A Miss Universe Wets Her Appetite for Undersea Life

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Al Giddings often films underwater tales about giant jaws that pursue beauties: Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep and Priscilla Presley in TV's Love Is Forever. Giddings' latest venture, ocean Quest, is yet another flesh-and-fish fantasy. The NBC documentary (airing Sundays until September 15) features Shawn Weatherly, the 1980 Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe, who braves intimate encounters with great white sharks, electric eels and venomous snakes. No script, no stand-ins, no trick photography, Giddings claims, insisting his goal this time is to show a starlet's actual reactions to the perils of the deep. "We wanted someone with no experience whose adrenaline would really cook," says the Emmy-award-winning director, "a lovely young woman of stout heart who would be the eyes and ears for millions of Americans."

Weatherly, 26, a blond knockout, certainly fits Giddings' physical requirements. Although she boasted of being a great athlete—she was a lifeguard during her Sumter, S.C. high school days and lettered in fencing at Clemson University—she had never dived with scuba equipment. She was appropriately afraid of snakes and deep water—which made her all the more qualified for her film chores as the wide-eyed novice in Giddings' version of an underwater petting zoo. Weatherly took the plunge on a whim. "Even if it wasn't a great acting role," she says, "at least it would give me some self-confidence."

"I told her there would be potential danger," Giddings explains, "but her life wouldn't be at stake. Like with the poisonous snakes. You can handle them if you do so gently. If they bite, you have time to pry them off before they inject their venom."

The fright scenes in ocean Quest required courage, even though Weatherly never left the camera crew's sight. She faced great white sharks off Australia's Great Barrier Reef in a cage that was accidentally dropped in the water with the door open; in Newfoundland she overcame panic after becoming snared in nets near a pod of menacing-looking, though actually docile, 30-ton humpback whales, and in the Antarctic she survived her worst scare in below-freezing water when she briefly lost sight of her exit hole while diving beneath 10 feet of ice. "That was the time I came close to quitting," she says.

Another trial was just being out on a boat for weeks. Receiving a monthly salary of about $7,000, which was low for her, Weatherly spent most of 11 months aboard an 81-foot motor sailer with an all-male production crew. "I got lonely and depressed," she says, "like I was just this actress brought along to play guinea pig." Sea duty included the frequent indignity of wearing a wetsuit all day in a rubber diving boat far from modern plumbing. She remembers saying, "Hey guys, turn around and sing a song while I pull down my wetsuit and hang it over the edge."

Despite the scares, privations and the show's questionable scientific merit (PEOPLE called it "an elaborate excuse to get a woman into a bathing suit"), Weatherly oozes pride in her old-salt sea skills if not in her acting prowess. Says Shawn: "Giddings was a slave master. 'If you can't hack it,' he'd say, 'get out. I didn't expect you to do it anyway.' That made me mad, and it made me try all the harder." So the next time Giddings put her in a rowboat full of smelly dead fish, this sea star was undeterred. She just grimaced for the camera, adjusted her lipstick and dived in for more.

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