Lotte Hass: Diving and photography pioneer whose work with her husband gave valuable insights into ocean wildlife


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The Independent Online

Lotte Hass was a diver and undersea photography pioneer who worked with her husband, the oceanographer Hans Hass.

The couple found fame in Britain in the 1950s through two television nature film series which provided an engaging insight into ocean wildlife and to the trials and tribulations of underwater photography.

She was born Charlotte Baierl in Vienna in 1928. As a 19-year-old who had just finished her exams, she had been enjoying a break away from education when, by chance, a mutual friend told her that Hass was looking for a secretary. He put Lotte in contact, an interview was arranged within half an hour and an hour later she had the job.  “Hans Hass was my idol, our idol,” she said, “the idol of my class, of my friends, of all young people. We had all devoured his book Among Coral Reefs and Sharks with great excitement.”

At first working as his secretary from Hass’s Vienna base, Lotte yearned to join a diving expedition. “Every morning before going to the office I trained for half an hour in an indoor swimming-pool”, she recalled of her secret regime. Having taught herself how to dive, she then resolved to experiment with underwater photography “While Hass was on a lecture tour in the South Tirol, I went on a private expedition... I made my way to the Alte Donau [a tributary of the Danube] ... Carrying the underwater camera I slipped down into the jungle below the surface.”

Two weeks later a photograph of her appeared on the front cover of the Wiener Illustrierte magazine, together with her article and underwater photos. “Not bad these pictures”, Hass remarked, “If you were a man, I could make use of you. Pity.”

But persistence paid off, and thanks to a request from Hass’s film company for a female lead for the next film she won over his objections. As she noted in her diary “Port Sudan, 4th April [1950]: From today I am a man...”

Hans had planned a diving expedition to the Red Sea to take place in 1950. “So far no one had dared to dive in the Rea Sea, the coasts were infested with sharks”, she recalled, now part of the pioneering team. The couple became engaged on the journey back from Port Sudan in November and married later that month.

Hass made her screen debut in the 1951 film Under the Red Sea, the result of the previous year’s expedition, which captured the first underwater pictures of a whale shark in its natural habitat. A New York Times review noted: “The figure of Miss Baierl, floating smoothly along the crags of coral in the underwater world makes an equally fascinating and dramatic contrast to the life that is there.”

The film won first prize for a documentary at that year’s Venice Film Festival. Hans was already known within his sphere as a pioneer in diving technology and undersea photography; now audiences and critics became captivated by the photogenic couple, who brought a touch of glamour to the hitherto rugged and emotionally distant world of the adventurer.

They followed up with numerous expeditions aboard Hass’s new ship, the Xarifa. Under the Caribbean (1953), shot in the Galapagos and Caribbean islands, won an Underwater Photographic Society award for its cinematography. The series Diving to Adventure (1956) and The Undersea World of Adventure (1958) were watched by millions on British television. 

She was offered roles by Hollywood but turned them down, preferring to continue her work with her husband. But after the birth of their daughter Meta in 1958 she retired from public life to spend time with the family. Hass tells her story in the book Girl on the Ocean Floor (1972) which was made into a television documentary in 2011, directed by Ben Verbong.

Mary Tetly, chief executive of the British Sub-Aqua Club, told The Independent: “Lotte Hass was widely regarded as the ‘First Lady of diving’ and her contribution to opening up the world of scuba for women cannot be overstated. A true diving pioneer, Lotte was one of the first female underwater photographers. And it was through her tenacity and skill that she also showed how women could dive and take part in challenging expeditions just as well as men.

“Lotte, along with her husband Hans, were inspirational divers and together they played a significant role in bringing scuba diving in to the mainstream and making it the popular sport it is today. She will quite rightly be remembered as the diver who opened the floodgates for women divers today.”

Charlotte Hildegard Baierl, diver and photographer: born Vienna 6 November 1928; married 1950 Hans Hass (died 2013; one daughter); died Vienna 14 January 2015.