The month of November sees the return of the international dive industry trade convention, the DEMA Show, to Orlando, Florida, USA. In a peek-behind-the-scenes conversation with Tom Ingram, Executive Director of DEMA (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association), Rosemary Lunn’s interview reveals an engaged, enthusiastic diver who is passionate about our industry and the business of diving.
"I usually try to dive if I am travelling—it gives me a sense of what the local dive operators are doing to teach their students and keep their customers active, and I consider myself fairly flexible with regard to how and where the dive is conducted. Safety is the main concern, but we have fun no matter what!"
— Tom Ingram
RL: Where did you learn to dive?
TI: I was born in Florida, and grew up in Miami. I was fortunate enough to have an older brother who became a ready-made and long-time dive buddy.
We got started in diving because my Dad was the manager of a Woolworth store on Miami Beach, and Woolworth’s actually sold dive equipment! As a result, Dad was connected to a local dive store, and we got “trained” to dive by one of the instructors there.
In 1965, I was all of 11 and “certification,” as such, was “kind of optional” for most divers and operators. At the completion of the “course”, we were presented with a little green paper card that said we were divers, but the course itself was pretty basic, involving mostly “self-study,” a couple of short pool sessions and diving off Miami Beach and in a rock quarry. The self-study itself was pretty short too—the book we studied was a thin green how-to guide called Skin and Scuba Diving. This was new at the time, and as I recall, featured a lot of Nemrod brand equipment. We also used the first edition of the U.S. Diver’s publication, Let’s Go Diving.
Sometime after receiving our “certifications,” we also discovered an early edition of The New Science of Skin and Scuba Diving—a much more comprehensive book. After reading that one, we found out how much we really didn’t know!
We bought equipment with our life savings (several hundred dollars judiciously saved after mowing neighborhood lawns and doing household chores). I cannot tell you how proud I was of my Mistral single-stage double-hose regulator and how long it took until I could finally afford a Mae-West style vest.
Eventually, I purchased a 1969 model Calypso single hose regulator, the last of the diaphragm first stage versions of that model. Later, I finally bought a tank pressure gauge and a capillary depth gauge. Luckily, in South Florida, wetsuits weren’t critical, but I eventually did buy a Parkway Sharkskin long sleeve jacket some years later.
Living in South Florida, a lot of our early diving was done in some of the local flooded limestone quarries, sink holes and marl pits nearby our house (complete with gators, snakes, and the occasional sunken car or other debris), off the beach in Fort Lauderdale and Dania (I saw my first shark there), and of course, in the Florida Keys.
We dove with several operators out of Key Largo. Later, when we could get a ride, we made the three hour trek to Big Pine Key, where we would rent a 13-foot open Boston Whaler with an outboard and motor. We would take it out to Looe Key Reef, seven miles away from the marina and what seemed like out in the middle of the ocean. Boy, did we get sunburned!
Eventually we bought a 1965 VW bug, folded down the back seat, filled the back to the brim with four scuba tanks and dive gear for two, and started driving to Key Largo and points south almost every weekend.
By far, one of my happiest moments in those early days of middle and high school was buying a camera and underwater housing. Looking back, that first set up wasn’t much—an Instamatic Camera and a housing that allowed the use of “flash cubes”—but it took pictures and it was fun. I even took second place in a school photo contest with a picture of a reef that was published in the school yearbook, using just that point-and-shoot system.
After diving for five or six years using that little green “certification” card, my brother and I decided to take a real scuba course from the local YMCA. The green card was becoming more problematic, as stores and dive operators started checking cards on a regular basis before we could get air or get on the boat. The YMCA course was pretty complete, lasting about six weeks.
Eventually, I found myself becoming an “advanced” diver, a PADI Divemaster in 1974, a NAUI Assistant Instructor in 1974, and a NAUI and PADI Instructor in 1976, as well as a NAUI Instructor Trainer in 1983 and a PADI Course Director in 1988. This was the same program that “Big Wave” Dave Reidenbach attended—in fact, this is where Dave and I first met.
Over the years, I was fortunate to work in retail, divemastering with six-pack and larger charter dive operations, early liveaboard boats, manufacturing, and of course dive instruction in stores and later in universities.
RL: “Divemastering with six-pack”—care to explain this in “English”, Tom? I don’t think you really said, “I went diving with six cans of beer.”
TI: Well, there was, most certainly, beer… but a six-pack in American “English” refers to a six-passenger dive boat. I spent a lot of time as a student doing weekend work as a divemaster and dive guide aboard those smaller boats in West Palm Beach, Florida and other places, too, and spent some time on bigger boats as well.
RL: What type of diver are you?
TI: I was involved with university dive programs beginning in the late 1970s through the early 1990s—first as an equipment repair technician and teaching assistant and much later as Department Chair. During that time, I tried (and taught) most everything, from open water to wreck diving, using nitrox and heliox (heresy in the early 1980s), rebreathers, and I operated the university’s recompression chamber both as an inside tender and outside operator.
I had access to an education in commercial diving at Florida Institute of Technology, so I went through the commercial diving program there, diving in nearly every commercial rig one can imagine. I spent weeks at a time in the Mark V helmet diving in zero viz, in harbors and the like. I also dived the Superlite 17 for a variety of tasks and used other surface supplied equipment, which were state of the art at the time.
As instructors, we regularly participated in deep and extended decompression diving in those days, and we had our fair share of sneaking into dive sites that were (at least theoretically) off-limits to most. We were involved in shark feeding and diving long before the advent of chain-mail suits, and before it became a commercially viable enterprise.
I was a geologist working in the mining industry before teaching at the universities, and one of my favorite places to dive was in the caves of northern Florida. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, I even did my senior thesis based on the geology and makeup of the caves and springs and taught diving there to put myself through school.
While teaching, we had our fair share of dives in the muck of the Indian River and in unexplored sinkholes around Florida. I was involved in sinking some of the artificial reefs/wrecks in the Martin County area in the early 80’s. In those days, I also worked summers with the Mel Fisher operation, managing the East Coast Shipwreck project, and was fortunate enough to be around during the time when the structure of the Nuestra Senora de la Atocha was located down in the Keys. I was always fascinated by history and relished the chance to dive on these shipwrecks.
One of my greatest pleasures was teaching underwater photography at both FIT (Florida Institute of Technology) and Barry University in Miami, which I did for about 15 years. Part of that experience was teaching commercial diving applications in ‘dirty water’, and I became pretty good at that. I also photographed my share of catalogs and ads and even had the opportunity to shoot pictures for magazine articles over the years.
These days I dive as often as (and where) I can. I live in San Diego and there’s great diving here, although it is different from the dives I did early in my career. Fortunately for me, my travels take me to some fun and interesting places, which have local/inland dive sites, and sometimes to places where I can ocean dive in warm and cold water.
I usually try to dive if I am travelling—it gives me a sense of what the local dive operators are doing to teach their students and keep their customers active, and I consider myself fairly flexible with regard to how and where the dive is conducted. Safety is the main concern, but we have fun no matter what! And since I intend to be around for a while, I have decided that I should stay more or less in shape and be conservative on my dives. But I am still up for a grand adventure where I can find one.
RL: What is your favourite piece of kit?
TI: It has changed over the years and has included photography equipment such as my trusty Nikonos III with a 15mm lens and SubSea 150 Strobe, to my Hans Hass DecoBrain—one of the earlier micro-processing dive computers.
When they first came out, one of my favorite pieces of equipment was my Scubapro Stabilizer Jacket—you know, the orange one that laid flat against your body? When I was weighted properly, this was the most comfortable and easy to use BC I ever owned. I worked for Scubapro for years, and when I left in 2000, the company made one of these for me (which, unfortunately was not made from the original orange material… but the design and fit were perfect). Along the way, I have always loved my extra-large Scubapro Jet fins and my Apeks and Scubapro regulators, too.
With the difficulties today of travelling with our favorite pieces of equipment, I have come to love my little (and highly transportable) GoPro video camera with twin Sola 1200 video lights. I have always had a passion for underwater photography, and while I love my Sea and Sea housing and Canon DSLR, GoPro cameras are just fun. Video (even as elementary as GoPro video) is still pretty new to me, but I enjoy it.
RL: Favourite dive site?
TI: I’ll always answer this question the same way; it depends on what I am looking to do.
I love the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and Hawaii for the warm water, sea life and clarity. San Diego has great wrecks and kelp and the Channel Islands in California was one of the most beautiful (and coldest) dives I have ever done.
Diving in Australia with Rodney Fox, Carl Roessler and Geri Murphy was the dream of a lifetime for me and is one of my favorite diving memories. The water was cool, and the visibility was just perfect for the big white sharks to “loom in” out of the distance. Those sharks are amazing animals, and for me, it was an amazing adventure (...)