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A Life Underwater Chapter 5

Updated on January 19, 2012
Sharing a Laugh with the much respected Fijian Chiefly spokesman, Manasa Bulivou.  One of the greatest wild shark handlers I have ever known!
Sharing a Laugh with the much respected Fijian Chiefly spokesman, Manasa Bulivou. One of the greatest wild shark handlers I have ever known!

A Life Underwater Chapter 5

I attacked my return to diving with a vengeance! Norine understood more than anyone else, what motivated me now. We were a lot alike. We both were in love with the underwater realm and a need to experience all that we could and then proceed to share it with others. I taught many students the joy of diving and would often take them to the Bahamas for their check out dives. Dive trips were planned to other exotic locations and my followers would book loyally to join me. These excursions were filled with new experiences and marvelous memories of just how rich our planet's oceans can be. The Sea of Cortez, nestled between the barren land of the Baja peninsula and the country of Mexico, was one such unforgettable destination. Diving on sea mounts that thrust up from thousands of feet of water, we would find ourselves immersed in a living broth of marine life. Every crevice would be filled with large gape mouthed green moray eels, and through the fish thick water around the sea mounts you could glimpse hundreds of large scalloped hammerhead sharks gliding silent and observant. Giant manta rays with a 15 foot wing span would swoop in close as if to play. Often they would allow us to crawl on to their backs while giving them a good scratch and as we gently held on to the abrasive ridge above their giant mouths they would slowly swim off with us clinging like large sucker fish stuck to their skin. These magic carpet rides into their realm were a remarkable bridge from our world to theirs and left all of us who experienced these encounters a little more humble.

Norine allowed me to take leaves of absence from the Scuba Club so that I could take advantage of various commercial diving jobs offered to me. Some exotic, some not so exotic! Jetting and laying miles of underwater cable was a not so exotic, dirty but a well paid experience. Working on Nuclear Power Plant intakes and out falls doing damage repairs and maintenance was dangerous but interesting. One unforeseen danger was when I was hired to break a strike by the Pile Drivers Union on the Hutchinson Island Nuclear Power plant in Florida. We were shot at by snipers while we worked around the clock, followed home and harassed late at night after a long days work, had our tires slashed on our personal vehicles, had dive compressors dangerously sabotaged and received numerous threatening phone calls. It was my first encounter with organized union labor and I have never gotten over the bitter experience to this day whenever I hear the word union as a result of these unsavory encounters with these unprofessional divers.

Two large ocean freighters had collided on a Saturday night while entering the harbor in Port Au Prince, Haiti. I got the call Sunday morning from a commercial dive company telling me that they needed me to photograph and survey the damage beneath the water line. On Monday, I and my gear were en-route to Haiti. I sincerely wish that each and every American could visit Haiti. It is a land of contrasts. The simplicity and beauty of Caribbean life is marred by the horrors of extreme and abject poverty. It is at first difficult to comprehend that this, the island nation that first shook off the shackles of slavery from the French in this hemisphere, has now slipped into such a quagmire of human suffering. All this in our country's backyard and within a short flight from Miami!

As a lone white man landing in an all black nation, you become an immediate point of interest and curiosity. I would inevitably find myself surrounded by dozens of reaching and clutching hands wherever I went. Shortly after my arrival in Port au Prince, Haiti's capitol, our vehicle had a flat tire on one of the few paved roads on the outskirts of the city. We were suddenly surrounded by a crush of curious people. As I stood there pondering how to fix the tire after discovering that there was no spare, our vehicle was suddenly picked up by dozens of willing hands and the wheel quickly removed! As I looked down the road in confused surprise, I spotted a man trotting away with my wheel balanced neatly on top of his head! I was told in the French patois language that he would return with the patched and repaired tire shortly. So, for lack of anything better to do and as a means of dealing with a situation out of my control, I began entertaining the growing throng of curious natives that had quickly gathered. In a thunderous and dramatic voice I began reciting memorized dialogue from high school plays I had been in! From the smiles and giggles from the crowd, I was a hit!

Suddenly the crowd parted and there, tottering along before me on a bent wooden cane was a wizened, old and very stern faced black lady. An immediate hush fell over the crowd as I stared at this ancient, bone necklaces hung around her neck, apparition with a growing curiosity and concerned anticipation. The old crone slowly lifted her arm, pointed her bony finger at me and began jabbering incoherently with words I would never understand! After a minute of this screeching tirade, she turned and slowly tottered away leaving the crowd to close up behind her passing. To this day I do not know if I had been Voo Doo cursed or Voo Doo blessed by this lady but fortunately I did not have too long to dwell on it as my wheel “mechanic” appeared with my repaired tire still resting on the top of his head!

In much the same manner as before, my car was quickly lifted up by people power, the wheel put back in place, the lug nuts snugged up and in 30 minutes, from flat tire to finished repair, I found myself once again driving down the road completely astounded by what I had just experienced!

At the Port of Haiti where the two ships were berthed, I did a topside assessment of the wharf in relation to the damaged vessels. It was apparent that I would have to gear up on the high dock as I looked down at the dirty harbor waters twenty feet below me. The sides of the dock consisted of narrow timbers and there appeared to be no ladder available. I realized that I would have to do a dramatic full flip entry in which my scuba tank armored back must strike the water first. The reason for this type of entry is in case there was a submerged piling or other debris unseen beneath the dirty water that could impale me when I made the leap. Done properly it is an impressive dive entry that affords good protection for the diver. As I geared up I became aware of a huge growing crowd of on lookers who apparently had never seen a “spaceman” looking aquanaut before! My hired dive tender was having a difficult time keeping the throng of curious people back. I perched on the edge of the wharf, fully geared up with my camera and strobe tucked tight to my chest. When I launched into my freefall flip I heard a collective gasp and was aware of all the people rushing forward to watch with such a press of bodies that they nearly pushed my dive tender in after me!

I spent an hour underwater photographing and measuring the damage to the hulls of both ships and concluded that both vessels were safe to travel in moderate seas back to Miami for necessary dry dock repairs. When I surfaced by the sea wall of the dock I was dismayed to discover that a ladder had yet to appear. How was I going to get up those twenty feet of seawall in full dive gear and with a camera in my hand? My perplexity must have been apparent to the watching onlookers who apparently assessed my predicament as well because on signal groups of Haitian men began agilely slipping over the wall, quickly forming a human ladder of sorts all the way to the water! A hand grabbed my camera and I watched as it flowed from hand to hand, man to man, up and over the dock wall! Then suddenly my tank valve was grasped by a strong hand and I found myself being hauled up the face of that twenty foot wall, being passed from grip to grip by dozens of strong and willing arms. As if by magical levitation, I amazingly found myself set down on the top of the wharf still wearing every bit of heavy dripping gear including weight belt, scuba tank, buoyancy compensator, wet suit, regulator, tool bag, mask and fins! In one day I was witness to the amazing resourcefulness of these tough and tenacious people, not once but twice!

I have made several trips back to Haiti over the years and each time I return home with an appreciation for these industrious people. I continue to marvel at their ingenuity and work ethic. Sadly, I have also been a witness to the cruelty of a politically oppressed people as well. I once watched helplessly as the tyrant dictator Baby Doc Duvalier's feared Ton Ton Macout, standing just to the right of me, suddenly opened fire on a group of innocent people in a crowded market square with no more feeling than the swatting of a fly. Another time I was chased by a machete wielding throng, angry because I had sureptitiosly photographed a voodoo ceremony and inadvertently “captured” the souls of the participants on film. Narrowly escaping, I still have those images. I am pretty certain I did not retain their souls!

Another advantage of living and working in Palm Beach, Florida was the unique exposure to an exceptionally wealthy clientele. Norine's reputation was excellent in the community and subsequently we had the opportunity to meet, train and dive with an eclectic group of personalities. Heirs and heiresses of Nabisco, Schraft Candies, the Pulitzers', McDonalds, McArthurs, DuPonts and others, who would seek us out. Politicians such as Ted Kennedy and family dove often with us. Celebrities such as Burt Reynolds, Loni Anderson, Dom Delouise, Carol Burnett and astronaut Buzz Aldren were just a few of the higher profile guests that enjoyed our environmental philosophy when it came to ocean exploration. We were often on local news stations and in the newspapers for environmental work or for the sinking of another ship as an artificial reef.

We attracted a number of film makers for documentary work and I began a new realm of education doing underwater film work with wild marine creatures which were seldom cooperative as free swimming subjects! This work gave me a whole new appreciation for wild life film making and photography and how much luck contributes to the success of a nature based production. This was before video cameras and digital film work, before Animal Planet, National Geographic television or Discovery Channel and the logistical challenges of underwater film making were far greater “back in the day”!

We were frequently visited by one underwater film producer from Canada who began making a film series for a program aired for the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC). He called his series the Last Frontier and he hired me as a diver and photographer for the production of a weekly one hour program covering a variety of underwater venues. It was fun, exciting and sometimes dangerous work. I had the opportunity to work with and become friends with some incredible and talented cameramen who later would become the cornerstone of many National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, Animal Planet and BBC film productions. Our paths would cross often in later years!

On one expedition we discovered a lost freighter sunk off the coast of Venezuela which had been torpedoed by the British during the waning years of World War II. The ship supposedly had been carrying Nazi gold bullion being smuggled to South America from the crumbling Third Reich dynasty. We found no gold but we did find human skeletal remains, German buttons from a long decayed military uniform, a German Luger, rifles and a German army helmet among other German military items. All buried under three and a half decades of undisturbed sediment in the dark holds of the great ship's remains. If there was gold, it had long ago been absorbed into the pockets of faceless men from a violent and desperate era in man's history. The real story behind the mystery ship will forever remain buried alongside the now silent human remains still lying in their watery grave.

In another program we filmed underwater sleeping gentle manatees in North Florida in frigid 17 degree air temperatures all night long! I would slip into the “warmth” of 60 degree spring water and carefully lay next to a 1000 lb snoozing manatee while holding an underwater microphone to their mouths to record their “snores”. When a manatee sleeps it will automatically lift to the surface to take a breath of air every ten to fifteen minutes before sinking back down to rest on the bottom....never waking. These gentle giants would follow us around during the daylight hours while we filmed their daily lives. They would occasionally wrap their flippered “arms” around our legs and bodies giving us anthropomorphic hugs! We in turn would give them a vigorous full body scratch which would elicit a cacophony of squeals, chirps and whistles from the delighted recipient. These gentle sea cows are disappearing at such a rapid rate due to environmental habitat impact that I fear our grand children will never know the joy of experiencing the manatee's quiet presence in their lifetime.

We also produced a film on giant loggerhead sea turtles focusing on one particularly amazing turtle that Norine had known for 13 years. Raja, as she called him, was one of the largest male loggerheads I had ever seen. Just his shell alone was 5.5 feet long by 4 feet wide! He would appear each year on our 80' reef off Palm Beach beginning late December and stay until mid March before migrating off to wander the Gulf Stream highway. What was remarkable was that we would always find Raja sleeping in the same underwater cave which was one of many caves on the reef. It appeared that only this one cave would be his preferred “digs”. In my dive travels around the world, I have noticed that two caves on a reef could look, to my eye, identical but only one would attract frequent turtle visitors to spend a month, a week or just a night when passing through on their wandering travels. I always suspected that the caves were marked in some unseen manner to let other sea turtle travelers know that it was a safe “room” for the night. The navigational ability of the sea turtle is still not fully understood but it is believed that a turtle uses the earth's magnetic fields to navigate thanks to a lodestone type chemistry found in their brains. The female turtle will always return to the beach of her own hatching birth to lay her own nest of eggs. If the eggs are moved to another beach many miles away and the eggs are hatched at that location the returning female will always find the beach her mother had originally laid her particular egg on to repeat the process! Even though she has never seen that beach before, its location is indelibly etched in her genetic footprint for hers and all the future generations that she will produce in her lifetime! It is truly one of nature's mysterious marvels.

The Last Frontier television program made shark films! We would have amazing adventures with massive hammerheads, tiger sharks, bull sharks and many other species of reef sharks. The star of the show and producer would attempt to feed these sharks by hand on various reefs we explored throughout the Bahama chain of islands. Sometimes we would film in the middle of the night on the reefs with only the limited glow of our underwater lights to illuminate the immediate area making the sudden appearance of these massive gray ghosts all the more intimidating and seemingly more unpredictable. On many occasions the curious and baited shark would have to be pushed away by hand or nudged firmly with the end of my camera to teach them “manners”. While doing these shark films I saw for the first time a “sleeping” shark lying on the sand in a cave at 70 feet. The shark was very aware of my presence and his eye never stopped moving as I photographed and recorded this apparent unique phenomenon. I have since encountered this behavior in caves around the world. I have lain next to the prone creature while gently stroking its head and flanks. All while the shark watched me with its constant unblinking gaze! I have also been bowled over more than once by a spooked and startled monster who wanted nothing to do with my body rubs! It is a myth that a shark has to keep moving to keep oxygen rich water flowing through its gills. It is unusual, however, to find them resting in this manner and the how and whys of this behavior still remain unclear to scientists to this day.

The last film I ever did for the Last Frontier television series ended my relationship permanently with the “star” and producer of the series. As is often the case on many film productions, the star of a show is a prima donna! Such was the case with our “star”! A legend in his own mind, he had read too much of his own press literature and believed it! He was rude and demanding and prone to tantrums and the crew always tried to avoid his ego spurred wrath whenever possible. Unfortunately he liked me and subsequently I was forced to travel in his personal expedition vehicle and sit with him at every meal while on a project, constantly enduring one endless tale of heroic daring do after another. All these yarns carried a similar thread of story in which he would invariably cheat death, beating insurmountable odds of ever living and once again be the hero! Heaven help us if there was a woman anywhere near during these long winded accounts as the tales would become even more absurd and grandiose in his effort to impress the lady. I was teased irreverently by the other crew members even though they knew I was saving them from suffering the same fate of enduring long evenings of nauseating boredom from our “ego gushing” star!

On this particular film we were to explore the world above and beneath the dark waters of the Florida Everglades. We worked hard on this film shooting the myriad of aquatic life abundant in this saw grass jungle while zipping around in noisy airplane propeller driven air boats. We filmed a wide array of unusual bird life, turtles, snakes and alligators above and beneath the waters. We participated in the exciting capture and relocation of several large alligators that were becoming a nuisance in certain areas of the everglades parks. During the several days of this particular project I was once again subjected to numerous tales from the “star” expounding at great length on how he had avoided near death on frequent occasions while living and working in the darkest jungles of Africa. One story he repeated often was of waking up one morning and finding a deadly African black mamba snake in his sleeping bag and only through his keen sense of composer was he able to slowly extract himself from the sleeping bag before slaying the deadly snake.

On the last day of filming we stopped at a backwater rustic cafe for lunch and there in a dusty display case I spotted the most lifelike rubber snake I had ever seen! A devious idea struck me immediately! I bartered with the owner until he finally sold it to me and I quickly secreted it in my camera bag which I always carried when working in the field. That afternoon we were shooting the last frames of the film to wrap up the project. The final scene was what the crew referred to as the star's “legend in his own mind” spot. It consisted of the sun setting behind our star while he stood precariously on the edge of a watery canal surrounded by thigh high saw grass. The camera was set up a short distance away on a small rise and the sound cable had been run down to the feet of the producer where it was connected to his clipped on microphone. The producer began his well worn dialogue, expanding on the theme of danger and excitement while exploring this seldom seen aquatic world. When he was done he grandly announced the project was a “wrap” and we all could pack up the gear and go home.

I quickly began picking up the sound cable, weaving my way through the tall saw grass until I found myself at the feet of our “star”. As I was bent over picking up the last of the cable I carefully slid my large rubber snake out of my camera bag. Suddenly I began rustling the grass at the producer's feet and shouted “Hey boss, What's this!” I stood up grasping the rubber snake by its mid section and held it's bouncing bobbing and realistic serpentine body inches from the poor man's face! He screamed! And then he screamed again! Each scream escalating to a high pitched hysterical crescendo while at the same time he began stumbling and staggering backward in an attempt to escape the “snake” still held in my hand! He fell down, stumbled to his feet again and turned and ran! Right smack into the camera and tripod held by the cameraman who had at this point kept the camera running to catch the “fun” for posterity. Our “star” did not stop running until he was another 50 yards away and only then did he slow and turn and then watched in slow comprehending disbelief while his entire 8 man crew held their belly's in laughter, some actually falling down in complete, weak in the knees, body shaking mirth.

He was not laughing! He was not smiling! He was pissed! And as I watched a florid red color crawl up his face and darken his angry eyes, I knew my tenure as a film assistant had suddenly come to an abrupt end on this project! Quickly a hush fell over the swamp as we all gathered up the remaining gear, each of us taking an exaggerated interest in our work, before hurrying off to the waiting boats. The good news was that I got banished to the last car in the expedition fleet and no longer had to endure the never ending drivel of the “star's” stories. For years in the underwater film industry my rubber snake would pop up in various and unique places around the world with members of that same crew! It was always greeted with great love and laughter. It was the rubber snake that brought humility to a “legend”!

Over the years I have seen Last Frontier episodes aired on television networks all over the world. I have never seen the footage of the rubber snake encounter on any of those death defying programs. Somehow, I doubt I ever will!


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