We chat to underwater stunt performer, accomplished freediver and shark wrangler Liz Parkinson about the attraction of breath-hold diving, working on blockbusters such as Avatar: The Way of Water, and her love affair with sharks.
As we usually do to kickstart proceedings, how did you first get into scuba diving?
A: I grew up as a competitive swimmer in South Africa, where everything I did revolved around a pool and my training schedule. However, I do remember before practice one Saturday morning, there was a scuba demonstration taking place in the diving well. We were asked if we would like to try it out, and I jumped at the opportunity. After a quick briefing, and distribution of the gear, I took my first breaths underwater.
It was not until I was at the University of Hawaii many years later that I got certified, but that first experience always stuck with me. My relationship with water changed that day, and it was not until years later that I realized, it had been the first step I took in setting up my future career and adventures.
You are a very experienced scuba diver, but you are perhaps better known for your freediving exploits. What are the major differences between the two disciplines for you, and if you had to choose one over the other, which way would you lean?
A: For me, scuba diving and freediving go hand in hand but yet, apart from the obvious difference, challenge me and service me in different ways. In my personal life, my time is split fairly evenly between the two. There are just some adventures in a cave or a deep wreck where having a tank on your back or sides is a must. Then with freediving it is the challenge of breath-hold, and the physical demands of the sport that add to the incredible feeling of being underwater.
In the projects that I have found myself working on most recently, breath-hold performance had dominated.
Unless a project is directly focused around scuba diving, (ie. documentary), I tend to find work mostly requires freediving. I do like to hold my breath, maybe it stems from my swimming background, but to be honest, I am quite happy just being underwater.
You are a PADI IDC Staff Instructor. How often do you still get to teach people to dive, and is it usually celebrities, or do you certify lesser mortals too?
A: Ha ha, I teach all kinds of people. Although these days I mostly teach people who need either scuba or freediving skills for a role, I do still manage to certify all levels.
One of the most-rewarding things is when an actor or even just someone on set goes out on their own after filming has wrapped and gets a certification. We may have not had enough time to complete a full course during filming, but they fell in love with it and want to pursue the sport.
Every now and again, I will have someone text me a photo of themselves with their family on vacation, or the face of their freediving computer showing me their latest and best freediving static time. It’s a great feeling, and why I got into teaching in the first place.
Following on from that ref celebrities, who have been some of the most-memorable to teach?
A: Water is such an interesting medium to work in. Some people take to it very well, while others hate it, and would never put themselves anywhere near a situation that we have to help them act out on a breath-hold or with scuba gear. My job is all about making that individual relaxed, confident and most importantly, feel safe. I have been fortunate and worked mostly with people who can’t wait to learn how to hold their breath longer or feel what it’s like to breathe underwater.
Working with Hugh Jackman on the 2021 Lisa Joy film Reminiscense was an absolute pleasure. Both Hugh and his stunt double Daniel Stevens crushed the training for their underwater fight scene. The cast of Avatar – Steven Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Cliff Curtis, Bailey Bass, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Britain Dalton, Jack Champion and Jamie Flatters – trained for a year with Kirk Krack to be able to do the breath-holds required for their performances. Part of my job was to not only be their safety, but also help warm them up ‘on the day’ and do small training sessions to keep their breath-holds strong between shoot days.
Netflix’s mini-series Thai Cave Rescue was another opportunity to work with actors who had little to no water experience. This situation was slightly different because we had to make a group of actors look like some of the best sidemount cave divers in the world. I had the added task of training two of the Thai actors – Tok Supakorn Kitsuwon and Beam Papangkorn Lerkchaleampote – to hold their breath in tight confined overhead environments for their roles.
Speaking of celebrities, you are now getting well established as a stunt performer on the Hollywood and TV circuit, having been involved in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, F9: The Fast Saga, Thai Cave Rescue and, of course, the mega-blockbuster Avatar: The Way of Water. How did you first come to get involved in the world of underwater stunt diving?
A: Hollywood is such a competitive environment as there are so many people who are great at what they do. This is one of the things I love about it. No matter who you are, everyone brings something different to the table and along with them experience from a different beginning. Swimming was my passion as a kid. I loved nothing more than training and racing other people. It really gave me a strong foundation to build the career I have today.
Swimming gave me an understanding of how to feel water, how to move through it and how to use it to my advantage. In some ways, I feel more comfortable in the water than I do on land.
My exposure to film and television did not really begin until I moved to the Bahamas and started to work at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. I began watching and learning how production worked and was given opportunities to be both in front of and behind the camera. Ever job that I do is different, not only in task but people too. I try and go into each project with a ‘Beginners Mind’. I am still learning and like golf will spend the rest of my career learning. I love this aspect of the job, learning from others and improving my skill set.
We spoke in the last issue to Kirk Krack and John Garvin about their work behind the scenes on Avatar: The Way of Water. What was it like to spend literally years of your life working on a project as massive as this one?
A: I feel very honoured to have been part of this incredible film by James Cameron, and producer Jon Landau. It truly was a remarkable experience, one that I had no idea would impact my life the way it did.
I spent two years on Pandora, working with the best in their field. We really became a family, I guess it is hard not to when we would spend 12-16 hours in the water a day with each other! However, that being said, our support system and team went far beyond what we were doing in the water. On a project of this size, it takes many, many people to keep the machine running. Avatar was film-making on steroids.
Avatar was hard work and challenging. We were doing long breath-holds, day in and day out, for months on end. Our team was strong though and we gave it our all.
The reward was watching it together before it was released to the world. It’s funny, it wasn’t until I saw how some scenes came out that I only then realized what Jim was talking about on set. The guy truly does have an incredible imagination!
You are also an accomplished shark wrangler, having spent many hours in the water with sharks in the Bahamas and around the world. What is it about sharks that you find so fascinating, and how do you build the right mindset to dive with them safely?
A: Shark are greatly misunderstood. The media has not been kind to these apex predators over the years. Phrases like ‘shark infested’ and ‘man eaters’ have been detrimental to sharks. Portraying them as sinister beasts, supported and enhanced by far-fetched films and television portrayals. It’s shocking how little people know and understand about sharks, yet are quick to jump on the bandwagon of Jaws and unsupported facts.
I was exposed to sharks at a young age by my parents who taught me to make my own decisions about them, but whatever decision I came to, I must respect them, and I have carried that ideal throughout my life. When I lived in the Bahamas, I was exposed to many species of sharks.
It was so interesting to me how different the species were to one another. How they interacted with humans, how they were drawn into bait and, in general, how individual they were within their own species. Sharks are so well evolved into the environment they live, and not to mention so important to the balance of the entire ocean ecosystem.
What is your most-memorable diving experience?
A: There are so many moments it is hard to pick out one, but I would have to say, on breath-hold, it was the first time I was at Tiger Beach swimming with tiger sharks. They are my favourite, and for anyone who has been to this idyllic spot in the Bahamas, you will know just how big these sharks are. I remember laying on the sand in 12m of water looking towards the surface, through a spiralling circle of about 120 individual sharks of five different species. It was a magical moment.
If I only had one chance to do one more scuba dive, I would again pick this one shark dive I did in the Bahamas. It was a night dive with sharks for a documentary. I was in charge of the bait, so jumped in the water and had 30 Caribbean reef sharks swimming around me. When I got to the bottom, something had gone wrong with the camera and so it went back up to the surface with everyone else – and the light! I was right under the boat in the dark.
So having been to that dive site many times, I sat on the bait box and waited. As the underwater night life began to get more excited, swimming and bumping into me, I noticed the bioluminescence that followed them. It was incredible. I stood up and started pushing my hands through the water. I had seen it before, but not in the shape of 30 sharks and fish swimming around me.
I felt that I was in the Disney film Fantasia, and now maybe more appropriately, Pandora. The team on the boat had no idea what they missed!
On the flipside, what is your worst diving memory?
A: It was one of the first dives that I did when I was a newly certified diver. My friends and I had gone exploring on the south side of Oahu, Hawaii, and misjudged the exit point. It all came down to pure inexperience, but I found myself hanging on to a three-metre cliff with full dive gear on, scrabbling to get up onto a ledge.
The huge breaking waves on my back, sea urchins and sharp rocks made it a pretty miserable experience. The dive too had been pretty rough – strong currents, running out of air in a place we knew we should not have been.
It did have a lasting impact on me, as it is the first question I ask myself in a lot of the stuff I do now, ‘How do I get myself out of this if I have to?’
What does the future hold for Liz Parkinson (other than gracing the Main Stage at the GO Diving Show in March)?
A: Ah, that is always a tricky question to answer as things tend to change all the time and often quickly. That being said, I do have a couple projects developing now which I am excited about. They will be challenging, and different, for me so I am stoked to see those build. I also try and squeeze in a couple travel adventures in the year if I can. I do like to make these non-water adventures, but fail miserably most of the time in that planning.
Otherwise, continue to work on some conservation goals with Shark Angels and PADI Aware. It is encouraging to see the increased focus on ocean conservation and the traction that this awareness is gaining.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #70.