May 22, 2019

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
Dick Rutkowski's gallery of awards at his Key Largo base grows as the diving and hyperbarics pioneer was selected as the 2019 Commercial Diving Hall of Fame honoree by the Association of Diving Contractors International.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Dick Rutkowski's gallery of awards at his Key Largo base grows as the diving and hyperbarics pioneer was selected as the 2019 Commercial Diving Hall of Fame honoree by the Association of Diving Contractors International.

KEY LARGO — Awards and tributes presented to dive pioneer Dick Rutkowski might outweigh the two large hyperbaric chambers at his Key Largo instructional center for clinical and medical seminars.

The total got heavier still when the Association of Diving Contractors International tapped Rutkowski as its 2019 choice to join its Commercial Diving Hall of Fame.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
Dick Rutkowski’s gallery of awards at his Key Largo base grows as the diving and hyperbarics pioneer was selected as the 2019 Commercial Diving Hall of Fame honoree by the Association of Diving Contractors International.

“I guess I’m pretty well known around the world,” Rutkowski shrugged at the desk of his Hyperbarics International office. “I’ve been doing this for about 70 years and still getting a lot of requests.

“I’ve been teaching these [Diving Contractors International] people for years. They’re the commercial divers who do saturation diving and work with power plants, on dams, rigs and wastewater systems.”

The 600-company DCI association says its Hall of Fame inductees “have dedicated their lives to improving commercial diving” by refining safety techniques, developing better equipment and “contributing to the medical sciences used to keep us safe from rigors of diving.”

Rutkowski more than qualifies.

A Key Largo resident since his 1985 “retirement” after decades with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rutkowski continues to teach advanced diving treatment and techniques at seminars at Hyperbarics International at mile marker 98.8.

Rutkowski has worked in the Arctic and spent a year at the South Pole as a meteorological technician and radio operator. He left his mark — the Rutkowski Glacier in Antarctica is formally named for “Richard L. Rutkowski, United States Antarctic Research Program meteorologist at the South Pole Station, 1962.”

He later joined the federal Environmental Sciences Services Administration, which became NOAA in 1970, and was assigned to learn commercial diving so he could train government scientists to dive safely.

Rutkowski served as deputy director of the NOAA Dive Office under director Morgan Wells, Ph.D., an expert in hyperbarics and using mixed gases for diving.

Among numerous other accomplishments, Rutkowski created NASA’s underwater training program that prepares astronauts for weightless environments, took part in saturation test dives, managed federal agency and military dive programs in South Florida, and established recompression chambers in Costa Rica and the Turks and Caicos.

Rutkowski will forever be known as the man who brought nitrox (oxygen-enriched air used in scuba tanks) from the realm of science and commercial diving to the worldwide underwater community in the mid-1980s.

Divers seeking to visit shipwreck reefs in deep water off the Florida Keys needed the option of a gas mix that reduces the chance of dive-related illness caused by nitrogen entering the bloodstream while underwater at depth, Rutkowski contended.

The first-ever recreational nitrox certification was issued by the International Association of Nitrox Divers that he founded in Key Largo. Ocean Divers pumped the first recreational nitrox into scuba tanks.

That triggered a controversy in the diving world over whether nitrox was safe for recreational divers, but Rutkowski’s early advocacy for nitrox eventually won him plaudits from dive-certification agencies and induction into multiple diving halls of fame.

“Rutkowski has taught thousands of professionals in programs such as recompression chambers, engineering, diving gases, physics, physiology, pathophysiology, and the medical aspects of diving,” the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association says of its Hall of Fame member. “His contributions to hyperbaric medicine, as well as his work with mixed breathing gases, have made diving a much safer sport today.”

“I tried to trade in some of these [awards] at Starbuck’s, but they wouldn’t even give me a cup of coffee,” Rutkowski joked last week.

In January, Rutkowski launched a GoFundMe.com campaign to raise money that provides hyperbaric sessions for divers of modest income who need treatment for decompression sickness. Search for Hyperbarics International on the fundraising site.

Key Largo will always be home, Rutkowski said.

“I’ve been to just about every place in the Caribbean, but this is the Caribbean island you can drive to,” he said. “This is about as good as it gets.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com