The Early Days of Dive Group Travel
Many early sport divers arranged their own diving vacations overseas or joined privately-financed exploratory groups for wreck or archeological diving.
By a pure coincidence I was in one of the first diving group trips ever offered commercially to members of the public. I only found out about the trip through acquaintances who are now in the Hall of Fame and the adventure was a transforming milestone that eventually changed my entire life.
In 1958 I became certified after several years of avid spear fishing. The YMCA instructor who certified me was Paul J. Tzimoulis, who later began a 35-year reign as publisher of Skin Diver Magazine.
Over the next few years I arranged vacations in the Caribbean for myself and my family, lining up tanks and boats to go diving by long exchanges of letters with hotels in the Caribbean. After several years of this, I called Paul at the magazine’s office one day and complained. “Hasn’t anyone organized this arranging of diving vacations into a business yet? Seems like an opportunity for some entrepreneur!”
He told me that a long-time travel professional named Dewey Bergman (also in our Hall) had just formed a company called See & Sea Travel Holidays to organize groups of divers for overseas vacations. Naturally, I called Dewey and signed up for the first departure he offered.
That turned out to be with members of the Underwater Photographic Society of San Francisco who booked to go in August of 1967 to Cozumel, Mexico. These were serious underwater photographers with an impressive arsenal of camera housings. I was impressed. Later, of course, many of these home-designed housings leaked during the diving—but they sure looked swell for the group photo!
We all departed on our itinerary, and I learned that both Paul Tzimoulis and Bob Hollis of The Anchor Shack dive store (Bob is also in our Hall) would be on the trip as well.
Dewey Bergman was a man of great style. In those early days, dive groups didn’t just go diving—they learned something of the country being visited as part of the itinerary. For our hardy group, this meant flying to Mexico City, taking in a bullfight, staying in a fine hotel and dining in excellent restaurants—and only then flying to Cozumel for the diving portion of the itinerary.
Parenthetically, over the following two years members of our annual Cozumel dive trips took trips to the picturesque Tulum ruins across the Yucatan Channel, to the ancient Mayan city of Coba and the major Mayan archeological sites at Chichen Itza. This is what I had always dreamed diving travel could be.
On Cozumel in those days there were only three hotels and a very few dive boats. We stayed in the Cabanas del Caribe and dove from the memorable Pez Vela (Flying fish). Over the years, many divers came to revere Captain Melissio and his trusty vessel. How many times over those early years did we lounge aboard the boat for that quiet hour of cruising to reach the colossal dropoff at Palancar Reef? We did three dives each day, many to depths not, ahem, sanctioned any more in the modern risk-averse culture.
However, we wanted to go down to the big black coral trees, the largest of which were at depths of 200 feet or more. In our enormous enthusiasm we explored the wall to whatever depths we could on each dive; looking back on it many years later we were doing some pretty extreme diving.
After a few days, my new pal Bob Hollis got me in trouble. Bob wanted to take one of our two dive boats and take off with part of the group, cruising South to dive the remote Chinchorro Banks. So, Bob took me aside and got me to be the spokesman for the idea. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why I was being so honored. Had to be my charm and winning personality. Uh-oh.
I was duly eloquent at the evening meeting, and Dewey finally caved--though I didn’t like the look in his eye. We began preparing the Pez Vela for our great adventure. Dewey didn’t speak to me for some time—obviously, I was the naive sacrificial lamb so Hollis could insist to Dewey that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
That night before our departure we went into town to the local dance hall and bar—another, uh, cultural experience. The music was sedate in the early evening, the young ladies and gentlemen dancing with perfect decorum, but things picked up noticeably when the grandmothers went home at 10:00 P.M.
At Midnight the mothers went home, and as I recall all Hell broke loose. I guess it all comes under the broad heading of “Getting to know the local customs.”
We piled into the boat before dawn and took off South. I remember in the darkness a line of giant thunderstorms with lightning flashes lighting up the entire sky. It reminded me that Dewey was really furious. Probably thinking about things like liability and insurance.
In the end, the cruising and diving were wonderful, the spirit of real adventure intoxicating. This was the life!! How could one work in an office when the world of international adventure was this close?
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