Legends of Diving Articles

 

Walt Deas
Underwater Cameraman & Producer of Early Reef Documentaries


Walt Deas

One of the most notable divers who would come to promote the Australian reefs actually haled from the much colder land of Scotland, at the time not noted for producing divers. Walter Deas was born in Monifieth, Scotland in 1933. He taught himself to swim at the age of 14, the same age he left school. His parents believed he was on school trips, but in reality young Walt was touring around Scotland and ice-skating, already setting a precedent for the life of adventure he would later carve out for himself.

Walt learned to dive in 1950. As a teenager he spent a great deal of time during the winter months pouring over old books and papers in an effort to locate good dive spots. He was continually adding to his small marine publications library. Hans Hass would become Walt's mentor via the written page. Walt was inspired by two of Hass' books in particular; Diving to Adventure in 1952 and Manta, Under the Red Sea with Spear and Camera in 1953. The next year Walt was given a copy of
Walt, Jean and a young
Dr. Jones on Heron Island
Cousteau's The Silent World, another source of inspiration for the young diver, though the film based on the book wasn't released in Scotland until 1958.

Deas started diving with a Navy surplus oxygen rebreather. He purchased the Aqualung when it became available in 1955 and always considered it the best deal he ever made. His wages at the time came to 5 pounds/week and the Aqualung cost 42 pounds at the time, expensive even at that time.

Walt was one of the founding members of Scotland's first dive club, The Underwater Explorers Club of Dundee.
Walt and Jordan Klien
This club would later be classified a branch of the BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club), only the second dive club in the entire United Kingdom.

Jean Deas began her foray into the underwater world when she started snorkeling around Ullapool in 1953, the same year she met Walt. Two years later Jean took up diving and married Walt, beginning a lifelong partnership that would prove to be a powerful and lasting force for good in the dive industry. Jean was officially certified by CMAS in 1956.

In those early years, divers had to be amazingly resourceful and much of their equipment was either homemade or adapted. Walt had some fascinating stories about how they made their own masks from gas masks and utilized ex-frogman surplus equipment for fins.
Walt and Jean
While doing research and working with their students they used woolen long johns underwear coated with liquid rubber, which didn't help much in freezing water temperatures. They made their cuffs out of inner tubes. Those were their first homemade wetsuits. His very first camera housing for his Agfa camera was made out of marine plywood.

Once while Walt was out diving he came upon an English engineer dressed in a white dry suit made from surgical rubber sheets. The diver was using an Agfa camera in a homemade
First arrival in 1959
in Heron Island,
Austraila
Fiberglas housing, which caught Walt's eye. They exchanged ideas about dive gear, which at this period in time was quite common. The dive community was a small but close knit fraternity of sorts.

Deas began actively researching shipwrecks in an attempt to locate one himself. It was in 1956 that his labor paid off; he discovered two Spanish galleons that had sunk. He then published his first book, The New World, an introduction to underwater exploration and sport which was one of the very first diving manuals in the United Kingdom. It was the mid 1950's and Walt was quickly making a name for himself in the world of diving.

It was around this time that Walt read Arthur C Clarke's, The Coast of Coral, in which Clark described tropical seas around Heron Island off the East Coast of Australia. This made a lasting impression on Deas that he would not soon forget. Serving as the Secretary of the Dundee Sub-Aqua Club at that time, Walt began researching Australia and became even more enthusiastic. He talked it over with Jean and they had decided to move to Australia.

In February of 1959 the intrepid couple arrived in Australia and headed directly for Heron Island. They were not disappointed; it was exactly as they had imagined it. Walt and Jean were determined to develop Heron Island
Filming the documetary
with David Attenborough
as a dive location and to show the world how very special and untouched it truly was. They settled in Brisbane and immersed themselves in the dive scene. Walt worked as a building supervisor and carpenter to support their "diving gypsies" lifestyle, as he called it.

Walt became secretary of the USFA Queensland (Underwater Skindivers & Fishermen's Association) and he and Jean would visit the Barrier reef as often as possible. They quickly compiled a formidable photographic portfolio with references for the benefit of divers overseas. During the 1960's divers were drawn to the Barrier Reef and Heron Island like magnets.

In 1963 and 64 the couple lived up to their self-appointed moniker "diving gypsies," moving around frequently. First stop was in the United States, working with Jordan Klein for six months at his dive shop, Underwater INC in Miami. Their next stop was three months in the Bahamas and then back to Scotland. There they started Undersea Sports. After just one winter they were on the next ship back to Australia, this time settling in Sydney. It would be later that Jordan Klein would go to Australia to work with Walt on a feature called "Survive the Savage Sea." The film starred Robert Urich and Ali McGraw with Klein serving as second unit director/cameraman and Walt as his liaison and prime underwater cameraman. Walt's intimate knowledge of the best dive spots in the area served the production well, Klein recalls. The two men would remain friends throughout their lives.

The Deas team developed the Heron Island Dive's Festival which, over 30 years later, has become one of the most successful festivals in Australia to date. At this time Walt and Jean continued to compile their photographic portfolio, all with the aid of his Rolliflex and his Hans Hass
Walt and Jean (1956)
Underwater housing. His work was appearing in National Geographic, Skin Diver and various magazines throughout the world.

He and Jean photographed every species of coral found on the reefs. They were known for their wide angle shots revealing the surrounding environment and the coral polyps for species identification. This photographic essay was published in 1976 as "Corals of the Barrier Reef." The book brought international acclaim to Walt and he was voted Photographer of the Year and inducted into the Hall of Fame of the US Academy of Underwater Photographers. He served as a correspondent for various publications worldwide, such as Dive South Pacific.

In 1976, Walt and Jean returned to Heron Island to serve as dive masters at the Heron Island Resort. They were very well known and well-received in the area, as well as respected for their vision
Walt Filming
of cinematography and underwater photographs. Walt served as the main cameraman on the three episodes of Life on Earth with David Attenborough. Walt and Jean directed and filmed "Where Fish are Friendly," which drew the largest audience of 15 million in the UK.

Walt worked with some of the top cinematographers in the business. Over the years he was involved in both surface and underwater productions, working at times as producer, director, cameraman, and director of photography in such productions as Life on Earth, Mission Impossible, Reef Watch, The Unknown Planet, 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, and many more. He has written many books along with his photographic illustrations.

Walt and Jean were known as a very generous and hospitable couple and well loved by those whose lives they touched. One day while dining in a restaurant, the couple struck up a conversation with a young black student, who was in Australia studying to become a marine biologist. Immediately taking the young man under her wing, Jean insisted he have dinner with them in their home once a week. A lasting friendship developed between the warmhearted couple and the young man who developed into a legend in his own right, diver and marine biologist
Early walt in 50's
with his gear
Dr. Jose Jones. A student at the University of Queensland at the time, Dr. Jones credits Walt with introducing him to underwater photography and teaching him to make underwater housings out of Plexiglas for his camera. Walt also introduced the young Jose to the Underwater Skindivers and Fisherman Association. The USFA patch still adorns the doctor's University of Queensland jacket to this day; a visible reminder of the happy days spent in the company of the couple. The university's Marine Station was located on Heron Island, enabling the eager young diver to spend many enjoyable days with Walt and Jean, who served both as mentors and family to him during his time in Australia. It is no surprise to any who knew the couple that Dr. Jones still speaks of them with such high regard and obvious affection.

Throughout their lives, Walt and Jean were acutely aware of the dangerous impact Man was having on the Ocean. They were quite outspoken about the preservation of the reefs and the fish. In 1980 and 1981 Walt filmed "The Basking Shark" in Scotland. It described the history of the Basking Shark Fishery and showed the devastation upon the environment in the early 80's. He and Jean were passionate about the preservation of the underwater environment and used their art to make a call to action.
Walt and the club
in Dundee, Scotland
(Underwater
Explorer Club)
At the time of his death on May 28, 2008, he had several documentaries in the making and had already won several awards, honored for the work he so enjoyed. Shortly before Walt passed away, the book he co-authored with his beloved partner, Jean, was completed. Coral Reefs: Nature's Wonders is a fitting tribute to the underwater world which this tireless couple devoted their lives to help preserve.

Walt and Jean Deas were among the very first to show the world the Great Barrier Reef and through their books, video, and photography inspired both divers and non-divers the world over. Walt worked tirelessly for the environment and the dive community until his death and has certainly earned a place among the Legends of Diving.

Some Publications and Productions of Walt Deas:

  1. Beneath Australian Seas, co-author and photographer
  2. Seashells of Australia, author and photographer
  3. Australian Fishes in Colour, author and photographer
  4. Life on Coral Reefs of the Seychelles, photographer
  5. Time/Life book Great Barrier Reef, lead photographer
  6. A.U.P.'s The Great Barrier Reef, lead photographer
  7. Natural Life of the Barrier Reef, co-author with Jean Deas, photographer
  8. Wonder of the Aquarium World, photographer
  9. The Basking Shark, producer
  10. Where Fish are Friendly, Walt & Jean directed and filmed
  11. David Attenborough's Life on Earth, lead photographer
  12. Time Trax
  13. Mission Impossible
  14. Reefwatch-the Red Sea
  15. Animal Magic Goes Cruising
  16. The Unknown World, award winning Swedish production
  17. The Bomber Reef, producer
  18. Coral Reefs: Nature's Wonders, co-authored with Jean Deas

(ILD would like to thank Dr. Jose Jones, Jordan Klein, and of course, Jean Deas for their contributions of photographs and recollections.)

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