Pismo Beach resident Sam Miller scuba dives in Fiji in April 2000.//Contributed
Sixty years ago, Pismo Beach resident Sam Miller made his first scuba dive in Laguna Beach using crude equipment, a heavy tank and no wetsuit.
Little did he realize that one dive would change his life.
Miller, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday and 60 years in diving, has made more than 5,000 descents and has received countless awards and recognitions along the way.
The man named the “Father of Free Diving and Fishing” now is working on a book that will incorporate his notes and articles of the past 60 years into a comprehensive history of scuba diving titled “The Way It Was.”
It’s ironic that Miller’s life has revolved around water.
He did not come from a family of swimmers. In fact, his grandmother was deathly afraid of the water because of a riverboat accident she’d barely survived.
Miller’s mother had never been allowed in the water, but she decided things would be different for her son.
“When I was 7, I went to the YMCA to learn how to swim,” Miller said. “And, boy, I did enjoy it! I earned every level of swimming (they) offered.”
Miller’s water escapades were almost halted when he developed a serious eye infection. When he was required to swim wearing goggles, his eyes were opened, both literally and figuratively, to a whole new underwater world.
From then on, Miller could hardly stand to be away from the water.
He was living in southern Indiana at the time and discovered that the stripper pits — originally created by the coal mining industry but now popular swimming and fishing spots — were much more exciting than pools.
“The water was absolutely clear and full of fish,” Miller explained.
After moving to Southern California in the early 1950s to earn a college degree in business, he and his friends spent their spare time at Laguna Beach hunting for abalone, scallops, clams and oysters.
One day, one of the guys brought along an “aqua lung,” as scuba tanks were originally called. Miller gave it a try, but he was not impressed. It was crude, heavy and noisy.
“I came out of the water, took off the equipment and stated to the effect, ‘Who would want one of these bubble machines? They’re useless!’” Miller said.
When he got back from serving in the Korean War, however, things had changed for scuba divers with better equipment and training.
The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation had created a dive training class, and Miller enrolled.
“It was a really difficult course. I probably couldn’t survive it now,” he said, laughing.
In fact, of the 90-plus people who applied, only 35 completed the course.
Miller not only finished but also went on to become a certified underwater instructor for the program, which he said still is considered the most prestigious scuba education program in the world.
Miller has taught all levels of diving from basic to instructor classes, privately and at California colleges.
One of his students, Clive Cussler, went on to become a best-selling author.
In what is probably Cussler’s best-known book, “Raise the Titanic,” the character of Sam Merker is based on Miller and another instructor, Ron Merker.
In fact, Miller said, until Cussler started having his books written by contract writers, Miller showed up in some form or another in every one of Cussler’s books.
Autographed copies of those books are among Miller’s extensive collection, which he claims is the “world’s largest and most complete diving library.”
One complete wall is full of nothing but diving books, including books autographed by his friend Jacques Cousteau.
Another wall is covered with diving magazines, including the very first issue of “Skin Diver Magazine” from December, 1951.
His collection of civilian dive training manuals dates all the way back to the early 1900s.
Miller is a writer, as well. He’s published thousands of articles, including four dedicated columns in national dive magazines, and even a column for the Times-Press-Recorder.
Miller is particularly proud of an article he wrote for L.A. Underwater News in 1965 on diving at Jade Cove in Big Sur.
The cove was very remote, and the exact location was known only by locals, who he had to query. Miller researched the story for several years before publication and said it has become “the definitive article on diving for jade.”
Another article by Miller led to important advances in safety for divers.
He penned a story about a diver who had been struck by a boat near Catalina Island because the driver of the boat ignored the displayed dive flag — a red flag with a white diagonal slash.
As a result of the article, Miller was summoned as an expert witness for the prosecution.
“It was an awesome responsibility, since the dive flag was only a few years old and never been tested in a court of law, and I alone had to defend it.”
The prosecution prevailed and, according to Miller, that was the defining case that established the rights of a diver flying the red-and-white flag and making it the recognized the symbol of recreational diving.
Since then, Miller has been involved in many other litigations and consultations regarding the flag.
In Los Angeles County, Miller trained SWAT teams in underwater search-and-recovery methods.
“In those days, when the police force made a narcotics raid on a houseboat in the harbor, the evidence would be dropped overboard, so I’d train divers to recover,” Miller explained.
He is still involved with the San Luis Obispo County underwater search-and-recovery team, lecturing about the history of diving and equipment as well as the evolution of search and recovery.
Among Miller’s many honors are: Outstanding Contributions to Underwater Instruction (1963), Outstanding Underwater Instructor of the Year (1969), Over the Reef Gang Award, for instructors who have been teaching more than 20 years, and many more.
He was the first to receive the Portage Quarry Legend of Diving Award, and he also was given the SSI Pro 5000 for those who have made more than 5,000 dives.
“Only 60 have been honored worldwide. It’s a huge honor,” Miller said.
His family also is enamored with diving. Miller and his wife, Betty, have traveled all over the world to dive — their favorite spots being Egypt and the Fiji islands.
His children are all divers, and his son, Sam IV, is a hyperbaric physician practicing at Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria as well as an underwater instructor.
Sam IV also has received the SSI Pro 5000, making the two Millers one of the few father/son teams to receive the honor.
September 30, 2011