Stan Waterman hangs up his fins at 90

Stan Waterman, avid diver and pioneer of underwater film and photography, donned his scuba gear for the final time last week. Not bad for a man who celebrated his 90th birthday the week before.  

Mr. Waterman was among the first to embrace the sport of recreational diving and has spent over 60 years exploring the underwater realm. He has filmed everything from underwater scenes in Hollywood movies to documentaries for the National Geographic, winning numerous awards, including five Emmys for his ground-breaking work. He has also produced two films for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, promoting the Islands as a dive destination. 

Mr. Waterman spent last week aboard the Cayman Aggressor IV, alongside his long-time friend and president of the Aggressor fleet Wayne Hasson diving on all three of the Cayman Islands.  

Born in 1923, Mr. Waterman was a young boy when he first caught a glimpse of what lay below the surface of the sea.  

“It was back in the early 1930s,” he recalls. “I was given a diver’s mask – the kind used by the Ama pearl divers in Japan.”  

That he should even have acquired such a mask – a crude, handmade device – was highly unusual, given that it originated from the other side of the world.  

In the west, dive masks were not invented until the 1940s, making Mr. Waterman’s mask, as he says, ‘an anomaly’. Accessories like fins and snorkels had not even been thought of at that point.  

The young Mr. Waterman tried the mask on while on vacation 
in Florida.  

“I put the thing on, and went in off the beach in Palm Beach,” he says. “I opened my eyes – and I was hooked. There were fish all over the place. I said to myself, ‘This is adventure!’” 

It was the beginning of a fascination with the underwater world that was to last a lifetime.  

After World War II, when he returned home, Mr. Waterman was the first person in the state of Maine to purchase one of Jacques Cousteau’s revolutionary Aqualungs.  

A farmer at the time, for a while he contented himself with using his scuba gear to dive on people’s moorings, repair their fishing gear and locate lost anchors.  

“But blueberry farming sucked,” he says. “So I began to think about doing something more interesting.” 

In 1954 he designed a boat that could be used as a floating base for adventurous recreational divers, with aqualung tanks and a portable compressor, and set sail for the Bahamas.  

“The boat could accommodate two to three passengers. It was, in a sense, the first dive live-aboard,” he says. He is quick to point out that this was in no way comparable to modern day live-aboards like the Aggressor fleet.  

There were no creature comforts and divers had to be a hardy bunch. The equipment was rudimentary and there were no accurate dive tables, not to mention computers, to tell them how long they could stay underwater.  

“All of us, every one I knew, eventually got bent” he says.  

It was during that time that he produced his first underwater film. In the 1950s, he says, the pioneers who wanted to take photographs or shoot film underwater had to pretty much make their own housings out of plexiglass and cross their fingers they did not leak.  

His underwater filming resume includes Hollywood movies such as the classic shark film, Blue Water, White Death. He was also co-director of underwater photography on the movie The Deep and more recently has produced documentaries for ABC’s Spirit of Adventure series and ESPN’s Expedition Earth series.  

Mr. Waterman’s dive trip last week was filmed by other underwater videographers who will make a documentary about his life and work, but he also had the opportunity to shoot some footage of his own, this time using a tiny, high definition digital Go Pro camera – a far cry from the heavy and cumbersome 16mm cameras he started out with.  

It’s not only the technology – in terms of photographic equipment and dive gear – that has changed in his lifetime. It’s also the level of comfort one can expect on a dive trip. 

The Cayman Aggressor, built in the 1980s, was the first of its type: A dive boat one could sleep, eat and dive on – in unprecedented comfort. It brought a previously unknown level of luxury to diving; something Mr. Waterman was enjoying last week.  

“Having reached the age of 90, I have entered an age of hedonism,” he said. “Delights like being comfortable, air-conditioning, lots of hot water, home-made food – that’s the Aggressor.” 

Mr. Waterman made his first film for the DoT in 1980. Diving was in its infancy in Cayman at the time and he recalls having to call on his diving buddies – people like Ron Kipp and Bob Soto – to come along and pretend to be passengers on the boat they were filming on.  

“We dressed everyone in wetsuits and made the hostess – who knew nothing about diving – put on dive gear,” he laughs. “It was all good fun.” 

Four years later, he returned with his son Gar, to make another film that included the Sister Islands and stayed aboard the Cayman Aggressor. Since that trip he has remained a close friend of Wayne Hasson.  

Having been diving practically since the sport was invented, if anyone has firsthand experience of how the reefs may have changed over the years, he does. 

“Inevitably there are changes,” he says. “Already many of the big fish that we used to see a great deal of, have thinned out.” 

On the plus side, he says, as recreational diving has grown in popularity, environmental awareness and an appreciation of the wonders of the oceans, has increased alongside it. It has changed attitudes in some unexpected ways. 

“There has been a metamorphosis; a change that came on gradually but that if you started diving years ago is really quite extraordinary,” he said. “Every diver today wants to see a shark. But I grew up at a time when there was no way anyone was getting in the sea if a shark appeared.” 

Although he has dived around the world over the course of his lifetime, when Mr. Hasson invited him to make his final dive trip in Cayman, Mr. Waterman readily accepted.  

An unofficial ambassador for Cayman Islands diving, he says, “I am often asked by people who haven’t come to the Caribbean where they should start and I tell them that Cayman has more that can be depended on than any other place I know. You have these jewels in your crown like Tarpon Alley, Stingray City, the drop offs, the wrecks that have been put down. There’s more here for people who are coming diving than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Without being paid to do so, I always beat the drums of Cayman.” 

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  1. I was extremely fortunate to be a young man at the time pioneering explorers like Stan Waterman and Ron Val Taylor began shooting films. I saw Blue Water, White Death in the theater and it gave me a lifelong fascination for sharks.
    From all of us who merely followed where you led, thank you for bringing us to a new world!