The story of the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) is the story of how an idea evolved into a vision of how diving instruction should be. It is a vision that is shared by thousands of people for whom scuba diving is not just a recreational pastime, but a passion. Imparting safe diving skills and working in unison to preserve the world’s aquatic environments are the noble purpose shared by those pioneers who first formed NAUI. Pursuing this task has not always been easy, but it has been richly rewarding. This history chronicles the dedication, hard work and perseverance, the conflict and resolution, and ultimately, the triumph of the philosophy “Dive Safety Through Education.”
The modern diving era in North America traces its beginnings to 1948 when Jacques-Yves Cousteau convinced Rene Bussoz (of Rene’s Sporting Goods in Westwood, California) to import self-contained underwater breathing units he called Aqua-Lungs. Previously, aquatic adventurers were limited to breath-hold dives, although they too called themselves skin divers. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the term “scuba diver” became the accepted name for Aqua-Lung users.
Breath-hold divers were drawn to the oceans primarily to hunt game fish and collect lobster and, on the US west coast, abalone. Spear fishing tournaments were fairly common, rewarding participants for the most and largest fish taken. In the years since, spear fishing has been in and out of favor as its environmental impact debated, but it is again growing in popularity and practiced responsibly both on scuba (where not restricted) and by skin (breath-hold) divers. Some of the early records still stand t o d a y. Some will stand without challenge, as taking certain fish has since been outlawed, and recordkeeping organizations like the International Underwater Spear Fishing Association (IUSA) will not accept or publish record claims for endangered species. Given the equipment available and the body of knowledge that existed for the early adventurers, some of these are truly remarkable conquests.
The Aqua-Lung would, for the first time, allow divers to stay under water much longer than they could on a single breath. Rene Bussoz imported only ten S.C.U.B.A. units, and once they were sold he believed he had saturated the market. However, several sporting goods stores across the country discovered a market for the Aqua-Lungs. The divers who bought them soon realized they didn’t need a breath-hold diver’s stamina, and they in turn convinced others to try this new, wonderful, extended, weightless experience. The number of scuba divers steadily increased and U.S. Divers Company was formed out of Rene’s Sporting Goods. During those beginning years, there were no certification requirements, and anyone who could afford it could purchase scuba equipment. That equipment pales in comparison to today’s designs.
The double-hose regulators were hard breathing, and some required specialized techniques to clear water from the hoses if they flooded during the dive. Still, the only training offered by the sellers was the warning not to hold one’s breath. Training was being conducted by the military (Underwater Demolition Teams, the forerunner of the well known SEAL teams in the U.S. Navy) and by the oceanographic institutes at Scripps in Southern California and Woods Hole in New England. Dive clubs were the only resource for training available to civilian recreational divers throughout the 1950s.
As the population of divers grew, the need to codify the training was also growing. Jim Auxie Jr and Chuck Blakeslee started a magazine called The Skin Diver (later renamed Skin Diver Magazine) in 1951. They asked Neal Hess to write and edit a column about teaching scuba called “The Instructors Corner.” It wasn’t long before Neal was reviewing course outlines submitted by others and certifying them as instructors. He started a new column called the “National Diving Patrol,” wherein he would publish the names of these new skin and scuba diving “instructors.”
Al Tillman, (soon to become NAUI Instructor #1) was the director of sports for Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation during this period and established a training program sponsored by L.A. County to certify skin and scuba divers. The impetus was the growing number of divers appearing at Los Angeles area beaches and concern for their safety. As Tillman said in a 1952 letter to Parks and Recreation director Paul Gruendyke, “A new sport—skin diving—is becoming popular in the area. Recently while diving in Palos Verdes, I ran into several divers in the water with me who didn’t know what they were doing. One had one of the new underwater breathing units that allows divers to stay under for long periods of time… I propose that my department get involved in this sport and provide training classes. I believe that diving will grow in the future and we have an obligation to make the sport as safe as possible.”
Bev Morgan, a Los Angeles County lifeguard at the time, (he would later be well known among commercial and recreational divers alike for his equipment designs, including the Kirby-Morgan band mask) and Al Tillman studied with Conrad Limbaugh at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in 1953. In April 1955 they held the first Underwater Instructor Certification Course, (1UICC) and created the world’s first civilian diver training agency. The L.A. County program soon began granting Provisional Certification to instructors across the country to respond to a growing number of requests.
The decade of the 1950s was a period of growing interest and participation in recreational scuba diving. “Sea Hunt” aired from 1958 to 1961 and starred Lloyd Bridges (NAUI’s first honorary instructor member) and Zale Parry, NAUI #A-12. “Sea Hunt” generated much of the early excitement and interest in scuba as a recreational activity. There were also early movies and books by Cousteau and Hans Hass, but neither did as much as “Mike Nelson” to focus the attention of the general public on scuba diving. Zale Parry and Al Tillman have likened the program to “an underwater Western movie” in their book Scuba America: The Human History of Sport Diving. Remarkably there was even a Long Play record released that purportedly taught listeners to dive. The jacket of the album carried the following explanation, and the lesson content is eerily familiar.
CARLTON “HEAR HOW” SERIES / CHH 17–HEAR HOW TO SKIN DIVE LLOYD BRIDGES, world-famous television star and water-sports expert teaches you to become a better skindiver. Whether you’ve only dreamed about exploring underwater or have spent many hours in that sub-surface wonderland, you’ll profit by what Lloyd Bridges has to say on this record. For here the great actor-skin diver tells you – in what amounts to a private lesson – all he knows of the art and science of getting along in the world of the fish. It’s all sensible, all practical, all learned by years of fun and practice under water.
Bridges is the well-known aquatic star on national TV and has found a perfect way of combining his hobby and his work. He’s been an actor for many years, on Broadway first, then in movies and television. At the same time, he’s been an enthusiastic skin and scuba diver. So he jumped at the chance to star in a series which would let him act, skin dive and make money at the same time. He once was quoted as saying he would almost have paid them to let him be in the show – undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it shows you how much he loves the water. And he knows and respects it, too.
On this record, he imparts his love, his knowledge and his respect. You’ll learn about equipment. You’ll learn about safety. You’ll learn to separate fact from fiction about underwater menaces – sharks, octopuses, rays, moray eels and other creatures. You’ll learn how to have more fun underwater, and live to tell about it. This is all good sensible advice. And it’s designed to help the beginner and the more advanced skin diver, alike. So right shoulder snorkels, head for the beach and let Lloyd Bridges tell you all about underwater sports.
Recorded text by Lloyd Bridges, written by William Barada (In 1962 Bill Barada NAUI #A-1 became NAUI’s first “Affiliate” member whose number carried the “A” designation.) Los Angeles County was followed by other public certifying agencies including the Broward County, Florida, Red Cross program developed by John C. Jones, Jr. and later, in 1959, the YMCA’s national program. In 1959 the National Diving Patrol was renamed the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and Hess, Blakeslee, and Auxier planned to conduct a major instructor certification course the following year. In August 1960, a meeting of the Underwater Society of America was scheduled to be held in Houston, Texas. Neal Hess asked Al Tillman to organize the instructor course. They in turn contacted John C. Jones to work on the project. NAUI’s first Instructor Certification Course was held at the Houston’s Shamrock Hilton Hotel that August with 72 candidates.
After six days of what was described as a “Hell Week,” 53 graduated and, along with their staff instructors, became the very first instructor members of the National Association of Underwater Instructors. A little over a year later, in October 1961, NAUI was incorporated in the State of California as a non-profit educational organization. Al Tillman was the first President and Neal Hess, the Executive Secretary. When asked recently as to why they chose a non-profit status, Garry Howland, NAUI #13 said, “That’s what we knew. I was a member of the Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and Al was familiar with the YMCA.”
NAUI’s first elected Board of Directors included Al Tillman (NAUI #1), John C. Jones, Jr. (NAUI #2), Neal Hess (NAUI #3), Garry Howland (NAUI #13), Jim Auxier, (NAUI #A4), and James Cahill, (NAUI #85). A Board of Advisors was appointed and included Captain Albert Behnke, Jr., Commander George Bond, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Dr. Andy Rechnitzer. NAUI grew throughout the 1960s by way of large Instructor Certification Courses (ICC’s) conducted in central locations throughout North America. The organization relied primarily on volunteers and regional leaders like Garry Howland and John C. Jones and in Canada, Ben Davis, NAUI #101. Al Tillman administered the Association’s business out of his home until Jim Auxier and Chuck Blakeslee, NAUI #A34, with Skin Diver provided office space and a salary. Skin Diver Magazine published the “NAUI Page” as a regular feature helping NAUI to continue to grow.
Al Tillman left the NAUI Board and administration in 1967 to operate his resort the Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO) that he had opened in 1965 in the Bahamas. He was elected to a newly created position of NAUI Resort Branch Manager. Otherwise, NAUI continued to use regional Branches (managers) and local Chapters (leaders) as a way to organize its member populations. In 1968 Art Ullrich, NAUI #601, was hired as the new Executive Director and moved NAUI’s headquarters into his home in Grand Terrace, California, and later to offices in Colton, California.
The first International Conference on Underwater Education (with the acronym ICUE and later shortened to IQ) was held in 1969 at Santa Ana College. For many years IQ served both as a venue where NAUI members from all over could meet and exchange ideas and as a forum in which papers were presented on diving skills and safety, teaching, diving physiology, physics, and other diving and marine sciences. In the 1970s NAUI membership also began to expand internationally. A NAUI Instructor Certification Course was held in Japan in 1970. NAUI Canada was organized as a separate corporation in 1972. The first ICC in Houston had included three Canadians, and the second ever NAUI ICC was held in Toronto in 1961, largely under the direction of Ben Davis, NAUI #101 (numbers 1-100 being reserved at this time for U.S. instructors). NAUI had certified over 5,000 instructors by 1979 and had increasing member populations in many countries around the world. Jon Hardy, NAUI #1002, became the first NAUI General Manger when he replaced Art Ulrich in 1975. Jon left in 1978, and was replaced by Ken Brock, NAUI #1593, from the YMCA, who left in 1980 and was replaced by Marshall McNott in 1981. Marshall was the first non-diver to be hired as an executive director of a scuba diver training organization.
In 1981, NAUI relocated to new larger headquarters facilities in Montclair, California, where it would remain until 1997. In 1986 Marshall McNott left NAUI and was replaced by Sam Jackson, NAUI #2972. Sam had served on the NAUI Canada Board of Directors and emigrated from Canada to the United States to lead NAUI as its Executive Director through the rest of 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1987 Nancy Guarascio, NAUI #5008, became the first woman to be elected president of the NAUI Board of Directors. By 1989 NAUI had certified over 12,000 instructors.
The 1990s were a time of challenge for NAUI. In 1995, Sam Jackson left NAUI to head up the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association that had formed out of the Diving Equipment Manufacturers Association (retaining the acronym DEMA) the previous year. In June of 1995, NAUI hired Jim Bram and changed the title of the NAUI Chief Executive to President. Jim initiated a turn around of NAUI, and reset NAUI to do business as NAUI Worldwide. This global outlook was a major factor as NAUI implemented a strategy to provide business support to members everywhere via licensed service centers and secure our most precious asset – the NAUI brand.
By 1998 NAUI Worldwide had established a network of twenty service centers supporting a growing membership population around the world. Along with this strategic shift in services delivery, the independent NAUI associations that had formed in the 1970s were retired and their members welcomed back into NAUI Worldwide, forming a single membership association teaching to one world-wide standard of training.
NAUI sanctioned Nitrox training in 1992 – the first recreational training agency to do so – continuing to innovate in support of its members and in the interest of diving safety. In early 1997, in keeping with NAUI’s founding principles, the Association published standards for teaching technical diving, a practice that had been growing among NAUI members for several years. Thereby, NAUI instructors and leaders were provided support for any of their teaching endeavors and consistent with NAUI’s position as the global leader in quality diver education.
All of this produced unprecedented growth rates as divers worldwide saw that the NAUI ideal of “DIVE SAFETY THROUGH EDUCATION” was important in a community becoming increasingly crowded with training organizations, each claiming to be the fastest growing or having the most convenient method for learning to dive. The NAUI slogan “The Quality Difference” continues to distinctively separate NAUI members from the rest, whose only apparent qualifications often seem to be little more than an acronym, a toll-free number, and a web site.
In 1997, NAUI Worldwide headquarters was moved to Tampa, Florida. In the same year, the Board of Directors included members from Europe and Asia for the first time. In 2000 and 2001 the recovery and revitalization of the Association was complete as NAUI released award-winning, state-of-the-art, fully integrated educational systems for diver education and training, and posted record revenues in its 41st year since that first instructor course in Houston, Texas.
NAUI is not only history; it is also the future. NAUI is its members. Our Association will continue to grow as we promote “Dive Safety Through Education”. NAUI members are known and respected all across the industry for the quality of their teaching, concern for the individual student, and safety awareness. Even as we grow, we remain a real association of members who share common values and a trust in one another’s commitment to our motto. There has never been a better time to become a NAUI leader or instructor. As scuba diving continues to grow in popularity and in the number of participants, your decision to earn the right to join NAUI will be one for which you can always be proud.