Scuba diving has become a popular recreational activity since the 1980s, with three million certified divers worldwide. Scuba equipment manufacturers and trainers do not make much money from the pastime. The hotels that house scuba divers and travel agents that book diving trips make the most money.
Full Text :COPYRIGHT 1996 Forbes, Inc.
IN CENTURIES PAST, Hernan Cortez and Jean Lafitte plied the warm, blue Caribbean waters around Mexico's Cozumel island, but today's sailors are scuba diving yuppies.
Scuba diving, once an esoteric pastime, has become a $2.6-billion-a- year business, according to Cline Group Advertising, a Dallas-based scuba industry consultancy. There are around 3 million certified divers in the U.S., six times the number of the early 1980s; a third are women.
It all started when Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan invented the
Aqua-Lung breathing device in the mid-1940s. The sport caught on slowly. In 1954 someone coined the term "scuba" for self-contained
underwater breathing apparatus. In its early days the sport was dominated by macho ex-Navy divers, but it gained popular attention in the 1960s with the TV action series Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges.
In the mid-1970s a string of new inventions made the sport more user- friendly and safer. A scuba gear executive named John Cronin and an aquatics instructor named Ralph Erickson cofounded a course for teaching diving. Their Santa Ana, Calif.-based for-profit Professional Association of Diving Instructors now grosses over $50 million a year; its affiliated instructors certify nearly 70% of all scuba divers in the U.S.
It's a great sport for aging baby boomers. Grateful Dead guitarist and diving enthusiast Jerry Garcia launched a line of wetsuits before he died. Scuba diving is easier on the body than skiing or tennis and provides what Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine's editor David Taylor calls a "soft adventure."
"It's the only way I can get high anymore," says rock star David Crosby. Having undergone a liver transplant, he can't do booze or drugs, but says he dives to depths of over 100 feet to induce a body-numbing condition known as "nitrogen narcosis."
There's a touch of danger about diving that appeals to a lot of people in these sedentary times. "Twenty years ago people would cancel the trip if they heard there were going to be sharks," says Carl Roessler, a tour promoter at See & Sea Travel in San Francisco. "Now I have to guarantee that I'm going to put them in the water with sharks or they won't go."
Who's making money off this new mania? Not many people. Scuba enthusiasts spend only about $650 million a year on equipment, with the rest going for travel to the dive spots and for dining and lodging and boat hire. The typical scuba enthusiast dives only two to three times a year and is more likely to rent equipment than to buy it.
For this limited trade the nation's 2,500 dive shops must compete with tour promoters and resort operators who certify new enthusiasts at the resorts and sell tour packages directly through advertisements in scuba diving magazines.
New professional managers are entering the retail market. Dixie Divers, based in Fort Pierce, Fla., has franchised 12 stores. Sportsman's Paradise, a Miami chain with 6 stores, is trying to support large stores by offering in-depth inventories of skiing and in-line skating equipment as well as scuba gear.
In Houston, Doug and Judith Peters are consolidating the local scuba retailing market, having acquired or opened six stores for Sea Sports Scuba, with centralized repair and purchasing.
Chief beneficiaries, of course, are resort operators and travel agents. Ron Grzelka of Atlanta Scuba & Swim Academy built a $4.5 million wholesale travel business out of his scuba gear store. San Francisco tour promoter Theresa Detchemendy does $3.5 million a year in travel bookings for families through Rascals in Paradise, which finds things for the little ones to do while their parents go diving.
The fastest-growing part of the scuba travel industry is the "live- aboards." These are 100-foot luxury yachts that carry 10 to 20 divers in style from one isolated dive location to the next. Typical cost: $1,700 per person per week (not including air-fare). High-end dive resorts in Asia are also in vogue. (Forbes Inc. operates a diving operation in the Fiji islands.) Very popular among divers are the "big-animal encounters"--swimming with and photographing giant manta rays near Baja California, dolphins in the Bahamas or hammerhead sharks near Costa Rica's Cocos Island.
When Icons Clash
THESE ARE trying times for scuba diving's founding father, 85-year- old Jacques-Yves Cousteau. After his son Phillipe died in a 1979 seaplane crash, his eldest son, Jean-Michel, stepped in to help run the Cousteau Society, the New York City-based philanthropic organization that promotes eco-awareness. But Jean-Michel was ousted in 1993 in favor of his father's second wife and former mistress, Francine, 50, who has borne him two more children.
Since Jean-Michel's departure, the Cousteau Society has closed its
Los Angeles office, sold a New York building and laid off over a third of its staff. "When we started in the 1950s, no one had heard of the word ecology," Jacques sighs. "Today there are over 6,000 nonprofits devoted to ecology. We have to live with the new kind of life." Jacques and Francine are trying to raise $40 million to replace their ship, Calypso, which was hit by a barge last month.
Jean-Michel Cousteau has not simply dropped into obscurity. He has
become scuba diving's new icon, endorsing diving equipment, promoting a tour boat line and pitching snorkeling trips in the Bahamas. He founded an ecologically theme'd diving resort in the Fiji islands, the Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort.
His father sued Jean-Michel last fall to stop him from using the Cousteau name for the resort. "My son doesn't give a damn [about the environment]," Jacques says. "He's only in it for the money." Retorts Cousteau fils: "I'm just applying everything I learned from my father."
A Cousteau Society spokeswoman says they are close to a settlement.
Source Citation:Palmeri, Christopher. "Go scuba!." Forbes 157.n5 (March 11, 1996): 132(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 26 Sept. 2009
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