Bret Clifton Gilliam, a pioneering figure in the world of technical diving and a prolific writer, has passed away. He was born on February 3, 1951, and his remarkable life was filled with groundbreaking achievements and contributions to the diving community.
Bret Gilliam is best known as the co-founder of Technical Diving International (TDI), alongside Mitch Skaggs, a certification agency that revolutionized diving practices. He also held the world record for deep diving on air at one point in his career. His passion for the underwater world extended to his writing, where he authored or co-authored 72 books and penned over 1500 feature magazine articles. His work graced the covers of over 100 magazines, making him one of the most popular writers in the diving industry.
Throughout his diving journey, spanning from 1959, Bret logged an impressive 19,000 dives. His remarkable accomplishments extended beyond the ocean’s depths. He became a multimillionaire through the successful sale of several businesses, including Technical Diving International, V. I. Divers Ltd., AMF Yacht Charters, Ocean Quest Cruise Lines, G2 Publishing (Fathoms Magazine), Sea Ventures Ltd., and Uwatec. Some of these enterprises grew into multinational conglomerates, with an aggregate value exceeding $80 million at the time of sale.
Bret Gilliam’s expertise was sought after in legal matters related to diving and maritime affairs. Since 1971, he operated Ocean Tech, providing expert witness testimony in over 400 legal cases, ranging from defense to plaintiff litigation. His contributions to the field were substantial, and in a notable case, he played a pivotal role as a maritime and diving expert witness, resulting in a $12 million settlement in May 2015.
Gilliam’s influence extended to criminal trials and military court martial proceedings for the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as a Special Consultant to various U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Bret Gilliam was born at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to Commander Gill Gilliam and Jeanne Gilliam. He was the eldest of three children. Tragically, his younger brother Chris was murdered in 1972 at the age of 16 while attending an outdoor concert in Puerto Rico.
His diving journey began in 1959 when he started training with Lt. Chuck Brestle at the Naval Air Station Key West. He attended several high schools, including Virginia Beach High School and Brunswick High School, graduating in 1969. In high school, he excelled as an athlete, participating in football, ice hockey, baseball, swimming, and track. He also represented Hobie and Hansen surfboards as a surfing competitor from 1965 to 1970.
Gilliam pursued higher education at the University of Maine and Bowdoin College, focusing on history and political science. Despite winning a National ROTC Scholarship in 1968, he was drawn to the Navy’s deep diving project, where he documented nuclear fast attack submarines. This decision led him away from his undergraduate studies and into the world of business when he founded Ocean Tech.
During his career, Gilliam held various diving jobs and even pursued a semi-professional surfing career. In 1971, he worked as a diving Supervisor for Vocaline Air Sea Technology (VAST Inc.) in the Caribbean, where his interest in underwater photography was sparked. Tragically, in 1972, he faced a harrowing experience when his dive buddy Rod Temple was attacked by oceanic whitetip sharks and lost his life. Gilliam’s heroic attempt to save Temple was commended by the Virgin Islands’ Governor, despite the near-death experience he endured.
In 1973, Gilliam established V.I. Divers Ltd., a dive resort catering to both recreational and scientific divers. The company also provided location services for various film and television productions. In 1977, he founded AMF Yacht Charters Ltd., specializing in luxury motor yacht charters. These companies were sold in 1985, and Gilliam ventured into the cruise ship industry as the Vice President & CEO of Ocean Quest International.
Gilliam’s achievements reached great depths, quite literally, when he performed a deep air dive to 452 feet in Roatán in 1990, breaking his own record in 1993 by reaching 475 feet.
His contributions to the diving industry extended to his involvement with the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD) and the subsequent formation of Technical Diving International (TDI). TDI became the largest technical training agency globally, with offices in 26 countries.
International Training Inc. served as the parent company for TDI, Scuba Diving International (SDI), and Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI). Gilliam’s leadership was instrumental in the early success of TDI until the company was sold in 2004.
Gilliam also led UWATEC USA and played a crucial role in its sale to Johnson Outdoors. His expertise extended to the medical field for divers when he served as the president and CEO of DiveSafe Insurance Inc.
In addition to his business endeavors, Bret Gilliam served as a publisher, editor, and contributor to several diving magazines, leaving an indelible mark on the industry.
Bret Gilliam’s legacy in the world of diving, business, and writing is immeasurable. His pioneering spirit, relentless pursuit of excellence, and unwavering dedication to the underwater world have left an enduring impact on the diving community. He will be remembered as a true visionary and a beloved figure in the world of diving and exploration. Bret Gilliam’s contributions will continue to inspire generations of divers and adventurers to come.