Capitan Spencer Slate

By Scott D. Jones

2000-09 Captain Spencer Slate 2000-09 Captain Spencer Slate by Scott D. Jones In his 30-plus years of diving, Captain Spencer Slate has made a lot of friends. There’s Oscar, Psycho, Rusty and Flash from the barracuda family. Then, there are Melba, Sundance and Slime from the moray family. And the Captain would never want to forget about Shreader, who has certainly left his mark (22 stitches) with Slate last year. It’s because of his regular “visits” with these and other marine creatures that Captain Slate has become a legend in the Florida Keys and a well-known celebrity in both diving and non-diving circles.

Slate, who moved to South Florida in 1978, has lived the divers’ dream. He first became interested in diving in 1963 watching Sea Hunt each afternoon on television at his North Carolina home. Using all his resources (a paper route and gifts from relatives), the young Slate saved his money and invested in his first piece of scuba equipment (a $50 mail order Aqualung regulator) and the rest is diving history. “My dad thought diving was a fad, and he didn’t want to waste money, but this was something I had to do,” Slate recalls.

Spending the summers in South Florida waters, Slate soon found the draw of the region too strong to ignore. So he packed up, moved to Key Largo and purchased the home of a fisherman. He transformed that house into the building that today houses Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center. At the time, his operation was one of the few dedicated dive stores in the Keys, but that was nothing compared to the growth in diving that would follow. “When we started, I think there were only eight stores in all of the Keys. Today, it’s probably one of the most densely concentrated areas for dive stores in the world.”

But he welcomed the competition and learned early that he needed to do something different to stand out in a growing industry. When he first moved to Key Largo, Captain Slate was befriended by Steve Klem, who was known in the industry as the “Pied Piper of Pennekamp Park.” Klem, who’s at the top of Slate’s list of diving heros, took the youngster under his wing and taught him how to properly feed the local barracuda population. Slate took it a step farther and fed the barracuda by putting a Ballyhoo in his mouth and letting the fish snatch the bait away.

The image of Slate doing this maneuver has been immortalized in the pages of Skin Diver, scores of travel magazines, USA TODAY, the Discovery Channel and CBS TV’s 48 Hours. He’s even appeared on Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Not many people are aware that there’s a hidden reason why Slate takes his guests up close and personal with barracudas. “During one of my early dives, I was shaken up by a group of schooling barracudas. After some time went by, I learned I didn’t have to be afraid of them, and I want to share that fact with other divers,” he said.

Say what you will about it, Slate’s underwater feedings have certainly made him stand out from the crowd. “I like to give my customers a show,” he says. “It’s entertainment pure and simple. People who aren’t divers think I’m crazy, while people that do dive think it’s pretty cool.” He estimates that he’s done more than 20,000 feedings and has been bitten more than 50 times. One unlucky day, Slate was even bitten twice. Of course, on those rare occasions, Slate jokes that there’s always an upside. “We always sell more video tapes of the dive on days I get bit.”

Slate confesses that the secret to his feedings is not rocket science. “It’s training, plain and simple. Not everyone can be a snake charmer (or a barracuda feeder). But if you’re trained properly, the risk is much lower. Some people have tried to copy what I do and then blame me if they get bit. Look, if you’re stupid enough to feed a barracuda, then you better be prepared if something goes wrong.”

Neal Watson, another dive industry legend who has known Slate for many years, has high praise for him and his program. “He’s the only person in the industry who’s crazier than I am.” And for those that know Watson, that’s saying something.

Slate’s craziest stunt? “The time Perry, the moray eel, bit me. I was so mad, that I punched him in the nose. He responded by biting me again, only this time he caused 17 stitches worth of hurt and it was caught on tape.”

“Whenever Spencer and I get together, we trade stories and show each other our scars,” Watson offers.

The flamboyant and well-spoken Slate doesn’t just risk his face for notoriety, he’s also in demand for underwater weddings. As a certified Notary Public in Florida, Captain Slate is authorized to conduct weddings. While he’s done a few “dry” ceremonies in Pennekamp Park, most people want him to conduct “underwater weddings” and the Captain aims to please.

“In the summer, we do a wedding almost every weekend. It’s fun and people are surprised when they find out we have a program for them,” Slate points out. “We’ve done several hundred weddings including a group of over 60 people at once that currently stands as a record with the Guinness Book of World Records.”

Whether he’s entertaining his customers with Ballyhoo in his mouth or conducting a wedding, Captain Slate certainly has helped make a difference for divers in the Keys.

“He’s taken the Keys from being a ‘locals-only’ place and made it a world-class diving destination. He helped create the Keys Association of Diving Operators (KADO) and has been that group’s only president. Spencer did that because he cares about the region and he doesn’t hesitate to give back to the industry,” Watson points out.

Earlier this year, the Captain, along with a group of well-known dive industry figures, converged on the state capitol to lobby against proposed legislation that could affect fish feeding in the state. “It was great to see the dive industry come together like it did. Hopefully we can continue to work together to keep diving opportunities available for everyone.”

While the future of the legislation is unclear at this point, one thing that is certain is that every Friday, visitors to Atlantis Dive Center can count on Captain Slate boarding one of his four dive vessels for a trip to his favorite feeding site in nearby Pennekamp Park for the weekly “circus” dive, where he can once again say hello to his family of “underwater friends.”