DAN Member Profile: Dick Rutkowski

Throughout Dick Rutkowski’s long career of contributions, working for the government and with his own facility, he has greatly increased the safety of divers worldwide through his work with mixed breathing gases and hyperbaric medicine. Photo by Stephen Frink

Hometown: Key Largo, Florida
Years Diving: 67
Favorite Dive Destination: I’ve been able to dive all over the world, but Truk Lagoon and Micronesia really stand out.
Why I’m a DAN® Member: They do a very good job. I’ve been with DAN starting with the ground floor.

Pick any line in Dick Rutkowski’s extensive biography, and stories abound. There are the six years he spent in government service at the frigid South and North Pole regions. He helped create NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, where astronauts train for spacewalks in pool water 40 feet deep, and he trained the divers who watch over astronauts.

A pioneering 1978 manual on dive accident management used by Divers Alert Network® (DAN®) was cowritten by Rutkowski, who had made his first scuba dive 26 years earlier while serving in the U.S. Navy. He holds advanced certifications from virtually every major dive agency and was a partner in a commercial diving firm that serviced oil rigs. But keeping divers safe by establishing hyperbaric recompression chambers around the world and training thousands of physicians and technicians who use them stands out in Rutkowski’s mind as his most significant contribution.  

“That’s what I spent my life doing — working in diving and hyperbarics,” Rutkowski said at his Hyperbarics International Inc. facility in Key Largo, Fla.

Those facilities can be found in places where divers journey, including Grand Cayman, Bonaire, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand and many more. He calculates that he has visited more than 30 countries to set up diving programs or establish hyperbaric facilities. Hyperbarics International, in addition to its two Key Largo recompression chambers, built facilities in Costa Rica and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

“Everything just kept happening,” Rutkowski said. “People made requests, and I tried to do what they wanted at different facilities around the world. They came to me because back then there weren’t many other places to go.”

Upon honorable discharge from the Navy in 1959, he signed on for six years with the polar operations branch of the federal Environmental Science Services Administration — the forerunner of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — working at both the South Pole and North Pole. During a year as a meteorological technician and radio operator at the South Pole in 1961-62, Rutkowski logged, “The coldest day was 110 degrees below zero, and the warmest was 19 degrees below zero. The mean temperature for that year was 59 degrees below zero.”

A glacier in Antarctica is officially named after Rutkowski. It’s true; look it up.

Moving to warmer climates at the Atlantic Oceanographic Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, Florida, Rutkowski was assigned in 1965 to attend a school for commercial divers so he could teach federal scientists how to work underwater. He soon became the environmental agency’s director of diver training in addition to serving as a working diver on scientific and recovery missions.

When NOAA was created in 1970, Rutkowski served as deputy director under Morgan Wells, Ph.D., the revered director of NOAA’s Diving Program and Experimental Diving Unit (EDU) for many years. “Morgan Wells was my mentor,” he said.

In Miami, Rutkowski was regional director of the NOAA dive office, where he oversaw dive training, accident treatment and the EDU. He also served as codirector of the agency’s physician medical program for 33 years. Rutkowski was involved in several underwater habitat operations over a 15-year span and joined a 1973 mission as an aquanaut aboard the Hydro-Lab in the Bahamas.

When he decided to leave government service in 1985, Rutkowski received a DAN lifetime membership for doing “so much to help dive safety with the excellent courses and the chamber itself with its superb record in treating dive accidents.”

Not long after opening Hyperbarics International in Key Largo, he created the first nitrox certification course for recreational divers. Skeptics were plentiful, but before long national dive-certification agencies began following Rutkowski’s lead and launched nitrox classes. “It took off,” he said, smiling.

In 2012 the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) inducted him into its hall of fame. “He helped change the course of modern diving through his continued efforts to test and promote the use of mixed gases, such as nitrox and trimix. His work helped develop tech diving and clinical hyperbaric medicine as we know it today,” the DEMA tribute says. “His contributions to hyperbaric medicine, as well as his work with mixed breathing gases, have made diving a much safer sport today.”

Rutkowski continues to teach at his facility in Key Largo, extending his legacy of dive safety.

Earlier this year the Association of Diving Contractors International tapped Rutkowski as a hall of fame member. That adds to a lifetime of accolades from the NAUI Hall of Honor, the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, the Undersea Hyperbaric and Medical Society, the Explorers Club, the History of Diving Museum and many more.

Rutkowski continues to teach seminars at his Hyperbarics International facility, now relocated to mile marker 98.8 in Key Largo. “I’ve been working nearly 70 years but still get a lot of requests,” he said. “I guess I’m pretty well known around the world.”

Explore More

Learn more about Dick Rutkowski’s legacy in this video prepared for his induction into the DEMA Hall of Fame.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2019