Bret Gilliam

Bret Gilliam

Interviewed by Peter Fields

Bret began diving in 1958, and has logged more than 15,000 dives. His 29 years as a professional diver have included military and commercial work, liveaboard dive vessels and luxury yachts, retail store and Caribbean resort operation and ownership. He is a Merchant Marine Master, a submersible pilot and recompression chamber supervisor. Bret has written scores of articles, and written or contributed to nine books. He has sponsored research into recompression sickness, diving computers and multiday repetitive diving. He is one of the foremost legal experts on diving in the USA, specialising in defense litigation. He was responsible for drafting many of the original standards for technical diving instruction, and negotiated the first instructor liability insurance for tech programmes. A fellow of the prestigious Explorers Club, Bret is also listed in Who’s Who in Diving. His underwater photography is published worldwide. He is the ex world record holder for deep diving on conventional scuba, past president of NAUI International, ex-CEO of Uwatec USA, and president of Technical Diving International (TDI) and Scuba Diving International (SDI).

How did you get into diving?

I’ve been diving professionally for 29 years, but this is actually my 41st year of scuba diving. I started in 1958. My father was in the Navy, and we lived on the naval base at Key West in Florida. At eight years old, I was freediving to 30 or 40 feet. The naval guys got a big kick out of that, so they asked my father’s permission to teach me to scuba dive. The cylinder was too big for me, so they hooked me up with an old oxygen cylinder that they’d cleaned out and put air in – the double hose regulator hung down almost to my knees. It was great fun, and started a lifelong passion for me.

When I was ten, I started my own business, collecting tropical fish to sell to the Municipal Aquarium and the Miami Aquarium. I made enough money to buy my own boat, a Boston Whaler, and I would spend hours up on the Twelve Mile Reefs off Key West collecting samples for scientific labs. By the time I was 12 I was doing really well at it. There were weeks when I earned more than the junior naval officers, much to their chagrin. I had them wanting to come out with me on weekends. Throughout high school and college I was always involved in diving to keep me going: cleaning the bottoms of boats, recovering lost outboards, things like that. I always tried to keep in touch with what was going on. I was going to be an army officer, but got recruited into the Navy because of my diving background. I went with the Navy because it was better than being shot at in Vietnam. They got me involved with deep diving systems right at the start. I was going down below 500 feet, which in 1971 was pretty revolutionary.

Were you working with submarines?

Yes, with fast attack nuclear submarines. Our mission was to film the visible vortex that came off the propeller. When subs move they create propeller noise, so by studying the film the Navy was able to minimise this noise signature and allow the subs to operate at progressively higher speeds. The subs went by us starting from crawl speed, then up to ten knots. Eventually they were running the subs past us at over 70 knots. It’s pretty extraordinary to be a diver in the water with a 300 foot nuclear submarine buzzing past you. You get tossed around.

There were three divers. We were positioned in a triangular formation, and the submarine drove right through it, about 25 feet away from us. They would give us a ping to let us know they were coming, and we would hold our position and roll the camera. You would rarely see the sub coming – the human eye couldn’t pick it up fast enough, coming out of the blue. It would be on us and by us so quickly. You’d be thrown to the right or left, or up or down. It was just crazy, but the Navy was happy with our film. We actually finished the project ahead of schedule, so I got out of the Navy project early and went into commercial diving, and then later into sport diving.

I believe that during that time you had a shark encounter where your buddy got taken?

Yes, I did. We had a lot of problems in the open ocean with oceanic white tip sharks. I hadn’t had prior experience with these, and they had a tendency to be nasty from the beginning. The sharks were inquisitive, but they were really stimulated by the noise signatures that we were putting in the water. Sometimes part of our equipment simulated submarine noises when they were testing the hydro phones. This seemed to agitate the white tips into a frenzy. If we jumped in the water with them they would certainly bite us, so everything we did was based on trying to get safely down through the surface of the water, and then working in three-person groups so that somebody was always watching your back. They would bite our equipment, the sides of the ship, the propellers, the shafts, and the boat hooks that we used to push them out of the way when we got into the water. They would certainly bite us if they could. On many occasions we had them biting our fins. This was how we got involved with accelerated decompression, which was considered to be highly experimental and not entirely safe, but it was better than staying down there with the sharks.

A friend of mine was killed in 1972 when we were working on a scientific project. On that particular day two oceanic white tips simply came up with no provocation at all, bit him and hauled him over the edge of the dropoff. I was hanging onto one side of him. We tried to beat them off, but it was no use. He eventually passed out from blood loss and trauma and was lost. I was lucky to survive. I had to do a free ascent that was well in excess of 300 feet, and got bent pretty bad. I was evacuated to a chamber for treatment. We had never seen oceanic white tips so close to shore. I still retain a very healthy respect for these sharks; I don’t turn my back on them.

I understand that you have Master Mariner, submersible pilot, and recompression chamber supervisor licenses. Did all these follow on from this work?

When I got out of the Navy project, I worked for about six weeks on a commercial blasting project in the Virgin Islands. Then there was no other commercial work available. In 1971 there wasn’t much of a resort diving industry, and I thought that people might pay me to take them out diving. So I started, and everything went from there. It was necessary to have boats, so I applied my navy sea time towards getting my initial licence. My diving business did very well, and I expanded it as opportunities arose. I began to lease or charter big luxury yachts, and ultimately ended up owning quite a few. We did support work for Hollywood films with big ships, and I ended up getting my unlimited license.

In 1987 another investor group and I started the first cruise ship operation for divers. We bought Sunward I, the 525 foot flagship of Norwegian Cruise Lines, and completely reconfigured it for the diving trade. We put twelve 32 foot dive boats aboard, a recompression chamber, and a complete medical staff. We were probably the best outfitted dive operation in the world. It was immensely successful. We operated from New Orleans originally and visited the Yucatan/Mexican area РCozumel, Canc̼n, the Great Barrier Reef of Belize, and the offshore atolls, including Lighthouse Reef Atoll where the Great Blue Hole is. Later we expanded into Honduras Bay Islands, which included Guanaja and Roatan, and then we expanded again, moving part of our operation to St Petersburg, Florida.

When I retired from that company, I turned my attention back into publishing and applications of technical diving. My appetite for that had been whetted when I was running the Ocean Quest cruise ship. I broke the world record for deep diving on air while I was involved in that. I don’t think I would have ever done it under other circumstances, but I had this wonderful laboratory. I had my own ship, my own staff, doctors, mixed gas facilities and my own recompression chamber. I could simulate things in advance that nobody else could really afford to do. When I came off the ship there was this burgeoning interest in technical diving. I got involved as a consultant, and later on became involved directly as an original partner in IANTD. In 1994 I moved on to start Technical Diving International. Now we’re expanding again and we’re putting in the training division, Scuba Diving International.

When technical diving first loomed over the horizon, and nitrox and these other voodoo gases started to be used, a lot of us had a pretty jaundiced approach to it. Our thoughts were that if it didn’t come down a hose to you, it was a bit suspect. Was that attitude prevalent in the States as well?

I think the controversy and initial scepticism was worldwide. Initially a lot of the innovation, and also a lot of the bastardisation of this stuff, was being effected through a certain ‘underground’ mentality. A lot of it came from the cavers. When guys like Dick Rutkowski, Tom Mount, Sheck Exley and myself got involved, we told them that technical divers weren’t going to be doing the work of commercial divers; there were things that were going to be limited by the equipment.

I had a certain degree of wealth and I was not interested in having anybody take it away from me. When I got involved in the training aspects of technical diving, because I’m also trained as an attorney, I said that we were going to have to adopt reasonable defensible standards and also have a sharp focus on the risk management aspects. I wanted to see insurance in place, and very well-developed operating standards.

Up until 1995 there was never a technical diving training accident. People had got themselves killed in other technical diving applications, but most of them were clearly violating what would be considered reasonable safety guidelines. There were people grossly exceeding oxygen limits, not properly analysing mixes, or mixing gases they were not even qualified to handle. That stuff happens on the fringe, but the professional side had an unblemished safety record. Since then, simply because technical diving has got bigger, there have been three or four training accidents worldwide. I’m proud to say that TDI has the best safety record of anyone. But now that level of scepticism and caution has largely been erased. Nitrox, by and large, has become mainstream.

At one time, technical divers were trying to go out and get work by underbidding commercial operators. I advised them at the time that this was completely inappropriate and was going to cause very negative scrutiny of the technical industry. This happened, and OSHA and Coastguard stepped in and shut them down, as they should have. I come from a commercial diving background, and the technical diving community is incapable of meeting that standard of support: medical, equipment, staffing and everything else. If you’re going to use technical diving for exploration or just as a hobby, that’s fine. But don’t think you’re a commercial diver, because, frankly, you’re not.

You have some very interesting thoughts on innovation and the way it is resisted. Can you give us an outline of that?

I’m certainly known for speaking my mind. I think that the mainstream diving industry seems to have a very difficult time accepting any change or innovation. I remember that there was resistance to single hose regulators, simply because they weren’t double hose regulators. There was resistance to submersible pressure gauges when they first came out, and I can’t even imagine why you’d want to resist those. There was outright condemnation when buoyancy compensators came out. People said no one would be able to swim. But they made diving easier, more efficient, made buoyancy control really attainable. In the past you could only do it by breath control or trying to balance your weights. Incorporating low pressure inflators into BCs allowed us to do things we never thought we could do. When someone showed me one in 1971 when I was a navy diver, I just had to have it. That’s what allowed us to do a lot of the work with the submarines. I was dragging around a 60 pound camera package and wearing a set of double 90 tanks that are significantly negative, and we simply would not have been able to do the work.

Later there was a lot of criticism of electronic dive computers, which I think was wholly unfounded. Certainly some things can and will fail, and there was an initial period where some computers had electronic failures, but they were not the sort of thing that ever led to accidents involving decompression sickness. It shut some people’s diving down and inconvenienced them, but it didn’t bend them. By the end of the ’80s, computers had become so well-designed and so reliable. When we were running the Ocean Quest programme we looked at computers as a risk management tool to make our operation safer. It allowed us to eliminate human errors in record keeping, and over three years we never had a decompression incident while properly using a dive computer. You can’t get a better safety record than that. There are still people who say computers are the Antichrist, but they’re the same ones who are saying that about nitrox and lamenting the fact that wetsuits are no longer plain black.

And did this lead to you introducing computers as part of your SDI training programme?

Absolutely. What has astounded me is the difference in acceptance, the hue and cry over the introduction of various technology. For example, nitrox is perfect for sport diving. The 32% mix, which is the most widely used, matches up exactly with the conventional sport diving limits of 40 metre (130 feet). It allows people to get more diving in during the day, with no greater risk of DCI. That was immediately apparent to active divers. What amazes me is that it took almost a decade to get nitrox accepted, and yet when recreational rebreathers were introduced, they were accepted almost without comment. It astounded me. People wanted to lynch us for suggesting that sport divers were intelligent enough to use nitrox, and yet when we unveiled the Drager Atlantis rebreather we sold 2000 units without a whimper.

Now, if you can embrace rebreathers, is it that big a step to say that it might be a good idea for entry level divers to learn how to use a dive computer?

We don’t wait until an advanced class to teach them to use BCs. We teach them how to use submersible pressure gauges, and all the things that were considered tools of the devil in 1970. Let’s give them a modern dive computer which will make their diving easier, safer and more enjoyable. That’s the thrust of our SDI programme. We do teach tables, but we teach them from a historical point of view – how we used to do it, and how we do it now.

I notice that you offer your pupils the option of extra dives under supervision.

I’ve always believed that it’s very difficult to train a diver in the classroom. The best place for a diver to learn is in the water. Even swimming pools are not the reality of getting into the ocean or a lake. The thrust of our programme is to encourage people to continue under the supervision of a divemaster or resort guide, during that initial period after certification. Then, if they make a mistake, it can be a positive learning experience instead of an exercise in crisis management. If we can get people to do the usual four or five training dives, then two to four supervised dives, not only is it contributing to safety and getting those people competent and confident, but it’s good business. Those people are more likely to stay in the sport. They’re going to buy more equipment, take more dive trips, buy more dive magazines, and be a long-term customer.

Where do you see diving going, and your part in it in the future?

We can look forward to a certain degree of future with technical diving as a commercial endeavour, but the logical thing for us to get into is entry level training. There’s a lot more entry level divers than technical divers. Because I used to be the president and chairman of the board for NAUI, I’m used to running those types of programmes, and trying to implement innovative schemes into their development.

Our SDI programme has been very well accepted. The retailers liked the pilot programmes that we ran. We’ve enlisted actress and model Lauren Hutton as our spokesperson for the entry level programme. She has been diving since 1965. A celebrity like Lauren will be able to attract more women into the sport, and also make people think that if she can do it, they can too. Scuba diving is a sport for everyone, within their individual limitations. My mother dived until she was 70, and I hope to be doing the same thing myself.

Do you still have the same love for it?

I think I enjoy it more all the time. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else interesting comes along. So many exciting things have happened in the last decade with the advancements in equipment. Unfortunately, we do see some deterioration in some of the places that we dived 25 years ago. You can’t blame it on divers, it’s from overall human impact, global warming and stuff being dumped in the ocean. There’s plenty of spots still left to be discovered and explored, so it keeps me going.

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