He has excavated shipwrecks, explored deep-water caves and been mask to snout with 15-foot hammerheads. But, The Florida Aquarium Vice President of Operations Casey Coy’s greatest diving thrill comes not from such adventures but from introducing others to the wonders of the “Blue Planet.”
Coy spearheads The Aquarium’s “conservation research diving program,” and whether studying coral reefs off Cuba, observing sea turtles in the Florida Keys or looking for Civil War-era shipwrecks in the Hillsborough River, Coy relishes the possibility of “shining a light on places new to science and helping to preserve them.”
He credits Jacques Cousteau and asthma for his scuba career. Plagued by chronic asthma as a child, a doctor recommended swimming to strengthen his lungs. But mere swimming wasn’t enough. On Saturday mornings, rather than tuning in to cartoons, he would watch repeats of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and was enchanted.
The ocean wasn’t readily available to the Boulder, Colorado, native, but his father and he took scuba lessons and went to Molasses Reef off Key Largo for their open water dive. It was truly transformative. “It had everything you could imagine for a dive,” he said. “We saw grouper, shark, barracuda, moray eel … it began my love affair with the sea.”
Every year after that, the family would take a diving vacation. He eventually became a lifeguard and worked in a dive shop. Still, he earned his University of Colorado degree in fine arts and after graduation took a job in graphic design. “That lasted about eight days,” he added.
He soon was contacting every dive shop in South Florida and landed a Port St. Lucie dive master job that would eventually lead him to diving throughout the Caribbean, South Pacific and Hawaii. But as much as he loved diving, he ultimately felt the need to give more purpose to his passion. And, that brought him to The Aquarium in 1999, four years after it opened.
He credits the late Thom Stork, who took over as the Aquarium President in 2002, with recognizing how dive programs could advance the facility’s vision to “Protect and Restore Our Blue Planet.” The Aquarium began allowing guests to dive in the flagship Coral Reef exhibit and enabling kids to snorkel with fish.
The carefully supervised encounters were intended not to generate thrills but rather to promote an appreciation of the natural world. As Coy explained, “Nothing can take the place of a direct experience with an animal. It’s emotional, and that is a sure way to transform people’s behavior.”
Coy said that Stork knew some in the zoo-aquarium world did not approve of such interactive ventures. But Stork, who died in January, saw that when the experience was mutually beneficial to the animals and the guests, it was a powerful way to encourage conservation. “We are going to do it and be proud of it,” Stork told him. Today, Coy’s team has been integral in establishing safe and positive diving experiences at other institutions across the country.
But that was only a small part of the plan Stork and Coy had for the Aquarium dive team. It expanded to include partnering with universities and scientific groups on critical ocean research on red tides, sharks, sea turtles and numerous other topics.
It grew further with an archaeological survey of shipwrecks in Tampa Bay, finding in the Hillsborough River a Civil War era ship used by one-time Tampa Mayor James McKay and discovering the USS Narcissus, a Civil War tugboat that sunk off Egmont Key in 1866. The state of Florida eventually made the Narcissus its 12th Underwater Archaeological Preserve.
Also, he was part of a dive team that excavated the fabled Monitor, which battled the Merrimack during the Civil War in the first encounter of two ironclad ships.The North’s Monitor sunk in a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1862. Coy said a vivid memory is finding human remains in the shipwreck. It was a sobering moment and made him and the other divers better understand that such archaeological efforts must be conducted with the utmost care and respect.
Coy, who has experimented with mixing gases that allow longer, deeper dives, now oversees an operation that includes 25 employees, 125 volunteers and four water craft. The married father of two girls also leads The Aquarium diving expeditions to exotic locales, including pristine reefs off Cuba. Though he’s made thousands of dives, his enthusiasm for undersea world has not diminished. “I still get a bang out of blowing bubbles,” he said.
Love Diving? Check out this amazing story of life beneath the Antarctic ice…
Note: Those interested in experience The Florida Aquarium’s in-Aquarium and in-the-wild diving experiences can visit The Florida Aquarium’s website.