Increasingly Serious Sinkers
During the last century a succession of diving pioneers both collaborated and competed to develop the sport to where it is today. Bernard Eaton recalls some of the greats, and in particular the leap-frogging rivalry of Jacques Cousteau and Ed Link.
In 1952 a book landed with a thud on my desk. As a journalist on a national Sunday newspaper, I was commanded to deliver a review of it the next morning. It was called Diving to Adventure by some chap called Hans Hass, and I sat up half the night until it was finished. Like many another reader since then, I was fascinated.
My enduring memory of the book was Hass's description of how to get a close-up picture of a shark. As it came towards you, he wrote, you turned and started to flee. Then, with the shark in close pursuit, you turned back to face it at the last moment, camera at the ready.
The shark would be so astonished that it would stop dead in its tracks. That's when you pressed the shutter!
This was my introduction to the world of diving, and to one of the pioneers who brought the sport to where it is today.
FINLESS AND RARING TO GO
Years later, I was to read a book that has similarly stayed in my memory. First published in 1934, it was called The Compleat Goggler - Being the First and Only Exhaustive Treatise On the Art of Goggle Fishing, That Most Noble and Excellent Sport Perfected and Popularised by Guy Gilpatric !
Gilpatric, an American novelist and an adventurous free spirit, was the man who probably really started the sport of skin diving, as it was originally called. His exploits in the waters off the South of France with a group of friends called the Serious Sinkers are reputed to have inspired Cousteau.
Hunting fish with home-made spears and diving without breathing apparatus, Gilpatric's technique was awesome. Instead of using weights, his group actually emptied their lungs in order to sink. They submerged feet first, then turned head down after reaching 3 metres or so to go deeper.
By the way, they had no fins.
As is well known, Jacques-Yves Cousteau produced the aqualung in 1943 with French engineer Emile Gagnan, who had developed a valve for gas burners. Cousteau's post-war book and film The Silent World were to mesmerise, excite and enthuse many thousands, then and thereafter.
But in Britain it was 1953 before a professional diver called Trevor Hampton began, as a sideline, to teach people how to scuba dive for £5 a time.
The equipment was pretty primitive - the only protection from the cold, for instance, was a woolly jumper and, possibly, a latex hood. Siebe Gorman twin-hose regulators were used.
Hampton founded the Underwater Centre at Dartmouth and went on to train such celebrities as Arthur C Clarke, Sir David Attenborough, Johnny Morris, Richard Dimbleby and Tony Soper.
Later that same year, at a meeting at the Waldorf Hotel in London, the British Sub-Aqua Club was founded by the businessman Oscar Gugen and journalist Peter Small.
GETTING INTO MIXING GASES
From small beginnings, the club grew steadily until 1962, when it really began to take off, staging the highly successful 2nd World Congress of Underwater Activities in London.
It was at this time that I renewed my acquaintance with the world of diving, sharing an office with my closest friend Peter Small who, like me, was doing freelance work.
At Peter's request, I handled the publicity and public relations for the Congress, coming into contact with all the then world-famous names in diving.
That Congress was the prelude to sensational developments in the deep diving and diving physiological fields that were destined to revolutionise the whole of the diving scene.
Looking back, I have no doubt that the '60s and '70s were the most exciting of decades in the absorbing story of diving, beginning as they did, however, with a tragedy that made headlines throughout the world.
Mixed-gas diving was not entirely new. Lt Cdr George Wookey RN had set a depth record of 183m in Oslo Fjord in October, 1956, using hardhat gear and an oxy-helium mix. But some two years later, Swiss mathematician Hannes Keller and Albert Buhlmann, a Swiss professor of physiology, developed a secret breathing-gas mixture containing oxygen, helium and nitrogen which, they claimed, would enable divers to reach greater depths than ever before.
In June 1961 Keller descended to 222m in Lake Maggiore and became the focal point of the entire diving world, both military and commercial. Then, the following December, a dive to 305m was set up off Catalina Island, California.
Two divers - Keller and Peter Small - were to descend in a diving chamber to that depth, exit to plant two flags on the seabed, and then surface again in the chamber.
Watched by the US Navy and the world's media, the dive went tragically wrong. Keller survived the dive, Peter Small did not. A support diver, Chris Whittaker, also died in the experiment.
Despite this disaster, the project was the forerunner of amazing and dramatic advances in deep diving and the exploration and exploitation of the sea, all of which have benefited sport divers in many ways.
PAPA TOPSIDE LOOKS DEEPER
Three men of genius were hugely responsible for the fulfilment of a dream that was then fast emerging, that of divers living and working under water.
The men were Capt George F Bond, Projects Officer of the US Navy's Deep Submergence Systems Programme, affectionately known to his friends as Papa Topside; Jacques Cousteau, who needs no introduction; and an inventive, entrepreneurial American millionaire called Ed Link.
Bond's vision was to enable divers to work at greater depths and for longer periods, opening up for mankind the whole of the continental shelves down to 180m or more. Destined to become known as "the father of saturation diving", he was the man who brought to the fore that once a diver's body was saturated as much as it could possibly be with compressed gas, the decompression time would be the same no matter how long he stayed under water - a hugely important discovery which was to have far-reaching consequences.
He envisaged an underwater habitat with the air pressure inside the chamber in equilibrium with the water pressure outside. Divers could leave the chamber to work or to explore, returning to dry, warm conditions inside to live for extended periods submerged.
This was real Jules Verne stuff, but Bond proved his point by putting men down to a simulated depth of 60m for 14 days in 1960.
In the meantime, Ed Link had come on the scene. An enthusiastic pilot and flying instructor, Link's first fortune was built on inventing the Link Pilot Trainer. Consisting of a cockpit, two pedals, a direction stick and a compass, this device - the world's first flight simulator - enabled pilots to be trained to fly without leaving the ground.
SHOOTING FOR THE MOON
The Link Trainer was adopted by the US Army Air Force, and when World War Two broke out it was eagerly sought by the allied nations, including Britain. Churchill was to state that it made an extremely important contribution to the Battle of Britain, enabling the ever-increasing demand for pilots to be met.
Link was later to develop the Link Lunar Approach Simulator, used to research Man's first moon landing.
When Link became interested in George Bond's vision, he built his own submerged decompression chamber and planned to conduct an underwater living experiment in collaboration with Cousteau, who would build an underwater house to go with the chamber.
It gradually emerged, however, that the aims of the two men differed substantially. Link was a pragmatist. In contrast with Cousteau, ever the showman, Link believed that the experiment made sense only if it was conducted at a depth at which the enormous physiological problems of living under pressure - nitrogen narcosis and decompression - were squarely faced. The two went their own ways.
Although aged 58, Link typically became his own guinea pig in his first experiment, in a self-designed underwater cylinder. In 1962 off Villefranche-sur-Mer, he dived down to occupy this, the world's first undersea station, at a depth of 18m for 14 hours, which included six hours' decompression.
This included work outside, lunch inside, phone calls to dictate mail and testing an ultrasonic echo sounder.
HOUSE UNDER THE SEA
Shortly afterwards, Cousteau anchored a cylindrical "House Under the Sea", which he named Diogenes, in 10m of water off Marseilles. Two divers, Albert Falco and Claude Wesly, lived in it for a week. With his talent for capturing the imagination of the public, he called that experiment Conshelf One.
At that shallow depth, no serious problems of narcosis or desaturation were involved. But these were the very problems that Link was determined to overcome, and a month after his own dive he put experienced Belgium diver Robert Stenuit down to 60m for 24 hours.
Stenuit became the world's first open-sea saturation diver, decompressing for 66 hours, including 58 hours on board ship. Had he stayed for months under water his decompression time would have been the same, and this factor was to revolutionise oil and offshore diving in places like the North Sea.
Cousteau launched his imaginative Conshelf Two experiment in June 1963, to establish the first human colony on the seabed and produce a stunning film, World Without Sun. The main habitat was anchored to the seabed 11m down in the Red Sea. Again imaginatively called Starfish House, it had four arms in which five divers were to live for a month.
Nearby, in 27m of water, was a second habitat called Deep Cabin, occupied by two men who made excursions from it to depths as great as 50m. Cousteau also had an underwater vehicle which he called a diving saucer, garaged in a domed underwater hangar.
THE DEEPEST LONG DIVE
Meanwhile Ed Link, with far less hype, was pursuing his aim of pushing back the depth frontiers, stating that his next venture could be called either "the deepest long dive" or "the longest deep dive". This involved Robert Stenuit and marine biologist Jon Lindberg virtually living in a "tent", a yellow and black submersible, portable, inflatable dwelling (SPID), for two days at a depth of no less than 132m in the Bahamas.
These projects were to be followed by the US Navy's even more spectacular underwater living experiments starting in 1964. Sealab 1, near Bermuda, under George Bond's supervision, had four divers breathing oxy-helium mixtures for 11 days at 59m. Sealab II, off La Jolla, California, a year later, had 28 divers in three teams occupying an underwater lab for 15-day periods.
In an appropriate exchange, astronaut Gordon Cooper, then orbiting 150 miles above the sea, sent greetings by radio link to ex-astronaut Scott Carpenter, leader of the Sealab II teams, then submerged more than 60m below the surface.
At this time Cousteau was launching Conshelf Three off the South of France, designed for living and working in 100m of water. Coining the name "aquanauts" and using the breathing mixture he called a "gas cocktail", he had three divers staying below the surface for six days, bad weather curtailing a planned 14-day target.
Sealab III in 1969, the most ambitious undersea project ever conceived, was intended to involve 50 divers, trained to live and conduct scientific experiments at a depth of 190m, making excursions to depths of 300m. Regrettably, the entire project was aborted when a diver died after being sent down to repair a helium leak.
In its silent Senior Service fashion, the Royal Navy had been carrying out its own research and experiments during this time, as usual without the financial resources available to the US Navy.
VOLUNTEERS STEP FORWARD
In brief, its success can be measured by the fact that in 1970 two volunteer members of the Royal Naval Scientific Service, 26-year-old John Bevan and 21-year-old Peter Sharphouse, broke the world's deep-diving record by staying for 10 hours at the remarkable simulated depth of 457m.
This was a triumph for the RN Physiological Laboratory and the latest in a series of breakthroughs led by its superintendent Dr Val Hempleman, today Diver's Physiology Consultant.
Motivated and inspired by these extraordinary achievements, many other projects regarding the exploration of the sea and our ability to operate within it followed. As a result sport diving has changed out of all recognition since those pioneering days.
Appeared in DIVER - January 2000.