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September 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Are You Diving Less These Days?

why divers are making few trips or quitting altogether

from the September, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Diving has changed over the years, as have we divers, but it seems like the sport, and many who have participated in it, are parting ways. While scuba was once a fresh, exciting and less expensive pastime -- and for most of us, it still is -- we're finding that it has lost its luster for many.

While I have long pondered the reasons why people dive considerably less or even drop out, I became especially interested when I received an e-mail from Undercurrent subscriber Bobby Marie (Mableton, GA) earlier this summer. He wrote that he was renewing for another year because "I have saved tons of money by living vicariously through the travels and reports of your writers. I personally, however, don't expect to dive anywhere farther away than a couple hours' flight from Atlanta, if I dive at all. While I am proud of my underwater history, I have essentially stopped diving. I would be curious as to why other healthy, long-time divers have decided on their own to stay home and why."

So I put the question, "Why have you stopped diving" to readers of our monthly e-newsletter a couple of months ago. I was surprised at the number of responses I received. Of course, one obvious reason for giving up diving is for health reasons -- our readers are primarily an older bunch -- but there were plenty of other reasons, and readers made some unique points about why they're hanging up their fins.

For many seasoned divers, a general sense of ennui has set in. Phillip Alspach (Boulder, CO) says he is bored with the "same ole, same ole." "I've been diving since the 60's, traveled the world and have dived at many of the 'best' places in their prime; now I am generally disappointed in what has happened to the locations, the beaches, the industry and our oceans. Call it a change of life, a mid-life crisis, I don't know. It's not as much fun as it used to be -- too many people, too much effort, too little fun, too little return."

Travel Hassles and Heartaches

One reason cited for cutting back or giving up diving is the increased hassle it takes to get to any dive destination. Crammed airports and planes make travel a no-fun experience, and prices, especially to the Asia-Pacific region, are sky high. For Denise Kalm (Walnut Creek, CA), that's the prime reason. "Air travel sucks. Between the trouble of trying to get a decent rate (and forget trying to cash in my millionplus air miles to make it cheaper), the TSA, and then the long flights in increasingly uncomfortable seats, it just seems too difficult to go to great places like Palau."

The weight restrictions for luggage are also affecting divers. "My husband and I do not dive as often as we did because of the hassle with airline baggage allowances," says Wendy Mcgeown. (Ipswich, U.K.) "We like to take our own equipment, and we used to be allowed a free 20 pounds for each piece of dive equipment. Not anymore." She says the cost of paying for standard luggage, dive gear and the overall ticket price to a decent destination is just too much.

And, of course, the price of resorts and diving continues to climb. While there are still decent bargains to be found, some of the old standbys are no longer with us. Kalm mourns the loss of good liveaboard pricing. "Some of my favorites, like the Nekton line and the former Aquanaut Explorer have ceased operations. The ones that are left are pricey, so I only do them rarely."

Development has also besmirched much of the tropical paradise we once loved. "Cozumel used to be wonderful -- loads of local restaurants and quiet streets," says Kalm. Now, with many cruise ships there, it has all the overpriced jewelry stores, more chains and less of the local feel. I see this happening to Isla "Mujeres and Ambergris Caye -- big chain hotels come and wreck the environment." Like many of us with fond memories of "the old Caribbean," she laments the growth, but then a great majority of the local people love the greater income it provides. We travelers often survived on the backs of the poor.

"The more I dive, the more my standards are rising, but the cost and the hustle of the 40-hour trip to Indonesia is just not as attractive as it used to be."

For others, the Caribbean is just tired, the reefs are fished out, and it's no longer a value. "After seeing what I saw in the 60s through the early 80s, it's sad to see how depleted the ocean has become of large creatures," says Ken Labarbera (Grass Valley, CA). "Now, lots of dead reefs and polluted water." On a recent trip to Utila, Lynn Powers (Brooklyn, NY) was devastated to see "acres of what looked like a reef grave site, bleached-out dead coral all around. Interestingly, new divers were so psyched. I too was once that new diver who thought seeing one or two turtles was the greatest thing when divers in the 70s would have seen schools of them. Now it's just too depressing to be fun anymore."

Michael Redberry (Sacramento, CA) has been diving for 25 years, starting first with Grand Turk and then Little Cayman before he discovered Fiji. "I went to Provo after that. It was a waste of money. I do not see myself going back to the Caribbean. Palau and Raja Ampat maybe next, but the cost of these remote dive trips keeps rising much faster than my bank account. Twenty years ago, Grand Turk was dirt-cheap. A week on the Nai'a and five days in Lalati this year cost the same as my new Honda Accord. I think the more I dive, the more my standards are rising, but the cost and hustle of the 40-hour trip to Indonesia is just not as attractive as it used to be."

Undercurrent readers are frequent travelers, but as diving quality slips, other places beckon, some that may not even have a body of water in sight. Nickie Nelson (Salt Lake City, UT) is one of those travelers. "There are a lot of places in the world I have yet to see that are not associated with diving. I've already booked a trip to Russia next year."

Medical Hazards and Headaches

Few readers wrote to say they were feeling too old to dive. But Norma Goldberger (New York, NY) says one reason she stopped diving is because of a medical condition she developed due to her diving. "I used to love to go diving two or three times a year. Now nothing. Why? I developed a stage 1 melanoma on my neck which my dermatologist said was due to the sun reflecting off the water onto my neck. Presumably this was from bobbing around on the surface of the water waiting to be picked up after a dive. My husband and I were slow breathers, so we were always let off the boat first and picked up last once the divemasters knew how little air we used." At age 67, Goldberger believes age is another reason why she and her husband are slowing down. " I blew two discs while gardening and now am worried about the weight of the tanks on my back and whether or not I would twist my body under the water, which could result in walking issues after the dive. And the weight of my equipment -- dragging it in and out of the car, airport, resort, etc. Maybe snorkeling will suffice."

Rich Erickson (Marietta, GA) has no medical issues, but he is honest enough to admit that he just feels too out of shape. " I'm 66 and frankly in the worst shape of my life. Too much eating and vino, and not enough exercise have taken their toll. I don't feel safe or comfortable to go diving in this kind of shape. I am resolved to do something about it, though. I've begun to ride my bike on a regular basis and hope to lose 30 pounds in the process. When and if that occurs, I'll be back in the water." Good luck, Rich, and we hope you get wet soon.

For many divers, the b.s. at many resorts about medical issues and liabilities is just too much. Even if you're healthy now, checking any "medical condition" box on the liability form at a dive destination can be a time-waster or even a diving deal-breaker. Roger Addis (Edwards, CO) had an emergency bypass surgery in 1988, due to an error during a routine heart test. "When people hear heart surgery they seem to assume I had a heart attack. I didn't, and this is stated in my medical reports. I am 66 years old but my medical test results would be average for a 40-year-old man in good health. I have letters from my cardiologist and regular doctor, and the PADI medical form stating I am fit for recreational diving, and I travel with these documents. Whenever I would book a trip, I would always contact the dive operator and provide my medical history. The problem I have run into is when I arrived at the dive destination, I was told I could not dive or that I must go see their doctor to be examined before diving . This could take as much as two to three days. By then, the dive boat would be long gone or most of the dive week was over. I cannot take the risk and expense to travel for diving if I know there is always the possibility of being told I cannot dive."

"It started in the early 90s, with the big rigs taking over dive boats. Now, those of us who do not 'shoot' are shuffled off so the camera wonks can have their moment."

Too Many Rules and Divers

Bobby Marie, who wrote the letter that started this article, says one reason he doesn't dive is because the industry has too many rules. "They have dumbed down the experience to a restrictive environment so that it's not enjoyable anymore." The other problem is divers with cameras. "It started in the early 90s, with the big rigs that began to take over dive boats. It has gotten worse so that those of us who do not 'shoot' are shuffled off to the background so the camera wonks can have their moment."

For Stephen Garriga (Atlanta, GA), there are just too many lousy divers around. "Air-hogs who blast through their air, then complain about waiting for other divers to return; cruise-ship passengers who arrive late but demand to be back on time; selfish wannabe photographers with no buoyancy control who snapand- silt everywhere. Perhaps I'm just old-school, but the level of the average diver seems to have dropped."

David Skinnell (Los Mochis, Mexico) says diving is literally for amateurs now. "Diving has become a box to tick while on your vacation or your cruise, and has the same importance as parasailing, or falling asleep on the beach and getting sunburned. Divers are less competent because they are churned out of diving 'factories.' Dive operators run 'cattle boats,' cramming as many divers (read: "dollars") on to boats as possible. Many of these boats insist on bottom time for the entire group being determined by the diver who uses air the fastest. I have even had some operators say going in that this dive will be limited to 'X minutes.' This is because not only are they maximizing the number of divers on the boat, they are also maximizing the number of trips in a day, and to get them all in, they need to time limit each trip and visit only the (usually over-dived) sites closest to the marina. Diving has become too much of a business, fueled by dive organizations whose interest is in producing volume to drive the bottom line."

Fewer Dive Buddies

A shrinking industry means a smaller amount of divers out there. That makes it tough for divers who want to travel to find those who want to accompany them. Ever since her local dive shop closed, Mary Wicksten (Bryan, TX) says it's difficult to find dive buddies. "Like many other shops, they weren't selling any gear -- people came in, tried it on, and then ordered online. We used to have a club with local activities, but the nearest shop to me now is a two-hour drive one way. Freshwater diving in Texas actually can be quite good, but some people are too fancy for that. Many divers prefer to go on exotic vacations once a year instead of keeping up their skills by diving locally. A lot of people dive once on vacation after certification and then quit. I can't even tag along on a practice dive with beginners anymore."

Divers lacking dive buddies are also discouraged due to the money-sucking "single" supplement. "It's more difficult to go diving with friends, as it is hard to match everyone's schedule," says Vichit Thitiratsakul (Bangkok, Thailand). "But when I want to go diving alone, I have to pay 40 to 65 percent more for single accommodations. I don't want to stay in the room with someone I didn't know before, but my own room is too expensive."

"Though I'm fit and able, one of my buddies is no longer fit, and the other is broke," says Jonathan Creighton (Oakland, CA). "I'm just not psyched to go by myself and get matched with some random buddy."

Many younger divers are dropping out, solely because life gets in the way, especially kids. "I traded my regulator for two wonderful boys, and I don't regret it," says Gregory Leiby (Greenville, SC). "More than anything, it is the time required for diving. Even if I bring my family on a dive trip, I am not interacting with them the same way I would if we were on the beach or at an amusement park."

Ken Oppenheimer (Corte Madera, CA) also gladly gave up diving for his nine-year-old twins, "but I will be back in the water with them when they are old enough for certification."

Here's to hoping Ken, Gregory and other diving parents can get their children to take up tanks and regulators. For the dive industry to survive, an infusion of fresh blood will help. But with climate change, overfishing and other pastimes competing for attention, is that possible? If Undercurrent readers, who are passionate about diving, are dropping out now, what hope is there for a younger generation to replace them?

That's an issue the dive industry is grappling with. Environmental degradation and skyrocketing costs are largely out of the industry's control. But other issues -- providing better opportunities for experienced divers, organizing travel clubs, making diving more affordable for single divers -- can help keep people interested. New underwater activities -- promoting reef ID activity, dive caching and creating artificial reefs -- are helpful.

But the old days have passed. While we hardcore divers continue to find the means to travel to warm-water destinations and get our jollies underwater, the truth is that dying reefs, development, mass marketing and accelerating costs are industry problems that will not go away. For our Undercurrent readers, we will continue to search for bargains and easy-to-get-to yet out-of-the-way places, and provide as much help as we can to keep excitement high and costs low.

- - Ben Davison

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