Bret Gilliam and Fred Garth were business partners from 1994 until 2004 when their publishing company was acquired by Petersen Publishing (Skin Diver, etc.). The two ran popular diving expeditions and were the first to take Draeger semi-closed rebreathers to places like Cocos Island, Palau and the Silver Bank. In addition to business, they and their wives were close friends.
On October 8, Bret, a frequent contributor to Undercurrent, passed from complications of a stroke he suffered a year ago, Fred asked if we would publish his piece, a portrait of the Bret Gilliam we all admired, loved, and laughed with So here is Fred’s remembrance about their time together.
I first met Bret Gilliam in 1989. Well, actually, I just heard about him. Not in a good way, to be honest. He was running — more like commanding, as he tended to do — the diving operation and hyperbaric chamber aboard the Ocean Spirit, the first and only cruise ship ever devoted entirely to scuba diving.
Bret was unarguably one of the planet’s most accomplished divers. He filmed submarines for the Navy, ran thousands of dive trips in the Virgin Islands, became a world-class underwater photographer, held every instructor certificate ever invented and won dozens of ocean-oriented awards in leadership, writing and photography.
The cruise ship owners hired Bret to run their hyperbaric chamber and design a system that could fill 300 scuba tanks four times a day, a nearly insurmountable task. Employing his Jupiter-sized brain, Bret utilized long high-pressure hoses to fill the tanks without having to remove them from the eight, 30-foot dive boats, which he also designed. No more schlepping heavy tanks. No worries. It was just one of the myriad accomplishments that sprung seamlessly from his hyperactive gray matter.
During his Ocean Spirit years, he broke the world deep diving record, descending to 452 feet on a single tank of air, a feat that should have quite easily killed him, if he wasn’t so brilliantly tuned in. Decades of saltiness had taught him how to manipulate his body’s physiology by slowing his breathing and heartbeat — critical to surviving those unfathomable depths. The nitrogen narcosis alone should have delivered a 20-martini punch and scrambled his brain but perhaps he’d built a tolerance through extensive experimentation with recreational substances. John Prine’s song “Illegal Smile” comes to mind. (He LOVED John Prine!) Skeptics claimed he cheated, that he could have just tied his computer to some fishing line and dropped it to 400 feet. Maybe. But there were witnesses, co-workers mostly. I believe he broke the record. Or perhaps he fudged it. Either way, it was another juicy Bret story.
Gilliam always had the quickest mind in the room. Or for that matter, the building and the surrounding metropolitan area. The dude also knew every joke ever told. On our scuba diving adventures we’d have joke wars. Someone would start telling a joke he’d blurt out the punchline after the first line or two had been spoken. His clever wit bent me over cackling more times than I can count. No one was safe from his sardonic and sometimes sick humor.
As much as I admired him, let’s be real, the man was a certified narcissist. He knew he was smarter than 99% of his peers and he seemed to take pleasure in asserting his dominance over lesser humans. When he was annihilating someone in a debate, he’d sometimes finish them off by saying, “My father told me it’s unfair to get into a battle of wits with an unarmed man.” Then he’d bellow out that boisterous laugh while his victims searched for a hole to crawl in. He demolished attorneys, CEOs, judges, whomever got in his way. Sometimes it was messy, unless you were on his team. Fortunately, I was.
In his self-designed, sprawling home in Maine, he created a massive wall of fame with photos of his accomplishments and friends in high places. Famous musicians were his favorites and he had shots of hanging out with Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, David Crosby and many others. He told stories about partying with Jimmy Buffett, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and more, even though he probably made half of that shit up. We all let the bullshit slide because his wild tales were so entertaining we didn’t care if they were fact or fiction.
For most people out there, his real-life adventures were so outrageous that he didn’t need to stretch them. Yet, as a dedicated narcissist, he couldn’t resist embellishing. I was lucky enough to partner with him on some far-flung madness from Micronesia to Costa Rica. We orchestrated a month-long expedition at the Silver Bank to mingle with humpback whales. We brought in National Geographic Television enticing them with the prospect of filming a humpback giving birth – something no one has ever filmed.
I navigated the “chase” boat with the film crew while Bret held court over the cameraman, executive producer and the talent, a guy named Boyd Mattson, who was an affable talking head with perfect hair. Bret gave Boyd relentless shit about his coifed doo. He also told the Nat Geo guys exactly why they wouldn’t get the footage that they so desperately wanted. He finally demanded that we drop Boyd back at the boat so we could put a wig on a dive instructor – a “real diver” – and step in stuntman style. They finally got the footage, with Boyd’s stand in double gliding next to a humpback.
One evening as we were on the stern deck, probably burning some medicinal herbs, a Frenchman came by in a skiff and yelled at us. “Is Doug Perrine onboard with you?” Bret immediately responded. “Oh sorry, Doug was killed in a tragic hot tub accident.” The Frenchie had no idea how to respond so he just eased onward with faraway eyes.
We were coming into the galley of the 140-foot Sea Hunter dive ship early one morning at Cocos Island, 350 miles offshore of Costa Rica. One of our passengers, who had consumed too much red wine the night before, sat at the table, choking down some black coffee and looking like a wrinkled omelet. Bret pointed at him, “That is the face of irritable bowel syndrome.” Bystanders howled. You just had to be there. You wanted to be there.
We did six trips to Cocos and ended up spending at least a month there each time. Our little expedition company was the first to bring 20 rebreathers to the shark-infested outpost. Getting those through customs took Bret’s silver tongue and persuasion- – not because of the high-tech rebreathers but the 50 tubs of soda lime we needed, a substance that looks quite a lot like rock cocaine. I’m pretty sure Bret pressed a few Ben Franklin’s into the custom man’s hand.
During that stretch of my life, I was diving 200-300 times a year, all over the world. Without a doubt, Isle de Cocos was the best diving of my life. Bret and I both liked the dicey, extremely challenging conditions — high currents, sharks, down currents, clear but dark water. And, the rewards! Giant Pacific mantas, schools of gliding eagle rays, turtles everywhere, monster tuna, schools of jacks that would blot out the sun and sharks of so many shapes and sizes. No place was more exhilarating,
Along with his musician friends, Bret saved his highest admiration for diving’s most talented explorers — perhaps his most sincere and authentic quality. Except for the love he showed Gretchen, the love of his life, on the day they married. His faults were tempered by those outward displays of humanity. The friends he respected most were those who equaled his diving prowess — Al Giddings, Stan Waterman, Howard and Michelle Hall, Dick Bonin, Kirby Morgan and that list went on. Those folks earned his respect, something that was harder than cutting granite. If he didn’t like you, even God couldn’t save you. I saw him make some people’s lives a living hell. That was the ugly side of Bret. He could be vindictive to the extreme. He once told a high-powered diving executive that he was going to “Rip off his head and piss down his throat.” And he did just that, metaphorically, of course. The stories are literally endless.
Bret spent decades in the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean diving and running large charter ships. An excess of tropical sun all eventually overheated him to the point that he sought out the cool weather, escaping to Maine and building a gorgeous home on Arrowsic Island and another one on Moosehead Lake. If you joined us on a liveaboard trip, the very FIRST thing he did was turn the air conditioning to Frigid and demand that no one touch the thermostat but him.
His many obsessions included music — live or played on expensive stereos — movies, women, food, wine, photography, art, writing, diving, football and accumulating wealth, a goal he accomplished from his many business ventures. He used to post his financial statement on the corkboard in his office so others could witness his success.
We were in business together for a decade or more. That was a hellacious roller coaster ride for me. Oh, we made money with our diving expeditions and magazines – Deep Tech Journal and Fathoms — but working with him was like swimming with tiger sharks in a rip current. A bloody death was always lurking. We ended up selling the mags for a handy profit.
As a long-time journalist and writer, I was jealous of his ability to write so well. His humor came through in spades. He could also be a serious author and penned a number of books. I’m sad that he never wrote (to my knowledge) his autobiography. He was going to call it Into The Blue. The idea was to wait until he was out of the ocean business altogether, then write his life’s story with no holds barred. I’m sure it would have been a bestseller.
In the end, he couldn’t take the wealth, fame or status with him but he left behind a legacy like few have, along with many deep friendships. I was lucky to hang on for the ride of a lifetime and not get thrown off. The last thing he said to me a couple of weeks before he died was, “Fred, you wouldn’t believe my house. It’s over 10,000 square feet now. You and Blair are welcome to come stay anytime.”
Here are a few stories of our friendship and adventures
Bret and I are maybe 60 to 80 feet deep hanging desperately to a rock at the northern tip of Manualita Island, 350 miles offshore of Costa Rica. The current is ripping four knots with gushes up to six or more. We dig our fingernails into the granite. Next landmass: Baja, Mexico, more than 1000 miles north.
We’ve tucked in behind a huge boulder in the lee of the relentless water flow which allows us to float anti-gravity-style, while the current passes harmlessly over our heads. Our semi-closed rebreathers are functioning perfectly, just a few bubbles here and there which we’ve learned to control in situations like this.
Not more than 12 inches from Bret’s right arm is a massive scalloped hammerhead – a 10-footer, maybe bigger – gliding effortlessly in the torrential current. Not a twitch of its tail. Not even the slightest detectible muscle movement. Yet, it’s there somehow, motionless, just hanging out like a sleek fighter jet. The tip of the shark’s left pectoral fin is a whisker away from the rock outcropping we’re clinging to. Bret could reach out and touch the monster but we both know what would happen. The beast would bolt into the blue in a millisecond. The two of us stare in awe at this hydrodynamic torpedo, a mass of muscle wrapped in armored sandpaper that is both stunningly beautiful and scary as shit. Her cold black eye is sizing us up, trying to figure out what the fuck we are. I’m hoping Bret looks more appealing than I do.
Bret glances over at me. There’s that signature twinkle in his eyes. I smile back and nod my head. We’ve done it. We’ve achieved diving Nirvana. We’re in Cocos Island, Costa Rica – the best adventure diving in the world – where you literally jump into the food chain. Sharks of every flavor, monster tuna, majestic eagle and manta rays, massive schools of jacks – all served up under hairy conditions.
For the sixth year, we’ve brought a group of hardcore divers, most of whom return each October to hang out with the two of us on our crazed, edge-of-the-seat adventures. We’re here for a month, diving in what we believe is the most exhilarating destination in the world, along with Mapelo, Colombia, another spot where we’ve firmly planted our flag.
Sure, diving under hundreds of schooling hammerheads or communing with whale sharks are the stuff dreams are made of. It’s what we love to write articles about and brag about at cocktail parties. But, at this very moment we’re in diving heaven just arm’s length from a freak of nature.
The conditions are dicey yet we’re absolutely calm. There’s no fear. Mostly just a giddiness to be able to live this amazingly blessed life filled with life-threatening danger yet bubbling over with nourishment for our souls from raw nature. This is the top of the mountain and we have scaled the shit out of it. Our blood has transformed into pure adrenaline.
After a good three minutes of communing with this tremendous shark, Bret signals me and we release our grip from the rock. Like skydivers, we tumble backwards in the current and drop to 100 feet below fifty or more hammerheads that are moving slowly south.
It’s just past dusk and the water column is getting very dark. We hope the chase boat is somewhere above us. We are the fucking trip leaders after all. Better not kill us before we make our final payment. As we ascend slowly, we get our safety sausages and Dive Alerts ready to show and tell our position.
We pop out and see the panga no more than fifty feet away. These guys know our diving habits.
We would have forbidden any of our clients from floating away down current this late into the evening like Bret and I just did. Divers die that way. But, we’re not ordinary divers, if I may be so bold. We know these waters and we’ve become one with them. Plus, the staff is extra careful to protect us from our own insanity.
We were so close to the hammer that even Bret’s 15mm lens was not wide enough to get the entire shark in the frame.
As we slip into the panga, I ask. “Get any good photos?”
“Fuck no. Are you kidding? It was all I could do to hold onto the goddamn rock and not lose my camera? You’ll just have to log that one into your memory banks, dick head.”
And so I did.
My wildest encounter with a whale shark was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience – although maybe I’ll get lucky again. I was scuba diving in Costa Rica with my expedition partner Bret Gilliam. We were off gassing on the decompression line 15 feet below the dinghy.
As usual, we were bored and gazing blankly into the blue void…just waiting for the 10 minutes of deco to tick away. The rest of the group was already in the dingy contending with choppy seas and squeamish tummies. Typically, Bret and I had racked up more deco than everyone else so we were not surprised when a fellow diver snorkeled down to check our computers and then report our deco time back to the hapless dingy dwellers. They’d have to tolerate another 10 minutes.
As I casually peeked into the blue depths something came into focus. Holy shit! There she was: a 30-foot-long whale shark passing slowly below us. For a microsecond, I thought about the poor souls in the dinghy rocking and rolling above us and turning fifty shades of green yet the gravitational pull from the whale shark was merciless. I motioned to Bret, pointed down and he instantly peeled off for a date with destiny.
I’m strictly against touching sea life. It’s a steadfast rule I have followed for many years and for myriad reasons: it can hurt the sea life, it might hurt me, it’s a form of harassment and it’s far better to observe than obstruct. However, this particular whale shark turned and came right toward us. She was moving at a snail’s pace, almost idling in place begging for hitchhikers. We kindly obliged.
At one point, I had my hand on her pectoral fin with my arm fully extended in a stiff-arm position and was being slowly pushed backward while I took close up photos of her big eye. At the same time, Bret was riding the dorsal fin taking pictures of me. I shot a million frames of him too. This human/fish kinship went on for about 15 minutes. Every time we’d let go and allow our heartbeats to return to normal, she’d circle back and offer another ride on the merry-go-round.
Fortunately, we were diving on rebreathers so we had plenty of gas, plenty of time and no concerns whatsoever for our friends, who were suffering in the dinghy. They could see that we were no longer on the decompression line. They figured we’d been eaten by a sea monster or found another photo opp we couldn’t pass up.
Unfortunately for them, we racked up another 20 minutes of decompression. Were they angry?
Pretty much livid. A few were puking. Yet, there’s a trump card every diver accepts. We played the Whale Shark Card. They knew that each of them would have done the same thing Bret and I did if they’d been so lucky to see the whale shark.
That extraordinary interaction confirmed my belief that whale sharks are curious and friendly creatures. She seemed to relish in this new relationship. Ultimately, if she didn’t want us hanging around and hitching a ride, one flick of her tail and she’d have disappeared into the blue. The choice to stay and play was hers, not ours.
To this day, the profile photo I use on social media is me swimming next to that lovely spotted lady, taken by my buddy Bret.
We’re at yet another dive gala where Bret is the keynote speaker, again. The presenters are icons – Stan Waterman, Howard Hall, and the like. It could have been Boston. Maybe New Orleans. Different city, same shit.
Everyone is duded up in coats and ties, a few tuxedos, slinky dresses. The men look ridiculous in their fancy garb. We’re more accustomed to ugly, smelly dive suits. The women are all drop-dead gorgeous, thank the Lord. The red wine is outstanding, the hors d’oeuvres are tasty and there’s plenty of exaggerated chit-chat. Here we go again.
Bret walks up with a silly grin and a party enhancer in his hand. He shows me a small tan pill. “This goes quite well with Cabernet,” he assures me.
God only knows why I trust this guy, who is both brilliant and certifiably crazy at the same time.
Of course, I figure he’s consumed at least one of the pills. Most likely several.
I wash down the small tablet with the expensive grape juice.
Like almost always, Bret was right. It did go well with the California Cab and the evening was infinitely more entertaining. Even though I don’t recall much of Bret’s speech I do remember laughing until my tongue nearly dislodged from my throat.
Speaking of wine, Bret and I hosted lavish dinners for our top 10 clients every year during the DEMA show. We’d rent a private room at Smith & Lewinsky’s or Commander’s Palace or wherever the best chefs in town were performing their magic.
We had just one rule: no wine less than $100 per bottle.
Some folks claim they can’t tell expensive wine from moderately priced wines. These are the people who have never tasted good wine. Trust me, it’s vastly better and oh so good. Deep into one of the dinners, our friend Joe Giacinto said, “I can’t see my nose.” And, that’s one big schnoz to miss. We didn’t skimp on the quality and definitely not the quantity.
It was not uncommon for us to drop $5,000 on that private, annual feast. Considering our dinner guests were investing 20 times that in our magazines, we believed it to be a sound investment. And, one helluva good time.
It also followed a key philosophy on which we built our business: Life’s too short to hang out with assholes or to drink cheap wine.