In last week’s story in the Island Sand Paper on the Purple Heart Theater, Carl spoke about one of the previous owners, Captain Bob Baldi, and how, in the ‘70’s, he made the building at 2915 Estero the new home for his dive shop – the Everglades Skindiving School. Bob taught many native Islanders how to dive in an age when scuba was a relatively new sport, and his story is another important piece of Island history. I caught up with him this week to find out how he came to run the school and what it was like to live on the Beach in a younger era.
Bob and Sandy grew up in New York, and met in middle school when she was 13 and he was 14. Childhood sweethearts, they moved to Florida to go to college.
“I was going to college at Edison Community College and Sandy was going to the University of Miami, when Sandy’s mom moved to the end of Curlew Street on Fort Myers Beach,” Bob told me as I sat in the kitchen of the Baldi’s comfortable home in Siesta Isles. “I rented a house down the street from Sandy’s mom, then finished school over at Miami-Dade University.” Sandy told me that the couple would come home to Fort Myers Beach on the weekends. “Bob started getting bored, and he was looking for something to do when he started taking lessons at the Everglades Skindiving School, which was located where the Waffle House is now,” said Sandy.
Bob told me that he was bitten by the diving bug almost instantly, and wanted more.
“My instructor at the school, Jim Kilbor, told me about the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools (N.A.S.D.S) and how, in California, there was a three month extended training program where I could learn to be a certified instructor,” said Baldi, giggling at his wife as he came to this part of the story, “When Sandy graduated in May of 1975 we headed out there, and after we eloped, I took the course and became an instructor.” Upon returning to the Island, the Baldi’s happened upon a stroke of luck that would become the stuff of family legend. “Jim Kilbor co-owned the dive shop with Tom Strickland, and when I came back from California, Jim had decided to become a monk. Well, part of becoming a monk involved giving away all his worldly possessions. Lucky for me, Jim gave me his interest in the dive shop along with his car.” Baldi bought out Strickland’s interest and the shop was his.
“There were only three dive shops in town then,” Bob remembered. “Mine, Underwater Explorers, and B&C Sports. Sandy and I ran the shop at the Waffle House (the building and gas station next door were owned by Ed Kane) location for awhile, then, in early 1976, we bought the building at 2915 Estero and built the shop there.” Sandy remembers that their daughter, Christy, was one week old when the couple moved in. “We painted that tiny back bedroom Apple Blossom Pink for her,” she said.
Bob and Sandy ran the school and dive shop at 2915 Estero for 3 years. During that time, he worked seven days a week, running spearfishing trips to the Gulf of Mexico and the Dry Tortugas when he wasn’t teaching classes. “He taught everyone around here to dive and he did a lot of private lessons, too,” said Sandy. “The Powell’s, who used to own the Shell Factory, all of New Cape Construction – who developed a large part of Cape Coral, Andy Freeland from Freeland Motors, Sue Vao, we even went diving with Foster Pate – who developed the Villas in South Fort Myers.” One of the students from those years, Gary Vogel, chronicled his experience in a series of articles he wrote for the Beach Bulletin way back in June of 1977.
“After five weeks of practicing techniques in the swimming pool, I was more than ready last Sunday to head to the Keys for my first open water dive,” wrote Vogel. While his words may have been written three decades ago, they invoke memories in every diver of those exhilaration soaked hours leading up to the First Time. “Initially when I sank below the surface and looked at what I was seeing, I thought, “Oh, my God.”” Vogel wrote. “I was stunned. Nothing on the land could rival it. Color dominated everything.” Gary went on to detail how he had a hard time paying attention to the drills that Blandi was trying to put the class through when there was a whole new dimension to see. “I could no sooner pay attention to him than I could read a book down there,” he wrote, talking about how a grunt (fish) came up to nibble on his fingers as Bob had the class practice using their buoyancy compensators. In what is probably the most accurate ode to diving this reporter has ever heard, Vogel finishes the description of his first dive trip by saying, “Diving awakens in every participant that childlike appreciation and fascination for everything in the world.” Quite a legacy to leave behind, Captain Baldi!
But Bob was not known only for teaching folks to dive. In an early 1977 article from the Fort Myers News-Press, he gained fame for catching some of the biggest lobsters ever seen in these parts – 42 inches from tail to tip – on a “virgin ledge” while spearfishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Spiny, or Florida, lobsters lack the claws of their northern counterparts and are usually quite a bit smaller, but to any Cracker that knows how to prepare them, their meat is the very nectar of the gods. Columnist Bill Miller detailed Baldi’s catch in his ‘Outdoors’ column from March 19, 1977.
“Bob Baldi and a party of six other divers were swimming 60 feet below the Gulf’s surface – exploring what Captain Frank Deebold had described as a ‘virgin ledge’”, wrote Miller. He detailed how the group were armed with spear guns and looking for grouper, snapper and hogfish in the soupy water where the visibility was a meager six feet. “Normally, they would have been able to distinguish the various species at a range of 15 feet or more. So they groped their way slowly along the ledge, trailing a stream of bubbles from their SCUBA gear, and that’s when Baldi discovered the first of two monster lobsters,” Miller said. His column went on to talk about young Bob Baldi and how he owned the Everglades Skin Diving School on the Beach. “In addition to teaching classes in SCUBA diving and spear-fishing, he organizes dive trips to offshore ledges and wrecks as well as longer trips to the Tortugas and the Keys. He said most of the trips are chartered with Captain Frank Deebold of Deebold’s Marina ‘because he knows where the best spots are’”, Miller wrote. When asked about sharks, Bob was quoted as saying, “We’ve never had a shark problem. We often see small sharks and nurse sharks, but no problems.” The column features a picture of a grinning Baldi holding up the enormous crawfish.
The couple recalled what it was like to live on the Island in the ‘70’s. “It seemed like it was a lot smaller, then,” said Sandy. “We all knew each other, and it was such a fun place to live. The traffic was bad even then, though, and we would sit outside and wave at everybody as they sat in it.” Bob said that he liked to take his kids swimming at the Sand Castle down by the pier, which was owned by the Browns. “I cleaned their pool and their sailboat, and they let us use both of them,” he said.
All good things must come to an end, however, and after working “8 days a week” for so long, Bob just got burned out. “One day we were upstairs in our living room and the buzzer rang downstairs, telling us that someone was at the shop,” Sandy recalled. “I said, “Bob! Someone’s here,” and he just looked at me and said, “I don’t care.” It was only a couple of days after that that we put the shop up for sale.” The Baldi’s would remain in the building and lease the downstairs for a while before finally selling 2915 Estero for $125,000 around 1980.
“We moved to McGregor Woods, where I had our son, Salvatore,” said Sandy. “Then we bought this place in Siesta Isles and Bob became Captain Bob!” The couple has spent the last 30 years there, with Bob running fishing charters or commercial fishing off his boat – docked in the wide canal behind their house. “Bob works just as hard at fishing as he did at diving,” said Sandy. Now, though, with fuel prices skyrocketing and fewer fish to find, Bob and Sandy are finally starting to take it easy. Or maybe not…
“The fishing is slowing down, so it looks like its time for Plan B,” said Sandy.
Keri Hendry ~ published in the Island Sand Paper, Issue 383, June 13th, 2008
published in the Island Sand Paper, June 13th, 2008