This feature appeared in The Birmingham (Alabama) News on Feb. 20, 2000.

Treasuring the open water

Local dive shop boasts own pool, hunting for treasure

News staff writer

Sometimes older is better.

Such is the case with Southern Skin Divers Supply in Birmingham, in business since 1953.

“It’s the oldest surviving dive store in the South,” said Steve Phillips, who owns and operates the shop along with his sons, Forrest and Spencer, and Mark Tant.

Southern Skin Divers Supply is the only scuba shop in Alabama with its own indoor pool. It also specializes in training and equipping treasure hunters.

“I’m trying to separate us from other stores,” Phillips said. “The biggest thing is our age. We’re the oldest, and we’re the only store that has their own pool. Our pool is specifically designed for scuba.”

Built a year ago, the 14-foot deep by 50-foot long heated indoor pool comes closer than standard swimming pools to duplicating the conditions divers will experience in the open waters.

“It’s designed so someone can learn like they were on a boat,” Phillips said. “See, you can take a giant stride forward off there (the edge) and not have to worry about running into the bottom.

“Also, if you learn here, one of the things that’s hard to do is equalize the pressure in your ears. With this depth (the trainee) will be really good at that, because they’re going to equalize their pressure about three times going down instead of just once like you would in an 8-foot pool.”

Getting started

Phillips’ passion for diving began while he was stationed at Hickam AFB in Hawaii. He earned his certification there in 1965, and has taken dive trips all over the world, including expeditions to Hawaii, Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, Belize, the Bahamas, Fiji and Mexico.

He estimates Southern Skin Divers Supply has certified more than 10,000 divers since the store opened. More importantly, he said, “we have a perfect safety record.”

Southern Skin Divers Supply offers lessons that last a month with a minimum of five pool sessions (10 hours) and 20 hours of classroom instructions, including video demonstrations. Classes are held Monday and Wednesday and Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday classes last about three hours. Introductory lessons cost $170.

“People come in all the time and say, ‘How much are dive classes?’ That’s about the worst question they can ask. Because that’s not what they want to know. They want to know how much it costs to become a diver,” Phillips said.

Phillips said getting started typically costs $1,500. That includes equipment, lessons and checkout dives. These dives are supervised by the shop’s instructors to test the beginner’s skills. These dives, done during the day and at night, test a diver’s ability in different situations and lead to certification as a diver.

“And then they have everything they need and they can get on a boat anywhere in the world,” he said.

Southern Skin Divers Supply’s checkout dives are in north Florida in DeFuniak Springs, north of Panama City. Other charter vacation trips are taken annually to places like Belize and the Cayman Islands.

One of Phillips’ most enjoyable experiences underwater was a nighttime trip last year to Hawaii’s Big Island, swimming with peaceful manta rays.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” he said, showing a videotape. “They come right to you and rub up against you. They’re wonderful. Now that’s the kind of adventure anybody can learn how to do in a month. That doesn’t mean they are a good diver. It gives them a license to learn more. And after a few years, they might be a good diver if they put in enough time.”

Treasure hunting

When the Phillips’ aren’t teaching or running the shop, their interest in retrieving relics takes over.

The elder Phillips has amassed a collection of Civil War memorabilia he has unearthed from all over Alabama. Metal detectors have been a major tool for him during these discoveries. He has also dove into many rivers and lakes throughout the state in search of gold and other treasures.

Southern Skin Divers Supply stocks metal detectors, gold-prospecting equipment and spear guns. Underwater photography is also a specialty.

“What separates us is we offer an adventure here,” Phillips said. “This is an opportunity for people to become more than a good diver.”

Spencer and Forrest Phillips have also helped police departments search for murder weapons and missing bodies in the state’s rivers, lakes and streams.

“These are just other aspects of scuba diving,” Steve Phillips said.

Every June, Steve and Spencer Phillips go to Alaska and explore the Bering Sea for two months using dredges and metal detectors for gold.

John Trott, who was certified at the shop, said he spent a couple months researching shops in the Birmingham area before settling on Southern Skin Divers Supply. He praised the shop’s impeccable safety record and the instructors’ expertise.

Trott traveled to Alaska last summer and joined the Phillips’ hunt for gold.

“It was wonderful. I really enjoyed it,” said Trott, who plans to return to Alaska on July 15.

Why is Phillips so enthused by diving?

“Three-fifths of the world is underwater, so there’s a lot to see,” he said.

*The shop is at 4515 Fifth Ave. South. Regular business hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call 595-3052.

A free “scuba diving experience” is available to those who call ahead of time and stop by with a bathing suit and towel, Phillips said, referring to the opportunity given to newcomers to try on the scuba gear and go underwater.

*Oher local shops offer diving equipment and/or lessons, including Dive Site Inc. on Lakeside Parkway (978-3386), Ripp-Tide Dive Center Inc. in Homewood (871-441) and Blue Water Scuba in Pelham (663-2287), which features open-water diving in a quarry.