Northwest Diving History Association

A Short History of NAUI

A Short History of NAUI

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by Tom Tillman

During the Depression and war era of the 1930's and 1940's, young skin divers prowled the coasts and lakes of America to hunt for fish, lobster, abalone, or any of any array of fresh seafood that was considered a luxury to these young divers. Equipment back then was either homemade or military surplus and consisted of little more than a mask or goggles. The lucky ones had long johns to fight off the cold and sometimes even a pair of surplus fins. Formal training was unnecessary and consisted of little more than practicing your breath hold technique.

In 1948, Rene Bussoz of Rene's Sporting Goods of Westwood, California, was convinced by Jacques-Yves Cousteau to import a new design for a self-contained underwater breathing unit, known as the Aqua-Lung, which would allow divers to stay under water for extended periods of time. Rene imported 10 of these units and, once these "bubble machines" were sold, everyone thought the market had been saturated. Within just a few years, however, Aqua-Lungs could be found in several shops across the country and a new breed a diver was entering the water that didn't need to have the great physical stamina required of breathe hold divers. The Aqua-Lung created a swell of new divers and Rene's Sporting Goods became U.S. Divers.

The Aqua-Lung was sold to anyone with enough money and came with training little more than a warning to "not hold your breath." The only formal training programs were found in the military, scientific institutions such as Scripps and Woods Hole, and in the dive clubs. In 1951 Jim Auxier and Chuck Blakeslee started a magazine called The Skin Diver (later renamed Skin Diver Magazine). They hired a man named Neal Hess to write a column called "The Instructors Corner" to cover teaching techniques for this blossoming sport. Hess soon began certifying divers to become instructors by reviewing their course outlines and then running their names in the column. This new program was called the "National Diving Patrol."

During this same time, Al Tillman, the sports director for Los Angeles County pushed through the idea of a county sponsored training program for skin and scuba divers. In 1953, Tillman and a Los Angeles County lifeguard by the name of Bev Morgan, went to Scripps Institution to study under famed diver Conrad Limbaugh. When they returned they created the worlds first public dive training agency and a year later held the world's first civilian Underwater Instructor Certification Course, known as UICC1. The County program began getting requests from across the country and they began granting Provisional Certification to instructors nationwide.

The rest of the 1950's saw an amazing growth in the sport diving field spurred on by books by Cousteau and Hans Hass and the television series Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges and Zale Parry. Other public certification agencies followed Los Angeles County including the Broward County, Florida Red Cross program under John C. Jones, Jr. and the YMCA's national program.

In 1959, Blakeslee and Auxier sat down with Hess and they formulated an idea to hold a major instructor certification course the following year. The right time and place became the August, 1960 meeting of the Underwater Society of America that would be held in Houston, Texas. Hess contacted Tillman, Director of the Los Angeles County Underwater Program, to design and direct this course. Jones from Broward County was contacted to assist them in the project. The National Diving Patrol was renamed the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and it was incorporated as a non-profit educational organization. Tillman became the first President and Hess became Executive Secretary.

The course was finally set and 72 of the best candidates and eight instructors descended on the Shamrock Hotel in Houston from across the United States and Canada. The course was grueling, lasting six days, and only 53 of the candidates graduated but it was the first international instructor certification course in history and marked a whole new era in sport diving. These new instructors went away with a pride of accomplishment and wore their instructor patches and numbers like badges of honor in their hometowns.

Following the Houston Course a full Board of Directors was elected consisting of Al Tillman (NAUI#1), John C. Jones, Jr. (NAUI#2), Neal Hess (NAUI#3), Garry Howland (NAUI#13), Jim Auxier and James Cahill. A Board of Advisors was also created and consisted of Captain Albert Behnke, Jr., Commander George Bond, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Dr. Andy Rechnitzer.

NAUI's First Board of Directors (1960)

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NAUI's First Board of Advisors (1960)

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Over the next couple of years NAUI went through several changes, including the loss of Hess, but continued to grow as large centralized courses were held across North America. The whole organization was based on volunteer labor and Tillman ran it out of his home and relied on hard working instructors like Jones, Howland and several regional NAUI leaders to manage the courses while he oversaw administration. Auxier and Blakeslee of Skin Diver Magazine, the financial and promotional support for NAUI in those years, shifted even more support to NAUI and provided office space and a salary for Tillman. The NAUI Page became a regular feature in Skin Diver and NAUI continued to grow.

In 1967, Tillman left the Board to work full-time at his resort in the Bahamas, UNEXSO, and was elected to a newly created position as NAUI Resort Branch Manager. A year later, Jones followed and a new generation of divers took over NAUI. This coincided with a change in ownership at Skin Diver Magazine and NAUI's headquarters moved into the home of new Executive Director, Art Ullrich and the first International Conference of Underwater Educators (ICUE) was held.


The 1970's saw continued growth and a continued move to training on an international basis. NAUI held an Instructor Certification Course in Japan in 1970 and NAUI Canada was formed in 1972 as a separate corporation. By the end of the decade NAUI had certified over 5,000 instructors.

In 1981 NAUI moved into new headquarters in Montclair, California and became computerized in 1982. Nancy Guarascio became the first female president of NAUI in 1987 and by 1989 NAUI had over 12,000 certified instructors.

The 1990's brought new challenges and NAUI met these challenges by renewing its commitment to offering the finest diver training program in the world. In 1996 NAUI restructured and became NAUI Worldwide. The restructuring was followed by unprecedented growth rates as divers worldwide saw that the NAUI ideal of "Dive Safety Through Education" was important in a sport where rubber stamp certifications were becoming increasingly common.


In 1997, NAUI moved its world headquarters to Tampa, Florida and a new Board of Directors was seated that included representatives from around the world. Among all the agencies, NAUI has been, and continues to be, one of the most prestigious in diving instruction.

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