Talk with just about any scuba diver of Baby Boomer age, and three names eventually come up: Jacques Cousteau, Mike Nelson and Phil Sammet. Cousteau, of course, produced “The Silent World,” a 1950s book and film that introduced the undersea world to land-locked souls everywhere. He dedicated his life to research into and education about the fragile ocean environments.
Mike Nelson was the hero of “Sea Hunt,” a popular half-hour action television series that ran from 1958 to 1961, featuring the escapades of a freelance scuba diver.
Monterey’s Phil Sammet combines Cousteau’s passion for the marine environment and desire to alert the world to its fragility with the adventurousness of Nelson, and stirs in an entrepreneurial spirit that has enabled him to earn his living doing what he loves doing the best: diving and helping others to dive.
Sammet owns and operates Underwater Company, a charter business that uses two boats to transport whale watchers and divers both professional and recreational to various locations of the Monterey Bay region. Growing up in Menlo Park, Sammet was influenced by both Cousteau and Nelson, perhaps more so by the former.
“I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau,” he says. Arriving in Monterey area in 1987, he set about doing just that, learning the waters by crewing on recreational dive boats such as the Silver Prince and eventually becoming captain of the Cypress Sea. He’s also worked on local research vessels, such as those operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing. Along the way, he gained an intimate— one might say “in depth”—knowledge of the waters that surround the Monterey Peninsula.
“Phil is the best dive boat captain they’ve ever had there,” says his friend, research scientist and avant-garde musician Henry Kaiser. “He knows the Carmel and Monterey Bays better than anyone and is expert at giving divers a great experience and getting them back safely.” The two have had several Indiana-Jones-style adventures, including the time they shared a river pool with several Grizzly bears at Sweetheart Falls near Juneau, Alaska.
“When they got agitated, we swam to the bottom and held our breath until they calmed down,” Kaiser recalls. “He’s a true water man, and that’s a dying breed.”
Freelance photographer and cinematographer Chuck Davis has been working with Sammet for many years and shares Kaiser’s view.
“Phil is a really unique guy,” he says. “You can’t find a description for what he does. He invented himself.”
Part of what Sammet does is lead divers on tours up and down the West Coast of North America, from Alaska to Baja. But when he’s home, he concentrates on the place on the Monterey Peninsula he perhaps loves the best: Point Lobos.
“He has dived Point Lobos more than anyone,” Davis says.
In the three decades he’s been plying these waters, Sammet has been a keen observer of the ravages that time has taken.
“There have been big changes in the Bay in the past 30 years,” he says. “I’m teaching people what’s going on in their own backyard.”
“Phil is truly an ambassador for the undersea world,” Davis adds. “Like many of us, he’s seen these reefs become lesser forms of themselves, for various reasons. He helps people see below that liquid mirror that’s usually hidden.”
Aside from the work he does, Sammet is universally recognized as a man who lives his life to the fullest and gives as much—or more—to the world than he takes. He takes great pride in being a family man and in mentoring young people that want to learn about the oceans. And with his wry observations and quick wit, he’s a lot of fun to be around.
“My ribs hurt after a day on the water with him,” Davis adds.
No matter how many hours Sammet has spent above and below the water, every day is a new adventure, a new opportunity to learn about the environment he loves so much.
“The ocean teaches you so much stuff,” Kaiser says. “Because he’s so open, he’s learned a lot—and he loves showing what he’s gained to others.”
Perhaps it was Cousteau himself who summed up the life’s work of Phil Sammet when he said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
Or maybe it was Lloyd Bridges, the actor who portrayed Mike Nelson: “Ya know, skin diving is fun and adventurous for young and old.”
To learn more about Phil Sammet or to book an exciting underwater adventure, please visit www.underwatercompany.com.