May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

History of SeaLab I

3 min read

Fish Being Fed While Sitting on SeaLab I

I have a co-worker who believes that a time will come when the standard of living will drop to an unbearable level and that the promised life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness will be a long-lasting memory of better days. As there is no “undiscovered country” to escape to (as the Pilgrims accomplished on their Mayflower), the only options for escape would be space and the ocean floor. I myself am a bit more hopeful and believe that this day will never come. There was a time though, in the 60’s, where exploration of both the ocean and space was top priority for the United States of America. It seems that both of these admirable strives have been forsaken. Unfortunately for ocean exploration, it was overshadowed by the space race and the landing on the moon, and it never received the praise it was due.

If you missed my piece yesterday on my visit to the Man-of-the-Sea Museum, check it out!

SeaLab I at the Man in the Sea Museum in Panama City Beach, Florida

In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Medical Research Laboratory would spend a considerable amount of time and resources in the development of underwater exploration and scientific advancements. In 1953, Dr. George F. Bond would join the U.S. Navy. Dr. Bond would become one of the foremost experts in the field of undersea and hyperbaric medicine. He would earn the nickname “Father of Saturation Diving.” In 1957, Dr. Bond began the Genesis Project, which would prove that humans could withstand prolonged exposure to different gases and increased environmental pressures.  The Genesis Project was originally tested on animals, then on men. After six years of tweaking and finalizing the necessary steps to fully test saturation diving, the Genesis Project was put to rest and the U.S. Navy’s Man-in-the-Sea Program was initiated. This program, initiated by Edwin Link, would include the construction and testing of SeaLab I, II, and III as safe underwater habitats.

(Here is a good blog post about Mission Aquarius with a video that tells about the advantages of underwater habitats and how saturation diving allows divers to work “9 fold.”)

SeaLab I was constructed by connecting two floats (sea buoys) together, which would be held in place with axles from railroad cars. This 40′ x 9′ cylinder would be used to monitor the divers’ respiratory, basic hematology and blood chemistry, basic urinalysis and urinary chemistry, saliva, blood pressure, body temperature, pulse, and gas uptake and elimination, while the divers were submerged 195 feet below the sea’s surface.

Dr. George Bond
Dr. George F. Bond in the Communications Center for SeaLab

Following testing of SeaLab I on goats, the SeaLab I was tested on humans near Bay County, Florida. This test took place in about sixty feet of water, three miles off the coast line. With successful test, SeaLab I was moved near Argus Island, off the Bermuda coast. Bermuda’s warm waters, plus the fact that there was an underwater plateau approximately 200 feet below the water, made this location an ideal site.  During this time, 200 feet was the maximum depth for divers. On July 20, 1964, Dr. Bond lowered seamen of SeaLab I into the Bermuda, and as they  say, “the rest is history.” The four divers (Robert Thompson, Lester Anderson, Robert Barth, and Sanders Manning) were lowered down and spent the next eleven days living in this underwater habitat. Living 200 feet under the sea allowed these men to work six hours a day, accomplishing in these eleven days what would have taken normal divers one year.

Fish Being Fed While Sitting on SeaLab I
Fish Being Fed While Sitting on SeaLab I

While the divers had intended to stay on the sea’s floor for three weeks, a quick approaching hurricane cut the experiment short. Even though the SeaLab I’s time was cut short, the raw data and findings from this endeavor would lead to SeaLab II and III. These more sophisticated facilities would lead to further developments, in turn, leading to the ability to dive deep and stay there for extended periods of time. SeaLab I unequivocally started the science of deep-sea diving and rescue, offshore drilling, and underwater research. SeaLab I successfully allowed the advancement in diving, which now allows divers to work at depths of 1,000 feet below the water’s surface.