Divers Gone Wild !

Fort Liquordale, FLORIDA – The 11th Annual Ocean Fest consumer dive show rapped- I mean, wrapped late – very late – into the night of Sunday, April 22. I’m listed in stable condition in a distant suburban residential setting out by the edge of the vast Everglades, but have had very little contact with my fellow Festers and so can only hope for the best…

After a bit of somber reflection I’ve accepted the proposition that my reputation is already damaged beyond repair and can suffer no more, and so I’ll now confess that I’d never been to Ocean Fest before this year. That’s right, never – but not for want of trying. It’s just that my beloved Fort Lauderdale, in springtime, is an obstacle course of licentious temptations. I was never able to surmount the beaches’ final line of defense: the howling, pounding, writhing, 180-proof bunker system of fortified bars, clubs and joints known as Las Olas.

But I digress. That, without having yet begun. Watch me now

Cordon off the finest section of white sugar beach, the giant palms swaying over brilliant turquoise Atlantic waters in a perfect tropical sea breeze. Invite over 100 of the top players in the dive, dive services and tourism industries. Check. Throw up a postmodern linear tent city of cool white linens, liberally scatter Weeki Wachi mermaids, and construct a perfectly functional swimming pool by a monster sound stage framed by towers of amps, speakers and projector lamps. Yes, the dive show where you can actually go diving! Light fuse and retire to a safe distance…

That’s what Ocean Fest organizer Neal Watson does every year. How to characterize Neal Watson? One unpacks the Louis XIV beryllium service from the hyperbole cabinet, and begins with the tentative sort: The Dean of Underwater…the Godfather of …. A top-shelf PR operative from New York City whispered her pet name for Neal into my salty ear: "…DIVE GOD, as he prefers to be called, heh-heh-heh…". If there’s anybody on this Earth who knows more about diving and the dive world than Neal Watson does, well, that person must be stashed away in a Guantanamo-within-a-Guantanamo. Neal Watson is the real thing, baby.

So, yes! A consumer dive show on a Fort Lauderdale beach during Spring Break in perfect subtropical weather would pretty much be just as Hollywood would do it. Only more so. Hollywood, my dear ones, is simply never equal to the imagination and verve of a brigade of divers. The stuff that went on at Ocean Fest – oh, no, you can’t make that kind of stuff up. One surprise after another.

The only thing that didn’t surprise me was the continuing dominance of freediving as the show engine, pulling the scuba and travel sectors along with its dynamism and growth trend.

I think that I myself first became aware of this phenom at the 2002 DEMA show in Las Vegas. I arrived on the last day, having been (as some Deeper Blue readers may recall) detained in the Dominican Republic by the dreadful and fatal incident at Bayahibe. The ’02 DEMA exhibitors seemed to me then to be generally dispirited, glum to a measure beyond that which Day Four Show Fatigue could speak for. Deeper Blue Publisher (and mentor) Stephan Whelan met me on the show floor and in his inimitable broadband way had me updated within an hour. Turns out the exhibitors were, in fact, singing the blues. It was the first major industry show of the post- 9/11 economic slump. Everybody had spent the preceding 11 months watching sales and profits evaporate even as future prospects dimmed.

Everybody, that is, except those with fingers in the freediving trade pie. They were grinning from ear-to-ear. Folks like Mark Laboccetta, the exclusive distributor of O.M.E.R. gear for North America, who told me his sales were up 60% or more. The freediving dollar numbers were not (and still are not) huge in absolute terms, but the shape of the growth curve bespoke high drama to anybody with an elementary understanding of exponents.

The ’02 DEMA show was (despite, and/or because of the Bayahibe fatality) hitched to the freediving horse. Freediving stars walked the floor like rock stars. And so it was at Ocean Fest 2007.

The broader dive industry has, of course, picked up a bit since the dislocations of the 2001-02 seasons. The manufacturers, liveaboards, resort operators and service businesses on the beach at Lauderdale seemed, overall, to strike a high note, accompanied by a major rather than a minor chord. The attendees (in robust numbers) had forked over $9 per head for admission, were filling PADI shopping bags with all manner of purchased goodies, and heading off well-ballasted port and starboard.

And the main attraction, the megawatt electromagnet that drew ’em in, was a freediver. The warp engine that powered the show up and launched it into the parabolic vector that climaxed so magnificently at the Dive Training Magazine wrap party, Sunday night at the magnificently funky Bahia Cabana: a freediver.

Not your garden-variety, run-of-the-mill freediver, to be sure. It was, rather, the Terminator: Martin Stepanek. A local boy. Well, he is a local boy now, having made Fort Lauderdale his home these past 6 years.

Fort Lauderdale is a town with many and various claims to fame, having been characterized as the Venice of the New World, the global capital of bare-breasted Spring Break debauchery, the dryer (so to speak) of the cocaine trade’s money laundry, the Gayest City in The USA, and Fort Liquordale. Among other things. On a more wholesome note, South Florida’s climate and outdoor lifestyle attract and encourage athletes and athleticism. The burgeoning film industry in nearby North Miami provides a healthy market demand for well-toned bodies, and looking good is just part of the South Florida thing. Everybody – everybody- is a member of a health club, and personal trainers are as ubiquitous as barbers.

And a local freediver is a local hero. Martin Stepanek gets recognized in public places. His picture was recently on the cover of South Florida Adventures, a glossy, well-produced extreme sports monthly popular among runners, cyclists, divers, kayakers, spelunkers, parachutists and the like.

Now that’s pretty cool! I recently met Martin for some hard training at a magnificent suburban health club owned by NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, and the staff and members went positively nuts when they recognized..Martin Stepanek! – a freediver, for Heaven’s sakes! The Guy on The Magazine Cover! This – in Shaquille O’Neal’s gym! One of us.

A freediver.

So Martin Stepanek delivered a couple of academic lectures on the subject dear to our hearts, but his static apnea demonstration was, arguably, the high point of Ocean Fest 2007.

Here’s how it went down:

A live radio show was in progress on the giant sound stage overlooking the DEMA pool, this latter a chest-deep above-ground affair perhaps 10 meters in length. The stage was cluttered with the infrastructure of monster rock bands and dominated by two Hawaiian-shirted DJ’s and their entourages.

The show segment before the breath-hold demonstration was an on-air belching contest. That’s right, you heard me: tipsy young ladies in the crowd were invited up onto the stage and offered the opportunity to belch into the broadcast microphones, for prizes and for the edification of the audience.

Martin began his breathe-up in the pool, clad in his Yamamoto foam competition wetsuit. There was no time for warm-up breath-holds. Just a five-minute vent, and go. AIDA Judge Douglas Peterson was in the pool with Martin as coach and spotter. Doug signalled the countdown to me, and I relayed it to the DJ’s on stage.

With one minute to go, one of the DJ’s was inspired to urge the radio audience to attempt a breath-hold along with Martin. I could spot the lawyers in the crowd – their ears twitched and they reached for their mobile phones.

The DJ’s and the Ocean Fest crowd counted down the final seconds, and down Martin went, a-float in the pool. The radio show went on, giant loudspeakers booming, DJ’s howling and the crowd going nuts.

At around 6 minutes into Martin’s breath-hold, one of the DJ’s began to joke that if Martin were to drown it would be great for the show’s ratings. His partner picked up the rap, and announced that the ambulances were starting their engines. High drama? Nah, slapstick comedy. Martin ended his breath-hold at 6:33. "I was feeling so comfortable", he confided later," I was sure something must be wrong with me so I decided I’d better stop".

It’s good to be the King. As Martin relaxed in the warm water of the show pool, husky stage hands began dropping mermaids into the water! The audience, the mermaids and the freediver were all well pleased.

By Sunday evening, as the exhibitors were breaking down, I wanted to kick myself for having missed this diving Woodstock all the years I lived in South Florida. I started going backward in time, in my head, hoping to discover I’d been out of town every year, on some world-saving mission, at the exact time Ocean Fest happened. Next thing I knew, I was being swept along by a streaming tide of exhibitors and others in a congenial, sociable mood. The current deposited me on a bar stool in the incredibly a propo Cabana bar, a pink wristband entitling me to infinite foodstuffs and a handful of tokens which a jolly bartender evidently confused for money, for he readily gave me tall cold ones in exchange for them, and all around me were divers, mermaids, singers, nymphettes… the ceiling fan rotated slowly under the thatched roof… a megayacht slid majestically by…another few tokens and another tall cold one…music louder…

Aahhhh.