This site will not function as intended with JavaScript disabled!

Guess who our mystery guest is: A diver who became on of the top producers of documentary and IMAX films; one who made a significant mark as a professional photographer. this is a person whose business cards simply identify them as “boss and no one doubts for a second the authority wielded.

In short, a no-nonsense industry pro who is preposterously successful, the recipient of multiple Emmys and awards, and is still aggressively negotiating the next big project when dozens of other filmmakers can’t even get their pitches past the secretary at the desk. And did I mention that all this talent and intellect is contained in a barely fivefoot- something package of head-turning natural beauty? No, it’s not Al Giddings.

It’s Michele Hall, wife and business partner of Howard Hall. The “twin towers” of underwater filmmaking in the 21st Century have managed to reach the pinnacle of professional achievement in a decidedly niche market by the simple formula of hard work, incredible talent, and a focused commitment to achievement that should be a model for all. And they’re nice folks. In today’s cutthroat business world you’d think that last attribute would probably be a liability. But for anyone who knows them, their genuine charm and warm personalities stand out. It’s impossible to find anyone, from little children to grandparents, who doesn’t instantly like and admire the Halls.

Underwater Power Team

Although it’s Howard behind the camera, it’s Michele who’s handling the details… coordinating the production crew, liaisoning with the studio and financial backers, contracting the deal, and cashing the checks. Imagine the infamous Weinstein brothers at Miramax… but with personality bypasses. And the Halls look a whole lot better in bathing suits. Professional diving, in all facets, is dominated by men. While there may be plenty of instructors and resort dive guides that are women, most of those spots are relatively short-term careers and the chance to really make a lasting mark is fleeting. Indeed, the best-known women in diving probably are Sylvia Earle and Genie Clark, both distinguished scientists who use diving as the vehicle for their studies. But inside the everyday real world of the diving industry, there are but a handful of women that have achieved notoriety and individual distinction. When deciding the persons to profile in this book though, our decision was easy. Zale Parry and Valerie Taylor from diving’s first generation were obvious. And Michele Hall rounded out the tribunal of diving’s first ladies. It’s a special group.

From Nursing to Falling In Love with Howard Hall and Filming

Michele was a nursing professional who moved to California and got sidetracked by a handsome dive instructor. They married and she finally pushed him into the film business fulltime. She even assumed the role of principal breadwinner as her income from nursing allowed Howard the independence to get his film career going. Once established, Michele gave up nursing to assume the mantel of producer for Howard Hall Productions. It was the perfect match, both of marriage and careers. Michele even became the inspiration for one of Peter Benchley’s novels. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

How did a nice east coast girl end up over there in the southern California land of the infidels?»I grew up a city girl, born to city folks. My idea of an outdoor adventure was a Sunday walk in a city park or sun bathing at a hotel swimming pool. As a child we didn’t visit national parks, and I traveled only once outside the continental United States – on a short trip to a Bahamas’ resort. (I believe that was to the Jack Tarr Hotel Resort, which I had the chance to see again 45 or so years later while on location for a film project. Imagine my dismay to see a holiday resort from my childhood, now little more than a pile of rubble!). My Dad’s work in the retail business prompted us to move numerous times while I was growing up. By the time I graduated high school in Kansas City, I’d lived in 15 cities – mostly in the mid-west and on the east coast, but also a couple of times in South Florida (where I actually gave surfing a try during a summer vacation when I was 14!). Once out of high school I stayed in Kansas City to attend nursing school. After another year of humid summers and winter’s ice storms, California sounded appealing and so I moved west.

What prompted your first interest in diving?»In 1975 I was dating one of the surgery Fellows I’d met while working in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital in San Diego. I’d briefly thought about taking SCUBA lessons the year before. So, when I realized that he was a sport diver, I decided to learn to dive. But have I told you about the first opportunity I had to try SCUBA – which I flatly turned down?? It was while on my senior trip in nursing school, in the Ozarks in Missouri. We were offered the chance to try breathing off a tank in a swimming pool at the hotel. I staunchly refused to give it a go. My stubborn mind-set was that there was no way I was going to be dependant on a metal bottle filled with air strapped to my back for my life support! My old nursing school buddies sure get a kick out of teasing me about that now! I mentioned this to the audience at the opening of one of our IMAX films (Coral Reef Adventure) in Kansas City in 2003. A reporter included the anecdote in his review, citing that the young girl who wouldn’t take an introductory pool SCUBA session was a now a diver and producer of underwater films, and was being featured on the big screen, allowing cleaner shrimp to crawl in her mouth!

Change of Plans

Okay, right up front, is it true that you married your dive instructor? And does that make you a filthy whore?»Yes. And no! How did you enjoy California diving initially?»I LOVED IT!!! I was hooked from my first open water dive, in May 1975. I was so enthralled with the experience and the environment that I don’t recall being cold, even though the water temperature was probably in the 60s and I wore a rental wetsuit, which was too big. While I continued to wear a wetsuit for a few years, I eventually switched to a dry suit. Though my enthusiasm eventually gave way enough to become more sensitive to the chilly elements, my passion for the sea hasn’t faded.

You were a full-time nursing professional. I understand this provided the financial stability to let Howard indulge his burgeoning career as filmmaker. How long did you continue medical practice before joining him full time in the film business?»My 19-year nursing career began in 1972. Howard and I met in 1975 (yes – when he was my diving instructor!). By the way, imagine my parents’ reaction upon discovering that my romantic attentions had drifted away from a doctor and future plastic surgeon, and toward a diving instructor! Following my heart, we married in 1981. Howard’s primary source of income when we met was teaching diving and working at Chuck Nicklin’s Diving Locker. He left the dive shop in 1978 and began working as ‘have-camera-will-travel’ – in other words, as a cameraman for hire for others’ productions. A decade later, in 1988, he began producing his own films. By the fall of 1990, as he was completing one production and beginning pre-production on another, it was apparent that he needed to either hire an assistant or I needed to switch gears and professions. We opted for the latter.

It’s a very tough world out there for most diving filmmakers. Did you think back in the 1970s that this could be a career for both of you?»No, in the 1970s I didn’t think that underwater photography could support us, and I couldn’t envision that I would want it to be my career. It’s true that occasionally during the early 1980s Howard and I fantasized about working together. But I loved the work I was doing as a pediatric nurse, and after working so hard to get to the point I was at in my career, I had no real desire to give it up. After starting my nursing career in the operating room at a general hospital, I began to specialize in pediatrics, first with another job in a pediatric O.R., and then in a pediatric Intensive Care Unit. During the last 10 years of my nursing career, as the Coordinator of a Genetic Newborn Screening Program for the California State Department of Health Services, I was involved in cutting edge diagnosis, research and treatment of newborns with metabolic and genetic disorders. And because I loved the work so much and found it so rewarding, for many years I was reluctant to leave medicine.

Share with us some early film work projects. How long before these could start paying the bills?»Howard’s first paying job as a cameraman for hire was on a shark film for Survival Anglia with Stan Waterman. A few years prior to that Chuck Nicklin had facilitated his being hired to go to South Australia as the “shark wrangler” with the Second Unit team for the feature film The Deep – a Peter Yates film made from Peter Benchley’s novel. Working on The Deep was the beginning of Howard’s introduction to filmmaking work and a turning point in his life and career. Virtually everyone whom he worked with on that project eventually became dear friends, including Peter, Stan, Jack McKenney and Al Giddings. In the 1980s he went on to work on some 18 episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, various episodes of the PBS series Nature, and many other documentaries for US, British and German television. He was so good at what he did, so well liked, and so easy to get along with that he was in high demand. The bills were being paid. The contacts he made, the things he learned about filmmaking, and his knowledge of and love for marine wildlife led to the award-winning Seasons of the Sea, the first film he produced, directed and wrote on his own.

Turning Point

What do you perceive now as the big career break for you guys?»There’s a Catch 22 in getting the financing to produce a film. No one wants to trust you with the funds required to make a film until you prove that you can manage the production. And you can’t prove that you can manage a production until and unless you’re given the funds to do so! So, in 1988 when David Healy, former Executive Producer at WNET Nature, was willing to give Howard a contract to make what turned into the television program Seasons in the Sea, — well, that was a huge break and turning point. Especially when you realize that the reputation he earned from Seasons led to a career in making IMAX films.

Howard is an extremely talented still photographer. But you also wield a camera with coveted skill. How did you get started?»Most of the people I dived with when I was first certified were taking underwater photos. During my early months of diving I modeled for many of them, Howard included. Before long I decided to give photography a try so that I could show my non-diving friends what intrigued me about the underwater world. What systems were you using then?»I have small hands, and when I tried a few of the housed systems that were available at the time I found they were just too big and cumbersome for me to manage. So for my first underwater camera system I used a Nikonos III with a 35mm lens and extension tubes. I was very happy with that system for quite some time. How would you compare those early editions to what has evolved and is available now?»Eventually smaller housings were developed and as my diving skills improved I became more comfortable handling the gear. Though I still loved and continued to use my Nikonos III with the 15mm lens for wide-angle shots.

Do you still shoot stills on your motion picture projects?»As our film projects have become more complex (large format/IMAX films vs. television productions) and hence my responsibilities to the production more time consuming, I have less time for photography. But I still shoot behind-the-scenes production stills, and I continue to enjoy documenting the beauty of our seas and animal behavior when I can. Have you transitioned from film to digital?»I – somewhat reluctantly – made the switch to digital in August 2004. Why was I reluctant? The change required more than just a commitment of funds for new equipment. I had to make a commitment of time, not only to learn to use a new camera system and new techniques and parameters, but to learn how to deal with the images after taking them! Gone were the days of sitting in a darkened room for an evening or two after returning from a dive trip to look at slides and fill up a trashcan with the rejects!

What system are you shooting?»I used Nikon cameras for years to shoot slide film. Prior to switching to digital for my still photography, Howard had developed a way to shoot time lapse for our high definition stock footage video library using a digital still camera. At the time Canon was considered to have superior digital cameras. So we switched, and are now so invested in cameras, lenses and housings that we’ve stuck with it, even though Nikon cameras have reached parity.

Film VS. Digital

Give us your perspective on film versus digital.» I have a real love/hate relationship with digital photography. I love not being limited to taking 36 images on a dive. I love the immediate gratification that comes with looking at my images after a dive, learning from my mistakes while on location, and having the chance to go back and give it another try. But I resent the amount of time I must spend editing, processing and to catalog the images. It’s so easy to fall behind when I’m on location that I now feel compelled to spend every spare moment dealing with images. And I still have trouble keeping up with it all. Gone are the days of enjoying bits of quiet time to relax with a book.

How did you and Howard make the jump to IMAX productions?»Howard received a call in October 1992 from Graeme Ferguson, one of the co-founders of IMAX Corporation. Graeme was in pre-production for on IMAX’s first underwater 3D film. Howard’s reputation as producer, director and cameraman of the award winning television program Seasons in the Sea led to his being recommended as the director and cameraman for this exciting new project. At first we thought the phone call was a prank – a joke being played on us by one of our buddies. But when Graeme actually came to town a few weeks later for a meeting with Howard, and then asked him to fly to Toronto to consult on designing the underwater housing, we started taking the project seriously. That film, and its subsequent tremendous success, of course opened the door to other projects.

From a sheer size standpoint, putting a standard IMAX system in the water must be daunting?»The underwater 16mm film camera system we used in the 1980s and 1990s weighed in at 48 pounds. Mark Conlin, our AC (assistant cameraman) for our television documentaries, used to hand off that 16mm system to Howard by holding it over the edge of the boat’s swim step or the side of the inflatable or skiff. In contrast, the IMAX 3D system (camera, housing and accessories) weighs 1,300 pounds. The housing measures 4 feet by 4 feet by 3 feet – big enough for me to crawl inside! Placing it in the water requires a crane or A-frame capable of handling loads of at least 2,500 pounds. Even the standard 2D IMAX system, weighing 250 pounds, requires, at minimum, a davit to hoist it.

Any close calls with that thing?»Safety is a major concern when dealing with this massive system, and three situations come to mind. We avoid getting into strong currents that would hamper getting the camera back to the boat, and are prepared to either hook up a tow line directly from the camera to the boat or have a skiff on stand-by to tow it back. If the housing were to leak, the added weight as it took on water could make retrieval impossible. An early housing design included placing the camera in a neoprene bag to minimize damage should there be a leak. But sometimes attempts at too much safety can be as bad as not enough! The bag got caught in the o-ring seal, causing a slight leak. Luckily the water-sensor alarm alerted Howard of the need to return to the surface before the housing got heavy and any damage was caused. The bag-system was immediately retired. Then… there was the night of terror. It was 2a.m., we were drifting in the open ocean in the Sea of Cortez, and we were bringing the camera system back aboard the Solmar V during a night of filming Humboldt squid feeding. The seas were rough. The camera was hooked to the boat’s crane and was being lifted to the upper deck. The boat took a swell. About eight of us were on the upper deck as the 1300-lb. system started swinging violently out of control. I recall yelling, “DUCK!!!” as the housing swung across the deck, and then watched in awe as it swung back out and over the side and our skilled crane operator released the brake. Luckily no one on the upper deck was hurt, and no one was in the water when the housing hit the surface. The only harm done was the need to run an extra load of soiled laundry.

You’ve done critically praised IMAX projects in both 2D and 3D. Which do you prefer?»I enjoy working in the IMAX format – whether it’s 2D or 3D. Both are challenging and result in a film that’s shown on the big screen. I don’t really have a preference. For motion picture work, where does the future lie: film or HD video?»The future is certainly digital. Few people are shooting television documentaries in film any more, and ever more features are being shot in digital. The 70mm IMAX film image has been estimated to have a resolution of between 8 and 12K. As I write this, no digital motion picture system is capable of producing image resolution beyond 4K, but they get closer every day.

The Halls must have one of the best film stock libraries in existence. How do you manage that resource? Have you used any of the new technology to upgrade your own footage from 4×3 to 16×9 format?»From the time Howard began producing his own films in 1988, we began acquiring footage for our 16mm film stock footage library. For years we marketed that footage for use in exhibits and other television productions. By 1999 we’d accumulated 145 hours of footage and decided to sell the library. After buying our Sony HDW 900 Cine Alta camera in 2000 and designing and building its underwater housing, we began capturing a new library in high definition format in July 2001. We represent our footage for licensing, and as well as having contracts with a few agents.

Over the years, you have developed a pretty tightly knit group that works on your films. Tell us about them and how those relationships came about?»We’ve been fortunate to work with a wonderful group of guys over the years in our film productions. We tend to spend weeks at a time in the field, usually on liveaboard boats. So it’s really important that everyone is easy-going and compatible. No prima donnas allowed. And they have to believe that chocolate is one of the major food groups. Some of our crewmembers have worked with us since the early 1980s, and others came on board as our films got more complicated and the requirements for more divers and technical talents grew. You and Howard have also spent a record amount of time aboard Avi Klapfer’s vessels. Tell us about those films and why you chose that operator?»Our first dive trip to Cocos Island, Costa Rica was aboard the Undersea Hunter, and after experiencing their wonderful operation it was only natural to continue our association with them when filming there. Since that first trip, Avi, his wife Orly, their business partner Yosy, and many of the office staff have become good friends. Their expertise is superb. We made our 2D IMAX feature Island of the Sharks at Cocos aboard the Undersea Hunter. The vessel met our needs so well that when we were in pre-production with Greg MacGillivray on Coral Reef Adventure we talked with Avi and Yosy about taking her to Fiji and Tahiti. By the time CRA was complete, I’d calculated that we’d spent more than a year aboard the Undersea Hunter. There was a time when Avi posted a plaque on the cabin that had become our home-away-from-home that read “The Hall’s Cabin”!

Time Is Money!

Your work has taken you into some of the remotest locations possible. What’s it like to stage a multi-million dollar shoot with no outside support, either for equipment repair or medical emergencies?»Time is of the essence when we’re on location filming. In other words, time is money. Our daily production costs while at sea making a 3D film can run $14,000 or more. And that’s before we shoot even a single frame of film, and doesn’t account for airfare and shipping costs to get us to location. So, we need to be prepared to fend for ourselves as much as possible in remote locations.

Your work has taken you into some of the remotest locations possible. What’s it like to stage a multi-million dollar shoot with no outside support, either for equipment repair or medical emergencies?»Time is of the essence when we’re on location filming. In other words, time is money. Our daily production costs while at sea making a 3D film can run $14,000 or more. And that’s before we shoot even a single frame of film, and doesn’t account for airfare and shipping costs to get us to location. So, we need to be prepared to fend for ourselves as much as possible in remote locations.

As was the case when making Into the Deep, at times just 30 miles off California’s coast, we know there would be lost time and money if equipment failed and we didn’t have back-ups. So, we travel with redundancy – a second camera, back-up lenses, and crewmembers that can stand-in for each other if someone gets sick. We don’t have a second underwater housing – so a major flood of the housing would be a real problem. Still, the potential of difficulties and the need to access assistance is one of the reasons we didn’t go father from shore than California’s Channel Islands for Into the Deep. In fact, we did run into some technical difficulties and called for one of IMAX’s camera technicians to leave his home base in IMAX’s Camera Department in Toronto and join the crew on location. He came on board for what he thought would be a day or two of repairs. As this was the first time the housing had been in the field and it was experiencing some glitches, we were reluctant to let him go home. We kept him on board for the duration of the expedition… during the month of January… when we were enjoying unusually nice weather… and his wife was home with two toddlers… enduring bitterly cold temperatures. Talk about having torn feelings about needing to be on location!!

With the experience of Into the Deep under our belts, we ventured father offshore for Deep Sea 3D, and we’ll really push the envelope when we head to South Australia and the Indo-Pacific for our next IMAX 3D film. Medical emergencies are another story. A good first aid kit and having plans in place for treating various emergencies have helped us to stay on the job. While making Coral Reef Adventure, when Howard realized he had a case of decompression illness, we immediately implemented our emergency plan for in-water-recompression. Four hours later once he was back on-board, the boat cruised to the closest recompression chamber (10 hours away) where he underwent four subsequent precautionary treatments. He came through all of it without any residual affects. But I’m convinced that if we hadn’t been prepared with a plan for in-water recompression, that would not have been the case and the outcome would not have been so rosey. And you wonder why I have some gray hair? Tell us about your latest release Deep Sea 3D. How did that come about and where were you shooting?»Into the Deep was an immediate success when it was released in the fall of 1994. Within the year IMAX theater operators began asking us when we might begin another. We were eager, but, as we’ve often said, the most difficult part of making a film is raising the money. It took some 12 years to put together the finances. Our enthusiasm for another IMAX 3D project never waned, but in the meantime we made programs for television – including the PBS series Secrets of the Ocean Realm, an episode of the PBS series Nature, and programming for Tokyo Broadcasting Systems (TBS). And we worked on a few other IMAX films – including Island of the Sharks and Coral Reef Adventure. Renewed interest for another 3D film in late 2003 led to writing a treatment and a new fund-raising campaign.

Then in the spring of 2004, when Warner Bros. saw the success of their collaboration with IMAX Corporation on NASCAR The IMAX Experience, they expressed interest in partnering on another 3D film. We got the green light for Deep Sea 3D that June (2004). When the call came in, it seemed to me that timing couldn’t be worse! They wanted us to deliver the finished film in March 2006 (less than 2 years away then), which meant being in the field shooting that September – an unprecedented short pre-production period for us. Even if we didn’t have anything else on our plate for the coming months, the challenges of getting the team together, chartering seven boats, getting film and work permits for the first expedition (in Mexico, only three months later), and gear sorted out and to location would have been monumental. But… the call actually came while we were out of the office for a few days, in Houston presenting Coral Reef Adventure at Sea Space’s Film Festival. Howard was leaving straight away for a 2-week filming expedition to the Marshall Islands, so he wouldn’t be available to participate in the early stages of planning. On top of it, we were in production on an episode for TBS and in post-production on the Nature episode Shark Mountain.

But after waiting so long for the chance to make another IMAX 3D film, we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. So, as terrible as the timing was, we pulled out all the stops. And by September 15th my ground crew was driving a truck across the California/Mexico border on the way to Santa Rosalia with 7,000 pounds of equipment. The next day the rest of us flew to Loreto and a bus was waiting to take us to Santa Rosalia where we boarded the Solmar V. Then Hurricane Javier bore its way across the Baja Peninsula. We were caught up in the adventures of film production!


Your business card used to simply identify you as “boss”. You are billed most often as “producer” on your projects. What does that entail?»Ah!! The famed business cards! Actually, these were a gift from Howard when I left my last nursing job. And I still use them – though I have some that don’t say “Boss” that I to people who might not understand the humor. Still, I always say that if Howard considers me the “Boss” then he’s the “President.” As the producer, I’m responsible for all field production logistics and activity, and for our crew. When we make television programs and IMAX 2D films, I handle all of the arrangements and details myself. IMAX 3D projects are exponentially more complicated, and beyond the scope of what one person can handle. I’m fortunate to have a talented Associate Producer, Production Accountant, and Production Coordinator at IMAX on my team. Have you and Howard considered mainstream theatrical films as a next jump?»The first film that Howard ever worked on, in 1976, was The Deep – a mainstream theatrical film. He was the Shark Wrangler. But we’ve never seriously considered getting involved in this genre for our productions. We prefer to direct fish rather than people.

In addition to diving, you and Howard also have a passion for flying. What sparked that interest and what equipment do you use?»Howard’s interest began in the early 1970s when he began flying hang gliders. When we wanted to film aerials of Cocos Island for Island of the Sharks in 1998, the only way to do this was to bring our own aircraft to the island. So we bought an ultralight, sent it by cargo ship from Los Angeles to Costa Rica, stowed it aboard the Undersea Hunter, and hired our friend (and Howard’s long-time hang gliding buddy) and ultralight-certified-pilot John Dunham to pilot the craft. This worked out so well that Greg MacGillivray repeated the experience in order to capture aerial shots of French Polynesia for CRA. But this time the ultralight went by cargo ship from Los Angeles to Papeete in French Polynesia – talk about needing to plan ahead! It almost didn’t arrive in time clear customs before the boat headed out with our crew to film! Luckily it made it, and Howard and John captured some spectacular images flying over Moorea. So, another of his early passions has played a role in his career path!

Keeping up with Mother Nature and its’ People

What will your next film project be?»After the success of Deep Sea 3D, Warner Bros. expressed to IMAX that they were interested in funding another film. In early January (2007) we were given the green light to proceed. We’ve been affectionately calling it Deep Sequel. But the working title is actually Coral Kingdoms 3D. IMAX’s marketing department will test a variety of titles and will most certainly come up with something different. We’ve all been around long enough to realize that world’s oceans, reefs, and marine life are suffering from severe natural and manmade impacts. Where have you seen the largest impact?»I see changes everywhere I go: diving, hiking, even driving down the street. I believe that the strain of our ever-growing population is the core of the problem. More people want to dive the reefs, more people want to explore the outdoors, more people need to be fed, more people are driving the streets. More people, more people, more people… Every time a new traffic light is installed, it’s a sign of increased population. Talking about population is not a popular issue. Still, all our other efforts will do little good if we don’t get our heads straight about it. As far as the oceans are concerned, it’s probably worse than many have been led to believe. Fish populations are disappearing very quickly. Many of the things we filmed for Secrets of the Ocean Realm can’t be filmed with any predictability now, just 12 years later. Coral reefs have been hammered in the last decade and the disintegration is accelerating. Indeed, we have seen enormous changes in the ocean. On a personal note, it’s difficult to plan a production when filming is a year or so away and the environment is changing so rapidly. When we were in pre-production for Coral Reef Adventure, we scouted Fiji and decided to film coral reef life there. By the time we got to Fiji with the IMAX gear a year later, almost all of the hard corals were dead.

What do think we need to do as a society to arrest this pattern?»Frankly, I’m not smart enough to know. But I do think it will take sacrifices, and I don’t think that enough individuals are willing to make the necessary sacrifices on their own. And as much as I hate Big Government wielding a heavy hand, perhaps we’d see some benefit with regulations that forced changes in things like fishing practices, anti-pollution efforts, farming practices, and fuel production and usage.

At this stage, can the ocean environment recover?»Well, if you mean to recover to what we knew 20 or 30 years ago, and during my lifetime, probably not. On the other hand, the ocean will survive, one way or another. It just won’t be the ocean we’ve known. Does our own U.S. population realize the very real threat that our children may never be able to see the underwater world as we did only three decades ago?»Many people just don’t pay attention – they’re so busy working to take care of their families’ needs that it’s difficult to find the energy to think about the environmental issues at hand. Many just don’t care.

You’ve spent years visiting Cocos and diving with its sharks. What’s your view on the impact there?»I’ve been diving at Cocos Island since 1991. There’s no doubt that the fishing boats that patrol the waters between beyond Cocos’ no-fishing zones have an impact. It’s sickening to me to see fishing boats lined up in port at Puntarenas, Costa Rica, their decks covered with sharks, and to watch the fishermen slice off the fins. The Costa Rican government makes an effort to patrol the waters, but they don’t have sufficient resources to be terribly effective. I’ve heard this may be changing though. I met Hans and Lotte Hass in 1998. I’d read Hans’ account of their diving and filming at Cocos in the early 1950s and told Lotte that we were in the midst of making an IMAX film there. With enthusiasm she said, “Oh, then you’ve seen the Tiger sharks!” I told her, “No, there were no Tiger sharks at Cocos.” As she repeated the statement a few times, I thought that possibly she didn’t understand what I was saying due to a language barrier. I soon realized, however, that her English is quite good, and that having seen so many Tiger sharks when she was there, she just couldn’t understand that I hadn’t seen any myself … that the Tiger sharks could possibly be gone. A lot has happened to the shark population at Cocos Island, and around the world, in the last 50 years.

Once in a Lifetime Experience

What has been your most satisfying experience in diving?»My most satisfying diving experience was probably taking the line off the manta while diving on El Bajo in the Sea of Cortez in August 1980. Do you want to hear the whole story? Of course!»I went on my first underwater filming expedition with Howard in August 1980. He was producing his first film about the Hammerhead sharks that school in great number over a seamount in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California. Stan Waterman and Peter Benchley were along as hosts for the show. During this expedition I had an experience that changed my life forever.

Returning from a dive on the seamount, I saw Marty Snyderman, one of the show’s cameramen, perched on the back of a Pacific manta ray. It was an enormous animal flying over the seamount with wings that spanned more than 18 feet. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Marty was trying to cut loose a fishing net that was wrapped around the manta’s mandible. As the manta flew by, Marty signaled to me that he was almost out of air and needed to surface. Just then the manta turned in my direction and stalled beneath me. To me, there was no mistaking its intent for me to pick up where Marty had left off. I settled down on the ray’s back and succeeded in removing the last tangle of fishing net embedded in its mandible. Whether this behemoth thought me Androcles, or what, I’ll never know. But it took me for the ride of my life.

It’s difficult to explain what I felt during those moments. Awe, trust, exhilaration, tranquility… these words are barely adequate. With no effort on my part, the ray and I flew around the seamount. My sense of time was confused, as it seemed we were moving in slow motion. Or maybe I just wanted it that way; I didn’t want the experience to end. At one point we glided past Howard, Stan and Peter as they returned from a dive. Howard later told me that upon seeing me perched on the ray’s back, he’d halted dead in the water, marveling in disbelief as the ray swept me away, helplessly thinking he might never see me again! When I saw my exhaled bubbles splayed behind me instead of rising directly to the surface I realized how fast we were moving. I was on a magic carpet of my very own, and I was on the ride of my life – I couldn’t believe the ride and the view. I felt the need to equalize the pressure in my ears and knew we’d begun to descend. I checked my air pressure and depth gauges and my senses returned. I knew I had to ascend and head for the boat. If the ray had taken me too far away, I could have an impossible swim back. In the late afternoon light, the boat crew might have difficulty finding me. Just as I began to worry, I realized we were at the boat’s anchor line. The ray had taken me full circle and was depositing me where we’d started!

For several days following my removal of the net from the giant manta, “Grand Dad” (as he became known to our crew) returned to the seamount. Before the trip’s end, he’d taken us all for a “ride” and Howard had added a manta ray segment to the film’s storyline. “Grand Dad” had also inspired a new story for Peter, which became his novel, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez. Now, I know that “riding” manta rays is politically incorrect these days. So mind you – this was in 1980, and I was approached by an animal that clearly wanted some attention. Had he not, there’s no way that I could have swam fast enough to catch up.

Past, Present, and Future

You’ve got one choice for a fully funded diving expedition. Where would you want to go today?»Well, that would probably be to make an IMAX film in either the Indo-Pacific or the Antarctic. And since we’re headed to the Indo-Pacific next, I’d say that dreams can come true! Who had the most profound influence on you and Howard as filmmakers?»There really isn’t one person. In the beginning for Howard, Chuck Nicklin certainly was influential – with Howard working for him at the Diving Locker in San Diego, and then when Chuck recommended him to work on The Deep. Then there are Stan Waterman, Jack McKenney, Valerie and Ron Taylor… all have had tremendously positive influences on us.

Who do you see as the next generation of diving leaders in film, still photo, writing?»There’s no doubt in my mind that Eric Cheng and Peter Kragh are the new guys on the block. They’re both so talented that between them they may end up fulfilling all of those roles before they’re through! If we had a Diving Mt. Rushmore, what four persons should be carved into that cliff face?»Hans Hass, Jacques Cousteau, Stan Waterman, Sylvia Earle.

What are your personal recommendations as “don’t miss” film releases on diving subjects?» Blue Water, White Death, the BBC’s Blue Planet, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The BBC has a recently released a new series called Planet Earth, and I expect once I’ve seen all the episodes I’ll be adding it to this list. What books?»Hans Hass’ Diving to Adventure and We Come From the Sea; Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers; A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg (not really a book about diving, but a great read about the discovery of the thought-to-be extinct coelacanth); and Stan Waterman’s Sea Salt.

You have already collaborated on books as companion pieces for your IMAX films. Are you and Howard considering a book about your careers and lives in diving as a stand-alone issue?»We also had a companion book to our PBS series Secrets of the Ocean Realm. But no, we don’t have plans for a book about our lives and careers in diving. Then again, you never know! As we get older and more decrepit, too tired to dive and hike, we may need something to do to pass the time.

Stan Waterman is still diving at 84. I’ll bet that you’re still going strong past that?»I hope so. He is most certainly a tremendous inspiration. I had the privilege to be on his 80th birthday diving adventure in Tahiti. On one particular dive, as we were exiting one of the passes at the end of a current dive, we didn’t stay quite close enough to the wall face, and the current began to sweep us away. We were able to grab the rocks to pull ourselves back around the corner, but the cameras we each held in one hand prevented us from a hand-overhand maneuver. Kicking and pulling my way along the bottom, I was having quite a tough time of it. I feared for Stan as I looked back and saw him struggling as well. The next thing I knew he was passing me by, making his way toward the calm water! 28 years my senior, and he could out swim me – in a strong current no less! We’re all about the same age. Okay, you can tell me… is Howard’s hair ever going to go gray or fall out?»I love the gray that is replacing the dark brown hair – all over his head! How about a last word summing up your single most fulfilling or exciting experience in diving?»A single word? “Howard!” If not for learning to dive, I might not have met Howard. And he is the most important thing in my life.

Diving Pioneers and Innovators
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>