If trends can be predicted by reading bumper stickers, an informal survey of those "I'd-rather-be . . . " messages on the back of many Utah autos indicates diving is on the rise.

Diving? In Utah? Sky diving, maybe. Golf or tennis for sure. Skiing, of course . . . six months from now. Even fishing, water skiing and wind-surfing make sense here. But diving? Underwater? Hey, folks, we live in a desert, remember? The closest coral reef is due west about 750 miles. You can't miss it.Shows how much YOU know, Knudson, chide Utah's growing army of underwater aficionados. Sure, California's OK for diving, but the real action is in faraway places with strange-sounding names like Cozumel, Belize, Fiji and Micronesia. And considering the travel distances involved, those exotic climes are just as close to Salt Lake City as is Newport Beach.

Still unconvinced? Check the Yellow Pages. There are some 15 business listings under "diving" and probably as many more would-be entrepreneurs trying to figure out how to get the capital to open their own dive shop - a dream of many divers who would happily turn their hobby into their profession.

Not that the diving business is a sure thing. For every prosperous dive shop there are two that have, so to speak, gone under.

Among those that have shown staying power locally is Neptune Divers at 24th South and Ninth East. Linda Nelson and George Sanders launched Neptune in 1980 at the site of the old Racquet Club 900, which, in addition to the tennis courts, included a swimming pool that has worked just fine for diving instruction.

The new owners have kept the tennis club going, and they offer swimming instruction as well, but diving is their main preoccupation. Nelson estimates Neptune Divers has, to date, certified 4,500 Utahns in the briny art of scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), including those receiving instruction certificates and other specialized courses.

Teaching, says Nelson, is the heart of the business. Originally, she didn't want to operate a dive shop at all, but she and Sanders quickly realized that when a sport is as equipment intensive as scuba, they had to be able to offer students the gear they need.

Today the store is stocked with enough ultra high-tech gear to max out half the Visa cards in Utah and still have enough left over to keep Jacques Cousteau happy. Although you don't have to take out a second mortgage to go scuba diving, the industry stands ready to meet the needs of those who simply must have all the latest hardware.

But what about this question of desert diving? Why are so many Utahns shucking their hiking boots in favor of swim fins? Well, for one thing, says Nelson, it's a great family sport.

"It's very equalizing. No one really does it `better' than anyone else. It's non-competitive. Kids are very good at it, and older people can excel at it. I recently certified an 82-year-old woman who promptly went to Hawaii to dive off the reefs there and had a great time."

When pushed, Nelson will concede that some people have an easier time learning to dive than others. Swimming skill is not a big factor except that competent swimmers are more comfortable in the water and less apt to panic if something unexpected occurs.

The diving course is six weeks, but no one ever flunks, says Nelson. If they need 12 weeks, no problem. "We don't feel good about telling people, `Yes, you passed but we sure hope you never

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dive.' They deserve to have a good experience. After all, we're selling fun here."

Those who like the idea of diving but are unsure about taking the plunge (sorry), usually attend one of Neptune's "splash parties," where, according to Nelson, they find out just how easy it really is. Snorkeling, she says, is easier than swimming, and scuba is easier than snorkeling.

"Actually, the hardest part of the course is snorkeling - learning to breathe, develop a rhythm."

But why here? Why do desert dwellers want to learn diving? Nelson, who became interested in diving while watching Lloyd Bridges flip his fins in the old "Sea Hunt" TV series, has some ideas on that: "For one thing, we are blessed with a number of geothermal springs here that allow year-round diving."

Chief among those is Blue Lake near Wendover where divers go in winter to get their "open water" certification after mastering the pool work. For summer training, Bear Lake sees a lot of action.

"Then there's the fact we have a lot of lakes and reservoirs for people to scuba in. We have so many boaters in Utah, and it's a natural for them. Overall, I suppose, it's because we have a large population of outdoor people here. Utahns are doers, and diving is something many of them want to do."

One of the traditional attractions of scuba diving has been spear fishing but, along with hunting in general, that has declined in recent years in favor of photography. In Utah, spear fishing is legal only in Fish Lake, Deer Creek and Steinaker reservoirs. Nelson believes the restrictions stem from the common belief of non-divers that spear fishing is too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel.

"It's not, believe me," she assures. "A diver is no more likely to get a fish with a spear than a fisherman is with a line. Personally, I don't shoot fish. I don't like killing animals. I have no objection if people kill animals and eat them, but just to make them dead, that bothers me."

Despite Utah's many lakes and warm springs, it must be conceded that the state is not a diver's paradise. Even in summer the reservoirs are cold, vision is limited and, frankly, there's not a lot to see. Coral reefs laden with exotic fish haven't made it here yet. Nor have sunken Spanish galleons.

But that's OK, because 12 times a year Neptune Divers whisks its students (and any other divers who can afford it) away to those exotic locales mentioned above. Jamaica, Australia, the Phillipines, Virgin Islands, Fiji (next week, Cozumel, Mexico), Linda has led expeditions to them all - a major fringe benefit of owning a diving business.

Lest you perish from unbridled envy, you should know that Neptune Divers is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Nelson (Sanders spends little time at the shop; he has other businesses) can be found there most of the time.

"It seems like such a fun, exotic profitable business," says Nelson, "and, yes, it's fun. But it's not profitable, and the hours are very, very long. it's an expensive business to run because the overhead is awfully high. I love it, it's my life, but I'm never going to get rich."

But she's not just minding the store, either. Although Blue Lake has been the mainstay for cold weather diving in Utah, it has drawbacks, among them that it gets muddy and it's a two-hour drive from Salt Lake City. Nelson and Sanders had a better idea: they would buy the Grantsville Warm Springs from that Tooele County town and turn it into a dive park.

How they finally acquired the 80 acres and warm springs that now comprise what they have renamed Sea Base is another story, and there isn't space here to go into it. Suffice to say that they pulled it off and are now working to convert the eight "hot pots" there into a a scuba park that will include a wading pool for kids, windsurfing and other family activities. Nelson is hoping to have it open this winter.

Incidentally, if you decide to give scuba diving a try, don't be discouraged if, initially, it's not what you thought it would be. Nelson took her first diving lessons with her husband (who died of cancer a year before she and Sanders opened the shop) and was less than thrilled.

"Actually, I hated my scuba classes. I hated the experience. We went to Bear Lake and there was snow and big waves - I thought I was going to drown. But, obviously, I learned to like it. Then I learned to love it. I'm stubborn, I guess. I wouldn't have wanted to miss all this."