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Looking for golf balls, divers dredge up reptiles, leeches, eels and more

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. - The scuba diver swam lazily on top of the pond, preparing to dive deeper. Not far away, a ripple caused by something big swimming just beneath the surface made its way toward the diver. As it closed, its speed increased.

As they met, the big jaws came roaring out of the murky water and clamped around the scuba tank and the underside of the diver's wetsuit.

After several moments of pandemonium, the pale and shaken diver emerged - alive but with his rubber scuba suit ripped open, and tooth marks on the tank.

"He never came back," said Randy Robbins, head pro at the Plantation Inn and Golf Resort.

He never came back, but the alligator is still there.

You can still see them, big ones, in the ponds around the course, so typical of Florida golf courses with all their water hazards.

The diver who was attacked left the business, but there are plenty to take his place. Golf ball diving has become a multi-million dollar business, in the U.S. and overseas.

Of the billion or so golf balls produced each year, it is estimated that as many as one to three million find their way into water hazards that plague everyday golfers in the U.S.

Ball divers call them "white gold," and the good ones - those who can come up with 3,000 and more balls in a day - can make $50,000-$100,000 a year, according to some estimates.

Typically, legitimate ball divers have agreements with one or more golf clubs, which pay the divers a percentage of the balls that are recycled and re-sold in pro shops. Divers sometimes sell them themselves, over the Internet, to chain stores or to other vendors, some of whom hawk them at roadside stands.

There is money to be made, but there are also obvious hazards. First of all, visibility is zero. Ball divers have to comb the mucky bottom with bare hands and there is no telling what they might find there.

Aside from critters, divers have encountered cut glass and barbed wire and some have nearly drowned after becoming entangled in fishing line, with dangling lures.

There are the big hazards, such as alligators. Divers say the big ones usually avoid them, but the smaller ones, those in the five- to six-foot range are the most dangerous, being more curious and aggressive.

Then there are poisonous snakes and snapping turtles. Some divers, especially those who have been bitten, carry snakebite kits with them.

There have been two recent, reported deaths of ball divers, according to Scuba Diving Magazine. One diver died in Hickory, North Carolina, at the Westport Country Club, in 2001. Six months later, a diver died in Boynton Beach, Fla.. Both deaths were attributed to drowning.

Then there are the smaller hazards, the ones you can't even see.

"The amounts of contamination in most courses' water hazards is amazingly high," Jeff Lane, the founder of RME Diver Consulting who used to dive for balls in Virginia, told Travelgolf.com.

"Most do not have any outflow to speak of. Everything that is used or has been used on the course is washed into the water on a daily basis as the sprinklers run. These chemicals can build up over the years to significant levels. An obvious visual example is the amounts of algae growing in most water hazards from the fertilizer run-off. They can be life-threatening."

Divers regularly come across pesticides and fertilizer run-off. They also routinely get tetanus shots.

"I would not recommend making dives of this nature without, at a minimum, the protection offered by a quality full-face mask and a full encapsulation drysuit, including dry gloves," Lane said. "But, you lose the feel and dexterity of bare hands, making it a bit more difficult to find balls."

In South Carolina, they hate the common blue crab even more than gators. Blue crabs like to hang out where the golf balls are, sitting on top of the muck, and their bite, though not lethal, is extremely painful.

The most hated predators among ball divers, however, are poachers. Poachers cost legitimate divers thousands of dollars. It's such a potentially lucrative business, that fights among poachers have been known to break out over turf.

Some poachers who have been arrested come back for revenge, pouring chlorine over greens or cutting them up, or even doing wheelies on motorcycles.

Aside from all the hazards, it's a filthy business.

"The visibility in the hazards we were working in was non-existent, black," Lane said. "The mud and sediment on the bottom would stain your hands and equipment brown with tannin, which would last days after the dives. We would often find small leeches on ourselves when rinsing gear down for the day."

Lane also used to come across eels, which would wrap themselves around his limbs.

But, the diving is never dull. Ball divers pull up all sorts of unimaginable detritus from ponds, lakes and rivers. They've found dishwashers, laptop computers, entire golf carts and, of course, tons of golf clubs, including complete sets.

Sometimes, they find "celebrity balls," including one by former President George Bush. A diver in Texas said he found two BMWs and two Cadillacs. A Florida diver once found a dead woman in a car.

Still, when there is money to be made, what's a few killer reptiles, leeches, eels and deadly chemicals?

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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