Terence “Terry” Helmers, known as a real-life “Aquaman,” is a Keys volunteer extraordinaire. His underwater specialty — as a volunteer and as both a NOAA- and national parks-authorized diver — is mooring buoys.
The retired information technology administrator is recognized for fabrication of buoy downlines that he attaches to new anchors in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s expanding network of mooring buoys. The sanctuary maintains one of the nation’s largest buoy systems, requiring underwater maintenance by skilled, nimble and agile divers.
Helmers has logged about 800 volunteer hours with the sanctuary and was recently honored with the 2023 Marine Sanctuaries Outstanding Volunteer Service Award.
He’s also tallied more than 2,300 volunteer hours at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, working independently on park cleanups. He’s removed about 54,700 pounds of debris from the Key Largo park and for those efforts, was awarded the 2022 Adult Volunteer of the Year Award for the Greener Initiative.
“With government agencies, volunteering is much more incorporated into the process, so you’re accepted like an employee,” Helmers said, adding that a park superintendent once said during a meeting: “We’re all here for the same reason. We just get paid different amounts.”
In the mid-1980s, the Miami native, working at alma mater University of Miami in information technology, contacted Biscayne National Park because he wanted to start diving and boating with a purpose. He began volunteering with the park, located south of Miami, as an expert in maritime and shipwreck history.
Helmers banked his university vacation time to volunteer one day a week and spent his weekends at the park. In 1999, he created and oversaw the park’s mooring buoy program.
Twenty years later, Helmers and wife Ann, the founding president of the non-profit Friends of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, retired to Key Largo.
The retired couple is actively fit and enjoys outdoor activities such as boating, diving and canoeing.
Helmers’ roster of prolific awards includes the 2015 Presidential Award for Volunteer Service, the 2007 National Park Service George Hartzog Regional Volunteer Award, and the 2006 National Park Service Regional Superintendent’s Volunteer of the Year Award.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
Terry Helmers: I had relatives in Key Largo so I’ve been coming to the Keys all my life. In 2017 Ann and I bought a weekend house in Key Largo and moved full-time in 2019.
KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
TH: The ocean and diving have always been my passion. Protecting the Keys for future generations to experience our unique environment is my priority.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
TH: My mother came to South Florida as a baby in 1925 and I grew up helping her clean up the beaches, the backcountry and the shoreline in the Keys and Miami. She loved the ocean and always taught me that making it better was the most important job we have.
KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
TH: Volunteering lets me spend time in the places I love while doing what I can to preserve and protect them.
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?
TH: As soon as I moved to the Keys I joined volunteer teams for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. My focus areas have been marine buoys, debris cleanup and historical research. I hope to help both Keys residents and visitors.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
TH: Working with younger people and the feeling that I’m making a difference. And it’s a great feeling to install a buoy, then watch boaters immediately use it to help protect our resources!
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
TH: I want visitors to experience the natural Keys to truly see and understand this unique environment. When I finish cleaning up a shoreline, I often think about someone walking it and having the sense of exploring a natural paradise.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
TH: All of us have the power to protect and preserve the Keys.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
TH: When I’m out diving on a perfect Keys summer day, I am part of the environment in a way that is the best feeling in the world.
Terry Helmers spends many hours volunteering on underwater projects with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and here, working on adjustments for the coral cam at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Helmers’ roster of prolific awards includes the 2023 Marine Sanctuaries Outstanding Volunteer Service Award, the 2015 Presidential Award for Volunteer Service and many others.
Helmers hopes to help both Keys residents and visitors with his volunteer efforts, focused mainly on marine buoys, debris cleanup and historical research.