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Bret Gilliam was destined to be an ocean pioneer. He was born at the Naval Academy in
Annapolis, Maryland in 1951 where his father Gill, a Navy officer, was stationed. It was his dad
who introduced the eager youngster to the underwater universe when Bret was an
eight-year-old water child.
The marine environment became Bret’s playground as well as his occupation. He built a highly
successful career, starting out as a dive store owner in St. Croix, Virgin Islands and ascending
to CEO of UWATEC, a Swiss-based manufacturer of cutting edge diving gear. Always an
entrepreneur, he was a founder Technical Diving International and Scuba Diving International,
companies that became global leaders in scuba training and education. Later in his career, he
served as an expert witness in hundreds of scuba diving related legal cases.
After high school and a short stint at the University of Maine and Bowdoin College, Bret landed
in the Virgin Islands as an underwater contractor for the Navy. During the next five decades, he
finessed his way into becoming one of the planet’s most accomplished scuba divers and ocean
experts. He filmed submarines for the Navy, ran thousands of dive trips in the Virgin Islands,
became a world-class underwater photographer, held every instructor certificate ever invented
and won dozens of ocean-oriented awards in leadership, writing and photography.
In 1972, while diving at St. Croix, tragedy struck his dive buddy Rod Temple, who was attacked by
oceanic whitetip sharks and killed. Gilliam was cited for heroism by the Virgin Islands Governor for
his attempt to save Temple when he broke off his decompression and swam back into the attack.
Bret emerged in diving’s mainstream in 1987 when he ran the hyperbaric chamber and diving
operations for the Ocean Spirit, the first and only cruise ship ever devoted specifically to scuba
divers. During his Ocean Spirit years, he gained even more notoriety when he broke the world
deep diving record, descending to 452 feet on a single tank of air, a feat that should have quite
easily killed him, if he hadn't been so brilliantly tuned in. Decades of saltiness had taught him
how to manipulate his body’s physiology by slowing his breathing and heartbeat - critical to
surviving those unfathomable depths. Skeptics claimed he cheated, that he could have just tied
his computer to some fishing line and dropped it to 450 feet. But there were witnesses,
co-workers mostly. Officially, he broke the record. Or perhaps he fudged it. Either way, it was
another juicy story revolving around his larger-than-life personality.
His feats were celebrated by many including the prestigious Explorers Club headquarter in New York
City. In 1993 Gilliam was elected as a Fellow of the international organization which is dedicated to
the advancement of field exploration and scientific inquiry.
Gilliam always had the quickest mind in the room. Or for that matter, the building and the
surrounding metropolitan area. He also knew every joke ever told. On the scuba diving
adventures he orchestrated, they would have joke wars. Someone would begin telling a joke
and he’d blurt out the punchline after the first line or two had been spoken. His clever wit
regularly had bystanders cackling uncontrollably. No one was safe from his sardonic and
sometimes sick humor.
As much as he was admired, the man was also a narcissist. He knew he was smarter than 99%
of his peers and when necessary he would assert his dominance over lesser humans. When he
was annihilating someone in a debate, he’d sometimes finish them off by saying, “My father told
me it’s unfair to get into a battle of wits with an unarmed man.” Then he’d bellow out that
boisterous laugh while his victims searched for a hole to crawl in. He demolished attorneys,
CEOs, judges, whomever got in his way. Sometimes it was messy, unless you were on his
In his self-designed, sprawling home in Maine, Bret assembled a massive wall of fame with
photos of his accomplishments and friends in high places. Famous musicians were his favorites
and he had shots of hanging out with Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, David Crosby and many
others. He told stories about partying with Jimmy Buffett, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and more,
even though he probably made half of those tall tales up. His wild stories were so entertaining,
most people didn’t care if they were fact or fiction.
His real life adventures were so outrageous that he didn’t need to stretch them. He ran exotic
diving expeditions all over the world, from Costa Rica to the Solomon Islands. Filling those trips
with admiring passengers was never a problem. He demanded the best of the best and
everyone knew it.
Along with his musician friends, Bret saved his highest admiration for diving’s most talented
explorers - perhaps his most sincere and authentic quality. Except for the love he showed
Gretchen, the love of his life, on the day they married. His faults were tempered by those
outward displays of humanity. The friends he respected most were the ones who equalled his
diving prowess - Al Giddings, Stan Waterman, Howard and Michelle Hall, Dick Bonin, Kirby
Morgan and that list went on. Those icons earned his respect, something that was harder than
cutting granite. If he didn’t like you, even God couldn’t save you. He was known to make some
people’s lives a living hell. Even though he could love deeply, he could also be vindictive.
Because he spent decades in the Virgin Island and the Caribbean diving and running large
charter ships, the overexposure to the tropical sun eventually overheated him. It’s why he
sought out the cool weather and escaped to Maine where he built a gorgeous home on Arrowsic
Island and another on Moosehead Lake. On the liveaboard dive trips he ran, the very FIRST
thing he would do was crank the air conditioning down to Frigid and demand that no one touch
the thermostat but him.
His many obsessions included music - live or played on expensive stereos - movies, women,
food, wine, photography, art, writing, diving, football and accumulating wealth, a goal he
accomplished from his many business ventures. He would post his financial statement on the
cork board in his office so others could witness his success.
Of his many talents, his adventure travel writing was wildly popular. Hundreds of his articles
were published in magazines around the world and he authored and/or contributed to dozens of
books. His humor always came through in spades. Although he talked about it, he never wrote
his autobiography. He was going to call it Into The Blue. The idea was to wait until he was out of
the ocean business altogether, then write his life’s story with no holes barred. It certainly would
have been a bestseller.
In the end, Bret couldn’t take the wealth, fame or status with him but he left behind a legacy like
few have, along with many deep friendships. His houses were always open to his friends and he
threw many festive parties, always with excellent live music, the best wine and delicious cuisine.
He lived large and shared his success freely with those he loved. He sometimes said, “Life’s too
short to hang out with assholes or drink cheap wine.” It was a mantra he lived by.