Appreciating the Whale: Part II

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On the Road with National Geographic

Bret GilliamIn January 1996, I returned to the Silver Bank with some new expedition members and the fun really started.

I knew right away that Mike deGruy and I were going to get along as we both stifled laughter observing the rest of the National Geographic Explorer film crew trying to cope with seasickness. Mike is one of the world’s top nature cameramen both above and below water. And he’s spent his fair share of time bouncing around boats in various ends of the earth. He even had a Pacific reef shark try to chew off his arm back in the 1970s leaving enough scars to win any bar room contest of diver stories. So I didn’t expect the ten-foot seas we were battling today to bother him too much.

But Boyd Matson, the show’s host and resident talking head, was a bit less experienced. When he boarded the expedition vessel in Grand Turk at 5:00 AM that morning, I had already placed him under “fashion arrest” for carrying more that fifty pounds of hair care products in his luggage. Boyd had hosted the National Geographic Explorer series for about a year then since taking over from actor Robert Urich and he’s got to be one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He kind of looks like a Nordic cross between Robert Redford and Huck Finn with a tousled head of blond hair right out of the J. Crew catalog. For a balding guy like me, it was disgusting.

Right now he was wiping the fruits of his last “heave ho” out of that million-dollar hairdo and working on his best thousand-yard stare while silently praying that the damn boat would stop rocking. Lined up next to him in white-knuckled angst were producer Claire Vande Polder and sound technician Eddy O’Connor. Both were engaged in spirited Technicolor projectile vomiting. As Mike and I turned away giggling inanely, Eddie flashed me a look that said, “Who do I have to screw to get out of this movie?” Yeah, we were off to a good start.

As you can probably guess, the Buick salesmen decided to pass on breakfast. Mike and I were bravely attacking a meal that would have made a lumberjack faint when Fred Garth strolled in from his stateroom to announce that Eddy was now openly discussing various methods of suicide. And that Boyd was trying to blow-dry his hair and almost electrocuted himself in the ocean spray. But Fred reported that Boyd’s jolting brush with mortality had really restored the body to his coiffure and the color to his face. So at least he had that going for him…

Mike’s assistant cameraman, Peck Uwer, who was bravely clinging to a lounge chair, visibly brightened at Fred’s news, “Are they really puking on each other?” he inquired with interest.

Fred set the record straight. “It’s really Eddy that’s making the mess. He’s ralphing into the wind and it’s blowing back on the other two. They just haven’t figured what’s going on yet.” Peck smiled contentedly and dropped back into repose.

Our motley crew had been thrown together by a series of random events and some earnest prodding by Fred in his role as publisher of Scuba Times. Using a connection at NatGeo, he mowed down assorted underlings until he got a producer on the phone and pitched his idea for an episode. Would they be interested in doing something on new diving technology? Like rebreathers?

Hell, yes came back the reply. And we could arrange to do the diving in a pristine remote site… with a resident population of humpback whales.

So in mid-February we all rendezvoused in tiny Grand Turk to embark on a week’s expedition to the Silver Banks off the Dominican Republic. Fred and I had already been on location for two weeks with the whales for a magazine sponsored series of trips that had produced some incredible lengthy encounters. We arranged a third support vessel, the sixty-foot Ocean Explorer, to host the film crew and dive team. And before you could say “Sassoon Herbal Cream Conditioner”, Boyd and his cosmetics were on the way to the whale petting zoo.

All kidding aside, Boyd’s got a pretty tough job. He basically has to learn a new extreme sport every week and try to look good doing it. The week before he had been traveling by dog sled in mid-winter blizzards in Minnesota and then was shipped off to be hurled from some high altitude mountain peaks to bring back gut-wrenching hang gliding footage. So I guess, we should have cut him some slack when he showed up to learn to dive with rebreathers… and sixty-ton whales… in the open ocean… in one day. But, of course, we didn’t.

Peck and Mike, being professional divers, got used to rebreathers in a heartbeat. Boyd’s learning curve was a bit steeper. Think of looking back on Mt. Everest’s north face route and that might put it in perspective. But sort of like an eager golden retriever, Boyd would try anything and keep going at it until he almost got it right. I swear I contemplated tossing a Frisbee off the stern of the Ocean Explorer once just to see if he would fetch it.

Fred and I were to operate the boat and get the film crew into position for a drop with the humpbacks. Once they were in, I would follow with my cameras to shoot stills while Fred maneuvered to recover us later. We’d gotten pretty good at this over the last two weeks and, sure enough, our first drop was less than 25 feet away from three whales. Only problem was Boyd forgot to dump the air from his BC and floundered on the surface like a drunken Paris Hilton in a hot tub while the whales beat a retreat.

Whale mother and calf

Whale mother and calf

After two hours of stalking, Fred eased us into position next to a mother and calf resting on the surface. It was a sure thing. Nope. Although Mike got into good range with the Beta-cam, Boyd went left when Mike went right and the two never caught up with each other. Strike two. Now I was ready to handcuff our star to Mike. Meanwhile Peck and Fred were getting glassy-eyed at missing such an opportunity.

Late in the afternoon, we got close enough to a threesome of whales that we could count barnacles on their noses. Quick as a flash, Mike was in the water pushing the massive camera ahead of him and leaving a visible bow wave. In a burst of speed that left me slack-jawed, Boyd was over the side and streaming towards Mike on a perfect intercept with the mother and baby. Yeah, this was going to be it. Wrong! He stopped abruptly after about a hundred feet when he realized that he had forgotten to turn his gas supply on. When Mike was hauled back into the boat, he just sort of sat quietly… pulling absently at frayed threads on his wet suit and singing little pieces of nursery rhymes with a vacant look. We decided to call it a day.

Boyd, of course, was boundlessly enthusiastic and confident of overcoming his miscues the following day. Meanwhile, we were actively considering the options of using an “inflatable Boyd” as a stand-in.

The next day dawned spectacularly and Boyd was transformed from klutz to Aqua-Man. But apparently the word was out on him with the whales and none would cooperate with close encounters. A dozen drops produced only tail shots as they eased away in the gloom. Then some camera failures forced us back to the Ocean Explorer for repairs. Mike used the down time to shoot some topside sequences and to get footage of Boyd exploring the near-by wreck of a massive freighter that had blundered at full speed on the reef. It was now grounded permanently in a couple feet of water like some eternal monument to navigation ineptness and bad seamanship.

From here on out things went smoothly. The wreck sequences looked great and Boyd was performing like Lloyd Bridges. The crew had him diving all through the massive ship penetrating cargo holds, engine spaces and the farthest sections of the interior. Meanwhile, Fred and I lugged the powerful high intensity lights around while others in the crew were assigned to keep Boyd from disappearing permanently on his forays as an instant wreck diver.

8 Whales bubble feeding cooperatively

8 Whales bubble feeding cooperatively

With everything going so well, Mike decided to shoot a sequence that would open the show. Boyd would drive the inflatable up to the Ocean Explorer, cast over a line and stand up to do his “here we are on the Silver Bank intro speech”. Great idea. Only problem was Boyd had never driven an outboard boat. So picture this:

The sun is setting low on the horizon. Two whales breach in the distance. Seabirds cry in low flight. Boyd steams into view out of the sunset at full speed and approaches the ship’s swim platform. Then Boyd drives up on the platform scattering the film crew, bowling over the sound technician, and knocking two support guys into the water. More seabirds cry… and I join them. The rest of the crew moves to higher points on the upper deck and refuse to come down. Mike is seen drinking heavily while sticking pins in his face. Back in New York, the stock market plunges.

A dozen takes later, we finally get the shot and Boyd is disarmed from the loaded dinghy. During dinner, Mike begins to spontaneously speak in tongues. Peck assures Fred and me that this behavior will pass.

Our last two days of shooting concentrated on the whales again. Several drops in close proximity don’t yield the desired footage and we try a new strategy. Peck and I will free dive with the whales to get their attention and interest while Mike and Boyd stealthily join us. To my astonishment, this plan of action actually starts to work. Mike nails some primo footage and Boyd sheds his dive gear to snorkel.

Between encounters we follow another pair of whales when suddenly two huge males breach within fifty feet of the boat showering us with spray and the fishy smell of their spout. With all our attention directed ahead, no one notices that two whales are passing directly under the inflatable only inches beneath our keel.

Fred, ever vigilant, suddenly snaps to attention and can only gesture maniacally at the leviathans hovering under our feet. Mike is gone in seconds and I drag Boyd over with me.

This time whatever whale gods Mike had prayed to cooperate. Boyd is surrounded by the adults close enough to touch as he cavorts in the calm sea. Firing away with my twin mounted Nikonos rig and ultra wide-angle lenses, I’m able to capture him looking truly stellar in a sleek dive skin and flowing golden locks. In fact, his newly found prowess has emboldened him beyond normal caution. Peering through my 12mm lens, I suddenly realize that both whales are about to surface with Boyd between and on top of them.

Putting myself in overdrive, I catch up with him and ease him just out of range. Seconds later, the whales break through the waves and blow. One lifts its ten-ton tail flukes only inches from our faces. Oh yeah, just another day at the office.

The footage was in the can and once again the sunset is to die for. We lured the rest of the crew back down from the safety of the upper deck with bits of fresh shrimp pastry and cold alcoholic drinks. But Eddy wouldn’t budge until he was assured that Boyd would never be allowed to drive boats of any kind, even a kayak. Our last supper feast at anchor listening to the whales blow is pure magic.

The whale episode aired on national television on Easter Sunday 1996 and was well received. Now you can appreciate the “behind the scenes” scenarios. But if you ever happen to find yourself with Boyd in a motorized conveyance of any kind, take it from me, you better drive.


Bret is the author of the 2007  book Diving Pioneers and Innovators which is available through Undercurrent You can find other diving-related books in our books section.

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2 comments for “Appreciating the Whale: Part II

  1. cutter77
    March 12, 2010 at 7:25 am

    “….pulling absently at frayed threads on his wet suit and singing little pieces of nursery rhymes with a vacant look.”


    Hah………I can see it all now, (great line).

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  2. July 23, 2014 at 5:33 am

    Great whale stories. I was on the Ocean Hunter when Bret showed up with his Silver Banks crew and it was a challenging week with windy weather and some uncooperative whales. Bret, glad you nailed it by then end of your trip!! Persistence pays off with whales!!

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