john halas and a buoyJohn Halas, International Man of Mooring Buoys

Sometimes, a love for the ocean can take you places you've never been, or never thought you would go.

For John Halas, it took him to a place he thought he would never see again.

John is retiring in March after 31 years as a biologist/manager for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a job that has taken him around the world in his tireless quest to protect coral reefs from harm. But the Panama City, Fla., native wasn't always so well-traveled.

john halas and vietnamAs one of the many young men swept up in the tide of the Vietnam War, John was drafted after college and attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. He shipped off to Vietnam in 1968 — "the most flying I had ever done," he says — and served as an infantry unit commander with the 101st Airborne's air cavalry division in the country's northernmost sector, before taking a post as an advisor to South Vietnamese forces in Vinh Long Province, in the southern Mekong Delta region. When he boarded the flight that would take him back to the States in 1969, John assumed he was leaving Vietnam for good.

"I figured I was lucky to get out of the place in one piece," he says. "I didn't think I would ever see it again." That might have been the case, if not for John's deep, abiding passion for the sea. He had gotten his scuba certification in 1964, when he transferred from a community college to Florida State University, and was determined to get back into diving after the war.

john halas and vietnam"I remember writing to my mother after returning from Vietnam, saying I wanted to buy dive gear when I get back home," he says. He did just that, moving to the Florida Keys and spending his free time diving in between assorted jobs.

What began as a hobby blossomed into a full-blown obsession, however, when John left his job at an aquaculture firm and applied for a science diver training course offered through Florida's State University System Institute of Oceanography. "[My employers] said, ‘We can't promise there will be a job waiting for you when you get back,'" he recalls.

There wasn't, but John didn't care. The demanding program, which involved daily, and sometimes night dives, rigorous physical conditioning, training with U.S. Navy equipment, and saturation in the Hydrolab underwater habitat (now located at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring!), had opened up a world of new career opportunities. "I knew in my gut that was what I wanted to do," he says. "It was worth it."

In fall 1980, after several years working in the dive industry, John took a job as a biologist and first employee with what was then Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. Shortly after joining the sanctuary, he began working on a project that would change his life in ways he couldn't have imagined.

john halas and vietnamIn an effort to protect the fragile reefs of the Florida Keys from damage by boat anchors, John devised a reef mooring buoy system that provided a simple, cost-effective solution to the problem. Before long, he had installed 10 buoys in the Florida Keys region, then 40, then 80. Managers of other marine protected areas around the world began seeking his help, and he traveled to far-flung places like the Cayman Islands and Malaysia to demonstrate the technology.

After years of circling the globe for various marine conservation projects, John found himself once again crossing the Pacific on a plane bound for the country he had left under vastly different circumstances: Vietnam. The purpose of his visit was to participate as an instructor in a multi-national MPA workshop — concerned not with the country's military defense, but instead with the protection of its marine resources. "That was a very different mission than the first time," he remembers.

john halas and vietnamOnce the workshop was over, John took several days to revisit the Mekong Delta south of Saigon, where he had "tromped around" in the rice paddies in '68 and ‘69. He made his way back to the village where he had been stationed as a military advisor. The people there welcomed him and gave him tea as he shared old photos and stories. Some of them even remembered him. One man, a young soldier from one of his photographs, was still living there in the village, along with a mother of two children who was recorded as a young girl in one of John's other old photos. "To be able to go back has been rewarding," John says. He has returned to the country five times in total, with the other trips focused on training the staff of its recently formed MPAs on mooring buoy installation.

So, after a long and fruitful career of relentless work in marine conservation and maritime heritage, what does retirement hold? Not much in the way of relaxation, to hear John tell it. "I never took up golf that much," he says. "If it comes down to diving and searching for lost artifacts under the water or chasing a little round ball around a golf course, the choice is an easy one for me."

john halas and vietnamLeisure sports aside, John's got plenty of projects awaiting him once he bids farewell to the sanctuary office. His wife Judy has started a business supplying international customers with everything they need to install mooring buoys, and needs his help. One NOAA coworker wants to use John and his buoy anchor system technology to help establish a system of coral reef early warning system buoys around the Caribbean. Another colleague has promised to enlist John in an effort to establish a coral repository by cryogenically freezing healthy samples of every coral species in the wider Caribbean and eventually worldwide. The list goes on.

"I have to admit I've got some mixed feelings about moving on from Sanctuaries, but I felt that I needed something to push me out the door and on to my next chapter in life," he says.

Just don't think for a moment that something as trifling as retirement will keep John Halas away from the national marine sanctuaries for long.

"I live five miles up the road from the office, in the home that I planned for retirement, so I'll still be around," he says. "It's not goodbye forever."

- by Matt Dozier
National Marine Sanctuaries

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