There are few opportunities in life that allow almost complete and unmitigated indulgence in whatever interests you, but over the years my career in professional diving has occasionally hit a home run in serendipitous situations. For example, I was actually asked by the U.S. Navy in 1971 to volunteer to smoke copious quantities of marijuana, then perform mundane tasks underwater such as assembling pipe puzzles, taking some psychological tests and tying a few simple knots in brightly colored lines of various diameters.
As it turns out, several of the Apollo astronauts were getting sick in the weightless environment of space, so some genius in a white lab coat decided it would be worthwhile to explore the anti-nausea benefits of pot to mitigate the space sickness side effects. The Navy was brought in to help with divers who would get stoned and then undertake sort of a “day in the life” of an astronaut, but underwater. All this while belching clouds of bubbles and trying to ignore how terminally amusing the antics of the sluggish Virgin Islands sea cucumber could be while under the influence.
Of course, I had nearly fallen to my knees in my rush to be the first to volunteer for this dangerous but strategically necessary experiment. Call me a patriot, but someone had to do America’s dirty work while everyone else was back home protesting. I’d hesitate to suggest that our gonzo dive team had “The Right Stuff,” especially since we frequently had trouble driving home after a day’s work. But we made up for our lapses with unbridled enthusiasm that impressed the scientists.
Then a year later, I got a call asking if I would consider taking a four-week assignment to supervise the ocean scenes in an “adult” film to be shot in Virgin Gorda. Apparently, there would be a lot of cavorting in tidal pools along with naked swimming (and other activities absolutely necessary for full artistic plot development) just off the pristine sand beaches of the Baths. And they needed a crack professional to make sure no one poked any soft parts into an urchin or something.
Many years later, when I operated a fleet of large motor yachts in the luxury charter trade, similar opportunities would present themselves and I was glad to have gained valuable experience on earlier assignments. While on a charter with the Rolling Stones off of Montserrat, bass player Bill Wyman coaxed me into relating the circumstances of my Navy experiment. This immediately drew the attention of Keith Richards, who was a huge fan of pipe puzzles and tying things up. We got along famously, and I like to think that my input helped him to further the advancement of valuable work in this exciting field.
So in 1987, when I was contacted by a group of investors putting together the Ocean Quest company that would operate a 525-foot cruise ship for divers in the western Caribbean, I didn’t hesitate. By that time, I had learned that no matter how zany a project could sound, someone with seriously deep pockets might want to finance it. I subscribe to the modified Ben Franklin axiom, “A fool and his money… are some party!”
I was quick to point out that I was additionally qualified to smoke marijuana and tie knots. I think those job skills put me over the top in their selection process. Anyway, I can assure you there are few better ways to pass a month in the Caribbean than surrounded by nubile beauties with more than a passing interest in rope tricks. My own version of the GI Bill was coming along nicely.
They wanted me to do a series of projects for them in advance of their startup, like design the ten 35-foot dive boats, hire the staff, buy the diving equipment and, oh yeah, go to the Mexican Yucatan, Belize and Honduras to scout locations. Any job description that includes the phrase “scout locations” immediately gets moved up a notch in my consideration. Especially because they did not mean scout locations for toxic landfill in New Jersey or some other less compelling mission.
So I went to work planning an itinerary that would place the ship near the best diving while affording a comfortable anchorage to amuse our non-diving guests. Things proceeded along well and a year later, most of the advance work was completed and we had bought a ship. Now we had to finalize the route for each week’s voyage. So it was decided that three of us “executives” would take a gym bag full of cash and go resolve the pesky little details like port entry fees, local agents and government relations. Sort of like Ollie North’s mission with the Contras but without any ramifications for the Republican Party.
Mexico, with its traditional ports of Cancun and Cozumel, was pretty much a known product offering two distinctly different types of diving. Essentially, Cozumel had fabulously beautiful reefs, boundless marine life diversity and absurdly clear water. Cancun diving, on the other hand, basically “sucked, “a technical term for bad viz, no fish and not much in the reef department.
Belize, however, was a different story. We wanted to concentrate our visitation on the offshore atolls where we had plenty of room to maneuver the ship, and excellent dive conditions awaited. Our concept was to have the mother ship deliver us and our dive boats to an area and then stand off while guests tapped into the virgin waters for two or three dives before rendezvousing for food and air fills. Then each boat would head out again for the afternoon. But unlike the average dive operator who had to satisfy 20 or so divers on a couple of dives a day with one boat, I had to multiply that by 10! That meant I needed enough good sites to spread out all these folks without them bumping into each other and keep them stoked. That basically worked out to 40 to 50 sites spread over a 15-mile radius from the ship.
Our local agent, Stanley, set me up with a charter sailboat guide named Gino, who purportedly knew all the atolls on a first-name basis. That was easy to believe since I had yet to meet anyone in Belize who seemed to have a last name. “Mr. Gilliam, we’d like you to meet our Minister of Tourism, Ralph.” Maybe Madonna and Cher were really from Ambergris Cay.
So as Gino and I pounded our way 65 miles to windward in search of Lighthouse Reef atoll, I outlined my plan of attack. Gino was a veteran scuba guide used to the rigorous schedule of three or four dives a week with his charter guests. So when I started explaining that I wanted to do 10 to 12 dives a day to maximize our exploration and identification of suitable sites, he expressed some trepidation. “Look, mon, ya can’t do that many dives or we’ll be bent up like pretzels by lunchtime. And I’m not getting bent for $40 a day.” I understood his reluctance, so we swiftly confirmed that his price to be bent like a pretzel by lunchtime was more like $50 a day.
With those delicate negotiations handled faster than Bill Clinton can sign a midnight pardon, we settled into a discussion of my dive plan. “There’s no reason why we have to dive deep at all, because the wall begins in water about 15 feet deep,” I explained. “With the great visibility, we can jump in, look around briefly and set the coordinates for our site buoy. We mark it on the chart and move on to the next site. I doubt if we’ll ever need to go deeper than 40 feet. That will give us a huge window for exploration without running up a lot of bottom time.”
Gino could see the wisdom of this cunning plan, and eased us into a sandy spot adjacent the precipitous wall at Long Key. Before even going in the water, I could see this was going to be a great dive. The top of the wall featured exquisite coral growth, then dropped off nearly straight down into a blue abyss. Gino said I should go first and he would hand me my camera and then meet me under the boat. Great plan, well thought out all the way. But when I reached to rinse my mask on the swim platform, my solid gold Rolex Submariner chose that exact moment to break the pin on the band. About $20,000 worth of precision Swiss watch technology bounced once off the side of the boat and began spiraling over the dropoff. Not good at all.
Luckily I was already into my gear so I crashed off the platform, madly finning after my watch. Gino watched in bewilderment. Meanwhile, my Rolex rebounded off a purple sponge and disappeared over the edge. It had a good start on me but kept ricocheting off parts of the slope, slowing down just enough to entice me to pursue it. Finally, it came to rest on a narrow ledge – - at nearly 300 feet. I grabbed it and started up. The necessary decompression took a while, and I surfaced to find Gino eyeing me with the kind of look you might give teenagers who play in traffic. “So tell me again, how many dives a day were you planning?” he deadpanned.
“No, you got me all wrong. I dropped my watch and it’s worth a lot of money, even more than $50 a day. And I wanted to retrieve it. But I won’t do that again, I promise,” I apologized. Gino looked unconvinced but I suggested we take the rest of the day to just lay out snorkeling sites for non-divers and he calmed down.
We spent the night on Half Moon Cay and had dinner with the lighthouse keeper, who had guests drop in roughly every fifth year or so. He seemed fascinated that we wanted to bring tourists to his island and was endlessly expounding on the exciting features of the atoll. “Ya gotta see da boobies, ya won’t wanna miss dat,” he confided. Being a booby fan from way back and noting the sans suit decorum of the ladies in the sailboat anchored off the beach, I began to recount my adventures with the X-rated film crew in Virgin Gorda. Then Gino broke the mood by noting our host was referring to the pink-footed boobies that resided in the bird sanctuary at the island’s west end. Let’s just say my impression of that attraction the next morning paled in comparison.
We hit 100 great sites in the next week while living on the island, then wrapped up our work with a trip to the famous Blue Hole, located inside the reef 10 miles from Half Moon Cay. As we prepared to drop in, Gino gave me his best serious dive guide face and said, “This is about 460 feet deep and it goes straight down. If you drop your watch or any other family jewels, just let ‘em go, mon, okay?” I agreed.
Later on, I re-kindled his subliminal interest in pipe puzzles and nautical knots with the girls on the sailboat. They all agreed we had the basis for a very successful cruise experience. Maybe the Navy might be interested in a long-term experiment. I had the volunteers.
Bret Gilliam was Vice President and Director of Operations for Ocean Quest International, the largest sport diving operation in the world from 1987 to 1990. They routinely conducted over 1000 man-dives a day on weekly voyages along with frequent visits to the booby sanctuary. His research projects continue… More about Bret »