Trey Kaufman’s passion for life and thirst for adventure have fueled a project aimed at helping him become the first quadriplegic to scuba dive with wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.
The Delray Beach resident has been working with Fort Lauderdale-based artist Norman McMillan and his Free in the Sea Project, which helps people with disabilities achieve “aquatic liberation.” Kaufman and McMillan are developing a seagoing wheelchair of sorts that will allow Kaufman to maneuver in the warm Caribbean waters off Bimini at 4 to 6 knots using his chin and sip-and-puff systems similar to the ones on his motorized wheelchair. McMillan said Kaufman’s head will be about a foot deep in the water, allowing him to watch the dolphins swim.
“The design is a 10-square-foot catamaran remotely steered by Trey with as much freedom as possible,” McMillan said. “I know where the dolphins are over there. I don’t feed them. They just come to this specific spot each day, and that’s where we go.
Last week, Kaufman and his therapy assistant, Melissa Cotton, met McMillan and Chris Burden, a firefighter and paramedic from Boca Raton Fire-Rescue. The meeting took place at the home of Chuck Fitzgerald, who owns Sailorman, a Fort Lauderdale business that offers new and used marine equipment.
Fitzgerald is helping with the apparatus that Kaufman will be using to swim with the dolphins. He owns a nine-foot deep pool at his home and has been working to familiarize Kaufman with the Ocean Technology Systems dive masks that will allow them to talk underwater.
Kaufman looked bedazzled as Cotton braced him on a floating mat and Burden, a master diver, guided him into Fitzgerald’s pool. All were in full scuba gear. Fitzgerald communicated from lower depths as Cotton held Kaufman securely and Burden remained at his side for support.
“This is cool technology, that’s for sure,” Kaufman said.
The pool tests, which have been under way for the past month, may seem like baby-steps to an outsider, but they could enable Kaufman to realize his goal of swimming with the dolphins by year’s end.
“Trey has a deep passion for life, and when he gets something on his mind, it’s go time,” McMillan said. “He’s detail-oriented and keeps on us to get the job done.”
Even though the waters in South Florida and the Caribbean are warm most of the year, Kaufman had to find a wetsuit that would keep him warm and comfortable while training. He recently wrote a review for a website about the Hyperflex Poly Fleece Jumpsuit he found.