Obituary Notice: James (Jim) Stewart, Pioneering Diving Officer

Associated with Scripps since the 1950s, Stewart revolutionized scientific diving programs

James “Jim” Ronald Stewart, chief diving officer emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, died June 7 in Irvine, Calif. at the age of 89.

Stewart was a renowned diving expert and had been affiliated with Scripps Oceanography since 1952. As diving officer from 1960 until his retirement in 1991, he managed the nation's oldest and largest nongovernmental research diving program, which became the model for safe and effective conduct of international research diving programs. (View Photo Gallery.)

“Jim was a true pioneer and a giant to those of us that work in the ocean realm,” said Christian McDonald, current scientific diving safety officer at Scripps. “He was a mentor to generations of divers, diving scientists, and diving safety professionals around the world. I, and so many others, find it a great privilege to have learned from and to count Jim as a good friend.”

Born Sept. 5, 1927, Stewart was a native of San Diego and began diving in 1941—before the use of scuba. At the age of 14, he first borrowed a friend's dive mask at La Jolla Cove. He put his head under water, started freediving, and quickly became a very accomplished freediving spear fisherman in high school. Stewart was drafted in the final year of World War II and went into the Army Air Corps in Nome, Alaska. Upon returning home in 1951, he became a member of the Bottom Scratchers, the world’s oldest freediving club. Stewart was the youngest member of the exclusive club, which changed the sport of breath-hold diving and revolutionized the use of equipment such as facemasks, fins, and spearfishing guns.

Stewart received a bachelor of arts degree from Pomona College in 1953 and his general teaching credentials from San Diego State College in 1958. In addition, he studied marine botany at the graduate level at the University of Southern California and University of Hawaii.

In the early 1950s, Stewart was one of a dozen individuals at Scripps who began developing training procedures and data collecting techniques that would allow scientists to use diving as a means of conducting underwater research. During the early 1960s, he developed the original University Guide for Diving Safety, which created a means for establishing reciprocal research diving programs throughout the University of California system and various state and federal agencies.

Stewart was a legendary presence at Scripps and within the larger diving community. While conducting research diving off Wake Island (North Pacific Ocean) in 1961, Stewart was attacked by a gray reef shark. Hit twice on the right elbow, the bites cut the joint capsule and two arteries. With his diving experience and the aid of friend Ron Church, he was able to escape and avoid further injuries. He was flown to a Hawaiian hospital and eventually made a full recovery.

Stewart directed and participated in numerous kelp bed field projects in which he trained staff and students in the art of kelp bed diving, which was a true passion of his. He once said, “If you've ever swum through a kelp bed, it's kind of like swimming through a forest, one of the more beautiful places you'll ever be.”

His work on such projects led to many shipboard diving and collecting trips for the University of California. The scientific community recognizes Stewart as an expert on the interactions of divers and the marine environment, including marine mammals.

Since 1967, Stewart was responsible for the training and evaluation of all scientists, regardless of nationality, conducting research diving in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans under the auspices of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs, a position he maintained even after his retirement from Scripps.

In addition to the Arctic and Antarctic, Stewart dived throughout much of the world, including the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Gulf of Mexico, and Mediterranean Sea.

Stewart served as a consultant to NASA, for which he participated in the development of techniques used in the underwater training of astronauts for extravehicular activity. In the mid-1990s, he formed a national committee to evaluate the engineering concepts necessary for creating a wet training facility for the international space station.

Jim’s accolades were numerous and include the AAUS Scientific Diving Lifetime Achievement (2001), the inaugural Conrad Limbaugh Memorial Award for Scientific Diving Leadership from the AAUS (2001), the Roger Revelle Trophy from the San Diego Oceans Foundation (2001), induction as one of the first members of the National Association of Underwater Instructors Hall of Honor (2000), the National Conservation Award from the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (1992), and election to the Diving Hall of Fame, concurrent with being honored with the first Pioneer Award, from the Diving Equipment Manufacturers Association (1991).

In 2003, in honor of his years as diving officer for the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names conferred the name "Stewart Peak" on a 1,097-meter mountain in Antarctica in his honor.

Stewart was a member of the State of California Parks and Recreation Department Board on Underwater Parks and Reserves, the Coroner’s Expert Committee on Diving Related Deaths, the Scuba Advisory Committee for National Cooperation in Aquatics, the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) Advisory Committee, and the San Diego/La Jolla Underwater Park Board. In addition, he served as diving consultant to the U.S. Coast Guard, NASA, FBI, U.S. Army Special Forces, National Park Service, and many universities nationwide. He was the last surviving member of the Bottom Scratchers.

Stewart is survived by his wife of 64 years, Joan, son Craig, daughter Meredith, and four grandchildren.

Memorial services will be held at a later date.

Colleagues wishing to express condolences are invited to submit messages for web posting to


Tributes to Jim Stewart

"During my 40 years at Scripps nobody did more for my career then Jim. He was my mentor and was always there when tough decisions had to be made. I don't know of anyone who has done more for the scientific diving community than Jim. Not only at Scripps but worldwide. He will be greatly missed by the diving community and by everyone who knew him personally."
– Wayne Pawalek, Scripps Diving Officer from 1991-2004, longtime colleague of Jim Stewart

"I received my research dive training from Jim in 1978. In those days, diving was a masculine province. I was a small woman, and no athlete, so I was braced for the possibility of a less than supportive environment for learning this seemingly macho skill. Jim treated us all fairly and rigorously and helped us earn the confidence we needed to operate in the sea. He never put me down or made me feel inferior, although I will never forget the sight of him standing on the SIO pier, laughing uproariously when I struggled to get my plump rear below the water after dropping my weight belt during a test. He was one of many exceptional mentors in my SIO education."
– Margo Haygood, PhD, 1984, Professor Emerita, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Research Professor, University of Utah

"We, the Prodanovich family, are very saddened to learn that we've lost Jim Stewart. He was the last living club member of the Bottom Scratchers dive club. He and my dad Jack Prodanovich were very close and did so much together regarding preservation of our ocean and all its creatures. Truly the end of an interesting and exciting era, with all these divers now gone. Our condolences to all his family, friends, and coworkers."
– Kristy (Prodanovich) Keller,  Robin & Milo Prodanovich

"Jim was a wonderful supporter of the Aquarium Membership program through the years. He would often be the 'star' of our annual spring Member Nights at the 'old' Aquarium and regale members with his accounts of diving around the world and sharks. He’d talk about 'sledgehammer science' when knowledge of certain species was so elementary that they didn't know who would eat who, so two animals would be left in a trap and after awhile they’d go back to find out who survived. And he would show us his scar. :)"
– Craig Klampe, Visitor Services, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

"I was the MSO for the Center for Coastal Studies when Doug Inman and I, with other fabulous scientists, established our 'beach-head' at the foot of the pier. Jimmy helped every single scientist – landlubber or not – to learn how to navigate the ocean and its vicissitudes. Even Bob Guza didn't know how to swim then but we ALL trusted Jimmy."
Respecting his legacy and loving his good work, Vanessa Wilds Cunningham Wassenar

"My dive instructor and an incredible mentor. During many travels to the U.S. Northwest, I would call him late in the evening to run a challenging dive by him that we were about to undertake the next day. Always available for discussions, keeping the utmost respect for the field teams. My thoughts are with his family."
– Julie Thomas, CDIP Manager, SCCOOS Executive Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

"Please accept our sad condolences on the passing of Jim Stewart. He was a pioneer of diving, and a friend to DEMA and all who met him. A great man who will be missed."
– Tom Ingram, President and CEO, Diving Equipment and Marketing Association

"On behalf of the entire NAUI family, our hearts go out to the family, colleagues and friends of this truly legendary pioneer. Very few individuals make such an impact in their lifetime. We and the planet are better for his presence. Rest in peace."
– Dallas Edmiston, Executive Director, NAUI

"Jim Stewart was one of the royal-hearted and rare pioneers of the diving world. Through decades of exploration, experimentation, innovation and unbridled grit, he ushered in the genre that came to be known as the modern university Scientific Diving Safety Officer. Anchored by his bigger than life personality and immense experience he helped drive practice and policy in many diving related modalities. While a prolific career will ensure his legacy, Jim may be best remembered for his charismatic and energetic love of life and our ocean planet. Thoughts and prayers are sent to his family, colleagues and friends."
Respectfully, Drew Richardson, President and CEO, PADI Worldwide

"Jim was a good friend and I will miss him, friends since the late 1950s, I learned a lot from his experiences that helped me through the years at Scripps. RIP Jim."
– Jack Lucas

"My condolences to Mrs. Stewart and family. I remember fondly when Mrs. Stewart, as my high school freshman English teacher in 1956, arranged for her husband to speak to our class.  He was obviously articulate, intelligent and experienced in an outstanding profession."
– Ben Trovaten,  Capt., SC, USN (ret)


Related Image Gallery: James "Jim" Stewart


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