The Life Aquatic - with Diver Ed
Story and photos by Richard Sassaman
Many fine boat tours in the Bar Harbor area take customers looking for whales or seals or puffins, for lobsters or lighthouses, and each offers its own kind of enjoyment. Only Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theater cruise, however, stops in the middle of the tour so passengers can throw the guide overboard.
Eddie Monat - aka the underwater superhero Diver Ed - started his Dive-In Theater in the summer of 2000 to rectify the fact that millions of visitors travel to Down East Maine every year, yet very few of them ever get a glimpse below the surface of the ocean, or have any idea what’s going on down there. It’s a shame, Ed says, that “most visitors come and go without ever witnessing our most fascinating natural treasure - the undersea world of the Gulf of Maine.”
Monat, the most experienced diver in this area, has spent “way over 30,000 hours” - equal to about 3.5 years of his life - underwater. After growing up as a teenage lobsterman in Cape Cod Bay south of Boston, he came to Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic in 1984, where his student projects included the creation of an underwater dive trail just offshore from the campus, and a salt-water touch tank filled with sea creatures he brought up to the surface so people could learn more about them. Which is exactly what he does today, more than 20 years after graduation, with his Dive-In Theater.
Diver Ed’s beloved tour boat, the M/V Seal, was destroyed (along with a number of other vessels) in a November 2008 storm, but he returned in the summer of 2009 with a new, slightly larger boat, the Starfish Enterprise. The beginning of the tour, with Ed on the surface, takes visitors around Frenchman Bay — through the Porcupine Islands, past seals, harbor porpoises, bald eagles, giant cruise ships, kayakers, and whatever else happens to come along. It’s really the best way to see Mount Desert Island, from the water at a distance. Next, depending on the weather and wind direction, Ed selects an optimal place to anchor for part two of the Dive-In Theater.
After someone (usually the kids on board) pushes him overboard, he heads to the bottom (usually 50 to 80 feet down) with a high-definition video camera, and his wife Edna Martin, aka Captain Evil, also a licensed Coast Guard captain, takes over topside. (Captain Evil gets her name because she’s so nice, the same way you might call a tall man Shorty.)
Side curtains are lowered, turning the Seal into a theater, and as Captain Evil narrates and talks with Ed, the live video feed he’s capturing appears on a large screen at the front of the boat. Unlike, say, in the Caribbean, Ed doesn’t have a specific dive spot - he likes to keep trying new places, to keep himself as interested as the passengers. So no one knows what he’ll find down there, but it could be anything from a wide variety of possibilities including, among other creatures, anemones and sea urchins and sand dollars, moon snails and sun stars and sculpin, fan worms and hermit crabs and lobsters, whelks and sea peaches and the gloriously slimy sea cucumber.
A Playmobil diver named Mini-Ed, who goes along on each descent, provides a sense of scale for the camera, as well as comic relief, although being Ed’s dive buddy is no laughing matter. (Sadly, dozens of Mini-Eds have perished since 2000 in the line of duty, usually while defending Diver Ed from large lobsters or crabs.)
For the last part of his tour, under a special collecting permit from the State of Maine, Ed then brings many of the animals he’s filmed aboard, so passengers can pass them around and take an even closer look. The Starship Enterprise thus functions as a kind of Magic School Boat for people of all ages, in turn serving as a tour boat, a movie theater, and finally a hands-on museum, until the creatures are returned safely to the ocean and the boat returns home.
Since coming to Maine over 25 years ago, Diver Ed has stayed here except for his first year after graduation, when he worked as a research diver for the Smithsonian Institution in the Ten Thousand Islands of southwest Florida. “I was collecting critters for the marsh biome of the Biosphere 2 project out in Arizona,” he says. “I had in mind that I would summer in Maine and winter in Florida but once I moved back up here, I couldn’t bring myself to leave again.” Ed worked, among other jobs, as a commercial fisherman, a scuba instructor, and as the Bar Harbor Harbormaster before starting up his Dive-In Theater.
Florida’s loss has been Bar Harbor’s gain, as is evidenced by the thousands of satisfied visitors, many of who return to the Seal again and again to spend quality time with Ed, Edna, and their favorite sea creatures. Without getting wet, you too can explore the fascinating undersea world of Diver Ed.
Each regular Dive-In Theater tour lasts approximately two hours. The tour season begins Memorial Day Weekend, and lasts until Labor Day.
Tours depart daily from Bar Harbor. Reservations are required; call (207) 288-DIVE (3483).
Ticket Prices are $42 for adults and children 12 and up, $37 for seniors (over 60), $32 for children under 12, and $16 for children under 5. All major credit cards are accepted.
Schedule: Mondays through Fridays 9:30am, 1:00pm & 4:30pm; Saturdays 9:30am & 1:00pm; Sundays 9:30am
More information can be found at www.divered.com