By NMRC News
The World of Undersea Research
“In the habitat at the end of a busy day looking out a port is in itself a pleasure. There’s a lot to see down there if you just have the time. It was like a reversed fish bowl. You get where you recognize fish and other critters. I can remember giving all our fish names and even wondering where they were on the days when we failed to see them.”
~QMC Bob Barth, Aquanaut, SEALAB II
Bond’s research spawned an undeniable race to establish the first underwater habitat. In September 1962, industrialist and inventor of the flight simulator, Edwin Link launched the first and smallest of all the underwater habitats. Measuring just 11 feet high by three feet wide, its sole inhabitant—diver Robert Sténuit would spend 25 hours at 200 feet below the surface, earning him the distinction as the “world’s first aquanaut.”
Jacques Cousteau, underwater researcher and conservationist followed a week later. , On Sept. 14, 1962, he launched the first of three continental shelf stations (CONSHELF). Since the beginning of Project Genesis, Bond and Cousteau had been philosophical compatriots in the cause of saturation diving and had freely shared ideas with one another. The U.S. Navy Medical Department had a special relationship with Cousteau extending back to the early 1950s. While with the experimental diving unit, Navy medical officer Lt. Cmdr. Charles Waite (later Rear Adm.) became the first American physician to test Cousteau’s self-contained underwater breathing apparatus or SCUBA.
Bond’s fellow undersea medical officer, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Aquadro, served as an observer for the CONSHELF project, and would later work for Cousteau as a civilian. In 1964, while Cousteau was filming “World Without Sun,” a documentary about CONSHELF III, Bond’s vision of underwater life had germinated into SEALAB. Designed by the U.S. Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, Fla., the SEALAB habitat was constructed out of two torpedo-like mine floats measuring 60 feet in length.
SEALAB was submerged 193 feet below the surface in warm and clear waters, 30 miles southwest of Bermuda. Habitation commenced July 20, 1964. SEALAB’s “crew” included Chief Quartermaster Bob Barth, Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Lester “Andy” Anderson, Navy physician Lt. Robert Thompson, and Chief Hospital Corpsman Sanders “Tiger” Manning. Mercury astronaut Lt. Cmdr. Scott Carpenter, USN was selectedfor the mission but had to sit out the first phase of SEALAB because he was covering from injuries due to a motorbike accident on Bermuda. The aquanauts took daily swims outside the habitat collecting Marine specimens, feeding fish, and conducting physiological tests.
They enjoyed daily meals that included corned beef hash, Chinese food, tamales, roast beef, sweet potatoes, and coffee. Other SEALAB “amenities” included warm showers, books, a chess board and communication devices connecting them “topside” where Bond and medical officer Walter Mazzone monitored the crew around the clock.
Due to the helium rich atmosphere of the habitat, the aquanauts spoke in high-pitched squeaks and were required to use a “speech normalizer” to ensure intelligibility in communicating topside. Andy Anderson would famously inaugurate the system with a rendition of “O Sole of Mio.”
Although scheduled to last three weeks, the SEALAB experiment shortened to ten days because of an approaching hurricane. The SEALAB habitat was raised three feet an hour and adjustments were made to breathing gas mixture, accordingly.
Before reaching the surface the aquanauts spent two days in a submersible decompression chamber before being released. Despite suffering mild nitrogen narcosis, the aquanauts didn’t experience any major physiological effects of exposure to deep sea conditions.
The experiment provedthat humans could fully integrate with the ocean environment and complete daily tasks while submerged 200 feet below the surface.
The first government-sponsored underwater habitat, SEALAB was deemed a resounding success and in January 1965 the Navy authorized the continuation of the project.