An underwater perspective

Scubadelphia in Northeast Philly fosters a diving community in the city.

Scubadelphia owner David Barnes regularly hosts diving instruction and professional divers to speak to the Seahorses Dive Club. | Allan Barnes TTN
Scubadelphia owner David Barnes regularly hosts diving instruction and professional divers to speak to the Seahorses Dive Club. | Allan Barnes TTN

In the waters off the coast of New Jersey, David Barnes and his wife Melissa Barnes came across the oddest of creatures—a mola.

“It’s an ugly, weird fish,” David Barnes said.

“It’s like the T-Rex of fish,” Melissa Barnes added.

The mola, or the ocean sunfish, is a large, bony creature that can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and looks something like a prehistoric dinosaur. Observing rare sights, like the mola, is what the couple says drives them to scuba dive.

“That’s fun, when you see something underwater that I don’t think anybody’s ever seen before,”  said David Barnes, who started diving in 1995.

The couple co-own Scubadelphia, which sells scuba gear, hosts scuba club meetings, provides lessons for new divers and organizes trips.

In addition to running the store, David Barnes is taking classes in career and technical education at Temple’s Center City campus and teaches welding full time at Jules E. Mastbaum High School.

The storefront, located on Castor Avenue near Van Kirk Street in Northeast Philadelphia, is a plain-looking building. Inside, though, is a scuba diver’s paradise: tables are littered with brochures, suits and fins hang along the wall and scuba tanks are lined up along the perimeter.

David Barnes said the interactive experience of his modest shop differentiates Scubadelphia, which opened in 2011, from the many online retailers that sell scuba equipment.

“It’s all personal touch,” David Barnes said. “Most retailers online are not divers. They’re just a big warehouse, and you have a couple of college kids sitting there doing an internship and reading from a book.”

Establishing Scubadelphia was a challenge, like setting up any small business, David Barnes said. What made it even more difficult was the fact that there are not many places to dive in Philadelphia.

“It takes a while for your name to get out there, but now we’re big on Facebook and social media, ” he said. “Within an hour’s distance, there’s lakes, there’s quarries, there’s the ocean.”

Most of Scubadelphia’s customers come from Center City, and Melissa Barnes said some customers have commented on difficulties in transportation.

“Some of them complain because they don’t have a car and it’s hard to get up here,” Melissa Barnes said.

David Barnes explained the location of the store had to do with the cost of renting the property and convenience of traveling from their home in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia. The couple said it is contemplating moving Scubadelphia downtown and building an indoor pool in the future.

“We’re weighing where we want to move eventually and what we might want to become,” David Barnes said.

Despite the relatively remote site from its Center City patrons, the Barnes’ said Scubadelphia has been able to foster a scuba diving community. The pair holds dive club meetings once a month that draw about 25 divers.

Bernadette Gillen, a frequent customer who started diving about two years ago, is attracted to what David Barnes calls the “social aspect” of scuba diving.

“Everyone that I’ve met through the shop is so excited for you to learn how to dive,” Gillen said. “I’ve met really amazing people through [it].”

Rand McGee, a friend of the Barnes family who helps at the store, said he was also drawn to the togetherness of diving.

“The camaraderie of diving is incredible,” McGee said. “When you’re all out there, everybody’s there to support you.”

Gillen will be traveling to the Galapagos Islands with a group of 12 from the Scubadelphia community, including the Barnes. The Galapagos Islands are known for an abundance of sharks, but David Barnes advises beginners not to fear them.

“Once you dive with a shark, you see how nice they are,” David Barnes said. “They’re not going to bite you. This isn’t ‘Jaws.’”

“They couldn’t care less that you’re there,” Gillen added. “You’re like one among them.”

Though the divers have been all over the world, from Ireland to Croatia and all over the Caribbean, David and Melissa Barnes agree that North Carolina is their favorite place to dive.

“North Carolina is one of my favorites because we can drive eight hours there,” David Barnes said. “There’s a lot of wrecks down there that were sunk during World War II.”

The locale is only one element of diving. For McGee, who started diving last July, the real joy isn’t just the social aspect, but really being in his own world underwater.

“It was really stressful at first,” McGee said. “But once you get down there, there’s a real sense of peace and tranquility.”

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at

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