The story of the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) begins with a shared vision of what quality scuba training should be and a commitment to "Dive Safety Through Education."
Recreational diving in North America traces its roots 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, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the term “scuba diver” became the accepted name for Aqua-Lung users.
Before the introduction of "Aqua-Lungs", breath-hold divers were drawn to the oceans primarily to hunt game fish and collect lobster.
The Aqua-Lung would, for the first time, allow divers to stay underwater much longer than they could on a single breath. In those early days, the only training a new diver received was the warning not to hold their breath. During the 1950s recreational dive clubs were the only source for training civilian divers but as the population of divers grew, the need to codify the training was also growing. Jim Auxier 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
But NAUI is not only history; it is also the future. NAUI is its members. Our Association continues to grow as we promote “Dive Safety Through Education”, the same motto established in 1960 as the guiding principle of NAUI's mission. 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.