Jerry McDermott can rightfully be credited
as the man who brought scuba diving to Belize. His journey to
the lovely island of Ambergris Caye, off the coast of Belize, began
an ocean away when he was born in Dublin, Ireland on May 13, 1927.
His father was the first in his family to move to the United States
and a year later Jerry and his mother arrived at Ellis Island and then
followed his father to Boston. Soon after the move Jerry’s sister,
Pat, and his brother Corry were born.
Jerry attended Yale and graduated
the year before Former President George Bush. Upon graduation, Jerry
and his buddy, Hank Hamlin, went to Oklahoma to get in the oil business.
That enterprise didn’t pan out so Jerry moved to Houston, Texas to
become an oil scout, joined by his brother Corry. He found himself
in the company of notables such as baseball players Dizzy Dean and Ted
Williams. Due to some poor investments and a divorce, Jerry soon found
himself in financial straits.
It was at this point that he met with
former oil man, Al Dugan, who offered him a business opportunity he
couldn’t refuse. Dugan wanted to search for oil in British Honduras
(now Belize) and needed McDermott to act as his scout and legal representative
in a business deal. He offered him a ticket to Belize and a percentage
of what he would find in oil. Jerry took the deal and in 1967 went to
British Honduras. At this time Gulf Oil was drilling at Basil Jones
just north of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. Jerry worked with the oil ministers
on a deal for a million and a half acres on the mainland of Belize.
Successful, Jerry went back to Houston and got paid $2500 dollars.
Jerry returned to Belize in 1968 to
invest his $2500 from that oil deal in a hotel. At that time,
there were two hotels being built on San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. One
of these hotels was the Holiday Hotel, which was owned by Celi Grief
McCorkle. The other was a two story building at the north end of the
town of San Pedro, owned by a wealthy landowner’s sister. With
the down payment of $2500 Jerry built a couple cabanas and the yet unnamed
hotel was up and running.
Bar - Paradise Hotel
When the hotel was still unnamed, two nuns
had spent a week at the hotel and asked Jerry the name of the resort. After
hearing that it was still nameless, they exclaimed, "Why, this is like Paradise!"
Jerry ran with it and from that point on it was known as the Paradise.
Jerry soon hired local Ramon Nunez
to run his snorkeling shop. He also hired Adolfo Ayoso, Eduardo Brown,
Gil Gonzalez and Secun Gonzalez to serve as guides. When they were first
hired, they were only free divers, albeit diving down to 100ft.
However, Jerry wanted to expand his resort to include scuba diving.
He built the famous Paradise pier, which soon attracted sunbathers from
the British Royal Air Force on weekends.
In 1971, Jerry and his brother, Corry,
reunited for the first time in 20 years when Corry came to the island
to invest in his brother’s resort. Corry had been working in Denver,
Colorado in real estate until his move to Ambergris Caye. Shortly after
Corry’s arrival, Hurricane Laura hit the island. There was no
doubt that these Irish brothers loved each other dearly, but their arguments
were legendary on the island and the timing of the hurricane couldn’t
be more symbolic of their stormy relationship.
It was shortly after Corry’s arrival
that ex Navy diver, Guy Kane, introduced Corry and Ramon to scuba diving
by letting them use his dive equipment to try some shallow dives.
Eventually, Ramon Nunez, was sent to Houston by Jerry to become certified
in diving by Nyle Everett. He was the first native of Belize to
become certified. His coworkers, Adolfo Ayuso, Eduardo Brown, and Gil
Gonzalez soon followed and were also certified by Everett and became
Ramon, Corry, &
Sean, Corry's son
the staff of the Paradise Hotel’s Dive Resort. Corry was also certified
by Nyle Everett as well some time later. Jerry, a certified diver
himself, was determined to establish a legitimate dive operation on
the island. He wasted no time in utilizing a sailboat to bring
25 scuba tanks, double hose regulators, and a small air compressor over
from the mainland of Belize for the resort to rent out for diving classes
and tours. This was the beginning of the dive industry on Ambergris
Jerry greatly appreciated and benefitted
from Corry’s extensive experience in the real estate business.
They worked together for a few years developing a real estate market
on Ambergris Caye. Eventually they went their separate ways—Jerry
focusing on developing the Paradise Hotel and selling real estate on
Ambergris Caye and Corry focusing his attention on land development
throughout all of Belize.
Pardaise Hotel ~1972
Corry teamed up with the well-known Emory
King, who embraced the roles of politician, writer, and local historian,
as well as real estate mogul.
In the early 80’s, Jerry purchased
a cabin cruiser called the “Nina Who?” which served as a dive
boat for the resort. Its primary purpose was to ferry divers
out to the main dive attraction, the famous Blue Hole, but also served
as a means to highlight the many excellent dive spots along the barrier
San Pedro Airport ~1972
reef, the second largest in the world. Jerry continued to build the
Paradise into one of the top resorts in San Pedro. He sold the business
to some Japanese investors in 1991, but eventually bought it back in
2004 for a third of the price he had sold it.
Jerry had always had an interest in
horticulture, making sure that the landscaping of the Paradise Hotel
was replete bougainvillea, hibiscus, and other plants indigenous to
the country…including the very rare
Black Orchid. After Jerry sold the Paradise to the Japanese investors,
he turned his attention to some land he bought in San Ignacio on the
mainland by the Mayan Ruins. It was there that his landscaping
company was born and proved to be a fruitful enterprise as well as a
passion of his.
In 2004, after buying the Paradise
Pardaise Hotel ~1972
back, Jerry had the resort torn down and built the Phoenix Condo’s
in its place. The Paradise had been a focal point for the island
for years, reflecting the colorful spirit of its owner. Many on the
island reminisce fondly about the famous Christmas and New Year’s
parties held at the Paradise Bar. For many expatriates and tourists,
the Paradise proved to be a home away from home.
Jerry died May 17, 2007 four days after
turning 80. Responsible for bringing diving to Belize and operating
the first dive shop, McDermott rightly holds a place among the Legends
of Diving. His brother, Corry, continues his real estate business
on Ambergris Caye to this day.
(ILD would like to thank Corry McDermott
for the photos and information included here.)