A Florida Keys Community College marine science professor is this year's recipient of the Divers Alert Network/Rolex Diver of the Year, one of the most prestigious honors the dive industry has to offer.
"It's shocking as well as humbling," said Alex Brylske, on the phone from his hotel in New Jersey, where on Saturday he accepted the award, plus an engraved Rolex dive watch. "It certainly surprised the hell out of me. I had no idea I was even nominated until two weeks ago."
Brylske, 59, has kept a foot in two worlds -- diving and marine science -- for more than 35 years. This latest award, presented during the "Beneath the Sea" dive show in Secaucus, N.J., is for his contributions to dive safety and education.
After a successful career as a diving educator, having taught at least 1,500 school instructors, Brylske decided at age 40 to become a marine biologist.
"One of the most significant things in my life was jumping on Sombrero Reef in August 1968," he said. "My family was on vacation. I was so overwhelmed I almost drowned. That was an unbelievable experience."
But over the next 30 years, Brylske said he watched the coral reef decline as only a diver can.
"I never thought it would happen in my lifetime," he said. "It's actually depressing for me to dive in the Keys. I don't usually say that."
He simply can't report anything else from three decades as an underwater eyewitness, describing the reef's decline as "death by a thousand cuts" with some hope for preservation, if not renewal.
"Divers are unique people," said Brylske. "We actually see long before the general public what happens to the ocean. We were screaming 20 years ago about the decline of the Florida Keys."
The upside, he notes, is that the Keys are ground zero for coral reef research, and he has a job teaching reef restoration, courses that require eight to 12 student field trips.
"There is nothing like it," said Brylske, who lives in Summerland Key with his wife, Deborah Street, an artist and former schoolteacher.
The reef is fragile biologically, yet has been around for ages, said Brylske, who taught diving at FKCC in the mid-1980s but came on as a faculty member in 2009.
Having first scuba dived as a 13-year-old, the Baltimore-born and -bred Brylske said diving is now such a part of his life that he can't understand anyone who isn't curious about trying it.
"Most of the world is ocean," said Brylske, who grew up half-immersed in the Chesapeake Bay, the oldest of three children to a shipyard welder dad and stay-at-home mom. "I don't remember ever not knowing how to swim. It was a natural part of life, growing up along the water."
The local community college considers Brylske a rock star in his field. Last year, Brylske helped secure FKCC's induction into the American Academy of Underwater Science, making it only the second community college in the country -- and the sole one in Florida -- to receive the membership.
It allows Keys students to work on research projects with major universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We have some superstars and he is certainly at the top," said college spokeswoman Amber Ernst-Leonard. "He has no ego, either. You have to pull it out of him."
Diver, scientist, scholar, author and teacher, Brylske lets his work speak for itself.
"The opinion of other people, while it's appreciated, is not essential," he said. "I'd still be the same person if I didn't win the award."