By NMRC News
“If need be, we could work well into the night as it didn’t make a lot of difference to the bottom dwellers. Days looked like nights; it was dark on the bottom all the time.”
~QMC Bob Barth, Aquanaut, SEALAB II
Commencing August 28, 1965, SEALAB II was an ambitious and, arguably, the most successful of the U.S. Navy’s missions to gauge the capabilities of saturation diving and undersea habitation. Planted 205 feet below the ocean surface off the coast of La Jolla, Calif., SEALAB II was a 57-foot habitat that contained a special laboratory, a watch station, a galley, showers, toilets, eleven viewing ports, and living space for 10 aquanauts at a given time.
Over the course of its 45-day mission, the SEALAB capsule accommodated three teams of 10 divers (each team in 15-day increments); these aquanauts would amass a total of 450 saturation dive hours outside the habitat conducting plankton sampling, bioluminescent studies, marine life census while continuing the human and animal physiological studies of the previous mission.
Former Mercury astronaut, Cmdr. Scott Carpenter served as leader for two of the three rotating teams and was only one of two aquanauts to spend one-month below the surface (the other being Navy physician Lt. Cmdr. Robert Sonnenberg). Early in the mission Carpenter made history communicating via “earthlink” with astronaut Gordon Cooper who was then orbiting the planet in his Gemini spacecraft some eight atmospheres away.
This first “Sea-to-Sky” communication feat was soon followed by the first “Sea-to-Sea Habitation” link when SEALAB II exchanged messages with Cousteau’s CONSHELF III crew then submerged 330 feet off of Villefranche-sur-Mer in the Mediterranean.
SEALAB II also featured the services of a Navy-trained dolphin named “Tuffy.” As the unsung 29th member of the team, Tuffy transported much needed supplies and tools to the aquanauts and performed “lost diver” drills. Aquanaut Bob Barth would later recall his first encounter with his bottled-nose colleague.
“Ken [Conda] and I would go outside when the folks topside would tell us they were ready to send Tuffy down. We would wander away from the habitat…and Ken would turn on the pinger device he carried. Before too long, there would be a streaking shadow and a giant swoosh, and then this damn big fish would be sitting right in front of us smiling. The first time that he roared down on us scared the hell out of me.”
The success of SEALAB II ensured the continuation of the project and in February 1969, the third phase was launched. Now 45-aquanaut strong (five teams of nine), the SEALAB III habitat was submerged 610-feet below the ocean surface off San Clemente Island, Calif.. Immediately, the habitat (a modified SEALAB II capsule) began to leak and teams of aquanauts were sent down to conduct repairs.
On one such visit, aquanaut Berry Cannon died suddenly of what was later determined to be carbon dioxide poisoning on account of a faulty “re-breather.” With Cannon’s death, and fear of bad publicity, the third phase of the program, as well as the program had been itself was cancelled. In frustration, an aquanaut commented that the mission to the moon survived three astronaut deaths, and no one in that program quit; rather, it drove NASA to “bigger and better things.”
Bond’s dream may have dimmed a little with the end of SEALAB, but it didn’t die. From Tektite to Aquarius, saturation diving and under water habitats stretched the boundaries of scientific knowledge. To date, the limitations of underwater habitation has been stretched to more than 69 days and saturation dives over 2,000 feet. Although, Bond would not live to see vast human colonies under the sea, his legacy and his recognition as one of the first “dreamers” lives on today.
Bond would serve as a namesake for future underwater habitat projects and an ocean simulation facility. In 2013, Bond was posthumously awarded the “Diving Pioneer Award” by the Historical Diving Society and was the focus of Ben Hellwarth’s seminal book, SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live on the Ocean Floor (2012).
References for Parts I,II and III
Barth, Bob. Sea Dwellers: The Humor, Drama and Tragedy of the U.S. Navy SEALAB Programs. Houston, TX: Doyle Publishing. 2000.
Bond, George. SEALAB II Chronicles. BUMED Archives.
Chamberland, Dennis. SEALAB: Unfinished Legacy. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1986. pp72-82.
Hellwarth, Ben. SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live on the Ocean Floor. New York, NY: Simon & Shuster. 2012.
Thompson, Robert. “SEALAB I: A Personal Documentary Account.” Memorandum Report No. 66-9. 30 March 1966.