Oscars of the Ocean

The NOGI Awards

By Hillary Hauser and Bonnie J. Cardone

The legendary father of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau received one, as did two astronauts, Scott Carpenter and Kathryn Sullivan, a former dive store owner (Mel Fisher) who found the fabulous treasure of a Spanish wreck, the man who made a blockbuster movie about a supposedly unsinkable ship James Cameron, another man (Howard Hall) who makes award winning underwater documentaries in 3D, and the inventor of the Newtsuit, a revolutionary deep diving system Phil Nuytten PhD.

All in there are over 200 NOGI recipients, including founder of Ocean Geographic Society, Michael AW (NOGI Arts 2013) — these are all people who have made significant contributions to the dive industry in four different fields: Arts, Sciences, Environment, Sports & Education and Distinguished Service.

When one thinks of what NOGI stands for today – excellence in work related to the ocean – exploring it, studying it, photographing it, preserving it – it is ironic that NOGI stands for New Orleans Grand Isle, and the NOGI statuette that was first made was spawned from the awards given to the spear fisherman who got the biggest grouper, biggest barracuda, biggest shark, biggest fish in the New Orleans Grand Isle Scuba Diving Tournament – (a three day spearfishing orgy started by Jay Albeanese and Louis Cuccia in 1959). This contest pulled in scuba divers from all over the world, who got on boats and sped out to Louisiana’s offshore oil platforms to start spearing everything big. The event was an extravaganza that featured parachuting exhibitions, the inevitable posing for photos beside mammoth fishes bigger than their captors, and prizes ranged from sports cars and cash to trips to exotic places like Aruba. “Wednesday’s fishing proved that more and even bigger fish are still in the Gulf, and also brought forth certain species that had not been speared on the first day,” trumpeted the October 1959 edition of Skin Diver Magazine.

Of course, these were the early days of diving, before anyone had any idea of man’s impact on the ocean. In those early days, spearfishing was a natural part of going underwater. One year, Jacques Cousteau spent several days with these spearfishermen in Louisiana, both on and underwater. He is quoted as saying how fortunate the contestants were, “to have such an abundance of fish!”

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Weaving itself into this spearfishing gala was the Underwater Society of America, which was founded in Boston on February 22, 1959. At its first convention in Houston, Texas, on August 20 that same year, the Underwater Society handed out statuettes identical to those given to the spearfishermen – but for another reason: outstanding contribution to scuba diving.

These were the first NOGI statuettes, which were described in Skin Diver magazine, as being, “richly carved from wood and symbolizing all diving…the underwater equivalent of the movie Oscar and the TV Emmy.” They were hand carved by the renowned artist Vero Puccio, from Honduran mahogany. The first people to receive NOGIs for contribution to diving were: Carl Hauber, the Underwater Society of America’s first president; Chuck Blakeslee and Jim Auxier, founders of Skin Diver magazine; Eugene Vezzani, chairman of the World Championship (a spearfishing tournament) finance committee; and George Youmans, chairman of the convention at which those first NOGIs were awarded.

The NOGI spearfishing tournament was discontinued decades ago. The NOGI Awards, however, have been presented without interruption for over 50 years. Once the province of the Underwater Society of America, they have since been awarded by The Academy of the Underwater Arts & Sciences (AUAS), which was formed by Harry Shanks and Mary Edith “Mel” Lillis in 1993. Now, the AUAS is an international, multi-disciplinary, non-profit organization dedicated to recognizing pioneers and leaders who have had a global impact on the exploration, enjoyment, safety, and preservation of the underwater world. AUAS is committed to supporting its members as they pass on the stewardship of the sea to future generations.

The NOGI Awards are presented during the annual NOGI Gala, which is held in conjunction with the annual DEMA show every year. The DEMA host hotel is normally the AUAS-NOGI host hotel, and for 2014, this will be the Westgate Hotel (former Las Vegas Hilton), located directly beside the Las Vegas Conventional Centre, where the DEMA show is taking place.

The NOGI is given in four categories:

Arts: Filmmakers, painters, photographers, sculptors and other artists who bring the majesty of the underwater world to people everywhere;

Science: Explorers, inventors, doctors and scientists whose work helps us understand, enjoy and protect our precious underwater realm;

Sports/Education: Outstanding athletes and teachers who make scuba diving a safe, enjoyable and accessible activity for all who love the ocean.

Distinguished Service: World-renowned, as well as quiet achievers, whose contributions help the global diving community and the sport, as well as the health, well-being and understanding of the ocean.

In 2013, the AUAS Board of Directors added a fifth category in recognition of those who have made significant and specific contributions to the understanding of the ocean and its creatures - Environment,. The first recipient of the NOGI Environment award was G. Carleton Ray PhD, a world-recognized polar diving explorer and an authority on marine mammals (particularly walruses), who was on the team that wrote the U.S. Marine Mammal Act. Dr. Ray was also on the team that drafted the U.S Coastal Zone Management Act.

While most people receive just one NOGI, several have gotten multiple NOGI awards. Those with three are: William High (Sports & Education 1964, Science 1991, Distinguished Service 2006), and Andreas Rechnitzer (Science 1968, Distinguished Service 1989, Sports & Education 1999). Those with two NOGIs include: Eugenie Clark (Arts 1965, Science 1987); John Cronin (Distinguished Service 1985, Sports & Education 2001); E.R. Cross (Sports & Education 1975, Distinguished Service 1992); Glen Egstrom (Distinguished Service 1969, Science 1981); Hans Hass (Science and Distinguished Service, both 1998); Nick Icorn (Distinguished Service 1974, Sports & Education 1986); Mel Lillis (Sports & Education 1963, Distinguished Service 1994); Jack McKenney (Distinguished Service 1977, Arts, 1988); Bev Morgan (Arts 1990, Sports & Education 1995); and Chuck Nicklin (Sports & Education 1975, Arts 1986).

Father and son recipients include: Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Distinguished Service 1966), Philippe Cousteau (Arts 1977) and Jean-Michel Cousteau (Science 1993); along with Chuck Nicklin (Sports & Education 1975, Arts 1986) and Flip Nicklin (Arts 1994). There has been one set of identical twins, Bob and Bill Meistrell, who shared a 2006 NOGI for Sports & Education. Six husbands and wives have been winners, some separately: Jefferson Davis (Sports & Education 1981), Helen Turcotte Davis (Sports & Education 1983); Dimitri Rebikoff (Arts 1966), Ada Rebikoff, (Arts 2000); Ron Taylor (Sports & Education 1966), Valerie Taylor (Arts 1980); Paul Tzimoulis (Arts 1969), Geri Murphy Tzimoulis (Arts 2001). Some husband and wife teams have been honoured together: Jim and Cathy Church (Arts 1985); Chris Newbert and Birgitte Wilms (Arts 2003); Mort and Alese Pechter (Distinguished Service 2003).

Mary Edith “Mel” Lillis was the first woman to receive a NOGI (Sports & Education 1963). Eugenie Clark was the second (Arts 1965); Zale Parry, the third (Distinguished Service 1973); and Sylvia Earle, the fourth (Sciences 1976).

The Statuettes

The NOGI statuettes have had several incarnations. The dark Honduran wood gave way to molded from polywood. In 2005, the celebrated ocean artist Wyland (NOGI 1998) created the beautiful Lucite statuettes given today.

NOGI Enters a New Era

Today, the headquarters for the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences has been moved to Santa Barbara, California. AUAS President is Hillary Hauser, who won a NOGI for Distinguished Service in 2009 for her work as co-founder and Executive Director of Heal the Ocean, Santa Barbara, California, and Executive Director is Bob Evans of Force Fin, who won a NOGI in 2005 for Sports/Education for his innovative equipment design and furthering of the sport of diving. Hauser and Evans are spearheading a revitalizing of the AUAS Board, and preparing for the “best NOGI Gala ever” in Las Vegas on November 20, 2014. During this Gala, the 2014 NOGI winners, all of them distinguished, wonderful people who have contributed mightily to the underwater world, will be inducted into the society of NOGI Fellows. They are:

ARTS: Richard Ellis – a distinguished artist whose marine life paintings are exhibited all over the world, author of many books, research associate in the American Museum of Natural History's division of paleontology, special advisor to the American Cetacean Society, and U.S. delegate to International Whaling Commission from 1980 to 1990.

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE: Lad Handelman – founder of two premier offshore underwater contractors, Oceaneering International and Cal Dive International, which pioneered much of the deep-diving technology that has become industry practice today, including saturation diving, the use of remote-operated vehicles and one-atmosphere diving suits. Also co-founder the Marine Mammal Consulting Group (MMCG) in Santa Barbara, California.

SCIENCE: Dr. Richard Vann – venerated diving physiologist with numerous publications (43 Refereed Publications, 61 non-refereed publications, numerous dissertations, abstracts and web-based training materials) and major contributor to Diving Action Network (DAN).

ENVIRONMENT: Bill Macdonald – long-time film producer with a focus on educational programming on watershed awareness, and producer of the series “Sea Pulse,” which includes “Our Synthetic Sea,” featuring the problem of marine debris with a focus on the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which won an award for excellence at the Santa Cruz Environmental Film Festival.

SPORTS/EDUCATION: Mike Hollis – CEO of Oceanic, Aeris, LavaCore and Pelagic Pressure Systems, who started his career as a commercial saturation diver working in the oil fields, who applied his knowledge of physics to start Pelagic Pressure Systems, which produced the DataMax, the first electronic dive gauge before developing 300 different dive computers and introducing two new rebreathers – the “Prism” for tech divers and the revolutionary “Explorer” for the recreational market.

The NOGI Award has a rich history that has evolved from shooting fish with spears to shooting fish with cameras. It has evolved with technology, the understanding of diving physiology, the exploration of parts of the sea never thought possible, and the appreciation of all sea creatures. Today, the brotherhood of the NOGI is tight, and the appreciation is high between NOGI Fellows who have dedicated their lives to the ocean and to the perpetuation of knowledge and love for all things in it.


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Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

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