Article and Photos By James Lapenta (unless otherwise noted)
This was my fourth year attending Beneath the Sea and, as stated in my column last month, I was hoping to get some answers to a question I was going to determine prior to the show. As with all great plans of mice and men, that didn’t exactly work out. Not because of a lack of good questions but due to time and show circumstances that approach just didn’t gel. Instead what I’d like to do is give an overview of what I observed as an attendee, vendor, and some would say -industry insider. I get numerous messages from those who seem to think that I can see into the inner workings of dive equipment manufacturers and suppliers.
In some cases, I do keep in close contact with those who make the decisions on products and have even had a hand in the development of some. I’ve been hired to write manuals and provide other resources. My opinions on products and policies have been solicited, but I am by no means tied into every manufacturer.
Over the dozen years or so that I have attended some type of show I’ve seen some changes in the dive shows in general. My first was a regional show about 12 years ago now that is no longer going. I’ve attended others that seem to be growing. The industry itself is going through changes in every area. Training, equipment, travel, and local dive sites are being affected by economics, policies of governments, climate change (yes, it is real and not a fake story), and lifestyle choices by those of us who dive.
Beneath the Sea has become my primary show. I am limited in the amount of time I can devote to events such as this by vacation time at my day job, time I need to spend from that training students, and finances for travel in general. In addition to the location being with reasonable driving distance, Beneath the Sea for me is about business in some ways as an instructor and retailer of equipment but it’s become more about something else. People.
I wasn’t crazy about driving into a promised Nor’easter this year and the potential of my one day a year in Manhattan being derailed by a forecast 15 inches of snow (which didn’t happen) but I was determined to get to New Jersey to see those I consider my friends. Even though I only get to see them one time a year, they are my friends and I would feel I missed out on a great deal if we didn’t get to have our deep 10-15 minute once a year conversation. I say this in all seriousness as only those of us who have this bond called diving can understand. Those in other activities that involve some kind of risk also understand the bond.
The show this year was well attended from my perspective. There were some no-shows among the vendors and others that have attended in the past, simply did not even book a booth. The big manufacturers definitely scaled back their displays. Product offerings were more limited and staff reduced. Smaller and specialty manufacturers in some cases followed this path as well, while others seemed to actually have more product on display.
One item of note in this area was lights. There were number of lighting providers for photography and video that attended this year with really diverse product lines. Photographers and videographers have many choices today. In those areas there were also several photo and video related booths offering housings and accessories.
Travel, as in many shows, was very well represented from local US diving to exotic locations. I saw booths for the usual suspects – Bonaire, Indonesia, Fiji, and the Maldives. What I also saw was Africa. There were also Arctic and Antarctic offerings for those with the means and thermal protection! Travel is big today at most shows and it’s not surprising. Many agencies and dive shops push it over local diving.
Another impression I received was the number of club-based diving activities in the New Jersey/New York area that are not present in other areas. Club diving is big in these areas and a couple people I spoke with indicated if it wasn’t for the clubs, they would likely not be diving. Not just for the comradery that a club generates, but from a purely logistical angle. One of my customers in NYC doesn’t own a car as many in the city don’t. In some cases, a club or friends provides the transportation necessary to get to a local dive site. The New Jersey Council of Diving Clubs and Long Island Divers Association provide valuable resources for local divers.
Beneath the Sea also is the only time I see actual diversity in person as relates to diving on a large scale. In my area minority divers are unusual. I see and train minorities, but they are few and far between. Not here. At BTS the historically African American “Aquatic Voyager’s Scuba Club of N.Y.”had no shortage of volunteers for the booth and minority divers of all types are well represented. In talking with some of them, it did my heart good to hear of some of the programs they offer to youths to get them into diving. Diversity is going to be key to survival of SCUBA and conservation efforts we make as divers. I highly encourage any of my readers interested in diversity in the dive community to look into NABS, the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. They have some great educational programs.
Speaking of education, in addition to the usual agency suspects, local groups and schools such as the Harbor School of New York is doing some great work with kids. Gotham Whale, Wisconsin Historical Society, the New York Aquarium, Historical Diving Society, New Jersey Historical Divers Association, the American Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, and agencies such as Diveheart Foundation and the Handicapped Scuba Association provide educational opportunities outside the traditional agency certification route.
The show also included some new products in the dive related arena as well as some spaces occupied by non-diving related entities selling everything from insurance to insoles for your feet to basement waterproofing. The decline of segments of the industry make it necessary for show promoters to go out and sell booth space. The need to make up for those diving industry entities that no longer exist or do not wish to take part in the show experience.
As I spoke with various attendees that consisted of new and not so new divers and dive professionals, I encountered a mix of wide-eyed wonder, excitement, and thrill at this new experience for divers and new instructors to a sense of subdued enthusiasm to downright pessimism at the state of diving today. Some were looking at the new opportunities for travel and experiences in exotic destinations.
On the other end of the scale were those who have come to the realization that extensive travel and exotic locations are just not an option for them. Flights, policies, finances, and family limit where they can go. Local diving is an option for many but in some areas those opportunities are declining as quarries close due to liability concerns, lack of support from local divers, shops, and instructors, and some owners deciding it’s time to retire.
Local sites without on-site dive managers are increasingly subject to local and state regulations, sale to private entities that then restrict access, and pollution. These concerns are all things that I’ve been aware of in my area and have heard about in others. Attending the show actually presented the opportunity to speak with actual persons about them and how they are being affected.
It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another to actually have an in-person conversation with someone. That’s something that dive shows offer to those who attend. It’s also something we should probably be doing more of with divers wherever and whenever we meet.
In summation the show was for the most part a good time and another good experience that I will do next year unless something changes in my work or personal life. There are stark reminders that this activity is experiencing some challenges and there will be casualties as brands come and go, consolidate, and as the dive community changes. Some will age out of diving as they find the risk/reward ratio just doesn’t make sense any longer. Others will find different interests as long as diving is portrayed as a “bucket list” item or just something to do on vacation.
In order for diving to survive, it is my opinion that we need to get young people involved more than ever. Diving also needs to be made “cool” again. In the 50’s and 60’s we had Sea Hunt and the Undersea Word of Jacques Cousteau. Now many of US are IN our 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Jacques Cousteau and Mike Nelson are names many young people don’t recognize. Even young divers are not taught the history of the activity and told about those who made diving cool.
We need to support those people, companies and shows that encourage young people to dive. We need to make diving more of a lifestyle for these new divers and less of a “thing to do” when they have a chance. That starts with quality training with a focus on skills and education over profit and fast turnaround. If we don’t do this, there may be no Beneath the Sea or any other show to attend in the future.
Dive Safe, Jim Lapenta