Legends of Diving Articles


Big John McLaughlin
Movie Double, Stunt Diver, Engineering Test Diver

Big John McLaughlin: Deep Sea Diver, Stunt Diver, Marine Engineer, Underwater Cinematographer, Marine Mammal Trainer, Guardian of the Sea, Coast Guard Certified Master Diver, Demolitions Instructor, Deep Water Salvage for the U.S. Navy…the list goes on and on. It is impossible to categorize him for the thing he is probably best known for: Hollywood underwater stuntman. His business card says it best: “License to Thrill.”

Big John was born in Charleston, South Carolina on January 27, 1927. At a young age he knew that he wanted to be a Navy diver. Very early on, hanging around the docks, he found out that if he untangled the propellers on the fish boats he could get a bucket of fish to eat. Listening to the stories told around the docks inspired him to make the Sea his home. At the age of 12 he became a certified diver and later on became a lifeguard.

World War II broke out and he joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a machinist, as well as honing his skills as a diver. After the war, John became an oil rig diver in the Gulf in the 1950's. The rigs at this time would

John McLaughlin, Divers Training Academy, 1963

shut down when the weather was bad. At these times Big John found himself in Miami and the Florida Keys. On one of these R and R trips, he ran into some divers from a company called Divers Training Academy of Miami, which was federally and state funded at that time. His interest was piqued and he became one of their top instructors and later their company engineer. Big John Taught hard hat diving, scuba, demolitions, salvage, deep diving, and decompression sickness. In

addition to this, he taught rebreathers, which he had worked on in the Navy. What makes this so impressive is that this was clear back in the early 60’s and 70’s, when this technology was still cutting edge.

It was while traveling from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale that he met Courtney Brown and struck up a lifelong friendship with him. Courtney was involved in doing stunt work for movies and documentaries. It was around 1959 that McLaughlin became involved in the Sea Hunt Series. It was felt that he looked enough like Lloyd Bridges he could be used in the water close ups.

It was Ivan Tors, producer of Sea Hunt, that gave him McLaughlin his screen name. Since there was already a John McLaughlin in the Screen Actors Guild, McLaughlin legally changed his name to “Big John.” It was also during this period that he met Ricou Browning, who was filming some of the underwater sequences.

Lloyd Bridges made the comment one day "Big John is a real likable guy and one of the most complete divers ever. He's trained in absolutely

everything. And I learned a lot about diving from him.” He continued his stunt work throughout the series and became good friends with Ricou and Courtney. At this time he also met Commander Doug Fane and became a long time friend of his, as well. A lot of the Sea Hunt episodes were inspired by the adventures of Cmdr Fane in the South Pacific during the war.During the sixty's

Big John McLaughlin with Lloyd Bridges

and seventy's he lived on Nassau filming eight of the James Bond Movies with Ricou Browning and Courtney Brown. Ricou said he used these stuntmen because they had their own language under the water. Everyone worked so well together. It was during this time that wrangling with sharks and animals of the sea became a first love for Big John. He found out working that with orcas was easier than working with dolphins and that sharks could be handled very easily. He travelled to San Diego and the Navy Base to learn how to handle Dolphins more effectively. At this time the Navy was doing extensive experimentation work with dolphins.

His favorite of the James Bond Movies was Thunderball. It took them over a year to film and, according to John, it was lots of fun to make. He was a stunt double in that movie for 34 different people. From the Bond movies he went on to train and work with Flipper, while that television series was being made. He was involved in many TV shows and documentaries. His animal handling and stunt work never stopped, and his experience proved to be invaluable on every project he worked on.

McLaughlin became a professional diver on the cutting edge of new technology. One day while working in the Florida keys, he ran into" Papa Topside," Capt George F. Bond, who developed the theory for Saturation

Big John McLaughlin with Capt. George F. Bond

Diving and Techniques. Bond also helped to develop Dive Tables used by divers around the world and was also known for building Sea Lab. Capt Bond was working on Emergency Swimming Ascents from extremely deep depths. This was being tested to devise escape methods from submarines. Intrigued by the dangerous experiment, Big John volunteered to be a part of it and himself performed an emergency swimming ascent from a depth of

300 feet. Having worked on this project longer than McLaughlin had, Capt Bond and his chief ascended successfully from a depth of 350 feet. Big John and Capt Bond became good friends, as a result of this time spent together.

As a civilian, Big John was asked from time to time to help the Navy on their deep Salvage dives. He worked on a 520 foot lake dive in Michigan. He was one of the first divers to work with world- renown Dr. Bill Hamilton. Big John was one of the first to dive with neon in the experimentation phase. He dove as far as 520 feet using Neon. It is gas mixed to the outside pressure or saturation. Dr. Hamilton was known in the early 60's as the foremost authority on mixed gases. He was involved in the deep water salvage of an airplane which crashed into Lake Mead in November of 1970. On board was the Atomic Energy Commissioner, Theos Thompson. They eventually had to use a diving bell at the site and were set up on a barge replete with a Decompression Chamber.

It was during this time that his new neighbor became an old friend, Commander Doug Fane. The two spent a lot of time together comparing notes about diving. He was working with Capt. George Bond at the time on the Helgoland, an underwater sea lab.

In 1998 he was declared “Diver of the Year” by divers and equipment managers. In addition to this claim to fame, Big John has taught countless movie stars to dive…Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields among them.

McLaughlin’s passion for the environment moved him to make a public outcry about the coral at Ft. Lauderdale being destroyed by ship anchors. He initially went to the Port Captain and then to the Coast Guard. His words fell on deaf ears, but Big John could not be stopped. Ten years and an act of Congress later, coral-preserving anchoring patterns were finally put into place. Big John played a valuable role in saving these precious reefs for the next generation of divers to enjoy.

Asked if he had ever been bent in all his diving and experimentation work around the world, Big John answered “no.” He was religious about making water stops at thirty feet and would then go to the surface and take pure O2 to clean out his system. If he didn’t feel right after that, he would return down to 30 feet. His safe diving practices served him well throughout his lengthy and exciting career.

The numerous contributions that Big John McLaughlin has made to the diving world make it abundantly clear as to why he is truly a Legend of Diving.


Movies Big John Worked On:

  • Day of the Dolphin

  • “Joe” Panther

  • 007 Thunderball

  • 007 The Spy Who Loved Me

  • 007 Goldfinger

  • Key West

  • The Daring Game

  • Caddy Shack

  • “Namu” the Killer Whale

  • 007 Never Say Never

  • Lady in Cement

  • Cocoon

  • Hello Down There

  • Legend

  • Around the World Under the Sea

  • Harem Flipper

  • D.A.R.Y.L

  • Gentle Ben

  • Jaws Revenge

  • Star of India

  • Police Academy V

  • Lucky Lady

  • Caddy Shack II

  • “Mako” the Jaws of Death

  • Fair Game

  • Donnie Brosco

  • The Insider Specialist

  • Strip Tease


  • Flipper

  • Spanners Key

  • Gentle Ben

  • Fantasy Island

  • Prismus

  • 240 Robert

  • Salty

  • C.H.I.P.S.

  • Six Million Dollar Man

  • Wet Gold

  • Bionic Woman

  • New Flipper

Big John McLaughlin (center) is photographed with CDR Doug Fane, Founder & Legendary
Commander of UDT-1 during WW2 (left) and Dr Ray McAllister, (right) Florida Atlantic University
Professor, one of the first (1951) diving instructors at the Scripps Institutes. Dr McAllister at FAU
in Boca Raton is Professor Emeritus of Ocean Engineering and author of "Diving Locations
Boynton Inlet to Dania Pier" and "Sea Stories from a Diving Dinosaur",

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