Steward of the Keys: Dan Dawson Dives

Dan Dawson, co-owner with wife Mollie of Key Largo’s Horizon Divers, certified by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as an environmentally responsible Blue Star operator, discovered his life’s passion at an early age.

Dawson’s father constructed shopping malls in Michigan, New Jersey and Connecticut and helped build part of Walt Disney World’s Epcot in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Dawson worked with his dad’s building business in Denver, Colorado.

But earning his dive certification at age 21 in the Keys changed the trajectory of his life. He began taking vacations to go diving, got his captain’s license in Stuart, Florida, and moved to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to captain sailing boats and dive.

Today Dawson is one of just a handful of Keys divers specializing in JJ-CCR, a rugged and highly technical rebreather developed for highly experienced divers that recycles diver breathing gas in a closed system. The rebreather makes underwater diving silent and nearly bubble-free.

Dawson is also acclaimed for leading the 2022 rescue of Harris, a 175-pound pregnant sea turtle the second largest on record that’s been rescued. Harris, who had a weighted fishing lure snagged between her neck and a fin, was rehabilitated at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. After her release she was tracked to Florida’s Delray Beach as well as the Bahamas and Cuba.

Dawson is an avid underwater photographer who has served as a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary advisory council member.

He and Mollie met in middle school and have been married for 25 years. They have three children: Madeline, who is earning her doctorate in physical therapy; Gavin, a student at Florida State University studying business and hospitality; and Haylie, a junior in high school.

The Dawsons take pride in providing individual customized service to Horizon Divers’ clients. And in line with Horizon’s Blue Star certification, they are committed to promoting responsible and sustainable practices that reduce environmental impact.

Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Dan Dawson: The first time I was in the Keys was on a family vacation in 1994. That was also when I learned how to dive. My wife and I purchased Horizon Divers in March 2005.

KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you? 

DD: Being in the water almost every day and enjoying the outdoors. Diving, snorkeling, kayaking or boating with my family.

KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world? 

DD: Growing up in Colorado and enjoying the mountains gave me a respect for the outdoors as a child. Moving to the Keys and seeing how people react to the beauty of the water and the reefs is refreshing, which keeps me involved as much as I can to help protect this wonderful place we call home. Also I want my kids — and, one day, grandkids — to be able to enjoy the Keys as well.

KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession? 

DD: I keep the shop and myself very involved with many events to help promote a healthy environment and to protect our reefs and wrecks.

KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle? 

DD: Horizon Divers does multiple reef and wreck cleanups every year to clean up the trash out on the water. We are also very involved with Reef Environmental Education Foundation and Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo throughout the year.

KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

DD: Seeing our young adults and kids learn about our environment and how to protect it for the future.

KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish? 

DD: To teach our future generations to learn what to do to protect our environment and take the torch for future generations.

KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter? 

DD: That we have some of the most beautiful reefs and wrecks in the world, but they need our help to protect them.

KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?

DD: Diving is my passion and I love to be underwater and take pictures of our wildlife.

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