Under The Sea: Scuba outfitter offers the chance to dive into Gulf waters

Lance Shearer

Like a turtle swimming in the sea, Marco Island is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico. Most of us, when we consider the Gulf at all, focus on where it washes up onto the island’s beaches or utilize it as an aquatic highway to other islands or perhaps drop a fishing line into it.

But it’s possible to “drop in” to the Gulf ourselves and experience firsthand where the fish hang out while waiting to be lured into taking our bait. This is where Scuba Marco comes in.

Scuba Marco is the island’s first and only scuba outfitter and dive shop. Since 1998 they've been helping residents and visitors get underwater and certified to dive. Co-owners Jeff and Jessi Dawson run a full-service facility, offering certification classes and regular dive trips to a variety of dive spots in the Gulf.

Divermaster John Blake tells his divers what to expect while the boat is heading out. Scuba Marco offers divers the chance to experience scuba diving at reefs and wrecks right off the island's shores.

The dive trips start and finish at the dive shop, located around the corner from the Snook Inn. The shop also carries a full line of dive equipment, as well as accessories such as T-shirts and rash guards, many of which feature Scuba Marco's logo and “Psychquatic,” the outfitter’s customized 32-ft. dive boat.

On a recent morning six divers, Captain John Vitielo and divemaster John Blake headed west 12 miles to a pair of dive spots in the Gulf. The process of suiting up and preparing to submerge yourself 40 feet or so under the surface is technical and exacting – you want any issues to come up before you go down.

With all the recent publicity of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the parallels between scuba and space exploration are noteworthy. In fact, astronauts train extensively underwater, especially for spacewalks, and in addition to the similarity of breathing in a non-air environment, scuba diving gives a feeling of weightlessness.

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In each case we rely on technology to enable us to exist in an environment in which an unprotected human would not be able to – although astronauts don't have the comfort of knowing that above their head, if they allow themselves to rise up slowly, the surface and lungsful of air are available.

First time diver Marissa Hrwatzki shows her enthusiasm. Scuba Marco offers divers the chance to experience scuba diving at reefs and wrecks right off the island's shores.

Divemaster Blake – a bear of a man who's certified as a master dive trainer instructor, meaning he's qualified to teach advanced diving techniques to those who diving – managed to impart all the necessary information and ensure each diver was ready and safe while keeping the atmosphere light and the vibe fun.

The divers had a wide range of experience, from one who had been scuba diving for decades but hadn’t been out in a couple years, to Marissa Hrwatzki, who had never dived before that morning in the pool, and was doing what Scuba Marco calls a “discovery dive” or “dive in a day.”

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The Achilles’ heel of diving in the Gulf of Mexico is visibility, or what the shop calls “the viz.” Diving in the Gulf is not the same as the Keys, the Bahamas or the Caribbean, where visibility of 40-60 feet is common and sometimes exceeded. The shallow shelving bottom of the Gulf coast is more easily roiled by storms, and summer brings a lot of them.

“We were hoping for 20 feet viz, but it was more like 10 to 15,” said Jessi Dawson after the Psychquatic returned to dock.

Danielle Donatelli tries on a mask in the dive shop. Scuba Marco offers divers the chance to experience scuba diving at reefs and wrecks right off the island's shores.

Other divers quickly disappear into the murk, and at one point Blake,, who has 22 years of diving experience, tied off a line to the wreck of a shrimp boat and had his posse follow him along it. Sometimes the visibility is better, and occasionally a draught of Caribbean water seems to flow into the area, but in general you won’t find the gin-clear water scuba divers travel to the Caymans or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to experience.

Those spots are not here, though, and the Gulf is. Even though last year’s red tide and algae blooms devastated many of the area's sponges and soft corals, there are still things to see along the bottom. Dive spots along the Gulf coast are artificial reefs and wrecks – anything that breaks up the otherwise flat bottom and provides cover for fish.

“It’s like an oasis in the desert,” said Blake.

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They give the dive spots colorful names like “Bubba,” for the shrimp boat (think Forrest Gump) and “Rocky Road” for an agglomeration of stone deposited from above as an artificial reef.

On the trip divers saw a massive Goliath grouper, jackknife fish, what was either a squirrelfish or a sheepshead, bait balls and numerous hermit crabs in the shells of other creatures.

A porkfish photographed at the rubble pile dive spot during a dive in May. Scuba Marco offers divers the chance to experience scuba diving at reefs and wrecks right off the island's shores.

After two dives, the divers enjoyed fruit such as grapes, cherries and pineapple chunks, candy bars and iced (non-alcoholic) drinks, all provided by Scuba Marco. Danielle and Gustavo, visiting from Brazil, recorded their whole dive with their underwater video camera. Other divers came from Gainesville, Cleveland, Ohio and Chicago.

“It was so much fun,” said Kylie Johnson, though she added that her stomach was a little unsettled between dives. “This was my first ocean dive, and I feel fantastic, like I accomplished something.”

For more information on Scuba Marco or to book a trip, visit scubamarco.com or call 239-389-7889.