Under the sea: Jasper man explores ocean life

Posted 8/5/18

Russell Twilley spends many hours staring at computer and phone screens in his job as student information systems coordinator at the Walker County Board of Education. When he needs a break, he …

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Under the sea: Jasper man explores ocean life


Russell Twilley spends many hours staring at computer and phone screens in his job as student information systems coordinator at the Walker County Board of Education. 

When he needs a break, he can escape in his mind to the warm depths of the Caribbean or the cool, clear waters of South Carolina's Lake Jocassee. 

Twilley, a Cordova native who has spent his adult life in Jasper, realized a lifelong dream when he became a certified scuba diver in 2009.

"It was one of those things that I always wanted to do, but if I had the money, I was working two or three jobs and didn't have the time, and if I didn't have two or three jobs, I was nervous about spending that kind of money," Twilley said.

After the deaths of his wife and parents, Twilley began wondering how he would fill the hours when it came time to retire. 

He considered sailing as an option and began researching the topic in books he checked out from Jasper Public Library. Several  recommended that sailors learn to scuba dive so they can work on their boats.

The time seemed right to learn to scuba dive. 

Twilley hasn't retired yet, but he has explored the various waters of the world.

His hobby has taken him to eight different countries so far. Though he loves diving the tropical waters of Belize or Bonaire (part of the Dutch Caribbean), he also enjoys diving in the murky, alligator-infested rivers of South Carolina.

Shark teeth and other interesting relics he has recovered on these dives were on display at Jasper Public Library throughout the summer.

Twilley is particularly intrigued by shipwrecks. 

One of his first dives was of the Black Bart in Panama City, Florida. The ship was an offshore oilfield supply vessel before being sunk as an artificial reef in 1993. 

Inspired by the 2004 book "Shadow Divers" about the discovery of a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, Twilley began researching dives off the North Carolina coast, nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."

"There are sunken World War II ships just 20 miles off the coast. I've actually been inside a U-boat. You can't go in it anymore. It is amazing to see the mangled mess of these ships, and it's scary to think how close they got," Twilley said.

Once the tourist season has passed, Twilley plans to dive in the area of  the USS Oriskany, the aircraft carrier that Lt. Commander John McCain flew off of in 1967 the day that he was shot down and became a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

The Oriskany now rests in 215 feet of water off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.

He also hopes to one day descend into the Mount Everest of scuba diving, the SS Andrea Doria. The Italian ocean liner sank after the MS Stockholm collided with it off the coast of Natucket, Massachusetts, in 1956. 

His other dream dive is Truk Lagoon in Micronesia. Much of the Imperial Japanese naval fleet was based at Truk during World War II. In February 1944, the U.S. Navy launched an attack that destroyed over 40 ships and 200 planes.

"It was basically our revenge for Pearl Harbor. Over there, the rules and regulations aren't what we have in America. There's still live ammunition in there. It's just like it was when it sank," Twilley said.