My Friend Chip Matheson
I can’t remember the exact moment when I met Allister “Chip” Matheson. I know I was just a student in college though. I had seen a lot of his photos at the Aquarium since I was interested in sharks so I knew who he was, but I’m sure he didn’t know who the heck I was! Back then I was just a part timer working in the Programs division. When I think back at all the years I’ve been working at the Aquarium, Chip is always in those pictures in my mind. Even now I can see him driving his boat, pulling tons of underwater video gear out of his V10 Dodge Van, pulling on scuba gear, feeding his bearded dragon lizards, and operating one of his many cameras.
From “An Ocean of Inspiration” John Olguins book, Chip circa 1979 on a Orca photo shoot
Many years later and I’m sitting here with my head in my hands with tears welling up in my eyes and all of a sudden I’m flooded with memories. I remember watching him jump into the deep blue water on a Catalina Above and Below work trip and expertly flip his fins and drop downwards, video camera in hand. I remember seeing him in the bioluminescence room (which isn’t even at the Aquarium anymore) filming some shark eggs as they developed. In fact pretty much anytime I saw Chip he had some sort of camera equipment with him. I vividly remember one trip in particular when we had baited blue sharks for the public to see. Chip, Mike Schaadt and Keith Amador were out in the water filming them and Jeff Landesman was on deck talking to the public about what was going on. When I close my eyes I can still see them laughing as they had several big blues swirling around them, Chip had to put the camera between him and the sharks teeth sometimes. Later we all sat watching the video and saw that shark run into the camera with it’s jaws open, it wasn’t “Jaws” but it was pretty amazing.
The first time I actually got to know him was because he asked me to guard his camera equipment when he and then Chief Aquarist Lloyd Ellis were trying to collect some sandy beach fish for some video footage Chip was working on. I remember sitting on some large heavy duty camera boxes at night and watching him and Lloyd dragging a large net through the surf and then returning. They had only caught one fish and that brought a lot of laughing and jeering between him and Lloyd. Those two were great drinking buddies and would spend a lot of time together swapping stories, it was so entertaining and animated that I could watch and listen for hours. It was pretty much after that botched beach seine that I got to know him and he’d always come and talk to me to say hello. He would see me from far away and yell “Oak!” with a big smile on his face. I’d drop what I was doing to shake his hand and come and hear his latest adventure.
Chip had been working at the aquarium a long time, way before I had started. John Olguin once told me that the way Chip started was he was just a student standing on the beach. The way the story went was that a class had arrived late at the Aquarium and John was short handed, Chip was standing there watching and John grabbed him and had him teach a class on the spot. Chip was so impressed with John’s friendliness that he ended up hanging around at the Aquarium. Eventually he started working at the Aquarium, later becoming an Aquarist and then leaving to pursue his passion, underwater photography. He put together a lot of media that we still use at the Aquarium. “Shark, a new Look” was one of the slideshows he put together, it was probably the first time I ever saw a guy swimming under a great white shark out of a cage. And if you walk around the Aquarium and see the “Morning in the mudflat” video running or if you take a trip to the Science Center and see the desert tortoise video you’ll recognize some of Chip’s work.
from http://www.howardhall.com Website pix of chip circa 1985
His film career took him all over the world. Every time I’d run into him he’d tell me stories about his travels and we’d all sit spellbound as he spoke. Swimming with tiger sharks and filming them eating baby birds in one part of the world, crashing at someone’s house he had never met while shooting orca video up north, or maybe it was a Baja trip filming whales on yet another. If you pick up John Olguins book you’ll see lots of stories that include Chip, in fact I always told Chip he should write a book about his own adventures. There are few people in this world who have experience or have had the animal adventures than Chip Matheson has had.
The stories are not just limited to marine biology though! I remember Chip telling me a story about when he was young, he and his friends had found some plaster of paris in some field and they decided they’d make a cool mold of their faces. One of his buddies put two straws in his nose to breathe and they dumped the plaster onto his face. A few minutes later his friend asked, “hey is it getting hot out here?”. They were unaware that plaster had lye in it, and it began to burn as it hardened. And then ending up a few minutes later shouting “I’m burning up, get this crap off of me!!” as they hastily pulled the pieces off. Chip would always end his stories with a booming laugh, and you could not stop laughing yourself if you were around him. I can remember his big smile even now, it was a smile like a mischievous childhood grin with that twinkle in his eyes, I don’t think I ever saw Chip enter a room without smiling. I still see him like it was yesterday, big smile, red jacket and a head full of uncombed shocking blonde hair sticking out.
I think every person that met Chip instantly liked him, he had such an easygoing magnetic personality. When I was in college I had a huge collection of reptiles, chameleons, geckos, monitor lizards, snakes, you name it. Chip somehow got into reptiles as well and we’d spend time going to reptile conventions together, buying equipment and animals. We’d carpool down to San Diego and spend hours wandering around the booths, we’d always laugh because he would purposely call chameleons, CHA-meleons. “Hey Oak, did you get any new CHA-meleons?” he’d ask me. I still think about that every time I wander into a store that has reptiles.
As time went on, Chips career shifted from documentaries to main stream motion pictures. He served as safety diver, underwater tech, and underwater camera operator on movies like Pearl Harbor, Men of Honor, Deep Blue Sea, Speed 2, Lethal Weapon 4, Titanic, and The Rock among others. As his career grew we saw less and less of him, although he’d always try to make time and come and visit us when we had birthday Busy Bee sandwiches at the Korean Bell. Everytime he entered the room he’d have that big smile on his face and another great story to tell. He was a natural entertainer and even now I sit back and think about that great laugh and his stories about seeing the world.
I’ve worked at the Aquarium for more than half of my life, that is the absolute truth. I’ve had the greatest time there, over the years I’ve worked in three different divisions and I pretty much grew up there. Unfortunately since I started so young I’ve had to say goodbye to some amazing people who have had a lot of influence on the way the Aquarium is even today. John Olguin with his welcoming personality, the guy who really started the whole Aquarium. Lloyd Ellis, our former chief aquarist who in the old days had collected whales for Marineland and then moved to our facility where he innovated a lot of the materials we still use today. Bill Samarus the whale expert/science teacher who could pick up a rock and give you the history of how it was formed. And of course Chip Matheson, the underwater film expert. It is no accident that all of these guys became very good friends, they are all very very talented in many ways and left their mark around the Aquarium.
Today was a very hard day for me, it was the day I said goodbye to a friend who I’ve known for a long time. I arrived at the hospital with John Olguin’s book in my hand ready to read Chip another few pages. But I guess Chip had plans of his own, I barely had time to whisper goodbye. I’m sure at this very instant he’s sitting on some boat somewhere with John O, Lloyd, and Bill and they are laughing up a storm while clinking bottles together.
You don’t meet many people like Chip in this world, and I feel very very fortunate to have met him and it is a huge privilege for me to call him my friend.
Allister “Chip” Matheson January 10, 1960-December 23, 2012
David Trudnich was nice enough to post up many fantastic pictures of Chip. Please visit them at:
Chips Memorial Service will be On Saturday, February 2, 2013 2pm-4pm at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, 3720 Stephen M. White Drive, San Pedro, CA 90731. 310-548-7562
2 Photos from Cynthia Pusheck, private archive
2 photos from David Trudnich, private archive. I believe Chip is in the center of the photo of the group shot.
3 Photos from Kelley Wright, private archive
Chip Circa 1986 from Susan Ralston, private archive
If you have any pictures of Chip that you’d like to share please email them to me as a .jpg at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try to include them here. Thanks!
If you would like to read more about Chip as told by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium’s “Tidelines” articles, click Here