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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on July 17th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 19 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 19

Central Coast diving legend Sam Miller receives a big honor


Article Download: Sun COVER STORY 07.18.13.pdf

Housing history
Diving legend Sam Miller called his reference library a very “time consuming” hobby. He has books written and signed by Jacques Cousteau and Clive Cussler.

The ocean stands, a regal liquid entity that represents humans’ last terrestrial frontier. While its formidable blue depths instill fear in others, it’s the one place where Sam Miller has always felt at home.

Miller recalls diving in the crisp moonlight and looking up through the kelp to the twinkling stars—almost like looking up in a cathedral. To hear Miller tell it, spending time in the ocean was akin to a religious experience for this underwater enthusiast.

The Central Coast resident and scuba diving trail blazer was recently honored for his tremendous contributions to the diving community with the Scuba Service Award at the June 8 SCUBA Show in Long Beach.

An annual award handed down by California Diving News magazine— the oldest diving journal in the United States. and an authority on the sport—the honor recognizes those who have made significant contributions to the world of diving.

“This is a huge honor and it identifies the number one person in diving in California,” Miller said. “After I got the award, people were thanking me and were very gracious. Back then I just did what I thought I should have.”

Back then Miller was diving before there was even a name for the sport. What started more than 70 years ago has taken Miller all over the world and made him a pinnacle figure in the world of diving.

'Aqua Lung’

Life abroad
Miller and his wife Betty have traveled all over the world to photograph, dive, and snag a 17-pound lobster that is still on display in San Luis Obispo.

You could almost say Miller discovered diving by an unfortunate circumstance. His acquaintance with the water began at the YMCA in Evansville, Ind. when he was a child. Miller said he developed a severe eye infection from swimming in 1943.

“A sporting goods store told me to wear a pair of goggles in the pool,” he said; this eventually led to wearing a mask underwater.

The little boy came to the astonishing realization that he could see underwater, which opened up a whole new world for the adventurous youngster.

In the early 1950s, life brought Miller to California, where his passion for fishing helped put food on the table. Looking back, Miller said one of the main attractions of diving was spear fishing.

“I would gather abalone and lobster—there was so much of it back then,” he recalled. “I once caught a 345-pound black sea bass.”

That catch continues to hold the world spear fishing record.

“I once caught a 17-pound lobster,” Miller said, adding that said lobster is on display at a dive shop in San Luis Obispo.

Miller said his children—daughters Roni, Randi, and Keni, and son, Sam IV—would venture to the ocean to catch their meal. Miller said the kids quickly grew tired of seafood.

“They would get so sick of lobster,” Miller said with a laugh. “They’d ask, ‘Can’t we just have hot dogs like the other kids?’”

While in Southern California, Miller befriended other diving pioneers. These were the days before wetsuits, so Miller and his ambitious friends got by wearing Army surplus clothes.

After serving in the Korean War, Miller returned to California and resumed diving. At this time, the wetsuit had been introduced, there were three to four equipment manufacturers, and diving had exploded in popularity.

“The first wetsuits came in a kit of rubber for a dollar. You could trace yourself and for 50 cents, you could glue it together,” Miller recalled.

A Southern California company was giving away excess neoprene left over from wartime. Neoprene was a material used to line aircraft fuel tanks; in the event of a hit, the neoprene would help prevent a fuel leak. It became the main material used in wetsuits.

Miller tried his first scuba dive in 1951, using an early Aqua Lung (breathing apparatus) and his first pair of Churchill Fins.

The diver and his friends quickly realized their pastime was an expensive activity. But that didn’t stop them from pursuing adventure. Miller said whatever equipment they couldn’t afford they would make themselves.

“Diving became something to do for young men looking for excitement after the war,” Miller said. “We were looked on as risk-takers.”

Miller said the genesis of scuba diving started 75 years ago when the aim was to catch fish with a rudimentary spear and goggles. With no name for the hobby, it became known as goggle fishing. It wasn’t until the 1930s that dive masks and swim fins appeared.

For Miller, his adventure with the ocean was just beginning. Teeming with passion for the underwater world, Miller first met the legendary Jacques Cousteau in 1956.

“He was a visionary who first colonized the bottom of the ocean,” Miller said, referring to Cousteau’s deep-diving submarine.

Later on, Miller was involved with deep-sea trials of Cousteau’s marine craft, “Denise.”

At this time, Miller decided it was time to share his love of diving with the rest of the world. He entered the only diving instruction program available at the notable Los Angeles County Under Water Instructors’ Program.

“There used to be no instruction for diving,” said Miller, who later developed the diving instructional system to be used in L.A.

At a time when scuba diving was establishing itself, Miller proudly contributed a number of training programs, SCUBA exercises, and the creation of the diver classification system—universally accepted by certifying agencies.

“I was even hired to teach diving to employees at Disneyland who dove to maintain the underwater rides,” Miller said.

His enthusiasm for diving and increasing knowledge propelled him to the top as a scuba expert. Throughout his career, Miller has consulted on equipment manufacturing and diving-related court cases, and developed numerous programs for diving instruction and safety. In addition, Miller has lectured for the Los Angeles County advanced diving program on marine life identification, preservation, and diving safety. He began teaching scuba and skin diving in 1956 at the Long Beach YMCA, for which he received numerous accolades.

Miller spent more than six decades of his life underwater, his need for adventure never sated. The daring diver had a hand in just about every aspect of diving one could think of.

A little of everything

Miller has an array of vintage diving and fishing gear—like this spearfishing gun seen here—that has turned his home into a nautical museum.

Miller’s résumé is a VIP list of diving agencies, honors, and organizations; it shows how deeply he was involved with different areas of the sport.

“For me, diving had everything: exploration, travel, hunting, reading, writing, and photography,” he said. “It was all-encompassing.” 

Miller is an accomplished underwater photographer. His interest in shooting under the sea, so to speak, started when he was a student at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

He recalled the early days of underwater photography—before the invention of the underwater camera.

“Everything was just beginning for underwater photography. We would fashion camera houses out of whatever we could think of,” Miller said. “I flooded a lot of cameras back then.”

Underwater photography was a new frontier.  and to move it along, Miller helped establish the Underwater Photo Society.

He also spent some time doing deep-submergence dives as a diving safety instructor and chief safety officer for Cousteau’s deep sea trials of Denise. The farthest down the diver has ever ventured into the blue abyss is 260 feet—a depth he refers to as “insane.”

“Everything becomes monochromatic at that depth; life stops at a certain point,” Miller said.

The veteran diver also spent time doing some salvage dives.

“I once recovered a 4,000-pound anchor that is now on display at the L.A. Maritime Museum,” Miller proudly shared.

In addition to his connection with the ocean, Miller was also born with a love for the written word. He worked as a newspaper columnist for such publications as the Times-Press Recorder in Arroyo Grande. In his career, Miller has written nearly 200 diving articles.

His adventures have taken him all over the world to prestigious diving locations. While he loves diving at Long Beach and Catalina Island, his favorite place to dive is farther east.

“There is nothing better than the Egyptian Red Sea,” Miller said. “The water is clear and warm. There is a lot of life to see.”

While he had his fun, Miller said diving was not without its dangers. He had several close encounters with a variety of sharks, including lemon sharks on a dive in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and a hammerhead at Farnsworth Banks, Catalina.

But sharp-toothed fish aren’t the only hazards out there.

“I once had to have 165 stitches in my face from crashing into a reef,” Miller said.

 Oceans of memories

Picture perfect
Miller has several vintage cameras that he used to take his underwater photos. With no underwater cameras at that time, Miller would fashion camera houses out of various household items.

With so much time spent in the water, it’s a wonder Miller had time for much else. Despite this, Miller served in the U.S. Air Force and completed two degrees—one in biology and the other in chiropractics. Miller spent 30 years as a practicing chiropractor and raised four children, all of whom grew up with a love for diving.

“It was almost cruel the way we taught them to dive,” Miller jokingly said. “They all started in the bathtub at age 2 and graduated to the ocean by age 4. It was a normal part of life for them.”

Miller’s son, Sam IV, is an emergency room surgeon and hyperbaric (underwater medicine) doctor at Marian Regional Medical Center. At age 18, he was named the youngest Who’s Who of Scuba Diving. The Sams are part of a select group of other divers who can claim stake in the Pro 5,000 dives club, meaning they’ve clocked 5,000 dives or more. There are fewer than 1,800 Pro 5,000 divers worldwide.

“No one thought to keep track [of their dives] in the earlier days. I had been diving for 20 years before L.A. County produced the first dive log in the ’60s,” Miller said.

He estimates he has closer to 8,000 dives.

Diving also brought together Miller and his wife, Betty, a fellow diving enthusiast. Betty, who serves as president of business at Allan Hancock College, is also an accomplished underwater photographer.

 At the end of the day, Miller’s infatuation with scuba and the underwater world stems from a deep-seated appreciation of the ocean and all it provides. In fact, marine life preservation has always been at the forefront of his dive excursions.

“The ocean provides bountiful gifts,” Miller said. “It’s a recreational area to protect for all present and future generations. Everybody should be able to enjoy it.”

Miller thinks diving will continue to grow in popularity until it’s mainstreamed recreationally as both an individual and family activity.

“I think we will go deeper and deeper, improving wetsuits and visibility; people are innovating,” he said.

For younger, aspiring divers, Miller said the best advice he can give is to get good training and create a passion for learning about the ocean.

Now, at 82 years old, Miller does a lot less diving, which is something that’s still hard for him to adjust to. Instead, he lectures for the SLO Underwater Search and Recovery team. But he spends most of his time managing, researching, and organizing what is probably the largest dive library in the world.

His collection includes numerous signed books written by the likes of Jacques Cousteau and Clive Cussler. He also lays claim to an impressive collection of vintage dive equipment.Even though he misses the water, Miller cherishes all of the experiences he’s had and looks forward to getting up every day to research and share his knowledge of diving in the world with others.

“I’ve been blessed with a life of adventure and excitement,” Miller said. “There is never a dull moment—even now. I can’t wait to get up every day and turn the page on scuba research. Sharing is a good feeling.”


Contact Staff Writer Kristina Sewell at

Article Download: Sun COVER STORY 07.18.13.pdf

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