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HomeNewsLocal newsDiving Legend Bret Gilliam Dropped a Marker on St. Croix

Diving Legend Bret Gilliam Dropped a Marker on St. Croix

Bret Gilliam with
underwater photography
gear in Belize 1992. (Photo courtesy of BretGilliam.com)

The diving world learned of scuba pioneer Bret Gilliam’s Oct. 8 death and seasoned Virgin Islanders remember the beginning of his career as the founder of V.I. Divers in the early 1970s.

Gilliam was certified by the time he was eight years old and began his first business selling fish to aquariums when he was 11. It was a good omen – he was worth $80 million when he retired, according to reports. During his high school and college years, he excelled at field sports and was considered a semi-pro surfer.

By 1971, Gilliam was involved in blasting operations in the Caribbean and then worked for the U.S. Navy filming submarines when they entered local waters. He made a lot of money from his dangerous underwater work and invested it wisely.

Gilliam started V.I. Divers in 1972 and it only took a couple of years for the entrepreneur to acquire large dive boats to work with marine scientists and movie companies and run a luxury yacht charter fleet. He and his fleet were involved in films and documentaries, including The Deep Abyss, and worked for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

On Oct. 14, 1972, while working for the Fairleigh Dickinson laboratory off the coast of St. Croix, Gilliam tried to save his dive buddy, Rod Temple during an attack by two oceanic whitetip sharks. Both were dragged more than 325 feet into the deep, “probably close to 400 feet,” Gilliam said in a YouTube video 20 years later. After a shark tore Temple from Gilliam’s grasp, he made an emergency ascent, blacking out near the surface. He was airlifted to a decompression chamber in Puerto Rico and suffered from the “bends” for months.

Dive Experience Owner Michele Pugh said she moved to St. Croix to work for V.I. Divers. She was contacted by the Source while traveling in Indonesia and remembers him as “quite the guy.” He was a great underwater photographer and great at promoting St. Croix, she added.

“I came to St. Croix because of Bret. I had a friend that knew him and we came to St. Croix to work at V.I. Divers for three months. That was October 1977. I stayed and worked for him for five years and then started my own shop,” Pugh wrote in an email. Dive Experience just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

By 1990, Gilliam was a multi-millionaire, according to Divernet.com. Not only were his businesses hugely successful, but he also contributed to the evolution of using mixed gases, nitrox, and closed-circuit rebreathers. He served as vice president of the International Association of Nitrox & Technical Divers and as chair and president of the National Association of Underwater Instructors.

Companies Gilliam led or owned included Ocean Tech, AMF Yacht Charters, Ocean Quest International, Sea Ventures, International Training Inc., Emergency Response Diving International, Uwatec USA and DiveSafe Insurance.

During his diving career, Gilliam estimated he logged around 19,000 dives. He wrote 72 books and hundreds of diving articles and was a recognized underwater photographer with more than 100 magazine cover photos. He published and edited a number of U.S. diving magazines.

Before retiring in 2005, Gilliam also trained as a deep submersible pilot, master mariner and recompression chamber supervisor. He was named a Legend of the Sea five years in a row by the Beneath the Seas Foundation and testified in around 400 cases as an expert witness.

Gilliam died from complications of a stroke at the age of 72.










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