When most people think of scuba diving, they envision brilliantly colored fish teeming in equally colorful reefs and sunlit waters the color of swimming pools.
They don't exactly think of the Gulf of Mexico.
But divers are discovering that the waters off Pinellas County provide a unique beauty and plenty of interesting sea creatures to watch from beneath the surface.
With lobster fishing season beginning Aug. 6, interest in scuba lessons is at a peak.
"It's a real busy season. A lot of people try to get certified before they go out there," said instructor Heather Sutter of Largo's Sunshine Scuba.
There are about a dozen local dive schools and shops that offer courses leading to certification. The classes typically last two to four weeks and cost $95 to $250; the average is $150.
Lessons stress safety. They start in a swimming pool and culminate in one or more open-water dives. Participants usually provide their own mask, snorkel and fins (average cost: $90 to $170) and the school provides tanks, regulators and other items for the lessons.
Many clubs and shops also arrange exotic dive trips from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. But the Gulf of Mexico also is a popular destination.
"People tend to disregard this coast," said Diana McCoy, a dive instructor with Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park. "But I've had some of the best underwater experiences here, including a close encounter with a huge loggerhead turtle. I've hugged a big 600-pound jewfish _ things you'll never find in a well-traveled reef area."
Go out far enough off the Pinellas beaches and there are natural and artificial reefs, wrecks, ledges and places where huge fish congregate.
"People from the (east) coast come diving over here," said Ben Dauterman, owner of Tanks-a-Lot Dive Charters in Clearwater. "The water's not as clear here but there are a lot more fish _ a lot more large fish."
Diving also fosters an appreciation of Florida's environment. Last weekend, Sunshine Scuba of Largo took its recent graduates to the Gandy Bridge for an underwater cleanup.
Cave and cavern diving also offer a unique look at Florida's aquifer system. However, certified divers must take additional courses to navigate the underwater maze safely.
While cave diving accidents have grabbed headlines, experienced divers say the sport is safe with the right training and equipment. Still, it is not a sport for the claustrophobic.
"One to 2 percent of the population are divers ... and one to two percent of them are cave divers," said Chuck Owen, dive shop manager at Bill Jackson. "It's not for everybody, but it's got its own beauty, its own appeal."
Where to take the lessons, join the clubs
Here is a list of some businesses and clubs that cater to scuba divers from the Tampa Bay area.
2 Dive, 241 Windward Passage, Island Estates, Clearwater. 443-5819
Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure, 9501 U.S. 19, Pinellas Park. 576-4169
Dan's Scuba School, 1754 Drew St., Clearwater. 446-8275
Kinda Sorta Dive Charters, 9476 Tradewinds Ave., Seminole. 596-1609
Mac's Sports, 2126 Drew St., Clearwater. 442-9931
Nautical Dreams, 36157 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. 784-7593
Sea Hunt Dive and Tackle, 3395 East Bay Drive, Largo. 539-0227
Sea-J's Scuba and Travel, 12499 Seminole Blvd., Seminole. 585-3483
Sunshine Scuba, 1901 West Bay Drive, Largo. 585-0938
Tackle Shack Water Sports, 7801 66th St. N, Pinellas Park. 546-5080
Tanks-a-Lot Dive Charters, 900 N Osceola Ave., Clearwater. 531-9101
2 Dive Club, 241 Windward Passage, Unit A, Clearwater. Meets informally Saturdays; dives weekly. Licensed equipment technician on site. 443-5819
Clearwater Dive Association, 2126 Drew St., Clearwater. Meets 7 to 8 p.m. on the first Friday of the month at Mac's Sports. Dives weekly. 442-9931
Moby Nick's Aqua-holics, 39020 U.S. 19, Tarpon Springs. Meets at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month at Moby Nick's Scuba. 942-6635
Sea-J's Dive Association, 12499 Seminole Blvd., Largo. Meetings are at 7:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month. 585-3483
Sea Bunnies (all women), meets in conference room of DSI Temporary Staffing, 1940 Drew St., Clearwater, at 8 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. 546-7675 or 562-1169
Reef Preservers, 1901 West Bay Drive, Largo. Meets at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month at Sunshine Scuba. 585-0938