2022 Conrad Limbaugh Award Nominees
The AAUS General Membership has nominated the following candidates for consideration as a recipient for the 2022 - Conrad Limbaugh Memorial Award for Scientific Diving Leadership:
Presented bi-annually to an individual who has made a significant contribution in diving safety and diving leadership on behalf of the scientific diving community. Open to any past or present member of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. Nominations come from the AAUS general membership. Voted and approved by the AAUS general membership, annually. Current BOD Members are not eligible during their term of office.
Conrad Limbaugh was an underwater naturalist and chief diving officer for of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, where he directed the diving program. He was killed in a scuba diving accident in the Mediterranean on March 20, 1960. Limbaugh graduated from Whittier College in 1948 and did graduate work at the University of California at Los Angeles before going to Scripps Institution in 1950. He was largely responsible for developing the diver-training program at Scripps, as well as many research techniques used by marine scientists.
DSO, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (retired)
Danny received his initial dive training in 1971, at age 15, from a military dive club in Ft. Monroe, VA. On his 3rd night of pool training, a panicked diver rescue drill went wrong. He doesn’t precisely remember the role reversal part where he was the one rescued from the bottom of the pool with a broken nose, but he distinctly remembers the period afterward when he was sitting in the emergency room waiting to be seen. His father, an Air Force sergeant, dryly commented that his son needed to find a safer way to engage in this activity, or find another vice. With cotton stuffed up his nose, and his eyes swollen shut, he was somewhat sensory impaired. With few remaining options, at least for once, he listened.
Five years later (1976), he applies for an ‘Instrument Maker’ position at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). At the time he thought his several years of machinist experience was what qualified him as a scientific equipment fabricator, but on reflection, now believes that his diploma from the Sand Sharks Skin Diver Club may have been largely responsible for his hire. He quickly learned that the Instrument Shop was also the repository for institutional dive gear plus what records and paperwork existed. He found the paperwork from a defunct diving school out of Norfolk where they had donated “AS IS: 18 US Divers double hose regulators, 13 Voit backpacks, and 20 Nemrod facemasks”, dated 1974. Considering that document was eerily similar to current inventory, it implied that any equipment existing prior to the donation was less satisfactory, and had been disposed of. Half the regs were hanging on the wall, apparently available for issue, and in varying stages of need. There were approximately a dozen steel 71.2 CF cylinders, some even tested. He also recalls a compressor of unknown vintage with the intake above the Motor Pool repair shop which was directly below. Despite a sense of urgency to make a few improvements, he was repeatedly side-tracked by the most obvious question of all – who thought it was a good idea to put a Dive Locker on the second floor up a narrow flight of stairs? So began his first 30 years in marine science support.
Things evolved quickly. Within the year, Danny was transferred to the Dept. of Vessel Operations where he went about accumulating sufficient sea time to sit for his 100-ton license. The Dive Locker followed him, down the stairs and across to the boat basin. The Dive Locker was relocated to an old ice house, a relic from the marina days. It had two massive insulated steel doors, but now had a cozy air-tight office in one side, and a compressor plus gear storage in the other, 20ft from the water. He obtained US Divers factory training to service and repair the stock of regulators, including some of the double hose. He promptly weaned the divers off the aging regs and onto the newly obtained US Divers Conshelf XIV single hose regs. The double hose regulators were then surplused.
In 1977 he received his YMCA and PADI certifications, quickly followed by Advanced certification training held in the north Florida springs in 1978. While there he became enamored with the lure of cave diving. Though he had no formal cave training (this was a year or two before cave training agencies adopted standard risk management rules such as 1/3 air volume penetration limits and the 3 light minimum rule, per DAN 2009 article on cave fatalities), he did not venture underground lightly. He learned of DSOs at scientific institutions with experience in cave diving and obtained two publications on this technical subject. The first was SAFE CAVE DIVING (1973) by Tom Mount (Univ. of Miami DSO mid 70’s); and secondly CAVE DIVING: EQUIPMENT AND PROCEDURES (1971) by Lee Somers (Univ. of Michigan DSO). Of course, he learned from both of those texts that Conrad Limbaugh himself died in a cave diving accident in 1960, often referred to as the best diver in America. Danny credits those texts and their authors for keeping him out of harms way during his early exploits in the overhead environment.
In late 1979, he earned his scuba instructor’s certification. And in 1980, he obtained his 100-ton USCG license.
In 1982, Danny was officially appointed as the VIMS DSO, the same year of the OSHA scientific diving exemption. His notice arrived as a cautionary memorandum from the Director that he will face daunting regulatory challenges and internal push-back from the old guard. Attached was the unanimous support writings of each of the ‘Dive Committee’ members. In the context of the time, his predecessor for diving oversight was also on the committee (an administrator and faculty member) for the previous decade and wrote: “for years, the VIMS diving program was not a program at all. I was designated Chief Diving Officer with no money, no equipment, and absolutely no authority”. Danny immediately set about authoring a formal Guide for Diving Safety. Later that year he sees an ad in Skin Diver Magazine announcing AAUS’s 2nd Annual Symposium (Oct issue, page 50, registration $25). He requests to attend, but travel to CA cannot be funded. He writes a letter to the address listed, and Jimmy Stewart of Scripps responds to that letter and sends a copy of Scripps’ dive manual for consideration.
In Sept. 1982, Danny and select VIMS dive team members attend UNC Wilmington (UNCW) training at their National Undersea Research Center (NURC) for surface supply umbilical diving utilizing a wet (open) bell and AGA masks. They return again for additional training in 1983 on Kirby Morgan masks and Superlite 17 helmets. During the period 1982-1984 they perform several series of lengthy decompression dives off the coast of VA and NC, collecting sediment cores and running benthic experiments from the UNCW ship R/V SEAHAWK.
In 1986, Danny attends the 6th Annual AAUS Symposium, held in northern Florida, (the first on the east coast). He and a DCB member found the symposium well attended with people of like mind and ultimately a major turning point for the VIMS Diving Program. The decision to become an OM had effectively been made. In addition, at the conclusion of the symposium, as part of an AAUS workshop, Danny becomes formally trained and certified as a Basic Cave diver. Learning of the numerous cave diving fatalities in the area, he returns to north Florida one month later and receives training and certification as a Recovery Specialist by the NSS-CDS (taught by Henry Nicholson and the legendary cave diver Sheck Exley). This was a particularly dark period for area cave fatalities, with law enforcement agencies acknowledging they were ill-equipped to properly respond. For the curious reader, he unfortunately did later test those skills in practice, and has been a firm disciple of accident analysis ever since.
Early 1987 VIMS applies to become an OM, with a recently revised manual, and receives an acceptance letter from AAUS dated 15 May 1987. The August 1987 Slate lists the 9 OMs, with VIMS listed in the number 8 position. He also receives a letter from the same VIMS Director that appointed him five years previously, on his personal stationery, of a congratulatory mission-accomplished nature. Copy added to his personnel file.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, VIMS establishes close ties to the NOAA Diving Program. Morgan Wells and his NOAA Experimental Diving Unit are just 10 miles away in Ft. Eustis, VA. When his space there was being reallocated, he moves a 42” NOAA recompression chamber to the newly constructed VIMS Dive Safety Office (built around the old ice house), where it will reside for the next decade. Cliff Newell, Director of the NOAA Diving Program in Seattle, requests VIMS permission to hold his NOAA training courses at the spacious new facility (featuring classroom/conference room/showers). For a period of 4 years, NOAA east coast divers and divemasters were trained at VIMS.
In 1992, the manager of the NOAA Monitor National Marine Sanctuary (MNMS) requests NOAA Diving Program support for a trimix operation to assess deterioration of the Civil War ironclad resting in the confluence of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador current, on the bottom at 235’ off Cape Hatteras. In the ensuing months, the Harbor Branch vessel R/V EDWIN LINK was chosen due to the additional capability of the Johnson SEA LINK submersible. Seven divers with broad and deep diving experience were also picked. Danny was selected due to his wreck diving experience in the Hatteras area, his close association with NOAA diving, and his previous experience with decompression diving out of open bell. The bell was an unfortunate requirement for dives over 200’ (per the 1991 NOAA Diving Manual), but necessary once communication umbilicals were added to the mix.
Six weeks from Monitor mission start, the VIMS DCB and VIMS administration voice serious concerns over his participation in a deep mixed gas operation. It was no secret in the diving community that a similar mission to identify a sunken U-boat in the NE at a depth of 230’ had racked up three fatalities in the previous year (see book Shadow Divers). While arguing those fatalities were air dives, there was no denying that one trimix diver was evacuated by helicopter for chamber treatment. The same book notes “there were no technical diving classes or certification agencies for trimix at the time”. And in another similarity, both missions were relying on trimix tables cut by physiologist Bill Hamilton of Hamilton Research. The VIMS administration therefore refused to budge. NOAA was to accept all liability for his participation. In perhaps a model case of federal efficiency, he was quickly hired as a ‘NOAA Expert’ (unpaid), and the letter from general counsel stating he was indeed covered “for temporary or permanent injury resulting from his participation” arrived a scant three weeks before training began. With his participation green-lighted, the mission moves forward with all seven divers being NOAA employees. One week of dive training was held at Harbor Branch in Ft. Pierce in mid-July of ’93. Danny met the other divers, including one Cheryl Thacker who was then a NOAA Corp Officer and the Assistant Manager of Gray’s Reef NMS.
The 17-day mission (July 26- Aug 11, 1993) is the stuff of adventure novels. The sanctuary manager later wrote (see book Monitor, 2012): “it was one of the worst extended periods of bad weather ever encountered in the sanctuary”. The first storm destroyed mooring lines and literally caused a capstan under pressure to implode. The R/V Edwin Link was hung by the remaining lines stern towards the seas, with waves crashing on the back deck and threatening the submersible. The harsh reality that the entire vessel could sink atop the Monitor was a real possibility. Fortunately, the remaining lines were cut, and the vessel scurried to Morehead City NC to undergo two days of repair. This ordeal was captured on video, entitled “All Hands on Deck” and segments apparently aired on National Geographic Explorer. Once back on the 4 point moor several days later, the manager writes “we suffered rough seas, frequent squalls, waterspouts and poor bottom conditions throughout our time on site”. Much has been written and critiqued about the ’93 mission, but thanks to the dogged determination of divers and crew, it was deemed a success. Four of the five mission objectives were accomplished, it was the first NOAA dives on the Monitor, and it was the first deep mixed gas dives ever conducted by NOAA. The dives were conducted using open circuit (twin 121’s), full face masks, mix blended onsite, with all deco stops shallower than 40’ conducted in a deck decompression chamber. Over concerns with the depth and unfamiliar gas, the divers were required to be tethered to the surface by a communication umbilical. This resulted in additional challenges to already challenging diving conditions, with the 300ft of tether creating significant problems of its own. Regardless, this initial expedition of firsts ushered in a decade of follow-up missions with emerging and better suited technologies.
Danny also participated in numerous missions at the Key Largo NURC facility when it was under UNCW control. His 1995 saturation in the Aquarius habitat was perhaps one of the most unique diving experiences of his career. Monitoring corals in respiration chambers around all photoperiods did not lend itself to conventional surface-to-surface daytime diving. He returned again in 1996 for a week-long dayboat mission, and a final time in 2002 to provide surface support to a follow-up team of saturated VIMS divers. His association with the UNCW/NURC diving program had now spanned a period of over 20 years.
Besides the typical DSO certifications he received the following training: Recompression Chamber Operations and Remote Duty Diving Accident Management (NOAA, 1990); Diver Medical Technician (NOAA, 1993); Recompression Chamber Technician (NOAA, 1994); Aquanaut (UNCW/NURC, 1995); Working Diver (NOAA, 1996); Bauer Compressor Repair and Rebuild Technician (1996); Master SCUBA Repair Technician (International Register of SCUBA Technicians, 2006).
In 2005 Danny was awarded the Abe Davis Safe Cave Diving Award, by the National Speleological Society- Cave Diving Section. His qualifying dive was a 6,000 foot traverse executed the previous year beneath the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
Specific to AAUS (pre-retirement) he served on the Board of Directors as Statistics Chair in 92/93. The stats were compiled strictly on paper in 1992, but in 1993 he took a course in dBase III Plus and wrote a program to handle the task. It was distributed to requesting OM’s, and records were stored on floppy disc. He served on more committees and sub-committees over those years than he can remember, but recalls being part of nearly every write or revision of overhead standards. Related to statistics, as a point of reference, he can tell you there were 21 reporting OMs in dive year 1990, and 34 for dive year 1991.
Since his VIMS retirement in 2007, he has been temporarily employed as interim DSO at OMs on three different occasions. He has served on, or as advisor to, four DCBs. He has served the Academy as an Accreditation Inspector, and has assisted with Accreditation Guideline rewrites. He was the full-time Station Manager for UF’s Seahorse Key Marine Lab for 1.5 years. He is currently on an AAUS committee looking into the process of recognizing retired or retiring DSOs, in the hopes of retaining their services and expertise. His service to the AAUS community, and the exemption itself, share the 40-year mark. He is also quietly amassing historical documentation of early east coast scientific diving, since the west coast history is better known. He looks forward to sharing that information soon.
Danny and Cheryl reside in north Florida cave country. His instructorship remains current and he continues to teach overhead diving. He is a volunteer diver at 3 OMs and travels regularly on foreign missions, usually with DSO responsibilities. Over the course of his VIMS career and since, he has helped to professionalize diving safety and scientific diving, mostly through behind-the-scenes efforts helping scientists and principal investigators achieve their research goals safely and efficiently. He has mentored numerous DSOs, young and old alike, and is regularly called on to educate organizations and individuals in the nuances of setting up and managing diving safety programs. He still goes to sea just enough to maintain his USCG MMC credential. He also enjoys the occasional nostalgic dive on a US Divers DA AquaMaster double-hose regulator stamped “Martens and Davis Diving School”, one of the original VIMS regs rescued from a surplus bin long ago, and meticulously maintained by him for nearly 50 years. His desire is to remain active in the AAUS community for some time to come. Given his father is still dispensing sage advice, with any luck, perhaps he can too.
Danny was nominated by Steve Sellers, National Park Service
During his DSO career at VIMS Danny was on the cutting edge of developing Diving Safety within the scientific diving community. His service on the AAUS Board of Directors in the late 1980's helped to shore up the foundation on which the AAUS of today is built. He was an important participant in the early development of trimix within the community on projects involving NOAA, VIMS, and others. He has continued to contribute to scientific diving and the Academy since he retired from VIMS providing counsel and leadership behind the scenes and by educating new and old DSOs alike. His work since his retirement has kept him directly involved with the community serving on several Diving Control Boards in Florida, performing DSO duties for universities in the state while they searched for replacements willing to take a fulltime job, and helping to develop a new generation of dive leaders through his continued interactions with AAUS and the scientific diving network in Florida and elsewhere. He continues to be regularly sought out by folks in the know for his counsel, and as a diving supervisor and project participant. Many active in AAUS today are unaware of his history or his Board service to the Academy. He was Statistics Chair when AAUS stats were reported to the Academy on paper and Statistics was the job that nobody wanted. I can think of few who have supported AAUS more over the years, and he continues to do so.
DSO, University of Alaska Statewide System
Professor of Marine Biology, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks
My scientific diving history: I became a NAUI open water diver in Monterey California in 1985. My checkout dive was in 2 ft visibility and my mask was kicked off by my instructor (I think) and my mask strap broke. The next few dives were not much better. I became certified because my new college science friends were all divers and it sounded fun. My remaining undergrad years were spent with occasional “fun” dives but the fun was with spending time with my friends, not really underwater part.
My diving experience transformed when I went to Moss Landing Marine Labs in 1987 for my MS graduate degree. There I was introduced to scientific diving by my DSO, John Heine and my advisor, Mike Foster. I took on a diving-heavy thesis examining the recruitment and growth of coralline algae in Stillwater Cove, Carmel California. At Moss Landing, my dive experience flourished. I assisted with John’s Scientific Diving Course and got my NAUI Divemaster. I assisted with many non-thesis related dive projects; just a few examples include land-slide impacts in Bolinas and Big Sur, oyster farm surveys in Tomalas Bay, rhodolith studies in Baja California, PSP surveys in Hawaii, and I was a diver for many years for California Mussel Watch, diving up and down the coast of California. At this time, I also had the opportunity to do my first drysuit diving in Resolute Bay Canada and my first surface supply/hard-hat diving in McMurdo Sound Antarctica. All these varied experiences made me a better diver.
When I entered my PhD at UC Santa Cruz in 1993 to work with Jim Estes, I thought I was a tough and
very experienced diver. I had dove in many places and under a lot of conditions and was usually the lead-diver, but I had more to learn. As part of my graduate degree, I needed to do sea otter captures so I became Nitrox and rebreather certified. I got to live on Shemya Island (an island 2 miles long by ½ mile wide in the far western Aleutians) for 2.5 years to conduct sea otter/kelp forest studies. Every three months, two new volunteers would come out to Shemya to help me and we learned about truly remote diving together. I repaired outboards, inflatables, dive gear, and became friends with the fire station so I could fill tanks when my compressor wasn’t in the mood. As part of my studies, I was also lead diver on various NSF cruises where we dove around islands up and down the Aleutian Archipelago to survey and monitor the kelp forests. In these very remote settings, I started learning what it meant to be a dive mentor.
Right after my PhD in 1999, I took a faculty position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) because I wanted to continue diving in Alaska. I was hooked on drysuits, cold water, and extreme environments. Stephen Jewett, then DSO, asked me to join the Dive Control Board and I took on Chair. The program was small, averaging about 11 divers (reporting and non-reporting) per year, with few to no student divers each year. Coming from Moss Landing and Santa Cruz, I was used to much larger dive programs with lots of students so in my second year, I developed and taught the first Scientific Diving course in Alaska. This was challenging as I needed to 1) convince my supervisors that this was worthwhile, 2) raise money to purchase gear (including drysuits and ice-regulators), and 3) find a dive shop partner to fill tanks in Fairbanks, have extra gear for students, and have a second instructor (shout out to Mitch Osborne at Test the Waters Sports!). I also needed to figure out logistics to get students from Fairbanks to the ocean 600 miles away in snowy March (spring break is when the open water portion occurs). My first class had 12 students, my largest class was 38. I have since raised additional funding to replace/repair gear and now also offer this course to remote students in Anchorage and Juneau (through UA Southeast and UA Anchorage). Over 500 students have taken my Scientific Diving course. I’m proud to say that many of these students have gone on to have amazing experiences around the world. Many of these students are now DSOs, DCB Chairs, working science divers, and researchers. In addition to the Scientific Diving course, I teach a spring field course where students design and conduct diving projects and a kelp forest ecology summer course. I also teach an Advanced Skills Course when demand warrants where students run and eventually design obstacle courses, work with lift bags, try full face-masks and scooters, and more. In addition to the Fairbanks courses, there is now a hugely successful Alaska Dive Semester taught by Joel Markis in Sitka Alaska. Our UA-wide dive program now averages over 50 reporting divers per year, over 90% of which are students.
While training new divers is something I look forward to every year, I also train student researchers. While at UAF, I have been the primary advisor for 33 graduate students, many of whom have conducted subtidal thesis projects. These students make me proud and are now working around the nation as faculty at other universities, at state (ADFG) and federal agencies (NOAA, FWS, USGS), as contract divers in the Antarctic, and in the private sector. I enjoy mentoring so much, I try to make myself and Alaska available to students outside the state. As such, I have sponsored an AAUS Mitchell Scholar, and had one North American and one European Our World Underwater Scholar spend time with me in Alaska. All of these students are why I do what I do.
A quick review of some of my other dive-related activities include becoming a PADI Instructor and transitioning from Chair of the Diving Control Board to Diving Safety Officer in 2015, an office I still hold. I was a member of the AAUS Board from 2007 to 2010 and was Chair of the Scholarship Committee. I joined the NSF Antarctic Program Dive Control Board in 2015 and am still a current member. I have served two missions in the Aquarius habitat in Florida where I spent a total of three weeks living underwater, an experience I recommend to all who have the opportunity. I was also an invited participant in both the cold-water regulator testing and also the rebreather testing in McMurdo Sound Antarctica. Although I am solidly grounded as a research diver, I have also been a working diver. Of the 10 seasons I have spent in McMurdo Sound, three were as research diver and seven were as working diver, where I assisted with a contaminants project, helped on various seawater intake and sewage outflow maintenance and repair projects, conducted ice dock surveys, and helped divers in the Artist in Residency Program. As expected, all these varied experiences have given me lots of stories to tell with lots of pictures to share. Because of this, I have given numerous talks around the world on research conducted underwater and the joys of diving. I particularly like to take dive gear to classrooms and simply talk about scientific diving; remember that Fairbanks is not a coastal town so many K-12 kids have never been to the ocean.
Some other noteworthy accomplishments:
95 per-reviewed publications; many of which were first- and/or co-authored by my students and postdocs. One publication that I contributed to was- Kelp beds as classrooms: perspectives and lessons learned.
I have been the lead PI for research grants in excess of $22 million. My research repertoire is ecological and ranges from glacial recession impacts in nearshore communities, to alternate stable states due to sea otter presence/absence, to kelp forest monitoring and restoration, to seaweed harvesting and sustainability, to sea star wasting, and more. I am particularly proud of the national/global projects that I have been part of that have literally put Alaska on many research maps.
I believe that my legacy is my students and the strong-student oriented scientific diving program that
now exists in Alaska.
Brenda was nominated by Joel Markis, University of Alaska Southeast and Rob Robbins, US Antarctic Program:
Joel Markis on Brenda Konar’s contribution to Scientific Diving in Alaska – “There is no person that has had a greater impact on the scientific diving community in Alaska than Brenda Konar. Her immense contribution to underwater research is only surpassed by the sheer number of Scientific divers she has trained in Alaska, sharing her passion and expertise, training up to 40 divers every year for over two decades. The caliber and standard to which Brenda trains her divers and maintains for the University Dive Program has resulted in decades of safe and productive diving. Many of us in Alaska, and others around the country and globe, owe our start, or at least a portion of our progress to Brenda, she is a leader in Scientific Diving and very much deserving of this award."
Rob Robbins on Antarctic Diving with Brenda Konar – “I can't think of a better person for the award than Brenda. As I've said many times, she is the diver I would like to be when I grow up. She is absolutely 100% responsible for me morphing from a knuckle dragging commercial diver into what I pass off as a scientific diver. Out of the 417 known divers ever to be part of USAP, Brenda ranks #8 in number of dives and #3 of all women.”
DSO, University of Miami (retired)
AAUS Past President
Growing up in Miami I quickly became an outside kid and spent most of the daylight hours outside playing sports like soccer and running around the neighborhood with my friends. It also made it easy for me to learn to love the water.
I was originally certified as a PADI recreational diver in 1981 at a small dive shop (long gone now) in Coconut Grove. I was a frequent visitor to the local reefs around Miami and the Florida Keys. When boats weren’t available my friends and I would dive in the local canals and watch the manatees swim by or practice spear fishing. During my youth I was able to do about 200 dives. I say “about” because I was like most recreational divers I didn’t keep a dive log, who knew dive logs would become such an important part of my life later on.
My diving experience was all recreational diving until 1990 when I took on a lab technician position at the Caribbean Marine Research Center (CMRC), a NURP facility in the Bahamas. There I worked for a PhD student named Livingston Marshall, a Bahamian who was studying queen conch. This job opened up my eyes to what “scientific diving” was about. Until this point I had know idea what scientific diving was. This job lasted through the end of the summer of 1990. Once this position ended, I started receiving job offers from other scientists that worked at CMRC and decided to accept one under the direction of Dr. Albert Stoner. Al was also studying queen conch. During this time I did hundreds of dives in a variety of conditions, environments, depths, etc. as a lab tech and loved every aspect of what I was doing. I especially liked the technical aspect of scientific diving. This position caused me to change directions in what I wanted to do as a career. As fate should have it the lab DSO decided to leave unexpectedly and I found myself working as an interim DSO. The DSO responsibilities started off as a short-term appointment filling tanks and keep track of where divers were and making sure they were logging dives. The island director liked what I was doing and my interim job turned into an 18 month position. While at CMRC I gained a lot of experience in scientific diving but due to the remote location, but I was unable to get the formal credentials to match my experience. One of the people I met as the DSO at CMRC was Mr. Jack Nichols who was the DSO at the University of Miami. We had several conversations but one that was most important was one where I asked him what it took to be a DSO at a university. He told me about his experiences and credentials and while he spoke I wrote down a list of what I need to do. So, at the end of 1992, I left CMRC and moved back to the States to get the training and credentials needed to be a DSO.
While working at on the list of credentials I had for becoming a DSO I took a job at the Miami Seaquarium. There I learned about occupational diving and OSHA diving and realized the differences between scientific and commercial diving. As a Seaquarium diver I was cleaning tanks, doing some of the dive shows and learned that this was very different than what I was doing in the Bahamas. The credentials I worked on were becoming a recreational dive instructor, become an EMT/DMT, hyperbaric tech, DAN instructor, etc., all the things I had written down.
Out of the blue one day while at the Seaqurium, I received a phone call from a UM grad student that told me Jack was leaving UM and she encouraged me to apply. I examined all the credientials I had completed from my list, which was most of it, and decided that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by applying for what I considered my dream job. After what seemed like several months I finally received a phone call from UM letting me know I had made the short list and was on to the next step, an interview. I interviewed with the UM DCB, which at the time was made up of 5 members, and thought it went well. But I also remember thinking I really hadn’t had a chance at the position because of some of the other candidates that had applied. After another couple of long weeks I final heard from Dr. Michael Schmale that I had gotten the job. I had my dream job as the DSO at the University of Miami!
I was the diving safety officer for the University of Miami/RSMAS from 1994 through 2020. In those 26 years the University administration and with DCB approval, I was allowed to open up the program to all forms of diving that included deep dives, dives with technology and developing new training techniques.
The formalization of our diving training classes as credited classes was a big step forward for the program at the time. This gave us some academic credibility and gave us a hard schedule that allowed us to get more students, staff and faculty into the classes.
One of the most important and best things I did at UM was hire Robbie Christian as the assistant DSO. Having him in the ADSO position gave me a person to bounce crazy training ideas off of and get a different perspective of things. Together we were able to develop some of what I believe were the most innovative training techniques to help UM divers achieve an extremely high level of proficiency.
One of the “fan favorite” things we did with the classes was hold the final written exam underwater. This was a fan favorite because students came into class thinking there was no way they were going to be able to do that. We explained to them that if Robbie and I did our jobs, they would have no problem with. Very few divers had any difficulty with it and majority of them wanted to do it to show off their newly developed skills.
Another great technique that Robbie and I developed was a quantifiable way of showing how much divers improved their skills during the course of our class. We would start off with a baseline exercise that included a timed math quiz while staying stationary and in a specific position. This exercise was also filmed and then reviewed with the divers individually to show them how they looked u/w and what they needed to do to correct some of their challenges. We used the BAST scoring system that we presented on at an AAUS symposium to explain to divers what they were struggling with and how to improve. Then during the water sessions of the class we would work on those challenges. At the end of the course we would do the same exact exercise and video. Once we had the data from the baseline dive and the endof course dive we put that together and analyzed it to see what the result of the quiz was. In all the divers, we saw an increase in scores on the quizzes with divers getting more correct answers and completing more questions.
Overall my dream job at the University of Miami was an amazing time where I was able to meet great people, see incredible places and develop training programs and techniques that made my divers safe, effective and efficient divers.
Rick was nominated by Robbie Christian, formerly of University of Miami:
In his 26-year tenure as the diving safety officer at the University of Miami, Rick Gomez was the picture of diving safety and diving leadership. His diving accomplishments, growth of the University of Miami science diving program, and commitment to AAUS set him apart, but this nomination will solely focus on what the Conrad Limbaugh Award is all about: diving safety and diving leadership on behalf of the scientific diving community.
I can only speak to the last ten years of his time as DSO, but during that time, I worked very closely with him every week. Over the course of my career, this is what I saw in Rick:
His track record was virtually unblemished. Throughout his career, he oversaw about 80,000 logged science dives. During my time working with him, the only noteworthy diving-specific injury was a barracuda bite. Beyond that, it was the occasional lionfish stab or ear infection. I understand that during his first 15+ years before I worked with him, the reportable diving incidents sustained by science divers were minor and could be counted on one hand. As nice as it is to have so few incidents, however, a measure of safety should not be marked by how few accidents happened but rather by the measures taken to prevent them. His leadership instilled a culture of safety in students, staff, and faculty adhering to clear policies and procedures. Rick established and defended a safety-first model and, in doing so, created an environment where detailed safety measures were customary and second nature.
Everything he instituted at UM with buoyancy, awareness, stability, and trim (BAST) was first and foremost about keeping divers safe. The more finely tuned their skills are, the better they can protect the environment from harm, avoid incidents, recognize problems, respond to situations, and minimize the effects of any potential diving emergency. Safety was always the whole purpose behind it all. Being efficient and effective data collectors was a welcomed and highly publicized side effect of the BAST model he pioneered and promoted (hopefully, some still remember when we presented it at the symposium in Lake Tahoe).
He fiercely pursued what was best for the scientific diving program. His disagreements with the administration are not a secret. I saw firsthand how he made decisions to elevate the standard for science diving (many times boiling down to safety), even when it put him in discord with those above him. He was regularly met with pushback from multiple angles when he insisted on things like maintaining student-to-instructor ratios, keeping training above the 100-hour minimum, requiring remediation for divers who failed to meet standards, etc.
Rick’s dream was always to push AAUS to the next level. He always had a clear vision of where he thought the scientific diving community should move. As AAUS president, he prioritized what was most important and pushed initiatives like the DSO qualification and accreditation program. He believed in consistency and accountability across the academy and always led the University of Miami in a way that would raise the bar and pave the way for AAUS. I would have loved to work with him longer and spark even more significant change throughout the community, but I’m glad to have served under his leadership for as long as I did.
I worked with him long enough to know that Rick embodies the qualities of an outstanding DSO and has a resume to prove it. However, he furthermore lives up to everything the Conrad Limbaugh Award represents regarding diving safety and leadership. He may no longer be an active DSO, but what he did during his career is certainly worthy of this recognition.