Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Bud Gray
In July of 2015, Bubbles Below, a mainstay in the Seattle scuba diving community, shut its doors to the dismay of many. Providing instruction, service, and travel in the region since 1994, the center closed due to owner and founder Bud Gray’s ordeal with cancer. Not one to call it quits, Bud has, in recent months, been hard at work reviving the business; through tenacity, grit, and appeal with the greater dive community, Bubbles Below is resurfacing.
Bud’s lifelong commitment to scuba service began in 1968 when he earned his instructor certification; soon after, he began working at dive centers in the greater Seattle area. During this time, he achieved master instructor and eventually worked toward a director position while also applying to be a deputy of King County, which he achieved in the late ‘90s. Wearing many hats at once, Bud also laid the groundwork for Bubbles Below.
“I worked with [King County] all those years and opened the store mid-day on… off-duty for the county and working for myself,” he explains. “All intentions were to keep the store till the day I retired but that didn’t work out. Come along about 17 years later, I was having a lot of problems even staying awake.”
Headquartered in Woodinville, Washington, within Seattle’s metro area, Bubbles Below was one of few dive centers in the Evergreen State to provide full service on dive gear and equipment. The center’s devotion to quality and detail opened avenues from other states as well, with divers from as far as Alaska and Illinois sending in gear via the mail to be serviced. Bubbles Below also served as a beacon and hub for the Puget Sound dive community.
“We participated in just about everything that would occur in the dive community… most of the dive shows, and in general, people came to me from all dive centers,” says Bud. “I didn’t go after their customers; I didn’t go after people who were there automatically. It’s the best thing not to do.”
Bud was diagnosed with liver cancer, which metastasized into bladder cancer and developed prostate issues. His health failing, he closed Bubbles Below to focus on recovery. His oncologists successfully removed the harmful tissue; though there is potential for the cancer to return, as of this writing, his doctors have not detected it.
Following these ordeals, and in the face of persistent physical issues, Bud strengthened his resolve and rebooted Bubbles Below as a service center operating out of his home garage.
Bud says of the experience:
“You can’t have the love of your life just go away. It’s hard to not go back and want to be there. I’ve talked with major dive industries to see if they’ve had openings for me… there were negative issues related to them and I couldn’t see it worthwhile. I got on the kick that it was about trying to do my own thing.”
“I started advertising to old customers and now I’m taking that to the next step. I want to promote it and get me a name online as well as getting people to know I’m back: people who haven’t found that out over three years… get them to bring equipment in to be serviced. Once the service side is active and effective, I’ll open up the next phase: travel and then teaching again. A lot of people have been contacting me about the next trip or if I have a class running. It’s amazing the amount who have contacted me for that – I sent them to the closest dive center to their home.”
According to Bud, the new venture is “pretty much full service” with a focus on regulators, buoyancy compensators, dive computers, and cylinders. Demand for his services has quickly flourished: a demand he hopes to meet as the business continues to evolve.
“The service we used to do is at the same standard at this point in time. We still service [gear] once a year and maintain them the entire year to make sure [nothing negative] comes up. That means if there’s a failure in the work that we do, we guarantee them for 12 months… what I can warrant based on the quality of maintenance on the product,” he says.
“We still bring in the quality of our work. Everything is bagged when we’re done with it; it doesn’t go back dirty. We replace all the seals and components: everything of value that could fail on a dive. [Even] that little o-ring dries and gets brittle and pops. Now you’ve got a high-pressure leak at 100 feet: not a good thing to happen! If we can’t do the full job, then I don’t want the full job.”
Once Bubbles Below bounds beyond Bud’s abode, he hopes to return to a brick and mortar operation: potentially back in Woodinville. Bud is currently researching demographics (average income, household size, property values, and other factors) and market trends in scuba diving to determine the best location. Simultaneously, Bud is working on spreading the word of his re-emerging business through repeat customers and an email campaign.
“I started out with all the customers I’ve had: over 6,000 names I’ve had for many years; about 4,000 of those names are still active in diving,” he explains. “I’ve had so many people contact me who haven’t talked to me in many, many years and who didn’t know what happened.”
A scuba diver, entrepreneur, and cancer survivor, Bud Gray is fighting beyond the physical and financial hurdles associated with his diagnosis; his tenacity reflecting the resilience of Puget Sound’s scuba diving community. Through his drive and skill, he is resurrecting his business, passion for the world aquatic, and his commitment to quality service. Bubbles Below has resurfaced.
For more details on Bubbles Below services, contact Bud at firstname.lastname@example.org.