Dive Industry Market Data

Scuba Diving Participation Rate & Statistics

Scuba diving participation compared to snorkeling, swimming, surfing, and stand-up paddling, including the pandemic years.

Darcy Kieran (Scuba Diving)
Published in
13 min readJul 16, 2019


Scuba diving participation rate compared to snorkeling, swimming, surfing, and stand-up paddling including the 2020 pandemic year
Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

Darcy Kieran is the author of the reference book “Scuba Diving Industry Market Size, Reports & Statistics” and other handbooks & logbooks for dive professionals and scuba divers.

Updated on Sept. 28, 2022.

The participation rate in scuba diving among the American population is one set of data we can rely on.

We are severely lacking scuba diving industry statistics and even more, reliable data. We are not sure where the dropout rate stands. We are not even certain of the size of the dive industry. But we know the scuba diving participation rate in the USA because it’s part of an extensive study done annually by SFIA (Sports and Fitness Industry Association) in their Topline Participation Report and by OIA (Outdoor Industry Association) in their annual outdoor participation report.

We will look at the participation rate for scuba diving among the American population. And for strategic reasons, we will compare it to snorkeling, swimming, surfing, and stand-up paddling. We will also look at the impact of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic on participation in scuba diving and outdoor activities.

Update, Sept. 2022: At the end of this analysis, you will find a link to an addendum including statistics for participation during the second year of the pandemic (2021).

1. SFIA Scuba Diving Participation Statistics

The latest SFIA Topline Report we’ve used is the 2021 edition with 2020 statistics. It provides us with the level of participation in scuba diving among the American population for the last few years.

One valuable part of the SFIA report is that it breaks down this information into two categories of participants:

  • Casual: Participating in scuba diving 1 to 7 times per year.
  • Core: Participating in scuba diving 8+ times per year.

These two groups are fairly different in how they spend, what they expect, and how you can best do marketing to them.

2021 SFIA Topline Report

In 2020, there were 2.59M scuba diving participants in the USA, most of which were Casual (1.88M). Only about 708K scuba diving Americans, in 2020, dove more than seven times during the year. It’s a small industry!

These 2020 numbers represent a drop of 4.7% from the previous year. 2020 was a special pandemic year. Yet, if we look at the trends from 2015, participation has been dropping consistently every year.

Scuba diving participation by Americans
Analysis based on SFIA 2021 annual report

There are two aspects of this scuba diving participation data worth a second look at:

  • A welcome increase in ‘core divers’ participation in 2020.
  • A higher drop in participation from casual divers over the last 5 years.

They both have consequences on our dive industry strategies for 2021 and beyond.

A 2020 Increase in Participation from Core Scuba Divers

In an industry in decline for more than a decade, it is refreshing to see an increase in participation. Finally! It is unfortunate that it was due to a worldwide pandemic. Yet, it gives us a lesson on strategies that may work for us in the future.

With worldwide travel at a standstill because of numerous countries closing their borders to tourism, people were stuck at home. They were looking for ‘things to do’ that didn’t require traveling. It boosted the outdoor industry, and on that coattail, local (near home) scuba diving activities experienced growth.

This 1.3% growth in participation by core divers was not enough to pull the entire industry up because there was a 6.6% drop in participation by casual divers. These casual divers are more likely to be people occasionally diving while on vacation.

This situation is clearly represented in Johnson Outdoors 2020 financial results. While their scuba diving division (Scubapro) experienced a sharp drop in sales, their three other divisions were actually booming: fishing, camping, and watercraft.

We could blame the pandemic for this 6.6% drop in scuba diving participation by casual divers in 2020, but… We shouldn’t! In the year before the pandemic, in 2019, we witnessed a drop of 5.5% in scuba diving participation by casual divers compared to the prior year. The dive industry is not attracting and retaining enough customers to grow. We were in dire need of new dive industry strategies before the pandemic, and we still are.

This SFIA 2020 report and the Johnson Outdoors financial results tell us there is a vibrant interest in engaging in more outdoor activities. And doing it close to home is just fine with them. They don’t need a trip to an exotic destination to enjoy the great outdoors.

It also tells us that the core divers jumped on this bandwagon and actively participated in scuba diving during 2020.

That leaves us with only one missing piece to this puzzle to grow the scuba diving industry: Make ‘local diving’ more attractive to casual divers.

Making scuba diving a fun thing to do close to home doesn’t necessarily mean diving in a murky lake! For numerous reasons.

  • As a starting point, 40% of the US population lives in coastal areas.
  • Then, there are plenty of ways we could imagine more interesting inland dive sites. For instance, Al Rios has been championing the idea of cultivating freshwater quarries as aquatic life educational centers for scuba divers.
  • Furthermore, if we can imagine a more efficient way of delivering compressed air underwater instead of being tied to a very limited number of compressors inside a shrinking number of local dive shops, we could open up many more dive sites for people to enjoy.
  • Finally, scuba diving is “breathing underwater”. One can experience and enjoy that weightless feeling in a pool. We all started there. For somebody who has never experienced breathing underwater, it’s the experience of a lifetime. In fact, we may be better off offering customers a top-notch pool or controlled-open-water environment experience instead of a scary discover-scuba-diving misadventure over a beautiful reef they are too scared to enjoy.

In all cases, making scuba diving more ‘convenient’ and ensuring consistency in the quality of the experience would be two critical success factors — both of which are currently lacking in the scuba diving industry.

We will discuss these two topics on Scubanomics. Subscribe to be kept in the loop.

A Greater Decrease in Participation by Casual Divers Compared to Core Divers

In the 2021 SFIA report, we see a greater decrease in participation by casual divers (1 to 7 dives per year) than core divers (more than 8 dives per year). It’s been the case in 2017, 2019, and 2020. On both a 3-year and 5-year AAG (average annual growth), casual divers' participation dropped more than that of core divers.

On a 5-year AAG, scuba diving participation by casual divers dropped by 4.8%, while it dropped by 4.0% for core divers.

This is a new development. It used to be the opposite.

Casual vs. Core Scuba Divers in the 2012 SFIA Topline Report

If we go back in time and look at the 2012 SFIA topline report, the drop in core scuba diving participants was sharp and stunning. At that point in time, they were reporting data among three categories:

  • Casual: 1–7 times per year
  • Regular: 8–14 times per year
  • Frequent: 15+ times per year

The variation in the participation rate from 2010 to 2011 was as follows:

  • Casual: +0.7%
  • Regular: -3.1%
  • Frequent: -14.8%

At that time, we rationalized these numbers by assuming that older scuba divers (baby boomers) were an aging and, unfortunately, shrinking group of clients.

For the baby boomer generation, scuba diving was a lifelong dream. They wanted to “be a diver.” And once they became one, they defined themselves as being a diver. They bought everything with a dive flag on it! Meanwhile, younger generations want to “do” diving casually, among numerous other activities.

It was notable for the dive industry because core divers are more likely to be going on numerous dive trips per year, buying a full set of scuba diving gear, and taking several continuing education courses.

The socio-demographic differences between these 2 groups remain valid. So what can now explain a sharper drop in participation by casual divers?

2. OIA Scuba Diving Participation Rate

The latest market we have from the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) is from their 2020 Outdoor Participation Report providing results for the outdoor industry markets in 2019. Therefore, it doesn't provide information on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the outdoor industry, but we have that from the SFIA reports discussed earlier in this article.

This OIA annual participation report provides us with a view of how scuba diving was trending in the USA prior to the pandemic.

Scuba diving participation rate in outdoor participation 2020 survey
OIA’s 2020 Outdoor Participation Report

It’s hard to see a trend in these OIA numbers because scuba diving is such a small activity in this outdoor market data survey. OIA doesn’t generate a separate examination of scuba diving as SFIA does.

3. What is pushing casual divers away from scuba diving?

That is the question!

While outdoor activities are growing in popularity, scuba diving is shrinking. Yet, 71% of our planet is water.

There’s clearly something we are doing wrong. And there is undoubtedly a market for scuba diving if we can find a way to reach it and satisfy it. We need to think outside the proverbial box and figure out a Blue Ocean Strategy for the dive industry.

Our strategy to turn the dive industry around will necessarily include the 3 following elements:

So much of what we do and how we do it was designed years ago based on how it was convenient for us to operate. We need to turn this on its head and redesign our operations for what is convenient to scuba consumers. This is such an important issue that we will discuss it in a forthcoming article. Subscribe to be kept in the loop.

4. Snorkeling Participation Rate

Snorkeling is intimately related to the scuba diving industry. Numerous local dive shops complement their income by selling fins, masks, snorkels, and accessories to snorkelers. And numerous dive boats are offering snorkeling tours. So, let’s look at what is happening with snorkeling.

Snorkeling participation rate by Americans USA
Analysis based on SFIA 2021 annual report

In the case of snorkeling, core snorkelers are most likely snorkeling while on vacation under sunny skies. People snorkeling for fun near their homes are unlikely to visit the same site numerous times all year long. This would explain why we see a growth in casual snorkelers during the pandemic with a decline in core snorkelers — the opposite of what we see in scuba diving participation.

Casual scuba divers and core snorkelers are the ones likely to be tourists on vacation.

Snorkeling does not appear to be doing better than scuba diving among Americans. Why?

Besides the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic year, snorkeling is on the decline. Why is it so while outdoor activities are, overall, booming?

One possible explanation is simply that scuba diving may be dragging snorkeling down. In most tourist destinations, snorkeling tours are provided by scuba diving operators. With scuba diving on the decline, snorkeling gets pulled down.

As scuba diving business owners, if we want to offset a decline in scuba diving revenues with snorkeling revenues, we need to find a way to fully satisfy the need of this market segment, independently of what is happening with our diving operations. In other words, snorkeling needs to be a well-designed profit center, not an afterthought to help cover dive boat costs.

In a forthcoming article, we will look at making snorkeling more convenient and attractive to potential customers.

Because of its importance for the dive industry, we dedicated a full article to the socio-demographic profile of snorkelers and the snorkeling participation rate.

Besides snorkeling and scuba diving, dive shops are usually involved in providing goods and services to freediving adepts. This is an activity that appears to be growing in popularity. However, it is not an activity currently part of the SFIA surveys.

5. Swimming Participation Rate

Why are we looking at swimming? Because some dive centers own and operate their pool and have been complementing their income by offering swimming lessons to maximize the utilization of their pool.

So, how is swimming fairing? Let’s look.

Americans participating in swimming for fitness
Analysis based on SFIA 2021 annual report

In the case of swimming for fitness, the huge drop in participation in 2020 is most certainly due to pool facilities being closed during the pandemic. This significant 2020 drop of 9% brought down with it the AAG over 3 and 5 years in an industry otherwise growing slowly but steadily.

That being said, these numbers are for ‘swimming for fitness.’ If you are looking at your pool's profitability, ‘swimming lessons’ are what you want. That market is huge. The US Census Bureau reports that 36% of children 7–17 years, and 15% of adults in the USA, swim at least six times per year.

Swimming may be an excellent way to increase your revenues while your income from scuba diving is shrinking. Furthermore, bringing swimmers to the activity of snorkeling may be an easy upselling opportunity once you have an established relationship with them, especially if we redesign our way of providing water adventures to make them more convenient to today’s consumers.

6. Stand-Up Paddling Participation Rate

We’re looking at stand-up paddling (SUP) because it is a fairly new outdoor activity. Some dive centers added stand-up paddling (SUP) equipment to their product mix to sell in their store. Is it a good idea? Let’s look at the growth in this activity from 2015 to 2020.

Participation rate in stand-up paddling in the USA
Analysis based on SFIA 2021 annual report

Wouldn’t you like to see a gear category in your store with systematic growth, year after year, even during a pandemic? That’s stand-up paddling!

On top of being a category of products to add to your store, it can be an interesting activity to do at the dive site during surface intervals. Non-diving companions of scuba divers could also be interested.

7. Surfing Participation Rate

Surfing is not an activity that every dive center can jump into. You need more than just any body of water! But look at the following growth numbers for 2020 during the pandemic.

Analysis based on SFIA 2021 annual report

Surfing experienced tremendous growth during the COVID-19 pandemic — like so many other outdoor activities — as we discussed numerous times when analyzing the state of the scuba diving industry during the coronavirus pandemic.

If you operate in a coastal area, you certainly should have surfing-related products. You don’t need to have Hawaii or California-type waves. After all, pro surfer Kelly Slater is from Cocoa Beach, Florida, home of the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop. And waves along the coast of Florida are not impressive for surfing!

Surfing has the advantage of being a lifestyle on top of being a water sport, something we have not achieved with scuba diving.

8. Scuba Diving & Outdoor Activities Participation Rate — What’s Next?

We will come back to these other outdoor activities when discussing how to expand your dive shop product mix.

We believe that part of the exercise of turning around the dive industry requires seeing it as part of the broader outdoor industry. Join OIA (Outdoor Industry Association) in addition to DEMA. The outdoor industry, as a whole, is growing. Instead of playing with only one card (scuba diving), we can add a few more cards to our playing hand (other related activities).

Otherwise, to turn the dive industry around, we will need more than modest incremental changes. An in-depth Blue Ocean strategy is required, incorporating consistency in the quality of the scuba diving experience, new ways of reaching non-divers, and more convenience in bringing people to experience the underwater world. We will come back to this later topic in a forthcoming article.

Also from Darcy Kieran:

Side note: During your surface intervals, have a look at my novels with a scuba diving twist, starting with “Mystery of The Blue Dragon” and “Shadows on Ocean Drive.”

You could help the dive industry by taking part in ongoing dive industry surveys. You will also find results from our past scuba diving market studies here.

Don’t be left out! Subscribe to Scubanomics: The Dive Industry Compass to be the first to know about new dive industry market data & insights. Otherwise, be our “dive business buddy” on LinkedIn, Facebook, and elsewhere.

What now? Have a look at the complete Scubanomics Table of Contents.

Scuba Diving Industry Market Research & Data, Scuba Equipment Global Market Size
Let’s make a good living out of our passion for scuba diving!



Darcy Kieran (Scuba Diving)

Entrepreneur | Author | Radio Announcer | Scuba Diving Instructor Trainer — #ScubaDiving #Tourism — #Miami #Montreal #Marseille