by Richard Meredith

There are myriad reasons why we should be buying as much as we can from local freediving and spearfishing shops. The idea of having a place to go to touch, see and try on all the latest wetsuits, spearguns, gear and ideas in our sport appeals to all of us. Everyone likes to save as much money as they can on purchases too, right? We all want the Nordstrom service at the Walmart price.  Well, all the reasons we want to have a local shop never quite seem to outweigh what our pocketbook tells us is the right decision. The cost of collecting all the right gear in this sport is a bit expensive, though many begin the sport thinking it should be pretty cheap. You know, get a mask, fins and speargun and go harvest dinner. Seems pretty easy doesn’t it? But once you spend a lot of time in the water, not knowing really what to do or how to do it, is frustrating. There is only so much we can learn from YouTube, Instagram, Facebook or on the web. So how can this learning (freedivers are always looking to improve on their efficiency) be accomplished as efficiently as possible in order to produce an enjoyable and successful experience? Go see your local freediving or spearo shop. They have all the answers to your questions, as well as answers to questions you have not come up with yet. Well, at least all the answers for spearfishing, apnea training and freediving. For the rest of this article, SAF is the acronym for spearfishing, apnea, freediving. It also almost spells safe and all dives should be done SAFely.

As a new member of the SAF community, it can be a bit overwhelming when you walk into a SAF diving shop. After all, we are just talking about holding our breath and spearing fish, right? The sheer numbers and variations of wetsuits, spearguns, shafts, masks, fins, buoys (the list goes on and on) can be mind boggling. How do we break it down into easier-to-digest pieces and keep our interest without getting overwhelmed? You do that by going to your local SAF shop to talk with the staff. YouTube viewers may come to believe, with so many spearfishermen spearing wahoo in the open ocean or descending 40 meters on a reef for cubera, that it’s easy because it happens all of the time. If it’s on YouTube it can’t really be that hard, right? Your local shop can point you to the right training and equipment that meets your budget and is aligned with your goals. Do you need a new shaft? Euro, American, notched, finned, single-flopper, double-flopper, slip-tip, break-away – the names go on and on. Your SAF shop staff will guide you through the encyclopedia of what you really need. All within your budget and helping to save your money by not purchasing items you really don’t need. They can help you upgrade in gear as your skills progress.  This is the part where they are working to save your money by helping you buy only what you need, not what you see everyone using on YouTube.  You don’t need a bluewater 140mm gun with a 75-meter buoy system when you are shooting on a reef in 45 feet of water with low visibility. The big gun looks cool but isn’t the right tool for the job. At the shop you also get to touch the equipment, feel the wetsuits, and talk to the staff about what is relevant to you, your goals and budget.  Having the right gear at the right price makes the whole experience better. Now if you have an unlimited budget, dive shops will help you outfit top tier gear and spend money until your heart’s content.

So, let’s start with service. Your local SAF shop’s goal is to better serve their customers. First off, they provide, or can get, just about anything you need for diving. Here is where your local dive shop really proves itself in value when investing in its products and services (as much as we wish, nothing is ever really free). They have the experience of being experts in their SAF products and sport. They should be able to talk the talk, since they continue to walk the walk. They can help quantify what your real goals are and help steer you through all the marketing, YouTube, and Google popups that you are getting overwhelmed by online. Keep in mind that social media does a great job showing us a lot of what is out there. That said, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook can give a new diver a false sense of “normal and easy” that is really not true. 

Your local dive shop will help you down the path to achieve your SAF goals. The first thing just about every shop will start with is, “if you are not certified, you should sign up for a class.” You know this is probably important or there wouldn’t be all the blackout, samba, or memorial videos online. Face it, we look at YouTube and other media hosting sites as our training resource, and in this sport, the consequences are serious enough (up to and including death) that getting professional instruction is worth your life.

We all want to have a great experience and come home to see our family and friends (never dive alone; One man up, one man down). What is the best way to really know what is available in your area? Your dive shop staff will be certified in many of the classes available that interest you. They can give you advice on who the good instructors are or maybe a better time in the year to take classes due to weather and its effects. SAF training gives you the foundation for building your dive resume. SAF diving is a non-stop learning process; there are so many new things to see and learn. It is a sport that is constantly evolving and changing. Did you realize that diving below 50 meters was thought to be a death warrant up until about 1950? Now divers are exceeding 150 meters. The more we learn about SAF diving, the more we understand and the deeper we can safely descend. But, I digress.

After you talk safety, maybe equipment comes up. If you were hoping to venture into Pandora’s box, you’ve arrived. There are such numerous types and variations of SAF equipment that you can go swimming in all of the information. Cost and variations in the equipment are not a really quick dive in to information, either…carbon fins, plastic fins, fiberglass fins, soft flex, medium flex, foot pockets, modular fins, mono fins (like a mermaid, but wear your clothes. Chances are you’re not really a mermaid). They can break down the price points and what the extra dollars mean to you and the return on what you get for the different levels of products based on the cost.

What other business or resource can give you the up to date local information for SAF diving? This is the paragraph in which I try to articulate how important your local SAF shops are in the dive and business community. Here is where going into a SAF shop and talking to the staff is worth the time and effort. As experienced divers they can help you with resources, locations, TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) for the area. You may want to dive somewhere else; They probably know someone who dives in that location already and might be able to get you information that prevents you from wasting your time searching a new area with no good results. Here is the best part: dive shops offer this for free. 

Remember in the beginning, I said nothing is free. Dive shops survive because they sell products. If you don’t buy anything, then they go out of business. If they go out of business, then you and the local area lose a huge asset. You now waste your time searching for SAF spots, sometimes successfully, mostly not, which you could have obtained for free had you bought products locally. That’s what Mr. Klock, my high school biology teacher, would have called a “positive symbiotic relationship.”

Let’s talk some economics. Cost is important; there are so many ways you can save your buying dollar, but I would argue that there needs to be a balance. When you buy your new speargun online and there is an issue with it, you must send it back to the outlet or dealer. Maybe you take it to a local shop and they fix it, but they will probably charge you parts and labor. If you had purchased it locally, they probably will fix and repair it for you at the earliest convenience. No shipping and no real wait time. Most often, your SAF shop has the parts in stock. If they don’t, they may even have a gun for you to borrow, how much is that worth in the SAF experience? We all know Murphy (look up Murphy’s Law) will break something right before you head out. I’m not saying that your SAF shop and staff will always have the answer, or that online purchasing doesn’t have good customer service. I’m just saying your local shop has many advantages. There are some companies online that have outstanding customer service and do a great business online but can’t do it immediately or on the spot. Heck, I have used online companies a few times myself, but I find that keeping my money local helps keep my local shop open. If you are looking for a product they don’t carry, ask them about it. They may be able to get it for you or have an alternate product available right now.

 I’m willing to bet that every time you go into your SAF shop, you will be learning something new. They can tell you about upcoming available classes, new products, modifications to older products and news of regulations and changes. Your SAF shop has a vested interest in knowing these topics, especially for the spearfishing crowd (still go read the regulations). “My dive shop told me that this is OK,” generally doesn’t work as an excuse to local law enforcement (unless you’re a mermaid and we all know how many of those are around). Another great part of your SAF shop is in relationships. We are humans, pack animals, and when diving, never dive alone. Find a group of divers that helps you develop as a better diver and who will go train and grow with you. Building relationships in your sport is a good thing. Since delving into a new sport, finding like-minded individuals can be difficult. Your certification class is a great way to start building a roster of people you trust to dive with; your life can depend on your partner so pick one who values your life as much as you do. Your SAF shop will know of any events coming up in the near area and probably the larger surrounding area, too. They will be involved in the local SAF clubs and can refer you to SAF clubs that you may fit into and will help provide some certified diving partners as well.

The way most of us start these sports is through traveling to a warm tropical climate with unbelievable visibility, lots of fish and exotic creatures (If mermaids come to mind, you probably had too much rum). Maybe you and a friend grew up doing it, maybe it just seemed like a great idea. Regardless, most of us will graduate to wanting to go to some of the places we have been before, or have seen online. Your SAF shop has the same desires too. Since they can probably write off some of the cost of these trips on their taxes, they have a better-than-average chance of taking those extended “professional development” excursions to faraway places. They are a great asset for advice, recommendations and locations for SAF diving, and can often provide a general cost. Don’t hold them to that cost though, as prices can change as often as the tides.

Your dive shop will save you money in so many ways that we sometimes forget to measure the information, local expertise, equipment repair and plain old in-person customer service. We all want to save money and have a SAFE experience while enjoying our SAF diving. I know that there is no exact formula for cost versus service and experience or how much money goes to support your local shop. All I can say is that they provide immeasurable value to your sport, local area and to you.  Sadly, you will only realize the value and importance of these SAF diving businesses after they are gone. Find the sweet spot for investing in your local shop, it is also an investment in your sport and your life. The more you invest, the more return there is (I remember that from some business class, but don’t quote me). For the record, I don’t own or work in a dive shop. 

I am fortunate that I have a great shop in my area, Benthic Ocean Sports. So if you are in the area, go by and tell Mike that Rick sent you. He and his team are awesome at what they do and at knowing what is going on around the Emerald Coast.

Enjoy your time in the water and remember: Dive Safe, don’t dive alone; One man up and one man down. I’ll see you subsurface.