Home Editorial Dive Pioneers: A Personal Voyage

Dive Pioneers: A Personal Voyage

Marine artist Wyland presents one of his books to Philippe Tailliez

By John Christopher Fine

When John Cronin was celebrated for his pioneering work as one of the founders of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), along with Ralph Erickson, he said it was for him to be thankful. He indicated that his life was built around the friendship of divers. He added that his social and personal activities revolved around diving; the relationships he formed enriched his life.

Captain of Calypso Albert Falco, John Christopher Fine and Philippe Tailliez in Corsica

This from a man that did not seem easily approachable. It was only a first impression. Where John Cronin was the businessman, Ralph Erickson was the educator. Ralph was always ready with a smile and greeting. The men formed PADI after a disagreement with the National Association of Diving Instructors (NAUI) over an instructor’s course. In time both major U.S. certification agencies grew in their own ways to become leaders in a small fraternity of divers and diving.

Commercial aspects have changed since the early days of diving when the very first men-fish fabricated their own equipment. French Navy Commander Yves Le Prieur invented the demand regulator sometime around 1937. The tank was worn in front. The device worked well, albeit uncomfortable in that position. I can confirm that biting down on a stick to get air was not amenable to comfortable breathing. My parents made me take the device back to the place where I bought it, considering it too dangerous for a kid.

Georges Commeniches, a little later, pioneered demand regulators after developing valves for French fire fighters. When brave hero Georges Commeniches was killed in combat during the last days of the war, as retreating Nazi troops threw a satchel bomb into his tank, his rival Cousteau and Air Liquide engineer and inventor Emil Gagnan had a clear path to sell their regulator to the French Navy.

Before the outbreak of World War II, that enmeshed France, indeed the world, in turbulence that lasted until Paris was liberated five years later, a legend was born along the Mediterranean coast in the south. Frederic Dumas, later nicknamed Didi, was powerfully built. He lived an uncommon life swimming offshore with his speargun, bringing back large groupers that astounded the populace that gathered on beaches to witness his prowess.

Didi’s adventures did not go unnoticed. French Navy officer Philippe Tailliez would watch Dumas afar from the mountains that overlooked the sea. Tailliez took me to the very place where he first saw Dumas free diving around an island off Toulon. Tailliez was a champion swimmer. Also a man of uncommon talent for being out of step with his times.

Frederic Dumas (glasses) and Philippe Tailliez at Dumas home in Sanary sur Mer

Instead of using the “canot major,” the ship’s boat, to take him to shore from his ship anchored in the bay of Toulon, he would jump in and swim. Instead of going through the door to his lodgings in Toulon, he hid a grapnel in the bushes and would throw it up onto a balcony and climb the rope to attain his room.

Didi’s adventurous life appealed to him. Determined to meet the man-fish, Tailliez soon joined Dumas on many adventures along the coast. Free diving, spear fishing and exploring places fishermen only saw from the surface.

A man with a yen for photography was assigned to Tailliez’ ship. The young lieutenant saw this ensign come aboard the gangway, wane and weak. A car accident almost cost Jacques-Yves Cousteau his arm. Cousteau drove a sports car carelessly crashing it over the side of a steep cliff breaking many bones. Tailliez decided that this young ensign needed exercise to restore his health. Tailliez invited Cousteau to join with them in their spear fishing exploits.

The Mediterranean is cold; there was no protection from the water then. The three men would gather on the beach after their long exposure to build a fire. The fire warmed them, served to cook their freshly caught fish and created a bond between them. Much later in time Tailliez would call the trio “Les Trois Mousquemers.” The Three Musketeers of the sea. Mer is the French word for sea.

Tailliez remarked that they were, “Souder par le sel de mer.” Souder is French for solder. The meaning was bonded by salt of the sea. On one of those very same beaches where Tailliez, Dumas and Cousteau warmed themselves after pioneering dives, Tailliez and I built a little fire. It was winter. Air on the secluded Plage de la Mitre was cold with a wind off the sea. We swam and snorkeled. Josie, his wife, made us a picnic luncheon.

It was the same sea, the same chilling cold, the same fraternity. It was only the two of us. Eventually the three “Mousquemers” of diving left us. First Didi. He smoked unfiltered Gitanes one after another.

Didi’s house in Sanary sur Mer on the outskirts of Toulon was hidden from view by an arbor that all but covered the entrance. Once across the threshold a warm olive wood fire greeted us with its savory aroma. There was always coffee and fellowship among Didi’s intriguing collection of artifacts gathered from around the world that lined shelves.

We would sit on polished logs in front of the hearth. Tailliez and Dumas would sort through stories of their lives. They were as young men again, although both were now aging. We would as often as not adjourn to an amazing tree house in Didi’s back yard. He built it without damaging the tree in any way. There were levels. The main level was spacious. There we would sit and discuss projects. Didi was forever enthralled with a new project. It may have been a proposed book, an exploit, a dream. The tree house was for dreaming.

Bob Marx (black shirt) with Bert Kilbride

When I would have enough of the stories, I’d climb to the top of the tree house where the way was more precarious. From the very top I could see the beach and the sea.

It was on a cold, rainy, fog shrouded day that Tailliez came to pay final respects to Frederic Dumas. We arrived early, wondered in the dense mist whether we were in the right place. Of course, we were, there was only one beach. Was it the right day or did the weather force cancellation of the memorial.

Finally, in the distance, we heard music from a procession that arrived at the beach. The plaza was to be named for Frederic Dumas, Sanary sur Mer’s most illustrious citizen. As Tailliez and I stood in the drizzle, damp cold penetrating to our wet skins, an apparition arrived out of the mist. “Jacques, Jacques,” Tailliez’ now hoarse voice whispered.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau arrived to pay final respects to the man responsible most for his fame and good fortune. The ceremony was long, yet it seemed to disappear in the humility of the two remaining Mousquemers as they spoke, more to each other, than to the people assembled. Tailliez scolded as he addressed the memory of Simone Cousteau, “La Bergere”, the wife that bore Cousteau two sons, was relegated to life aboard “Calypso” when Cousteau took a mistress. Cousteau’s affair with Air France stewardess Francine Triplet, that he met on his many jaunts in the First Class airline cabin, resulted in two more children. Francine’s children eventually took his name after Simone’s death when Cousteau married Francine.

Pioneer inventor Dimitri Rebikoff (holding camera), John Christopher Fine and Philippe Tailliez prior to filming

When it was over, we were offered hospitality at a home on a nearby hill.

It was welcome respite. This friend of Dumas built a fire of olive wood and offered wine and food. The three of us warmed ourselves at the fire and talked. Tailliez and Cousteau were again close friends they had been at the earliest stages of their lives as young men. In the distance a carnival was taking place. Calliope music from its carousel echoed over the misty sea air to reach us at the hill top house.

“Life is like that,” I remarked to Cousteau. “So many reach for the brass ring but never grasp it.” Cousteau nodded, thought deeply a moment as the carousel music came a long way through the mist. Tailliez sipped his wine, the three of us alone huddled near the fire: “Yes,” Cousteau mused. “We reach for the brass ring.”

Many intimate stories passed between the two friends that afternoon. Private thoughts. Aspirations shared. Slights and misunderstandings had so long ago that Didi’s passing brought them again to the surface only to be laid bare then considered of little import now. Indiscretions of many years’ past, of a mistress and infidelity.

Frederic Dumas, Philippe Tailliez and John Christopher Fine in Dumas’ tree house in Sanary sur Mer

Loyalty had been paramount among the three Mousquemers; disloyalty when Cousteau had journalist Jimmy Dugan write the ‘Silent World,’ eliminating Tailliez’ name from the book adding only a ‘with’ for Dumas. Dumas’ notes formed the basis of the book, notes Cousteau carried with him to New York to meet with Dugan. This resulted in some years of isolation.

In these days, when I would make motion pictures, underwater documentaries to show at film festivals around the world, I met many pioneers as friends. Hans Haas and his wife and model Lotte were most always present. Hans made an early underwater movie with a housed camera he fabricated. His German kept him somewhat aloof from the French since the war created a rift between the nations, if not between people. Hans did that film, those early dives and no more. His glory continued unabated with fans to this day celebrating his early victory.

They were an alluring couple; as handsome in old age as they were in youth. Dedicated to conservation on land and for the oceans although Hans and Lotte were no longer diving.

The Haases were friends of Parisian born Dimitri Rebikoff. Dimitri was the son of Russian parents in France, thus he was French. Since he was also Russian, he invented everything. He did indeed, alas, fifty years too soon to make them materialize to his economic benefit.

Parisian lawyer and CMAS President Jacques Dumas with John Christopher Fine discussing the project to explore Napoleon’s fleet sunk by the British in Aboukir Bay, Egypt

Dimitri met Ada Niggeler, German Swiss, with a family villa in Italy just over the frontier in the mountains. Ada was a gifted photographer and she and Dimitri went on many photographic exploits together. Ada became an accomplished diver and accompanied Dimitri on his many expeditions around the world. Dimitri was made a German prisoner during World War II and forced to use his inventive prowess to make radios for German military. After the war he resumed his inventions that included the diving bezel for underwater watches.

Dimitri and Ada would stay in a tent all summer long in the garden of a friend in Cannes. The Club Alpin Sous Marin was formed by enthusiasts of diving. The president of Rolex watches would join the club on outings. Dimitri proposed his bezel. The president of Rolex said he would accept the design but not patent it. Dimitri’s concerns were wiped away when the Rolex president told him, “We won’t sell six of them in a year.”

Rebikoff’s genius saw the invention of the underwater electronic strobe. Dimitri taught ‘Papa Flash’ Edgerton to dive in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) swimming pool. They struck up a friendship. Dimitri was first at everything including underwater cameras he fabricated from his eventual shop in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Another Dumas, not at all related to Didi, Jacques Dumas, was a successful Parisian lawyer. His civil practice and inheritance stood him in good stead to allow his far flung expeditions making underwater films. He was passionate about shipwrecks and filmed and photographed many from the islands off Africa. He explored from the Malabar coast to ships lost in Aboukir Bay, Egypt, part of Napoleon’s expeditionary fleet sunk by Nelson.

Jacques Dumas was elected President of the Confederation Mondiale des Activites Subaquatiques (CMAS), the World Underwater Federation. I was the first American elected to CMAS’ Executive Bureau and represented the international body as their Chief Press Attache for many years.

In 1985, when I organized the CMAS World Congress in Miami, Florida, the first time ever that the organization held its International Congress in the U.S., Jacques Dumas was to meet me there.

He would preside over the event as CMAS president. The meetings would take place over the span of some ten days. Afterward I made appointments with a friend at National Geographic Magazine. I was the write the article about the exploration of Napoleon’s sunken fleet in Egypt. Dumas would do the photography. News reached me in Miami that Dumas died suddenly of a heart attack in Morocco where he was speaking just before his intended trip to the U.S. His loss left CMAS without his dynamic leadership, legal and diplomatic skills of an experienced diver and active underwater filmmaker.

That alluring rascal Jacques Mayol held the world breath-hold diving record. He was a celebrity, especially in Europe. He was also a character. He enjoyed the notice but shunned the artificial. He cavorted with dolphins. Mayol was a natural underwater, holding his breath for five minutes at a time. I called him Monsieur Rat.

Mayol had an eye for beautiful women. He was rarely without one, even two, on his arms. I had met a girl I was fond of in Juan les Pins. Jacques and I had an appointment to do a radio program with Radio Monte Carlo. We were being driven to the appointment. When we arrived Jacques opted out. The radio station director opened the door and no amount of convincing could bring Mayol around to do the show. I did it alone, was picked up and brought back to a luncheon already in progress. Jacques was sitting with my girl. In liquid French I called him a rat.

Philippe Tailliez and his wife Josie with John Christopher Fine inToulon

Mayol didn’t get offended. He twitched his small moustache, smiled and said he didn’t mind. Rats are intelligent. But, “Monsieur Rat, if you please.” It was Monsieur Rat from then on.

There are many such as these. Some unsung heroes in diving only because they were not media hounds. Most did their work in a craftsmanlike manner like Ramon Bravo, Mexico’s greatest underwater cinematographer and television personality. Ramon started many novices on their careers. Nick Caloyianis is one of his proteges and it can be said, without reservation, that Ramon was justly proud of Nick’s achievements.

John Stoneman of Canada worked tirelessly, often despite his serious bouts with diabetes, to create more than a hundred films for television. His shows premiered on Canada’s CTV. John always sought an environmental theme or purpose for his work. He was relentless, often diving all day and into the night to complete a project. Accompanied by his wife Sarah, John accumulated more than a million feet of documentary underwater film footage. Sadly, a partner, while John was away filming, turned on him and John lost his entire film archive. While health concerns are keeping John out of the water, his protégé Adam Ravetch continues to film and explore the vast Canadian underwater northern wilderness.

There are many pioneers that contributed to our knowledge of the world’s last frontier. Some have left us, or as the late former U.S. Navy Commander and inveterate treasure diver Bob “Frogfoot” Weller would put it: they crossed over the bar.

Mel Fisher came to Florida after Frogfoot was already exploring sunken Spanish galleons among Florida’s keys. It was during the halcyon days of discovery. “It was finders’ keepers in those days. The state didn’t really care about the shipwrecks. Not until we began bringing up treasure,” Frogfoot said.

Mel Fisher was a hail fellow well met. He was always of good humor and would bring people nto his adventure with great zest and enthusiasm. Mel and his devoted wife Dorothy ‘Deo’ met tragedy head on. When their son Dirk and his new bride Angel, along with a favorite diver Nick Gage, were killed when their tug, being used as a salvage vessel, overturned, the Fisher family buried them with dignity and love then persevered. The Spanish galleon Atocha as well as the galleon Santa Margarita yielded up many relics and treasures.

Bert Kilbride was a living legend. He owned Saba Rock, not really an island so much as a rock, in the British Virgin Islands. He took divers on excursions with his sons, also instructors. In fact his son Gary’s son is now the third generation scuba instructor in the family. We explored the thirteen-mile long reef off Anegada. Bert had a Spanish galleon in the offing. Many attempts were made to find it. There were plenty of shipwrecks, but none came upon the Spanish treasure. The last time I saw Bert he was speeding about in his electric mobility scooter at a Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) event. We were going to go back to Anegada and excavate the galleon. He assured me he knew where it was. He died with his secret intact.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Philippe Tailliez standing under an umbrella at the street dedication to Frederic Dumas at Sanary sur Mer

French hero of the resistance during World War II, Andre Galerne, split off from his recreational diving exploits with France’s early pioneers. Andre began inventing and implementing equipment for underwater work at a time when re-building after the war offered many opportunities.

Andre Galerne brought his technology for underwater work and deep sea ventures to the United States. He founded International Underwater Contractors on City Island, New York. Galerne established a multi-place hyperbaric chamber used by area medical evacuation services for divers as well as to treat firefighters overcome by smoke or carbon monoxide. Galerne’s therapeutic hyperbaric chambers pioneered hospital use for gangrene, wound healing and many experimental forms of therapy.

The death of Bob Marx this Fourth of July brings a close to a magic era of great discovery and adventure on the high seas. I first met Bob when we were both writing adventure articles for Argosy Magazine in New York City. We met often and again, and Bob most generously presented a program without any fee whatsoever during the 1985 CMAS Word Congress when I asked his help.

Bob was a character that fiction could not adequately portray. He was courageous, often brash, sometimes too abrasive especially when dealing with authorities that controlled national sites he was working. He was not shy in calling politicians corrupt in public forums. He was 85 years old when he died having lived to see underwater exploration arrive at a pinnacle with deep sea technology.

We are all pioneers of a sort. Longevity means little. Discovery can be had on every dive, despite the fact that even virgin dive areas seem to be undiscovered until a beer can looms large among the coral.

It is good to reminisce and remember those that have gone before. To tell their tales of high and low adventure. To laugh with memory of Bob Marx’ pranks of youth when the young marine was diving only to miss his U.S. Navy ship. To voyage with a youthful Bob Marx underwater during his excavation of Port Royal, Jamaica. A wall collapsed on him pinning him underwater that almost claimed his life.

Set sail with these of yore through their books and films then embark on your own adventures. We are, after all, bonded in our pursuit by Le Sel de Mer, salt of the sea.


Dr. John Christopher Fine 

John C Fine

The author Dr. John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist, Master Scuba Instructor and Instructor Trainer. He is an expert in maritime affairs and has authored 26 pub- lished books. His large format cof- fee table book: TREASURES OF THE SPANISH MAIN contains information and photographs of Spanish colonial shipwrecks.