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They scuba dive for the love of it

From snorkeling the shallow waters of Florida to diving in the blue holes of the Bahamas, divers know how intriguing and exciting the underwater world can be.

But finding opportunities to explore that world _ at a reasonable cost _ and learning about the environmental hazards of diving can pose a challenge.

That was why the Suncoast Scuba Club was formed. The group, in its fourth year, serves as an educational and social club for more than 100 members and promotes environmental awareness through events like this week's annual Undersea Expo.

"Diving is a real neat sport, and I want to encourage it and promote it as much as possible. That's what the Undersea Expo is all about," said Jackie Draffin, club president.

The Expo, which will be from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel, is open to the public and will feature exhibits by various local organizations such as the Humane Society, Lowry Park, the Sierra Club, Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Aquarium.

A presentation by Wes Skiles, filmmaker, lecturer, and underwater explorer and photographer, will follow. Admission to the exhibits is free. The Skiles presentation will cost $5.

Dena Leavengood, manager of the Florida Aquarium Learning Lab, said the Expo educates divers about the sensitive underwater environment and the many ways they can work to protect it.

"They have an interest in preserving the environment because they have an interest in enjoying diving," Leavengood said.

Draffin said the club has a strong environmental focus and works to promote awareness on club dive trips to places like Caysal Bank, Cozumel, Ginnie Springs and Devil's Den.

Last year, a group of 19 club members chartered a boat for a weeklong, live-aboard trip to Caysal Bank in the southern Bahamas.

Club member David Hale said that was the best trip of his nine years as a diver.

"It's real exciting diving, plus you get on this boat and all you do is sleep, eat and dive for a week. It's great," he said.

The trip featured shark feeding in deep holes in the ocean called blue or black holes. The blue holes are fed by a spring while the black holes, often too deep to even measure, no longer have active springs. One black hole exceeded the boat's 3,500-foot depth finder, Hale said.

"It's like a cookie-cutter went down and cut a hole in the bottom of the ocean," he said.

Not all of the club's trips offer such adventure, but those like the upcoming combination camping/diving trip do offer time to relax and enjoy nature _ both on land and underwater.

"It's a different environment. It's a very peaceful feeling. You always see something new and different," Draffin said.

Hale said the dive trips offered by the club are a "major stress reliever."

"You get under the water, and you don't think about anything else. Anything can pop up _ sharks, turtles, spotted eagle rays and tarpon," he said.

The discounts offered by group membership for dive trips don't hurt either. Costs range from $5 for local dives to $65 for the longer trips.

But those discounts are only some of the benefits of membership, Hale said. He also enjoys the opportunity to share information and interests with other divers and to participate in group activities.

Group events include participating in local cleanup efforts, raising funds for local organizations such as Lowry Park, and publishing a monthly newsletter for members, Draffin said.

She said membership is increasing rapidly.

"We have a vast array (of members) from newly certified divers to instructors. We have young and old, married and single. Our goal is to get people interested in diving and to keep them interested," said Draffin, who is working toward certification as a dive instructor.

Dive right in

Membership in the Suncoast Scuba Club costs $16 for each person or $28 for a couple. The club meets on the second and fourth Tuesday off each month, and dive trips are scheduled two or three times each month. The trips and meetings are open to non-members, but only members are eligible for reduced rates. For information about the club or the Undersea Expo, call 677-9674.