Santa Barbara Maritime Museum Says Farewell to Robert (Bob) Kirby

Credit: Courtesy

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It is with a deep sense of loss that the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum must say goodbye to an important and beloved friend. Bob Kirby, co-founder with Bev Morgan of Kirby Morgan, passed away at his home in Carpinteria on June 2, 2022. Bob’s diving career spanned seven decades and his achievements in both diving and aviation earned him lasting international recognition, while his contributions of time, energy, love and humor to the museum earned him a special place in the hearts of SBMM’s staff, volunteers, and Board of Directors. He was truly a towering and memorable figure to his many communities of friends and colleagues.

Credit: Courtesy

Bob Kirby left the US Navy in the 1950s to become a California abalone diver. He quickly used his skills as a remarkable metalsmith to design a mixed-gas recirculating diving helmet with a small team of colleagues at Associated Divers. Bob’s helmet design was a major factor in the successful expansion of deep-water mixed gas diving that flourished in Santa Barbara, California, in the early 1960s, and gradually spread around the globe.

In 1965 Bob joined forces with Bev Morgan and created the Kirby Morgan company that would go on to revolutionize the equipment of military and commercial diving. Bob and Bev designed and created modern lightweight fiberglass helmets that replaced the traditional copper and brass helmets that had been the diving industry standard for over a century. It is estimated that their company Kirby Morgan Diving Systems International now has a more than 80% market share of the global surface supplied diving equipment market. Some estimates are even higher.

In addition to his contributions to diving equipment development, Bob also donated his time and considerable expertise to educating the younger divers whom he taught at the Marine Diving Technology Center at Santa Barbara City College and providing specialist traditional diving equipment courses for the Historical Diving Society USA (HDSUSA). As a Director of HDSUSA, Bob was also instrumental in developing the inaugural diving exhibits at Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, of which he and his wife Claudia were valued members.

His friend, film director James Cameron, hired Bob to develop and build the unique helmets for his blockbuster film The Abyss, and Bob later took the time to record much of his career in his book, Hard Hat Divers Wear Dresses. More recently his contributions to helmet design have been featured in the Kirby Morgan YouTube video series Diving Into The Past.

Bob’s career achievements were recognized with the HDSUSA Diving Pioneer Award and the Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences NOGI Award, as well as with his induction into the Commercial Diving Hall of Fame. A celebration of Bob’s life will be held for family and close friends.

 But as much as his accomplishments left their mark, his true legacy lies in the impressions he leaves behind and the way he has influenced the lives of his friends and colleagues, especially those at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum:

Those of us fortunate enough to have been befriended or mentored by Bob were blessed with the good fortune of time spent with an honorable, ethical, and immensely talented diver and educator, whose name will live on as long as there are professional divers working in all the world’s oceans and waterways. President Kennedy once said, “One man can make a difference, and every man should try.” Bob was one of those Americans who did both, and every member of the international diving 

industry owes him sincere thanks for that. He will be missed by many. Fair winds and following seas old friend.

Leslie Leaney, founding trustee of SBMM and a former member of its Board of Directors, co-founder of the Historical Diving Society USA, founder of The Journal of Diving History, & Bob Kirby’s friend 

Bob was a long-time friend of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (SBMM), a member of our Advisory Council, a financial supporter, and most importantly a major part of our Commercial Diving history. Bob did so much for SBMM—he did hardhat diving demonstrations in front of the Museum at festivals, donated or loaned much of his equipment, cleaned and polished our diving equipment, and gave talks to our docents and volunteers. But more than anything else, he was a kind, funny, always interesting, friend to many of us here at SBMM. We will miss him dearly.

Greg Gorga, Executive Director, SBMM

Bob Kirby was a diver’s diver.  He was a friend for over 40 years and a mentor to many in our industry, especially during his teaching years at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) in our diving program.  Bob was a fixture of our Santa Barbara Harbor community for decades.  His friendly and outgoing personality was larger than life itself.  I always enjoyed our diving demonstrations together in the early days of SBMM at the harbor.  Bob was always ready with a sea story or a joke and could design and repair anything.   His contributions and impact on diving, diving history and the Santa Barbara community will live on in perpetuity.

Don Barthelmess, Professor Emeritus, SBCC Marine Diving Technology Department & Past President of SBMM

Bob Kirby was a legend in his work and a stellar mentor to me at SBMM for over a decade.  When I was designing new exhibits, he would always say to me, “strive for the big Mickey,” I didn’t dare ask but assumed he meant the iconic and always recognizable and impactful Mickey Mouse!  His smile and dancing eyes brought life, encouragement and unconditional support to all of us at SBMM. We lost a BIG ONE. May his undying spirit live on in our hearts and minds.

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