Sportsman Season is upon us again. Now, unless you live in Florida and are a certified scuba diver the previous sentence has no meaning to you. On the other hand, or fin, if you are a certified scuba diver, it’s the equivalent of all non diving holidays rolled into one. Sportman Season is a quick two day middle of the week window of opportunity where the general public is allowed to harvest Florida lobsters before the commercial boats head out and drop their traps. It’s a chance to grab some of the tasty critters by hand rather than paying outlandish prices at the markets…forget the fact that by the time you drop money for gas, food, lodging, booze, and equipment, those few bugs you catch will cost several hundred dollars per pound. No, this is all about the thrill of the chase. A chance to put all that scuba diving training to good use and catch yo self some tasty dinner.
But, this is not going to be a series on bug huntin’. We’ll talk about that another time. This series is going to be about something that was once near and dear to my heart, (Yes, smart ass, I
have had a heart). When I first moved to Florida back in 1978 all I wanted to do was learn how to scuba dive. It was a passion that I wanted to pursue throughout most of my childhood. I loved the old tv series Sea Hunt and eagerly anticipated any of the National Geographic specials with Jacques Cousteau. So, since it’s high noon in the scuba diving world this coming week, and seeing as how I live here in Key West, I thought it would make some nice blog fodder to write a few paragraphs about something that I was once so passionate about. This series will go through the weekend. I’m going to start with some of my personal history with scuba diving, my training, some of my dives, my career in the industry, and why I left. Then I’ll go over what it takes to become a scuba diver. What to expect when you sign up for a class. What you may need in terms of gear. And I’ll finish up with some tidbits on making a career in the sport diving industry. So if scuba diving is something you might be interested in trying either as a hobby or a career, sit back, have yourself a nice big ol’ lobster tail and read on…
So what is Scuba diving? Well, in case you didn’t know, underwater there is no air. Shocking, I know. And while that is fine for critters like fish, us humans don’t last too long without air. So for most of the centuries we have been on this planet, we have tended to stay above the water where there is plenty of air, at least so far. Well, being the curious species that we are, some people decided to come up with a way where we could actually go under the water and fiddle around. Early attempts involved diving bells and then eventually hard hat suits where air was pumped in from the surface but, these contraptions were unwieldy and difficult to use. So around the late 1930’s some guy by the name of Jacques Cousteau over in France started working on a way to carry an air supply with him under the water and breath naturally while he could swim around. He came up with the idea of using small steel cylinders that were capable of carrying compressed air and a device called a regulator which controlled how the air got from the cylinder to the lungs of the diver. The whole thing worked and was called Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus or Scuba for short.
Scuba didn’t become a mainstream sport right away. Some unpleasantness cropped up in the early 1940’s. During the war the military used Scuba extensively for things like planting mines, blowing up stuff, and generally being a pain in the ass to the enemy. Once all that mess was settled and the country got back to growing in a peacetime economy, for about 20 minutes or so, Scuba graduated to the masses in the form of the sport diving industry. Sport diving didn’t really take off until the 1970’s and blossomed into a decent size market. Places like Florida, California, the Carribean, and Hawaii were popular in particular. Florida had plenty of fresh water springs in the interior of the state where the water was fresh and clear all year round. And of course down here in the Keys, we have the only living coral reef system in the U.S. that parallels the islands about 4 to 6 miles to the south. These reefs were in fairly shallow waters of about 30 feet and had very clear water with tons of exotic sea life. As a result, sport diving operations began to spring up all over the Keys and today the islands, and Key Largo in particular, proclaim themselves to be the dive capital of the world.
As of right now there are probably over 100 dive operations in business in the Keys alone. The rest of Florida has several hundred more spread out over just about every town in the state. The sport diving industry is a big business in Florida and one of the top economic cash cows here in the Keys. So you can imagine how frustrating it was being some kid growing up in the mountains of central Pennsylvania where the only exposure to being under water was the town bully trying to drown your ass in the local swimming pool.
When I got out of high school and was getting ready to waste my time in college I searched all over the place trying to find if anyone offered scuba lessons. At the time it was the one passion I wanted to get into. I bought up any dive magazine I could find, (A magazine was a paper version of a website held together by staples and updated once a month. Stop laughing, I’m serious.) I finally found a scuba class that was being started at a local YMCA and signed up for it immediately but it was cancelled due to lack of interest. Not too many budding scuba divers in a place where carp and groundhog are considered surf and turf. I finally got very brief taste of what it was like to breathe underwater when a swimming class I was taking at college let every one have a try at the only scuba set up on the campus. There were promises of a future dive class but by then I was failing out and thinking about relocating to the south. Later around 1974 two friends and I scrounged up some money, borrowed a motor home and came to Florida for a vacation. We stopped in Daytona Beach for a couple of days and while there I came across an old dive shop open on A1A. It was like heaven to me. I drooled over all the gear and bought a mask, fins, and snorkel, even though this trip would be the only chance I had to use them. We buzzed down to the Keys for a couple days and I had a big time swimming off the beach at Bahia Honda State Park.
It would be 4 long years until I could use that gear again but I was hooked. I dragged that mask, fins, and snorkel with me when I moved to Delaware and I still had it when I returned to Daytona Beach to live in 1978. As soon as I was working and got some cash in I went back to that very same dive shop and signed up for lessons. The class ran twice a week for six weeks and finally we had our check out dives at a local spring. I got my certification card and I was officially a scuba diver. A couple weeks later I got to make my first ocean dive off the beach at Stuart where a trawler had sank the week before. The water was crystal clear and the boat was in about 20 feet of water. We had a great time swimming all around it looking at the stuff that was still there. One day, not long after, I was back in the shop looking around when the owner, a mean old bastard who was one of the first divers in Florida, said he was looking for some shop help. I jumped on it immediately and that launched my career in the sport diving industry. A career that would last for 9 years.
Had I known now what I didn’t know then, I would have shrugged off the job offer and moved on to other things. But I was young, dumb, (now I ain’t so young anymore) and had nothing going for me in my current job shoveling guano. The pay was less and the hours were going to be long. The first day should have given me a clue. I fixed a toilet and helped replace a water pump on a Gremlin. But I wasn’t just a scuba diver any more, I was in the industry.
One of the first things I learned was when you work in a dive shop, you do very little diving. My days were spent selling gear, repairing gear, cleaning the pool, filling air cylinders, and general shop duties. Once in a while I got to help with a dive class and even go to the springs to help with the check out dives. But finally, the owner got his new boat up and running and on Sundays we would pack up a van full of people and head south to Ft. Pierce where it was docked. From there we ran offshore about 6 miles to a reef system about 60 feet deep where we would do a couple of dives and go chasing lobsters when they were in season or do some spearfishing, which I loved. As for the diving itself I got into it pretty easy. Once under the water all the equipment you have to carry becomes nearly weightless. It’s almost as if you are flying under the water. On the surface is another matter. All that bulk suddenly weighs about 50 or 60 pounds and trying to maneuver on or off a bouncing boat is not a lot of fun. And since I was also working as mate on the boat I had to make sure all the other divers got out and back safely. Throw in some sea sickness ( I wasn’t used to the ocean yet), and it made for some unpleasant experiences. But under the water was different story.
When you get a nice clear day, meaning the visibility under the water is 30 feet or better, it’s spectacular. If you are on a vibrant reef system there is all kinds of things to look at. Coral heads, schools of colorful reef fish, and yes, the occasional toothy critter like a barracuda or a shark. But under the water, you are just one of the gang and provided you are careful, there is little danger involved. As long as you have the proper training and good equipment, sport diving is one of the safer sports out there. In the years I was an active diver I got to dive reefs, wrecks, springs, caves (just once, very scary and dangerous), and rivers. I don’t even have any pictures anymore to share but lots of good memories.
About two years into my budding career at the dive shop the owner walked in one day and announced he had sold the shop to new owners, a wealthy couple who more or less bought the place to run as a hobby, and I think to try to impress their parents. They were very wealthy with a nice place out of town where they parked their sports car and custom van in the same attached garage as their airplane. But they were nice folks and once we got to know each other we got along fine, other then they were stingy with the pay checks. But I stuck around and by now I had moved up the ladder to a semi manager position. This also meant I got to run some big trips like weekends to the Keys and Bahamas. These dive trips were a lot of work but the diving was spectacular. I got my first taste of some real reef diving off of Key Largo while later off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas I made my first wall dive. A wall dive is where you boat out to the edge of the shallow reef. You dive down to a depth of about 150 feet and dangle off a rope attached to a buoy on the surface. Below you the bottom drops off over a sheer underwater cliff and disappears into the depths of about 3000 feet. It’s one of the more thrilling dives a person can make in their lifetime. Your underwater time is limited to about ten minutes but it’s ten minutes you will never forget.
So I continued on at the dive shop for another three years. The owners built a new shop back on the mainland side of Daytona and we suddenly had a state of the art facility, instead of an old converted gas station where the old shop was. But I was getting restless. I took at shot at dive instructor training but failed and I had pretty much peaked at what I was going to earn at the shop. Then one day a rep came in from one of our suppliers and announced they had an opening for a rep in South Florida. It would mean moving to Ft. Lauderdale, and a lot of travel, but the money would be much better. So I took it.
The company sold hundreds of diving accessories by way of a delivery truck. I was given a large bread truck stuffed to the gills with all my wares and I travelled from West Palm Beach to Key West every two weeks hitting every dive shop to sell what I could. While I was still in the business though, I wasn’t doing much diving. Then, in 1984 I did something that would change my life completely…I bought my first Harley. I always wanted a Harley and it was pretty much second on the list after scuba. But now I found myself wanting to go riding on my days off as opposed to going diving. And while the job was paying well, and I was going to the Keys all the time, I was very unhappy living in Ft. Lauderdale. So when the guy who hired me quit his route, which covered the rest of Florida, I moved back to Daytona and took over his route. But by then, the bloom had worn off. I was getting more and more in to the world of Harley, especially living in Daytona, and I noticed they had a nice little motorcycle mechanics school in town. I was traveling way too much in a truck that was breaking down almost weekly. Finally, around 1987, I handed over the keys to the truck and left the dive industry that I had worked so hard to get into in the first place. I had been there, done that, and lived to tell about it. The thrill was long gone and maybe it was more because I was so involved in the industry that the passion had died. Here is a tip for all of you: Never make your hobby your career. You will wind up hating your hobby. It’s ok when you can do something that you enjoy for fun. Things change when you have to do it. I was out of the industry and later that year I signed up for motorcycle school.
I still dove once or twice a year when I got the chance. Mostly during the Sportsman season. I had friends with a place in Marathon and a boat and we would come down for virtually nothing, chase some bugs, and have a good time. But I was diving less and less. Finally around 1998, I had my two motorcycle wrecks and some surgery. The doctor warned me not to do anything that might re injure what he repaired. That killed the diving. I held onto my gear for a few more years but eventually I got rid of it and haven’t dove since. I thought that now since I am living in the dive capital of the world that I might get back into it. I even sniffed at a couple of job openings at some dive shops. But whatever passion I had back then for the sport is long gone. I still have my dive card, it’s good for life, and maybe with a quick refresher course I could get back into it again, but the desire is simply not there.
It’s a shame in some ways to not want to do something that you had such a desire to do before, but then the reality of what that was versus the dream of what you thought it would be are very different. Perhaps if I hadn’t got into the industry I might still be diving. A friend I’ve known since high school who took the dive class with me is still into it 34 years later. And who knows, the passion may stir again somewhere down the line. At least I can say I learned how to dive and had some really cool memories under the water, and lived to tell about them.
I didn’t mean to bum anyone out here who may be thinking about getting into diving either as a hobby or a sport. It’s simply the story of what I did in my life as a scuba diver. As for the rest of this series, no more about my sorry ass life. In the next post I’ll be talking about what to expect when you sign up for a dive class, and what sorts of gear you will need along with costs. Here is a big hint: Scuba Diving is NOT a minimalist sport.
See you at the next post.