Carle Place man trades corporate suit for wetsuit
Paul J. Mila of Carle Place has seen great white sharks up close and brushed up against humpback whales.
He has dived in waters from the Caribbean to the Pacific. And he has seen his share of the exotic and wonderful undersea flora and fauna.
And these transcendent experiences might not have happened if it wasn’t for the events of September 11th.
Mila, who spent a career in the banking and financial sector, was working for MasterCard on that fateful morning, meeting with colleagues in the Citigroup Tower in Queens, then the tallest building in the borough. Adjacent to the East River, it provided unparalleled views of the Manhattan skyline, and Mila and the others watched the fire and smoke at the World Trade Center as the terrorist attacks unfolded.
In the days that followed, he saw photos of the jumpers, and one in particular struck him.
“I kept looking at this picture and I’m thinking, ‘Two hours earlier, that guy was probably having breakfast with his family. The furthest thing from his mind was that he [would be forced] to jump out of the World Trade Center,’” Mila reflected. “It was a kind of lesson in how serendipitous life is. You always say that you’ll do things when you retire, maybe in 20 years.”
Taking an inventory of his life, Mila—then in his early 50s—decided on an early retirement. It led to a second act, as a diver, underwater photographer and author.
He had already experienced a life-changing event when he went diving in the Mexican resort island of Cozumel in 2000. His interest was initially spurred by watching the television series of the great seafarer and underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, and before that, Sea Hunt with Mike Nelson.
Diving and underwater photography had always held an attraction for him, and so had writing, a paradox for someone whose working life dealt with figures; he had served for years as a corporate economist.
Mila said he was intrigued by his first diving instructor, Allison Dennis. Unusual for a woman in those years, she had founded a successful diving company in Cozumel.
“We started out in the pool,” he recalled. “This lady comes in wearing a crazy hat and said, ‘Hi, I’m Allison. I’m your scuba instructor.’ And inside of five minutes, you realized that she knew what she was talking about.”
He felt he could build a story around her character, fictionalized and renamed Terry Manatta, and produced his first novel, Dangerous Waters. It was the first of five Manatta mysteries.
“I wrote the first book and had fun doing it, but I thought, ‘That will be the end of it,’” Mila said.
But inspiration just kept on coming. He then free-dove with humpback whales, and that led to his second book, Whales’ Angels.
“Diving with humpback whales and their babies was a phenomenal experience,” he said. “The whales would come close and took great care not to hurt you. They would [do things like] move their fins out of their way. At that time, Japan was trying to convince the International Whaling Commission for permission to start whaling again, and I decided to write an anti-whaling novel.”
For The Children
Three more books followed, always shaped by his occasional visits to Cozumel, and then Mila was pulled in a different direction.
He said he was at an annual dive show in Secaucus, NJ, called Beneath the Sea.
“When you self-publish your books, you look for every opportunity to sell them,” he said. “I was at a table signing books when a representative from Best Publishing told me they wanted to open up a children’s line. They asked if I wanted to do a children’s book. I said, ‘I never thought about it, but I’ll give it a shot.’ So I went home and I was thinking, ‘What could I write about?’ I was looking through my pictures and I saw that a lot of them were of sea turtles hanging around with other animals.”
His first effort was titled Harry Hawksbill Helps His Friends, in which the title character discovers, according to the book’s description, “that his angelfish friends aren’t getting along because they look different from each other. Harry teaches them they are more alike than they realize.”
The theme was inspired by Mila’s favorite musical, South Pacific, and his favorite song from that Rodgers and Hammerstein production,“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” It begins, “You’ve got to be taught/To hate and fear.”
The tune was always in the back of his mind, and he remembered his mother singing it when he was a kid.
Mila’s follow-up was Gracie Green Turtle Finds Her Beach. In this book, Harry Hawksbill helps his friend find an alternate place to lay her eggs when her chosen beach turns out to be polluted.
Both books are illustrated by his underwater photographs. The main characters are the giant sea turtles that make their home in Cozumel.
“They’re a favorite, being large specimens,” he said of the endangered creatures. “The reason we use them is that they’re reasonably easy to photograph, unless you do something stupid like try to touch or harass them.”
He recently read his first children’s book to the second grade classes at Cherry Lane Elementary School in Carle Place.
Asked about the interaction with the students in his hometown, Mila replied, “It was great. These kids are so smart and so engaged. And because they’ve seen some stuff on TV and experienced things on their vacations, they ask great questions. They know their stuff.”
The students, he added, absorbed the lessons of the book, and in the spring, he will return to read the second book of the series.
Mila, Sea Turtles At Home In Cozumel
Cozumel, according to Mila, “is one of the few places in the world where you could actually get an opportunity to see sea turtles being born.”
Cozumel’s ecological community, he related, “has done its homework about when turtles will be laying their eggs. They mark the nests and know when the eggs will hatch and they can bring tourists on a controlled basis to see the turtles lay their eggs. It’s like watching a dinosaur coming out of the water—they are directly related to dinosaurs. They go back that far. It’s amazing to see them lay their eggs and go back into the water.”
Thanks to these efforts, people can also watch the baby turtles being born, breaking through their eggs. Volunteers ensure that no spectators interfere as the turtles make their way to the sea.
“Natural predators are around, but they tend to stay away when people are there, so it’s actually good for the turtles,” Mila observed. “If people are not there, they could be taken by crabs and birds.”
Mila estimates that of 100 eggs that are laid, about 80 or 90 hatch. At least half of them will make it to the sea, but after that the odds are low, with perhaps two or three in 1,000 reaching maturity.
Mila became a regular visitor to Cozumel, and through Allison Dennis met a real estate agent who had emigrated from Texas, and she found him a beachfront condo, which he bought in 2004. It’s on the west side of the island, facing the mainland.
“That’s where all the diving happens,” he said. “The waters on the Gulf [of Mexico] side are just too rough and there are no facilities for diving. I rent [the condo] out when I’m not down there. I usually go down four or five times a year.”
The locals have accepted him, he said, and “they’re very friendly.”
“I’ve never had any negative experiences,” he said. “Mexico’s a big place, so you hear about crime and [bad things] popping up in other areas, and you just hope it doesn’t spread. [Cozumel] is a big tourist draw, so the government really cracks down on keeping things clean. They want to keep the place crime-free, and they’re doing a good job.”
At Home In Carle Place
“What do you like about living in Carle Place?” Mila was asked.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s almost like a Little House on the Prairie atmosphere—the same people you see at the ball field are the same people you see in the butcher shop,” he replied.
He and his wife Carol, a retired Mineola public schools teacher, moved from Brooklyn in 1986. He immediately realized how special the hamlet was when he kept getting inquiries from people, while he was outside doing yardwork, if he knew of any house for sale. Many, he ventured, were former residents who wanted to move back.
Mila gave credit to the Carle Place School District for shaping his two daughters, Laura, 38 and Christine, 40.
“It’s probably as close to a private school atmosphere as you can get when you’re in a public school,” he said of the district. “Everybody can get to be a star, and almost nobody gets cut from the teams. It’s such a small atmosphere that nobody can get lost. I don’t think my kids would have done well in a big school, but here they thrived. One went to Cornell and the other went to William and Mary.”
Mila has become familiar with many “townies,” and noted that when he spoke at the Cherry Lane School, he told students that some of their moms had played Little League with his daughters. They were surprised to learn about this.
Carol, he observed, occasionally travels with him to Cozumel. She’s not a diver, he said, but they do enjoy snorkeling together.
Both daughters live in New Jersey. Laura teaches Spanish in NYC schools while Christine works for Citibank.
Aside from the usual online sellers, his books have been displayed and can be ordered at the Barnes & Noble in Carle Place.
Asked about scuba (which stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) Mila replied, “You start off in a pool and you learn how to breathe underwater. It’s an unusual thing, and there are quite a few lessons before you learn how to breathe through the regulator. It’s an interesting feeling if you’ve never done it before.”
The lessons, he affirmed, teach divers to deal with emergencies and other dangerous situations.
“You don’t have to be a great swimmer [to dive],” he continued, “but you have to be comfortable in water and not freak out and panic when you can’t touch the bottom. You don’t do much swimming underwater—you have a buoyancy vest that you inflate with air so you can’t sink. You want to be comfortable in water deeper than you can stand in. In scuba diving, the whole idea is not to use a lot of energy. Just relax and enjoy the scenery.”
Mila took his lessons at Scuba Network of Long Island in Carle Place and even taught there part time en route to becoming a certified scuba diver.
“You take a written test and there’s also a pool test,” Mila said of the certification process. “Then you have to do four dives in the open ocean.”
“Long Island waters are very good for diving, but conditions can be more challenging, and I enjoy diving in Cozumel, where the visibility is 100 feet or more,” he said. “I took my last four dives to pass my certification with Allison down in Cozumel.”.
Mila uses SeaLife photo equipment, and wears a bifocal mask to enable him to see both distances and check vital things such as the air tank measure dial.
Getting technical, he said, “Some kind of [on-camera] lighting is crucial because water absorbs certain wavelengths and therefore without lighting everything looks blue.”
SeaLife is also a supporter of his writing, allowing him to sign and sell books at their booths at underwater shows.
In addition to his fiction, Mila has written a book on underwater photography techniques and one detailing his diving experiences.
Mila will turn 73 in May. Asked if aging will limit his activities, he replied that he has seen divers in their 80s still active. He added that “the famous diver/author/filmmaker Stan Waterman was diving into his early 90s until he hung up his fins.” For the record, Waterman, who won five Emmys, took his last dive at age 90 in the Cayman Islands.
“The main thing in diving is that your cardiovascular system has to be able to handle the pressure changes that occur underwater,” Mila said. “And your lung capacity has to be able to handle exertion in the event you have to swim against current or some event like that. If you can’t handle things like climbing back on to the boat, or if you become a danger to others, then it’s time to stop.”
Mila still has a few items on his bucket list. One of them is to encounter and photograph leatherback turtles, the largest of the sea turtle family (up to nine feet in length and weighing 2,000 lbs.)
For more information visit www.milabooks.com.