My Friend Chip Matheson

24 Dec

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 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

waterchip dinnerchip

2 Photos from Cynthia Pusheck, private archive

chip002 Chip_0001

2 photos from David Trudnich, private archive.  I believe Chip is in the center of the photo of the group shot.

chipprom chipdisney chipwestern

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 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


10 Responses to “My Friend Chip Matheson”

  1. Michele Letzkus December 24, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Chip was my cousin. I never got to know him very well as he was about 15 years older . I always remember being fascinated by his work. I am glad that his work is something that I can look to and at least feel like I knew some part of him.

    • oakpwr December 24, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

      Hi Michele, how did you hear about the blog I wrote about him? Chip was an amazing guy and a great friend. So enthusiastic and he never had anything negative to say about anything. All of at the aquarium will definitely miss him as will the rest of his friends and family, I know he had a lot of visitors the past few weeks, everytime I was there I’d bump into someone.

    • Sue Ralston December 30, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

      How are you related? I thought I knew all of his cousins.

  2. Cynthia Pusheck December 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Thanks so much for posting this! I just put some photos of Chip up on FB and my brother in law forwarded this link. (Not sure how he found it!) I worked with Chip on some of those movies you mentioned years ago. He was very sweet, funny and special. I hadn’t seen him in a few years and was heartbroken to find out he died. Thanks again for sharing your memories.

  3. Sue Ralston December 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    I’m Chip’s Aunt Susan. This is a wonderful tribute to him. Your description of his laugh was right on. The only thing left out was the giggle. He always giggled when he was up to something. Thank You for sharing your memories.

  4. David Trudnich December 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    What a great tribute to a great guy! I never had better times than when Chip and I hung out. One time I literally almost passed out from laughing too much! Seeing Chip laid up in the hospital was very hard for me. But I knew it was even harder for him. I know he’s in a better place! Say hi to your Mom for me, good buddy!

  5. Steve Schiotis December 31, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    I first met Chip in PE class at Dana Junior High School. He was grinning about something, but, that’s what made him stand out to me. I started just hanging around because regardless of who he was talking to, anyone within ear range would have a great laugh over whatever it was he was commenting about. As we moved on to high school, we would hang out by the Science Building during nutrition and lunch breaks. It was a group of us, David Trudnich, Chip, Larry DiLeva, Don Schutt, and of course whatever girls came by to chat with us. We would always go back to class rejuvenated over the endorphins Chip released with his humor. The best times I remember were in Mrs. Fosters English class. That is when I found out what a great cartoonist Chip was! OMG! Usually within 15 minutes, he would pass me a cartoon he drew, and I would bust up laughing for a good five minutes, totally disrupting the class. The whole time, Chip would just sit back with that grin on his face, like he was innocent as a baby! One day we had a substitute teacher, and Chip, as usual, passed me a cartoon. I started busting up again. The substitute didn’t know what to do. She asked the class if I was OK. The unanimous reply was: He always does this. None of our classmates EVER knew that Chip was the root of my belly busting laughs in that class! Unfortunately, after we graduated, we all started our lives, and I never had the chance to see Chip’s grin again. But, his legacy has lived on with my siblings. Every one of them knows about Crokiller!

  6. Kelley Wright January 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Chip Matheson was my first big love. We were together our junior and senior years of high school. We went to different schools (I was at Miraleste, he was at San Pedro High), but we met at the Cabrillo Beach Marine Museum. Chip was the best boyfriend a teenager could ever hope for. He was funny, kind, caring, had a passion for life, and loved to go on adventures. I remember endless school dances since we went to all of them at both schools. I remember sitting in his parents house kitchen talking and laughing with his mom (Nancy) and his stepdad (Bob) while eating her amazing homemade trifle. I remember hours of driving in his old green truck with the shell listening to Fleetwood Mac Rumours and Dan Fogelberg tapes on our way to go whale watching, rock climbing, tide pooling, snorkeling, or to hang with friends. One time, we were tide pooling at Bluff Cove, and just to be sassy I said, “Well the stuff here is pretty interesting, but what I’d really like to see is an octopus.” He said, “Oh yeah? Well, octopi like to live under big flat rocks like this one…” Damn if he didn’t flip that rock over and there was an octopus under it. It surprised him as much as me and we both laughed so hard in amazement! His instincts around the ocean were uncanny. The ocean was a part of him, and him part of it. He could never get enough of it. I am very grateful for the time I spent with Chip those years, and years after as friends, and I am better for it.

    Thank you for your writings. They were very comforting and brought back many memories. Photos of Chip and I are on Dave Trudnich’s Facebook photo page.

    Kelley Wright

    • Sue Ralston January 12, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      One of my memories of you, Kelley, and Chip was him pushing you around the house on the desk chair. It was his 18th birthday and being his Aunt, I got to help chaperone. Everybody seemed to be having a great time. (the chaperones were in the kitchen)

  7. Kelley Wright January 10, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    Happy Birthday, Chip, and rest in peace.

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