By JOHN CHRISTOPHER FINE
A young Spencer Slate was drawn to water sports.
“I watched Mike Nelson on television in the ’50s and ’60s. ‘Sea Hunt’ got me interested in diving. I got mail order dive equipment from a sporting goods store,” he said.
Slate was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1947. His family lived in town but had a pasture behind the house where he kept a horse he rode. He joined the Army and served from 1972 to 1976 in a MASH unit.
Slate dove all through college with the Wake Forest University dive club. He graduated from East Carolina University in Greenville. On breaks, he’d come down to the Florida Keys to dive.
In 1972, he moved to Jacksonville, where he took up a post teaching business in high school. He became a YMCA instructor and taught diving at Jacksonville’s YMCA.
In 1978, Slate moved to Key Largo.
“I borrowed money from a government program to buy a business and boat,” he said. “When I came to the Keys, Steve Klem was a legend. He was called the ‘Pied Piper of Pennekamp Park.’ He befriended me. That’s how I got started feeding critters. I took over Steve’s critters and began feeding some of my own.”
Slate feeds marine creatures underwater, and the interaction enables divers to see large marine animals up close. The state of Florida banned feeding underwater but allows fishermen to chum for fish. The ruling is an anomaly, yet enforced. Slate respects the law and feeds only in permitted areas more than 3 miles offshore in federal waters where feeding is allowed.
Slate moved his dive operation to newly refurbished headquarters at MM 90.7 on the oceanside in Tavernier. He moved into his new dive shop, school and compressor facility in February 2014. His three dive boats are moored out back. It is a short passage out to Tavernier Creek to the Atlantic Ocean.
Slate is his own man. He still has fun diving and he’s been at it 58 years. His son Hunter began diving at 10. His daughter Sky began diving when she was 11.
Feeding wild marine life is not without risk. Slate uses teflon gloves to protect his hands.
“The doctor told me if I get one more bite on this finger, he’s just going to cut it off,” he laughed.
Magazine articles featured pictures of this veteran diver feeding barracuda from his mouth. He produced a mask that was knocked off his head when a favorite barracuda missed. The mask is chewed up. The skirt is scarred with teeth marks.
“I called him ‘Psycho.’ I’d hold sardines in my mouth for him to take them. That’s a 5-foot barracuda. He bit my mouth off. I had to have 29 stitches in my head. That’s the most stitches I ever had. ‘Psycho’ beat me up more than any of them,” Slate recalled.
“I do it not for show. I do it to demonstrate that these ‘dangerous’ marine critters can interact with divers. Divers can understand them, then respect and protect these animals. I do not even have a fishing pole. I take nothing out of the ocean. I don’t spearfish,” he added.
Slate is a National Association of Diving Instructors (NADI) dive instructor and course director. He is also a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) instructor. He served as chairman of the now-defunct national YMCA scuba program and has been chairman of the board of trustees of the College of the Florida Keys. In 2006 Slate ran for Florida state legislature. “I didn’t win but it was a lot of fun. I wouldn’t say yes if I wanted to say no,” he laughed.
More information is at www.captainslate.com or 800-331-DIVE or 305-451-3020. Information about Islamorada in the Florida Keys is at 800-FAB-KEYS or 305-664-4503 or www.islamoradachamber.com.