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The History of Diving on Grand Bahama Island – The Pioneers,
Part Two

by Keith G. Cooper
© 2010 Keith G. Cooper
All Rights Reserved.

Al Tillman’s area of expertise was educating and teaching people how to dive and that held great promise and potential. He founded NAUI and wrote the first dive instruction manual. He was also busy working with the producers on the development of the SEA HUNT TV show in California. As the idea for the world’s first dive facility was being developed among Tillman and his investors; the notorious Freeport developer Wallace Groves approached his Canadian partners at PIONEERS BAHAMAS, LTD. to build the Oceanus Inn that would cater to divers. Tillman would initially oversee the construction of the dive operation and recruit staff. Within months the concept for UNEXSO was completed and the agreement signed.

Tillman took a leave from his sports director position in Los Angeles County, California and began in earnest to search for the top dive staff available at that time. He also sought out construction experts and consultants as well as local Bahamians to become dive guides and assist instructors during training classes. After two years of sporadic trips in Grand Bahama Island Tillman decided he needed to get back to California and left the project in the capable hands of his partners. As the project progressed Tillman was not kept fully aware of the challenges and budget restraints affecting the construction of the Inn and dive facility. The dream began to unravel when the Oceanus Inn manager Henri Lorenzi began to assume he was in charge of the UNEXSO facility construction. This conflict was fueled further when the investors of the Oceanus Inn began to have financial problems pushed Lorenzi to takeover UNEXSO and turn into an athletic club. The matter was resolved and the project continued ahead after the Oceanus investors agreed to amend the original contract.

Three of the top dive industry veterans were chosen by Tillman to lead the operation - Dave Woodward, Jack McKinney and Chuck Peterson scuba divers who excelled at the sport. Woodward became the General Manager of UNEXSO and McKinney and Peterson would run the underwater photography, course development programs and training of local Bahamians.

Tillman returned for the grand opening in December 1965 but did not remain on Grand Bahama much longer after the dive operation opened. He was anxious to head back to California to continue his research and work on a number of projects related to dive instruction and equipment research and development. Throughout the remainder of the decade Tillman would return often for special projects and to welcome journalists and celebrities anxious to learn more about scuba diving.

The dive operation and resort established itself as a popular destination among Hollywood celebrities, conservationists, scientists, astronauts and journalists anxious to report on the growing interest in scuba diving. Walter Cronkite the noted former anchor for CBS News was awed that man was embracing a new frontier in the world of the sea. Tillman taught Cronkite how to scuba dive while simultaneously filming the initial broadcast of the 21st Century News Show on “Man In The Sea” segment. Cronkite could only imagine what new secrets lies beneath the oceans on this planet.

Norine Rouse a Palm Beach, Florida socialite first visited UNEXSO shortly after it opened and sought to learn all that she could about the new sport that was beginning to take off. She and her daughter frequented UNEXSO as members and some years later she branched off to form her own club – The Norine Rouse Scuba Club of the Palm Beaches. She became a full time conservationist and work tirelessly to protect sea turtles and other marine wild life. She died in 2007.

Notoriety of the dive operation was making headlines around the world and it piqued the interest of NASA and Grand Bahama Island as a possible location for their space tracking and recovery system. Shortly after their historic walk on the moon, Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin participated in the fist Sea-Space Symposium hosted by General Electric.

One of the first Bahamians hired at UNEXSO was Ben Rose whom “BEN’S CAVE” is named after and located at the Lucayan National Park twenty miles east of Freeport. The park boasts the Bahamas only underwater cavern system accessible to divers from land and is home to migrating bats who reside there during the summer months. The length of the cavern expels some six miles into the Atlantic Ocean. After Ben received his dive certification he quickly learned the names of the marine life in the ocean. He became UNEXSO’s resident marine identification expert and held classes for those interested in learning more about sea life.

Other Bahamians who joined UNEXSO in the 1970’s and 80’s include Nick Rolle, Ollie Ferguson, Pressley Knowles and Althea Smith who was the first Bahamian woman to become a certified diver. Their contribution to diving will be featured in future stories.

Stay tuned for more about the…

  • 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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