The Diver Who Fell From The Sky is Simon Pridmore’s fascinating biography of Francis Toribiong, the man who put Palau diving on the map. Tim Rock discusses his contributions to Simon’s book and his enduring friendship with Francis.
Francis Toribiong © Tim Rock
The Father Of Palau Diving: Francis Toribiong – Dive Happy Episode 34 Show Notes
- SimonPridmore.com – Simon Pridmore’s website with details on ordering The Diver Who Fell From The Sky
- Buy The Diver Who Fell From The Sky on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
- Diving Palau podcast – my previous chat with Tim about why Palau diving is so special
- Diving Truk Lagoon podcast – the other must-dive destination in Micronesia, Truk Lagoon is the world’s greatest wreck diving area
- Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Palau and Yap – Tim Rock and Simon Pridmore’s extensive guide to diving Palau. Buy online at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
- Buy Klaus Lindemann’s book on the history of Palau’s wrecks, Desecrate 1, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
- Buy Klaus Lindemann’s book, Hailstorm Over Truk Lagoon, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Palau Resorts And Liveaboards Mentioned
Please note: Since we recorded the podcast, Francis has decided to step away from the Palau Escape business as he will be leaving Palau to live in Costa Rica. Palau Escape will continue to be run by his former partner Joe Gugliamelli, who has always been the main guide
Dive Happy Palau Trip Reports
- Palau Diving: Size Does Matter (article for EZ Dive magazine)
- Palau Liveaboard Part 1
- Palau Liveaboard Part 2
- Palau Liveaboard Part 3
Dive Happy Podcast Newsletter
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The Father Of Palau Diving: Francis Toribiong – Dive Happy Episode 34 Transcript
[00:00:06] CM: Hello and welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host, Chris Mitchell, and on this episode I’m joined by veteran underwater photojournalist, Tim Rock. Tim, welcome back.
[00:00:19] TR: Hey! Great to be back again, Chris.
[00:00:20] CM: Thanks, Tim. It’s great to have you back. Now, you have made some significant contributions to Simon Pridmore’s new book, The Diver Who Fell From the Sky. A biography of Francis Toribiong, the man who put Palau on the map as one of the greatest diving destinations in the world. So, Tim, can you tell me a bit about how this book came about and what inspired Simon to write it.
[00:00:48] TR: Yes. Simon was kind of recruited, because I’d known Francis for many years. And every time I’d visit Palau, he’d kind of be dropping hints.
[00:01:02] CM: Okay.
[00:01:03] TR: Francis and I have done many, many things together, we’ve done television shows and documentaries and co-wrote a book. We’ve traveled down to Papua New Guinea to climb into a volcanic lake to look for a sunken plane and a bunch of other crazy things. And we have always been close and worked on a lot of things. But a few years back, Francis got a really bad type of a nasal cancer and he managed to survive it, but not without a lot of hard work and help from his friends, which is a pretty good chapter in this book.
But I think it kind of made him think about he had quite a life and he’d done a lot for Palau tourism. He’d been recognized by the very first tourism award they ever gave out in the country as kind of the founding father of tourism. And I think he kind of looked back and said, “Maybe I’ve got a book in me,” but we’d discuss it and I’d say, “Well, take some notes and we’ll talk about doing some chapters,” and just go back and forth and back and forth and nothing ever really happened.
So I kind of said, “Well, if it’s going to be up to me and Francis, this might never get done.” So I suggested to Simon who happened to have a dead week of about or some extra time I guess you’d call it of about three weeks in February of 2019. And it really was about the only extra time he had for, gosh, about six months he was really heavily booked with all kinds of different projects. He was going to write a book about Taiwan and he was leading some tours and all that. So it was kind of like a now or never thing. And Francis and his wife were actually kind of cleaning out the house to give it over to one of their sons to live in and they were moving to Costa Rica.
So it was like, “If we don’t do it now it may never happen. We’ll have to chase Francis to Costa Rica or something like that.” So I asked Simon if he wanted to do it. And his wife, Sophie, had never been to Palau before. Simon had a dive shop in Guam and had taken a few tours down there with Guam people and also done a little teaching I believe down in Palau. But his wife had never seen it. So it was kind of like, “Okay, good. We’ll kill two birds. We’ll do this book about Francis the adventurer. And also we’ll get to see Blue Corner and all the hot spots in Palau and this should work out pretty well.”
And basically that’s what happened. So Francis arranged for a place for us to stay and got us some transportation and we went out with him quite a bit. And he’s a very patient man because basically we lived with him for about two weeks from like eight in the morning till about ten at night.
[00:04:17] CM: And peppering him with questions.
[00:04:19] TR: Yeah. Simon and Sophie recording anecdotes all the way and me snapping some pictures and stuff like that, and it was really fun and an interesting couple weeks. We got to know the man really well. Even though I’d known him for so many years, I really enjoyed hearing a few new things that I’d never heard about his life. And then came a lot of hard work where Simon had to condense all this. Make sense of it and create a book. And he kind of got lucky in that. A few things got cancelled because COVID hit and he was stuck in Bali. So he worked out of the back of his house for I think about four or five months. And all of a sudden The Diver Who Fell From the Sky fell in our laps, and it’s really a great little book.
[00:05:09] CM: It is. It’s a wonderful narrative because not only does it tell Francis’ story. I was fascinated by – It’s not the prologue, but the first three or four chapters of the book are actually devoted to Francis’ parents and the aftermath of World War II on Palau. So I obviously don’t want to do too many spoilers about the book, but it really sets the scene for just how impoverished Palau was after the war. And Simon makes – there’s a great sentence there about how basically Palau went through being occupied by four different powers in 60 years, which is just insane, because it basically means that two generations of Palauans were kind of refugees in their own country.
[00:05:53] TR: Yeah, it’s really true. And Simon has a wonderful sense of history and was able to work that in without – I guess a lot of people get a little turned off about history, but you kind of have to know Palau’s background. And about the time that Francis popped into the world in order to understand just exactly what he meant to Palau and what the background of actually many Palauans were. I mean they were far from wealthy and they had no tourism. They were just a trust territory of the US. And the US honestly didn’t know what to do with Palau.
And so the Japanese had turned Palau into a major tourism vessel and just a thriving agricultural area. And then after the war, the US inherited Palau and really just kind of threw a little money at it to keep the governments going and keep people from starving basically and kind of left them to their own resources until in later years when Palau became independent. But when Francis grew up, yeah, it was pretty dire times and they were still recovering from the shock of actually having battles fought on their soil. Peleliu’s battle lasted more than three months. And when the US came in, they were given orders to destroy anything Japanese. And that was pretty much all of the main city of Koror. So that got bulldozed to the ground. And I’m sure they were just in like one shock after another.
When we were looking for the shipwrecks, one of our guides was an older guy who had worked on some of the salvage of the shipwrecks. And that’s why we asked him to come along to see if he remembered any of the places that he’d worked on. And he said when the American planes first came in, they didn’t know what to think. And then all of a sudden they’re just all this bombing took place. And the Japanese had told them if the Americans catch you, they’ll tie one arm to one horse and tie one arm to another horse and they’ll hit the horses and make them run away and both your arms will come off.
And so the Palauans were actually pretty afraid of the Americans. They didn’t really see them as saviours. Even now, in Palau, the old people still kind of cherish the Japanese times because it was a pretty prosperous era. And I think it’s from two to three every day on one of the AM radio stations they play old Japanese music from the ’30s. And there’s still a small contingent of the elderly Palauans that like to hear that music.
So I live in Guam, and when Guam came in and freed – when the US came into Guam and freed the island from Japanese rule, Americans were welcomed and happy and everybody was just really glad to see them. But in Palau, they were fearful of the Americans. They didn’t know what was going on. So it took a while to get used to not having Japanese as their rulers and then the US didn’t really do much to instil a lot of confidence in the Palauans. So anyway, to make a long story short, Francis was born in a very odd time in Palau’s history and had to make the most of it. And he did in a big way.
[00:09:27] CM: Yeah. That was the other thing as well that I think Simon captures really well that obviously discusses Palau’s history. And then in talking about how Francis kind of created Palau’s diving industry out of nothing, I mean he literally just did it kind of all himself with obviously like lots of local guys as well were there helping him. But he seemed to be the driving force of it. But it’s also a snapshot of how diving as an industry worldwide developed. I mean obviously talking about the arrival of people like Carl Roessler.
[00:10:02] TR: Yeah, Carl Roessler and CNC. That was like the first company to actually offer liveaboard diving. Nobody had heard of it before.
[00:10:11] CM: Right. Exactly. That’s what I mean. So it’s fascinating that Palau was kind of not only a frontier, but it was also, if you like, a testing ground of like, “Well, yeah. People are willing to travel all that way to come and see and dive in Palau because they’ve heard it so good.” Yeah. And that demand was never really understood until people like Carl figured it out.
[00:10:32] TR: Yeah. Around that time, National Geographic had done a story about Chuuk Lagoon. So Micronesia was getting a little bit of play. And in the early ’80s that they also did one on the Mariana Islands, which people interested a little bit in the Northwest Pacific, which is where Micronesia is located. And then Douglas Faulkner was publishing a lot of photos from Palau and his story is kind of funny. National Geographic sent him down there to do a story and he never came back. They’re like, “Doug, what happened with our story?” And he’s like, “Oh, Palau is just so fantastic. I need six more months to shoot here.” And they’d extend his deadline a little bit. And then he go, “I’m going to need six more months. I just ordered a boat.” As legend had it, they finally took what he could provide and I think they sent somebody down to clean up the story.
And so Palau did at one point wind up in National Geographic. But Faulkner stayed there like eight or ten years on this thing that was supposed to just be a three-month assignment. And so he lived out of a little team house on Lebuu Street and he published a book called, I think, Underwater Wilderness. He published two hardcover books that were just fantastic and it was all about Palau’s marine world. It had first time anybody ever saw aerial shots of the rock islands. And that really gave a lot of exposure to it.
And just about that time, Francis had opened Fish’n Fins dive shop. And there was a guy down in Palau who owned a pet shop in California and had gotten into the tropical fish business. And his name was Lenny Oberg. He still lives here in Guam and he actually worked for Francis and Fish’n Fins off and on for many years. But the original idea was to import tropical fish. And so he and Lenny started Fish. And then Fins was the diving thing. If anybody came along and wanted to go diving, well, heck they had a boat so they could go diving too.
And then Francis actually started booking in a few groups, and I think he got one from France that stayed like a couple weeks and they got the check at the end of the trip and went, “Well, the heck with the fish. We’re basically going to be fins.” And so thought there is a lot more profit and a lot less dead fish being dealt with than if you’re a tropical fish exporter. So it kind of took off from there. And it was just kind of like a small little kind of a one-room shack really.
They had a counter in it and a very beleaguered compressor out front. And there’s a big tree that kind of shaded the whole place. And so you’d hop in the boat, go out diving, come back and the guys would take your tanks out and try to pump up the tanks under the little compressor and you go sit under the tree after the dive and have a beer. And it was all pretty basic and it really just kind of grew from there.
Francis just persevering and going to the dive shows. Making real good friends with the people from Continental Airlines at the time, Continental Micronesia, and they told him that they would fly him any place he wanted to go to promote Palau because they had an investment in Micronesia. They wanted to open up the region. They saw a lot of potential and they built hotels in Chuuk, which is now the Blue Lagoon Hotel. Saipan, Guam and Palau, and those three have since been torn down or replaced with different hotels, bigger hotels. But they had four hotels that they needed to fill, and they wanted to give people an excuse to come out and visit Micronesia.
And so they sent Francis around saying, “Tell people about this place,” and Francis had such a magnetic personality and was so enthusiastic about what he did that he’d fly around to the dive shows in Europe and the US. And because he went to school in California, he wasn’t as intimidated as maybe somebody that just came out of the islands would be. And could talk to anybody about how wonderful the diving was there and became a one-man visitors bureau. There was no Palau visitor’s authority then. It was just Francis going around going, “Hey, come see my place. I got a lot of good diving out here,” and he’d show a few slides. He’d ask guys like me to put together some slides and we’d contribute to it and he’d do his slide show and everyone would go, “Wow! Look at that place.”
[00:15:40] CM: Yeah, it’s fascinating because that’s the other thing that the book is a snapshot of that Simon described really well, is that obviously I’m of the younger generation and I’m of the generation where the internet came up and arrived when I was an adult. So I’m the last generation that remembers life before the internet. And that’s the thing, it’s exhausting in a way just reading about what Francis was doing because he was just a machine for, like you say, going to all the dive expos, putting the word out.
But all of the promotion that he did for Palau was all analog. It was all just word of mouth and showing up and giving out brochures. And just obviously these days just hugely an efficient way of doing it, but it was kind of the only way that he could sort of try and transmit like, “Guys, this is where you need to come. This is what’s really – This is some of the best diving that you can see.” And that sort of thing is that the way he was just – I mean, Simon really captures is just enthusiasm that went on for decades. It wasn’t like he just did it for a few years and went, “Oh! Someone else couldn’t do it.” He just carried on and on and on. It’s remarkable.
[00:16:48] TR: Francis has never been short on energy. That’s for sure. I think he’s like 73 now and he kind of wore us out in the two weeks we were down there.
[00:17:03] CM: You just talked about like how first diving there, back in the early 1980s, it was all kind of basic and obviously things got more sophisticated. More people came. But I mean obviously me and you have done a whole podcast previously about the wonders of diving Palau. But over the decades, because you continued to dive there, I mean do you think anything fundamentally changed underwater? Do you think it got worse? Do you think you got better? Did it go through huge peaks and troughs? I mean you’re in a kind of pretty unique position like someone like Francis of like you’ve seen Palau over like the last 40 years. So do you have any particular views on how it’s evolved and where it is now?
[00:17:48] TR: Well, I can give you kind of an example. I came back from Palau one time and went through Yap, and I arranged for a guy who had just been certified in Yap to take me out diving, right? So it was kind of a complicated thing, but we managed to get the tanks in a boat and everything. And so we’re very happy, one Saturday morning we’re going go diving and he’s with this guy that knows a little bit about diving. And I’ve got a video camera and I’m very happy to be with a Yapese guy who knows the waters because nobody’s ever dived around yet before. And we’re heading out the main channel and he looks at me and goes, “Okay, where are we going?” And I said, “Where are we going? What do you mean where we’re going? You live here.” And he goes, “Yeah, but I just learned how to dive. I don’t know where to go.”
Well, Palau was a little bit like that too. I finally said, “Where’s the best fishing?” And he took me down to a place and it turned out to be what’s now Yap Caverns and Gilman Wall, which is one of the most famous places in Yap. But that’s the way Palau was too. Francis would say, “Okay, our best dive side is a big drop-off,” right? And so you go, “Okay.” And you’d be sitting there in the boat after the first dive and you’d look over and go, “Well, what’s way over there? It looks like there’s another wall over there.” And he’d go, “Yeah, we never tried that. Come on, let’s do that.” And so they’d never dived in German Channel before. And we actually wanted to dive in the channel thinking that the mantas would come back and forth and maybe we’d meet one in the shallow waters of the channel.
But once you got in the channel, depending on where the tide was going, you either wound up in one place or another. So the first time we tried it, we got spit out into the coral gardens that are on the, I guess, it’d be the south end of the channel down there and kind of drifted off to the left through all these beautiful Red Sea fans and hard corals and basically wound up into the area that’s super popular in the German Channel now.
But back then, German Channel diving didn’t exist. So Francis is like, “I’ll try anything.” And so that’s really what was part of what made Palau diving so special, is everything was an adventure. Everything was a place that even the guide hadn’t seen the guy that grew up there. And that’s kind of how he found Blue Corner. They used to take people to the blue holes and they swam on a little bit and the next thing they know they got sharks everywhere and fish and they’re like, “Man! This is even better than where we came from.”
And there’re just a lot of stories like that about finding all the dive sites there and being able to get feedback from divers. I mean they might find a spot that they think is good and then it turns out that like visiting divers don’t think it’s so great because maybe seeing a whole bunch of goatfish isn’t a big deal, but maybe it was to somebody local. So they’d always want to kind of test out a new site that they found, and I was just happy to be the crash test dummy, “Sure. Row me in where you think it’s good and I’ll let you know.” And so then Francis would find a new site, then he wanted to tell the world of course. And the only way to do it was to try to get a hold of journalists and travel to the dive shows. And that’s what he did. There wasn’t even faxes back then. So it was a lot of energy a lot of time and work on his part to get the word out.
[00:21:38] CM: Yeah. I mean, how do you feel yourself like –
[00:21:42] TR: I’m sorry. I didn’t really answer your question about –
[00:21:46] CM: I was going to intentionally lead you back into it. How do you feel about Blue Corner like when first dived it like nearly 40 years ago? I mean do you still find it super exciting to dive there?
[00:21:56] TR: I’m a member of BCA. That’s Blue Corner Anonymous. We can’t help but just dive it over and over and over again.
[00:22:09] CM: Awesome. Okay. That was a very succinct answer.
[00:22:12] TR: Yeah. There’re quite a few members of that. As far as people that are – You hear stories about, “Oh yeah, there used to be a gazillion fish and there used to be this and there used to be that.” And maybe in some areas that’s true. I think probably the worst thing that happened to Palau though was natural, a couple of the El Ninos. They got hit pretty hard in the 90s and then again I think back in the early 2000s or something.
Prior to these kind of events happening, which I have no idea if they happened before, but they’re happening a lot more frequently now. So it has to be the climate change thing. It affected corals really down to 35 or 40 feet almost, killed quite a few corals. And it really shocked the Palauans. Francis called me up and said, “You’ve got to come see this. It’s just a disaster,” and I’d already heard about it and it’s kind of like, “I can publish this all you want, but there’s nothing you can do. You just have to wait for nature.”
He was just shocked to see this after I think it happened when he was in his 40s. So having seen these beautiful reefs all his life and all of a sudden they just died off in a matter of months. But we’ve seen them rebound in many places, and that’s the good news. And I guess if you just keep on caring for the reefs, which the Palauans do, they have marines and they really try to reduce reef damage and they’ve made pledges to keep the reefs protected and keep their waters protected as well, which is why you see a lot of sharks there and that sort of thing.
There seems to be a real vibe in Palau about protecting the environment. It’s not just for the tourist behalf. I mean they really seem serious about it. There’s a lot of environmental organisations that have formed in Palau and you have to, as a politician, have a stand on a lot of the positive things about the reef. And I just think it’s something that’s come up and it’s probably something that Francis has influenced quite a bit because he’s always told people how important the reefs are. And then of course they have still a lot of tradition where they have traditional protections of the reef that have now morphed into some more modern protections.
[00:24:38] CM: Yes. Isn’t it also the case that Simon discusses in the book that it’s actually Francis’ brother, Johnson Toribiong, he became president of Palau. Wasn’t it Johnson that instigated the US Shark Sanctuary?
[00:24:51] TR: Yes. Johnson was very progressive. Francis during that time I think was even like administered the environment for a year or so. And then there’s another guy named Tommy Remengesau who’s served two different terms as president. And he’s also like Johnson. He likes to go to the United Nations and lead the environmental charge and say, “Palau is doing this, and Palau is protecting sharks.”
I think Francis’ brother, Johnson, was the one that declared the shark sanctuary. And Tommy Remengesau has done quite a few things to protect the coastal waters and the economic zone. So yeah, I mean it’s part of politics down there and it’s good because it’s not like let’s go kill everything. It’s like let’s go protect everything. And so I think that’s actually one of the main attractions to Palau. People come in and you have to pay an environmental fee to use the Rock Islands, and there’s an airport fee. It’s not cheap to come in. I think it’s about $150 with all the different fees. And then if you want to take a trip to Jellyfish Lake, it’s another hundred or something like that.
But people don’t really seem to mind it because they see the rangers out patrolling around the Rock Islands and they see the educators at the Jellyfish Lake and how nice the trail has become since the bad old days. And it used to be quite an adventure to get to that Jellyfish Lake. It’s pretty nice. And so I think people see the country’s commitment to it and I think that a reflection of Francis’ early values and has carried on into the political realm, which is good. So people don’t mind paying for a little positive government work that they can actually see while they’re on vacation.
[00:26:49] CM: Yeah, absolutely. The other thing that comes up in the book that I know you were also involved with was when the research on the different shipwrecks, which you mentioned earlier, the wrecks left over from World War II when there was the team trying to locate them and then also document what was down there. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Because it was led by a German gentleman, wasn’t it?
[00:27:14] TR: Yes, Klaus Lindemann. The guy that worked initially with Kimio Aisek. Francis, Bill Acker and Kimio Aisek from Blue Lagoon, Bill Acker from Yap Divers and Francis who founded Fish’n Fins. And now Francis has a different little dive company since he sold that when he moved to the states. And now he’s got a different dive company. Don’t remember real quick, but I’ll remember it before we –
[00:27:44] CM: Don’t worry. Yeah. But Klaus was a –
[00:27:46] TR: Anyway. Klaus initially worked with Kimio too, write the book Hailstorm Over Truk Lagoon. And Klaus and his wife, Mary, also expanded on that book for a second edition. And Klaus used to always joke that he had a case of wrecktitus. I had seen Klaus’s book and I was actually on the boat with Kimio when somebody came out in a boat and the first copy of the book had just come in the mail. And one of his guides brought it out to him while he was leading us. And in between dives, Kimio started paging through it and we had about every guest on the boat around him looking at this book.
And he told us a lot about Klaus and all that. And a couple years later I get a call from Francis and he says, “You got to meet this guy that just showed up.” And I said, “Who is it?” And he said, “He’s a guy named Klaus.” And I went, “Oh my goodness! Lindemann’s down in Palau now.” And I was just happening to go down there. So it all worked out quite well. And I was talking to Francis about it and I said, “You had a lot of interest in these wrecks,” and he says, “Yeah, but I’ve been waiting for this guy because he’s like the real deal.” He said, “I knew sooner or later he’d show up.” And that was kind of funny. And they just hit it off wonderfully. I mean you couldn’t find two guys that were more peas in a pod. They loved to search and they loved the history.
Francis had worked on some of the salvage when he was a young kid. I think like when he was like 10 or 11 or something some of the wrecks were still around there and he would help in the salvage. And he saw all the war stuff. Of course he lived up and babbled up. So even when I first went there in the early ’80s, there was just war stuff everywhere up in the main island. So all this stuff was not a war that Francis experienced, but it was only four or five years after ended when Francis was born. It ended in ’45. I think Francis was born in ’48. So the war was something that Francis heard about all the time.
So Francis thought that this was an extremely important thing to document the shipwrecks and to find out where they were, because they only knew maybe six or seven of them. And Klaus had a buddy in japan who did a lot of research. Klaus worked for BASF in Jakarta. So he actually wasn’t really that far from Palau. And the two of them hit it off really well and they would set up weeks or two weeks at a time to go out and do this book. And I think after three years, Klaus did the first one, which was Desecrate 1. The was the name of the operation that the US called bombing of Palau. And Hailstorm Over Truk Lagoon was a three-day operation. Desecrate was about a two-day operation. But it sunk basically all the Japanese ships in Palau or chased them off to Rabaul. And Klaus did a lot of work on land as well as underwater and came up with this wonderful book with the help of a friend of his in Japan who did a lot of research and sent him a lot of documents.
And then it would be our happy job when Klaus would show up with all these documents. He’s have pictures and he’d have some latitude and longitudes and we’d go out there and see what we could find. We had just like a little fish finder. And if it blipped red, that’s when it would probably be a metal of some kind and so a nice big red blob could mean there’s a ship down there. And so the first few times that we did it we jumped in the water and we came upon like a huge rock with just a massive thick, black coral forest on it.
And so after a few of those we decided, “Well, we’re losing a lot of bottom time with this.” So we asked this guy named Furman to come along who was an excellent free diver. A Palauan guy, Furman Gabriel. And if we’d see a red blip, we’d send Furman down. And he could go down for a couple minutes. He’d swim around and look for things and pop back up and he’d go, “No. Black coral.” Or, “Yep, there’s a wreck down here.” So all the black coral glitches we used to call Furman’s phantoms. And Furman saved us a lot of time putting gear on and being disappointed.
But Francis’ main goal, people thought he was looking for a gold ship or they couldn’t just believe that he was just doing this for history. That’s what was so funny. They figured there must be money in this or some sort of ulterior motive. And Francis’ goal was no. Just to have a historical document, and that was pretty much Klaus’ goal too. It was like a second love for him was his wrecktitus. And then he later updated the Desecrate book with new information and added I think a smaller kind of a dive guide type of book for it too and for some of the Truk books or Truk shipwrecks.
[00:33:19] CM: Klaus is sadly no longer with us, is he?
[00:33:21] TR: No. It’s very sad. He wound up with a brain tumour. And even in his final days, Francis went to where Klaus was living and pushed him around in a wheelchair and took him out. He and his wife, Susan, they became you know very close during their wreck forays. So yeah, sadly, Klaus left us. But he was a wonderful guy. We all loved him. And did a lot for wreck diving and he’s still kind of like the godfather of wreck diving books I think is what people think.
[00:33:56] CM: Oh, yeah.
[00:33:57] TR: Left behind this wonderful legacy for Palau.
[00:34:01] CM: Yeah. Speaking of which, that’s the other thing that Simon points out in the book is that, obviously, you mentioned earlier that Francis has moved to Costa Rica. And he is also left behind not only this legacy of all the dive sites and the wrecks that have been discovered and documented, but also that he really helped set up the, well, what are now rival businesses like Sam’s Tours and Palau Escape, and other operators that he seemed to have always been there like giving his blessing and offering support because he seemed to believe that it didn’t really matter if they were competition. It was the more operators, the better for the country and the better for the diving industry.
[00:34:41] CM: Yeah. Well, Francis, is one of those guys with a short attention span. So somebody says, “Let’s try this. This might be interesting.” And Francis will see if it’s something that he can get involved in and try to contribute to. So when he came back to Palau after – He lived in Oregon for a while. While his kids went to school, he wanted to be – The family is really big with Francis. And so he wanted to be close to the family while all the kids were in school.
So after he and Susan moved back, he really was thinking, “Well, maybe I don’t need to get involved in the dive business so much,” and he tried doing a lot of other things which he kind of still does to this day, working with people on the environment and kind of – he kind of works as a mentor for some young people. And then he and Sam were never really like bad competitors. There was never any bad blood or anything. It was kind of like, “Okay. Well, here’s another guy trying the dive business. We’ll see how he lasts.” And Sam lasted a long time. So they’re still real friends.
When my brother came out to Micronesia to visit, I got together with the – We had a dinner. And I wanted the people that I really enjoyed in Palau to join us. And so of course Francis and Sam were there and they’re like, “Wow! They’re sitting at the same table.” And I said, “Yeah, they like each other.” Because they have different businesses doesn’t mean they’re going to like kill each other at the table.
[00:36:26] CM: Yeah. Yeah. Do you think Francis sort of thinks of himself in terms of like the legacy he’s leaving behind and all that kind of stuff? Or do you think he’s just not that sort of guy that he’s too busy – he’s on to the next thing and whatever it is in his new home and stuff like that. Do you think he looks back and he’s all reflective about these sort of things?
[00:36:45] TR: Well, I think he’s very proud of this book because Simon kind of organised his life for it. But the reason that he’s proud of it is because most of his kids, they all grew up in Palau of course, and you can see him in the IMAX movie riding around and swimming with their dad and all that kind of stuff. But they all live in the States now and kind of have different kind of lives and careers. And now he’s got grandkids.
And what he’s found, and of course I can probably agree with him. Kind of us, old-timers, some people forget that you were ever involved in anything. And so he kind of wanted somebody to write it down to have a legacy so his family and his children would know what he did for Palau and for the country. Kind of know his place in history. And that’s why I recruited Simon for this, because I probably would have written about all the great times we had wreck diving or the funny time going fishing or something, but I really wouldn’t have taken a detached look like Simon did and kind of just look at the man’s life.
So it was really great that Simon was able to devote his time to this. And it’s come out with a document for Francis that now he’s kind of got his place in history in Palau and it’s documented and his kids can see this and they can say here’s what your grandpa did and all that sort of thing. I think that’s the most important part is the family aspect. I personally think it’s important because, yeah, a lot of people in Palau, the newer dive shops and the newer people starting diving have no idea how this whole thing all got started. They don’t know why the dive sites. Who found all the dive sites? And Francis pretty much found all the dive sites. He and a guy named Johnny Kishigawa who started Carp Island and deals almost all the time with the Japanese divers.
But in between, he and Francis, the two of them were operating on a shoestring. And another guy named Surangel, who knows like a big department store, and his son just became president of Palau. It seems like diving and presidents go together somehow. Even this guy, Remengesau, who’s currently the president is a diver. So that’s really good. He loves wreck diving. But the whole legacy is now spelled out, and I think that’s what Francis is mostly proud of. I don’t think he thinks of himself as any like national hero or anything. I think there’s probably a lot of people that know him that think of him as a national hero.
But I think he just thinks of himself as this guy that was trying to put food on the table for four kids and it just worked out pretty well. But he’s a pretty humble guy actually and just kind of likes to live by his religion and his philosophy. And then if a book comes out about it, well, that’s great. And so we’re happy that we managed to get the book done. And I think it’s a fitting tribute to him. I think he’s really earned it.
[00:39:48] CM: Yeah. Simon’s done a fantastic job of writing it up. It’s really great, Tim. I enjoyed it very much. And I think we should finish off though by actually explaining why is the book called The Diver Who Fell From the Sky.
[00:40:05] TR: That’s a good question. There’s a section in the book that kind of explains it, but basically it’s because Francis was afraid of his uncle. And so Francis was going to school in Long Beach, I believe. And Long Beach had a program in the summer for lifeguards, and basically it was kind of just reserved for people I think on the UCLA swim team or something. It was like serious swimmers. But because it was an actual summer job, they had to post the thing around the dorms and everything. So Francis saw this and had said, “Do you want to be a lifeguard?” And Francis, “Oh, I got my life saving — I’ve got my life saving certificate. I can try this I think,” and not knowing that this was kind of an elite thing, right?
So he tried out for this job and they weren’t quite sure what to think of him. There was like no black swimmers at the time and they didn’t even know where Palau was from. He got the old, “Where the heck is Palau?” From a guy a guy that kind of took him under his wing and became so close to him that they even named one of their sons after him. And through a whole set of odd circumstances, he became one of the Long Beach elite lifeguards.
And because he went out for this in the first place, if he didn’t, he would have had to go back to Palau and work in the hot tropical sun for his uncle who had a construction company. So all summer, right? Instead of being on the beach surrounded by beautiful California babes. So because Francis did not want to go back and work construction in Palau at home, he tried out for this Long Beach thing. Well this Long Beach operation did all kinds of things, and one of them was they had a team of skydivers that would skydive out of the plane, do the fancy formations and wave flags and land on the beach at big celebrations out in California. And Francis, of course, wanting to try anything, became one of those guys. One of the guys that fell out of the sky, “Skydiving? Heck yes, sign me up.”
And so when he came back to Palau, he found some old parachutes and he actually had – It was Fish’n Fins and Fly, I guess, or something. He started a very short-lived skydiving business. And I think somebody had a parachute, [inaudible] and another one landed in the jungle and Francis decided, “Well, maybe this isn’t such a great idea.” But he kept up the skydiving to himself and he would appear at Palauan events. If they would inaugurate the president, Francis would fly down with the Palau flag waving. And when Palau became independent, he and another skydiver came down holding I think the US flag and the Palaun flag or something like that, with smoke streaming from their feet and all that. So he was a diver who fell from the sky.
[00:43:23] CM: Fantastic. Okay, Tim, thank you so much for talking about the book. The book is called The Diver Who Fell From the Sky. You can find out more details on simonpridmore.com. You can buy it on amazon.com. And, well, there’s all the details on Simon’s website about everywhere else you can buy it. And thank you so much, Tim.
[00:43:43] TR: Yes, so happy. I think Simon’s done a wonderful job. And anybody that likes diving or has just followed Palau’s wonderful rise to prominence in the dive world will enjoy this. And it’s great talking to you again, Chris. Thank you.
[00:43:59] CM: You’re very welcome and the pleasure is all mine, sir. All right. Thanks again, Tim.
[00:44:04] CM: Thanks very much for listening to the Dive Happy podcast. You can see the show notes for this episode and browse all the other episodes at divehappy.com/podcast. You can also sign up for the Dive Happy newsletter so you get notified when the next episode comes out. Sign up at divehappy.com/podcast. I pinky promise I won’t spam you.
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