Local Bothell resident William “Bill” High is being inducted into the Cayman Islands International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame Friday for his many achievements under the water.
“We had a project in Leavenworth, across the mountains, and the project called for someone to dive. And, so, our team kind of looked around and said ‘well, who’s going to do that?’ And I said ‘well I’ll do that,’” High said. “As a fisheries scientist, the best way to see what’s going on in the world of fisheries is to go underwater where the fish are, so it seemed like a natural for me.”
High started diving on a regular basis, both for work as a fisheries scientist and as a recreational diver. He then started leading this “double life.”
“Now, I’m leading two parallel lives, one in my profession which is a fisheries research scientist,” High said. “Then outside of that work, I began running this parallel life as a recreational diver, a dive instructor and as a commercial diver.”
High is receiving the honor for his many contributions to the field, not just one, including developing the standards for scuba cylinder inspection and safety, and leading research in four major underwater habitat projects around the globe.
He started getting into diving cylinder safety after hearing of a diving cylinder explosion, rapid expansion of pressurized gas, from a Japanese diving instructor’s experience.
“One of the young divers [in another group during the Japanese instructor’s dive] had his cylinder between his legs and was getting ready to pick it up and put it over his head when it exploded. It blew his legs off and killed him, it blew another diver’s legs off and injured a couple more.”
He already knew that one of the causes of the incident was bad equipment that was not maintained.
“There’s over a million foot-pounds of kinetic energy, that’s enough energy to lift four locomotive engines one foot off the tracks,” High said. “That’s a phenomenal amount of energy, and no one understood that.”
High decided to do something about the issue. He started the world’s first scuba cylinder inspection company, Professional Scuba Inspectors now called Professional Cylinder Inspectors (PCI), and developed the standards to which all kinds of pressurized air tanks are held to, including the scuba industry, firefighting apparatuses and more.
“I discovered that there were about 10, or more, high pressure cylinder explosions every year. It was a big deal, but it was kind of being ignored,” High said. “I researched the issue for about two years and then, in 1983, I formed a company… to train high pressure cylinder inspectors.”
After 36 years as a marine scientist, High retired but continued work with his company. More than 20 years later, PCI has trained more than 30,000 inspectors in pressurized tank safety.
Aside from his contributions to tank safety, High is also the first NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) diving coordinator, the vice president of the Underwater Society of America and is also the president of the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI).
There’s not much in the field of Scuba that High hasn’t done, including diving in deep-sea rovers and spending weeks at the bottom on the seafloor as part of experiments. His deepest dive is 1,500 feet in a mini submersible.
Some of the most memorable work High completed is diving with tuna fishermen’s nets to observe accidentally caught dolphins. He said it was “extraordinarily dangerous work” and it called upon experts in his field.
“I alone went aboard a commercial tuna sailer… When the net was set, I would dive inside the net to make observations,” High said. “Now I’m inside a net in the high seas in 20,000 feet of water, sharks on the outside and sometimes on the inside, but the important part was that we had up to 1,000 dolphins inside the net, at one time, and 20 to 50 tons of tuna.”
High’s job was to try, while the net is being recovered and more crowded, to make observations about the fish and mammals inside.
“My observations contributed dramatically to change net design so that far fewer dolphins were dying,” High said. “When you see on the cans ‘Dolphin safe tuna’ part of that was work that I had done, on my own, out on the great ocean. That was a great feeling of accomplishment.”
High already graces the NAUI Hall of Honor and has their Lifetime Achievement award, along with the Professional Association of Diving Instructor’s (PADI) Outstanding Achievement award.
On top of all of that, High is a consultant to NASAs Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, is a hyperbolic chamber operator and is the only living diver to achieve three New Orleans Grand Isle (NOGI) awards, one each in Sports and Education (1964), Science (1991) and Distinguished Service (2006).
“It’s a very fine, good feeling, a sense that I’ve done my job amongst people I have great respect for,” High said. “To be put among them is always appreciated. I appreciate the Cayman Island, the people and government, for putting this on.”
While it may be a far cry from the leading the first four scientific saturation dive programs, including Hydrolab, and the first five major deep submersible research expeditions off the waters of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, High is pleased about getting into the waters off the Cayman Islands.
High has recently taken a four or five year hiatus from diving but looks forward to his trip to the Cayman Islands.
“[I will] have an opportunity to get back in the water,” High said. “I’m saving some extra time to go diving [in the warm waters].”
Until then, he’ll be surrounded by a sea of foster rescue dogs, diving awards and war memorabilia dreaming of scuba diving in some Caribbean seas.