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Pioneers in SCUBA diving in the Central U.P.

Bettey Tomasi is shown diving on a shipwreck. (Photo courtesy of George and Bettey Tomasi)

MARQUETTE — Some of us may remember Jacques Cousteau in his TV shows and documentaries in the 1970s and 1980s. Today we hear of diving in Lake Superior, such as this summer’s lower harbor clean up. Some may know that you can take a credited course for diving at Northern Michigan University.

Did you also know Marquette had its own dive shop back in the 1970s? That you could not only take a diving class, but that you could study to be a certified dive instructor? That the second woman to receive Master Instruction certification with Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Bettey Tomasi, lives in Marquette? If you know George and Bettey Tomasi, you may know the story.

George and Bettey met at NMU and married in 1956 but after graduating left the area for work. Later George found a job at NMU and was able to move their growing family back to Marquette. Eventually they would have nine children. He worked as the Conference Director and hired Scott Holman.

Scott also taught scuba di

ving as part of the continuing education department to students and community members. The class was not for credit. He invited George and Bettey to take the class. After taking the class, they started helping teach and soon afterward, Scott left and they assumed all teaching responsibilities.

While diving for the military or exploration dated much further back, diving as a sport was still quite new in the early 1970s. Several organizations developed for teaching and certification in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, certification of teachers was still being developed.

The Tomasis' charter boat is pictured. (Image courtesy of George and Bettey Tomasi)

George and Bettey trained with PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors). The emphasis was more on experience in the water and practical skills than theories. They continued to work with the organization throughout their diving careers.

Not only did the couple teach, they worked to promote the sport of diving in many other ways. They opened a dive shop on Third Street, next to the Blue Link. Divers could get their oxygen tanks filled and purchase other needed gear. Their children helped run the store, so it was only open after school and on weekends. Customers could also call the business at the Tomasi house and Bettey could meet them down at the shop.

George purchased a boat and started diving tours of wrecks in Munising. The tours featured the Smith Moore wreck which sat upright, and offered a great diving experience. Divers from around the Midwest came to dive off their boat. Again, some of their children helped with the diving tours.

Bettey continued teaching with some of their children helping her at open water dives at Presque Isle. The diving program offered different levels including instructor certification. Divers came from around the Midwest to become certified instructors, then they came back to the region with their students to dive George’s shipwreck tours.

Bettey’s work also extended into writing for national publications. She wrote a column for the Under Sea Journal for other instructors and developed a seminar on Women in Diving, as this was still a new field for women. The couple presented around the Midwest and East Coast.

Bettey and George Tomasi are shown in their wetsuits. (Photo courtesy of Bettey and George Tomasi)

Locally they supported a club with activities and a newsletter to support the sport. Night time diving was available. Holiday outings included underwater pumpkin carving contests and Easter egg hunt competitions.

The couple had long term impacts on the sport in the Great Lakes: Bettey worked to have a bariatric chamber purchased at the hospital–the first in the UP. The treatment for divers was not available to divers in the UP; and there was no good solution in case of an emergency.

Both Bettey and George worked on a committee to establish underwater preserves in the Great Lakes. As furniture manufactures salvaged wrecks to reuse timbers for furniture, divers found their sport in jeopardy. George and Bettey served consecutive terms on the state committee to save these wrecks. By 1980 legislation set up the protection of these wrecks including those off Marquette and Munising. These laws made it illegal to remove artifacts from the wrecks and preserved wrecks for divers to enjoy for generations to come.

George and Bettey also provided training for the police, including training for under water ice rescue. They provided professional diving for the police and the mines. Bettey even helped construct the upper harbor marina as George was chartering tours on the weekends and holding down his full time job at NMU during the week.

Diving is still taught at NMU, though today it is a credited course. There is no longer a dive shop and the charter tour boat was remade into a glass bottom boat so non-divers can view the wrecks from the comfort of the boat. However, many divers are still active in the region.

Learn more about sport diving in the region on Nov. 4 when local diving enthusiasts Eric Smith and Dan Fountain will discuss their adventures such as diving the shipwrecks of Isle Royale. They will share historical images of shipwrecks and discuss the development of sport diving around Lake Superior. This live online presentation will include time for questions. $5 donation to the History Center to join this program. Register for the Zoom online program at marquettehistory.org/things-to-do or scan the QR code.

Diving is also featured in our current special exhibit: The Great Outdoors: The History of Outdoor Recreation in Marquette County through Jan. 23. The program and exhibit are part of our 2020 Great Outdoors Series, with support from the Michigan Humanities Council.

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