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The History of Diving on Grand Bahama Island – The Pioneers
by Keith G. Cooper
© 2010 Keith G. Cooper
All Rights Reserved.

Grand Bahama Island is perhaps one of the most historic places in the world of scuba diving. Many divers born after 1980 would not have heard of Al Tillman the founder of the world’s first dive resort – The International Underwater Explorers Society – UNEXSO located in Freeport. When UNEXSO was first conceived in 1965 man had barely made his way into outer space yet here was a young man with a genuine sense of adventure who was looking for a way to explore inner space – the living seas – in a safe and practical manner.

The 1960’s was a decade of profound change in America and the world. The USA sought to be the first country to reach outer space but the Russians beat them to the race. There was civil unrest and the hippie movement was taking shape as they protested against the Vietnam War or anything that did not promote love and peace. The world underwater and life that existed below the surface of the planet’s oceans was far from the minds of the free loving hippies, the protestors of the war in Vietnam, nuclear engineers and scientists, status quo politicians or John Q. Public.

Many baby boomer divers may remember the TV Show SEA HUNT during the 1950’ and 60’s. It was a popular show well ahead of it’s time and thanks to Lloyd Bridges the world of scuba diving was opening up to individuals who had only dreamed about viewing sea life underwater. And later in the 1960’s and 70’s the UNDERSEA WORLD OF JACQUES COUSTEAU was a highly rated TV show that taught us to appreciate the fragile ocean and encourage viewers to protect the eco systems of life that existed on this planet.

While it may appear that diving was for only for Lloyd Bridges or Jacques Cousteau an elite group of “diving” engineers, enthusiasts and adventure seekers were well on their way to developing the standards for scuba diving certification and developing the equipment necessary to enjoy the sport safely and to have fun doing it. Al Tillman wrote the fist manual on diver safety and certification and only a handful of the original publications exist today.

There were many men and women who assisted Al Tillman during a time of extreme curiosity about the world underwater. Dr. Sam Miller, Zale Parry, Bev Morgan, Sam Lococq, Emile Gagnon, Jacques Cousteau and many others were all involved in some way with shaping the burgeoning interest in scuba diving. The octopus regulator was developed and tested in the seas off Grand Bahamas’ south coast. The first underwater hydro-lab was established to allow researchers and scientists to study the physics of diving at various depths and the affect on the human body.

Some years later after UNEXSO dive resort had been completed other diving entrepreneurs entered the realm of the growing scuba diving industry on Grand Bahama Island. There were big plans to launch UNEXSO branches worldwide as the ultimate learning center for novice divers. The Freeport operation had undergone several years of growing pains in the 1960’s and consternation among investors whose ideas conflicted with the vision of Al Tillman and his business partners led to a new group of investors to take charge of the company’s destiny. This led Tillman to relinquish control of his dream and watched as the new owners adopted an entirely different vision and purpose for UNEXSO.

During this time the Bahamian Government was moving ahead with achieving self rule or independence from the British Monarchy. The entire country was in a midst of transforming itself from minority White rule to a majority Black rule nation. This event may have caused more challenges for Tillman and his team but there were other reasons within his own camp that may have been a part of the downfall of his dream. The Bahamas had attracted many notorious businessmen from the U.S., Canada and Europe seeking to acquire land from unsuspecting Bahamian landowners at below market value prices while working in conjunction with corrupt government officials to run the country as if it were a nation of rogue pirates and buccaneers.

Tourism in the Bahamas was beginning to take shape in the early 1970’s as a viable economic entity during the early years of resort hotel development, primarily in the capital Nassau. Freeport was designated the second city – or as some Bahamians would later say the “step child” to Nassau and would be identified as the industrial centre of the country.

Freeport’s name came about as the result of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement. It provided the city’s founding father, Wallace Groves, with a landmark real estate agreement never achieved before in the history of the country. Groves was a businessman on the run from Canada for stamp fraud and tax evasion. The Hawksbill Creek Agreement was set-up under British rule and in effect gave Groves and his investment group the rights to more than 60,000 acres of land, most of which was acquired under questionable circumstances. The agreement basically encompassed that a “free trade zone” or “free port” would be established to encourage global trade for cargo shipments and serve as an oil transshipment centre.

UNEXSO has had colorful and at times contentious moments with the Grand Bahama tourism industry and Bahamas Government. The company had almost single handedly created tourism on an island where before none had existed.

Stay tuned for more about the…

  • History of Diving on Grand Bahama Island- The Pioneers, Part 2

  • History of Diving on Grand Bahama Island- The Dive Sites, How deep can you go! - Part 3

  • History of Diving on Grand Bahama Island- Tourism Development, A city springs to life – Freeport - Part 4

  • History of Diving on Grand Bahama Island-Pirates, Rum Runners and the Wild, Wild…West End - Part 5

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© 2010 Keith Cooper
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