Sea Stories

Sea Stories

Jim Willowby

“Will You Turn Me on, Mr. Willoughby?”

As a diving instructor, I have met many wonderful people; some casual acquaintances and some life-long friends. Over the years a number of unforgettable people have given me the pleasure of teaching them to scuba dive.

I recall one incident in particular that actually left me speechless and believe me, that didn’t happen very often.

It was the first night in the pool with scuba gear. The students each had a tank of air on their backs and a regulator to breathe the air. For the first time in their lives they were going to experience the thrill of breathing underwater. I could sense the excitement as they lined up along in the shallow end of the pool. I joked with them about the wonders under the water……hairpins, chewing gum and once in a while, a contact lens.

After a quick review of our classroom lecture, I asked them to turn to the person on their right and turn on their air. A lot of shuffling followed with some comments and nervous laughter. With the air valves turned on, I asked them to swim around underwater but stay in the shallow end of the pool. I could see the students quite clearly as I stood in the waist deep water.

Suddenly I felt a tug on my tank strap. I turned around and there, looking up at me with her big blue eyes, was Amy. She was a gorgeous blonde who had been the last one in line at the edge of the pool. I grinned and asked her what she wanted.

Looking me straight in the eye, she said, “Will you turn me on, Mr. Willoughby?” For a long moment I looked at her, stunned, not knowing exactly what to say. Suddenly, I realized because she was the last one in line, no one had turned on her air. I fumbled with the valve and finally got her underwater.

A very flustered and embarrassed instructor continued with his class.

Over the many years that I have been teaching scuba diving, a lot of funny things have happened. Some humorous, some downright hilarious, but I think Amy’s lack of air will go down in my books as the best one.

A Chilling 10 Minutes

Some time ago, I received a phone call from the National Enquirer. Just so that you don’t get it confused with National Geographic, the National Enquirer is a publication like the ones you find at the checkout counter of your local grocery store. They were told that I had an extensive collection of photos of the Giant Pacific Octopus, the largest octopus in the world. They wanted a photo of a female diver holding this octopus, and wanted to publish it with a story about the Giant Pacific Octopus. I agreed to send them several slides, providing that the article did not make the octopus out to be a “slimy denizen of the deep who sinks ships and eats the crew.” They assured me that they would not do that.

We came to an agreement on my fee, and I sent them an assortment of slides to choose from. In about a week I received another call from them, complaining that the girl was wearing a wet suit. They informed me that she must have on a bikini bathing suit. After collecting myself, I advised them of the water temperature in British Columbia. In a few words, it is “very cold!” That didn’t seem to bother them as they still wanted to know if I could meet their request. After further wage negotiations, my fee going up considerably, they agreed. When I hung up the phone, I wondered which insane asylum to check into.

After an extensive search, I finally found a girl who met the criteria. Previously, I had done some underwater photography at the Undersea Gardens in Victoria, B.C. I called them and explained the situation to the Curator. He thought it would be great publicity for his business, and readily accepted my proposal. To get to the viewing area of the Undersea Gardens, you walk down a flight of stairs that takes you below sea level (but in a dry environment). You can then look through huge windows at what is actually part of the ocean. You can view all of the undersea life that you would see in the open ocean. The only difference is that the undersea life is in an enclosed area and can’t get out. It is much like an aquarium but is actually part of the ocean.

The Curator informed me that they had recently captured a Giant Pacific Octopus and that it was in the viewing area. We agreed on a date to accomplish my unusual request, and not it was about to happen!

As my diving buddy, David, and I submerged us into the beautiful Undersea Gardens, the sight was breathtaking! We were in an enclosed area about twelve feet deep containing colourful rockfish, anemones, the head of a large male wolfeel jutting out from a rocky cave, and so much more. But our mission was not about any of these creatures. We were looking for the elusive Giant Pacific Octopus. David’s job was to find the octopus, and bring it to Miriam, our bikini-clad model. My sole job was to take as many pictures of her holding it, as I could, for the short time that she could endure the frigid water (in her bikini!).

Photo Credit: Jim Willoughby

Photo Credit: Jim Willowby

David found the octopus, after searching most of the caves, as that’s the environment they prefer. As David wrestled it from its lair, its never-ending sucker discs, tentacles and mantle came pouring out, squirting ink, which landed squarely on David. After a brief struggle he brought the octopus into position for the series of pictures that I was determined to get.

It was a cold, bleak November day, as a brisk wind blew the rain in sheets across Victoria Harbour. Miriam stood there poised, clad only in a brief, green bikini and her diving gear. She was covered with a huge blanket to keep her warm. She looked down into the clear, cold ocean that was patiently waiting to engulf her in its nine degree centigrade water. As I gave her the signal, she jumped with grim determination and lots of sheer guts, knowing she was about to accomplish what few people have ever attempted. With a quiet splash, the icy waters of Victoria’s Undersea Gardens closed over her, beginning an experience she would never forget. Wrestling a giant octopus, even in a wet suit, is difficult, but to do it in a bikini is almost impossible. She landed on the exact spot that I was signaling her to use.

David handed her the octopus. The next few minutes were filled with ink, sucker discs, excitement and an occasional glimpse of Miriam, who almost lost her tank once and her mask twice. Amid this chaotic confusion, it was my job to frame this writhing mass of tentacles, with Miriam for 1/60th of a second. After an amazing ten minutes immersed in the icy waters, wrestling with this huge creature, Miriam’s limit of endurance was reached.

From the cold waters of the Undersea Gardens emerged a tired, shaken, but very brave girl. She knew she had probably set a record-ten minutes in the chilling Victoria Harbour with only a bikini and a giant octopus to keep her warm. The National Enquirer was very excited about the pictures I sent them. They published the photo and the article to a public who will never know how difficult it is to get an underwater snapshot of a girl in a bikini holding a Giant Pacific Octopus!

State of the art in the late 1960s – Underwater photographer Odd Henrik Johnsen

Take Me To Your Leader

Jim Recalls: “You have to remember, there were very few divers in those days. Sooner or later you would meet other divers on the beach. Eventually, five of us got together and formed a small diving club. You might think that the name of the club is Mickey Mouse. Believe me, to dive back then, with the available equipment and lack of knowledge, was a long way from Mickey Mouse.

We finally decided on the unlikely name of Carmel Bathing Association! The president’s nickname was Monk as he had a ring of thin hair around his bald head. Then there was Crusher, who was a big man, 6 foot 2 inches tall, weighing 220 pounds. The only woman in the club lived 100 miles north, in San Francisco. She would fly down to Carmel about twice a month. Because her luggage on the plane was limited to only a few pounds, she would wear her weight belt under her coat, to avoid paying the extra cost. We called her GG after the shabby character in the Dick Tracey series. When GG was combing her hair, and ran into a knot, she would take scissors from her pocket and cut it out! Lest we forget, Godzilla. He was movie star handsome (and knew it), weighed in around 275 pounds and was 6 foot 4 inches tall. Nobody messed with Godzilla! My nickname was Santiago, as I spoke fluent Spanish.”

“One of our favorite dive spots was a deserted beach south of Carmel. The biggest drawback was that you had to park your vehicle up on the highway, then walk quite a distance to the beach. We had just finished a great dive, with clear water, a big kelp bed, and lots of marine life. As we swam underwater back to the beach, Monk spotted a large sunflower star. These are the largest sea stars in the world. They grow to one meter across, and have 20-24 arms. Monk picked up this huge, bright orange monster and put it on his head. The arms draped over his head down to his shoulders, and over his mask. When we got into shallow water, we all stood up.”

“We left nothing of ours on the deserted beach, as we had put on our diving gear up at the car. Monk still has the sunflower star draped over his head and we all had pole spears. Please remember that divers were rarely seen in those days. As we all stood up in the shallow water, believe it or not, two nuns were walking along the beach right in front of us. Well……Monk, our president, ran towards them with his pole spear in his hand and the bright orange sea star on his head. As he approached them, he hollered “Take me to your leader!”

The last we saw of the nuns were two black robes flapping in the wind and a female voice praying loudly “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death……”.

“I will never forget the memorable times I had with the Carmel Bathing Association.”

By Jim Willoughby

Believe It Or Not

In my early days of diving in British Columbia, I recovered several pairs of glasses, wallets, fishing rods, and even some false teeth, among other things. I put up a bright red wooden sea horse in every marina in the area. My sign read SEA HORSE DIVERS in large black print, along with my phone number, and NO JOB TOO SMALL.

One of my most memorable experiences happened at a marina near Vancouver, B.C. An anxious male voice on the phone informed me that a very valuable ring had slipped off his finger while he was tying up his boat. What made the ring even more precious was that it had been passed down to him through two generations. It was priceless! I drove to the marina, and while suiting up for the dive, I explained my fee. A certain cost if I found it, and a reduced price if I didn’t. He agreed that cost was no object. He just wanted the ring back.

I lowered a five-pound weight to the bottom as a reference point and to determine the depth. I jumped into the clear, calm water and started my descent. At about twenty feet I caught a glimpse of something shiny on the clean, sandy bottom. It was about fifteen feet below me. Yes! I had found the ring! I couldn’t believe it. At that very moment, I saw a large lingcod swimming along the bottom. It was heading straight towards my ring. I watched as it swam over the ring. Believe it or not, the ring disappeared. The fish had swallowed it. I checked the sand where the ring had been, but it was gone.

Now, I had to go back up and tell my story to the already upset man. Would you believe it? Well, neither did he. He wanted me to take off my wet suit in front of him, to prove that I wasn’t hiding his ring. I turned to his wife and asked her if she believed my story. She was aware of my good reputation, and assured her husband that I was trustworthy. She added that no one would make up a story like that. He paid me my no-find fee and we shook hands. He even invited me in for a beer. Imagine the lucky fisherman who would someday land a lingcod with a beautiful heirloom ring in his belly. Would you believe this story?

By Jim Willoughby