Snorkel Bob's Robert Wintner: Tale of a Reef Warrior

When locals think of the evolution of Snorkel Bob’s, they think of the revolutionary equipment the company designs and engineers. They think of the quirky, iconic ads starring “Snorkel Dog” and “Catfish” that helped launch the brand. But what makes Snorkel Bob’s an integral part of the island ‘ohana (family), is their relentless pursuit of “reef justice.” 

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Founder Robert Wintner—entrepreneur, author, photographer and conservationist—and his Snorkel Bob Foundation have propelled pivotal efforts to preserve the very reefs that millions of island guests enjoy each year. Maui, for instance, has been 100 percent free of gill nets since 2006 thanks in part to these efforts. And for the past 11 years the Foundation has spearheaded efforts to outlaw the practice of “wildlife trafficking for the pet trade.” Finally, in 2017, Senate Bill 1240 passed in the State Legislature, only to be vetoed by Governor David Ige. “What adds insult to injury,” says Wintner, “is that 99 percent of these beautiful creatures are dead within one year of capture, and there are 28 million of these beautiful creatures in the aquarium trade pipeline at any one time.”

How 40 masks and snorkels became a business success and conservation force
While vacationing in Miami as a young boy, Wintner’s father took him to Walgreen’s for a $2 mask and snorkel—the “deluxe” with the ping-pong ball—then down to the beach and into the shallows. The old man’s wingtips got soaked as young Bobby put his face in the water. A three-inch sand crab waved a claw in greeting, and Bobby looked up, sputtering free of the snorkel to exclaim, “Oh God! You can see everything!”

Fast forward to 1986. The Indiana native, by way of Missouri, North Carolina and California, has made it to Maui.

Snorkel Bob begins modestly. The aspiring entrepreneur buys up four boxes of snorkel gear from a dive shop going out of business. These days, the company designs and engineers its own snorkel equipment, but back then, it was just Wintner and his modest inventory.

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Snorkel Bob’s humorous, animal-centric ad campaigns, combined with stores that maintain a “clubhouse feel” and world-class equipment helped grow the company to stores on all islands. “This is great for our customers,” says Marketing Director Joan Lloyd, “because you can pick up your gear on one island and return it on another, 24 hours a day.”

Taking care of "reef" business
In addition to entrepreneurial success, that first set of snorkel gear helped underwrite enormous conservation efforts. The Snorkel Bob Foundation’s stated mission is simply, “a focus on reef recovery.”

Recently, that focus has been put to film by way of The Dark Hobby—All the Pretty Fishes and the Price Paid to Tank Them, a 75-minute documentary that explores the dark underbelly of aquarium fish trafficking. The movie was filmed in Indonesia, the Philippines and Hawai‘i, ground zero for the aquarium trade. For more information on this important project, visit thedarkhobby.com.

Wintner also possesses a love and talent for reef photography. He shares reef personalities and characters in his books, Some Fishes I Have KnownEvery Fish Tells a StoryNeptune Speaks, and more recently, REEF LIBRE and Dragon Walk (2018). He has friends he regularly visits at Molokini including “Kukla,” a gregarious yellow-margin moray eel, and “Cuddles,” a toothy, photogenic barracuda buddy. Many of Robert’s photos are posted on Snorkel Bob’s Facebook page.

Seeing (snorkeling) is believing
If you don’t yet share Snorkel Bob’s passion for protecting reef wildlife, you will after you’ve experienced Hawai‘i’s aquatic offerings through their custom gear.

The MoflO2 dry snorkels with double valve twin chambers clear easy, and deliver fresh air with every breath.

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Wintner knows that many kids wear glasses and developed the Li’l Mo Betta Rx mask with nearsighted correction. The Li’l Bubba was the first ever dry snorkel in small format. As Wintner says, “Kids gag on adult snorkels or junk kid gear, and the deal is off for years. The Li’l Bubba lets your junior barracuda breathe easy, happy as a meadowlark in springtime.” Snorkel Bob’s later developed the Mofl02RS for smaller-lunged snorkelers.

Any experienced snorkel adventurer will tell you that the right equipment is paramount to a great experience. Thanks to Snorkel Bob’s Robert Wintner and his commitment to equipment and conservation, you’ll see more of Hawai‘i’s wondrous reef life—optically and quantifiably.

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