Shelf Life

Shelf Life: Author explores hidden history of "Sealab"

2013-02-14T00:00:00Z 2013-02-14T20:19:06Z Shelf Life: Author explores hidden history of "Sealab"Jane Ammeson Times Correspondent
February 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The 1960s were a time of watching rockets launch from Cape Canaveral, blasting men into space as we raced the Soviet Union to reach the moon. On TV, we could see hunky blonde Lloyd Bridges fight crime while swimming beneath the waters in the hit show “Sea Hunt,” introducing Americans, and the world, to a new recreational sport.

But ever further below the waters, the U.S. Navy’s Sealab was trying to accomplish in the depths of the ocean what NASA was doing in space. While we reached the moon and a whole generation took to warm waters to swim among the reefs, Sealab, despite its accomplishments, was lost in the sweep of history.

Decades later, Ben Hellwarth, a journalist working for a newspaper in Santa Barbara, became acquainted with members of its large diving community. He was so intrigued by their stories that he began researching the sport, and as he did, he kept coming across a U.S. Navy program created to further underwater exploration, recover downed submarines and aircraft and to prove that divers could live and work from an underwater base. These habitats were called Sealabs.   

“It was so interesting,” he recalls. “I thought there must be books written on it. But there weren’t, just a few memoirs written by the people involved.”

The story that Hellwarth tracked down through interviews and archival research is just as compelling as a trip to the moon. A the center of his recently released book, "Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor" (Simon and Schuster, 2012), Hellwarth tells the story of George Bond, a country doctor who joined the Navy later in life and was obsessed with finding the answers to questions such as How long can a diver stay underwater? How deep can a diver go?

“The way we were doing diving in the 60s is a lot different than the way we do it now,” says Hellwarth. “My book gets into the history of diving and I learned so many things — how cold diving was, how helium made you feel even colder, the depths divers could reach, how much time they could remain under and how long it took to get back to the surface without developing the bends. Bond demonstrated that you could dive deeper, like breaking the sound barrier. All these guys were at great risk all the time.”

But it was the space program that garnered all the attention and money and ultimately Sealab was disbanded. Hellwarth marvels that even oceanographers in Southern California, home of two Sealabs, hadn’t heard of the program.

“It’s like someone working for NASA not knowing they had a rocket program,” he says.

The one remaining Sealab descendent, the NOAA Aquarius Reef Base, lays in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. But the findings of Bond and his divers, though unheralded, are much in use by both commercial divers and the U.S. Navy.

“It revolutionized deep sea diving, broke the depth barriers and inspired underwater explorers like Jacques Cousteau,” says Hellwarth.

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