A native of North Dakota, Engel married Kisty Kovarik in 1987. While the Engels owned and operated Dakota Divers in Minot, N.D., for 10 years, they will be most remembered for their work on the island of Utila.
Billy Hale, longtime friend and associate of Engel and operations manager at Utila Lodge, underscored Engel’s desire to improve life on Utila. “That’s what people here will remember him for,” Hale said. “Any source that Jim had at his disposal he willingly made available to the people of Utila, and, in doing so, he helped alleviate the stress and suffering of many.”
Joel Dovenbarger, DAN Vice President of Medical Services, said Engel saw a need in Utila to provide faster care for injured divers, both recreational and local lobster divers, and he took action. "Although he had no previous experience in hyperbaric treatment, he set out to provide a valuable service for Utila residents and visiting tourist divers,” Dovenbarger said.
"Jim helped put Utila diving on the map and did it with an eye on diver safety. The DAN Recompression Chamber Assistance Program was able to assist Jim and the Utila chamber, and recently put two chamber crew members through the latest training program.
“Jim’s wife, Kisty, is going to continue the chamber program to ensure Jim’s vision for diving in Utila, but it’s a sad day for those of us who knew and worked with Jim. He will certainly be missed.”
Of the chamber, Hale said it is impossible to overemphasize the great value of having such a facility on the island. “It meant that divers no longer would have to travel to Roatan for proper diagnoses and treatments,” he said. “Jim Engel knew that Utila’s dive industry would benefit greatly by having such an asset readily available to the tourists and general public, and he worked confidently knowing he had the full support of his friends at Divers Alert Network.”
In 1993, with a few friends, the Engels purchased Utila Lodge Resort, which Engel managed until his death. Not long after they purchased the Lodge, the couple created the Bay Islands College of Diving, a PADI five-star CDC, offering quality dive instruction, training for dive leaders and conducting career development programs.
In 2000, Engel built the Utila Chamber & Trauma Center. Thereafter, numerous lobster fishermen injured while diving were treated successfully for little or no cost to the patients. The Engels also conducted eye care clinics, by inviting doctors from the States to travel there and offer their services in exchange for a stay on the island.
Engle helped create the island’s first government-approved whale shark research facility, the Whale Shark and Ocean Research Center. Through the Center, Engel sought to protect the whale shark population that is so crucial to the island’s tourism. Hale said, “All you need to do is join the many tourists dropping by W.S.O.R.C and take a ride out to enjoy Jim’s vision of preserving these ‘gentle giants.’ ”
To determine whether the Bay Islands’ sharks migrate globally or stay in the same ocean most of their lives, Engel and Alex Antoniou, field director of the Shark Research Institute (http://www.sharks.org), began tagging whale sharks with visible and satellite tags.
Engel participated in other efforts aimed at protecting the environment. He helped create Utila’s reef-saving mooring system, and he helped establish the “Reef Fee” program, which collects fees to maintain the mooring system around the reefs.
Before moving to Utila from North Dakota, Engel was active in rodeo, farming and construction. He was born in Garrison, N.D., where he attended school, played football in high school and took shop classes. He managed the marina at Lake Sakakawea State Park in Garrison. He trained in rescue and recovery diving. He also trained and helped establish the Minot and Parshall Dive Teams Rescue.
Engel is survived by his wife, Kisty, his son Shawn, his daughters, Tara Cooper and Rebecca Engel, his parents Jim and Marilyn Engel, and three grandchildren: Austin, Chasen and Bailey. <