Having spent nearly 30 years as a drummer for the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann has taken his share of long, strange trips. Now 48, and with more than a touch of gray in his thinning hair, Kreutzmann has lost none of his taste for cosmic adventure. His latest passion is skin diving, and to judge from Ocean Spirit, a new film he and a pair of his underwater buddies have produced, the trips are getting even longer and stranger.
"I may never get to outer space," says Kreutzmann of his diving, "but, by getting wet, I can get into a whole other space."
Ocean Spirit takes the viewer along. This haunting film, which was written and directed by noted underwater filmmaker Wes Skiles and co-produced by Jeffrey Haupt—and which, as might be expected, includes a percussion-driven score by Kreutzmann—documents a six-week diving expedition made by Kreutzmann and five friends in 1993.
The group set out from San Francisco on Oct. 27 aboard the 110-foot wooden ketch Argosy Venture, bound for the Revilla Gigedo Islands, a cluster of volcanic formations jutting out of the Pacific some 300 miles south of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. The vibrant blue waters surrounding the Gigedos, still largely unexplored, teem with a spectacular assortment of marine life, including hammerhead sharks and giant manta rays.
"We went with no preconceived notions," says Kreutzmann, who underwrote the cost of the trip, "except that we were committed to the concept of non-intrusive interaction. We were seeking a way to go beyond our own boundaries as human beings, to meet with the creatures of the sea on their terms. And I hoped somehow to combine film and music to capture that moment of contact."
Like, wow! Sea Hunt this ain't. But despite its New Age slant—or perhaps because of it—Kreutzmann's film succeeds in offering a glimpse of a world most of us could otherwise hardly imagine. While divers manning the cameras occasionally used scuba gear, the group committed itself to free-diving (that is, without any artificial breathing apparatus), especially when visiting with the marine animals. "With scuba gear, it's so noisy and intrusive, you're just a visitor," says Skiles. "But free-diving is so quiet, you feel like you're part of the ocean."
The resulting images are tranquil and dreamlike. In one astonishing sequence, Kreutzmann encounters a huge manta ray and becomes an instant Friend of the Devil-fish, hanging inches above the creature's broad back, flying in the ray's slipstream. When Kreutzmann at last breaks contact to swim to the surface, the camera stays on the otherworldly form of the manta. As if responding to the visitor from above, the ray lingers for a moment, seeming to dance, before it rushes off into the deep.
Tragically, not all of the expedition's experiences were as benign. Five days into the voyage, Tabb Vadon, one of the most-experienced divers on the Argosy, drowned while free-diving alone, a victim of what is called shallow-water blackout. Skiles has included footage from an interview with Vadon in which he speaks of his commitment to diving, and there is a wonderful scene of him grinning and hanging upside down from the prow of the Argosy as the ship races among a school of dolphins. Vadon's delight is both infectious and poignant.
"In a way it's like we're all trying to get somewhere new with our diving, and Tabb, before he left us, was already there," says Kreutzmann. "He knew that we have to find harmony with the sea."
As if to underscore the urgency of that need, on its return leg from the Gigedos the expedition crossed paths with a commercial fishing fleet. In graphic footage shot by the environmental group Sea Watch, we see fishermen hauling in and butchering giant mantas.