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A Creature of the Ocean

 

 

Teddy Tucker was a "once in a generation" individual. The perfect storm of the right person, in the right place at the right time.

Inspired by the waters around his island home, Bermuda’s reef platform offered a full and fruitful territory to explore. Littered with wrecks from across all eras of Atlantic ocean travel, rich in marine life and adjacent to the deep ocean. The door to this world opened wide with technological advances in diving.

‘A new field of study made its appearance in the 1950s, this being the underwater exploration of historic sites. Such exploration was made possible when the development of lightweight diving equipment during the Second World War gave divers the freedom of movement comparable to that of a fish.’ Mendel Peterson, Smithsonian Institute.

'He can spend more time down than anyone I have ever seen, 60ft, for 5 hours straight!' Peter Benchley. Teddy preferred to dive with a mask and hose (a hookah rig) over scuba tanks, for the extended bottom time it offered. He wore shorts and occasionally a shirt and shoes and his resilience to the cold was the subject of a study by the US Navy. He truly was a creature of the ocean.

And via Teddy’s discoveries, he took a whole generation through the door to this underwater world with him.

‘He exposed the marine environment around Bermuda to Bermudians and to the world in a way that nobody else ever has, or will probably. He had an absolute naturalist's eye for the environment and the world around him, and he knew more about the ocean around Bermuda than anybody I've ever met.’ Dr Philippe Max Rouja, Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks.

 

 

There was no such thing as Underwater Archaeology when we started.

 

 
Mendel and Teddy's first meeting, 1955

Mendel and Teddy's first meeting, 1955

'In 1955 Mendel Peterson Chairman of the Department of Armed Forces History at the Smithsonian Institute came down to Bermuda to examine what we had recovered from the San Pedro. So began an infinitely fruitful partnership that lasted a lifetime and an eleven year project that led, in due course, to the development of marine archaeology as we know it today. 

In the 1960s, our home at King’s Point, Bermuda, became the jumping off point for a whole field of adventure and exploration, the development of archaeology, a gradual process that grew of itself, unplanned but progressively, starting way back in the days that I was exploring the San Antonio.

Together with Mendel Peterson, a man who became a much valued friend, we devised methods for figuring out and estimating what had been the structure and dimensions of a wreck, for obtaining accurate position fixes underwater, and for envisaging the wreck’s historic context. We were able to show that wrecks were not scattered, churned up debris but rather that unless the site is in itself intrinsically vulnerable much of the material does stay in place. We devised simple methods for discovering and exposing buried items. Taken together all this amounted to an enormous step forward in marine archaeology.

What we did, though none of us at the time would have thought as much, was lay down the foundations for all subsequent study on the subject, which is now being taught in university courses around the world.'

 
 
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'Teddy has a very big part to play in the development of underwater archaeology – first of all it really didn’t exist – it was all very amateurish. Teddy meanwhile was discovering wrecks and he was trying desperately to record them with his own artistic abilities and with the help of Mendel Peterson. With position fixing within the wreck, they managed to build up a very good method of recording the structure and dimensions and the context. Teddy showed that things could be recorded underwater, that they did stay in the same place, that this thing that I had been told that it would all have been churned up and it was all a pile of rubbish laying in the mud was not so – it was an enormous step forward’.  Dr. Margaret Rule, archaeologist who led the project that excavated and raised the Tudor warship the Mary Rose in 1982.

 

 
 
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Teddy was the first one to go off the reef and start to explore in deeper waters.

 

 

Teddy enjoyed a close, life-long relationship with the natural world. Since childhood he observed all manner of marine creatures, recording every detail of form and behaviour. Mariners and fishermen taught him how to read the skies and he understood the patterns of the underwater weather. He could identify different types of water or currents by sight and smell and knew what creatures to expect in them. This respect and understanding supported a deep appreciation of the unfathomably rich and complex nature of the marine ecosystem.

Teddy had a natural affinity with animals above and below the surface, fish would befriend him at wreck sites allowing him to play with and hold them and at home his cats where never far behind him. Teddy would saunter down to his dock, followed by his dog and numerous cats where he would scoop up grunts for an impromptu picnic. He always had dogs and cats and some pretty large toads too, who would gather at his back door waiting to share the cat food at feeding times.

 
 
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For the introduction of Scott Stallard's book, 'BERMUDA', Teddy wrote: 'Bermuda is like a small ship in the middle of a huge ocean. Six hundred miles from the closest land, it requires managing with the greatest care and thought. Situated on the southern perimeter of a drowned volcano, Bermuda is the most northern location where coral grows and is home for many species of subtropical fish and crustaceans that inhabit the regions far to the south. In the past sea turtles laid their eggs on Bermuda's beaches and migratory birds wintered here. From historical records we know that Bermuda was the year round home of the great whales and that the seas were full of great fishes.

"The land was all over with flowers, the air was filled with fowl beyond count and the sea was with fish like no man has ever seen!" This quotation was taken from the account of a survivor of the wreck of two Spanish ships lost on the west reefs in 1639.

Today, unfortunately, the fish have nearly disappeared, the migratory birds are gone, the sea turtles are temporary visitors, and the humpback whales bypass Bermuda on their migration. Man has most certainly made serious incursions into the environment, which have in turn upset that natural ecology of the island.'

Thousand of hours spent fishing, searching for wrecks or excavating underwater gifted interested eyes the time to observe. It provided Teddy with an insight far beyond anything traditional academia or scientific expeditions could offer.

'While he’s going after these shipwrecks, while he’s studying shipwrecks, he come across all kinds of funny things under the water. He talked about one when he’s going under the sand to look for things near shipwrecks, he said there’s a strange creature that lives down below the oxygen level. It stumped the scientists at the Smithsonian. They passed it all around the different departments – they still don’t know what it is. But Teddy knows it's there.' Dr. Eugenie Clark.

 
 
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By the early 1970s an insatiable curiosity took Teddy beyond the reef platform as he started to study life on the edge of the sea mounts and beyond. He set deep water traps to record the mollusk, crustacean and fish life at depth and assisted visiting scientists pursue their targets, advising on location, time and equipment design. Teddy often chuckled at the thought that costly boats, scanners and gear was no match for some rope, a bucket and bait and bit of local knowledge.

One night Teddy had lowered his lines thousands of feet into the deep and had caught a rare, 13 foot long, six gill shark. A species never before seen that far north. He sent a note about his find to the 'Shark Lady', Dr. Eugenie Clark. Skeptical, Eugenie came over for a look herself.

Teddy, Eugenie and National Geographic photographer, Emory Kristof were founding members of a deep ocean research project that started in 1984, called the Beebe Project (after the bathysphere descents of William Beebe and Otis Barton off Bermuda in the 1930s). The Beebe Project, an unusual collaboration for its time, of oceanographic institutes from the West and the Soviet Union exploited this scientific co-operation and shared expertise to explore the deep. The project centered around the dives of its submersible and was the first study since Beebe's day that allowed marine biologists to observe the deep ocean of this region with their own eyes.

 
 
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'We didn’t know then it was the six gill shark but we wanted to get down deep and we had this submersible that was loaned to us, the Pisces. And we went out with Emory Kristoff and a couple of assistants and for some reason we had to make the dive at night and we went down at about midnight in the pitch black. It was just so thrilling because we weren’t sure what we were going to get but this huge six gill shark came along and just took the bait cage in his mouth and went off with it. I think this was the first discovery of six gill sharks in Bermuda.

Then Teddy says – there are three kinds of six gills – well we got one kind finally then as the years went on we came back several years to do several more stories, Teddy was right- there were several kinds of six gills here!' Dr. Eugenie Clark.

Teddy's years of observations and accrued knowledge continued to enhance scientific expeditions to the island. In 1997 he teamed up with Dr. Steve Blasco of the Geological Survey of Canada to examine the Bermuda Seamount for signs of sea level rise. Oceanographers on the submersible of the Canadian Navy's research ship HMCS Cormorant identified a series of sunken coasts lines that brought to mind for Teddy an old but not forgotten anomaly.

 
 
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In 1949, while towing divers looking for wrecks they spotted what looked like ship's timbers, on closer inspection they were tree stumps. Nearly fifty years later, off Gurnet Rock by Nonsuch Island, Teddy and Steve recovered a stump that was dated as being 7,290 years old. Submerged since the time that our neolithic ancestors were inventing the wheel, when they cut into the stump, it still smelled strongly of Bermuda Cedar. Taken from 33 feet of water it is conclusive proof of lower sea levels and an important ground truth point in charting the changes of sea level over time. After hurricane Fabian in 2003 they returned to collect a second stump for analysis. When they first arrived above the drowned forest Teddy thought he had anchored in the wrong place - the solidified dunes, cedar stumps and organic soil had been swept away - only clear seabed remained. Nothing was left. Had Teddy not had his head in the water in 1949 and taken Steve to the site in 1997 no one would have ever known.

'Teddy’s breadth of knowledge is amazing and that he can actually work within so many disciplines. From a scientific stand point, he is a great observer – and those observations will stand the test of time'. Dr. Steve Blasco. Marine Geologist

 

 

'The best education is self-taught: all you need is a head and heart hungry for information.'

 

 

'He always said he learned a lot about the ocean the hard way, direct from the depths. Teddy used his quick-study mind on tens of thousands of hours beneath the ocean and an equal amount of time with books on nautical history and marine biology. His intimate understanding of the world's largest, oldest, and least known ecosystem and his willingness to share what he learned attracted some of the best and brightest undersea and space pioneers.' Wendy Tucker

'I just was so enchanted by this person and their love of the ocean, their knowledge of the ocean and his willingness to share that with me. When he looks around at the natural world I think he almost sees like an exploded image of it almost like an engineering drawing where he can see how the reef fish fit in with the open ocean animals, how the whales fit in with their migration patterns throughout the Atlantic and how the bird flying over is part of the whole thing as well. And if there is some sort of a disturbance in the system he can sense that right away and he can also predict what’s going to happen next in the system. Its almost like he’s got a supercomputer brain that’s able to put it all together and understand it instantaneously.' Dr. Greg Stone, Oceanographer.

 
 
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'From time to time, I am asked how it is that I know there is a wreck down there in the sand, or amid the coral. Even my wife, once when we were diving in a part of the world that wasn’t familiar at all, remarked that I seemed to sense that we were near a wreck. It's hard to explain. You begin to store up memories. This or that feature tells you such or such a place might be a likely hot spot. It's as though something calls you and you follow. It wraps itself around you as you dive and swim back into the past. I dare say archaeologists and historians in general must share similar experiences.' Teddy Tucker

 

'Here is a man who, on his own, has become one of the world’s leading experts on everything from coins to ships, to nautical history, to underwater archaeology, to painting and glassware. Here is a man who had been dismissed for many years by serious scientists, and only now have they begun to realize that he knows 10 times more than most of them do.' Peter Benchley (1994).

 

'We do two things in life: learn and contribute.'

 

 
 

Bermuda is a favored location for marine research due to its ease of access to the deep ocean and before launching expeditions many would seek out Teddy. He would welcome biologists, archaeologists, oceanographers and conservationists seeking his guidance on concepts, methodology and equipment. He believed that Bermuda is the best research platform in the world and that he could enable scientists to achieve their goals faster, cheaper and better than anywhere else. Teddy's observations (coupled with a staggeringly sharp memory) and his desire to pursue knowledge shaped innumerable scientific endeavors. 

And his guidance was not limited to aiding scientists - After working with photographer, Emory Kristof for many years on the Beebe Project, Teddy was invited to consult on a number of National Geographic expeditions. On assignments searching for rare or unusual creatures the mantra at the magazine was that if you need to make it work, get Teddy Tucker.

 
 
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In helping scientists, journalists, students or tourists, Teddy was always happy to impart knowledge and expertise. He was Bermuda's Ocean Elder or maybe just a salty old sea dog. 

'I get a great kick out of it, there’s always something new – you can never say you get bored and as long as you’re curious for the sake of information and learning – I don’t think I could have gone anywhere else that I’d have found such a varied source of excitement, information, learning – whatever you want to call it – and all of us like to share it.' Teddy Tucker.