TAMPA — Dave Reidenbach didn't have to sell me on scuba diving.
"Florida's the place to be," he said. "You've got great wrecks, reefs and the spearfishing is just fantastic."
Reidenbach, the 51-year-old director of the new "Be a Diver" program, brought his traveling dive tank to this weekend's Tampa Boat Show at the Tampa Convention Center. Scuba diving veterans will tell you diving is one of Florida's underappreciated sports.
"Our whole program is designed to give people a taste of what they are missing," said Reidenbach, a Wisconsin resident who has been diving since 1976. "Once they get out of the pool, we feel that they will want to take a class and get certified."
Like many transplants, I moved to Florida for the water. In the winter of 1979, young and itching to dive, I took a scuba class at the YMCA in New Brunswick, N.J.
After what seemed like months of class and pool work, I finally got my chance to hit the "open water," an old rock quarry where the water temperature was a bone-chilling 40 degrees.
Then, armed with my certification, or "C" card, I packed everything I owned in a rusty Datsun pickup truck and drove straight to the Florida Keys, where I camped and dove nearly every day for a month straight.
Over the years, diving has been good to me. I've been lucky enough to explore the Great Barrier Reef and the kelp forests off the California coast. I've shadowed tiger sharks and speared giant amberjack. I've traveled hundreds of feet through limestone caves and come face-to-face with monster grouper in the bowels of sunken ships more than 200 feet down.
More people are learning to dive than ever. In 2011, more than 15,000 people learned to dive in Florida, according to the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association.
Since 2005, Florida has added nearly 100,000 new scuba divers to its ranks. Divers and snorkelers account for nearly 9 million "visitor days" each year, contributing more than $900 million to the state's economy, according to DEMA statistics.
Here in the Tampa Bay area, we have great wrecks and artificial reefs to explore. The spearfishing off our coast is as good as it gets, and a local group, the St. Pete Underwater Club, holds one of the largest spearfishing tournaments of its kind in the world.
So if you have been wondering what it's like to scuba dive, now is your chance. The "Be a Diver" tank, a 20-by-30-foot, 15,000-gallon mobile pool, is user-friendly.
Just bring your swim trunks and a change of clothes. There's a dressing room, towels and all the newest diving equipment. All you need to do is sign a waiver and hop in. To learn more, go to beadiver.com.
See Terry Tomalin's dive on ABC Action News (Ch. 28) at 7:30 a.m. Saturday.