Distinguished marine biologist and shark scientist Dr. Eugenie Clark recently passed away, aged 92 years. How many of you know that she was almost single-handedly responsible for the establishment of the Ras Mohammed Marine Park? Many who knew her thought she was legendary. After more than two decades of regular exposure in Britain’s most popular scuba diving magazine, and also in Scandinavia and the USA, my face became well known to a lot of people who participated in the sport. Total strangers would come up to me at airports on the way to popular diving destinations and engage me in conversation as if they were old friends. This happened in places as far apart as Costa Rica, Indonesia, Micronesia, Australia and Africa. I could be forgiven for thinking I might be famous. I was not. Recently someone wrongly ascribed the term ‘legendary’ to my name. When I worked in the advertising industry during the ’seventies and ’eighties we would often joke that one of our number had become legendary in their own lunchtime! That's what we thought of the term. This has given me pause for thought. Scuba diving is such a minority interest even today and without any competitions to win, people can only claim to be as successful as they say they are. Who is legendary? Those who tried to break diving records like Dave Shaw and Audrey Mestre paid the ultimate price and have been long forgotten by the public.

Rob Palmer descending on a dive shortly before his demise.
Rob Palmer, not the well-known guitarist but the founder of technical diving in the UK, died during an incautious dive and few now remember him. The same can be said for others like Shek Exley, Carl Spencer and Wes Skiles. Famous for a time, they are remembered now only by those who were close to them. Lotte Hass recently passed away. She and her husband Hans made television films in the ’fifties that rivalled those of Jacques Cousteau and, since so few were doing that, Cousteau and Hass had a clear monopoly and their films gave them fame. Hans and Lotte became disenchanted and went on to do other things. Maybe they were forgotten too whereas the Cousteau Foundation has kept that name alive in the public consciousness.
Bret Gilliam now lives in Maine.
Fame is a fickle mistress. Bret Gilliam, a pioneer of diving himself in the USA, has written a book about the pioneers on his side of the Atlantic yet few people over here are aware of him now or what he did, or of the others he so eloquently describes. So who were the famous divers elsewhere? Commander Lionel Crabb, a war-time diving hero, was made famous by the media when he disappeared during a covert mission to examine the underside of Kruschev’s battleship during a state visit to Britain yet journalists continually get his name wrong and confuse him with the American Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe. Few can recall Willy Halpert kick-started diving in the Red Sea in Eilat together with Brit Alex Flinder who wrote a pivotal book about diving the Sinai. German Rudi Kneip pushed on with diving in the Red Sea while compatriot Herwarth Voightmann gave the Maldives and diving the publicity it needed with his shark circus. His best-selling book about photographing sharks might have made Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch famous when it was published in 1987 but he now lives a reclusive life in Cornwall and has long since stopped diving. Even iconic dive guide Larry Smith, the man that gave us ‘muck diving’ when he was first based at Lembeh Strait and later died of a lung infection bringing Raja Ampat to our notice, has gone off the radar.
Umberto Pelizzari free diving.
Presumably Umberto Pelizzari is still free-diving somewhere though his depth-record has long been broken. Free divers risk their lives to break records yet I fear the general public care little for their endeavours, out of sight and out of mind. Australians Ron and Valerie Taylor were famous for their television appearances. Ron has since left us and I recently noticed some footage of Valerie with a moray eel on YouTube getting some criticism from those who were obviously unaware of whom she was. Dick Rutkowski, the man responsible for giving us Nitrox and changed diving forever, is still alive and living quietly in Florida.
Stan Waterman prepares his camera in Cocos at eighty.
Stan Waterman, the man that was responsible for filming Peter Gimble’s iconic Blue Water White Death and the underwater sequences with Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep is still with us. For his ninetieth birthday he went to Mexico’s Guadaloupe Island to dive with Great White sharks. However, I’ve been on liveaboard dive boats with him and witnessed those that patently don’t know his history giving this elderly man, now frail, advice about diving. He’s always very patient with them despite having spent more time underwater than they have been alive. Forgive me for not mentioning any diver you think to be famous. Today, thanks to social media, we can kid ourselves we are more famous than we really are. Andy Warhol was right with his prediction that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. I simply caution those that wish to be famous through diving that the nomenclature ‘famous diver’ is something of an oxymoron. Legendary is something else!

One thought on “Legendary?”

  • helen

    i worked at Willy's AquaSport in the late 60's for a short time. Willy gave me beginner's diving lessons as a perk. Thanks for your article; I was just looking up old acquaintances and found it.
    PS: I was supposed to be the "cook" for the diving instructors!

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