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Remembering Teddy Tucker, the Voice of the Sargasso Sea

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Sargassum floats on the Sargasso Sea

One evening last July, we went to sea with Teddy Tucker. Teddy’s wife, Edna, and Ginger the cat wished us well from the porch of their stout and steady old Bermuda home on Kings Point in Sandys Parish. Teddy’s boat pulled away from his cement wharf, laden with HMI movie lights, diving gear, and cameras. We were on a National Geographic assignment for a story on the Sargasso Sea. Teddy Tucker, 88, was at the helm, right where he should be, leading the way to Challenger Banks for a long night of diving to explore what would rise from the depths to welcome us.

The last rays bathed Teddy in a golden light as he guided the Sea Foam away from Bermuda through mirror-still waters. He told us stories about long nights at anchor on Challenger Banks and the strange and wonderful encounters he had there. Everyone on our team was truly excited and honored to share this moment in place and time with a living legend.

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Teddy Tucker, July 2013 Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

Teddy liked to say that Bermuda is a permanently anchored research ship within the Sargasso Sea, a large gyre that traps floating forests of sargassum weed, providing a nursery habitat to endless species of marine life. The Sargasso Sea, defined by currents, is the only sea without a shore. This was Teddy’s front and back yard for his entire life. His knowledge of the reefs and wrecks were unparalleled—a living “Google Ocean” for Bermuda’s waters.

A master storyteller, Teddy’s adventures—far too impossible to be true—were pure fact. Some of these stories would become the basis for his friend and fellow explorer, Peter Benchley’s, novels. Teddy and Peter would disappear to sea for days in search of the unknown and incredible. This pair of men had a similar glint in their eye—a spark, a ribald sense of humor and a driving curiosity.

The Sea Foam rounded King’s Point and through the main channel. The late light bounced around the boat as we crossed over the coral shelf into the blue Sargasso Sea. Teddy found his spot on the slope of Challenger and dropped anchor. As Teddy predicted, the boat found the current and we were perfectly suspended over 3,600 feet of dark water. We rigged our 1200 HMI light and let it drift behind the boat to seduce the creatures from the depths.

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A sixgill shark flees from the lights of a submersible in the waters near the Bermuda Rise. Photograph by Emory Kristof

Teddy began to share sea stories, his voice carrying above our generator. He spoke of his job as a teenager pumping air for tourists in hardhats at the aquarium, his tour on a Royal Navy Gunboat during WWII, his discovery of the sixgill sharks prowling the deep bottom below where we were anchored. We could have listened all night but Teddy pointed down into the shaft of light and said, “You have a customer, time to get to work.” A big marlin, neon in color, swung into view, made a circle and disappeared leaving behind dozens of bearded flying fish that were swimming in a blue halo of light surrounding the boat.

I slid into the water and began making images with thousands of feet of dark Sargasso Sea below me. I looked up through a curtain of water and watched as Teddy pointed here and there at creatures passing by me in the stiff current. I set aside the tension of the assignment, drew in the moment, and held it tight. I hold it still.

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Flying fish at night in the Sargasso Sea near Challenger Bank, Bermuda. Photograph by David Doubilet

I dove and photographed in the pool of light for hours. Cold and tired, I came out of the water at 4 am to share a cup of coffee and a sandwich with Teddy and our team. I catnapped, waiting for dawn and thinking about Edna. She was ten or so when Teddy came to visit her brother. There was a spark in each other’s eye and the two would eventually create an extraordinary life together. With their daughter, Wendy, they explored, discovered, and documented the maritime and natural history that surrounds Bermuda.

Dawn broke on a glass sea as we continued making images. Teddy brought us back around King’s Point. Edna was waiting on the porch, a stalwart beacon through the many decades. Teddy came down from the flybridge and stepped off the boat. He and Edna walked up the path to their house followed by Ginger, their ancient and beloved cat.

Teddy Tucker, the voice of the Sargasso Sea, died June 9, 2014 as our team prepared for another expedition at sea with Teddy at the helm.

Salvage diver, treasure diver, marine archaeologist and historian, artist, fisherman-naturalist-conservationist, and explorer, Teddy Tucker was a founding member of the Bermuda Underwater Institute (BEUI) and of the 1983 Beebe project. He discovered over 100 wrecks and was named a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his life work in the sea.

The story on the Sargasso Sea, still in progress, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of National Geographic.

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