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Message Icon Event: Scuba in Marin - Event Date: 31 Mar 2008 Post Reply Post New Topic
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Quote scubazine Replybullet Calendar Event: Scuba in Marin
    Posted: 31 Mar 2008 at 06:52
Marin County is not what most would call a scuba diving hot spot. Local dive boats have to travel at least two hours north or south to find worthwhile diving.

That hasn't stopped the sport from becoming a successful niche activity in the county, where more and more people are strapping on scuba gear and taking to the sea.

"It's a lot easier to learn than it has been in the past," said John Eden, manager of Pinnacles Dive Center in Novato. "The equipment has changed dramatically and the training itself has evolved. It's a more user-friendly sport."

Marin divers have the luxury of close proximity to two quality scuba spots. Monterey Bay and Salt Point State Park in Sonoma County draw some of the best divers in the world thanks to the wide range of sea life. Both spots are less than a three-hour car trip from Sausalito.

Marin doesn't have coastline that's perfect for diving. The bay is muddy and has poor visibility, and the Pacific coast is far too rocky and rough to allow for scuba diving. The beaches of Monterey allow for easy swim-in diving and the Sonoma County spots are more remote, which means fewer people and more fish.

What Marin does have is plenty of opportunities for beginners to learn to dive. Pinnacles, the Marin Dive Center in San Rafael and Harbor Dive & Kayak in Sausalito offer on-site training and pools. Divers can earn a certificate in a weekend, complete with ocean diving work, for $300 to $400.

That price includes renting equipment, but to buy a set of gear can run much higher. Divers need a wetsuit, mask, swim fins, gloves and boots to start. An air tank with a hose and mouth attachment is also a given. After that, it gets complicated.

A diver also needs a buoyancy control device, which attaches to the tank and has an inflator to let the diver control his or her depth. A regulator attaches to the tank to control the air flow to the diver, and an alternate air source is required in case the tank fails. Packaged together, a full set of scuba equipment starts at $599 at Pinnacles and runs as high as $3,000.

That might sound like a hefty price tag, but Eden said once a diver earns his or her certificate, the sport can be relatively inexpensive. Divers who own equipment would only have to pay for air tank refills at about $5 a pop. Those looking to rent equipment can do it for about $60 a day.

"When you look at how expensive golf is, diving isn't such a bad deal," said Chris Cardinal, a Novato resident who has been diving since 1975. "It's less than buying a set of golf clubs, and you're paying $50 to play even after you buy clubs. Once you have all your dive gear, it's cheap."

Divers looking to get the true scuba experience will have to shell out a little more money for a trip to the Caribbean. The warm, clear water is a diver's dream and can put the Northern California dive experience to shame.

"Around here, you have to be willing to accept and be equipped for cold water," said Elliott Zalta, president of the Marin Scuba Club. "You can get maybe 30 feet of visibility here. In the Caribbean, you'll get 100 feet of visibility in water that's 30 degrees warmer. You don't need a wetsuit down there."

Marin's dive shops offer scuba vacations to places such as the Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico. All-inclusive trips start at more than $1,000 per person before airfare for five days of diving.

Dive shops also offer a sort of two-part training course that starts in Marin and ends wherever the diver wants it to. Divers would complete all their pool and classroom work at the shop, then do their ocean work wherever they chose: The Philippines, New Guinea, Bali - somewhere tropical. Tom Stone, a Novato resident who has been with Bamboo Reef Dive Shops for 34 years, thinks he knows why that method works well for a lot of Marin divers.

"You'd think Marin would be issuing a lot more diving certificates," he said, "but people here get trained in the pool and then get certified someplace with warm water."

Although the warmth and clarity of the water (as well as the bonus of being on a tropical island for a week) make the Caribbean or anywhere along the equator the choicest of diving destinations, the marine life pales in comparison to Monterey and the spots in Sonoma County â Salt Point, Gerstle Cove and Stillwater Cove.

"Salt Point has the finest abalone beds in the world, so people skin dive for those and then put tanks on just to have fun," said Stone, whose Bamboo Reef store is in Rohnert Park. "It's more rugged than Monterey and there's a lot fewer people. Salt Point is a state preserve, so it's completely protected. And the underwater terrain is knock-your-socks-off gorgeous."

Those looking to get away from Marin's frigid waters but hoping to stay in the country can always make a trip to Catalina Island and the Channel Islands in Southern California. But the dive spots around Marin offer rare sights.

"This is the best ecosystem around to look at underwater," Cardinal said. "It's not the pretty tropical water, but there's a lot more to see here."

SCUBA IN MARIN

Marin has a number of shops offering scuba diving lessons and trips. Here are a few:

Pinnacles Dive Center: 875 Grant Ave., Novato, 897-9962. One-day training classes for $199 on weekdays, $229 on weekends. Two-day classes for $249. Books and DVDs for home study are $98. Boat and beach dives starting at $100.

Marin Dive Center: 3765 Redwood Highway, San Rafael, 479-4332. Group weekend classes for $199, private classes starting at $299 per person. Contact for open-water prices.

Harbor Dive & Kayak: 200 Harbor Drive, Sausalito, 331-0904. Full training course and open water dive trips for $400; training and open-water referral for $300.

John Dugan can be reached at jdugan@marinij.com.

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