is whole life, retired engineer Jim Liskovec had lived with hydrophobia, or an abnormal fear of water. His fear was so crippling, he wasn’t able to fully enjoy some of the best experiences of life with his wife, Sue, an avid snorkeler. And it seemed his retirement would be no different.

In May 2002, he and Sue took a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Spending most of his time on shore while she went on marine excursions, Liskovec decided it was time to conquer his fear and contact M. Ellen “Melon” Dash, founder of the Transpersonal Swimming Institute in Berkeley, Calif.

Since 1983, Dash’s institute has been offering classes around the country for people with hydrophobia. In 22 years, she has helped more than 2,800 people overcome their dread of the deep. Her technique focuses on psyche rather than swimming mechanics — something Dash argues is missing from other swim schools.

Apparently, many people agree. Last year, class revenues were up 32 percent over 2004. Sales of her instructional video, “How to Overcome Your Fear and Discomfort in Water, Shallow and Deep,” jumped 25 percent for 2005 as well.

If you think her brand of hydrotherapy is in short demand, think again. According to a 1998 Gallup survey commissioned by the Transpersonal Swimming Institute, 46 percent of adults in the United States said they were afraid of deep pool water. Thirty-nine percent said they were scared to put their heads under water. And 63 percent reported having a fear of deep open water, such as oceans, lakes and rivers.

Of course, it’s not just a national problem. People have come from as far as Brazil, Venezuela and Italy to learn Dash’s “Miracle Swimming” method.

Most swim teachers are either unaware of the pandemic or don’t know how to treat it, according to Dash. “There is a common belief held by most swim instructors that if you’re afraid of water, you just need to learn how to swim, and learning how to swim will take away your fear,” says the former American Red Cross swim instructor. “That is a completely incorrect belief.”

For years, Dash has tried to get that message across to people in her line of work, but she has met with some resistance. She’s made numerous attempts to sell her method to the Red Cross or YMCA, who question its merits. “I think they feel they’re the only people who know how to teach swimming, and you can’t teach them,” Dash says.

If she’s not getting the attention of the industry, she’s certainly getting it from the public. In January, she appeared on NBC’s “Today” show for a piece about New Year’s resolutions. She’s also been featured on “CNN Headline News” and has had 25 articles written about her company. Foreign interest has been stirred as well, with London’s Independent TV One licensing a five-minute segment from her video for a self-help series that will air this year.

Furthermore, her book, Conquer Your Fear of Water: An Innovative Self-Discovery Course in Swimming (AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Ind.), was just released in January. It outlines the methods applied in her beginning course. Dash believes it’s a significant step toward raising awareness of hydrophobia and garnering more acceptance of her ideas industrywide. — Joshua Keim