Neal Watson: Just Funnin'

Profile Scott D. Jones

Neal Watson: Just Funnin' Neal Watson: Just Funnin' Profile Scott D. Jones Forty years ago, if you had asked Neal Watson about this new thing called scuba, he would have told you it was a passing trend. Thankfully, scuba diving did not go the way of disco or pet rocks and the sport continues to thrive, thanks to industry pioneers like Watson, who are dedicated to one thing: keeping diving fun.
“The bottom line is that every diver is looking for the same thing—to have a good time. That’s the reason people get into diving in the first place,” Watson points out. “And there’s nothing I like more than showing divers a good time.”

Watson caught “scuba fever” in the early days of diving and was a highly visible part of the sport’s growth in the late 1960s. He set the compressed-air diving depth record in 1968, descending to 437 feet, then recorded another milestone by traveling 66 miles from Freeport to the Florida coast underwater. The purpose? “To prove to myself I could do it, and I did.”
His dedication and passion for diving continue to this day. Those fortunate enough to meet Watson are treated to some of the most outrageous and entertaining stories ever told at a bar or on a dive boat. The best part is that they’re all true.
In the 1970s, Watson was teaching diving in Freeport, Bahamas, and one day was asked to train a group of show girls who were performing at a local casino. When the group arrived for their lessons, they told Neal they were concerned about tan lines and wanted to know if they could take the class topless. “Of course I had no problem with that. A scuba instructor certainly has to be adaptable,” Watson recalls with a grin.
You can also ask him about his infamous practical jokes. Like the time he took a false arm with him on a shark dive and let it float to the surface during the dive. Or when he surprised a group of passengers on a glass bottom boat by “playing dead” on the bottom as the vessel passed over the reef. The resultant CPR on one particularly shocked customer wasn’t that funny, but, thank goodness, everything turned out all right!
Although diving certainly has changed in the last 40 years, some things do stay the same. “Safety was always an important element of what we did,” notes Watson, who recently was elected to the board of diving’s trade association, DEMA. “Today’s modern equipment makes diving even simpler, but it has always had its necessary emphasis on safety.”
All in all, it would be tough to match Watson’s most unique dive, which took place years ago. “The group started up the anchor line, but the line seemed to curve strangely and we had some trouble seeing the boat. Then I realized that the boat had sunk during the dive, and it was actually underneath us! After we surfaced and swam a short distance to shore, I went back out and recovered the boat, cleaned it out and it was in service the next day. My only real problem was trying to figure out if I should charge them for the special wreck dive.”
This laid-back attitude combined with his love of diving has allowed Watson to log bottom time with a number of high-profile “dive buddies,” including Sarah Ferguson, Geraldo Rivera, Hugh Downs, Don Johnson and others. “They were blown away by the dive experience,” says Watson, referring to the common bond the celebs felt. “Egos tend to go away when you’re diving and that helps make it a better experience for everyone.”
Watson passionately promotes diving to any and every person who will listen. “As divers, we’re part of a select few who can, along with astronauts, say that we have escaped gravity. Add to that the fact that we do this among some of the most beautiful places in the world, and it’s amazing to me that more people would not want to go out and go diving or snorkeling.”
Making diving fun and memorable is a major reason why Watson created the annual OceanFest dive event near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Each fall, thousands of divers and nondivers gather at Lauderdale-By-The-Sea in South Florida. One of the most anticipated diving events of the year, the 1999 edition of the Festival will be September 17 to 19 and will include fashion shows, treasure dives, bands on the beach, fabulous food, and a variety of exhibits and programs built around the fun and excitement of diving and the diving lifestyle. “People come from all over to relax and have a good time. That’s what we set out to do with OceanFest and it’s worked out great!”
Watson offers positive advice for anyone interested in joining the dive industry. “You have to have fun. It’s possible to have a good time and be successful in this industry—if you don’t take yourself too seriously.”
It’s certainly obvious that this diving legend has learned to practice what he preaches.