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Los Angeles County Underwater Unit

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And so it Began…
The Founding of the Los Angeles County Underwater Unit
by Albert Tillman

In 1952, in my capacity as the Los Angeles County Sports Director, I addressed the following memorandum to the Director of Parks and Recreation.

June 10, 1952

To: Paul Gruendyke, Director LA County Parks and Rec.

From: Al Tillman, Sports Director

Subject: Skin Diving Classes

A new sport – skin diving – is becoming popular in the area. Recently, while diving in Palos Verdes, I ran into several divers in the water with me who didn’t know what they were doing. One had one of the new underwater breathing units that allows divers to stay under for long periods of time. I have purchased this equipment for evaluation.

The Palos Verdes area in question is not covered by the Lifeguards and serious problems could arise if an accident occurs and if the County doesn’t act proactively. This activity falls into the sports category and I propose that my department get involved in this sport and provide training classes. I believe that diving will grow in the future and we have an obligation to make the sport as safe as possible.

Let’s get together soon to discuss the possibilities of a County sponsored training program.
cc. N. S. Johnson

Chuck Bollinger”

The delivery of this memorandum started a chain reaction that would be felt around the world and effect millions of divers for decades to come. My sports division joined forces with the Los Angeles County Lifeguards to design a program for instructing the populace in skin and SCUBA diving.

The problem still remained – where or who was the official authority on what was to be taught. The Uncle Charlies and club dive masters had taken it the first distance and now a public agency … a government entity … was stepping in. Not everyone in diving was pleased with this intrusion. Divers loved the freedom of going diving and now they were going to be told what to do and how to do it; government regulated instruction gave off a feeling that something would be ruined. Perhaps it was, but there was the threat of many lives to be lost without it.

Los Angeles County looked about and hit upon Scripps Institution of Oceanography as the place to procure a point of authority. At Scripps, informal classes were being conducted by a pioneer SCUBA diver named Conrad Limbaugh. Limbaugh trained scientists in using SCUBA as a tool for research. Scripps’ counterpart, Woods Hole, was also working with SCUBA and had a fledgling program.

Los Angeles County sent myself and Lifeguard Bev Morgan to Scripps. We spent every Tuesday learning about all areas of underwater sports activities. A range of topics were covered including SCUBA, skin diving, first aid, sea life, underwater photography, underwater explosives, spearfishing, body surfing, and surfing.

We brought back the nucleus of what should be taught in public classes. Bev wrote a manual for basic classes following the pattern of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard training manual and in the summer of 1954, the first public classes in sport diving, both skin and SCUBA, were introduced. The classes filled with no problem.

Various factors shifted the Los Angeles County program under the Sports Division at that point. The first public classes had shown two things:

1) There was a greater interest than we thought possible and more instructors would be needed than the County could pull from its paid staff.

2) SCUBA was going to soar in popularity supplanting skin diving as the dominant underwater sport.

The official step was an instructors training program. We proceeded to set up the first UICC (Underwater Instructor Certification Course) at Lynwood, California Natatorium in the spring of 1955.

The course information and SCUBA skills were substantiated by a board of advisors made up of respected leaders in various areas of diving and teaching. It was only twenty hours long and took place over four Saturdays. The participants weren’t a bunch of novices; they brought a vast reservoir of diving experience into the course, their noses dripped water from a whole lot of skin diving and other aquatic activities. They were about to launch an explosion of formal diving instruction from which we would never turn back. Graduates from that course were issued the first “official” instructor cards for this infant sport.

The Los Angeles County underwater program grew in all directions. More UICC’s were spun off, one major course each year and each would run over a ten week period. The student training manual, Underwater Safety, was revised to Underwater Recreation for a more positive note. An instructor’s manual to guide and standardize the teaching was published. Los Angeles became the guideline program for a lot of the US and by the late 50’s was generating original research and resulting standard information for SCUBA know how. Skin diving, the original main core of the idea, rapidly took a subsidiary role to SCUBA diving.

We were besieged from everywhere with requests for materials to help set up similar programs. A special offering was launched to try and accommodate them, I envisioned The National Underwater Provisional Certification Program to certify instructors on a national level, but is was politically taboo in tax payers concerns for a county agency to work beyond its geographical borders. Despite this, some instructors in other places were sanctioned by mail to be provisional county instructors. We kept track of all certified students, had a mail in survey to supervise content and continuing quality of each instruction, and an updating recertification system.

My dream of a national certification program would not come to pass until 1960 when I worked with fellow Skin Diver Magazine contributor Neal Hess to create the National Association of Underwater Instructors. Los Angeles County’s program, however, remains to this day one of the best programs in the world. Membership in LACUIA is a status symbol – being in direct descent of the first organized public program and to some degree of Connie Limbaugh’s first civilian program.

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