Picture this: you have a career that brings you face to face with some of the world’s most breathtaking animals. You have a gratifying job that encourages you to create connections and inspire a love for the oceans. Your work brings you songs of laughter and squeals of excitement as you help children out of their wheelchairs and into a new wondrous watery world to splash, play, and see something that to them might have been unimaginable, maybe even impossible. You make too many astounding memories to list in this lifelong passion, but that is the fate of your industry. So what do you say when you leave this industry, when you step away from this mesmerizing world, and hang up your fins? You say, “We will all have amazing adventures and stories if we stay in it long enough, cause it’s the best job out there”. Wouldn’t you agree?
The small yet heartwarming moments just pictured are cherished memories from Gavin Wuttken during his illustrious career spanning over 3 decades. Although he retired last year, you may recognize him as the former Lead DSO for the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, or as the former Lead DSO for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California! If those prestigious establishments don’t ring a bell, he also served on the AAUS board for two terms, established the Pacific Northwest Dive Safety Officers group, and is widely known in our group as one of the founders and prior president of the ADPA. In whatever form or fashion you know him, you must know that Gavin had the time of his life in many branches of this industry.
Gavin started his diving career in 1976 on Catalina Island-one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. A gracious friend paid for his certification so Gavin could be his dive buddy. They hiked the rugged desert coastline for a few days, explored lush kelp forests, dove for spiny lobsters, and had face-offs with blue sharks! It’s easy to see how an experience like this could guide anyone further into the world of diving.
Gavin went on to own a busy, very busy, but lucrative commercial dive business. He grew to have well over 500 clients, operate out of 3 harbors, and even dive 6 days a week! Though successful, his work dominated his life and he knew that if he continued to operate this way he would one day burn out and maybe even grow to hate the thing that got him started – diving! His solution: become a volunteer diver at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Soon enough, the Aquarium won him over and stole him away. Gavin sold his business, took a substantial pay cut, and joined Randy Wilder, the DSO at that time. He never looked back.
Gavin spent 15 years as the DSO for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which at the time boasted to be the largest dive program in the world, second only to the Navy. He says that everything in Monterey was big, every detail was well thought out, and almost every moment was captured as it held the attention of the world – both in media and in operations. Gavin played a part in many monumental operations including everything from Great White Shark Research, submarine launches, animal collections, to a 750 lb helicopter Mola mola transfer back to the ocean! Gavin’s efforts are one of the reasons why Monterey Bay Aquarium holds so many “firsts”. It was one of the first aquariums to join AAUS. It was the first aquarium to welcome disabled divers to their volunteer program, first to create a dedicated kids’ guest dive experience in an aquarium, ‘Underwater Explorers’, and the first to welcome disabled children to their program, ‘Day of Discovery’! (Both of which are ongoing and under the careful and fantastic attention of the Dive Office at Monterey).
After 15 years, it was hard for Gavin to leave Monterey but he saw an opportunity to help build a new program and was happy to take it. He left California and made his way up the Pacific Northwest to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Gavin stepped in to offer his assistance as a volunteer, albeit he was not a volunteer for long. He ultimately transformed the program from a small-scale operation with only six divers and limited dives to a thriving and diverse dive operation. Under his guidance, the dive team grew to 23-30 divers and thanks to his upper administration, Gavin was able to try new things and bring his big ideas to life. He had free rein to create a scientific dive program and expand his team by hiring the amazingly talented Heidi Wilken. Together, they built a premier guest experience that takes non-certified participants underwater on hookah to meet sharks – a program which he dubbed ‘Eye to Eye’. Many years later, the dive program at Point Defiance has flourished with collection dives, dive shows, research dives, and a guest dive program heavily based on conservation. After 18 years with Point Defiance and 33 years total in the dive industry, Gavin handed the reins over to Heidi.
In addition to his exceptional work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Gavin made significant contributions to the field of hyperbaric medicine and ocean rescue. For 10 years Gavin served as an ocean rescue swimmer and chamber supervisor at the Pacific Grove Hyperbaric Chamber facility, where he played a crucial role in saving numerous lives from swimming and diving accidents in the frigid waters of Monterey Bay. It is easy to say that Gavin made waves in his world, but don’t fret, retirement for him looks a bit different than most.
Retirement for Gavin does not mean slowing down. He is the president of a non-profit organization called Around Again, which focuses on reducing CO2 emissions by repurposing building materials and furniture. This initiative has saved over 34 million tons of CO2 to date. Gavin also enjoys woodworking, particularly Japanese woodworking, and is currently exploring projects such as creating shoji screens with an algae print theme. Additionally, he remains connected to the diving world as a volunteer field diver at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, where he continues to pursue his love for diving.
Gavin Wuttken is widely regarded as a legend in the diving industry with his groundbreaking contributions as a Dive Safety Officer within two renowned institutions. His relentless passion for conservation and transformative guest experiences have solidified his reputation as an iconic leader who has paved the way for many of us within the ADPA today.
When asked what he might share with present or future dive leaders, he said:
I hope you enjoy the ride. There is so much knowledge in the industry, lean on it. Save inventing the wheel for new ideas instead of daily operations. Let’s put it this way, suction cups for holding the divers to the windows was a new thing when I started. Remember also we have an incredibly safe industry so trust your divers (once they are trained) and support them, forgive the minor transgressions when you can.Gavin Wuttken
Gavin, we would like to wish you all the best in this next chapter and thank you for all you have done to help set remarkable standards of leadership and excellence within our industry. We wish to make many cherished memories of our own over the years!