Lessons from SEALAB and a golden age

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Sam Miller III

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Last week I exchanged two e mails with Bob Barth..
Another friend e mailed me that he had ran into Commander Jack (Black Jack) M. Tomsky USN (ret). He is confined to a wheel chair 93 years young with a mind that is sharp as a tac.

Now I read about your book being published..

In the early 1960s prior to Sea Lab I was working on the DDS Beaver as the DSO and was in a meeting with my supervisor at that time Dr. Andy Rechnizer and J.Y. Cousteau to discuss Cousteau's DDS Denise. They had an off subject discussion about how Comander George Bond and JYC exchanged correspondence about UW habitats and prolonged hyperbaric exposure.

Apparently both Bond and JYC were playing each other's governmemts and or interested private enterprizes against the others...It began with Conshelf 1...Bond et al went to US Navy exclaimed "The French are ahead of the US in UW exploration," then JYC would go to French governement and explain "The US is going to catch up to France in UW exploration!" Each time they extracted a bit more support and squezzed a some additional funding..
At that time in history the US and the world was capivated by outer space with little if any thought given to innerspace..the US was just not thinking wet. I recall attending a special showing in LA of JYC's "World with out sun" in 1964 or 5. The small theater was sparsley occupied mostly with LA Co UW instructors who all knew each other..a few years later in 1966 David Wolper, presented the TV progarm "The Undersea world of Jacques Cousteau" and the US began thinking wet.
About the same time the USN established "The Man in the sea program." In 1964 Sea lab 1 was launched in tropical waters followed the next year by Sea Lab 11 in La Jolla California. In 1969 the long awaited Sea Lab 111in 600 feet of water off San Clemente island in SoCal. All was well until Bary Cannon bought the farm on national six o'clock news -- then all at once the "Man in the sea" became "The man on the dock program."
That same time frame I completed construction on a new custom home and had a house warming party. Tommy Thompson who was a the PR for US Divers and also a close neighbor came in to the party and exclaimed "US Divers just opened a dive shop in my native Oklahoma! Soon we will have dive shops all over the US"--Now there are dive shops in just about every berg in the US
The US was slowly begenning to thinking wet.
 

Sam Miller III

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QUOTE=SEALAB Author Ben H.;6617751]
".....opens with the historic - if tragic - thousand-foot dive of 50 years ago by Hannes Keller, which is also detailed in my book, SEALAB.

Others will likely find the article to be a good read, and it was especially great to see that writer Nathaniel Rich cited my book as a key source, and even called it "a deft account of deep diving history." Much appreciated."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
SEALAB Author Ben H.

Ben H,
I have not read your book nor do I have it. I suspect it is a great book and a peak for many of the current generation into an exciting time in diving history. I have a file on this dive packed away somewhere, but would like to offer to you from my memory a first hand account of my witnessing of that historic event.

Re Hannes Keller Dive--1962
I was there and can offer the following from a very dusty memory;

I was there in my 17 1/2 foot Sea King boat along with about 30 other boats. bobbing alone side the mother ship

It was a cool crisp winter day with minimum swell--I recall the event took place on the Avalon Banks where it is normally calm.

The dive began with not much fan fare other that some cheering when the capsule went over the side.

Then it was waiting! Borrrring! a nap, some lunch and chatting with others on their boats, since most were LA county UW instructors so we all knew each other, and had lots of stories and lots of catching up...

The tragedy began on the decent at 200 feet. It was known via deck monitoring that there was a gas leak from the capsule. Dick Anderson and a English UCLA student Chris Whitaker (s) were dispatched for a look see and repair..It was discovered Peter Small foot was caught in the capsule door and was unconscious, but Keller was breathing. They returned with Dick bleeding at the top of his head from pushing up on the capsule door with his head, Whitaker was bleeding from his nostrils as a result of this his his first deep dive. Dick obtained a sharp knife and went over the side to cut off a fin that was prohibiting him from closing the hatch door. Whitaker according to report or rumor also obtained a knife and slashed his over inflated PFV and followed.

Dick never had contact with Whitaker and surfaced with out him. After a short time all the civilian boats began a surface search, but no body surfaced-- Whitaker was lost forever.

Upon reaching the deck it was verified that Peter Small was DOA and Keller was alive and well.
So now two dead Englishmen .

After arriving at the dock Keller grabbed all the data and immediately headed back to Switzerland
.
A "Blue Label" Investigation board was established --which included number of military and scientific divers and LA County UW Instructors, Clint Degn, John Craig and Tommy Thompson. I have the report of the board but can't locate it at this time .. but it was certainly unfavorable to Keller.

Three weeks later Peter Small's wife, who was the sole heir to an Engish air plane manufacturing company, was so distraught at losing the love of her life stuck her head in a oven and turned on the gas, loosing her young life in the process

Now three English subjects are gone, directly and indirectly as a result of that dive.

I discussed the findings of the blue ribbon committee with Tommy Thompson, who was a neighbor so a lot of what I have described is from memory of being an eyewitness and from the discussions with Tommy.

About 2-3 three weeks later I ran on to Dick. Dick always had a massive head of hair...he parted it for me and there was a huge scab bed, proof positive that he certainly used his head to attempt to close the hatch.

The event has been all but forgotten in most diving circles, most recreational divers who were there are no longer with us; Jim Auxier, Al Tillman, Tommy Thompson, John Craig, Dick Anderson. Harry Wham (The Las Vegas dive shop owner, who was the official Photographer of the event) Harry's demise is cetainly a story for the dark of the night over a cool one..Only Jim Stewart (SIO CDO) was on the mother boat and is now 85, alive and well and lives in SoCal.

The US reports that I have read were not as complete as the English report published in the BSAC "Triton," THE British dive magazine of that era--It certainly did not pull any punches........

This dive was also was a preamble to the a "National Wet NASA.." AKA "Man in the sea."

A few years later Barry Cannon a member of Sea Lab died on national TV...then the "Man in the Sea" suddenly became the "Man on the dock." As a nation we have never recovered from these UW tragedies and have never reestablished a national program for UW exploration and exploitation--and it started with the Keller Dive...

I fear I have rambled on and on... But who knows were we would be if we as a nation spent only a portion of the money that we spend on NASA on oceanographic and diving research?

SDM
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March 25th, 2013, 11:31 AM #3
SEALAB Author Ben H.

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Sam,
A belated thanks for this fascinating response - and it's very much along the lines of the account in my book, which I hope you'll get a chance to read. I think you'd appreciate it. What happened with diver Berry Cannon, and the subsequent Navy investigation into SEALAB III, is also detailed for the first time. And it sounds like you'll probably find interesting the section on the push for a "wet NASA," too. Your question about expenditures on ocean vs. space research is a good one - it's touched on in my book and I raised it last year in an op-ed in The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/TeDNaK).
- Ben​









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Yesterday, 12:28 PM #4
sam miller

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Ben,
I just googled to checked "The SCUBA Show"- "Presenters" and discovered that you are also on the list of program presenters. I certainly look forward to meeting you; attending your presentation but most importantly obtaining your book! So I am giving you fair warning save a book for me and start right now composing a suitable long elaborate inscription!

I am really overloaded with diving books, periodicals etc but I strongly suspect I can find a place of honor for your book in my library.

I will not be difficult to spot since I will be the oldest presenter and certainly the oldest attendee at the SCUBA Show. It is my understanding that I will be rather busy but lets get together either at the show or later "in the dark of the night over a cool one" and have a chat and get to know each other up close and personal which is certainly superior to the written word transmitted electronically.

I sincerely hope you enjoy the show, California and it's divers

SDM​



 

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Ben,
As you mentioned, "About a time when most eyes were on the moon. . . but not all." It's interesting to note that Dr. Joe MacInnis (who had attended the Apollo 11 launch) traveled to Tobermory to dive Sublimnos (an underwater habitat that he opened to recreational divers) and was looking up through the water at the moment the Astronauts made their giant leap for mankind. :)

Hey DCBC,

You might like to know that "Sublimnos" is alive, but not so well - she's in sorry shape, but can be refurbished. There is a plan afoot to recover & restore her, then place her up at the Visitors Center in Toby, complete with a description of her history. I'm playing a small part in all of this, but things are moving too slowly & all is up in the air right now - wish us luck!

Regards,
DSD

---------- Post added May 20th, 2013 at 04:40 PM ----------

So many great discussions going here – about diving gear, physiology, psychology, safety, fitness and even smoking (and gel-filled bikini tops).

I'm struck by how a lot of the same kinds of questions were being asked by the divers (and scientists) featured in my new book, SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor, and participants in this forum might find fascinating, if a little frightening, some of the record-breaking dives that were being made just a few decades ago during what some called “a golden age for diving.”

Golden, perhaps, but without the benefit of the nifty computers and other safeguards of today – but no matter. These pioneers were determined to dive deeper and stay down longer than ever thought possible – and set up undersea bases that were like the marine equivalent of space stations.

The U.S. Navy SEALAB program and some of the related undersea ventures covered in the book – including those led by Jacques Cousteau – provide a window into a historic era, a bit of perspective on diving and some lessons that are likely as valuable today as they were back then.

I'd be interested to know what forum participants think about how far things have come in the diving world since the '60s and of course I hope they'll enjoy meeting some of the characters responsible for the progress. To get a sense of the book, by the way, there are some free excerpts on Amazon and the entire opening chapter can be read on my website, SEALAB – A book by Ben Hellwarth | About a time when most eyes were on the moon. . .but not all.

Even if you read nothing more, that first chapter will at least acquaint you with Dr. George Bond, the charismatic father of SEALAB who was a great asker of questions – and would have loved this forum!

Ben,

Thank you for writing this book. I started reading about SEALAB and the other man-in-the-sea projects in the early 70's, and they helped stoke the fires of my passion for all things deepsea. Your book will find its' way to my library & take its' place alongside the others I've collected on this fascinating work. Congratulations!

Regards,
DSD
 
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