Harold Hudson has logged more time underwater than many fish.
Most of those thousands of hours in diving gear have been at the world's reefs, conducting groundbreaking research.
But the 71-year-old biologist is best known for his pioneering work in reef restoration: repairing corals damaged by grounded ships, careless tourists, global warming, marine pollution and nature's wrath.
'The one thing Harold used to say to me, in his crackly voice: 'Well, Billy, I can build that reef back better than God made it,' " said Billy Causey, a regional director of the National Marine Sanctuary program.
This summer, Hudson - the man known worldwide as the Reef Doctor - is retiring after 50 years of federal service.
His career began as a Navy diver trained to dispose of bombs, mines and torpedoes. It ends as a coral caretaker in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
On Friday, Hudson was in Washington to accept the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Distinguished Career Award. Earlier this year, he received Reef Relief's Lifetime Achievement Award in Key West and accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Frankfurt in Germany.
"He has helped repair and restore more coral reefs damaged by ship groundings than any other human I know of on a global scale," Causey said.
Among Hudson's crowning achievements is the restoration of Molasses Reef, scarred by the 1984 grounding off Key Largo of the freighter Wellwood. In 2001, Hudson led a team that built 22 reef modules made of concrete and limestone to attract new corals and sea life.
"A lot of people knew what needed to be done to restore reefs - Harold was the one who knew how," sanctuary colleague Bill Goodwin said. "He really is ingenious. He'd often disappear down to his work area, saying he was going to Santa's Workshop."
Hudson is unique, colleagues say, because of his eclectic passions: the ocean, biology, geology, art, engineering and especially cement.
Just as the fictional character Q came up with ingenious gadgets for James Bond, Hudson has done the same for those trying to save the reefs.
One example: the underwater vacuum he devised to suck up infected tissue caused by black band disease in the 1980s.
"I think the basic idea came from treasure hunters who used airlifts," said Bob Halley, who works on reefs for the Department of the Interior. "But when Harold was done, it barely resembled what the treasure hunters used."
Hudson created a pencil-sized stainless steel pipe that sucked up inch-wide areas of infected tissue and safely disposed it in a 55-gallon drum located on a boat.
Exactly when NOAA's oldest diver will retire is uncertain. Hudson only would say it definitely will be this summer. First, he has projects to finish, including the construction of a miniature reef for the harbor wall near the Eco-Discovery Center in Key West.
"Some of the neatest things can be seen at night, when the light attracts predators," Hudson said.
He first saw the reef in 1953 during a trip with Eugene Shinn, who also became a world-renowned biologist. They met at a spearfishing club at the University of Miami.
The pair made the five-mile journey to the reef off Key Largo in a 14-foot boat built from a Sears & Roebuck kit and with a 5-horsepower engine that Hudson likened to an "eggbeater."
The teenager from Fort Myers was amazed at what he saw.
MULTITUDE OF FISH
"I can only compare it to diving in the reef tank of the Seaquarium," said Hudson, now a Miami resident. "The fish population was unbelievably dense. The size of the fish was amazing. Walls of mangrove snapper. Schools of 15 to 20 hogfish. I could go on and on."
After the Navy and graduating from UM, Hudson's first job was at the old Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. In 1974, he went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey at a field station on Fisher Island, then undeveloped except for an abandoned quarantine station.
Hudson called that job "15 years of idyllic research bliss." On one project he drilled an eight-foot tall plug, called the Centennial Coral Core that is displayed at the Eco-Discovery Center.
"It's like with a Redwood or Sequoia, you can look at a coral's growth rings," Causey said. "He was able to show that the coral went back to 1577, the year Sir Francis Drake began his voyage around the world."
During this time Hudson also created 23 man-made domes to mimic natural coral structures near the north end of Elliott Key in Biscayne National Park. Hudson cemented living coral onto the structures. The corals grew. Today, those reefs appear real.
For a half century, Hudson has witnessed major changes to the Keys coral reef, the third-largest in the world. It was dominated by hard coral, but now soft coral abounds, starting in the 1980s when branching corals began dying and the long spine sea urchins that served as the reef cleaners disappeared.
Hudson believes the reefs ultimately will survive.
"We humans don't really live long enough to understand reefs," he said. "They're not just hundreds of years old but thousands. There's been times in the past when things have been very, very bad, like the black water event of 1878 that decimated the corals in the Dry Tortugas, and the reefs have come back."
And just because the Reef Doctor is retiring doesn't mean he no longer will make house calls. Those who know Hudson say he'll continue the work he loves, only as a consultant not entangled with government bureaucracy.