Hans Hass, 94; explorer introduced world to sea creatures

Hans Hass produced “Under the Caribbean” in 1945.
Getty Images
Hans Hass produced “Under the Caribbean” in 1945.

NEW YORK — Hans Hass, a marine biologist and underwater filmmaker from landlocked Austria who was among the first to introduce worldwide audiences to the beauties of coral reefs, stingrays, octopuses, and sharks — especially sharks, which he considered the most beautiful and most maligned ocean creatures — died on June 16 in Vienna. He was 94.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Lotte, on his website.

Dr. Hass, whose degree was in marine biology, considered himself a scientist first and foremost, but he was best known for the 105 commercial films he made between 1948 and 1960, features as well as shorts. Almost all of them featured him and his wife, who was also an expert diver, exploring an underwater frontier largely unknown to audiences of the day: mountains of coral, clouds of fish, cruising rays and barracudas, jellyfish, wrasses, sponges, and Precambrian creatures in their alcove habitats, much of it backlighted in filtered sunlight from above.


For dramatic effect, the climax of many of the films involved a close encounter with sharks.

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Dr. Hass once claimed to have been in easy-prey range of more than 2,000 sharks in his diving career, and to have been attacked “only five times,” never suffering life-threatening injuries. Sharks, he said, were rather cautious, even cowardly, around humans as a rule and were easily warded off with a blow to the gills.

“There are more fatalities from wasps and bees than from sharks — that’s a fact known to every diver,” he said in an interview on German television in the 1990s. “It’s no problem to avoid them. The problem is to find them and photograph them.”

RKO Radio Pictures/file 1952
Dr. Hass he found unusual aqualife for “Under the Red Sea,” and below, during a diving expedition.

Dr. Hass was a rival of Jacques Cousteau, the far more famous French underwater filmmaker, who died in 1997. Though their paths diverged, the two men’s early careers were similar, and Dr. Hass claimed to have reached several milestones first.

He published his first book of underwater photographs, “Diving to Adventure,” in 1939, and released his first underwater film, “Stalking Under Water,” a year later. Cousteau made his first film in 1942 and published his first book “10 Fathoms Down,” in 1946.


Dr. Hass also claimed to have been the first to use oxygen-delivery equipment for underwater exploration, in the early 1950s, while Cousteau continued using an older technology. Both received international acclaim for their documentary films: Dr. Hass won first prize at the Venice Film Festival for his first feature, “Under the Red Sea,” in 1951, and Cousteau won an Academy Award in 1957 for his first feature, “The Silent World,” based on his 1953 book of the same title, which he directed with Louis Malle. By most accounts, Dr. Hass developed one of the first underwater cameras.

Tim Ecott, the author of “Neutral Buoyancy” (2001), a history of underwater exploration, asked Dr. Hass if he resented Cousteau’s greater renown. “No, why should I be bitter? The sea is so big,” Dr. Hass replied. He then added sharply: “For Cousteau there existed only Cousteau. He never acknowledged others, or corrected the impression that he wasn’t the first in diving, or in underwater photography.”

The New York Times
Dr. Hass in 1953.

Hans Hass was born in Vienna on Jan. 23, 1919, to Hans and Meta Hass. His father was a prominent lawyer, and young Hans was studying law when he met Guy Gilpatric, an American writer and skin-diving enthusiast, on a Riviera vacation in 1938. He soon found himself hooked on underwater exploration.

Excused from serving in the German military during World War II — because of poor circulation in his feet, he told interviewers — he spent most of the war diving in the waters off the Greek islands, researching his doctoral thesis in marine biology. After receiving his PhD from Berlin University in 1943, Dr. Hass joined a Wehrmacht frogman unit.

After his marriage to German movie actress Hannelore Schroth ended in divorce, he married Lotte Baierl in 1950. Besides his wife, he leaves a son, also named Hans.


Dr. Hass and his wife made a popular BBC-TV series in 1956 called “Diving to Adventure,” based on his book, and another in 1958, “The Undersea World of Adventure.”

He gave up diving in 1961 to pursue research in behavioral science and write books, among them “The Human Animal” (1968), “The Shark” (1977) and “How the Fish Turned Into Humans” (1979), most of which have been translated into English.

He wrote 28 books in all. In 1999 he founded the Inter- national Hans Hass Institute for Energon-Cybernetic Research at the University of Vienna, where he held a professorship.

Dr. Hass distilled his behavioral research into a hypothesis he called the energon theory, which was the focus of his work in later years. It posits that the behaviors of all life-forms — human, nonhuman animal, and vegetable — have common origins.

The theory emerged from his book “We Come From the Sea” (1957), describing his affinity with sharks.