Editors note: This letter was written by Albert Tillman in answer to
questions posed by UNEXSO for a project they did for their Silver Anniversary. It is left unedited because of the nature of
Underwater Explorers Society
The Founding Years
The Idea – In 1958, the Los Angeles County Underwater Program, for which I was responsible, had
become a prototype for organized civilian diving instruction. Other regions and countries were seeking its advice and involvement.
The program actually extended far beyond instruction by initiating workshops and retreats in everything from night diving
and underwater photography to the best ways to cook seafood.
Under the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation the program
was politically restricted to serving the citizens of Los Angeles County. The created controversy whenever the program seemed
to step over geographical boundaries. We went ahead certifying, in a provisional way, instructors from elsewhere by evaluating
their records of experience. We even had a National Underwater Instructors Course scheduled for Catalina Island in 1958 and
combined with that concept was the idea for a fully equipped diving center in a resort region where every diving desire could
be carried out with full convenience of any and all equipment, facilities and professional personnel. Although politics thwarted
that 1958 course and “diving resort club,” the general concept was the forerunner of both NAUI and UNEXSO.
By 1960, NAUI came
into being as the national, and even international, embodiment of the LA County program. Skin Diver Magazine became a key
sponsor for it and the International Underwater Film Festival that I began producing annually in 1957. I became Skin Diver
Magazine’s Director of Public Affairs – which encompassed the Film Festival, NAUI, a diving museum, and other
diving growth projects.
the same time I was also engaged as technical advisor for Ivan Tors and ZIV Productions for Sea Hunt and other underwater
productions. Frank Strean, a cousin of Art Arthur (a producer and writer for Sea Hunt), was directed to me by Arthur because
of the diverse influence I had by 1962 in the world of diving. Stream came to me with an idea for a Sea Hunt Village, a sort
of diving “Club Med” that they wanted to develop on Grand Bahama Island. At that point, I think Stream and Associates
were trying out the idea, market researching my concept of what at that point of time would get divers excited.
I think I resented the idea of luring
real divers someplace using the Sea Hunt name and the village sounded like another beach boy with a concession level of operation.
However, Frank Strean is one of the world’s great persuaders and salesmen and he would have made the idea work.
That summer of 1963
I was running NAUI’s Miami ICC and Bill McInnes invited me and my wife Ruth over to Grand Bahama to discuss the resort
idea. At that time the Canadians who wanted to set up a wetsuit company and had suggested the idea of a resort to Stram and
McInnes were brought to my attention. I liked McInnes instantly and the virgin diving wilderness potential of the island seemed
a good site for my latent UNEXSO idea. I suggested I go back home and draft a plan for a diving resort that would be unique
McInnes and Shefsky, (Pioneer Bahamas Ltd) evidently liked to see something in print and not just verbal … and my idea
of UNEXSO was apparently better than anything that came before it.
Bill McInnes was the in-residence administration of Pioneer Bahamas and I think
he felt the “Wetsuit Canadians” should get some kind of recognition. I had no contact with them but went along
with McInnes’ request they be given membership at an official ceremony. Nice guys but they were no part of my UNEXSO
concept or development of the club.
My “dream” was to have a fully facilitated center on the edge of a clear, warm water wilderness
where anyone could just bring a toothbrush (we’d give them one of those if they forgot it) and learn to dive or go deep
or explore possible Atlantis site with top quality equipment and personnel. It should be a club where divers could feel membership
and join together in exciting exploration and adventure. It would be for “civilians,” recreational divers (I was
feeling the scientists and military tended to crowd the public out of good diving areas and activities – and used tax
monies to do it).
is important to note that diving was moving from Skin to SCUBA, fish killing to photography, and car trips to jets. UNEXSO
would push photography over everything else and provide the expertise and photo lab to let a diver record the great adventure
without destroying the scenery. Killing things using scuba would never be a moral sport activity at UNEXSO.
This dream for UNEXSO never changed,
it is still intact in my mind, but a number of individual aspects were altered. I had to learn that veteran divers (Depression
Babies) already in existence would not be the major consumers needed to help support the operation. I also discovered how
naïve I was about business, coming from a public service background. I discovered the other principals, the owner investors,
my partners, (I owned 50% for developing the project) tended to change their motivations and philosophy – UNEXSO was
to be a carte blanche full concept loss leader for the Oceanus Hotel and a crated tourist attraction for the island in the
beginning but ended up having to be a self-supporting business.
Association with Sea Hunt
answered what I know about the Sea Hunt connection except that Ivan Tors had taken a look at sites all through the Bahamas
for a possible “dolphin farm” as a spin off from Flipper. I don’t think Ivan was really looking for a resort
involvement. He was my good friend and one of the first animal protectionists before it was popular. At any rate, in all of
our meetings and conversations the Sea Hunt Village idea never arose.
Lloyd Bridges and family were friends of mine through my Sea Hunt involvement
and a number of aquatic events that I produced. I asked him directly to be on our Board of Advisors and gave him a complimentary
membership – and invited him down. Lloyd and his family rally liked UNEXSO in a personal way. Lloyd, Jeff and Beau were
all good divers.
State of Diving and Dive Travel
This is a book in itself but I will
- I flew my first jet in 1960 to the Houston NAUI ICC. The jet made the diving
resort industry possible.
- “Diving Resorts”
with a few exceptions consisted of a “beach boy” who pushed untrained people into the surf with shabby equipment.
People survived the “ordeal” of the SCUBA experience. Experienced and trained divers had to spend a lot more time
pulling together air, boats, guides, etc. than actually diving.
- There was no connection between organized instruction back in the city and resort diving. The charter diving boat
was the primary contact in most places when a diver was ready to have his first offshore diving experiences.
- UNEXSO was to be where diving was a way of life and not just a part of vacation
visited a number of operations and spoke with divers who had been to destination resorts. I went “diving” as a
customer at some (Paul Tzimoulis and I watched the beach boy at Lucaya Hotel crucify neophyte divers in 1964). UNEXSO was
radical and I think I failed to get across my vision to the consumers we needed in the startup. There wasn’t anything
that compared to UNEXSO at this point (1965). UNEXSO as it was conceived and operated some of the time was a high water mark
prototype that should have inspired and spawned a quality diving resort industry. Some ideas did come but the concept of a
club, a place where you belonged, you were treated as family and not as a tourist, didn’t seem to hold up, probably
because it was not a volume marketing method.
UNEXSO was the first grand diving resort and it pioneered many of the classic systems of operations
used in the diving resort industry today.
UNEXSO – The Underwater
Explorers Society - was my idea and the name legally belongs to me if the business should ever stop operation (a condition
of my sale of shares to Pioneer Bahamas). The name is based on my feeling that the essence of diving as a sport is exploration
– not the physical sensation and not for any competition sport.
It was my plan with some hard business input from Bill McInnes.
I don’t have any records of how many members we finally came up with in the first years.
We had a goal of 200 members in 1966 but note that the “loss leader status” changed. It was a private club but
it wasn’t elitist. Most clubs allow daily visits, guest privileges, etc. We did screen memberships and revoked some
when rules weren’t followed. It met all of the criteria of a private club and it made people feel they were special
I chose the staff. Selection was based on a grid of 20 factors.
Among them were integrity, underwater photography, capability, emotional stability, instruction ability, diving prowess. I
made up lists of some of the top people from the diving world in each category then scored them on number of categories that
contained their name. Woodward, Peterson and McKenney were good men and I would probably pick them again. Unfortunately, they
were just employees and should have had ownership incentive.
Overall I wanted mature family men, experienced divers with whom I’d trust
my own family and that is what we had in the beginning.
One area that we hadn’t been prepared to staff separately was the broad social program
of activities apart from diving. My wife Ruth had to become our Program Director and a great deal of the club’s membership
cohesion was the result of her programming and helping everybody fit in. She was and is the best people person I’ve
ever known – and she gave UNEXSO that extra dimension that made it more than another diving resort.
We did go to local divers, mainly
members, because we needed some territorial smarts and back up for the peak loads. Ben Rose was a special case because he
knew every dive spot and fish surrounding the island and we needed to have local support. This was a long, complex part of
the UNEXSO operation in the start up years and there would be many names to cover. We did train guides from other resort regions
and were moving toward a “Professional Guides Association” when I left. We comped and used visiting professional
instructors as short term guides.
My hiring philosophy will always be people who care about people and can confidently handle a group
of people underwater. I can teach “territory smarts” in a few days and locals who have only that qualification
are the the best choice.
We all named sites together but I packaged them and set up the “menu blackboard”
with specials of the day. Ben Rose led us to some exotic sites we’d never have found. He took me to one great cave in
the bottom I named “The Zoo Hole.” There were great turtles and schools of big fish boiling out of it, a great
black coral tree and sharks we had to chase out to get the divers in.
Woodward was very conscientious about safety. He did a good job with our regulators and put together the Octopus for our deep
dives. The deep diving and night diving were complex and we all developed ideas and designs to make it safe and effective.
Chuck Pederson was excellent at rigging special effects for film companies or equipment testing groups. One of his great achievements
was getting a Seeley Mattress to float half way to the surface with a nude lady on it.
We did bring the first diving doctors together for seminars. Actually, UNEXSO
was supposed to become NAUI’s international headquarters (our staff was NAUI’s top echelon) but politics interfered.
NAUI’s great loss.
This is a tough one. It wasn’t finances that limited
this one but the reality that I had too little time in the driver’s seat. We did have a possible reciprocal going with
Acumal (Yucaton) with my friend Pablo Bush Romero and were exploring a branch setup in the San Juan Islands of Washington
State. We were working on a Catalina Island possibility and I met in London with key people in the British Sub Aqua Club to
try and get a UNEXSO branch operating over there. I did set up an Explorers Club on Fuga in the Phillipines in 1970 (after
I’d left UNEXSO) but Marcos and martial law blew us out before we got the operation going. The branch idea is still
a sound one.
the managers and personnel at original UNEXSO then franchise the new site with local money.
Actually we worked with front desks and concierges at other
hotels, kicking back with a signup book by which they collected a deposit and kept it as commission. Although the Port Authority
was supposed to protect licensed businesses, the interpretation seemed to allow competition to develop everywhere.
Every beach boy had a dive operation
and then there was Fred Baldasare with blonde Kitty in the bow of the black glass bottomed boat. It was a dog fight we’d
never expected. Someone would dump our flyers ten minutes after we had been to one of the hotels.
It wasn’t a craze. I believed everybody should have a chance to qualify through a series
of sequential dives and make controlled, safe-as-possible deep dives to a maximum of 250 feet. It was part of our progressive
program system where divers could log deeper and more technical dives each time they came for the rest of their lives.
We should have had
on onsite chamber and had better checks before and after activities. I think John Englander once flew out after a dive and
got a hit. But we made a lot of well organized deep dives with screened people who had one of the great experiences in diving.
I believe that people should have the right and opportunity to try anything that doesn’t endanger someone else and there
ought to be a controlled program to service them.
The only chamber
was at the medical center in town. Woodward had to use it after getting bent during the Jacques Mayol record dive we sponsored.
I hadn’t come on site yet. I guess we were guilty of not having a chamber or doctor on staff but we made excellent deep
dives … and we did in water decompression.
We never lost nor had anyone seriously injured while I was there.
We just did a classy job of it. We made a ceremony out of it. It was a loss leader but like
deep diving, it was for special people who deserved the opportunity (and would probably do it on their own). I think our “airplane
formation” with a ranger guide leading, people protectors on wingtips and tail, servicing up to 30 divers, with helicopter
lights from a second boat was a high quality dive activity.
helped a lot of film companies in shooting commercials and just members who wanted to take pictures of specific sea creatures.
So we would bring in hand caught “guests” and put them in our pen by the side of the dock for a few days. Some
of them became stars. We were careful and took them back to their homes after a short stay. None died and they helped our
divers recognize and appreciate the sea life much as our biology lab aquariums did with smaller creatures.
OK, once in awhile we would invite
one or two of them to dinner – to be dinner. I wouldn’t have anything caged or captive today. I wouldn’t
have a plastic shark either. It starts to evolve into an amusement park or zoo.
picked the boats, deluxe Evenrudes which were elegant small ratio (we prided ourselves on small ratio of guides to divers)
vessels. But they were temperamental and a lot of special rigging was necessary to use them for diving. Boston Whalers would
have been a better, more seaworthy and faster choice. We went through a lot of equipment racks and re-entry ladder ideas.
I originally wanted to get some small shrimp boats from Carolina Coast but time ran out. At one point we had an old Chinese
junk and we were also using member owned boats on loan to us.
We finally had to go to a larger boat, mainly for the long run for the day at
Pederson Cay. We couldn’t spare small boats for the run, a losing proposition financially during peak days. We looked
over a lot of boats locally but found nothing suitable. I found AMA on Miami River (had been using for racing and then importing
Cubans) and I thought the shape and tuna tower gave it an exotic look. The gasoline engines were dogs and we should have gotten
one with diesels (my error). But we did great large group dives with it and it was quite wonderful. I was sorry to see it
altered after I left.
were boat dumb but so was everybody on the island. We had to go to mainland to get anything done right … and that was
one of the major breakdowns financially in the first years. A boat out of commission during a big earning period was deadly.
A big boat out just about shuts you down.
already answered this. It was where diving had to go and the very essence of UNEXSO. Explore and record – Don’t
of us, the originals, were top underwater photographers and pioneers. I ran the Underwater Film Festivals from 1957 on so
we had contact with all of the underwater photographers around the world. Rental cameras were a big loss leader for us. They
got beat up and repair was expensive. We had a great onsite photo lab and divers could review a day’s shoot with our
pros every night. Some of the greats passed through and got a little better for having been at UNEXSO – I think. The
four top photographers from National Geographic came to UNEXSO to get good at underwater work. Bates Littlehales led the group
of George Mobley, Jim Stanfield, and Bruce Dale and as we did with many groups that came to UNEXSO we supported the visiting
group leaders. It was our concept to let the visiting leader have the limelight. We did this with fathers and sons also. It
made people feel important and love UNEXSO.
Small Dive Groups
I still think
small ratio, eyeball to eyeball guiding makes a great dive. I’d had too much of cattle boats and I wanted people to
have personalized attention of one of the mature pros I’d staffed. Six was the max, four was better. We lost money at
2 to 1, showed some profit at 4 to 1, started getting “rich” at 5 or 6 to 1 (but it became less safe and more
dives usually went out on a one on one ratio but cost a lot for the customer because we priced it on a “dollar a foot
basis.” Small groups allowed us to specialize dives for special interests and distribute the impact on the reefs. It
just costs a lot more to run the small group system.
When I got on site the staff was running two guides to one customer and staying out half the
day on a $17 dive trip fee. I had to survey the times for various dives to come up with hour and a half runs, one guide to
four divers, everybody in and out together, and so on.
I came on site to physically direct operations in July of 1966 (up to that point I tried to
supervise by tapes, phone calls and quick weekend visits). My partners called in May 1966 to say I’d have to come on
down and straighten the operation out or we’d be shutting the doors – we were losing money. That first 6 months
was a shakedown period for the staff but by June of 1966 nothing seemed to be falling in place so that’s where I stepped
in to fine tune UNEXSO and get it financially upright.
Price Rainier went
diving with us, Mayol, VonBraun, Ed Link, Astronauts, Garrowey, Bridges, Cronkite, O’Brien, Orson Wells. This is a whole
lot to cover. Many more. I’ll have to pick one, maybe my favorite, Arthur Godfrey. He loved UNEXSO and talked about
it all the time on TV and radio. He had just one lung, from smoking, but he really ha fun on all the shallow dives. I remember
boosting him up with his tank on one of the boat transoms and breaking his ribs and he just laughed about it all the way back
to the medical center. I think he saw the club as a quality place that treated him in a caring, human way and yet no special
treatment because he was a celebrity. We treated everybody as if they were Arthur Godfrey or the King … that was a
major facet of the UNEXSO concept.
The best celebrity diver was probably Hugh O’Brien who I’d been diving with before UNEXSO.
Good athlete, at home in the water, but lacked a divers curiosity about the environment. He liked an audience and usually
showed up with his own diving buddy, one of the Lucaya show girls.
Werner VonBraun, Mr. Space, was the most enthusiastic; a guide couldn’t
keep up with his swim away genius curiosity. I had a chance to introduce VanBraun to Ed Link and Jon Lindbergh underwater
when we were supporting an experiment with submersible dwellings. VonBraun clicked his finned heals together 45 feet down
and saluted; Link thought he was some crazed tourist until I put Werner’s name on the slate.
Probably the most memorable local members
during the founding years were a part of the international community that served as waiters, chefs and construction workers.
A lot of them traded skills for diving – we got the great logo sign in front of UNEXSO for a bartered membership. The
wildest of them all was Vaino Vaino, a Finnish dry waller who looked a bit like an ancient biblical zealot. Vaino scrounged
gnarled driftwood and created animal sculptures that we sold in our one-of-a-kind art gallery (called Explorers Landing).
Walter Cronkite bought one of them. Vaino’s great joy besides diving was to put on his work stilts and appear as if
he was walking on water when we’d take a tour group through the club. I’m sure a few of them crossed themselves
at the sight.
and Sue Whitman were a quality charter membership couple from the island. Howard was a well known radio commentator and Sue
was a talented artist. They brought to the club a cultural quality in the early years. Sue took the fish printing that Ruth
and I introduced to the members and made it an art form by inserting colors – her prints became highly collectible.
We even substituted large framed fish prints for members who brought in trophy fish and couldn’t wait to have them sent
to the mainland for taxidermy (we only programmed spear fishing on demand and only on distant reefs.
“Great PR Man”? – no way. I’m an organizer, a people programmer, that’s
my recreation orientation. A playground guy who enjoys making good experiences for people. I didn’t do a good job with
the PR, the marketing or the advertising. I was too full of my own vision and there wasn’t money to do much. We had
to piggyback on Oceanus Hotel promotions. I used the Film Festival as a major exposure but I let other people create the ad
copy because I was too close to the idea. I got very little help from Skin Diver Magazine (they weren’t into resorts
as a market back then). I relied on our ability to place articles. It just wasn’t a very sophisticated approach.
do the same thing again but buy some space in some major upscale media as well.
We went after American divers as I knew them through instruction programs and
Film Festivals. At that point in time I only knew diving doctors, dentists and lawyers had the bucks and could get on a jet.
I knew where the diving centers were geographically. Divers, including myself, up to this point had made their own equipment
and had to stretch to buy SCUBA gear.
I didn’t know we’d have to depend on local consumers to keep the club operating –
which it did but it eroded away some of the speacialness of the membership and overused the facilities. Frankley, the locals
almost buried us in many ways.
The UNEXSO/SDM relationship should have been great. But Jim Auxier and Chuck Blakeslee had sold the magazine
to Robert Pederson who didn’t want to house and support NAUI or the Film Festival because he was afraid of losing ads
because of supporting one instruction program over others on the rise. So I really lost what should have been a great outlet
that I’d helped to build.
I think they deliberately ignored UNEXSO after we got operating and I think I know the whys but I’m
not positive. We could have used their support. No, we didn’t buy much space.
son Tom maintains all the archives for the early years of NAUI, LA County, UNEXSO and the Film Festivals. He will gather the
requested documents for you.
UNEXSO was a loss leader
for Hotel Oceanus and Grand Bahama Island (the Port Authority gave them that choice piece of real estate – incidentally
my choice of three sites offered – because unequal UNEXSO was going to be there.
But things changed and suddenly there was a mortgage and new hotel owners. We
had to pay the bills on a lot of exotic amenities that probably weren’t financially feasible for a profit/loss business
operation. Pioneer Bahamas’ principals said to go ahead and dream up the best club you can think of. I did without knowing
it had to make money for the investors.
We did and were making money when I sold out. But I was forced to cut back to a barebones operation
to do it. We were ahead of our time and would have benefited by the synergism of other diving resorts that came along later.
A new government had come into office by 1987 and there were threatening overtones. My partners had too many other involvements
on island that were counterproductive to UNEXSO’s best interests. My original staff had not matured to meet the situations
probably because they had no profit sharing incentive.
I made a lot of naïve mistakes but the original idea of UNEXSO is still a great one and
we pioneered some great systems, and for a short time we really did make great diving a way of life for a lot of people.
Some random notes:
- We organized the political pressure,
with James Rand as the key figure that got Pederson Cay designated and protected as a marine preserve. A day at Pederson Cay
was probably our overall best dive activity.
We had to deal with US Dollars, Bahamas dollars and British Pounds in running the business – and learn
to drive on the left hand side of the road.
We could have sold the best gear at top dollar but encouraged members to get a better deal back home. They bought
anyway out of respect for UNEXSO.
- People who took
the short resort course, an idea and program that was originally developed at UNEXSO, were always referred to a NAUI instructor
back home for a full course.
- People came back
to UNEXSO for diving, an unusual happening in the fickle resort business, because we knew their names and that they had a
dog names Rex. We kept info cards on members and encouraged staff to stay informed. We catered to their level of diving and
custom programmed favorite experiences for them. We had a welcome marquee that said “Welcome Charlie, George and Billy
Smith.” We produced picture stories of their dives to take home.
We scheduled dives to cater to customers – fish feeding, explore a new place, photo shoots, cave and blue
hole probes, and phenomenon events like the lobster march were spur of the moment offerings.
Nobody left feeling lonely. We were open every day of the year, especially holidays when Ruth and I took out
the dives and manned the club.
- We never let the
weather stop the diving. We safaried to the inland blue holes and to the other side of the island.
- We had a string of unusual things and the program
was ever-changing. We had a model school, a day camp, a museum full of diving history, a research library – people who
could have gone anywhere or had already been everywhere came back to UNEXSO over and over.
Our pricing was probably too cheap. We gave away a dollar loaf for fifty cents. I take the blame for this with
my public service mentality.
Other wrong calls I made were:
- Aquariums and slurp
guns would be as big as photography. Locals would keep fish as pets in salt water aquariums, catch their own and leave them
in “our kennels” when on vacation.
- Create an artificial
reef with mirrors and junk diving equipment in barren spots. When we dumped metal to 100 ft ledge the glitter and fluttering
brought dozens of big sharks instantly – sharks we had never seen before or realized were there.
- The research library, which was my personal library donated to UNEXSO, never got much support
and materials got “borrowed away, forever.
We had a grand recreation
room with card tables, ping pong, billiards but its disuse led to a meeting room conversion.
- I wanted a great full-wall aquarium in bar wall of lounge but we got in a hurry to open and couldn’t
work out structural problems. In hindsight it’s a blessing because we wouldn’t have been able to keep it up. I’d
still like one though.
- The space given over to the underwater museum
I had put together (originally for SDM) was bottom line merchandising space and represented a rather grand loss leader. But
I still believe the Cousteau Museum (I had his approval for the name) was the heart and soul of the UNEXSO idea and should
have been continued by outside sponsorship. We had some significant artifacts and at this point I don’t know what happened
to any of them.
- I fought the idea of a TV at the resort. It seemed to
me out of character with a wilderness vacation but I was wrong and we finally had to put TV in lounge to supply the addicts.
I’d like to have had a 24 hour closed circuit TV coverage of the best reef available to hotel room sets and to the one
in our lounge.
stop there – I need to save some of the stories for my books.