UnderSea Film Exhibition showcases La Jolla talent

By Gina McGalliard

San Diego is home to one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, the San Diego UnderSea Film Exhibition, to be held at Qualcomm Hall’s new, large-screen auditorium on Friday and Saturday night, Oct. 12-13.

Longtime local diver and cinematographer Chuck Nicklin, 80, an event promoter who has dived all over the world including Alaska and Antarctica, said three quarters of this year’s exhibited films will be in high definition. Each evening will feature a different set of films, from both amateurs and professionals, with many showing both nights. Each film is limited to five minutes. Some will be even shorter.

Diver/cinematographer Karen Straus said shorter length results in higher-quality films, since filmmakers are then required to showcase their best footage. She added there are a wide variety of films being shown, some depicting the ocean’s beauty, some comic, some scientific. She said the films are taken from locations around the globe featuring everything from marine life to shipwrecks. “Films we see at our film festival are very current,” Straus said.

“We have some fantastic films coming,” Nicklin agreed. “The whole idea is to make people aware of how wonderful it is down in the ocean.”

Nicklin noted the La Jolla area is the perfect setting to host an undersea film festival because La Jolla Cove enjoys a long history with scuba diving. “I think La Jolla Cove is one of the prime spots in the United States,” he said, adding a wide variety of marine life can be found there, everything from harbor seals, clawless tropical lobsters, abalone and giant sea bass - which can weigh up to 400 pounds - even an occasional whale which will get lost and swim into the Cove. La Jolla also has a giant kelp bed, a haven for sea life.

According to Straus, San Diego is also a prime location for this type of festival, since it contains both a thriving scientific community and a large number of underwater photographers. Also, she said, Chuck Nickin is considered a pioneer in the field of diving, with more than 60 years of experience. “San Diego has always been on the cutting edge of diving,” Straus said.

The undersea film festival started back in 2000 when a group of local divers who took underwater films wanted to create a forum to share their material. The first event was held at the San Diego Zoo and shown to an audience of 150 people. For the next seven years, the festival was held at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park, which seated about 300. This year is the first time the event will be held at Qualcomm Hall, which seats 528 and has a digital projection system.

The festival, which has sold out every year, has grown in popularity not only with audiences, but with underwater cinematographers as well, said diver and film exhibitor Mary Lynn Price.

Nicklin said the event used to feature work exclusively from local filmmakers, but this year they have received submissions from as far away as Israel and Japan. “The quality of the films has increased astronomically,” said Price.

Nicklin added they’ve received many more films than they have room to show. Straus feels the increasing popularity of the film fest is partially due to the fact that ocean and environmental issues have increasingly been in the news. “One of the things we really try to emphasize in the videos is how beautiful and fragile the underwater world really is,” said Price. “Most of the filmmakers feel that if people have a better understanding of what’s out in the ocean, they will care more about it and work to protect it.”

The audience at the festival draws from both the diving community and people who are simply interested in the environment and natural history. Straus said that, every year, she sees both people who have attended previously as well as newcomers.

Although the films will be judged by a panel of three judges and given a rating, there are no cash or other rewards awarded to any particular films. “We’ve always tried to avoid a competitive aspect,” said Straus.

Tickets are kept at a nominal cost, so the revenue generated from sales goes toward holding the festival again the following year. The event has no sponsor and is put on by the same group of divers and photographers that started it eight years ago. Nicklin said his hope is simply that the festival is successful enough to be held again next year. “It all just goes back into the event,” said Straus.

Nicklin said throughout his many years of diving, he has seen the popularity of the sport grow a great deal. But now he thinks it is slowing down. He attributes this change to young people not being as interested, perhaps because diving is safer now and no longer contains much of a thrill factor. Small diving shops are also going out of business because many people are buying their equipment online.

Tickets for each showing cost $15 and can be purchased from Bob Gladden at (858) 695-0264 or They are also available at the Bottom Bunch Dive Club, OEX, Ocean Enterprises, San Diego Underwater Adventures, The Diving Locker, The Dive Shack in El Cajon, Aqua Tech Dive Center and San Diego Shark Diving.

Seating is open and parking is free on the Qualcomm campus. The doors will open 30 minutes before show time.

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