Underwater photographer Jim Watt passes away

Underwater photographer and dear friend Jim Watt passed away yesterday, July 19, 2007.  In addition to being an incredible underwater shooter, Jim was a wonderful mentor for many of us in the underwater photography community.

A public service will be held in Kona, Hawaii, on Sunday, July 22, 2007.  If you would like to contribute, Jim’s family would like to commemorate Jim by contributing in his name to the Kona Hospital Foundation at:

Kona Hospital Foundation
79-1019 Haukapila Street
Kealekekua HI 96750
(808) 322-4587

Please write to us with stories about Jim you’d like to share, or leave a comment here…

From Masa Ushioda:

For those who didn’t know about his condition, he has been battling with lung cancer for about a year.  He passed away peacefully at around 9:00 am in the morning of July 19th, 2007, surrounded by his family and friends.  I was able to kiss his forehead and say goodbye to him last week just before he went into the ICU.

I’ve known Jim ever since I got here in Kona, Hawaii in the summer of 1998.  Jim and I were connected immediately through our common interest: diving, fishing, photography, boating, marine life and the love of the ocean.  For these nine years in Hawaii, I don’t know how many times Jim and I went out on the ocean together.  For those who knows me very well perhaps heard me saying I did this and that with Jim or Jim said this and that…again and again…

Sometimes we went out on my boat, but most of the time I went on his boat as his deck hand and bait handler.  I hope I was a good boat buddy to Jim.  I handled all the stinky baits (he calls it) for him when we go fishing or shark diving.  When the water is too chilly for him in the winter, Jim made me jump in the water first to see if whales are friendly enough to photograph or not (although most of the time I was able to get better shots by doing that, he he).  One time we fished so many tunas until we broke our rods in half.  We had never had a bad time together on the ocean.  I only had a good time with him.  That’s probably because of his great personality.  He is always positive, cheerful, funny, and seems to have no downtime with him.  Even when nothing happens out on the ocean, we talked for hours about next big adventures, next big gadgets, next good food & drinks…you know all those guy things…

I learned a lot from Jim.  He showed me how to get sharks closer to boat, how to fish around Kona, how to approach whales, how to drive a boat in a rough sea, where to dive…I seems to have an endless list of things I learned from him…I will miss him, my friend, mentor, the greatest inspiration of my photography.

On February 26, 2007 at Puako, Jim was able to attend my wedding despite his worsening condition.  We were so glad to see him made it to our wedding and to see him having a good time there.  He ate a lot that day, and he even took some great wedding shots for us.  We really had a great time together on that day.  Thanks for the great memories, Jim.  I love you, buddy,

Jim going for a perfect shot of Caroline, the super friendly whale
(photo: Masa Ushioda)

More from Masa, after ash-scattering ceremony:

Jim Watt retuned to the ocean where he belonged.  His close friends and family members took a boat ride and scattered his ashes into the ocean in the morning on Sunday, July 22nd, 2007.  Many familiar faces were there to see him off.  We tried to keep our smily faces to celebrate his glorious life throughout the event, but we easily burst into tears when we started to pay tribute to his beautiful life while grabbing each others’ hands in circle.  It was such an emotional ride for everybody, and all of us cried out loud when his ashes went into the ocean.  We threw many flowers with preyers and tears as we circled him several times.  I poured a bottle of Rum as well as my tears into the ocean.  Rum & Coke was his favorite drink of all time, and we spent much time over that brown cocktail talking about our next adventures.

I know that it will be very strange and even awkward not to see him physically off Kona Coast any longer as he was such a big part of this Hawaiian water and whenever we both were out, we closely communicated with each other.  Although the time may eventually resolve such awkwardness, everything will be alright as he lives forever in my hearts and others who’s lives were also touched by him.  I can “feel” him everyday when I see the ocean, smell the sea breeze, and taste the salt water…fortunately for me those are daily events in Kona, Hawaii.  I feel extremely lucky to get to know him that well.  It was a great honor and such a privilege to spent nine years of my life with the great man and inspiring photographer like Jim Watt in this paradise.

As we were about to return to the dock with our heads down after we were emotionally drained offshore, something magical happened.  Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins suddenly showed up by our boat and escorted us to the Keauhou Harbor.  We all felt that was Jim cheering us up and saying goodbye to us.  Thanks for the great memories, Jim. 

“Let’s go out and have fun tomorrow, Jim.  I’ll meet you out there.”

Jim Watt’s ash-scattering ceremony (photo: Masa Ushioda)

Eulogy at ceremony, by Carlos Eyles:

It is difficult, if not impossible to measure the influence of a life on another, we all do what we do without any real idea as to its effect on each other or the world at large.  Sometimes, as in the case of Jim, we know the worldly influence is great, but still lack, and will forever lack the depth of that influence. For each of us here today Jim’s presence in our lives was dramatic, yet different, characterize by our own perspectives and relationship to him.  As a loving father and husband to wife Jody and children Ian and Jennifer his relationships were one thing, his love for his sister Sharon was yet another, all very personal and really known only to them. His love for the ocean was as vast as the seas he traveled on and those lifelong travels had a significant and powerful effect on the underwater community that for him was worldwide. Yet, within those varied realms of love there existed a common theme, one that we all experienced, though we each absorbed differently.  Jim’s positive nature affected us all from family to friends alike.  It was contagious even in the midst of everything contrary to logic and reason. For him everything was possible, and he had little doubt that the next epic whale encounter lay just over the nearest swell, that the next dive would bring an image never before seen, or that a bleak diagnosis of cancer could be overcome.  It was this unrelenting attitude that good things were always just around the corner that endeared him to us all.  It was this same unbridled enthusiasm that drove him deep into the hunt, first as a young spearfisherman then later as a photographer. The hunt had him in its unyielding grasp, one he could not say no to, he never said no, only yes. Yes, let’s go there, yes, lets hang out with great white sharks and tigers, yes, lets film this volcano underwater, yes, lets go surfing. Yes, yes, yes. Yes to it all. Yes to life.

Personally, Jimmy was the best person I have ever known in that regard. I was more of a maybe guy. I only said yes if prodded enough, and he, god bless him, prodded, he didn’t want me to miss anything almost as much as he didn’t want to miss anything himself. In a world with far too many no’s Jimmy was an anomaly, I don’t believe I ever heard that word from him. He never turned down a dangerous assignment. Once in a while I would hear him say maybe, like when we were in French Frigate Shoals and there were close to a hundred sharks, all pretty worked up darting around our skiff and the director of the project who hired us asked if it was dangerous to get in the water with so many sharks around and Jimmy said maybe just before he jumped in.

Margaret and I are here in Hawaii because we said yes, to Jimmy and Jody when they invited us to their home over twenty years ago. I said yes when I followed him out to the White Sand Ridge in the Bahamas with my first housed SLR, you know the one you sold me Jimmy that stopped working after that trip. And I said yes to you after months of maybe’s when you would call to go surfing. Your mark is on me Jimmy, as it is on all of us who have spent time with you in the water. It is the mark of yes! Yes to life in all its adventures, in all its sorrows and now to all of its grief.

You leave with many incredible legacies, uncountable really, but clearly it is the legacy of Yes that has so defined you and the code you lived by.  Everytime I pull off something extraordinary in the water your mark is on me. Like everyone here today I am so grateful for your presence in my life. So whenever we are homebound and struck with fear or laziness, and we ask ourselves would Jimmy say yes, we already know the answer
My last words to him were “I love you, Jimmy.” And he smiled and looked up to me and said “I love you too” Then I kissed the top of his sweet bald head and said good by.

From Todd Mintz:

I have many Jimbo stories but the one that stands out most for me occurred
on an JASA trip. We had been diving with Great Hammerheads and at the end of
the day the Hammerhead was at the surface. The crew was using rope bait to
coax it in and Jimbo decided to try and outswim the Hammerhead to the bait
when it was thrown out into the water. As the bait was pulled towards the
boat Jim did not outswim the Hammerhead and came crashing nose to nose with
it. Needless to say the image caught was humourous as it was not in focus as
he was well much too close. (Anything to get the shot). I will truly miss
Jim’s generousity, passion, skill and inspiration. Jim was my first mentor
and I hope to continue too always make him proud. I can see Jim snorkelling
with the dolphins now.

Jim Watt goes head to head with a great hammerhead (photo: Eric Cheng)

Jim Watt, after surfacing from his great hammerhead encounter (photo: Eric Cheng)

From Chip and Susan Scarlett:

Jim Watt was the consumate professional photographer who never lost his enthusiasm for ocean or its inhabitants. He was a terrific friend to all who ever dived with him, as well as to his big-animal photographic subjects. Even during his chemo and radiation therapy he was sending out a non-stop stream of emails extolling his latest oceanic discoveries off Kona, often accompanied by new, stunning images of whales, sharks and other favorite animals. Jim never conceded to his illness, and if heaven for Jim is underwater, even now he’s grinning through his regulator with his strobes firing non-stop.

Jim Watt with 2 tiger sharks (photo: Chip Scarlett)

From Fred Wobus:

Jim Watt’s death comes as a shock and I am deeply saddened to see him go. I met him years ago at Wakatobi and listened keenly to his seminars on underwater photography in general and its digital side in particular. His inspiration was one of the reasons I took up underwater photography myself.

My favourite Jim Watt quote was his response to my question what his favourite underwater creature was - “Any old critter as long as it sits still!” At that point I had never used a housed SLR for myself, and it was not until later that I realised how right he was.

I consider him to be one of the greatest wideangle photographers out there, just watching him work and seeing the incredible results later was pure joy.

The world has lost a rare and inspiring talent. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

More tributes and articles:

- Stephen Frink, Scuba Diving Magazine
- West Hawaii article (requires registration)
- Obituary, DEMA