the shark came up right behind him and buzzed him. He couldn’t go anywhere, and so, to me…well, that wasn’t really what made it memorable. What made it memorable was it was like the first and only time I’ve ever seen a bull shark.”

Not the sort of fish story one necessarily brings home to mom.

“My mother has some fears, but she hasn’t expressly stated that she thinks I’m nuts,” Rice laughs. “I don’t think she would want to hear that I’ve been down to 150 feet, or that I’ve had any close calls.”

Unfortunately, a series of accidents last year (not diving-related) left Rice high and dry, and by last summer she had decided to return to Maryland – and to the practice of law.

“I’d always wanted to [work for Legal Aid] but couldn’t afford to,” she admits. “You know, when you first get out of law school and you have the student-loan debt, and the salaries then were comparable to my judicial law clerk salary except that it was going to stay that way…but I’ve always had an affinity for legal services work. I did a lot of pro bono in my private practice. And when I was down in south Florida I was considering taking the Florida bar, and there was a number of legal services agencies in the south Florida area.”

“But then there’s this impediment to that called the bar exam,” she adds, laughing. “It’s a $2,000 fee, just for the privilege of taking the exam, if you have my number of years of experience. And then it’s $2,000 for any bar review course, and when you’re a dive instructor who’s making $10 an hour and no tips because you’re not even out in the water, you can’t afford a $4,000 hit like that.”

Despite being comfortable with her work, Rice looks forward to returning to the water this spring, and she readily offers suggestions for anyone interested in taking up the sport.

“You don’t need to be the greatest swimmer in the world,” she says, “but you should feel comfortable in the water and, for example, [with] having water on your face because one of the skills that you do have to know how to do before you’ll get certified is to fill your mask up completely with water and clear it. If you have a fear of water, especially having it on your face, then it’s not going to work.”

“You can learn how to dive as young as 10,” she says. Although there is technically no upward limit in age, “there are medical limitations,” she explains. “There is a questionnaire where if you answer yes to any of the questions then you have to have a doctor’s physical and have him sign off for you to continue on so that we kind of shift the liability to the doc [laughing].”

But when it comes to her underwater environment, the buck stops with Rice.

“My philosophy, with regard to the environment, is that I want it to be there for generations to come. There are some areas designated as ‘No Touch/No Take.’ In Key Largo there’s a national marine sanctuary, so it’s a violation of federal law if you take anything, whether it’s a molted lobster shell or an empty conch shell. Anything that you take is a violation of federal law. There are areas up the coast in south Florida where that doesn’t apply, but I still apply the same philosophy because I want those fish to be there when I go back a year later, and I’d love for those fish to be there if my grandkids ever want to go diving. I have no animosity toward spearfishermen, because the ones that I know each eat what they catch. So I guess I’m a conservationist in that regard. In other words, I believe in conserving…I don’t mind people using, but I’m not one of those radicals who say, ‘The fish are only for looking at!’ [laughing]. I eat flounder. I eat grouper.”

But time, as it is wont to do, melds all experience, and for Rice, her philosophies have grown increasingly singular on land or sea.

“The person I am today is completely different from the person who went down to south Florida,” she says. “That’s why I [say] live and let live, which applies to my philosophy about the critters [as well as] humans. I’ve never thought of myself as an extremely aggressive, scorched-earth tactical kind of attorney, but now I’m even more so that way. You do what it takes to get the job done, but there’s no reason to take hostages along the way.”

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