The Double Lives of Divers At The Long Beach Scuba Show
The woman in the second row at a seminar at the Long Beach Scuba Show was about to bring on a collective breakthrough. Her sun-bleached hair bobbed emphatically, mirroring the room’s agitation, as she voiced her desire to make a living out of professional diving. Low, then louder, “yeahs” rose from the back of the room when she appealed to the speaker with eyes like a homesick seal’s.
“But then I have my real job, which is keeping me from doing all of…this,” she said, gesturing toward the PowerPoint seminar, “I Want a Life on the Islands.”
The speaker, a course director in the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, nodded sympathetically in front of the crowd at the Long Beach Convention Center. Her past students had included financial engineers and insurance brokers who dumped their six-figure salaried careers to teach diving full-time in places like the Bahamas and Papua New Guinea. “And you can expect to make about twenty thousand a year,” she said. She paced a triangle. “Any other questions?”
Long Beach is famous as a departure point for dive boats heading to the magical kelp forests off Catalina Island, but the thousands of divers who descended on the waterfront this weekend stayed on land. On June 4 and 5, I accompanied my dad to the 24th annual Long Beach Scuba Show, a temporary mecca for anyone looking to buy, learn, shop, and try all things scuba.
It’s fairly common to meet diving families—after all, whom would you rather trust to share oxygen at the bottom of the sea?—but my dad’s entry into scuba happened rather haphazardly. At a time when my friends’ fathers were riding out their midlife crises in the Harley Davidson Club, my dad jumped into certification classes with me, citing a hitherto-unmentioned adolescent dream of becoming a marine biologist.
Well into his fifties and diagnosed with high blood pressure, he almost earned himself a place on the accidental death watch list (no, that doesn’t really exist) at our local dive shop. On the last day of our Open Water course, he jumped onto our instructor when his buoyancy compensator vest slipped off. We were half a mile out to sea. The instructor, scared out of his wits, let my dad pass without repeating the task.
Nevertheless, diving entered our repertoire as a sane-enough father-daughter activity, and this year marked our second time as Scuba Show attendees. The first day, I ambled along rows and rows of exhibition hall booths for two and a half hours. “America’s Largest Consumer Dive Expo,” as the Scuba Show bills itself, had enrolled more than 300 exhibitors showing everything from the latest dive gear to Melanesian vacation packages to bug-bitten dead eyes salvaged from wrecks.
Losing their heads all around me were respectable-looking attorneys and mechanical engineers and marketing representatives, whose longing to join the fortunate bottom-feeding few shone like signal lights as they caressed underwater camera housings and played with titanium dive knives.
Divers Alert Network president Dan Orr explained that the diving demographic was aging—that’s why these middle aged professionals made up a large portion of the acolytes. Recreational diving, as opposed to professional or commercial diving, caught on in the eighties, bringing in lots of young blood who have been strapping on fins, but also making money at “real” jobs, ever since. As a result, the 40-59 age group is growing fastest of all.
Tour operators are not blind to the emerging market. Eva Adan from the Philippine Consulate General knew that if they promoted their country’s tourism to divers, they could achieve their goal of “impacting not only the Filipinos but also the mainstream.” Though diving is not as expensive as sailing, say, or polo, certification costs at least $300 and your first complete dive outfit may push $2000. To many citizens of the countries famed for marine life, divers’ pockets come lined with gold.
But consumerism, though rampant, cedes to a mellower and more convivial spirit at the Scuba Show. Stan Waterman, a five-time Emmy winning underwater filmmaker and featured guest, named “connectivity” as the event’s special ambiance.
“This is an unusual show,” Waterman, 88, said in his last seminar of the weekend. “There’s an unusual vitality, a connectivity about this. It’s wonderful to be here and share with you these things I’ve seen…Through the magic we have, to capture this experience, is a great unusual joy I’ve had.” Many professional divers are inspired by pioneers like Waterman, whose documentaries on great white sharks have helped conservation efforts gain visibility and success.
Some of those conservationists lined the lobby just outside the exhibition hall. The Turtle Island Restoration Network, claiming a table for the first time, papered their surfaces with flyers about restored turtle habitats near Marin County. “We thought it would be a really great venue to reach people who care about expeditions,” said development director Erica Heimberg, talking over thronging expo goers and a nearby conservationist's guitar improvisations.
Inside the hall by the northwest wall, the California Wreck Divers highlighted conservation of a different sort. President Bill Wilson, manning a booth decorated with rescued artifacts, pointed to dented silverware and oxidizing portholes as he related the story of the diving club’s inception. He and his buddies had discovered a 300-ft sailboat sunk off San Pedro. Through microfilm research, they identified it as a Prohibition-era “pleasure barge” offering women and wine beyond the reach of the feds. Now in his seventies, Wilson appears unplagued by the problem of double lives, but he does have a prior one: his rigorous ocean training is a product of the military.
“Probably the best part is being able to paint with kids,” he said as he stepped back to evaluate blending on a whale’s back. Earlier that day he had held a paintbrush and taken pictures with pint-sized attendees painting alongside him. “I was inspired by Jacques Cousteau, he was my hero. After watching him I realize art is a powerful force for conservation.”
The Scuba Show realizes that art can bridge the long dry gap between divers’ workaday lives and the life aquatic, and uses it to bring divers together. Numerous presenters played rhapsodic sequences of super-macro photography, blowing up the remora or rockfish of divers’ imaginations to beluga-sized proportions. The pleasures of scuba are tactile as well as visual, but many a diver shared smiles while immersing themselves in the art exhibits at the back of the hall.
In the two years following my Open Water class, I grew too busy with college to dive, but my dad kept at it. He eventually earned an Advanced Open Water certification, and now the horror stories are good laughs over beer with the coaches. We met our former instructor Kris near the Pacific Wilderness booth and asked if any students had tried to drown him recently. None had, but in any case serious divers don’t feel sorry for themselves when such job hazards occur; as his colleague Jimmy emphasized, “It is a passion—there’s nothing like it.”
Reach Tiffany Tsai here.