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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Dec. 26, 200112:00 PM EST

From the courtroom to the ocean floor

by: Monica Chamness

by Monica Chamness

Staff Writer

From nine to five he’s a straight-laced general master, hearing trials at the Duval County Courthouse. In his spare time, John Sampson trades his business attire for a wetsuit so he can pursue his passion, scuba diving.

Pompano is where Sampson began his love affair with the deep blue sea.

“The visibility was 50 to 100 feet,” said Sampson of his first diving trip in Pompano. He has since dived in waters off Honduras, the Red Sea and the Bahamas.

Born in Pensacola, Sampson grew up in a Norwegian family with a strong love for the sea. At 15, Sampson began exploring the ocean’s depths with a scuba tank on his back.

While working in the Florida Keys as an assistant state attorney, Sampson lived on the water, diving and fishing off the reefs there.

He moved to Jacksonville, but he did not take up offshore diving until three years ago.

“My brother is an instructor and a captain,” said Sampson. “We went offshore one time and it was a good trip. We went down on this series of sunken barges. I saw this big flounder and speared it. There’s so many artificial reefs that rarely will you find anybody else there.”

Certified as a diver in 1973, Sampson then pursued dive master accreditation. After achieving certification, he advanced to open water dives, which includes such as navigation, deep diving and wreck diving. Lastly, he became a dive master assistant instructor, assisting in teaching people how to become certified. By next year he should be qualified to be a scuba instructor, too.

Sampson often sees Southern rays, turtles and tropical fish swimming around his feet. Sharks lurk deep within the waters as well. His first encounter with a shark was in the Bahamas.

Snorkeling between Cat Cay and South Cat Cay, a Mako shark swam right past him. Apprehension set in because he was by himself and had recently seen the movie “Jaws.” The shark ignored Sampson, though.

“I’ve never had any problem with sharks,” he said. “If you have shiny jewelry or equipment, a shark may think you’re a fish. Different studies show that sharks can be territorial but we’re not really part of their food chain.”

Returning from Vietnam, Sampson used the GI Bill to attend law school.

“I thought being an attorney would be a good profession,” he said. “When I came back it was 1968, there were a lot of changes occurring in civil rights. I felt by being an attorney I could help society.”

Sampson has explored tropical waters with many of his colleagues from the legal community. Attorney Quentin Till, a retired Marine reserve colonel, is one of his diving buddies. Sampson’s children frequently dive, boat and fish with him as well.

Sampson plans to move back to the Keys to charter boats for youth groups. Last year, a friend manned a sailboat for the Boy Scouts. Sampson hopes to expand the notion to other organizations, employing three boats.

“You’re sailing at night with no light pollution at all and the stars as bright as they can be,” he said. “Sailing during the day the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. It’s an experience they don’t soon forget. It helps them understand that there are other things in life outside of video games and MTV. You teach them about the ecology. You teach them how to sail, cook aboard, give them chores.”

Diversionary programs in the juvenile justice system are of particular interest to Sampson. He envisions showing them a world without crime, with healthy alternatives.

“Young people are infectious,” he added. “Everything is fresh and new to them in a lot of ways. It’s neat seeing their perspective of the world.”

Participating in the MS150 bicycle ride was another sporting adventure for him, until his girlfriend, a meeting planner at Mayo Clinic, broke her wrist. Now the bicycles are for sale.

Sampson expects to retire within five or six years, but he wants a peek at the new county courthouse first. Once he settles in the Keys, he plans to write travel articles about his adventures.

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