The Tahitian Dive Shoot That Almost Killed Veteran Underwater Cinematographer Michael Prickett

by Owen James Burke

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“He’s the kind of guy that basically all the guys want to shoot with and hang with.” -Kelly Slater. Above: Mike Prickett films Ultimate Wave Tahiti with Raimana Van Bastolaer. Photo: Tim McKenna.

Mike Prickett is an award-winning underwater cinematographer, whose recent acclaims include Step into Liquid and Riding Giants, but the Hawaii-based waterman has been at it for over 25 years, and is no stranger to the sea.

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Above: Prickett, doing what he does best. Photo via Mike Prickett.

In 2012, Scuba Diving magazine asked Prickett to join them on a trip to Tahiti to help shoot Bare Sports’ 40th anniversary in Tahiti at Tiputa Pass, a deep channel through a reef in the Rangiroa Atoll. He said sure. Wouldn’t you?

Prickett has his open water diving certification, which he could only assume would suffice. Surely a big corporation heading such an excursion would perform the necessary research and background checks before hiring an underwater cameraman.

A team gathered on March 13th in Tahiti, where, along with other cameramen, Tim Wilson (Warren Miller Entertainment), Peter Falk (Bare Sports) and Ryan Miyamoto, a freelance cameraman, and on March 14th, the featured dive took place.

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Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia. Photo: Tim McKenna.

Prickett and Falk ended up separated from the group, and wisely stuck together. The only problem was that the divemaster had set their dive watches in different units (one in meters, one in feet) which, moreover, were not even calibrated for the nitrox contained within each diver’s tank, a gas mixture neither was certified to use.

By the time the two realized something was wrong, they were over 200 feet underwater (neither were certified to even approach such a depth), being dragged by one of the fiercest currents on earth.

They had a choice to make: stay down, black out, and perhaps drown, or shoot to the surface and deal with the consequences of decompression sickness (DCS) or “the bends”, a toxic, even deadly buildup of gases throughout the body, but at least with the chance of aid. They shot for the surface and the duo arrived at the boat knowing full well what they were about to endure.

Prickett proceeded to black out and after some confusion with the only crewman aboard, who did not speak English, the team made for shore, where the men would be delivered to a hospital to undergo recompression.

Falk left after 3 days, but Prickett stayed for over a month, and was released in a wheel chair.

Prickett is still paralyzed with permanent injuries throughout his body, and his career as an underwater photographer could be finished. But never say never: a 1984 car accident left Prickett with his legs shattered in 43 places. Doctors thought he might never walk again, but recommended that he swim for therapy. Little did they know, it would ignite a new passion within the then 19-year-old, and lead to one of the most prolific careers in surf cinematography history.

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Prickett has made his way back into the water with the help of a dive scooter called a “seabob”. Photo via Explore.org.

Read more at Undercurrent, Scuba Diving’s definitive online guide, here. –OJB

(A $7.8 million settlement was made out of court, rumored at the time to be the highest dive-related injury settlement on record. Today, the unfortunate title is held by a father-son diving duo from Delaware who were run over by their dive boat off Florida.)

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