Name: Bret Gilliam
Bio: Bret Gilliam has been professionally involved in the diving industry since 1971. logging more than 18,000 dives worldwide since he started diving in 1958. His background includes scientific expeditions; military/commercial projects; operating hyperbaric treatment facilities, liveaboard dive vessels and luxury yachts; ownership of retail dive stores and a Caribbean resort; and filming projects for movies, TV series and documentaries. Additionally, he is ex-Chairman of the Board of Directors of NAUI, former CEO of UWATEC, and recently retired as President of International Training Inc. (TDI, SDI, ERDI) when he sold the company in February 2004. Bret is a prolific writer and photographer, covering various subjects related to diving. He has been published in virtually every diving magazine in the U.S., Europe and Asia, as well as National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Time, Playboy, and others. His most recent book "Diving Pioneers & Innovators: An In-Depth Series of Interviews" (New World Publications was released in November 2007 and is available through Undercurrent. Bret has twice been the recipient of NAUI's Outstanding Contribution to Diving Award, and the Beneath the Seas Foundation has honored him five years in a row from 2005 to 2009 by naming him a Legend of the Sea. He is also included in "Who's Who In Scuba Diving" by Best Publishing and was elected to membership in the prestigious Explorers Club. Now living in Maine, Bret is president of the consulting corporation Ocean Tech.
Posts by Bret Gilliam
March 10th, 2013
I get all sorts of input from readers and I welcome it. Sometimes it’s to tell me about some great new dive site, to tout a particular dive operator, or simply to grind an ax or two after some youthful divemaster tried to perform an unappreciated rescue on them because they dared to place their mask on their head upon surfacing. But the call I got in late August in 2002 from Dr. Chip Scarlett of Austin, Texas got my attention.
“You have to drop what you’re doing and check out these white shark photos on this guy’s website,” he gushed enthusiastically into my speaker phone.
“C’mon, Chip,” I yawned. “I’ve seen more white shark images than a sea lion at Dangerous Reef. Don’t you think that’s a subject that’s been covered enough. What’s this about: more flying shark footage or are these whites actually flying planes now?”
“Just check it out, you’ll see what I mean.”
Chip and I have done some extended diving together in Palau and Yap and he’s as accomplished a photographer as most pros. I figured if he was excited about some photo gem he had uncovered, I’d probably be well served to check it out.
So I dutifully copied down the cryptic instructions and then summoned one of my youthful twenty-something staff to help me wade through the Internet because at that time I was the last executive on earth to learn how to use the Web properly. I’ve got staff members who can’t spell or walk fully erect but they can zip through the Internet like a Jimmy Dean sausage patty through a wolverine with irritable bowel syndrome.
In a matter of seconds I was connected and viewing the images. I was enthralled and had to banish my assistant who rapidly lost interest
once he found out the site held no promise of bare breasted nudity or
So if you ever harbored any smug satisfaction that your dive experiences could best anyone in bragging rights at the sundown beer fest… well, move over Stingray City Survivor and meet Michael Rutzen, the champion of pure brass nuts bravado.
Actually, my connection to Michael, the mad shark stroker, came through Ralf Keifner, a German photographer who was the first to chronicle Rutzen’s insanity. Since Ralf’s first language is not English and my German can barely get me a beer at Octoberfest in Munich, we struggled a bit initially as Ralf related his tale via email.
It seems that Rutzen runs a pretty fair shark diving service out of the village of Gansbaai in South Africa. He takes divers from all over the world out to Dyer Island with a mind to introducing them, up close and personal, to his own great white petting zoo. Ralf visited him with more than a little trepidation since Michael’s special passion is to free dive regularly with the sharks outside of a protective cage. You have to kind of wonder what prompted that first foray outside the bars. Something tells me you don’t want to have Michael as your driver as you idle the Land Rover through Lion Country Safari Park or you may wind up as an unwilling pedestrian when the king of beasts decides to
make his noon meal include a little homo sapiens on the hoof. But I figure this guy is a sure winner on Fear Factor if nothing else.
Ralf reflects, “What’s up in a man’s mind who risks his life swimming with the biggest predator of the seas? Especially when the sharks are attracted by bait to the area.”
Exactly, Ralf. I couldn’t have said it better.
It turns out that Rutzen was a then 32-year-old diving entrepreneur who is the boss of Shark Diving Unlimited and has developed quite a following during the last 15 years or so from a cadre of international filmmakers and photographers as he indulges their “unusual ideas” as Ralf puts it.
Why free diving? Michael explains, “It’s fun and I want to demonstrate that white sharks are not these insensitive and man-killing machines that people think after watching Jaws. Although they are quite
dangerous predators, I want to show the people that in reality the sharks are quite peaceful and gentle animals. With my activities I want to make people aware that white sharks play an important role in
the ecosystem of the seas and that these animals are an endangered species that must be protected.”
Pretty fair sentiments. But I know my old buddy Peter Benchley is going to groan from the grave for the millionth time as the fate of the entire shark species is once again laid at his feet for scaring the world population into shell-shocked terror by means of simple work of fiction nearly thirty years ago. I wonder if Melville was accosted in New Bedford pubs by the iconoclastic environmentalists of his day
when Moby Dick was released. He certainly wasn’t worried about his movie rights.
Anyway, Ralf had been working with Michael for several years and their mutual goal on this trip was to get some encounters with great whites outside the cage. Michael had told him that to do that will take a lot of patience and luck.
“To swim with white sharks can be very dangerous,” says Michael.
Okay, I think that we can all agree that this may well be the understatement of the month. Is there anyone reading this that has a question about the relative mortality demographic you have just
stepped into if you attempt to try this at home? No questions? No hands up in the back? Then we’ll move on to further explanation.
Our hero continues, “First of all the visibility must be more than 25 feet so the sharks cannot mistake us for sea lions, which surely would cause an attack. You must know that sharks don’t have hands, so they cannot touch or feel to check out their prey before taking a bite.”
I am compelled to interject at this point in the interest of public safety: if any of you brain surgeons out there do not fully appreciate the manual impairment of sharks including the lack of opposable thumbs, then it might be a good idea to “just say no” to a career as a white shark wrangler.
“Sharks only know if their prey is edible after taking a bite.”
I could say the same thing about the food in most restaurants I’ve visited in England.
“Most of the attacks on surfers are based on error. Mostly they never take a second bite after the first mistaken bite.”
I know exactly what he means. Have you ever actually tasted that English delicacy known as Marmite?
“They just see the silhouette of a surfer at the surface and mistake it for their favorite prey, the sea lion. But as sea lions are mostly swimming rapidly to avoid being eaten, the sharks have conditioned themselves to strike on the first look without closer scrutiny. Sometimes the attack with such speed as they rise from the bottom that they are flying completely out of the water with their entire body.
“Also, the water surface must be flat and without waves so we can coordinate our movements much better. And no current so you don’t drift away from the boat. Besides all this, the sky must be clear so our safety guards on deck can see the sharks better and warn us if they make an approach from behind. And finally, we’d also like to have a relaxed shark around the boat. It’s no fun at all to free dive with a Rambo-shark.”
Once again, I believe that Michael possesses a rare gift for stating the obvious.
Ralf picks up the narrative here. “All in all, I had to wait three years to get the conditions just right. My heart started beating up to my throat with excitement. It’s definitely something different to watch ‘Mr. Teeth’ out of the safety of the cage. Now it is too late to hesitate. Mike is already in the water with a 14-foot great white. He has his unloaded speargun with him to keep the shark on distance in case he gets too curious. In relation to the shark, the speargun looks like a toothpick. Armed only with my camera, I slip into the cold water.
“The visibility is about 30 feet and I’m staring into the water filled with tension looking to spot my first white shark from outside the cage. Suddenly he appears out of nothing. With slow consistent movements he passes us by, observing us with his black eyes and fixed stare. I don’t really feel afraid but I do have great respect for the animal.
“Somehow the shark looks bigger from outside the cage. If you watch sharks from a boat they seem to be quite big and when you view them from a cage they get even bigger. Now the shark looks huge! The shark disappears only to reappear from a different direction a few moments later. Each time he passes, he gets closer. In order not to scare him, we put our knees to our chest and try to appear as small as possible.”
To me, this posture would make perfect sense as it would allow immediate access to one’s posterior in case you needed to quickly kiss your ass good-bye.
“Finally the shark passes by close enough and Michael holds on to his dorsal fin and takes a ride. The shark continues his calm swim totally unimpressed. Again and again, the animal passes by us coming a bit closer and eyeing us carefully. Suddenly he comes directly towards us and Michael can only avoid the collision by gently pushing away the animal with his outstretched hand. The shark turns away and then returns. This time Michael signals me that he will attempt to get the shark to open his mouth in a similar behavior to that he has perfected from the boat’s dive platform on the surface.
“Michael has successfully performed this touch contact over a thousand times for topside photographers. This time the shark swims up to him and he reaches out to grab its nose. The shark opens his mouth exposing the razor sharp teeth and jaws. He seems irritated by the contact and goes motionless for a short moment. Then he tries to bite Michael’s hand but it is skillfully withdrawn and Michael maneuvers his body out of the shark’s path.
“The shark stands vertically in the water in front of Michael with his open jaws above the water. For a moment they are locked in this confrontation and each remain completely still. Then suddenly with a quick stroke of his tail, the shark jumps completely out of the water over Michael and vanishes forever into the blue. Although the whole encounter happened very fast and only lasted a few seconds, I still see it in my mind in slow motion.”
Ralf certainly broke some new ground here. His images are unique and should provoke a response from even the most jaded dive adventurer. And while the photos missed some of the action, he captured the highlights to sufficiently alter the dream sequences of many readers. We feel he is worthy of our “First Annual Linda Lovelace Award” as may have blown a couple… but he didn’t choke on the big one.
Michael concludes by suggesting the obligatory “don’t try this at home” counsel while adding, “White sharks are not pets and you have to be careful when you touch them. You have to be prepared, you have to be able to read their behavior, and you have to have the right shark and perfect conditions. When it all comes together you can have such interactions.”
So now that you know there’s really nothing to such daredevilry, we will declare the official opening of the 2013 Darwin Games wherein the contestants compete to engineer their own extinction. Please take your positions, the starting gun is only moments away.
Remember: “He Who Hesitates Is Lunch”.
Closing Notes For A Real Perspective:
The negative press and bad reputation of sharks is chiefly caused by sensational films and over-the-top nonsense like The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” that annually sets record for total bullshit. If you were to believe such accounts then you’d be certain that sharks come from the bottom of the seas and greedily fall upon humans as soon as they put a toe in the water.
In fact, statistics prove quite the opposite. Between 1959-1990 about 1500 people were killed by lightning in the U. S. but only 12 died through shark attacks. The risk of being killed by lightning is very small when compared with the amount of daily incidents that happen routinely in households. Recently in one year alone almost 200,000 people were injured by nails, screws and bolts. Another 140,000 were hurt by ladders, over 40,000 were hurt on toilets, and around 10,000 managed to achieve injuries involving buckets. But only 18 persons were injured by sharks.
Of course, you wouldn’t do much movie box office with riveting titles like The Killer Toilet Seat or Revenge of the Buckets.
In the year 2000, 79 humans were bitten by sharks with only 10 being fatal. But every year around 150 tourists are killed by falling coconuts. For those that still might believe that it’s more safe to spend your vacations at home and out of the water consider the following summaries:
In an average year there are:
2500 fatalities from alligators
1250 fatalities from bees
250 fatalities from elephants
10 fatalities from sharks
But over a hundred million sharks are killed annually by humans.
Think about it.
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Arrowsic, ME 04530
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cell phone 207-841-0998
Blue Water, White Goddess: A Tale of Fiji
November 24th, 2012
As I’ve oft noted in my various dispatches from the ends of the earth, timing can be crucial to a good dive experience and especially so when it comes to the company you keep. But when a friend said they had someone they wanted me to meet I figured it was another well-meaning soul who wanted me to wax philosophically on the technical aspects of diving or to lament how determinism had faded recently from theoretical physics.
They had just returned from Truk where they had met this delightful lady they wanted to introduce me to: Lauren Hutton. Without a moments hesitation I volunteered to wax anything that she might need attended to. It’s fast thinking like that in tough situations that has kept me alive this long in a world filled with treachery and nuance.
A veteran of more than thirty movies and a stellar career as the first millionaire super model, Lauren Hutton is an icon of femininity and beauty with perhaps one of the most recognizable faces in the world. (Well, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky can be best regarded as mere blips on the current affairs radar.) But it seems that my friend had convinced her that we had a lot in common and should adjust our calendars to allow an arranged introduction. So what kind of idiot is going to pass on that offer? Okay, maybe Elton John or Liberace might not have viewed the liaison with such unbridled enthusiasm as I mustered, but I don’t think Ellen Degeneres would have passed it up.
So after months of phone tag and messages exchanged between our assistants, in January 1998 I found myself on the way to collect her at the airport in Portland, Maine right in the middle of the most horrendous ice storm to hit the northeast in a century. Hers was the last plane to land for three days as everything north of Washington D. C. shut down. She was unfazed at the six foot icicles hanging from the trees and the rapidly building snowdrifts. We talked about warmer subjects on the drive back to my house on Arrowsic Island. Lauren started diving back in 1965 and had used her modeling and movie location opportunities to dive Africa, Bora Bora, the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Micronesia over the ensuing years. She had recently gotten back in the sport seriously since finally becoming officially certified in 1996. Now diving was her passion and before the weekend was over she accepted my invitation to visit Fiji.
I had previously committed to an assignment to spend three weeks exploring Fiji aboard two state-of-the-art liveaboards that ply the islands. After an eleven hour flight from Los Angeles on Air Pacific, we stumbled out of the baggage area in Nadi into the welcome embrace of Rob Barrel and Cat Holloway, the charming couple who operate the 120 foot motor sailer Nai’a. The ship was completely rebuilt by Rob in 1993 and is one of the finest vessels anywhere in the south Pacific.
Nine private staterooms with ensuite baths and individually controlled air conditioning compliment the spacious salon and comfortable dive deck. A protected room forward of the salon allows photographers to spread out their assets with room to spare. Rob’s able Fijian crew got us underway within minutes and we were off to our first dive on the northwest coast of Viti Levu. Like many Pacific liveaboards that operate in areas of strong currents, Nai’a uses sturdy inflatables to whisk divers to the sites while the ship stays comfortably anchored nearby.
Lauren dropped in like a seasoned veteran and immediately became enthralled with the colorful soft corals that clung to the dropoff wall face. Scarlet anthias swarmed the tops of the coral bommies providing a magical pallet for me to work my camera. Fiji is a place of incredible beauty both above and below water and Rob’s explorations over the last five years have provided him an unending selection of superior sites. He has charted previously unknown pinnacles and sea mounts as well as orchestrating the optimum periods to visit the fringing reefs in concert with the crucial tide cycles to afford maximum marine life and impossibly clear visibility.
Although I would doubt that anyone could have less than a great experience visiting Fiji, there are distinct advantages to diving by liveaboard. Most of Rob’s itinerary that we visited that first week was beyond the reach of day boats and he consistently put us on virgin sites of sufficient variety and excellence that I burned through nearly forty rolls of film in six days. We covered over six hundred miles while cruising through the islands located between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
What he treated us to was as good as I’ve seen anywhere in that area of the Pacific with extra points for the extraordinary service provided by he, Cat and a magnificent passenger-friendly crew. Rob or Cat lead every dive and you’re welcome to follow or strike out on your own. I learned that it was a wise decision to always stay in sight of the pair since they had an uncanny ability to lead us into exactly the right position for unique marine life encounters and coral vistas.
Lauren learned the hard way about the toxicity of the crown of thorns starfish whom she regards as public enemy #1 for its voracious destruction of reef. In attempting to execute an offender with a fiberglass stick, she accidentally let her thumb contact the stinging spines of the organism. By nightfall her thumb had swollen to nearly four times its natural size giving her a rigid digit that would make Sissy Hankshaw of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” jealous. It made interesting dinner conversation as Lauren struggled through the evening in a perpetual state of “thumbs up” signals. Good thing she’s not a hand model.
One night Rob and Cat announced that we were invited to a Fijian kava ceremony. The natives of Fiji have been famous for hundreds of years principally for three things: being fierce warriors in battle, wonderful singers, along with a propensity, from the not too distant past, for actually eating their conquered foes. This latter reputation discouraged all but the most stalwart visitors from coming ashore for social exchange. A century ago when a Fiji native noted that someone was a “good fellow”, there were several ways you could take that. Let’s just say that the U.S.’s most famous cannibal practitioners, the Donner party, would have fit right in.
Kava, an exceedingly nasty potion that tastes roughly like a cross between dirty dishwater and baby laxative, is a cultural institution and the subject of great ceremony. It was an honor for us to be invited to participate, Rob explained, and we were expected to be appropriately attired in the colorful sarongs found in each cabin. It should be noted here for the record that Lauren Hutton is a profoundly better pick to be showcased in a sarong than most of the rest of us but we gamely settled in around the kava bowl to shouted greetings of “bula!” and much assorted loud hand clapping that heralded our participation.
For those who are not well versed in the quaffing of kava, you should understand that it is a mild narcotic and after enough is consumed a fairly nice buzz is achieved. Personally, I think that’s why Fijians sing so well. At least I thought so at the time. The crew had been at it for the better part of the evening and so they had a considerable head start on us.
But we had vanquished several bottles of a particularly compelling merlot washed down with ample measures of Grand Marnier so we were rapidly catching up when we took our places in the kava circle under the stars. Rob was vigorously shaking some sort of percussive “rain stick” that looked like it could easily double as a club and a general wild abandon of raucous singing in the lilting native dialect had pretty well overtaken our party. About six rounds of kava had gone around, when another guest named Scott asked what I supposed the lyrics to the song were. I fixed him with my best attempt at a professorial educated expression and volunteered that I couldn’t quite make out the verses but the chorus seemed to be, “soon we be eating whitey!” He snugged his sarong a bit tighter around his hip tried to look as formidable as he could at 128 pounds.
Being a veteran of a long litany of rituals from the late 1960’s that prepared me quite well for such mind-altering ceremony, I outlasted my compatriots while Lauren gave in to a “horizontal” attack that rendered her comatose on the deck. This posture was adopted shortly after she suggested that she would like to be called “white goddess” when a crew member inquired as to her entire name back home. All in all, a great time was had by all although Scott was careful to lock his cabin door after he noted several newly made friends in the kava circle eyeing him with what he interpreted as more than a passing fancy while brandishing barbeque sauce packets.
The next day found us visiting the jeweled island of Gnau surrounded by a turquoise lagoon inside a barrier reef. Cat briefed us on the upcoming dive at N’gali Pass. We would time our entry to that of maximum incoming tidal current to guarantee good viz and rich marine life. As usual, that was an understatement.
We rolled out of the inflatable and were quickly swept by the current into a narrow channel in the reef. Immediately we were surrounded by a giant school of jack and Pacific barracuda that performed an endless series of schooling acrobatics in the 200 foot plus visibility. A large hammerhead came by to check us out and three mantas hovered just overhead like jets stacked up over an airport.
The channel narrowed to barely a hundred feet across and Cat led us into an area she called “the bleachers” where we could crouch in wait for the promised main event. Taking our positions we were instantly greeted by several large groupers in the 100 to 200 pound range. Then the sharks began to arrive. Attracted by the incoming current, this is a legendary haven for a wide variety of sharks that feed in the tide. First a couple, then a half a dozen, and finally over thirty sharks swarmed through the area sometimes only inches away from our gaze.
All the while, the schools of barracuda and jack swam circles from the bottom at ninety feet to nearly the surface. Cat and Lauren floated in the menagerie while the sharks eyed them without malice for nearly half an hour. We were all mesmerized by the swirling scene of mixed species engaged in intense activity spread over the ocean floor and extending upwards the equivalent of a nine story building. Lauren said it reminded her of the New York club scene on a Saturday night.
As our air supply dwindled we allowed ourselves to drift over the most magnificent lettuce coral formations I’d ever seen on the way into the shallows. A banded sea snake serpentined his way to Lauren and offered his version of “do you come here often” before being rebuffed. Later in the day, Rob took us to a bommie where a cleaner shrimp had set up shop and would even clean people if you offered your open mouth. Cat helped Lauren apply a thin coat of Australia’s famed Vegamite to her lower teeth to give the hardworking crustacean some inspiration. The image of a cleaner shrimp swarming over the most famous gap-toothed smile in modeling history left Scott contemplating some dental skills of his own.
We bid a fond farewell to Nai’a in Suva to catch up with the newest addition to Live/Dive Pacific’s stable, the 120-foot diesel catamaran Fiji Aggressor. Managing Director Dan Ruth was hosting a special exploratory voyage to identify new dive sites and we were hustled on board.
The Fiji Aggressor is a modern marvel of marine construction. Dan and partner Joe Usibelli have pioneered these designs and ended up with some of the most lavishly appointed dive ships in the world. Eight double staterooms with private baths are located only steps from the dive deck. A custom 26 foot launch powered by twin jet drives speeds you to the most remote sites at over 30 knots. The main salon features a large screen TV console with a library of movies, a bar and massive dining room. On the back deck a hot tub beckons. A third deck level hosts a sun deck the size of a hockey rink. We’re talking large, Texas large.
An overnight run puts us into Wakaya, one of a string of seemingly endless perfect little islets that dot the Fiji region. One luxury resort sprawls over the verdant landscape and beckons anyone who can afford the $5000 a day rate to drop on in. This is where Bill Gates spent his honeymoon. I’ve got a hunch that he didn’t blanch at the tariff. There’s some fine diving nearby that we take in but this is just a jumping off point for more virgin exploration.
We discover some wonderful walls and soft coral jungles near Namena, a tiny key just west of Somosomo Strait that keeps us occupied for several days. Coral pinnacles that reach from the eighty foot bottom to within inches of the surface explode in fiery splendor of red, orange, violet and pink hues as the soft corals sway in the current. Thousands of colorful anthias school on the summits to cap a scene of such rich diversity that only a photo can convey the true majesty of the scene.
But our best discovery is found off the island of Koro to the south. This area had been restricted to visitation but Dan has negotiated diving rights from the local chiefs and we are privileged to be among the first to explore the underwater topography. We are treated to fabulous walls, clear water and a labyrinth of coral bommies adjacent the barrier reef that would take months to adequately explore. Finally, on our last day we sample what may be the best wall we’ve seen off Koro’s south point. Visibility is endless, every conceivable pelagic swims by and the coral formations are pristine.
Dan has us dropped off on the isolated beach under swaying palms while he pours full measures of Fijian rum that would fell an ox. Several oxen deaths later, Dan and I decide we have discovered the meaning of life… only we forgot to write it down. But it definitely had something to do with equal parts rum, palm trees, and Fiji sunsets. And Lauren Hutton in a sarong with a whimsical smile.
“The reliability of a decompression table or procedure is not determined by any mathematical process, but by what works in practice. What works…is what works!” – John Crea III
“Any passive decompression device can only inform the diver of his or her decompression status. How that information is used is the responsibility of the diver.” — Karl Huggins
The first research work in decompression physiology was not directed at scuba divers. It was noticed that people working at elevated pressures in either caissons (a caisson is a water-tight box inside which men can do construction work underwater), or construction tunnels beneath rivers would succumb to symptoms of pain and paralysis. These symptoms were first witnessed in 1841 and by the 1880’s were popularly called “the bends” because of the positions the workers took to alleviate the pain. Soon this high pressure disease was referred to as caisson disease. Later, in cases from hardhat divers, decompression sickness was termed “diver’s palsy”.
The DCS research conducted in the 1800’s eventually gave rise to a series of principles as well as a set of decompression tables that were published in 1908 by Boycott, Damant and Haldane. The principles eventually came to be known as Haldane’s Principles of Decompression and, in combination with the decompression tables, formed the basis for current decompression theory including the development of the original U.S Navy Decompression Tables.
For all practical purposes, there are four principles involved:
1) “The progress of saturation follows in general the line of a logarithmic curve . . . The curve of desaturation after decompression is the same as that of saturation, provided no bubbles have formed .”
2) “The time in which an animal or man exposed to compressed air becomes saturated with nitrogen varies in different parts of the body from a few minutes to several hours.”
3) “In decompressing men or animals from high pressure the first part should consist in rapidly halving the absolute pressure: subsequently, the rate of decompression must become slower and slower so that the nitrogen pressure in no part of the body ever becomes more than twice that of air.”
4) “Decompression is not safe if the pressure of nitrogen inside the body becomes much more than twice that of the atmospheric pressure.”
The reader should note that although these four principles provided the earliest basis for decompression Table theory, the latter two principles have been proven flawed and have since been extensively modified.
DIVE TABLES: A COMPARISON
Most divers of yesteryear tended to accept the U.S. NAVY diving tables as gospel and rarely questioned the validation of the model. Some interesting facts need to be considered, however, when we apply those Tables in sport diving applications. Such as: the NAVY tables were designed originally for single dives only. Further, the divers using them were to be closely supervised by a NAVY divemaster who dictated their dive profiles and controlled their decompression, if any, by in-water stages. Most diving operations were supported by on-site recompression chambers and access to a diving medical officer. Even then, an incidence rate of decompression sickness around 3 to 5% was considered acceptable (facilities being available for treatment).
Now consider that the NAVY made a grand total of approximately 120 (!!!) test dives with human subjects before accepting the repetitive dive tables for use. These tables still enjoy the widest use by sport divers who use Tables instead of diving computers, in spite of their apparent drawbacks when considered in the perspective of the average diver’s age and physical condition.
None the less, these tables have proved to be valid and with some sixty years of field use and millions of dives on them by sport divers, their worth must be accepted. Beginning in the early 1990s though, a plethora of new tables have undergone research and testing with an eye to producing tables more appropriate for actual sport diving needs.
In 1908, Haldane conducted extensive studies of decompression on goats while formulating his original “decompression model”. Based on his work with goats in various hyperbaric chambers he derived what he concluded to be logical extrapolations to human physiological responses to pressure and subsequent decompression schedules. Some of his assumptions, of course, were later proved to be not entirely correct. But given the tools of research for his era and the primitive monitoring equipment at his disposal, his pioneering experiments and recommendations would provide the “seed” from which the “oak tree” of decompression science and diving tables would grow.
Originally, he felt that his animal studies had confirmed his hypothesis that if no symptoms of DCS where present post-decompression, then no bubbles were formed in the blood systems. Obviously, with the benefit of today’s technology and Doppler monitors, we know that bubbles do occur in a statistically large percentage of dives made that were previously thought to be “safe” from such development. In assessing the saturation exposure for goats, he applied a time factor of three hours to assume full inert gas loading and later postulated that humans would reach saturation in five hours.
In designating his half-times for his five “tissue” groups (now generally referred to as “compartments”), he selected his slowest group to be the 75 minute tissue. This was selected since it would be 95% saturated after five hours in keeping with his hypothesis on maximum time for humans to reach theoretical saturation loading. Certainly he was on the right track, but most table model experts now allow as much as 24 hours for such saturation to fully take place and current custom table models employ slow “compartments” rated up to 1200 minutes!
Haldane produced three table schedules for air diving:
Schedule One: for all dives requiring less than 30 minutes of decompression time.
Schedule Two: for all dives requiring more than 30 minutes of decompression time.
Schedule Three: for deep air diving to 330 fsw using oxygen decompression.
These schedules were typified by a relatively rapid ascent from depth to the initial decompression stop depths, then followed by markedly slower ascents to the surface. The British Royal Navy adopted these in 1908 and continued to use them with revisions well into the late 1950’s. It should be noted that it was discovered that Schedule One proved to be too conservative for practical use and Schedule Two proved to be too “liberal” with the percentage of DCS hits unacceptable. In 1915, the first tables for the U.S. Navy were produced called the C and R tables (Bureau of Construction and Repair); these were used with success in the salvage operation on the submarine F-4 at a depth of 306 fsw.
In 1912, Sir Leonard Hill offered his “Critical Pressure Hypothesis” wherein he questioned Haldane’s theory of staged decompression. Hill advocated the use of continuous uniform decompression and offered both experimental and theoretical evidence to support his position. Although the validity of his decompression schedules were not substantively disputed, the widespread use of staged decom stops remained in practice.
Other development included the works of Hawkins,Shilling and Hansen in the early 1930’s in which they determined that the allowable supersaturation ratio was a function of the tissue half-time and depth and duration of the dive. Yarborough expanded on their work by recomputing a set of tables for the U.S. Navy based only on the 20, 40 and 75 minute half-time groups. These were adopted by the Navy in 1937 and used until the modified U.S. Navy Standard Air Decompression Tables came into use in 1957. These tables remain in widespread use today although continued research is being conducted by the Naval Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) including recent work with the Navy E-L Algorithm which assumes that nitrogen is absorbed by tissues at an Exponential rate (as in other Haldanian models) but is discharged or “out-gassed” at a slower Linear rate. This predicts slower elimination during surface intervals and resultant higher residual nitrogen levels on repetitive dives.
The British Navy branched off slightly in 1958 to follow the theories of U.K. physiologist Hempleman. “He had observed that over a particular depth range, the first symptom of DCS to appear was usually pain at or near a joint…and assumed that the tissue involved (e.g. tendon) was, therefore, the tissue with the greatest over-pressure of nitrogen for that depth range, and that gas elimination from that tissue must control the decompression. He pictured the body as a single tissue and believed that the quantity of gas absorbed in the body could be calculated by a simple formula which related depth and time. Unlike Haldane, who believed that gas uptake and elimination took identical times, Hempleman assumed that gas elimination was one and a half times slower than uptake. Utilizing the theory that the tissues could tolerate an over-pressure of 30 fsw, (he) constructed a new set of decompression schedules…that are the current Royal Navy schedules.” (Deeper Into Diving, Lippman 1990)
Workman, in 1965, introduced the concept of “delta P” for gas partial pressures which was easier to handle than ratios and fitted the data better. He introduced the concept of “M values”: that each “tissue” or theoretical compartment would have a maximum nitrogen tension that can be safely tolerated at the surface without bubble formation. M is short for maximum and the M-value is the maximum allowable tissue tension at a specific depth.
Attempting to improve the safety of his original tables, Hempleman revised them in 1968 to include using a variable ratio of tissue nitrogen tension to ambient pressure to predict safe decompression. However, the Navy was not happy with the newly restrictive results and refused to implement them. Following more trials and revisions with Hempleman more closely attentive to the Navy’s suggestions for practical work needs, the tables were modified, reproduced metrically, and adopted in 1972.
Schreiner changed the accounting from “per gas” to “per compartment” in 1971, thus making it possible to handle different gases and gas mixtures. Table computation then is largely “bookkeeping”: keeping track of the gases in the compartments and comparing them with the “matrix” of M-values. Diving practitioners speak of “half-times” and “M-values” as if they were real entities, but it must not be forgotten that this is only a mathematical model. In fact, it is not really a “model” as that term is normally used, but rather a computational method.
In summation, we note that Haldane’s calculations are inadequate:
- Long, deep dives require more decompression than originally provided.
- Fixing these tables messes up the short, shallow ones which are working fine.
- Various tricks can be used to make the tables match the data using Haldanian calculations.
- Other ways to calculate tables have been proposed and any model will work if there are enough variables to adjust and a data base in making the adjustments.
Even today, divers are faced with a diversity of tables and decompression models incorporated into diving computers. Some are simple re-configurations of the basic U.S. Navy tables and others are distinctly different in their approach to decompression management.
New developments in bubble detection equipment prompted Dr. Merrill Spencer to suggest re-evaluation of recommended no-decompression limits with the goal of minimizing bubble development after a dive. His 1976 revisions where extensively tested by Dr. Andrew Pilmanis and Dr. Bruce Bassett and found to significantly decrease detectable bubble formation. In 1981, Karl Huggins, an assistant in Research at the University of Michigan generated a new set of decompression tables based on Spencer’s recommendations. These became known variously as the “Huggins tables”, “Huggins/Spencer tables”, “Michigan Sea Grant tables” etc. and were to be the basic algorithm used in the diving industry’s first practical electronic dive computer produced by ORCA Industries and known as THE EDGE.
Significantly, the Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine (DCIEM) in Canada has continued on-going revision to their tables based on ultra-sonic Doppler studies. These tables have gained wide popularity due their unique criteria for development geared to minimal bubble formation. John Crea, a professional consultant in custom table generation and a practicing anesthesiologist, specifically recommends the DCIEM tables for deep divers if a “stock” table reference is acceptable.
Other models include the conservative Buhlmann Swiss tables based on the work of Dr. Albert Buhlmann of the Laboratory of Hyperbaric Physiology of the University of Zurich. His algorithms were extensively integrated into popular diving computers of the era such as DACOR’s MicroBrain ProPlus and UWATEC Aladdin Pro as well as use in the form of custom tables.
A group of researchers at the University of Hawaii have come to be known as the “Tiny Bubble Group” after their theory of physical properties of bubble nucleation in aqueous media. Their Varying-Permeability Model indicates that cavitation nuclei, that are thought to “seed” bubble formation are “spherical gas phases that are small enough to remain in solution yet strong enough to resist collapse, their stability being provided by elastic skins or membranes consisting of surface-active molecules” (Hoffman 1985). In comparison of Table models, Huggins observes (1987), “the ascent criteria for this model is based on the volume of bubbles that are formed upon decompression. Growth in size and number of gas bubbles is computer based on the physical properties of the ’skins’ and the surrounding environment. If the total volume of gas in the bubbles is less than a ‘critical volume’, then the diver is within the safe limits of the model”. Although tables have been produced based on this model, not enough actual human testing has been conducted to be considered statistically relevant. On square profile comparisons with the U.S. Navy tables, the “Tiny Bubble” model is more conservative down to the 140 fsw level.
Further projects in table models include the Maximum Likelihood Statistical Method developed by the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI). In consideration of a diver’s exposure to depth/time “doses”, they have produced a statistical model that reflects probabilities of DCS occurrence and are expressed as 1% and 5% tables. The diving supervisor would have the option of selecting his risk factor based upon the priority of work to be accomplished.
What tables, then should divers use? It’s really too broad a question to pin down to a single answer as to “this table is the best”. Many experienced diving professionals prefer to work with custom or proprietary tables specifically designed for their application. Crea (1991) makes this observation: ”Computations can compare different tables or practices, but cannot determine what is best. As stated before, what works…is what works. Good tables are at the current state of knowledge empirical. The algorithms are good, however, to use yesterday’s experience to predict tomorrow’s dive.”
In the process of table development and validation, several basic and separate steps are employed with feedback on field use:
- Concept or “algorithm” for a table, usually based on some experience.
Laboratory trials, with feedback and revision as needed.
Move to provisional operational use at some point.
Provisional use “at sea”.
Acceptance as “operational”.
Results fed back, revisions as necessary.
- Judgement needed as to when to take the next step; this should be a responsible body of the developing organization;
This body decides how many trial dives under what conditions etc.
- This process, laid out in a workshop by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Society, is more or less what is currently practiced, but there is no set protocol for making the formal judgements.
For a more detailed history of tables and model evolutions I recommend reading “Development of Dive Tables” by Karl Huggins as contained in “Microprocessor Applications to Multi-level Air Decompression Problems” (Michigan Sea Grant publication 1987) and “Deeper Into Diving” by John Lippman (Aqua Quest Publications 1990)
Much debate still centers on what is the “best” table to use, and there clearly is no pat answer to that question. My opinion is that the best possible scenario for safe diving would include the use of a custom table matched to the individual and the dive application but obviously many divers will not utilize this level of technical support. But the reader is urged to make an informed choice in table selection. Don’t just grab the first thing that’s handy and expect it to suit a myriad of dive situations. And in all cases, do not push a model to the edge of its limits.
In all cases, caution and prudence are recommended but the overly conservative “prohibitions” still offered by some academicians may not necessarily be proven in the field.
As has been noted several times in this chapter, “what works is what works”. Tables and determination of “safe” dive profiles are very much an experimental science. Of course, tables, per se, have become something of a lesson in old technology as most divers have transitioned to using the modern diving computer. I was involved directly in the development of the UWATEC models and several other manufacturers. It’s hard for me to believe that any diver is not better off using a computer… if only due to their automatic functions for keeping track of depth, bottom times, ascent rates, and surface intervals. Far too many bends incidents used to occur simply due to poor record keeping. Computers eliminate that human error. But it’s important to appreciate the evolution of decompression models and the era when tables dominated how we conducted dives. I’m a firm advocate of studying history in order to be best informed about future technology and innovations.
The work done by the pioneers of tables and decompression models laid the groundwork for all that followed. We owe a huge debit to those researchers and, especially, to those who served as test subjects during actual human trials. Ask yourself if you’d be willing to subject yourself to such risks… And if you ever bump into Glenn Butler at a dive show (an early brave volunteer for table research with the late Dr. Bill Hamilton), be sure to buy him a drink and maybe a dog biscuit. He’ll be the stooped-over drooling dweeb at the end of the bar blissfully filling his diaper without a care and without notice. As they in the south, “Bless his heart…”
Just kidding, Glenn. Glenn, over here… this way, Glen! Hey, it’s me Bret. No please don’t sit down here… whoops, don’t worry… they’ll clean that up. So… how’ve you been? Any interesting projects you’ve been involved with lately? New dive computer trials? Sounds like fun…
54 Stonetree Rd.
Arrowsic, ME 04530
Seamanship for Divers
April 6th, 2012
If you work in the diving industry, sooner or later you will find yourself on a boat. It may be because you elect to be a customer in hopes of accessing the more exotic sites usually available, or you may seek employment in a dive store or resort that operates boats as part of their business. It is to this latter individual that this brief article is addressed. What should a diving instructor know about seamanship?
Increasingly, your chances of getting hired at all may be predicated on your boating skills. Graduating from an instructor program is a worthy accomplishment but realistically such training is primarily geared to evaluating and refining teaching skills in order to conduct dive training programs. This may substantially limit your options when it comes to testing the job market since little, if any, practical boat experience is offered. But if you want to make diving a career and afford yourself the best earning potentials, then you’re simply going to have to know your way around a boat without looking like a delegate from the Three Stooges. There are literally tens of thousands of instructors looking for jobs and the majority will be overlooked by employers in resort settings, liveaboards, etc. without prerequisite boating experience.
If you contemplate working for a U.S. based operation, it’s important to know that their water craft will come under the direct jurisdiction of the U.S.Coast Guard with regard to crewing requirements, inspections and licensing. (For foreign flag vessels that call on U.S. ports, the USCG’s enforcement role may be more closely refined to address only SOLAS requirements. For foreign flag vessels operating in their home waters, regulations are usually substantially relaxed.)
All captains or operators of U.S. passenger carrying vessels must be properly licensed. In many cases, certain members of the crew may also be required to hold licenses as engineers or mates. Most employers will look for staff that hold multiple credentials, i.e. a licensed captain and dive instructor. This is especially important in smaller operations where a limited staff must fulfill several functions, many times on short notice. Obviously, the candidate who can teach classes, fill tanks, run a computer, do store sales and handle the dive boat is going to get a longer look by his prospective employer.
Licensing is best accomplished by a combination of practical experience and specialized study. The Coast Guard will require two years of “certified” sea time to qualify an applicant for an entry-level license. Sweeping aside all pious claims to the contrary, they will accept almost anything if it looks good on paper and if it’s got someone attesting that the sea time actually took place. Boats are expensive and easily damaged in the hands of an inexperienced operator. This is a rather sad fact of life and brings up the next issue in hiring: “OK, this guy has got a license but does he really know how to run one of my boats?”
This burning question is etched forever in your employer’s mind since the Coast Guard does not require a practical boating test when you take your exam. This has always left me slightly bemused and baffled. You can’t even get a license to drive yourself in your grandma’s old VW without demonstrating your proficiency to actually operate the vehicle while performing daring feats of parallel parking, starting from a stopped position on a steep incline with a stick shift, or simply putting your blinkers on at the appropriate times. But you can finesse your way into a license to be captain of a vessel up to 200 tons and capable of carrying several hundred passengers without ever giving a practical demonstration of even tying off a line to a cleat!
Having hired at least one too many of these “captains” in my time and then been reduced to helpless amazement as they drove my boats into the dock or up on a sandbar, I now cast a rather jaundiced eye upon the licensing process. The Coast Guard argues that actual boat tests are too expensive; I know what they mean after paying the bills on a few “tests”. But licensing is a necessary evil and does provide a good theoretical basis of achievement.
Licensing has changed in recent years and some confusion has resulted. In prior years, entry level or “civilian” licenses were issued up to a maximum of 100 tons and were called Ocean Operator licenses. These were further restricted by coastal routes and maximum distances offshore. Motor boat operators licenses were also issued that restricted the holder to carrying not more than six passengers. Above that, you got into the real issuance of Merchant Marine officer licenses to Masters (captains), Mates, Engineers etc. This has gotten a little vague with the revisions to the rules and many of the smaller licenses are now referred to as Near Coastal Master or Mate tickets etc. Actual ship officers etc. are subjected to a far more rigorous licensing requirement.
For your first license, I suggest you seek out one of the excellent training centers around the country that specialize in preparing you to pass the demanding written examination. At least in this phase, practical experience may not help you. You will be tested in Rules of the Road, USCG inspection requirements, fire fighting, first aid, general seamanship, navigation, pollution ordinances etc., Take my advice: go to an exam prep center and they will get you through it. A good place to start is with SEA SCHOOLS or HOUSTON MARINE. Your local Power Squadron will probably offer boating courses but these will not get you through a licensing exam.
Acquiring experience requires initiative and a bit of creativity. Volunteering to work on dive boats may well be the best entry-level ticket to free training. It’s a reasonable bargain usually for both parties. You will get experience in a practical setting and the boat skipper gets some cheap labor and only a slight addition to his ulcer. In all seriousness, many boat owners prefer to train a crew member or deckhand from scratch and this can lead to a job offer once you learn your way around. Boat crews are notoriously transient and most captains are willing to work with a motivated newcomer that can pitch in and work his way up. Meanwhile you’re getting real time towards a license.
Although it will be a while before you can expect to get any serious “wheel time” (actually handling the vessel in tight quarters or making dock approaches), most skippers will be happy to start you off with the rudiments of watch standing, steering a compass course and basic navigation. Now is also the time to absorb as much of the general seamanship skills as possible. This will include proper handling of lines, anchoring, safety drills, procedures for moving the boat on and off the dock or mooring, passenger relations and even such seemingly mundane tasks as painting and varnishing.
Take practical experience wherever you can get it. You will almost always learn something. Ideally, starting with smaller craft, such as outboard driven boats in the 20 to 25 ft. range, will give you a chance to see for yourself how a boat reacts to her helm. Practice leaving the slip or dock until you can anticipate each maneuver as second nature. When you are comfortable with smaller boats, seek out some time on larger single engine vessels. A boat with a conventional shaft and propeller with a spade rudder will react far differently than an articulating outboard or stern drive system. If you can master a 35 to 40 ft. single engine boat while backing up in a strong crosswind or current, you are close to earning your stripes. Twin engine craft are more easily maneuvered since the boat can be pivoted on her engines but these boats are also usually larger as well and will have more mass and inertia to deal with.
Keep in mind that different operations will require different crew requirements. On typical dive boats operated as “day trips”, there may only be a captain and deckhand. Usually both will be actively involved in the dive operation as well. This provides an ideal learning experience since the deckhand/crew will handle much of the regular seamanship duties while the captain mans the wheel.
On larger vessels, more staff may be added. Some day-boats in the 65 ft.+ range will have a captain, mate and several deckhands or crew. Try to learn as much about each member’s duties as possible so you can quickly and confidently fill in as needed. Larger vessels are also less forgiving of mistakes so remember the captain is counting on you to get your line over on time and properly made fast on maneuvers.
Liveaboard dive vessels try to get the most utilitarian use of staff since there is only a limited amount of crew berthing available. The candidate who can point to past experience on other boats and who can help out in the galley or tend bar if necessary is an added asset. Likewise, individuals with mechanical skills are always given priority. Nothing ever goes right on a boat for long.
It’s not necessary to be an engineer to make yourself valuable. Almost anyone can become proficient in basic maintenance and trouble-shooting with a little effort. One sure way to endear yourself with the skipper is to volunteer to learn the routine of engine check-outs: dipping the oil, checking belt tensions and coolant levels, battery fluids, and other routine engine room duties. On vessels less than 100 tons, the captain will still be performing much of the maintenance schedule himself and any background you can pick up from a versatile operator will prove invaluable. Once you are comfortable and familiar with engine and generator check lists, ask for more technical instruction in changing water pump impellers, hoses, zincs and hands-on experience with electrical repairs, etc. A crew member that is handy with a wrench and knows his way around a toolbox will be a valuable addition to any operation.
In the last two decades, a trend has developed towards larger vessels including ships specifically designed for diving. Also, more and more traditional cruise ships are adding diving staff to their activities department. These situations are generally more formal with respect to uniforms and protocol. It’s helpful to have at least a passing familiarity with recognizing rank and department by insignia. A ship is usually staffed by deck officers (sometimes called the navigation officers), engineers, and hotel staff. The Captain (or Master ) is the senior deck officer and responsible for the overall ship operation. His second in command is the First Officer or Staff Captain who deals with the everyday ship’s routine. The Chief Engineer oversees the mechanical sections with the Hotel Manager handling the primary passenger facilities.
A close examination of their shoulder-board or sleeve insignia will reveal their department. In the U.S. merchant marine, deck officers typically wear an “anchor” while engineering staff wear a “propeller” etc. The ship captain and chief engineer will both display four gold stripes with other staff progressing downward: three stripes to a first officer, two to a second etc. In some foreign systems, the insignia is eliminated and an accent color is added near the gold bars to distinguish departments. Take the time to learn the system and you will be spared the embarrassment of addressing the hotel manager as “captain”.
I have always had a personal theory that the grander and whiter the uniform…the less chance I had of getting dirty! Rarely is a cruise ship captain called to the engine room…
There is a definite need for good crew in all respects of this industry. But it’s a very competitive market and experience is a definite plus. Combined with a license, diving instructor credentials can be parlayed into appreciable career earnings if you hook up with the right operation. The time spent “learning the ropes” on a dive boat can be used to upgrade training and license grades. Many ex-dive boat skippers have gone on to pursue careers in yachting and shipping. Mates on luxury yachts can easily earn up to $75,000 with top captains commanding well into six figures.
Along the way, while picking up the skills of the deck and engine operation make sure to spend some time acquainting yourself with the fundamentals of navigation. Again, most captains or mates are receptive to training crew that show a willing interest. A working knowledge of practical piloting, dead reckoning, and chart work are a must for advancement. From that starting point a natural progression to electronic navigational aids will follow. The modern crew member will be functional with radar, plotters, and GPS. You may even find a patient skipper who can introduce you to the fascinations of celestial sights with a sextant… nearly a lost art in today’s push-button marine industry.
You must also be able to handle the professional mariner’s lexicon. Bow, stern, draft, bulkhead etc. should be everyday language but you also need to know the difference between “weighing anchor” and “making way”. Seamanship isn’t just handling lines and learning not to spit into the wind. It’s a combination of many skills that make you a working partner on a boat or ship. Attitude and a willingness to learn new responsibilities mark the entry level deckhand bound for promotion. I remember being taught to tie a bowline and how to plot a course for the first time and welcome the opportunity to share my profound satisfaction in a professional marine career with others eager to learn. Now after some forty years at sea and commands ranging from tugboats to cruise ships, I cannot imagine a more exciting and fulfilling vocation.
But then again, it’s been said that I will do anything to avoid getting a real job…
author biosketch: Bret Gilliam is a licensed USCG Merchant Marine Master and President of OCEAN TECH, a marine and diving consulting firm. His work includes design, construction and operation of diving vessels and luxury yachts. A 41-year veteran of the diving and shipping industry, he has commanded everything from naval research vessels to 550 ft. cruise ships throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific.
Remembering Mike deGruy
February 13th, 2012
Diving lost of one its true gentlemen and most creative filmmakers on February 3rd. My dear friend Mike deGruy was killed in a helicopter crash in Australia while working on a project for famed Hollywood director James Cameron. Also with him was Andrew Wight, another talented filmmaker who produced the feature “Sanctum” in 2010. Wight was piloting the Robinson R44 helicopter that crashed and burned shortly after takeoff. Both men were killed almost instantly. Mike had just turned 60.
I was lucky enough to do a variety of projects with Mike and we shared the stage at nearly a score of film festivals and dive shows across the country over the years.
We first met on a documentary for National Geographic Explorer over 16 years ago and instantly hit it off. We were filming humpback whales on the remote Silver Bank and the production had all sorts of complications that led to setbacks that we always managed to overcome. I learned immediately that nothing could dampen Mike’s enthusiasm and we discovered that we shared the same wicked sense of humor. When the producer would panic about the whales not cooperating or weather that turned calm seas into a washing machine… Mike and I would inevitably lose ourselves in a laugh and counsel the anxious topside “suits” to chill out with promises that the next day would be better. It always was.
We used rebreathers for the work with whales and this was during the early era of such units for mainstream diving. I had to teach Mike and other members of the dive team to dive the complicated apparatus while we were on location at sea bouncing around in large swells while the whales watched us with amusement. It was sort of like learning to sky dive as the plane took off and we strapped a parachute on a student with hasty instructions before pushing them out the door at 5000 feet. But Mike was the ideal student from years of practical diving in difficult situations and he quickly mastered the new equipment.
In the evenings we’d sit together on the boat’s upper deck watching the sunset and listening to the whales spouting at us from nearby. These sessions included timely consumption of red wine and we formed a lasting friendship that endured. Ours was a unique bond and whenever we got together we always immediately picked up right where we had left off the last time in a stream of consciousness dialogue that never seemed to have been interrupted. His personality was one of boundless good humor and a constant smile. I cannot imagine a person more fun to hang out with, especially when isolated at sea for long periods.
We were so alike in many ways and still vastly different. We both lived our careers underwater and had survived some incredible challenges including shark attacks. Fellow divers always inquired about our “battlefield” scars and Mike won that contest with a forearm riddled with the aftermath of surgery when a reef shark decided to chomp on him in 1978… six years after I had survived an attack by two big oceanic white tips that killed my buddy. We both were asked to be contributors to several books on sharks and readers marveled at our survival instincts.
Mike was always at home in a tuxedo or suit. I hated the thought of having to dress up for anything including my own wedding. So Mike came in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. Perfect! I’m a big ex-football linebacker. Mike barely broke 150 pounds dripping wet and topped out at maybe 5′7″ on his best day. But his talent for filming and his oversized personality led me to nickname him “Little Big Man”… it suited him.
We both loved music and when I attended his 50th birthday party in 2001 at the exclusive Montecito Country Club in Santa Barbara, he arranged to have my dinner mates be legendary singer Karla Bonoff and her longtime bandleader Kenny Edwards. It was a memorable evening in all respects as Mike and I finished off the Grand Marnier and staggered into the night leaving vapor trails while supervised by our more sober companions.
He loved visiting me in Maine and we bounced back and forth between coasts as he educated me on life in California and his passion for hot sauce that went into everything that came out of the kitchen. I just could never understand why it had to go into the ice cream…
I was surrounded by friends celebrating my 61st birthday on Friday when I got the call about his death. It shook me to the bone. Mike’s birthday was December 29th and we had last spoken a few days before that and he told me about his upcoming trip to Australia. I had recently come back from nearly a month over there and shared some perspective on things he would enjoy while in Sydney. We had made plans to get together this spring. Now suddenly my friend was gone…lost on my birthday… on the other side of the world.
He was an extraordinary man of great professionalism, profound vitality, unique talent, and a boundless sense of humor. He was someone I always enjoyed and who enriched my life every time we met. The highest compliment I can offer is to tell you that he honored me with his friendship.
His passing made headlines all over the world. Hundreds of stories chronicled his career and mourned his loss. It was an outpouring of testament to his life, his work, and his indomitable character.
James Cameron said, “Mike was one of the ocean’s warriors. He was a man who spoke for the wonders of the sea as a biologist, filmmaker, and submersible pilot, and who spoke against those who would destroy the sea’s web of life. He was warm, funny, and extremely capable as one of the world’s top underwater cinematographers. His passion of exploration for the wonders beneath the sea was boundless. Mike and Andrew were like family to me. They were my deep-sea brothers and both were true explorers who did extraordinary things and went places no human being has seen. Their deaths are a tremendous loss for the world…”
I won’t waste time recounting Mike’s many awards and anthology of film work. His career was astounding. Just “Google” him and sit back for a long reading session.
I remember him for the adventures we shared at sea and underwater. And the wonderful good times when we’d get together on stage with other good friends to entertain an audience with our photography, films and anecdotes. I think my favorite was in 2005 when we joined Al Giddings, Ernie Brooks, Norbert Wu, and Stan Waterman as the lineup for the Boston Sea Rovers Saturday night Film Program. I did double duty as the Master of Ceremonies. We fed off each other’s energy and all ended up in my suite later with other folks for a laugh fest that extended into the wee hours.
The last time I saw Mike we arrived together two years ago at Newark airport and shared a limo over to the Beneath The Sea dive show to appear at their Film Festival. We sat together for dinner, caught up with other colleagues, did the film program, and then ended up at the “after party” that went forever. The next day we dragged ourselves back into a limo together to catch our flights in opposite directions. As we rode along, Mike tentatively asked me if we were getting too old for this. I assured him that we were not as long as Stan Waterman continued to party with us. He sat back and pondered that. Finally, he noted, “Stan is almost 30 years older than us. I’m not sure I can hang in that long.”
Well, Stan is turning 90 next year and still going strong. Mike may not make it to the next intimate gathering but I know he’s there in spirit. I like to think that he’s in a place with our other friends that left this life too early. I know they’re having a great time and will keep the party going until we catch up with them eventually. I just hope that I don’t have to dress up.
To Mike: Fair winds and following seas, old buddy. The key to immortality is living a life worth remembering.
No one will ever forget you.