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A fitting tribute : Arlington Theatre packed to celebrate the life of Ernie Brooks

Saturday's Santa Barbara Underwater Film Festival at the Arlington Theatre was "A Tribute to Ernie Brooks." Mr. Brooks, right, is joined by friends Jean-Michel Cousteau and Virginia Sloan. THOMAS KELSEY/NEWS-PRESS PHOTO

Saturday’s Santa Barbara Underwater Film Festival at the Arlington Theatre was “A Tribute to Ernie Brooks.” Mr. Brooks, right, is joined by friends Jean-Michel Cousteau and Virginia Sloan.
THOMAS KELSEY/NEWS-PRESS PHOTO

Ernie Brooks is a lucky man. Not everybody gets to cap a career surrounded by 2,000 fans at the Arlington, in the town one once called home.

But last night the famed diver and underwater photographer had that happen as the Santa Barbara Underwater Film Festival and the Historical Diving Society devoted an entire evening to Mr. Brooks and the students who were influenced by his teachings, both aboard ship and behind the camera.

The Arlington was filled with fans and well-wishers along with members of public who were attracted by the long guest list of presenters, a who’s-who of underwater photography.

Ernie Brooks’ father started Brooks Institute, and much later, Mr. Brooks himself ran the photography school for 15 years, influencing hundreds of students, both in diving and photography.

“I just came along and I loved the sea,” he said.

The evening was emceed by Leslie Leaney, co-founder of the Historical Diving Society, who effortlessly led the evening through its numerous speakers and tributes.

He pointed out the diverse range of attendees to the event, from Singapore, France, Germany and the Caribbean, all affected in some way by Ernie Brooks.

As it was a film festival first and a tribute second, the evening kicked off with a Super 8 film from many decades ago, a family film from Dick Anderson, “Kid Diver,” footage of Mr. Anderson’s child trying on and using different diving apparatus in the Beverly Hills Hilton hotel pool, narrated by Mr. Anderson (who died many years ago.)

After that, Dan Orr introduced David Doubilet, who showed footage of a small island he returned to after many decades and shot for National Geographic.

“Santa Barbara is the epicenter for underwater photography,” said Mr. Doubilet.

“Though people in Monterey may disagree, and certain filmmakers in San Diego may have some problems with that, and people in Sydney, Australia, or France, or Princeton, New Jersey, may too … they don’t have what we have, and that’s Ernie Brooks.”

Mr. Doubilet, like many of the presenters, came to Brooks Institute (in his case, in 1965), and fell under the tutelage of Mr. Brooks.

After his footage, the tribute focused on five students who became crew members of the Just Love, Mr. Brooks’ boat that became a floating classroom.

One student was Tim Angulo, who became an in-demand Hollywood cinematographer. The other four still work in underwater photography or film: Louis Prezelin, Ralph Clevenger, Chuck Davis and Richard Salas. Only Mr. Davis could not be at the evening’s event, as he was working.

Before the intermission, Mr. Brooks took the stage, dressed up in a tuxedo and a medal around his neck, and introduced a slide show of his best known black-and-white work, set to music.

The evening continued with appearances from Zale Perry (the young actress of “Sea Hunt,” now in her ’80s), Stan Waterman (photographer of great white sharks), Howard and Michele Hall (IMAX and National Geographic filmmakers), and Laurent Ballesta, the French filmmaker who showed his film on the coelacanth.

There was also time for a tribute to Mike deGruy, who died in 2012.

For Mr. Brooks, the evening was a fitting tribute to a long life. Asked about his choice to just shoot in black and white, he said, “I just followed a path from people I loved in the field. From Ansel Adams and Edward Steichen. I loved what I did.”

He was pleased with the event, he continued.

“You arrive in your life, which has been complete for me, and people and press realize there is something you can say to the world,” he said. “And so you reach a pinnacle.”

Mr. Brooks has not lived in Santa Barbara for 10 years, instead living in a retirement community in Lacey, Wash., and doesn’t dive anymore.

Instead, he says, he is now photographing the Earth above the surface of the water.

On the other hand, he still has a boat.

“You’ll always have a boat,” he said with a hint of mystery.

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