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May 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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“This Industry Isn’t Run By Divers Anymore”

reader feedback from sport divers and industry professionals

from the May, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the March issue, Undercurrent contributor Bret Gilliam wrote “A Personal Perspective on Dive Innovation,” about whether the dive industry has run out of new ideas. His take: Yes, it has, and it needs to focus more on attracting younger generations into the sport and less on tail-chasing each other’s products without any real advancement (his entire piece is available to read for free on Undercurrent). Since it was published, Gilliam told us he received nearly 200 e-mails, all from divers who support most, if not all, of his position. Here’s a few of the comments.

Dear Bret: As a fellow instructor, I have certified over 2,000 divers and gone on to run a small dive travel business. I agree with all your conclusions. At first glance, it appears the industry has benefited the sport by adding new divers, but they have actually watered down the sport to get individuals into it who might not otherwise be able to handle the swimming skills. Not only has this affected the safety of the sport, it has cooled down the macho factor so that diving no longer attracts adventure seekers. “It’s too safe” might be the cry of those who are turning to bungee jumping or dirt bike racing or . . . ? It’s the sport of old farts and kids, isn’t it?

Another trend that will negatively affect the sport is the use of technology, to the detriment of dive classes. I see students going online or using videos for the lectures instead of meeting with an instructor-led group. Then the student goes to a resort, where they practice a few skills in a pool and do some checkout dives. Often, the resort tells them not to bother buying equipment, as they can rent it at the resort and won’t have to pack it on the trip. This leaves the local dive shop completely out of the picture. No loyalty means no commitment. These divers own no gear, have no local contacts and only think about diving in relation to a yearly vacation. Forget any local diving or dive clubs or contact with dive shops.

- - Roger Dunton, Scotts Valley, CA

Dear Bret: Being a vacation-only diver for over 20 years, my wife and I still own the same small and narrow set of fullfoot fins that we rented, liked and bought on Bonaire 20 years ago. I never had a problem with going fast, even if I had to keep up with an eagle ray for good photo shots. Looking at tremendously overengineered fins on some divers, I always wondered where are these people going to swim with them? To Venezuela? I remember going back to the boat against strong current off Saba - - I was the first at the mooring line. This year I “splurged” and decided to replace our tank bangers with those Scuba-Alert buzzers. None of them worked, so we happily banged when there was something to bang about. This is real rocket science? I am lucky to own a 17-year-old Oceanic Datasport Computer, the one with the green/yellow/red graph and huge digits. I can actually see it. Not so with my Citizen dive watch.

- - Michael Zagachin, Peabody, MA

Hi Bret: I used your recent article to fire up the troops. Several of our product-development team read it and came back to me with genuine disagreement, or was it anger? Maybe it’s because I personally get involved in product development, even testing equipment, but it’s probably more because their responsibility is innovation of our products, and they felt you took a stab at them. Anyway, I agree with you. The dive business has been lacking innovation lately, at least the big game changers. I’m pushing our team to think innovation all of the time, and they’ve put some really good ideas together. Some are in the works and others are pipe dreams. Some are outside of diving. Your article could be the stimulus to pull these ideas off the drawing board and onto the work bench.

- -Name Withheld, manager at a major dive manufacturer

Dear Bret: I am a product of the 70s who once wrote Dick Bonin a letter, thanking him for changing my life with the innovations he introduced. The most memorable day was when Mike O’Connor walked into the dive shop I was employed at, dangling a Pilot regulator from his right arm. To touch it was almost like magic. It seems that every product Scubapro created then (except the NautilusAtPac copy) leaped the existing technology. Computer microprocessors and pilot-valve second stages like the Tekna were innovative products, not merely cosmetic, such as the Sling Shot fins touted today. Your article rekindled the excitement of seeing great new equipment for the very first time.

- - Steve Bijou

Hello Bret: I too believe the industry suffers from fear of innovation. However, here are examples of innovation and divers that build equipment for other divers. John Routley is a diver and manufacturer in the UK, among the most prolific innovators in the industry. Paul Raymaekers is the manufacturer of the Revo Rebreather - - there are now several versions of this innovative rebreather in use around the world. While it’s a stretch to call it affordable, it’s far from the $10,000 price tag on electronic rebreathers. The KISS rebreather is very established (I own one myself) and within the same price league as the Revo, approximately $4,500. Gordon Smith (RIP) really helped to open up the rebreather market to a broader population of diver. The Apocalypse rebreather is allegedly close to production at around $2,000, if it comes off as planned. Bruce Partridge manufactures dive computers and PPO2 monitors which are both innovative and functional. The creation of a venture capital fund to drive ideas with potential would be a major step in the right direction. Creation of a network of senior industry people to foster innovators would do wonders.

“Resort courses” were an interesting innovation. The problem is that it’s a pretty spur-of-the-moment decision on vacation that requires commitment to getting on a boat for a half-day to see pretty fish for 90 minutes across maybe two dives. Most people aren’t going to dedicate a day of their vacation to do it. My idea is to have a mobile resort course available at popular tropical tourist beaches. Tourists have traditionally thought nothing of paying $75 to $100 to jump from a crane with a bungee cord tied to them or to strap on a parachute to be pulled by a boat. Setting up a couple of young instructors with a trailer full of rental gear on the beach for the day would generate a ton of interest.

- - Paul Moravec, Blairstown, NJ

Dear Bret: In 2000, my wife and I did a 12,000-plus diver survey looking at panic. My research interest was spurred by my observation that the medical exclusion of students with a history of panic or psychiatric medication was all wrong. There was no objective evidence to back it up, and a few years later the rules were changed to include those divers. I had many patients with panic disorder and depression who never had problems underwater when their conditions were under control in treatment. Some divers have contacted me to say that diving helps their depressions. I agree with them.

- - David F. Colvard, M.D., Raleigh, NC

Hey Bret: As the owner of the largest Web site devoted to scuba, and subsequently the most widely read publication for the industry, I read your article with interest. ScubaBoard is the pioneer for scuba on the Internet, and we are doing our best to keep things fun and innovative. Your comment “Do we really need another model of split fins?” was spot on. Forget the fact that I still dive with Jet Fins; the fact is there is scant innovation in our industry. I was completely underwhelmed at DEMA last year. The “new” stuff was repackaged old stuff. DEMA has been replaced by the Web, though they don’t seem to realize it yet. There is probably more scuba business generated through the pages of ScubaBoard than at DEMA. I am an underfunded nobody and yet, by simply allowing divers to have a voice, ScubaBoard has forums dedicated to everything from solo diving to DIR, from the latest (not-so-great) gear to how to make that gear yourself. A few years ago I offered a free forum to any scuba manufacturer or agency that wanted it. No strings, just a real-time connection to the divers who buy their gear. It amazes me that a few manufacturers simply refuse to take advantage of this service. Customer service today is about fostering lines of communications to your end users that allows better service by answering a single question publicly than having to answer that same question a hundred times on the phone. It’s realizing the diving public no longer trusts the local dive shop to answer all their questions, because they already know more about the product than the shop does. The few who “get it” are reaping the benefits.

- - Pete Murray, founder of ScubaBoard.com

Dear Bret: Your recent article is to the point. Grzelka once told me that he asked his son’s contemporaries (when they were all teenagers) if they were interested in scuba diving. They responded they would look into diving when they were older and looking for less exciting things to do. Nestor Palmero once told me in the mid ‘80s that we had “safety-ed ourselves out of business.” It really is a shame that the industry is run by “people with certification cards” rather than by divers.

- - John Wall, Fairfax, VA

Dear Bret: The only thing dumber than split fins is the new camouflage-colored dive suits. Talk about an industry that’s run out of ideas.

- - Drew Rahaim, Wilmington, DE

Dear Bret: When I first got into the dive business, Oceanic excited me with its innovative ideas. With time came the hard truth of reality. If their submersible MP3 player didn’t break some new sales record in two years, it’s gone. Their Kirby Morgan (JMC) full-face mask - - gone. Lite Vision masks, likewise. I love my Zeta 2nd and now that’s out the window as well. I have to admit I have no idea what drives these decisions or why these products fell by the wayside before they even had a chance of being adopted by a cautious diver. Those that did are now left with a bunch of orphaned gear. I have been waiting for an air-integrated trimix computer but until then, I will be sticking with my DataTrans that has lettering readable by my aging eyes.

- - Joseph Sobczak, New Castle, PA

Dear Bret: I appreciated your piece in Undercurrent. Scuba diving is the only sport without a consumer association, except for local dive clubs. Back in the early ‘90s, I attempted to start the Scuba Divers Association (SDA) with the encouragement of Bob Gray, then DEMA’s executive director. I pulled together a good plan, lined up member benefits (insurance, travel discounts, etc.) and had a booth at the 1992 DEMA show. The Scuba Retailers Association recoiled in horror at the idea. They saw it as competition even though I assured them I wanted to work with their members to enhance the individual diver’s experience. No matter, they actively opposed SDA and it died. The time may have come again to resurrect the idea of an independent recreational diver association. It could help encourage recreational divers to continue diving, encourage the manufacturers to innovate and rally divers around the ocean environment cause. Ben Davison’s newsletter and website could be a catalyst. I realize recreational divers are an independent lot and that diving isn’t a competitive sport but I still believe there is enough shared need and interest to merit an association.

- - Bruce Butterfield, Vienna, VA

Hi Bret: Great piece. It used to be that many of the leaders in our industry didn’t have time to dive but they still loved it when they got the chance. Today it seems they’re not even interested. They couldn’t care less if they were selling widgets or fins, as long as they make a sale.

- - Alex Brylske

Dear Bret: Dive computers should be much cheaper now and not the cost of a desktop computer. And the cost of fins, snorkels, BCDs and other products make it harder for the “average” person to buy or replace gear. So I guess in order to keep profits up, the dive industry raises prices to make up for the decline in demand! The same is happening with dive travel, dive resorts and liveaboards. Prices keep going up and the new, average-income diver finds it only within his or her means to travel to nearby, inexpensive weekend trips.

- - Ron Bailey, Roanoake, VA

Dear Bret: I am an independent scuba instructor trying to use all of the technology to get folks interested in diving. Why do things cost so much? Why is everyone leaving in droves? I am trying to capture five percent of a shrinking and very competitive market. I get no help from anyone, especially DEMA. I am on Facebook, MySpace and Windows Live. I have Twitter, and I “Digg” articles constantly. But still the twentysomethings think, “Mmmm.. ok, but only cause I have nothing else better to do.” I would love to run a virtual dive shop and harness the power of the Internet forum for questions, eBay for sales, Craigslist for selling used gear, and instant-messaging services on Yahoo and AOL for providing excellent customer service. YouTube should be providing the training before we hit the pool. There are no cool video games of underwater action. Everything cost a fortune. The biggest complaint I hear is, “Wow! I can play paintball for 50 bucks, what’s up with you?”

- - John Day

Hello Bret: I have a 16-year-old boy, and I certified him almost six years ago. While he enjoyed those first dives, the idea of having to get up early, pay attention to what’s going on, and realize there’s a big difference between the virtual world and the real one seemed too big a challenge (not to mention the draw of being yet another rock star). And he is magnitudes ahead of all his friends. At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, I just don’t think most twentysomethings have what it takes to really connect under the waves. Staring blankly at a buzzing laptop and catching flies with those slack-jawed faces seem to be more in line with this generation.

- - Joseph C. Dovala, Thousand Oaks, CA

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