September 01, 1995 12:00 PM

That’s what I do when the Grateful Dead aren’t working,” Jerry Garcia once said. “I’m in Hawaii, diving.”

How true it was. After getting his PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification as a scuba diver in 1988, Garcia submerged himself in the sport, making more than 500 dives during the next seven years, mostly along the Kona coast off the Big Island of Hawaii. His friends Jeff and Teri Leicher, who own Jack’s Diving Locker in Kona, recall that it was hard to keep him from investigating any and all sea creatures, great and small. “He’d go up to strange eels and poke them with his fingers,” says Jeff, 41. “I’d say, ‘I wouldn’t do that, Jerry.’ ” Adds Teri: “I’d say, ‘Jerry, you’re already missing one finger, you’re gonna end up missing another.’ And Jerry said, ‘I never play with eels with a finger that I can’t afford to lose. I always use my picking hand, not my fretting hand.’ ”

After his 1986 coma, Garcia began looking for a way to get exercise that he would enjoy. Vicki Jensen, 42, a diving instructor and longtime friend of Garcia’s, introduced him to scuba and to the Leichers. After that, it seemed, he headed for Kona at every opportunity. “We tried not to talk to the press, and we didn’t want people to know he was coming,” says Jeff. “It was a getaway thing for Jerry.” Garcia told Teri that next to his music diving made him happiest: “He could totally relax and have total freedom.”

He became quite proficient. Nervous on his first dive in the summer of 1988, he surfaced after 28 minutes. Later, as he became more at ease underwater, he set a Jack’s Diving Locker record of 109 minutes on one tank of air. “He was completely relaxed,” says Jeff. “He quickly adapted to the underwater world and became part of it.” He also became involved in protecting it. When the Leichers began campaigning to protect local reefs from damage—mostly from the dragging anchors and chains of dive boats—Garcia and the Dead donated $10,000 to the cause, and he later testified before Hawaii’s State Land Use Commission. The campaign was a success—46 special mooring buoys have been installed, some by Garcia himself—and the program is being copied on other parts of the Big Island.

Mostly, Jensen and the Leichers recall Garcia as a welcome friend who loved diving and just hanging around the shop. “He was one of the best conversationalists ever,” says Teri. “He must have read a lot, because he knew about everything.” And even if he didn’t, he had an answer. One year, when he joined the couple for Thanksgiving dinner, Teri’s mother asked him if he knew the difference between a cornet fish and a trumpet fish. “Well,” Garcia replied, “you have to blow on a trumpet fish a lot harder.”

Once Garcia brought five friends along, and Jeff took the group on a night dive. “I was concerned about keeping all six of them together,” says Jeff, “but they followed me in perfect formation. I said, ‘That’s amazing. I’ve never taken six before, and you guys stayed together.’ They said, ‘We’ve been together for 23 years. It’s no problem.’ ” Leicher hadn’t recognized the Grateful Dead.

When Garcia visited Hawaii, the couple says, they saw no evidence that he had a drug problem. “The Jerry we knew,” says Teri, “didn’t use drugs when he was here.” Adds Jensen: “The diving was instead of the drugs, I think.” Jensen says she worried when a few months would go by without Garcia’s coming to Kona. “I’d think he was probably working too hard and maybe sliding back a bit,” she says. “I do think that if he had given more time to himself, maybe come here more often, he would have lived longer.”

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