When Al Giddings hears would-be adventurers complain that there are no new places to explore in the world, he laughs. "I've been doing this for more than 30 years, and to me it's like a continual Lewis and Clark expedition," he says. "There's been one incredible discovery after another. I'm constantly seeing things nobody has seen before."
Giddings's turf isn't a tenuous patch of rain forest. His realm is the largest ecosystem on Earth, covering some 140 million square miles, more man 70% of the planet's surface, and he has the place largely to himself. Giddings's specialty is underwater cinematography, a career he says he invented. "My job is a type of ongoing treasure hunt," Giddings explains. "I look for animals that have never been looked at, and I bring images of them up from the depths so they can be studied and savored."
He estimates that he has spent more than 20,000 hours underwater—in submarines, diving bells and scuba gear, and sometimes just holding his breath (more on that later). Giddings has peeked in every major ocean; he has dived off the coast of Antarctica and beneath the pack ice of the North Pole; he has visited the remains of the Titanic and the Andrea Doria; he has produced the first professional underwater footage of white sharks and blue whales and dozens of other species. Three of his television documentaries, one on whales, another about sharks and a third that chronicles the exploits of man in the sea, have won Emmys.
Hollywood has also relied on his talents: Giddings was responsible for the underwater sequences in two James Bond films (For Your Eyes Only and Never Say Never Again) and in thrillers such as The Deep and The Abyss.
In Titanic, for which he was a coproducer, Giddings filmed the actual ship, which is submerged in the North Atlantic at a depth of 12,640 feet. To reach it, Giddings and director James Cameron used two 23-foot-long Russian submersibles, enduring a three-hour descent to the ocean floor. Once there, Giddings and his team worked 12 to 14 hours at a time, filming the wreckage with a remote-control camera mounted to a hydraulic arm and aided by a 20,000-watt lighting system operated from the second sub. He made 17 such trips.
Typically, Giddings travels eight months per year—he recently returned from a month in Cuba, where he was filming a documentary for the Discovery Channel—searching the seas with a zeal that borders on obsession. Those few weeks a year when he is planted on terra firma, he lives on a 3,500-acre ranch in Montana's Paradise Valley, a few miles north of Yellowstone National Park. Here he designs and builds, with the help of a half dozen employees, the world's most sophisticated underwater imaging systems. Off-the-shelf equipment has never satisfied Giddings's demands. He has introduced many innovations in underwater filming and lighting, including more adaptable casings and lenses.
Now 60, Giddings is a large man, with thick arms, thick fingers and steel-blue eyes. His voice sounds as though it has been filtered through a bass drum. Decades of diving have taken a toll on his body. Once, while lifting heavy equipment on the seabed, he suffered a collapsed lung. Another time he lost his sight temporarily from a case of the bends. His hearing, he says, is bad as a result of his eardrums breaking over and over, because of the increased pressure underwater.
Giddings grew up in Marin County, near San Francisco. Though Northern California's waters are notoriously inhospitable, Giddings was unable to resist. "I'd go down to the cliffs and jump in the ocean," he says. "It was cold and murky and damn rough. Most people didn't want to take that kind of abuse. I liked it."
Soon, he started free diving, holding his breath for as long as five minutes and descending to more than 100 feet. It was a dangerous activity but Giddings was smitten. "I've always felt completely comfortable in the water," he says. On his high school swim team Giddings turned in near Olympic times in the 50-and 100-yard freestyle and was offered scholarships to Stanford and Ohio State. "But I blew that all off," he says. "I wanted to be a deep-sea diver."
His first brush with fame came in 1954. A friend of Giddings's, an anesthesiologist, began experimenting with hyperbaric therapy techniques, using pure oxygen. Giddings practiced with his friend, and at a sporting goods show in San Francisco, with 1,000 people watching, he dived into a swimming pool and remained on the bottom for 11 minutes and 42 seconds before emerging. "It was around-the-world news," says Giddings, whose feat made The Guinness Book of Records.