Dive Shop Sinking, To Be Replaced By Homes
Jay Velasquez is overwhelmed with the media coverage he is getting recently. On his answering machine today a reporter calls from National Public Radio to request an interview. Last week it was the New York Times, Daily News and Fox-Five.
Sadly however, all the press clippings and attention will not prevent his business, Almost Paradise Dive Center and Restaurant from closing on October 15. The property he rents on Beach 9 Street has been sold to a conglomerate of Nassau County investors.
The stress of dismantling his business of ten years is beginning to take its toll on Velasquez. He points to his moustache as proof. "You see these gray hairs? They weren’t here last month."
Working as a concessionaire for the Parks Department, Velasquez decided to open his own business on the beach in 1993. When he saw the property he thought he’d open an ice cream stand or do something with jet skis.
"I didn’t think I’d become a millionaire. I just wanted to enjoy life and work near the beach," says Velasquez.
Renting without a survey, Velasquez didn’t realize that the property included the beachfront. (The property was once the site of a massive hotel during Rockaway’s heyday as a resort town. Zoning laws included the beach with the property making it private and not owned by New York City.)
"Once I found that the beach came with the property I almost fainted," says Velasquez. "I didn’t know about the diving either."
While building his restaurant, Velasquez began to notice dozens of people in scuba gear frequenting his beach. Asking the divers about their activity Velasquez was astonished to find his property was directly in front of a tropical lagoon.
Velasquez quickly realized that ice cream and jet skis would not be appropriate and he decided to open a scuba-friendly restaurant. With rinse facilities, parking and easy access to the lagoon, Almost Paradise began to attract 2,000 divers a year. "I have a mailing list with more than 17,000 people who have visited this place," says Velasquez.
Situated between two jetties, the lagoon is a unique eco-system for aquatic life washed north in the currents of the Gulf Stream just offshore. Non-native wildlife as diverse as seahorses, parrotfish, harbor seals and a beluga whale have all been spotted in the last year.
The site has become a scuba training ground for the NYPD, FDNY and a host of other emergency services units. With three underwater cages it is one of very few dive spots where one can become a certified diver.
When he opened his business, Velasquez invited the American Littoral Society to help him clean the beach and ocean. During their first cleanup date in 1994 over 1,800 pounds of debris was removed from the area. Velasquez, a former car salesman, always laughs when he recalls the "350 Chevy engine that was pulled from the water."
Insurance premiums for Almost Paradise were always high, but Velasquez thanks God when he considers that there have been no dive-related accidents. "We’ve had a few sunburns, but that’s about it."
Moving on from the business has been difficult for Velasquez. "I feel like I’m moving my heart. I’ve met a lot of nice people in this little restaurant and dive spot."
Born in Colombia, Velasquez moved to the United States in 1968. After sometime in mainland Queens, he moved to Rockaway in 1984. "I wasn’t born a beach guy, but when I got to Rockaway, I came and met the ocean. We’ve stayed together ever since."