Dave Woodward’s arc of diving


August 6, 2009

Cheney native has been at the forefront of pioneering a modern recreational sport



Never underestimate where a pair of swim fins can take you.

For Cheney native Dave Woodward, it was a pair of swim fins given to his father, former Eastern Washington College of Education physical education director A.C. “Woody” Woodward, that propelled him through the water – and on to a 54-year scuba diving career. It was a career where Woodward was at the forefront of scuba instruction, pioneering the art of underwater photography, working with some of the legends in nature television programming, and this past April being given the International Legends of Diving Award in Freeport, Grand Bahamas.

Fins and tin cans

But it was those swim fins that launched Woodward on his diving course. Woodward’s father – yes, Eastern’s Woodward Field is named after A.C. – was given a pair of complementary Owen Churchill Fins by Voit Rubber Company, the first of their kind. Woodward passed them to his son, who tried them out at the college’s pool in the basement of Showalter Hall.

“The first indication was a blast of speed,” Dave Woodward said. “Felt quite a sensation to swim so fast.”

Woodward added that fins aren’t used for speed in scuba diving, but for stability and efficiency of movement. That is essential, Woodward said, in being a good underwater photographer, the love of which began, again, in his childhood.

Woodward was fascinated by the big, blocky cameras of the 1920s and 1930s and together with a neighborhood friend, fashioned a rudimentary dark room in his parent’s basement when he was 10, working with a set of plans lifted from “Modern Mechanics” magazine and materials such as light bulbs, bellows, and tin cans.

“My interest grew out of that,” he said. “With the exception of two years in the Marine Corps, I pretty much had a camera in my hand everywhere I went.”

Applying that interest underwater would have to wait. After graduating from Cheney High School in 1943, Woodward joined the Marines, spending World War II stateside as a radio/radar technician, mostly in North Carolina and around the Gulf of Mexico.

After the war Woodward’s journey took him to the University of Illinois to earn a physical education teaching degree. From there, northeast Oregon to serve as a high school coach and teacher, and finally in 1954 back to Spokane where he went to work for a local sporting goods store – and got his first taste of scuba diving.

Learning to teach

On the retail floor at Simchuck Sporting Goods was a Healthway’s Divair Regulator, tank and gum rubber suit. Woodward said his love for the water drove him to try the unit out. He and a friend, Clyde Combs, took the setup out to a nearby lake. Thanks to unfamiliarity with the unit and no clues about safety precautions, the pair barely averted disaster – like drowning.

The experience led both to realize that if they were going to sell this equipment, they needed to teach people how to use it. Their first attempts at teaching were less than successful, and as Woodward wrote in his online autobiography on the International Legends of Diving website, “resulted in 0 sales – obviously we had frightened everyone out of the water.”

The duo persisted, and persistence paid off. They cut the class size, stopped using phrases like “this could happen to you,” and in turn created WOCO diving school – a combination of Woodward-Combs. In time, Woodward got a new partner, and also formed Spokane Skin Divers club from students taking the course.

In 1960, Woodward became one of the first 29 divers nationally to receive scuba instruction certification, and over time, was involved in numerous other certification programs as assistant course director, course director and guest lecturer.

In 1955 he began dabbling in underwater photography. In 1960 when he became a partner in several departments at the Sports Creel store in Spokane Valley, he picked up a Calypso Camera with a flash unit, and was launched on the next phase of his career – capturing marine life on film.

Diver’s resort

In 1964, Woodward accompanied fellow diver and instructor Al Tillman to Freeport, Grand Bahamas, to explore an idea Tillman had been cooking up with other investors – a hotel for divers. This eventually took shape as the Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO) and the Grand Bahamas Underwater Explorers Club.

On the trip, Woodward snapped a couple pictures of the queen angelfish, one of the most colorful of Caribbean creatures, swimming in a pillar coral formation. The pictures earned him a gold medal at the International Underwater Film Festival, the first of 25 photography awards Woodward would net over his career.

“There’s a certain element of luck in anything like that, plus technique and controlling the camera,” Woodward said.

It’s not easy, he explained, especially during the early years of the recreational sport. Cameras were placed in aluminum housings which, while weighing less underwater than on land, were still bulky, and required operation of the camera via rods and levers.

Woodward accepted Tillman’s offer to become UNEXSO’s first general manager, sold everything he had in Spokane and moved his wife and three kids to Freeport, beginning 18 years of living, diving and photographing in the Caribbean. Woodward was with UNEXSO, an idea he said was “15 years ahead of its time,” for seven years, working with others to create new diving methods and their instruction, working on a number of TV commercials and films, along with advancing the art of underwater photography.

Woodward was a founding member of the Undersea Medical Society in 1970, and in 1971, was elected a founding member of the Hall of Fame of Undersea Photography. During his time in the Caribbean, Woodward was diving instructor to people such as “Jaws” author Peter Benchley, actor Lloyd Bridges, and the families of news legend Walter Cronkite and rocketry pioneer Werner Von Braun.

In 1966, Woodward put together a slide show of his underwater pictures and began showing them around the country. The next year he used three projectors, music and personally written lyrics in his presentations.

That year he taught diving to several photographers from National Geographic magazine, helping to expand their nature coverage capabilities. He also served as an advisor to the Conference on National Aquatics-ANSI for development of scuba instruction standards.

Woodward left UNEXSO in 1972, moving on to other opportunities that included setting up a diving operation in 1977 at a hotel on Norman’s Cay. It was here he found out later that the family had come rather close to Columbian drug operations, living near a small, unlit airstrip that seemed to have a lot of nighttime flights.

Whales, sharks and kissing fish

In 1975, Woodward worked three months with the nature program, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and its host, zoologist Marlin Perkins, diving and recording sounds of humpback whales off the Virgin and Caicos Islands.

“Marlin is a great guy,” Woodward said. “He is probably the worst speaker in the world, but a fine gentleman, very knowledgeable.”

“Wild Kingdom” was the first to successfully get close enough to the large mammals to produce enough footage for two, half-hour TV programs. Woodward said he took over 100 shots as close as eight feet, a career experience rising above others in excitement.

“It’s a fantastic thing to dive with these creatures,” he said. “That intelligent eye – it’s about the size of a dinner plate.”

Woodward described the humpbacks as “gentle giants” but relates one experience giving a sense of the creatures’ power. Once, a mother and her calf came near the boat, at which point Woodward and others jumped in the water to film.

The move spooked the mother, who turned her 40-50 ton mass sharply within the length of her body to protect her calf, striking one of the photographers in the hand with her fin. It took 12 stitches to fix the wound.

Over his career, Woodward has had several brushes with danger, including a case of the bends while diving at UNEXSO. One of the scariest moments came spear fishing with his wife off the Grand Cayman when he speared a grouper in some coral about 15 feet underwater. He was busy trying to loosen the fish from the coral, when he realized he wasn’t the only one interested in the catch.

“I turned around and pushed off the bottom and there was Mr. Shark,” Woodward said. “The influx of adrenaline was pretty high. Fortunately the shark knew who was the injured fish. He had his dinner, and we didn’t.”

Woodward’s most satisfying moment in underwater photography came by acting like a fish. He managed to snap some photos of the Blue-striped Grunt, a kissing-type fish that rarely engages in public displays.

Most divers act like predators and thrash about, Woodward said. To get the shots of the grunts, he was patient, hovering quietly and waiting until he became part of the group, and no longer a perceived threat.

The pictures ran in the Smithsonian Magazine around 8-10 years ago.

From sea to ski

Woodward and his family left the Caribbean in 1982 when they discovered they also liked another sport – skiing. The family moved to Colorado, where they now live.

Woodward continued to work in diving and underwater photography, forming Ocean Below in 1991, a company specializing in “pictorial presentations in marine biology, oceanography and underwater photography.” During his dive career he worked not only for National Geographic and “Wild Kingdom,” but also Science Digest, the New York Times, International Wildlife and other books and publications.

In 1990 he had three photographs selected by the American Museum of Natural History for their 1991 Wildlife Calendar. In 1995, “Swimming with Whales with Dave Woodward” premiered on North Carolina PBS, and in 2003 he conducted a one-man show at the Wildlife Experience Museum in Parker, Colo. He continues to garner awards and accolades, including last April’s International Legends of Diving selection.

Woodward eventually retired from fulltime diving, taking dive trips now every two or three years.

“I’m just sitting around, vegetating,” he says laughing, pausing to add, “not really.”

Woodward said he is working on his autobiography. He also does photography presentations periodically at schools around Denver.

At nearly 84 years old, one can sense with Woodward there is still a passion burning for the sea. It’s a passion not only to be in the water, but also bring the natural beauty of the oceans to others through the art of photography.

And as for those old swim fins?

“That’s a good question,” Woodward laughs. “Dad had them in his office. They’re probably long gone by now.”

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com


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