BAR HARBOR, Maine --I was once told by a Maine newspaper editor that I should "never, never pass up the chance to do anything on a boat."
These words, spoken nearly a decade ago, were sailing in my ears when I first heard about Diver Ed and his Dive-In Theater.
That's right - "dive" as in under the water.
Former harbormaster Eddie Monat takes boatloads of tourists on two-hour excursions in Frenchman Bay, dons a dry suit, and dives 50 feet down with a video camera. Meanwhile, on the open deck of a converted scalloping boat, his passengers sit in neat rows and, without a drop of danger or discomfort, watch him on a monitor the size of a movie screen.
It sounded kind of corny. But for someone who took scuba lessons and never advanced past the deep end of a swimming pool, it sounded enticing. And it involved a boat. In Maine. In summer.
So, on a weekend in June, my husband and I bury our skepticism and book our reservations for a quirky opportunity to view the underwater world of our home state.
The first thing we discover on crawling through the traffic to Bar Harbor with our three young children is that the village has changed in the two years since we last roamed its gift-store-lined streets. It has become harder than ever to push a stroller up its jam-packed sidewalks. The lower end of West Street is being built into a massive, medieval-looking resort. And T-shirt shops outnumber boats in the harbor by about 2-to-1.
But there, at the end of the waterfront, tied to a wooden dock below the curving balconies of the Bar Harbor Inn is what we have come for: a rather modest fishing boat with a lime-green top and "Seal" painted on the side. Compared with the triple-decker cruise ships and the four-masted Windjammer tied nearby, it looks like a country girl at a debutante ball.
After taking a couple of hours to unwind in the harborside park with a home-packed picnic, 3-month-old Lydia is sufficiently fed and relaxed, while Judah, 6, and Gabriel, 3, are ready and wound up to meet Monat, a.k.a. "Diver Ed." So down the grassy slope toward the gangplank we go, baby carrier, diaper bag, and children in tow.
"Come on down," we are greeted by a mop-haired man with the full-throttle enthusiasm of a game-show host and his two huge Newfoundland dogs, Sasha and Radar.
Monat, 37, is a former lobsterman, College of the Atlantic graduate, marine ecologist, and special education teacher whose passion is to proclaim the wonders of the sea. For years he carted rubber tubs full of sea creatures to libraries and classrooms around the region. Then, four years ago, after doing some underwater video work, he launched this venture.
"I was just trying to figure out a way to be in the water all the time, teach people, and have fun," Monat said.
So he bought the Seal, the slowest and steadiest boat in the harbor - "built like a Sherman tank" - and screwed six rows of wooden benches onto the deck.
With Lydia asleep in her carrier - so far, so good - we file onto the Seal and secure the first and second rows (the only seats under the shade of an awning). Within minutes, another 40 passengers squeeze in behind us. They come from as far as California and as close as the hill next door.
Word has gotten out. Last year one family on board said that they were the last ones in their neighborhood - in Pennsylvania - to make the excursion.
Monat has been diving these waters since he was 16. Standing toward the Seal's prow in greased jeans and a T-shirt with his caricature on it, he introduces himself. Then he passes around a truly Down East take on name tags: two rolls of duct tape and two permanent markers. After trying and failing to tear my strip with fingernails, I rip it off with my teeth.
With a quick safety demonstration involving a life vest and an 8-year-old girl - "All right, once we get this around here, we're going to see how it floats," Monat says, strapping the vest around the volunteer's waist and pretending to hurl her overboard - we are underway.
Out past rock ledges. Past yachts and whale-watching boats. Beneath blue sky. Captain Kris Ohlson, a blonde with a quirky sense of humor to equal Monat's, turns the boat so we can exchange curious glances with a harbor seal.
It's a perfect day on the water - smooth as in a bathtub - and Sasha settles down at my feet. In the row behind me, Gabriel is safely stowed on my husband Dana's lap with Judah at his side.
"Mommy, am I going to be seasick soon?" Judah wants to know. It's his third boat ride.
Fifteen minutes from the dock, Monat suits up, pulling his equipment from a stack of dive gear by the engine box and squeezing his ample girth into the thick, rubber dive suit. In the 21 years he's been diving these water, Monat has done everything from laying electric cable to recovering criminal evidence to making film footage for the Smithsonian.
Ohlson anchors the boat a dozen yards off Long Porcupine Island, a mound of rock with pines poking up like quills. Monat buckles 40 pounds of lead around his waist, heaves his air tank onto his back, and spits into his mask. Once he's ready, he balances on the stern and invites a 3-year-old girl to push him overboard.
We watch his bubbles and wait. While Monat scouts out the area, Ohlson introduces Diver Ed's equipment, including Mini Ed, a three-inch plastic action figure in a dive suit. Tied by a short rope to the video camera, Monat uses Mini Ed as a comparison to show the true size of creatures on the ocean floor.
Within minutes, Monat's bubbles turn toward the boat, and he surfaces like a giant rubber seal. After grabbing the camera, he's back underwater. Ohlson pulls down the movie screen, covering the back window of the wheelhouse. Because of the daylight, the image is shadowy, but sure enough, Diver Ed's bubbles flow upward across the screen.
"I'm hungry, Mom."
"Mom, I'm hungry."
I brought everything but snacks. Lydia is the only one who gets to eat.
As Monat floats along the ocean floor, Ohlson narrates, identifying each image on the screen: The bloated body of a sea cucumber. The reaching arms of a sea star. A spiny sea urchin. A sea slug. A toad crab. A horse muscle. A lobster that tries to back under a rock, then goes on the attack, clutching Mini Ed between its crusher claw. Wham. Wham. Wham. Mini Ed is hurled against the camera lens in a silent drama while the boatload bursts into laughter.
"I want more attacking, Mommy," Gabriel says.
Food forgotten. Another appetite surfaces.
Each creature goes into Monat's mesh bag. Then, after 15 minutes, he climbs up the back of the boat, slopping water all over the deck and doing an imitation of a human blimp as he lets Judah inflate his suit to an impossible size. It's like watching Jacques Cousteau on "Saturday Night Live."
Now the real fun begins. Monat empties his finds into two large tubs and spends nearly an hour passing them around and teaching about each one. He turns a starfish upside down to show how it holds onto his hair, kisses the mucous-covered mouth of a sea-cucumber (picture a jumbo-sized banana slug), and pops a baby sea urchin in his mouth (neither is harmed).
"If any of you wants the opportunity to kiss any of these animals, you'll have the chance," Monat assures us. "But I don't want to see any poking, pinching, pulling - or chewing."
Then it's the kids' turn. As little fingers carefully touch fresh-from-the-ocean life, I learn some fascinating facts: that sea stars (a.k.a. starfish) have eyes on the ends of their arms; that sea cucumbers can spit out their own guts and grow new ones; that lobsters are left- or right-handed. No kidding.
After plenty of squeamish touching, the creatures are released back into the water, and we are on our way back toward the dock, where we will search for food to feed our growling stomachs. Meanwhile, Judah gets permission to try on Monat's hood and mask. Then both boys sit on the deck and pet the dogs while Lydia snoozes to the soothing vibrations of the engine.
When we see a flash of silver, the boat slows to circle a pod of porpoises, backs breaking the surface of the water in a shimmering arch.
Meadow Rue Merrill is a freelance writer who lives in Bath, Maine.