81-year-old Pismo Beach diver recounts his life under water

Longtime diver Sam Miller III shares the adventures he’s had while pursuing his passion

slinn@thetribunenews.comSeptember 6, 2013 

If it hadn’t been for a childhood eye infection, Pismo Beach resident Sam Miller III might have never discovered the wondrous world of diving.

The avid swimmer came down with a serious infection at age 12.

“We went to my family doctor and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re allergic to chlorine. You can’t get chlorine in your eye,’ ” recalled Miller, so a relative rounded up some eye protection. “I started (wearing) swimming goggles, and I found a new world. I could see underwater.”

Miller quickly graduated from the local YMCA swimming pool to the crystal-clear lakes, called “stripper pits,” created by coal mining in southern Indiana. Over the decades, he’s logged more than 8,000 dives all over the world — many of them with his wife, Allan Hancock College Associate Superintendent/Vice President Betty Miller, and son, Marian Regional Medical Center hyperbaric and emergency room physician Sam Miller IV.

“I’m very comfortable in the water.

I’m very much at home,” said Miller, a retired chiropractor who was recently awarded the California Scuba Service Award for his long-term contributions to the California sport diving community. “I’m communicating with nature probably on the highest level.”

While diving, he added, “You have high adventure in the only place you can really have high adventure anymore on this Earth, and it’s very reasonable adventure. It won’t cost you an arm and a leg.”

After serving as a U.S. Air Force officer during the Korean War, Miller spent 28 years as a Southern California diving instructor and trainer, introducing thousands of divers to the sport. He also consulted for diving equipment manufacturers, served as an expert witness in diving-related court cases and amassed one of the largest collections of diving-themed literature in the world.

“I felt that I had to share this with other people,” said Miller, who hosted the first U.S. meeting for diving bibliophiles at his Pismo Beach home in 1993. “It was very rewarding just to share (diving) with other people and watch their eyes light up and watch them get excited.”

Miller, who turns 82 in September, has largely given up diving for health reasons.

However, he remains active in the community as a writer and lecturer, speaking at annual diver education conferences sponsored by the county Sheriff’s Office’s Underwater Search and Recovery Dive Team. He’s currently working on turning his experiences into a book.

Below are just a few of Miller’s anecdotes about his favorite sport.

• • •

In 1948, two things happened. Hans Haas made a black-and-white movie called “Under the Red Sea,” which I happened to see in the local theater, and it was great. In December of that same year, James Dugan wrote an article (in Science Illustrated magazine) about Jacques Cousteau called “The First of Men-Fish.” It was the first article written about Jacques Cousteau, which introduced scuba diving to the U.S. audience.

• • •

I came to California in 1951. Scuba diving had just arrived in Southern California. I made my first scuba dive at a divers’ cove in Laguna Beach with no wetsuit, cheap equipment. It was just a tank and regulator, fins and a mask, no snorkel. I said, “Oh my god, this is insane. Who wants to do this? … Who needs this to get game?” … At that time, literally, you could wade out and pull abalone off of the rocks.

• • •

We had no diving instruction till 1954. ... In those days, every time you put your head underwater it was a new experience. You saw a new animal, a new creature of some sort. You experienced something new because there was one magazine, very few books, very little instruction. When you bought your diving equipment, you got a little pamphlet of about six or eight pages that you read … and that was the sum total of instruction.

• • •

I got 165 stitches through here (pointing to his cheek). … I had just bought my first wetsuit, which means you can be warm when you dive at night. We dove all night for lobsters. ...

I returned home and I was getting ready to go to bed … and a friend of mine said, “Hey, let’s go diving. I’ll meet you at Poppy Street in Corona Del Mar.” I had my limit of 10 lobsters, but I thought, “Well, 20 is better than 10.” …

I had four or five lobsters in my bag … when I spied a big one as he skirted out of the hole. I followed him underwater to another hole.

Next thing you know, I came up and I said, “Oh my God, I’m in white water.” It was a minus tide, which means a very, very low tide. It was very foggy. And the swells had been coming up like mad.

One just picked me up and — boom — and deposited me face first on a submerged rock. I came in to the beach and saw one other diver who I recognized as Al McHolland. I said, “My God, Al, I really hit myself and cut my face.” He said, “Sam, you don’t have a face left!”

He took me to the hospital, and 165 stitches they counted, most of them internally. I almost considered giving up diving. But I didn’t.

• • •

I’ve had a lot of shark experiences. … I had organized the very first recreational dive to Farnsworth Bank (near Catalina Island) in December 1960. I had surfaced and was swimming back to the boat. In those days we never dove with buddies. You go here, and I’ll go here. Same ocean, that’s buddy diving!

I looked up and everybody on the boat was looking at me. I got closer, and the captain had a gun in his hand. I thought to myself, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” They shouted, “Give us your hands, give us your hands!” So I threw up my hands and they just grabbed my arms … and yanked me out of the water. They said, “Didn’t you see that shark?” “What shark?” “That great big hammerhead. He was right with you all around you.” I never saw him. I never saw that shark.

• • •

Another time I was in Veracruz in the mid-1960s and spear fishing and photographing with Mexican nationals. I had my camera with me, a very expensive 16 MM Samson movie camera which was the pride of my life. ...

I was swimming along, and a lemon shark materialized out of the blue. He came towards me and circled around me around several times; I knew I was in trouble. I thrust my camera out at full arm’s length for protection, didn’t even think about taking a picture. Next thing you know I felt — bump! — on the back of my neck. As the shark came around again and swam directly toward me, I went — boom! — and whacked him with the camera. Concurrently, something hit me in the neck a second time. It was the boat.

I turned, held up my arms and my friends pulled me up into the boat out of harm’s way as I watched the camera slowly sink (into the ocean). I said, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?”

So we immediately threw out the anchor to mark the location and kept watching for the shark until he finally disappeared.

I went back down and found my camera and with a great burst of energy swam to the surface and jumped on the boat. I never saw that shark again.

That was the closest I came to having a face-to-face problem with a shark. ... I can visualize right now and that was 50 years ago.

• • •

You always have in your mind the emergency plan. How are you going to do it? Are you going to throw a show? You gonna hit him with a camera? You gonna shoot a spear gun? You gonna jab him? You’ve got to do something.

• • •

Every time I went diving … it was a privilege for me to go into the water. I felt privileged that I was allowed to do this and experience this and communicate with … the world that so many people do not know. There are so many people who have never experienced it, and they should — if nothing else, just stick their head in the water when they’re on vacation.

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service