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UNEXSO - The Founding Years

By: Albert Tillman

Tillman-Family.jpgIn 1958, the Los Angeles County Underwater Program, for which I was responsible, had become a prototype for organized civilian diving instruction. Other regions and countries were seeking its advice and involvement. The program actually extended far beyond instruction by initiating workshops and retreats in everything from night diving and underwater photography to the best ways to cook seafood.

Under the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation the program was politically restricted to serving the citizens of Los Angeles County. The created controversy whenever the program seemed to step over geographical boundaries. We went ahead certifying, in a provisional way, instructors from elsewhere by evaluating their records of experience. We even had a National Underwater Instructors Course scheduled for Catalina Island in 1958 and combined with that concept was the idea for a fully equipped diving center in a resort region where every diving desire could be carried out with full convenience of any and all equipment, facilities and professional personnel. Although politics thwarted that 1958 course and “diving resort club,” the general concept was the forerunner of both NAUI and UNEXSO.

By 1960, NAUI came into being as the national, and even international, embodiment of the LA County program. Skin Diver Magazine became a key sponsor for it and the International Underwater Film Festival that I began producing annually in 1957. I became Skin Diver Magazine’s Director of Public Affairs – which encompassed the Film Festival, NAUI, a diving museum, and other diving growth projects.
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At the same time I was also engaged as technical advisor for Ivan Tors and ZIV Productions for Sea Hunt and other underwater productions. Frank Strean, a cousin of Art Arthur (a producer and writer for Sea Hunt), was directed to me by Arthur because of the diverse influence I had by 1962 in the world of diving. Stream came to me with an idea for a Sea Hunt Village, a sort of diving “Club Med” that they wanted to develop on Grand Bahama Island. At that point, I think Stream and Associates were trying out the idea, market researching my concept of what at that point of time would get divers excited.


I think I resented the idea of luring real divers someplace using the Sea Hunt name and the village sounded like another beach boy with a concession level of operation. However, Frank Strean is one of the world’s great persuaders and salesmen and he would have made the idea work.


That summer of 1963 I was running NAUI’s Miami ICC and Bill McInnes invited me and my wife Ruth over to Grand Bahama to discuss the resort idea. At that time the Canadians who wanted to set up a wetsuit company and had suggested the idea of a resort to Stram and McInnes were brought to my attention. I liked McInnes instantly and the virgin diving wilderness potential of the island seemed a good site for my latent UNEXSO idea. I suggested I go back home and draft a plan for a diving resort that would be unique and ultimate.

inside-unexso.pngStrean, McInnes and Shefsky, (Pioneer Bahamas Ltd) evidently liked to see something in print and not just verbal … and my idea of UNEXSO was apparently better than anything that came before it.

Bill McInnes was the in-residence administration of Pioneer Bahamas and I think he felt the “Wetsuit Canadians” should get some kind of recognition. I had no contact with them but went along with McInnes’ request they be given membership at an official ceremony. Nice guys but they were no part of my UNEXSO concept or development of the club.

My “dream” was to have a fully facilitated center on the edge of a clear, warm water wilderness where anyone could just bring a toothbrush (we’d give them one of those if they forgot it) and learn to dive or go deep or explore possible Atlantis site with top quality equipment and personnel. It should be a club where divers could feel membership and join together in exciting exploration andpoolside-history.jpg adventure. It would be for “civilians,” recreational divers (I was feeling the scientists and military tended to crowd the public out of good diving areas and activities – and used tax monies to do it).

It is important to note that diving was moving from Skin to SCUBA, fish killing to photography, and car trips to jets. UNEXSO would push photography over everything else and provide the expertise and photo lab to let a diver record the great adventure without destroying the scenery. Killing things using scuba would never be a moral sport activity at UNEXSO.

This dream for UNEXSO never changed, it is still intact in my mind, but a number of individual aspects were altered. I had to learn that veteran divers (Depression Babies) already in existence would not be the major consumers needed to help support the operation. I also discovered how naïve I was about business, coming from a public service background. I discovered the other principals, the owner investors, my partners, (I owned 50% for developing the project) tended to change their motivations and philosophy – UNEXSO was to be a carte blanche full concept loss leader for the Oceanus Hotel and a crated tourist attraction for the island in the beginning but ended up having to be a self-supporting business.

 

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