How I Got Started

  Tom, relaxing...

 

Tom, relaxing...

 

When I was a little kid, my dad gave me a box camera. One day, I took a photo of a deer reflected in a lake and someone told me that it was a really nice shot. “You could be a professional photographer,” they said. I don’t know if that comment had any bearing on my becoming a photographer or not; I just know I always had a keen interest in taking pictures.

When I was growing up, I loved the series “Sea Hunt,” starring Lloyd Bridges. I wanted to be like his Mike Nelson character and have exciting adventures underwater! I’m almost embarrassed to say that I got certified to dive in the very first course offered in 1958 when my family lived in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. As I recall, it was a 15-hour course, and the card I got said, “Calgary Aquabroncs.” Even though it was a lot of money – I believe it cost $15 – I scraped up every penny I could to buy gear so I could dive in the lakes, rivers, ponds, and quarries in Alberta and British Columbia. I knew I wanted to be a professional diver, but the only way I could make that dream come true was to join the military. I envisioned being a member of the US Navy’s UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) so when I was 19, my cousin and I returned to the States, drove to California, and went to the Navy recruiting office.

  Tom poses with his Underwater Swimmer School class August, 1962 in Key West after qualifying as Navy Divers.

 

Tom poses with his Underwater Swimmer School class August, 1962 in Key West after qualifying as Navy Divers.

 

The Navy recruiter asked me if I was an Olympic class swimmer to which I replied, “No, but I was on the swim team at school and I’m a certified diver.” He said if I wasn’t an Olympic class swimmer, then I’d never make it into the UDT. I was devastated! But my cousin, who wanted to join the Marines, dragged me into that recruiting office. I didn’t want to be a ground-pounder! I wanted to dive, and have adventures! Much to my surprise, I was impressed with the sharp-looking Marine recruiter, as well as the posters on his wall: pictures of Marines jumping out of airplanes, locking out of submarines, and doing all sorts of cool things. “Who are those guys,” I asked. “Those are Force Reconnaissance Marines,” he replied. My hopes were lifted when he told me how any Marine who was qualified, in excellent physical condition, and had above-average swimming skills, could try out for it, work hard and possibly make it into that elite company. I vowed to make that my goal, and signed on the dotted line. However, after the first day I spent at Marine Corps boot camp, I was overwhelmed with the same thoughts that every Marine has: “What the hell have I done?”

Jumping from the helicopter, in full dive gear, during Marine Force Recon training.

Jumping from the helicopter, in full dive gear, during Marine Force Recon training.

 

The months of boot camp finally passed and I had my chance to try out for the Marine Corps most elite Special Forces group. That training made boot camp look like a vacation! After completing the rigorous physical and mental demands required for volunteers into the Marine Corps First Force Reconnaissance Company, I went to the U.S. Naval School of Underwater Swimmers in Key West, Florida, from which I graduated as a qualified Navy Diver. That was the best thing that could have ever happened to my career, and I’d achieved my dream of being a professional diver. As a 20-year-old young man, who wanted nothing more out of life than to dive and take photos, this was an exciting adventure. I woke up every day to a new challenge, and all I had to do was run six miles, swim a mile in the ocean, keep in top physical shape, and enjoy the expensive toys the U.S. government gave us to play with. It was a fabulous experience and set the bar for the rest of my life as a diver and photographer.

  Tom freefalling during a high altitude parachute jump over the Da Nang River, Vietnam, 1964

 

Tom freefalling during a high altitude parachute jump over the Da Nang River, Vietnam, 1964

 

After serving with the First Force Recon Company, my team was assigned with SEAL Team One to conduct covert operations for the CIA in Vietnam. I served my tour in Vietnam and returned to Camp Pendleton, where I was discharged. One day my buddy and I went to go diving but I discovered that, in order to rent tanks, I had to have a dive certification card. I’d gone into a dive shop in Laguna Beach, but the 23-year-old kid working in the shop would not rent tanks to me because I was not “certified” through an agency. I couldn’t believe it! I’d just spent six years in an elite military unit, swimming out of submarines in the middle of the night, diving under harsh conditions in all sorts of environments, including combat, and had over 500 dives under my belt – and I couldn’t rent a tank because I wasn’t “certified” and it would be too risky! I walked outside and told my buddy (a certified diver), who was waiting in the car, the situation, so he went in and rented the tanks for us.

Three weeks later, I saw an ad for a NAUI instructor training at UC San Diego and decided to sign up. I figured I’d be the fastest swimmer, sleep through most of the classes, ace the tests and be the number one guy in the class. That’s not how it turned out! The classes were harder than expected, but I learned a lot and it was a rewarding experience. The military program is the most thorough, best training you can get – and you learn skills that can save your life in almost any situation you can possibly run into while diving – but NAUI taught me to be a teacher. I eventually taught private classes, and created a successful dive travel business from clientele in my courses, thanks to my NAUI instructor training.

  Tom, in early double hose regulator, helps a student with her gear for a dive at the Channel Islands.

 

Tom, in early double hose regulator, helps a student with her gear for a dive at the Channel Islands.

Being an excellent diver is the first step in becoming a good underwater photographer/ filmmaker. You’ve probably heard the adage that you don’t play football to get in shape; you get in shape to play football. The same thing applies to underwater photographers/ cinematographers. If you are just starting off in this business and you don’t know how to dive, you can forget about being a camera operator under water. Concentrate on learning how to become an excellent diver. Every underwater filmmaker I know is a superb diver. Many started off their dive careers as diving instructors or dive masters, which is helpful. I started that way and it wasn’t until, after years of spearfishing and seeing the decline in fish life, that I put away my speargun and took up a camera.

NEXT