Like other local business owners, the operators of Long Island dive shops and dive boats expected to get hammered by COVID. But instead the pandemic has provided a boost for an industry that had shrunk in recent decades.
"I was pleasantly surprised that COVID turned out to be a good thing for Long Island diving, especially on the East End," said Barry Lipsky, president of the Long Island Divers Association.
Randy Randazzo, owner of Hampton Dive Center in Riverhead, said, "When COVID happened, we saw a lot of people move to the eastern end of Long Island." Like other shops, "we were closed for three months because of COVID in 2020 and when we reopened June 1 we were thinking we were going to struggle because of COVID. But to the contrary, we were busier than ever with local diving because we had all these people who were not traveling to the Caribbean or wherever like they would normally be doing."
Randazzo added that "our biggest challenge this past year compared to the year before was supply chain issues." Last summer the shop ran out of scuba tanks and wet suits. "They were on a freighter someplace," he said.
The supply issues depressed his equipment sales revenue, but the number of certification classes and local dive trips was up.
The dive center was able to run some of its international trips over the last year after canceling them in 2020. Now, he said, "Our trips are really taking off again. They are all full, and we’re not even advertising them."
Anthony Graves, a diver from Remsenburg, signed up his son Jay for a recent certification class at Hampton Dive Center for his 14th birthday present. "If the vaccine had not been available, we would not be doing it," Graves said, "but since we’re vaccinated and have had our boosters, we felt comfortable with it. It would have been difficult to take the classes with COVID prior to the vaccinations."
Martha Katz, owner of Scuba Network in Carle Place since 1992, said last year was the best she’s had. "I didn’t expect it because of COVID," she said, "but I think after one year of people doing nothing and the store being closed for several months, people wanted to get out and start diving. People realized that you don’t have to go away to see beautiful wrecks and marine life."
In the past year, Katz organized beach dives around Long Island, charters on local dive boats and trips to Dutch Springs in Pennsylvania, and she resumed her five annual international trips. "And when you start doing the trips, people start buying gear and doing classes to get certified," Katz continued.
Scuba Network’s previous best year was 1998. Katz said her business in the past year was at least "50% more." She said her shop certified about 200 people, at least 70 more than in 1998.
Ed Tiedemann, who has owned Tiedemann’s Diving Center in Levittown with his wife, Jeanne, since 1982, said, "Our demand has not really changed much. The 2008 recession hit us harder than COVID because then people didn’t have funds to do things."
Danny Rivera, owner for 10 years of Good Life Divers, now located in Lindenhurst, and co-owner of the East Moriches dive boat Sidekick since last summer, said, "Our certifications have been up. We usually did about 180 classes a year before COVID and now we’re over 200. Equipment sales during COVID were astronomical, up about 40%, especially with everybody doing local diving. We couldn’t keep things in stock, and it was really hard to get things in stock and shipping took longer."
Sidekick ran about 30 charter days last year and almost all of them were full. Rivera is hoping to do 40 to 50 charters this year.
Captain Ralph Towlen, owner of the dive boat Halftime, based at Shinnecock Inlet, has been running dive boat for 10 years off the South Shore. "Everyone was stuck at home, and there was a pent-up desire and the divers wanted to book a trip so we saw an increase in charters," he said. "They had the money they hadn’t spent on foreign travel so they showed up with new equipment and new enthusiasm to get in the water because they had missed the whole winter of diving."
The Long Island dive industry was particularly nervous about the onset of COVID because a greater propensity to dive in warm climates and competition from other forms of recreation had decimated the number of boats and shops. Divers in the peak years of the 1980s and 1990s could buy gear and take courses at 14 shops in Nassau and Suffolk. Two closed last year, leaving seven. In the peak years, divers had a choice of more than a dozen charterboats to take them to shipwrecks. Now there only four.
Industry leaders are hopeful that even when COVID is no longer an issue, the increased interest in local diving will continue. "I believe that they are going to want to continue to do this and not skip over Long Island and go to tropical islands," Lipsky said.