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Dive shops deal with setback

Every November since opening his scuba shop in 1984, Mike Robinson has driven two dozen people from Ohio to Crystal River for a weekend of diving and manatee watching.

"It's one of my favorite trips," Robinson said Monday from his office in Hamilton, 25 miles north of Cincinnati.

But this year, he had to cancel the excursion, planned for Saturday, because only two people wanted to go.

"You mention the word travel and they look at you funny," Robinson said. "They say, "No, we want to stay close to home.' "

This is the reality in the weeks since Sept. 11. With manatee sanctuaries going into effect this week, dive shop owners say business is only starting to recover.

"It was like somebody shut off the phone," Ed Knauss, owner of Crystal River Manatee Dive and Tour, said of the initial days after the attacks.

Monday morning's jet crash in Queens, N.Y., killing more than 250 people, may add to the trepidation, Knauss said.

Ron Goodenow, owner of American Pro Dive, said business came to a "screeching halt" for a few weeks after Sept. 11 but is picking up.

Still, he said, "We should be a lot busier. People are coming, but they're coming slow this year."

At Plantation Inn Dive Shop, workers found themselves sitting around a lot. Assistant Manager Paul Cross said the onset of colder weather has helped because more manatees are flocking in the warm springs. Word spreads, bringing in more tourists.

Boat rentals, however, are still down. The shop dropped the rental of a pontoon from $125 to $75, but many remain docked. "We get a lot of our business coming up from Orlando and Tampa, and it's just not there," Cross said.

Dive operators are getting some relief from falling gasoline prices. If people are afraid to fly, they might get in their cars and drive to Florida.

"It might take them a couple days longer, but they'll still do it," said Fred Reed, manager of the dive shop at Port Hotel & Marina. "People are going to take vacations."

The Sept. 11 attacks came during the slow season for tour operators, so it could have been a lot worse, said Marty Senetra, manager of Bird's Underwater in Crystal River.

Manatees are major players in the local economy. Business interests estimated in 1993 that tours bring in $7-million annually. "We have people flying here from all over the world," Senetra said.

Business at Bird's also dropped off _ on some days there were no tourists to take out _ but despite cancellations well into January, tours should still be full, Senetra said. Many years, the shop has to turn people away.

"If our business dropped by 30 percent, we'd still be full. We just wouldn't be turning people away anymore," Senetra said.

Ken Luther of Chassahowitzka River Tours said he is looking at one of his best years since opening in 1993. "I'm getting them from New York and New Jersey," he said. "It seems like they want to get away, far from people and everything."

The formal start of the manatee season is Thursday, the day in which manatee sanctuaries in and around Kings Bay Drive go into effect.

Those sanctuaries, which are marked by buoys, are areas set aside for manatees to rest and eat away from the boats and divers which visit the area each winter. No human activities are allowed inside those sanctuaries.

Although there has been much discussion of establishing the first Homosassa-area manatee sanctuary in the Blue Waters of the Homosassa River, neither the state nor federal authorities have plans to do that this winter.

There is a plan to post signs in the Blue Waters asking people to refrain from bothering the endangered mammals, which gather to rest in that area.

_ Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this article. Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or learysptimes.com.

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