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Ernie Brooks (1935-2020): A Master of Depth and Light

The “Journal of Diving History” founder and publisher Leslie Leaney offers a tribute to one of the much loved pioneers of underwater photography.

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Photos by Ernie Brooks. Lede image, Cousteau Diver.

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Magnificent Blue
Blue in Profile

Ernest Brooks II, one of America’s true pioneering underwater photographers, passed away from heart failure on November 17, 2020. He was 85.

Known throughout the international diving industry simply as “Ernie,” his career accomplishments and contributions encompassed underwater photography, education, environmental advocacy, mentorship, philanthropy, ocean conservation, all of which were combined in his role as an ambassador for the oceans.

His diving career took him under the polar ice caps, and into every ocean. His brilliant photography was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Man, the National Maritime Museum, the Smithsonian, and numerous other international museums and galleries.

Ernie described his love of photography as a vehicle to new lands.  When he took his photography underwater it became a vehicle to new worlds.

Ernie’s love of photography came from his mother, his uncle, and his grandmother, who emigrated to America from the Azores. All three were professional photographers. His father, Ernest Brooks, Sr. loved both photography and the sea, and in 1945 founded Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, and started its underwater photography department in 1956. Reflecting on the origins of his career, Ernie noted, “I was destined to spend my life doing what was meant to be,” 

He recently recalled that his first steps in a career that spanned seven decades were taken at an early age:

I loved swimming underwater! I entered the three-mile swim off Santa Barbara and won three years in a row. But in the fourth year when I was a senior in high school I looked down and I saw the kelp we were swimming through. Light rays were going through and I could see the fish on the bottom. And I stopped swimming and saw the beautiful ocean. I lost the race.

Inspired by the 1930s and 1940s underwater photography of his hero, Austrian Hans Hass, Ernie went on to establish himself internationally as the world’s premier black and white underwater photographer. Over the years, his spectacular photography earned him the title  “the Ansel Adams of the Sea.”

He started diving in 1949, making his first underwater camera housing from aluminum, but the early beginnings of his professional photographic career would take him up, not down.

At 18 years of age, during the tensions of the Cold War, he started a tour of duty with the USAF, flying in the high altitude U2 spy plane. “I was very good at figuring out optics. We were using a lot of infrared cameras, and actually I designed the film,” he recalled. By the age of 20 he had flown over 70 different countries.

Day Breaker Series

Ernie left the Air Force at age 22 and immediately worked with Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, training a group of divers who were the photographic team aboard Cousteau’s research vessel, Calypso. Ernie stayed involved with Cousteau for 17 years, while at the same time working with his father at the Brooks Institute of Photography, which he graduated from in 1962.

His graduation coincided with the start of deep water commercial mixed gas diving that was driven by off-shore oil exploration off of the Santa Barbara coast. At that time, saturation diving was also becoming well established. 

He recalled, “By this time I was well into my fascination with man’s triumph in the sea, and photography came into its own on a parallel course.  As a civilian member of the U.S. Navy SEALAB program, living at 200 feet for 12 days was more than life rewarding. It was there, watching “Tuffy the Porpoise” deliver the daily mail, that my deepening interest in marine life and its intelligence came into focus.”

In 1971, Ernie became the Brooks Institute’s President, elevating the institution to a four-year, university-level school. He introduced audio-visual, undersea technology, physics, and optics componentry programs, and added corresponding graduate degrees. He also continued to develop the underwater photography curriculum at the Institute. His boat, Just Love, acted as a floating studio and darkroom, as it plied the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, rewarding both students and masters with images that would define their careers.

When not attending to his executive responsibilities or teaching at the Institute, Ernie lectured at various annual diving and photography shows. He also acted as project leader, or principal member, in numerous international photographic research projects, including his 1978 photographic investigations as part of the Shroud of Turin Research Project.

The Brooks Institution was sold in 1992, and freedom from a day job allowed Ernie to embark on a life full of extensive international travels and adventures.

In 2002, working with his former students at Media 27 in Santa Barbara, he published the book Silver Seas: A Retrospective, which was supported by a turn-key traveling exhibit of his photographs. Featuring images from his years photographing marine life around the Channel Islands, the book set an unsurpassed standard for black and white photography.

Famed National Geographic underwater photographer David Doubilet, his former student, stated, “Brooks is truly the Master of Light in the Sea. The rich black and white images in Silver Seas are simply the most beautifully reproduced photographs ever made in the oceans – a rare composition of art and craftsmanship.”

In 2013, his inspirational work gained broader recognition when it was paired with that of Ansel Adams, and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, in the travelling exhibition Fragile Waters. The exhibition called attention to the critical resource of water, in all its beauty and power, and premiered at The National Maritime Museum, before touring the USA.

Ernie gained further international recognition and acclaim when the world’s oldest watch company, Blancpain of Switzerland, began to use his underwater images in their promotional campaigns. He also began to receive, and for the most part accept, invitations to be either a keynote speaker or guest of honor at large international conferences in China and the Asian region.

In 2013, the Santa Barbara Underwater Film Festival and the Historical Diving Society USA organized a Tribute Festival to Ernie, in recognition of his pioneering career accomplishments. Among the many presenters were Ernie’s former students and also living legends of underwater film and photography. Attendees came from Germany, Singapore, France, Australia and all across the USA. Ernie recently told organizer Ed Stetson that the tribute was one of the highlights of his career. Anyone who attended it will never forget it. 

His career was recognized by an array of awards from both the diving and photography industries, including the Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences NOGI Award, the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association Reaching Out Award, New York’s Beneath The Sea Legend of the Sea Award, induction into The International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in Grand Cayman.

Ernie traveled to Germany in 2003 to become the recipient of the Historical Diving Society’s inaugural Hans Hass Fifty Fathoms Award, which he received in person from his hero, Professor Hans Hass.

Jellyfish Genesis

Ernie touched the lives of countless individuals and influenced multiple organizations through his educational skills, philanthropy, and investments in many individual people. The Historical Diving Society USA is just one of those many organizations, and I am just one of those many people. Ernie’s philanthropy allowed me to establish the Leaney – Brooks Diving History Archive at UCSB, thus providing an ongoing research library for the study of diving history that will outlive us both.

His recent donation of the former Brooks Institution campus on the Riviera, to Santa Barbara Middle School, reached new heights of local philanthropy. I was told by a knowledgeable source that the value of the property was in the range of eight to twelve million dollars. 

Ernie understood the Gift of Giving, and made our divers’ community a better place. He was a living example of the famous quote, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” And the range of Ernie’s full life—from flying at secret altitudes in a U2, to diving the depths of the Channel Islands and world’s oceans— mirrored the full range of his generous giving.

As a roving international ambassador for the oceans Ernie also became ambassador for not only Santa Barbara but also the HDS, DEMA, WDHoF, and AUAS. He was a truly unique and generous man, and our whole industry has benefited from the time he shared with us. 

His legacy contains his spectacular retrospective book Silver Seas, whose images greet divers boarding any of the vessels of HDS sponsor company Nautilus Liveaboards. His body of work is displayed in museums and galleries around the globe, and stands to remind us of his career talent. Also contained in his legacy are the numerous community-service and educational non-profit organizations, whose future was secured by his philanthropy and vision.

Ernie’s spirit lives on and guides The Ernest Brooks Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission remains “to support and enrich the knowledge and education of those who shape our understanding of the world through photography and the creation of visual media.”

Ernie will live on in the hearts of those who were fortunate enough to have known him or to be forever influenced by him. These include an impressive array of A-List underwater photographers whom he taught and mentored. Their on-going visual contributions to our understanding of our Blue Planet ensures Ernie’s influence will live on.

Fair winds and following seas, old friend.

Leslie Leaney

Publisher

The Journal of Diving History

Learn More About the Life of Ernie

The Santa Barbara Underwater Film Festival and the Historical Diving Society paid a special tribute to Ernie in 2013: A Tribute To Ernie Brooks

Be a Part of Diving History!

The Historical Diving Society USA is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the dive community by:

• Researching, archiving and promoting great moments in dive history.

• Honoring the contributions of underwater pioneers.

• Facilitating access to the rich history of diving on various platforms.

• Enhancing awareness of and appreciation for underwater exploration.

To access our treasure trove of dive history and become a member, visit us at: www.HDS.org. We are also on Facebook: Historical Diving Society USA

Education

Stay Warm – It’s A Piece Of (Layered) Cake

Fourth Element co-founder Jim Standing gets warm and fuzzy on the virtues of undergarment layering, and some of the specifics of Fourth Elements thermal options. No one is going commando!

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by Jim Standing 

In Germany, the time-honoured principle of layering for thermal performance called “Zwiebelsystem,” which literally translates as the “onion system,” means selecting the appropriate layers for various environmental conditions. But onions aren’t to everyone’s taste; to paraphrase the talking donkey in the movie Shrek, cakes have layers too, and everybody likes cake.  

The concept that layering is the optimal technique to provide thermal protection came to scuba diving from the wider, outdoor-sport world. The model that most divers have come to adopt ever since Fourth Element launched the first base layer—the Xerotherm—designed exclusively for drysuit diving, is a good base layer, a thermal mid-layer (or two), and an outer shell.

The basic principle is pretty straightforward. Not only do the fabrics themselves hold air in their fibres, but by using layers, air is also maintained in the spaces in between, and it is this that provides the insulation you need. Choosing your combination of base layer and thermal layer is then a matter of assessing your needs, which are mostly determined by the temperature of the water and the planned dive duration.

Our bodies are amazing machines, capable of regulating body temperature through passive and active means, from vasodilation or constriction and redistribution of blood flow to sweating and shivering, along with an incredible array of less obvious controls. All this is designed to keep our bodies functioning at a steady 37º C/98.6º F.  But sometimes they need a little help. In the case of diving, exposure is almost inevitable as you are immersed in water at a lower temperature than the human body, meaning that there will always be heat loss along the temperature gradient. The diver’s insulation is designed to slow this loss down.

drysuit undergarments

Ready Layer One

A good base layer is critical—it must manage moisture and keep your skin as dry as possible. Whether you like it or not, there will be some moisture inside your suit; hopefully, it’s just from perspiration, but at some stage it is likely that it will also be water from a leaky seal, a zipper or a more catastrophic leak. Keeping this moisture away from your skin is the job of a good base layer.

Water Is Wicked

Water is not a good insulator. Its specific heat capacity (the amount of energy that it requires to warm up by a mere 1 degree) is 4.2 times greater than air. In short, water next to the skin absorbs heat, drawing it away from the body and making you cold. Wicking is the process of moving water through a fabric from one face to another. 

In the case of the diving base layer, its objective is to keep the moisture on the outer surface of the base layer away from the skin, maintaining a layer of air, a much better insulator, as the first line of defence against getting cold. If your undersuit also wicks, then this moisture will be moved even further away, and performance is maximised.

Use a super-light wicking layer like the J2 for layering under any undergarment to manage perspiration and small suit leaks without affecting buoyancy. It has a grid patterned knit, maximising the air next to the skin, but wicks moisture away very quickly. The added advantage of silver ion impregnated fibres minimises the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, making this the perfect base layer for drysuit diving trips in which multiple days of diving are planned.  

We designed it for some of the most extreme diving expedition conditions to maximise performance whilst maintaining healthy skin of the dive team over a continuous period of more than two weeks. The lead divers on the US Deep Cave Diving Team’s 2013 J2 Expedition, Phil Short and Marcin Gala, wore this layer for 19 days underground and whilst neither would vouch for its odour-reducing capabilities, Marcin’s comment, having previously suffered with skin infections, was, “It was a life saver.”

Use the Xerotherm to provide good wicking performance, coupled with great thermal protection. Adding this as a base layer to your undersuit makes a significant difference. It’s one of the fastest wicking materials available, and thanks to this fabric technology, it works so well when wet that some divers do not notice leaks in a suit until after the dive!

Choose the Right Undersuit

drysuit undergarments

There are so many to choose from and many of them work on the principle that the thicker the undergarments, the better they will be. But that is not always the case: fabric technology, wicking and biomapping (identifying key areas of exposure) all play a part in designing an undergarment, and then there is the ultimate test—will it perform under a drysuit?

Fourth Element designed the Arctic undersuit for use underneath neoprene drysuits. In cold waters, layer this with a J2 base layer, or Xerotherm for extreme temperatures.

Under trilaminate drysuits, we recommend the HALO 3D, but many divers also choose the Arctic for the ultimate versatility of using it in warmer conditions and layering up more for the cold. In a correctly fitting trilaminate drysuit, there will be more room for undergarments, but it is important not to have so much bulk that movement is restricted.  

The appropriate combinations will change with four variables, water temperature, duration of dive, frequency of diving and personal factors – some of us just feel the cold more (or maybe are just willing to admit it)

The Arctic undersuit is typically used for dives of up to an hour in temperatures from 10º–16ºC/50º–60º F.

The Arctic Expedition was developed for temperatures from 6º– 14ºC/42º–57ºF.

The HALO 3D was developed for temperatures of 4º–10ºC/40º– 50ºF.

In really cold/long exposure conditions, add an additional base layer or other insulation to the body core.  For example, a Xerotherm vest will not change your buoyancy but will add more comfort. The X-core vest, developed by Fourth Element as a passive heating garment should be worn either next to the skin or over the baselayer, but provides significantly greater thermal protection.

Turn Up the Heat (but only if you must) 

For some of the most extreme divers doing long dives in cold water, active heating using a battery may be required.  This involves task loading, additional equipment and the increased risks of something going wrong. If using active heating systems, we recommend wearing these over the base layer, but ensuring that adequate passive thermal protection is also worn in the case of equipment malfunction.

In an ideal world, to avoid the potentially catastrophic effects of heating equipment malfunctioning midway through a dive, active heating systems should be reserved for the return from the deepest point of the dive and thought of as assets for a more comfortable decompression. Remember, repetitive diving in cool water will result in longer term thermal stress to your body, and insulation that felt adequate at the start of a week of diving, may not feel so good half way through the week, especially if dives are long and tiring.  In these cases, an extra base layer top can be employed to great effect to get a little more comfort.

Stay Cool and Dive Smart

Finally, don’t overcook it. There is plenty of emerging evidence that the best way to dive is just comfortable, and maintaining this for as long as possible—keeping your body in the thermal neutral zone where it is able to use its own thermoregulatory systems without resorting to extreme sweating for example. 

drysuit undergarments

Additional Resources:

A Beginner’s Guide to Drysuit Layering


Jim Standing founded Fourth Element with Paul Strike in 1999. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and specialised in, among other things, animal energetics and the physiology of diving mammals. This led to him frequently being found at the bottom of a bath at different temperatures often in various stages of hypothermia, experimenting with metabolism, thermo-regulation, and skip-breathing.  He would love to say that this experience set him on the journey to develop some of the best thermal protection in the world, but that was mostly driven by getting cold whilst diving, an experience which drove him and Paul to question the gear they had, and to wonder if they could do better.

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