Bob Soto, one of the founders of recreational scuba diving and described as a Cayman Islands legend, died Tuesday afternoon. He was 88.
Mr. Soto, who opened one of the world’s first diving resorts in Grand Cayman in 1957, is revered as a pioneer of the sport and one of the founders of the Cayman Islands tourism industry.
Longtime friend Ron Kipp, a well-known diver who bought Mr. Soto’s dive operation in George Town decades ago, told the Cayman Compass, “The Cayman Islands has lost a legend. Without Bob Soto, there would have been no diving industry. He will be remembered all over the world.”
Mr. Soto, who served in the Home Guard as a 16-year-old during World War II, was later introduced to the wonders of the underwater world as a hard-hat diver in the U.S. Navy.
He returned to Grand Cayman to establish his dive resort, long before the sport took off globally and at a time when the tourism industry was not yet established on the island.
In a profile in Grand Cayman magazine in 2013, Mr. Soto recalled bringing five sets of scuba equipment to the island and charging tourists $7 per trip.
There was no certification for diving at the time, and he used his navy training guides to teach the basics to adventurous tourists.
“I built my own backpacks out of bits of plywood and aluminum metal, and made my own weights,” he recalled. “I would break up batteries, get the lead out and melt them down to make lead weights.”
Scuba diving went on to become a multimillion-dollar global industry and an integral part of the Cayman Islands tourism product, with Bob Soto’s Diving at the forefront.
“The scuba diving business took off, and I had faith that it would, despite people discouraging me and asking me, what I wanted to do that for?’” he said in the article.
“As the business grew, I got better and more equipment, compressors, and built up quite a large dive business with a lot of dive boats. We would be taking out over 100 to 150 people per day.”
Mr. Soto, who was made a Member of the British Empire in 1997, was also an avid wreck hunter, who helped salvage sunken ships across the world.
Mr. Kipp believes the dive industry in Cayman owes a large debt to Mr. Soto, who is also a member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame.
“I was proud to inherit the business from him in 1980, but I don’t know anybody else that could have carved the industry out of what was here in 1957,” said Mr. Kipp, pointing out that his friend had developed the sport at a time when the technology was still being pioneered and the Cayman Islands had just a couple of hotels.
He added, “Bob was a soft-spoken, thinking guy; 100 percent Caymanian – an honest and intelligent individual.”
Mr. Soto’s son Danny said his father died at the Cayman Islands Hospital on Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by family members.
Mr. Soto, who is survived by his wife Suzy, had eight children, 19 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.