Norbert Wu Productions

Cinematography, Photography, and Stock Agency

An introduction to Diving the World (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2004)
by Ken McAlpine

The first time I met Norb was at the Ventura, California, home of free diver Terry Maas. It was early in the morning, but not that early. Norb and Terry had flown in the night before from northern California. Terry greeted me bright eyed and alert. Terry looks like you would expect of a man who spends a large part of his life around and under the ocean to look. He is lean and spare. On that particular day he was also slightly sun burnished from a recent dive.

Norb had come to Ventura to photograph Terry for an article we were doing together for American Airlines. I had spoken to Norb on the phone several times, and while he hadn’t been unfriendly he hadn’t been particularly effusive either. He was business-like, and to the point. Which was okay. He offered no personal information, other than the fact that he snored loudly and he got sick almost every time he went out on a boat—pertinent facts since we would be boating and sleeping together. He also took a moment to tell me he didn’t look much like a diving photographer.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Norb came out of the back room, but I was. He was short, rumpled, and bleary-eyed, with a physique leaning more toward Buddha than someone from Sea Hunt. He was bleary-eyed, but still observant. His handshake was brief and disinterested, but his eyes ran over me. I could feel it. Great photographers miss nothing, even if their subject is not all that interesting. Initially, I was equally unimpressed.

Since then I have worked with Norb in a variety of circumstances, circumstances that have taken us from a frigid winter in Yellowstone (yes, he can shoot dry land too.), to the sparkling seas off Thailand. I am no longer unimpressed. Norb’s professionalism, work ethic, and photography are second to none. Because of this he isn’t always easy to be around. He expects the same high standards of everyone around him, and when you disappoint, he lets you know it. He is a straight shooter, sometimes with a short fuse. He has taken people by surprise by bluntly pointing out when they have dropped the ball; but I suspect their distaste for his style of people skills exists largely because Norb is often right.

The prize means a great deal to Norb, and his prize is a selfless one. Sure, it’s fun to be recognized and, though it is hard to tell, I suspect Norb enjoys the notoriety he has gained. But he is in it for something bigger than self-promotion. Norb wishes to record the undersea world—its beauty, mystery, and fragility—so that people will better understand it, and, perhaps in understanding it, do their part to preserve it.

In pursuit of this aim, he is doggedly focused. I recall a time diving with Norb off Southern California’s Channel Islands. I can’t remember what island we were near—Anacapa, I think—but we had finished diving and we were heading back. It was a calm day, the seas were nearly flat, and, the day done, everyone’s minds had drifted to wherever they go when their thoughts wander. On this particular day this was poor timing. We sensed it before we saw it, and I’m not sure who turned first, but whoever it was did so just in time, because out of nowhere an apartment-size wave bore down on the boat’s starboard. The captain gunned the vessel and swung it up and over, the bow just barely clearing the hissing face. Had we been ten yards farther in, we all would have been in for a lot of swimming.

Norb turned to me and in a flat, even tone he said, "Shit. I thought I was going to lose my camera gear."

In pursuit of his life’s work, Norb has earned plenty of honors. His photos have appeared in numerous magazines and on the cover of Time. He has a masters degree in engineering science from Stanford, and he studied ichthyology and marine biology at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He served a stint as chief still photographer aboard Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso. He has been honored with the Antarctica Service Medal of the United States for work that eventually produced a first-of-its-kind high definition video of life beneath the most forbidding, and perhaps most beautiful, of the world’s seas. He has also been awarded a prestigious Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship, which has allowed him to travel the globe in pursuit of many of the remarkable photos found in this book. But here’s what impresses me most. I had to look all this up, because Norb never told me any of it.

His diving mirrors the same silent competence. In a world where many divers act like dogs peeing on trees—name dropping locales, and otherwise staking their claim as the alpha diver in the vicinity—Norb dives quietly. He is humble and unobtrusive, and he stays down so long—typically everyone, including the dive masters, is back on the boat long before he is—I’m surprised he hasn’t been left behind. He is not perfect, though. He does have a weak stomach and he has no problem sleeping through his own snoring. One night on a dive boat in Thailand, at the dive masters request, Norb gave a slide show. The dive master, also a photographer, followed Norb’s slides with a presentation of his own. I was sitting next to Norb, and saw what was happening, but in the darkness the enthusiastic dive master didn’t. At one juncture he had a question about a creature in one of his slides. "I’m not quite sure about this," he said. "What do you think Norb? Norb??"

Lest you think him uncaring, let me finish with my favorite Norb Wu story. We were in Yellowstone. It was cold. The two of us were out alone. I had gone with Norb because he wanted to photograph wolves. Wolves do not perform on cue. In fact, they often do not perform at all. My body and mind were numb when Norb stopped to fish around in a cooler. I waited for him to produce film or a different camera lens. Instead he produced lunch—a great stack of fried chicken, potato chips, and cookies he had packed for both of us—and gruffly waved off my gratitude.

If there is anything I have learned in my writing, and my life, it is to judge people not by how they appear to be, but by what they do. I am proud to be associated with Norb Wu, and to play a small part in this book. The photographs found within it show a remarkable world as seen by a remarkable man.

 


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