Last fall, a mile off Grand Bahama Island, Robert Toll Jr., a laundry operator from River Forest, Ill., and his wife Nancy dropped off the side of a boat and swam 80 feet down into a labyrinth of coral, where spangled parrot fish grazed in soft, frittered shafts of light. Since the Tolls had never gone so deep on any of their five previous dives, they were accompanied by a California college professor, Albert Alvin Tillman, who in 20 years of diving has put more water through his sinuses than most people drink in a year. After the Tolls had inspected the residence of an irritable moray eel and Bob had stopped to pat an angelfish that tagged along, Tillman led them still deeper, until the meandering canyon walls fell away and only splotches of coral stood out dimly in the desert waste. When they reached a depth of 100 feet, the Tolls and Tillman shook hands. Then Bob Toll did a gracious thing. He tapped his wife on the shoulder, produced a petite diver's watch from his glove and put it on her wrist—a 10th wedding anniversary present, delivered two days late but in an appropriate setting.
Ten years ago, when the undersea was still poorly understood by most men, a 10th wedding anniversary celebrated 100 feet down among all the spooky boogums of the sea would have attracted some notice in the daily press, which dotes on that sort of offbeat activity. Now that men are living underwater in inverted teacups and are riding around in goggle-eyed saucers 300 fathoms down, the leisurely trip of Mr. and Mrs. Toll to 100 feet is hardly an attention-getter. Still, it is worth noting, simply because casual sorties like theirs have become so very commonplace off Grand Bahama, where a revolution in diving is in progress.
Since the early 1950s, many divers—both amateurs and practical entrepreneurs who earn a living from the sport—have dreamed that some day, beside some bright, unspoiled stretch of water, there would be a place where vacationers might go to dive, not so much for the challenge or the novelty as for the casual joy of it. As the early dreamers saw it, the ideal diving installation should have a well-rounded program of the sort that snow skiers have come to expect at any good ski resort. The place should not only offer basic instruction in snorkeling and scuba diving, but also should be well enough equipped and staffed to serve experienced divers. Equally important, the place should have an air of sociability. In brief, it should be a diving spa, not simply a launching pad.
The dream finally came true last winter when the Underwater Explorers Club, built at a cost of $700,000, opened its doors on Grand Bahama. In the nine months that it has been operating, more than 3,000 divers have used the club facilities. More than 1,400 novices have learned basic scuba diving there, starting in the three-foot shallows of one pool and finishing in a pool 17 feet deep that enabled them to get a working acquaintance with the gross effects of pressure before going into the sea.
For the benefit of the diver who wants to know the difference between a Mola mola and a Mohole, the Explorers Club has a library. If a diver on his first trip into the sea is suddenly handed a queer fish by his guide or if he blunders against some fire coral, when he gets back to the club laboratory he can find out what kind of fish he was handed and what vile form of nulliporous coral it was that stung him. The club has a pleasant lounge where a man can enjoy a drink and good company, and it has a sauna bath where he can stew in his own juice. There is an exercise room for fitness nuts, and there is a photo lab where underwater camera bugs can have their art developed for a price. Most important, the club has dependable rental equipment, boats that usually work and a competent staff which—fingers crossed—has not yet let a diver down, except gently.
The club has been patronized by a wide variety of technicians, dabblers, adventurers, experimenters and minnesingers, notably Edwin Link, the inventor; Hugh O'Brian, the actor; Victor de Sanctis, the Italian designer; Dmitri Rebikoff, the Russo-Franco-American engineer; Buster Crabbe, the onetime Tarzan; Don Pablo Bush Romero, the Mexican explorer; Dr. Ivan Brown, the hyperbaric expert of Duke University; Owen Lee, the lecturer; Captain Edward Beckman, the Navy physiologist; Diane Steuckert, a Grand Bahama housewife (who plans to break the women's scuba distance record); Evelyn Pettersson of Zambia (who once held the women's free-diving depth record); and Jacques Mayol, the Shanghai-born Frenchman who recently set the free-diving record for men by traveling 198 feet down on a single breath of air. Despite the diversity of its clientele, the particular virtue of the Explorers Club is that it is being enjoyed by a great many people like the Robert Tolls of River Forest, who, until they cautiously stepped into the club's training pool a year ago, never thought that in 12 months' time they would be blowing bubbles together 100 feet down.
Any sport that requires so much as a jot of specialized skill must overcome tremendous inertia before it catches on with the general public. Back in the dark ages of snow skiing, in the days of rope tows and bear-trap bindings, the slopes had thrills enough for anyone, but the sport never really took off until a lot of fuss and bother had been wrung out of it, until the equipment had been refined and stretch pants had rounded things off very nicely. Twenty years ago the sport of sailing involved entirely too much mystique and too much tinkering, hauling, scraping and painting to attract most people. Today, of course, in the age of plastics and instant navigation, all kinds of owls and pussycats are going to sea, and the U.S. Coast Guard is a nervous wreck.
The early growth of scuba diving was particularly slow, because the sport was a war baby. It was born in 1943 when Jacques-Yves Cousteau of the French navy and an engineer named Emile Gagnan used secondhand ideas to perfect a breathing regulator that enabled ordinary men to go below with a tankful of adventure on their backs. Although the worth of the apparatus was quickly established, by the time the world settled into a semipeaceful state in 1947 the sport had acquired an awesome image, being associated in the public mind with the desperate exploits of military frogmen. Much of the early diving equipment worked poorly and looked worse. The early sport diver was a pitiful figure—a clumsy, frog-footed soul, swaddled in ill-fitting rubber, with a galvanized monkey on his back, a knife on his leg, gauges on his wrist and an old cartridge belt of lead weights, tangled with loose straps and God knows what all around his waist.
Although in 1950 it was possible to rent scuba gear on the French Riviera, when Cousteau visited the U.S. that year he learned that his first American sales representative had sold all 10 of the regulators that had been sent him but wanted no more. "The market has been saturated," the salesman told Cousteau. Today, somewhere in obscurity, this first U.S. scuba dealer is probably still pounding his pointed head against a wall. Since 1950 more than 600,000 regulators have been sold in the U.S., most of them to men and women who, 10 years ago, never thought they would be going into Cousteau's unreal world. Despite its poor image in the early days, the sport always had one thing going for it: it is very beautiful down there.
It was not until the tourist explosion hit the Caribbean full force in the late 1950s that the sport of scuba diving really began to move. Before that, travel folders often spoke of "superb snorkeling and aqualunging," but, more often than not, it was a hollow promise. In most areas there was neither the equipment available nor responsible guides. Today most big resort areas—notably Nassau, Bermuda, Puerto Rico and the American Virgins—have good guide service. Of necessity, because of the preponderance of novices, the sport in most places is generally limited to shallow prowling. It is only with the coming of the Explorers Club that the sport has become genuinely vertical. On Grand Bahama the novice who makes satisfactory progress can, in the matter of a week, enjoy the gaudiness of shallow reefs and also wander in safe company into the spectacular twilight farther down. On special request, Explorer Club guides will take experienced divers down below 150 feet, a short way into the narcosis zone, but the diver who wishes to do so must have both a good reason and good credentials.
The Explorers Club is one of a kind now, but for sure there will be others like it. The real wonder is not how such a club finally came to be, but how it happened to be built on Grand Bahama, a flat, 430-square-mile island that 20 years ago supported only scrub palmetto, gangling pine trees and a human population of 2,000. Most of the 2,000 people endured on the scraggly land by cutting down the pine trees for an American entrepreneur named Wallace Groves. About 10 years ago Groves, in alliance with other individuals and syndicates, persuaded the Bahamian government to set aside 234 square miles of the island as a tax-free area where industry might start unburdened.
The details of just who controls what on Grand Bahama is at this point as complicated as the old Habsburg dynasty. It is sufficient to say that the system works. In the past four years on Grand Bahama there has been nothing but change. Today there are deepwater anchorages and labyrinthine channels where yesterday there was only shoaling, unbroken coast. There are three hydroponically nourished golf courses (and three more coming), all attractively contoured on barren, flat land that Robert Trent Jones would not have looked at twice. There are gambling casinos that can take money faster than it grows on trees. There is an international bazaar with the architecture and merchandise of many lands—the whole thing built only yesterday but each section artificially aged so that it looks like a page torn out of a 50-year-old Baedecker travel guide. In Freeport, the tax-free area, there are 5,000 hotel beds where there were none four years ago, and there will be about 3,000 more by the end of this year. It is said that one tourist last March leaned over to tie his shoelace, and before he had straightened up a hotel had been built around him and he was charged winter rates for occupying a three-room suite.
The Explorers Club was built on Grand Bahama rather than in one of the older resort areas primarily because a Canadian popcorn magnate named Frank Strean thought the booming island should have such a facility. Not knowing whom to count on to work out the details, Strean put the matter up to Art Arthur, a California scriptwriter of his acquaintance. Arthur knew just the man to head such an enterprise: Albert Tillman, a California State Polytechnic College associate professor, who first breathed underwater through one of the 10 regulators that had supposedly saturated the U.S. market 16 years ago. Over the years, whenever Art Arthur wanted to put some fanciful aquatic action into a script, he usually telephoned Al Tillman. "Al," he would ask, "if I had some creep put a baby in a box and float it down the Amazon, how long could the baby live?" or, "Al, is it possible to teach a gorilla to scuba-dive?"
It is safe to say that if a gorilla were willing to learn, Al Tillman, the executive director of the Explorers Club, could probably teach it. Tillman started free diving in the days of utter anarchy and free enterprise, when masks were made of inner tube, when redwood shingles were used as flippers, and long underwear and baby oil were the best insulators available to divers in cool California waters. Of all the homemade failures, in Tillman's mind, none equaled the wet suit devised by a diver named Jess Ranker. To increase the insulation, Ranker boiled his long underwear in Crisco, and the only trouble was that by the time Ranker squirmed into it, he was so greasy that the tire iron he used to dislodge abalones would keep squirting out of his hand. When scuba equipment finally arrived, Tillman brought a fair amount of order to a sport that, at the outset, seemed to relish chaos. The diving safety manual that he wrote for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation was one of the first and one of the few worth having 10 years ago. Tillman founded the National Association of Underwater Instructors, whose program is today the criterion of safety. He started the International Underwater Film Festival, a carnival of water-soaked art that now plays to an audience of 2,300 in Santa Monica before going on one-night stands in a dozen major cities.
A great many of the divers using the Explorers Club today are barely aware of the antic years through which the sport has passed or of the many parts played in it by men like Tillman. And that, of course, is as it should be on an island and in a sport where nothing of yesterday is half so intriguing as the promises of tomorrow.