Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jeffrey "Hammerhead" Philips

Jeffrey Knox Philips, an internationally known underwater naturalist, has pursued his passion for large marine animals such as hammerhead and tiger sharks, humpback whales, sea lions, and manatees around the world from Bridgetown, Barbados; Peti-Goave, Haiti, to Lucuala, Fiji. Twice winner of the Okefenokee Wildlife annual contest for his underwater photography, his photographs often appear in the pages and on the covers of half a dozen dive magazines. 

His articles have appeared in Florida Scuba News and Shark Diver magazine and his video footage has been used in several documentaries aired on the Discovery Channel. As an underwater naturalist he often is interviewed on TV by CBS affiliate WPECand NBC affiliate WPTV in south Florida, as well as nationally, which has helped to get the word out about the destruction of turtle nesting sites, over harvesting of lobsters and anchor damage on the coral reefs. He also offers advice on undersea homeland security issues. So when he decided to write mystery novels, the sea was a natural setting.

Jeff, you have an impressive background in underwater photography. How did your interest in large marine animals come about?

It is easier for a large animal to fill the viewfinder than it is for a little guy. Photographing flighty palm-size fish becomes frustrating unless you have lots of patience. The key for me was to start with slow moving, fat creatures. Manatees are easy to learn the craft. After gaining confidence and experience, I set my lens on french angelfish, queen angels, rainbow parrotfish, each species getting a little larger. The most curious were nassau groupers who seemed to enjoy seeing their reflection in the dome ports or lens glass.

What’s a shark rodeo? And why do you prefer to photograph hammerhead and tiger sharks?

I believe “Shark Rodeo” was first coined by the dive staff on Walkers Cay, Bahamas in the ‘80s. They would take a 50 gallon trash barrel, fill it full of fish and freeze it, thus making a chumsicle. Once frozen, they’d take it out to a sandy bottom site that is surrounded by brain corals with a boat load of nervous divers. Over the years the sharks learned that anytime they heard the whine of a particular boat propeller, that they would get fed. While revving the diesel engines , the Bahamian boat captain said “I’m ringing the dinner bell. Time for supper.”

The divers then descended into about 30 feet of water and laid or knelt on the sandy bottom. The frozen chumsicle, tied to a float ball, would stay suspended about 15 feet below the surface. As soon as the ball started to melt, the sharks swam in. Not a few, but around a hundred. Nurse sharks, black tips, Caribbean reef, and bull sharks. The divers had to follow one rule, don’t touch the bait and stay at least 15 feet away from the frozen fish chunks. The sharks would circle the bait ball, tearing bits out of it, just like a wild rodeo. The sharks often swam between the divers, over the divers, around the divers. Strobes firing from cameras, newbie divers and first timers wide eyed. Definitely a heart pumping, adrenalin pulsing time. Often nurse sharks would lie beside divers to rest and hope to get scratched. The encounter lasted little over an hour. Plenty of time to capture an award winning shot and memories never to be forgotten.

What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in underwater? And how did you survive?

The most dangerous situation? Sun burn. And so far I’m surviving. The dermatologist says I have perfect skin. Some of the more interesting: Cave diving at a place called Eagle’s Nest. After squeezing through a chute about the diameter of a fireplace chimney, I popped out into an opening larger than a small island. OK, maybe not that large, but large enough that my silver-cadium battery lights didn’t reach the cave’s sides. Another one of interest, swimming into a school of silversides that blocked out all sunlight. Or being boomed by a 300 pound goliath grouper. Every bone in my body vibrated. Maybe dancing with a six foot green moray. Or how about a bull shark biting into my fin and giving it a shake so violent I thought he broke my leg. It’s hard to decide the most interesting. I always say, the next encounter I’m going to have.

Why did you leave corporate America at the height of your career ten years ago to take fledgling naturalists on dive trips to educate them about coral spawning, turtle nesting, fish dancing and other wonders of the deep?

It was an easy decision. Should I stay in a high rise tower with a window view of the world, or take my friend’s job invitation to work every day on the ocean? Working in corporate America has many advantages, job security, health care benefits, paid vacation, a nice salary, and more. But when I started sitting in the bathtub every night wearing my mask, fins, and snorkel, my wife said it was time to change jobs and be a dive guide. I left an environment where people were unhappy, always striving to produce more, work harder, meet unrealistic goals for a work atmosphere where every day I met happy people. Divers who look forward to see sights most people in this world cannot even imagine. How do you compare anything to watching at 2am a 200 pound loggerhead turtle lug her body up on the sandy beach, spend an hour digging a nest, laying 200 eggs, then crawl back to the sea. How about coral spawning? Around midnight on a full moon in August seeing millions of BB size eggs being ejected out of star coral, floating to the surface and fish coming in to gorge themselves. Some people comment on the beauty of a blue sky. That is pale when descending into the depths of blue in the ocean. The shades turn darker and more vibrant in the depths. Once the ocean salt entered in my veins, I keep being called back like an outgoing tide.

When and why did you decided to write underwater mysteries?

I was told to write about what I know. But better advice, write about what you love. The ocean has me handcuffed to it. I feel at home in salty water. Ever since I was a kid pulling on my first set of fins, I loved to read mysteries. Thus the two just naturally formed.

Tell us about your protagonist .

Jesse Stoker is also a man who loves the ocean. The only thing he really wants to do in life is take people diving, show them the wonderful fish, and insure they have a great time. But he has demons. His wife disappeared in a scuba diving accident, the Coast Guard says her body descended into the depths and will never be found. Stoker holds himself accountable. Then a local radio personality goes missing from his boat on a night dive and it is up to him to find her and clear his name.

Your wife holds a 100-ton Coast Guard captain’s license? Please explain.

My wife, Kitty, the prettiest mermaid in the ocean, wanted to captain the dive boat we owned, while I dove with the guests. Out boat was big enough to hold 24 divers, which required her to have a 100 ton vs. a 50 ton license.

Thank you, Jeff.

You learn more about Jeffrey Phillips at his website:, his blogsite: and his Facebook page. He says, "I’m the one standing on the stern of a boat in front of a yellow shark cage cutting bait. Please 'friend' me.'" You can also find him at GoodReads, MurderMustAdvertise, Coral-reefs, Flsnorkeladdicts, Floridascubadiving and Scubadiving2.

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