Diving deep with NOAA Corps Commander Dan Simon
Go to a popular beach in the summertime, and chances are you’ll see a child building a sand castle. All too often, just as the sand castle nears completion, a wave crashes into it and wipes it to nothing. Disappointment quickly turns to curiosity. “What's out there?” is the question that often follows as the child gazes out into what seems like never-ending water.
Dan Simon was such a child--always curious about the world around him. That curiosity would lead him to study biology and environmental science and pursue a career with the NOAA Corps, one of the nation’s seven uniformed services. NOAA Corps officers operate NOAA’s ships, fly the agency's aircraft, manage research projects, conduct diving operations, and serve in staff positions throughout the agency. Today, Simon holds the rank of commander and is a NOAA mariner and diver.
After a year-and-a-half of serving aboard NOAA Ship Miller Freeman, Simon completed Working Diver School at the NOAA Diving Center (NDC) in Seattle and was ready to put his newly learned diving skills to work. NDC provides training to NOAA divers, including employees, volunteers and contractors diving in support of NOAA’s mission. “I brought my new-found skills back to the Miller Freeman and was quickly put into the mix of divers.”
Traveling into the ocean depths is no small task. Adequate training is essential to being prepared to quickly notice and resolve potential complications that can arise mid-dive.
“Before dive school really begins, you have to pass a physical and a swim test,” explains Simon. “Once in the class, it was three weeks of very intense training, six days a week, long evenings of studying, and at least 25 dives that took us from snorkeling to using tools in dry suits.”
Preparation is Key
According to Simon, you never truly know the value of your training until it’s time to put it to the test. It was during a dive in American Samoa in 2004 that he would come face-to-face with his greatest test yet.
While on a recreational dive he found himself caught in a strong current, whisked through a canyon, and separated from his fellow divers. “The current was so strong that I eventually was able to plant my feet while oriented horizontally on a wall of the canyon,” says Simon.
While trapped against the canyon wall by the force of the current he had just a few moments to decide his critical next move. A much needed stroke of luck gave Simon the opportunity he needed. “A wave came in, which buffeted the current for a second or two,” he recalls. Simon took advantage of that glimpse of hope and resorted back to his training.
“I shot to the sea floor and grabbed hold of anything I could to begin crawling back to shore,” he says. This situation would be unnerving for most, but he says, “The skills that the NOAA Diving Center instilled in me kept me calm and alert to what the best next course of action was.”
Diving to Destiny
Even after this “trial by fire” experience, along with an array of others throughout his career, Simon still loves to dive. “Some of the more memorable ones have been hull dives to cut line out of propellers, free remotely operated vehicle umbilical cords, and attach or remove equipment,” he says.
After nearly a decade-and-a-half, he still vividly remembers his first non-drysuit dive off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. “When I jumped in, I could actually see the bottom about 80 feet deep,” says Simon. “I was so awed by the view that I could have remained there the entire time.” Fresh off of a tour as the commanding officer of NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai, Simon can’t wait to get back in or on the water, whichever comes first.