By Kent Coules, Publisher
“We started as a ‘dive club,’” says the Southern California native who first came to Hawai‘i as a U.S. Marine in the early 80’s. “It started as a couple of friends, then a few more type thing on the weekend. I’d tow my first boat (a 25-foot, 10-passenger Radon) from ramp to ramp, and people would meet me there.”
At the time the dive club started in 1995, Benton was a full-time dive instructor at Tropical Ocean Sports in Kane‘ohe Bay. He was responsible for as many as 125 divers in a day, mostly visitors from Japan. “I started the dive club because I like to talk,” laughs Benton, “and I didn’t speak Japanese well.”
In 1999, the Dive Oahu business was running full time, and what started mainly as a dive tour company has blossomed today into snorkeling tours, surfing lessons, equipment rentals, boat tours and more.
“I learned to dive when I was in the Marines and stationed in Okinawa. They have a program called ‘Morale, Welfare and Recreation’ (MWR). They’re subsidized and that’s how I was introduced to SCUBA. One of our first expansions was to pursue the contract at the Navy Exchange at Pearl Harbor, which we won and still have to this day. I wanted to do right by the program that put me on this path.”
In 2001-02, Benton introduced a catamaran to Kewalo Basin and started to open shops. “We’ve grown organically. We have been intentional in researching opportunities and then pursuing those successfully.”
Some of those opportunities have involved government contracts. “We got the Hanauma Bay contract due to a misunderstanding five years prior,” says Benton. “I had an employee use one of our box trucks with our name all over it to drop off equipment for a club dive. No commercial company is allowed to collect money at Hanauma Bay. I went there to de-escalate. I explained the situation and we got to talking. He ended up recommending that we bid on the next contract, which was not for another five years. But we did our homework and we won that bid.”
Today, Dive Oahu employs almost 100 people, something Benton is particularly proud of. “Most dive and surf companies use independent contractors. We’ve always felt that it was better for everyone involved—the company, the employee and the guest—that the great people we hire are provided the advantages and benefits of being employees. We feel that rubs off on the customer experience.”
Then there is their new 46-foot “Anger Management” dive boat that holds up to 49 passengers but is limited to 20 divers. This is to keep the guide to introductory diver ratio as close to two to one as possible. That might explain Dive Oahu earning the Readers Choice Award for 2019 from Scuba Diving Magazine. “Part of the reason we won that award is because we specialize in valet diving and premium gear.”
In addition to a menu of dive experiences and being a PADI 5 Star Career Development Center, there are surfing lessons, snorkeling adventures and a BYOB fireworks boat cruise. “We even offer canoe rides with a guide at our Waikīkī Beach location,” Benton adds.
Chances are if you’re planning on doing something in the water while you’re in Hawai‘i—surf, scuba, snorkel, canoe or just watch fireworks from their boat—Dive Oahu can help, safely. “In 30-plus years, every single guest has returned to shore safe and sound,” says Benton. “That’s our #1 priority every day.”
“The reason I, and my instructors, continue to do this is for that feeling we get seeing the smile on a guest’s face when they surface from their first dive,” concludes Benton. “We are blessed to be able to share our love of diving with so many people.”
[A version of this article can be found in print in the January-March 2020 issues of This Week Oahu]