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Sea Tales Of A Motivational Speaker: ‘Inspiring audiences to jump into the unknown alongside me’

Jan 24, 2021 10:52AM ● By Rusty Farst

To my delight, my bucket list of “done that” items now outweighs the size of my bucket. Accomplishments include joyfully riding wild elephants in Sri Lanka, glacier trekking on top of behemoth ice flows in Alaska and scuba exploring a 400-foot German gunship off the shores of Aruba. Did I accidentally exchange briefcases with an international spy at an airport? My world has become so much bigger than I’d dared to dream.

I have always said, “It is not who you know—but who knows you.” About four years ago, when good friend Ken Bergeron visited my Sanibel Island home to say his employer at Celebrity Cruises was looking for speakers to “enhance the passenger experience,” I jumped at the opportunity. 

I didn’t know it then, but my career as an underwater filmmaker was about to explode. (More than half a lifetime ago, at age 28, I’d donned a scuba tank and jumped into the Gulf of Mexico off Sanibel. After surfacing, I was changed. I became fascinated by sea creatures and began photo-documenting this boundless liquid world, most often exploring at night. Exchanging gravity for buoyancy became my obsession.) 

Despite having limited public speaking experience, I convinced myself I could succeed and contacted Celebrity. After seeing my YouTube videos, they hired me over the telephone as a “Beyond the Podium” motivational speaker. I’d need six 40-minute presentations. 

As an explorer for the past 30 years, I toted my cameras on every scuba dive, not knowing who my audience would be. I was being given the opportunity to travel the globe, speaking to people from almost every nation, sharing experiences from my underwater world.

Of course because of COVID-19, it’s now an uncertain time for the cruise ship industry and for my plans. But during 2019, Celebrity sailed me to more than 30 countries, for 119 days on six ships. It was a pretty full schedule for a motivational speaker. I’d present in the main auditorium when at sea, then explore when we were in port—a perfect scenario. Sometimes I invited my college-age son, Zach, on Caribbean sails because he loves scuba diving. 

Most cruises were destinations in which they flew me to the port and I sailed two back-to-back itineraries—in the same room, with the same ports in reverse. I went underwater in every port where I could find a scuba tank, filming places others have only read about. 

The good news was that I often captured local underwater video footage on the first voyage, to add to my return-trip presentations. The bad news? Wet scuba gear weighs a ton when flying, as does my underwater camera gear. I quickly learned to pack just the essentials. 

While hard for me to imagine, I know there are people who’ve had negative experiences on cruise ships. Rough seas perhaps? The “gift” of hearty sea legs is actually no gift at all: It must be mustered from within with purpose—until mastered for the “payoff.” 

Sailing through the night hours and awakening to a different port every morning is the magic of cruising. Relaxing to a red-orange sunset off the coast of Thailand and, hours later, enjoying breakfast by a mesmerizing sunrise over Sri Lanka is almost unfathomable. 

At first, I had no idea what I was getting into; but entering an unknown situation has become my comfort zone. I got personal with my audiences from the start, sharing my humble roots growing up on a farm in the fields of Ohio, living on Sanibel for the past 40 years, and now having the privilege to sail around the world.

I became more confident and spontaneous with every presentation and venues started filling, sometimes to capacity. With occasional stage fright, I entertained audiences ranging from three people to a thousand. I told stories of my underwater cave explorations, discoveries of shipwrecks laden with lost treasures, riding whale sharks and wrangling giant Pacific octopus. 

My presentations constantly evolved because I edited in adventures from my port excursions. While showcasing my photographs, I’d talk about motivational themes such as mentorship, pushing beyond our comfort zones, the importance of teamwork, encountering creatures larger than ourselves and the benefits of proper training.

I produced a minute-long commercial that aired on a continuous loop on the cruise TV channel—and then was often recognized by passengers asking for an autograph. Apparently, I became a Celebrity celebrity!

A Few of the Experiences

 Dare to hear just a few of the experiences I enjoyed during those 119 days at sea? While aboard Celebrity’s Reflection, I sailed to St. Petersburg, Russia, from Amsterdam, for a four-day stay in Russia. St. Petersburg’s architecture and history are its highlights. Golden-domed museums are full of da Vincis and Rembrandts, among many other artists’ works; Peterhof Palace radiates unending wealth, genius and dynasty. 

Another Reflection trip sailed from Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, to Singapore, then returned—for a four-week cruise. I took the opportunity to contact Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo’s managers, and Al Boom Diving, located under the world’s tallest artificial structure, Burj Khalifa.

At 829.8 meters tall and totaling 160 stories, Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo encompasses 6 million gallons of seawater. Australian diver Mark Henry and I were allowed to explore outside the shark cage, to capture footage of sharks up close. It was unusual to get that kind of permission, and we took a major risk. With five different species of shark in the aquarium, the tiger shark was the most interested in us, swimming closer than the bull sharks and hammerhead sharks. 

On Celebrity’s Millennium, I sailed up the inner coast of Alaska from Vancouver. I teamed with a local scuba buddy into the waters near Ketchikan, Alaska’s first city. The tide moves 18 feet up and down, twice a day, each taking six hours—which left us a small one-hour low-tide window to scuba the frigid cold bottom at 138 feet, our agreed-upon limit that day. 

We quickly dressed and mentally prepared ourselves for the dive, where the tides can move up to 5 knots during tide change. As I had learned from diving the Great Lakes, cold water means hot colors. Red, yellows, purples and oranges; colors “popped” while I took close-ups with my underwater lights and camera gear. 

I felt my new dry suit leaking as I descended, my fault for turning the neck seal wrong-side out. But I kept on as my body temperature lowered with each submerged minute. How long could I endure the pain of hypothermia and photograph spectacular sea stars, sea cucumbers, anemones? All were patiently waiting to be movie stars. Lesson learned—no new, untested equipment without a pre-dive check.

The following day, having the luck of a clear-weather window from the fog, I flew by helicopter from Juneau to a landing zone halfway up Mendenhall Glacier. Our guide attached stainless steel spikes to our boots for traction because one fall could slice open flesh like razor blades. The ice is extremely sharp and slippery, with hidden crevasses and waterfalls.

The best I can describe is that it was like walking on the moon, but of course with gravity. Among all the activities I do, glacier trekking ranks in the top 10. The ice is eight times denser than home freezers make, and a color blue that only more than 800 years of compaction and sunlight can create. 

The ice has literally captured the blue sky in its frozen crystals through eons of time—a true-blue that God and nature can provide. As I trekked, I lowered myself and knelt beside a small running trickle, then drank from the source of the freshest water on the earth. Cold, refreshing and as pure as the sky itself. Alaska continues to be our truly untamed wilderness.

I’ve heard that in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught. It’s up to each individual to discover and study what is beautiful about our blue planet. 

I sought to inspire audiences to not just see my images and hear my stories, but to personally absorb them, to jump into the unknown alongside me. I found that when I confidently advanced in the direction of my dreams, I was met with unexpected success. Sharing my passion for underwater exploration has been one of the richest experiences of my life. And I long for more, because I haven’t come this far just to come this far.

Longtime Sanibel resident Rusty Farst directs documentaries about the history of Sanibel and Captiva, the communities and the people. He continues to pursue his passions for scuba diving and adventure.