Operation Skin Dive
The day was hot, the sun was bright, and young Jeff Hunter was wilted. In fact, he felt so little like waiting any longer in the car for his pretty wife, Barbara, to come out of the gates of her studio that he finally walked over to the gateman and asked where he could get a tall, cool drink. The gateman merely pointed across the street and Jeff, being a Twentieth Century-Fox lad out of his neighborhood, had to look twice to see “The Keys,” the small bar and grill which caters to the off-duty needs of the folks at U-I.
It was better in the bar, degrees better. Sitting comfortably over his tall, cool drink, Jeff found himself telling the pleasant young man behind the counter about his trip to Europe to make Sailor Of The King, the fabulous trip which had included a six-week location on the island of Malta.
“It’s great, down there on the Mediterranean,” he was saying, casually. “Sunbathing, sleeping, skin diving . . .”
The young man’s face burst into such a sudden sunbeam of joy that Jeff anticipated a funny.
“Did you say skin diving?” the young man asked.
“Yeah, skin diving,” Jeff replied, emphatically, bracing himself for the retort.
“Ever do any diving down at White’s Point?” the young fellow asked. “Last Monday, I smacked a three-foot shark down there. Best shot I ever made in my life.”
“Spear?” asked Jeff, relaxing.
“Nope. I cut him with my Tarpon gun from about six feet. He churned up the water for a block.”
“No kidding?” Jeff got excited.
When Barbara came in half an hour later, Jeff and the young bartender (who happened to be the owner’s son, Bud Keyes) were still talking heatedly about skin diving. Snorkels, blow masks, CO2 guns, fins—none of it made any sense to Barbara. But she sat patiently, as she has often had to do when her handsome young husband has become involved in sports talk, and waited. A few minutes later, Jeff and Bud were shaking hands and making a skin diving date.
“Maybe I can get Mel Fisher to go with us,” Bud suggested as Jeff went out backwards, Barbara tugging him gently by the coat sleeve. “He’s a real shark. He wrapped up that 438-pound black sea bass down in La Paz, Mexico. You must have read about it.”
“Swell,” Jeff answered, from the door. “And I’ll try to get Rory Calhoun, too. He’s a bear when it comes to swimming.”
And that’s how it all started. Bud and Jeff spent the next two nights on the telephone, talking about gear, water temperatures, and the best spots for clear diving. And sure enough, both Mel and Rory could make it. The trip began to shape up like a real deal, and so MODERN SCREEN was invited along to make a picture record of it.
On the morning before Jeff left home with all his gear, Barbara frankly became upset about the whole project. “Why don’t you stay home like a nice civilized husband instead of trying to mix socially with the fish?” she pleaded.
“I’ll be okay,” said Jeff, with a big grin.
“Don’t you dare come home with one of those old spears stuck in you,” Barbara shouted after him.
“I won’t, honey,” said Jeff, throwing his gear in the car.
When he met Rory, Jeff asked him a few questions about his gear, and was surprised to discover that Rory, though dead game, had never tried skin diving before.
“Man, you’re in for a treat,” said Jeff, reassuringly. “There’s nothing to it once you get used to the mask and learn how to breathe through the snorkel tube.”
“Through the what?” asked Rory.
“Through this crooked gadget,” said Jeff, pulling his snorkel out of the back seat. “You put one end in your mouth and the other end sticks up out of the water. It makes it possible for you to breathe while you are swimming around with your face underwater. Of course, if you get too deep it fills up with water and you have to blow it out.”
“I can hardly wait to try it,” said Rory.
Bud and Mel Fisher were already at the Point when Rory and Jeff pulled up. Although there was a brisk breeze, they were sitting around in their swim trunks, apparently warm as toast.
“The water looks a little cold today,” said Mel, surveying the surf with a practiced eye. “But it’s clear as crystal over in the lagoon there. We ought to get some good fishing out toward the kelp.”
“What about sharks?” Rory asked nervously, looking out at the deep water.
“They never bother swimmers, I’ve been told,” said Mel. “But you do have to watch the seals. A seal with a pup can get awfully disagreeable at times. Not long ago, a buddy of mine came up out of a dive to find an old seal cow staring him in the eye. She gave him a whack with her tail that you could hear for blocks. My buddy got out of the water like a hydroplane.”
While Rory and Jeff were putting on their gear, Mel gave them both a briefing on the underwater along. He manufactures them in all sizes—from the little Peewee, a rubber-propelled model designed primarily for perch and other small species on up to the heavy CO2 cannon which he uses on deep sea monsters weighing 50 pounds or more.
“You can’t stop big fish with just one shot,” he told them. “Even when they’re hit with this blaster, big fish will run until the spear breaks them down.”
A lot depends on a skin diver’s skill in handling his gun or spear. Some experts like Mel can shoot accurately up to ten feet, but the best range for average skin divers is between four and five feet. It’s pretty difficult to get much closer to fish without scaring them unless, of course, you happen to be an exceptionally stealthy underwater swimmer.
From the moment they entered the water, paddling around with their faces submerged, the fellows lost all interest in talking and became utterly preoccupied with the life going on beneath the sea. Rory was absolutely fascinated by his first look at the submarine formations along the bottom and the almost countless varieties of sea animals that he had never realized were there. As he cruised along on the surface, looking down through his glass mask plate, he saw school after school of tiny fish sweeping through eerie corridors of rock and sand, a lush multi-colored background that has no equal above the sea. Rory was thinking dreamily about a marine painting he’d once seen when a big perch zipped by his nose. It was gone before he even had time to aim his gun.
“Man, I just saw a big one,” he yelled, after surfacing. “But he was moving too fast for me.”
Then he saw Mel, swimming in from the kelp with a good-sized bass on his spear. “Hey, this is great!”
“It gets you the first time,” Mel replied sagely, as if he had seen countless thousands of swimmers go through the same experience on their first skin diving trips.
“Hey, come on out here,” Jeff yelled from the deep water where he and Bud had been exploring for fish. Rory churned out, pulling up alongside a jutting rock in 25 feet of water.
“Go straight down and take a look,” Jeff suggested. “It’s simply great.”
Rory arched for a deep dive and submerged. Below him, in the glassy, limpid water, lay a bar of white sandstone perhaps 30 feet long, covered by hundreds of tiny purple sea urchins that looked for all the world like expensive Christmas tree ornaments. To his right, a school of golden Garibaldi perch were swimming along slowly, reflecting the sunlight like bright new pennies. Back against a rocky ledge, four or five flowering sea worms were rippling their feathery tentacles in the ebb and flow of the deep current. To Rory, the whole scene looked more like an enchanted fairyland than the bottom of the sea.
“That’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen,” he spluttered enthusiastically when he came up. “If I never catch a single fish, I’ll still be sold on this deal.”
The fellows splashed around for another 15 minutes before Jeff spotted a big five-pound halibut lying dreamily on the bottom of a sand bar, and went down to spear it expertly. Bud spent most of his time working in close to the rocks and ledges along the edge of the lagoon, making a sample collection of the edible shellfish to show Rory. In just a few minutes, he piled up a basketful of abalone, rock scallops, and clams, more than enough for a hearty meal for any gourmet.
“Hey, let’s get out,” Jeff yelled. “There’s no reason to turn blue.”
“I already have,” said Bud, his teeth chattering. “I always do when the water is below 65 degrees. But that’s no reason to give up diving. I’ve even gone in when the water was down to around 50 degrees and it was so cold you couldn’t hold your snorkel in your mouth because your teeth were chattering so badly. I guess I’m nuts.”
“We all are,” Mel agreed. “Skin diving gets into your blood like a fever. I’ve been going in for more than ten years and I still get a terrific kick out of it. If you have any feeling at all about nature, you can’t help but marvel at the variety of life beneath the sea. It’s like another world, and much as I enjoy cutting a fish—spearing it, that is—I think my greatest thrills have come from recording on film the fabulous marine scenes I’ve encountered.”
Mel is perhaps the best underwater photographer in the west. He is frequently hired by the studios to film real submarine scenes which would be virtually impossible to duplicate on a process stage on land. He has shot dozens of famous color shots for the national magazines, and at the moment, is working in Florida waters for Walt Disney, shooting a vast amount of color film to be used in later Disney productions depicting the world beneath the sea.
“It’s almost impossible to translate the beauty and excitement which skin diving offers to someone who has never tried it,” Mel continued, while they were drying off and warming themselves with the hot soup in Bud’s thermos. “Take the two of you. You are both busy, active in pictures, but I’ll bet anything that you will never forget your first real look at life below the surface of the sea.”
“That’s for sure,” Rory agreed. “Until today, I always thought that the whole deal was a matter of jumping in the ocean with a spear and sticking a fish with it. But today, I was too busy watching what was going on all over the bottom to shoot at fish when they swam by.”
Then Mel told them his most thrilling experience with a big fish. Two years ago, he shot a huge 91-pound yellowtail while diving off the coast of Guaymas, Mexico. Before the battling game fish finally expired, Mel had been towed for hundreds of yards into deep water.
“I hate to think what would have happened if that old mossback hadn’t given up when he did. I might not be here to talk about it.”
It is truly remarkable how rapidly the sport of skin diving has swept the southland. Today, there are more than 100 clubs like the Pacific Telephone Co. club that Bud belongs to, as well as more than 15,000 unaffiliated divers, going into southern California ocean waters each week during the summer. The sport has infected most of the robust young men of the movie colony, too. Jeff and Rory aren’t the only lads who have given the underwater world a look. Big John Wayne usually goes skin diving whenever he is with his kids at Catalina or in Mexico. Former frog-man Aldo Ray spends more time in the ocean than a healthy seal. Rock Hudson, who loves to swim, anywhere, at any time, joined the enthusiasts a few months ago while resting up between pictures. Tony Curtis bought some equipment and gave the sport a try. And there will be others.
A large part of skin diving’s recent appeal is the economical price of an entire outfit. Since American manufacturers began to make inexpensive swim-fins and masks, a complete rig may be purchased for as little as 20 dollars, including mask, snorkel, fins, and spear. And the skin diver need not be an expert marksman to enjoy the sport. He need only be a reasonably strong swimmer with no disturbing fear of ocean currents.
All along the California coastline are dozens of edible varieties of fish for the skin diver to pursue—perch, bass, croaker, corbina, halibut and grouper. The adventuresome also have the sharks and rays and larger game fish to tackle. But the real thrill is not in the hunt, if you would believe Rory and Jeff and Mel and Bud, but in the opportunity which skin diving gives you to appreciate raw nature as it is constantly unfolding before your eyes beneath the sea.
“Imagine my trying to sell that idea to Barbara,” said Jeff, with a smile, as they were walking back to the car. “Me, a nature lover? She’d never believe me. I’ll be better off, I think, if I just hand her my fish and say, ‘Here, honey, is something for the pan.’ ”
—BY TOM CARLILE
(Rory Calhoun will be seen in 20th Century-Fox’s CinemaScope How To Marry A Millionaire.)
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE OCTOBER 1953