It's time for those coveted bronze statuettes to be given out again. Yes, the DIVER Awards, the diving industry's most sought-after and sometimes controversial tokens of success are being given to those companies and products that you, the readers of DIVER, have declared your favourites in 2004.
Why "sought-after"? Because a DIVER Award provides tangible evidence of customer satisfaction and business success. Why controversial? Because everyone but the final winner feels that he or she should instead be making the long walk to collect the prize at the special presentation held during the London International Dive Show.
More people than ever voted for their diving favourites this time, with the technological advance of secure on-line voting combined with good old snail-mail to boost the numbers considerably. So who and what won?
This category posed the question: "What was the item of equipment that caught the imagination of DIVER readers?" The popular Suunto Vyper dive computer and its newer entry-level sister the Suunto Gekko took third and second places for Product of the Year, but the clear winner was a real sign of the times. It was a digital camera, the 4.0 megapixel Olympus mju-410/PT-016 Underwater Housing.
It just goes to show that underwater photography has now become a mainstream activity allied to diving now that the digital age has made getting effective results so easy.
The Olympus mju 410 has certainly made its mark and was available in 2004 complete with its own submarine housing for less than £400. Latest version is the 5.0 megapixel Olympus mju 500.
This category seemed to be something of a re-run of previous years' results, but with the final winners taking up different positions. This time Scubapro pipped last year's winner Mares to the post as most voted-for brand, and Mares in turn was closely followed by the Finnish computer manufacturer Suunto in third place.
"I would like to thank all the loyal Scubapro Uwatec customers who voted for us," said Andy Shears of Scubapro UK. "Our continued innovation and high quality have enabled us to stay ahead of the competition and we look forward to surprising our customers with an even stronger product range in 2005."
Magnanimous in defeat after a very close-run thing, Peter Shaw of Mares' importer Blandford Sub-Aqua, said: "It's always good to have competition - and we're confident that we'll regain the title next year!"
This is an award that has always been keenly contested, and this yearwas no exception. Explorers Tours and Regaldive, both previous winners, were in there claiming third and second places respectively. But collecting the DIVER Award statuette in this category for the first time was Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel, which took a clear first place.
Tony Backhurst glowed with pleasure at the news. "We are really delighted," he said. "We could not have achieved this without the hard work and support of our partners, particularly Tornado Marine, Sea Serpent Fleet, Emperor Divers and Camel.
"All the staff here would like to thank the DIVER readers who voted for us. We appreciate their support and look forward to seeing them again in 2005."
Retailers come into eye-to-eye contact with most of their customers, so a Diver Awards statuette proudly displayed is something that can enhance a buyer's confidence. No wonder it's such a scramble every year between different retailers canvassing their constituencies.
However, the face of retailing is changing, as indicated this time when third place was taken by the Kent-based online shopping website www.simplyscuba.com. That company was only narrowly beaten by runner-up Underwater World, the retail outlet at Stoney Cove.
Meanwhile, up in Sheffield, we think that heads would roll at SDS Watersports if it did not win the prestigious bronze statuette. This makes the fifth bronze DIVER trophy awarded to Arthur Balderson's operation and he could be forgiven for taking the annual DIVER Award for granted.
But when told that he had won yet again, Arthur was as enthusiastic as ever. "It just goes to show that aftersales service counts for a lot," he said. "We don't just sell the kit at the right price but we make sure our customers continue to be happy with it. We've always worked that way and we always will."
Last year's front-runner, my Cyclone, was this time relegated to third place. Second place was taken by my Sea Queen, a well-loved Maldives liveaboard owned and operated by a British company, Maldives Scuba Tours.
And first place was taken by my Hurricane. Like Cyclone, this liveaboard is part of the Tornado Marine fleet operated in the Egyptian Red Sea, and both are marketed in the UK by Tony Backhurst Scuba Tours.
"On behalf of Tornado Marine, dive-guides Grant and Sonia, and the crew, we would like to thank all the DIVER readers who voted for Hurricane," said Tony Backhurst. The vessel certainly impressed John Bantin when he took a trip on it recently (see feature in this issue).
This DIVER Award was won by BBC Publications' Blue Planet DVD Collection. The level of investment made in the fabulous Blue Planet television series resulted in an unbeatable production that makes it hard for any other publication to compete. Second place was taken by the workmanlike Collins' Coral Reef Guide (Red Sea) authored by Ewald Lieske and Robert F Myers, while third place went to The Last Dive, a novel based on fact by Bernie Chowdhury, also published by HarperCollins.
The popular choices have been dominated regularly by the same names and this year was no exception. Emperor Divers in Hurghada, often placed first before, had to settle for third place behind Ocean College in Sharm el Sheikh, but the Egyptian operators had to travel in the dust of this year's outright winner, which last won when the Awards were first introduced - Stoney Cove.
Judged volume for volume of water, this famous training lake in Leicestershire must see more divers pass through it in a year than almost any other body of water in the world. Martin Woodward of Stoney Cove Marine Trials said: "Fantastic! We're delighted to have been voted dive centre of the year and would like to accept the award with thanks to our staff for their professional dedication, and to DIVER magazine readers for their support."
This category allows DIVER readers to register something of a protest vote. The movie Open Water might have been big at the box office and received critical acclaim, but that cuts no ice with you - enough people felt the film to be both poorly researched and unwisely produced to make this a real disaster movie in the DIVER Awards.
A result that comes as no surprise after a year in which the country announced record visitor numbers, DIVER readers voted for the destination they know best, which is Egypt.
However, Egypt is no longer the automatic first choice for travelling DIVER readers. Close behind came the Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives, and who knows, despite its recent tribulations perhaps next year it will be first choice. Indonesia, a vast country that covers an enormous area of tropical diving possibilities, came third.