Humanity in the Ocean: The SEALAB Program and Capt. George Bond, MD

Dr. George Foote Bond envisioned people living in the ocean. Not just in submarines or diving bells, but in fully furnished environments where a person can eat, sleep, and work for weeks at a time. Much of what the ocean offered in terms of scientific research was immense in the mid-20th century. Underwater explorers only glimpsed what was beneath the waves. Pioneers like Jacques Cousteau who led conservation efforts and developed novel aquatic technology like the ‘aqualung’ were a new generation of scientists exploring the ocean. The barrier to expanding these horizons was overcoming the physical and psychological limitations of the human body. Dr. Bond would spend his entire Naval career researching the answer.

George Bond was a well-loved doctor in North Carolina. He was profiled by the American Medical Association for his services in rural counties and was proclaimed ‘Doctor of the Year’ by the community of Bat Cave, NC where he lived. In 1953, Bond joined the U.S. Navy’s medical corps and was certified as a diving and submarine medical officer. It was during these early years that Bond became enamored with diving and undersea exploration. At the Naval Medical Research Lab (NMRL) in Connecticut, Captain Bond collected data on the effects of underwater pressure on the human body and novel diving techniques. One practice called the ‘blow-and-go’ was a method for endangered submarine crews to safely exit the craft if it sustained damage. Bond was obsessed with his theory of ‘saturation diving’. Bond argued that as divers descended deeper underwater and their bodies absorbed the maximum amount of gas molecules, their decompression time would remain static. An underwater habitat pressurized to the appropriate depth was needed in order to allow divers to live in that environment. Under direction from the Secretary of the Navy and the NMRL, Bond and his colleague Walter Mazzone began the Genesis Project.

Capt. George Bond (far right) instructing Navy divers on the various parameters of the Genesis Project. They needed to be extremely accurate in their data findings in order to ensure their theory of saturation diving could be proven in real-world practice (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

Genesis’ goals were developing a safe breathing mixture in a pressurized environment for divers and determine the amount of time needed for decompression. These two puzzles were crucial to Bond’s saturation theory. Mazzone developed a gas mixture comprised primarily of helium with small levels of oxygen and nitrogen. After various trials with test animals (the first batch dying from oxygen toxicity), the project moved onto human testing. Volunteers were observed inside the pressure chamber conducting experiments for specific lengths at time. Between 1957 and 1963, the Genesis Project gathered a mountain of data on atmospheric and environmental conditions. Test subjects and Navy divers Robert Barth, Sanders Manning, Raymond Lavois, and John Bull endured a battery of varying breathing mixtures, but after their longest endurance of 12 days at 198 fsw (feet of seawater, or 7 atmospheres of pressure), saturation diving became a proven concept. A person could live underwater in a controlled environment indefinitely. In an article in ‘Environmental Health’ Bond presented his findings:

As a result of some six years of animal and human studies involving closed ecological systems, elevated pressures, and synthetic atmospheres, the stage has been set for operational application of the work. It would now appear that we can safely station men at any point on the submerged continental shelf, with a reasonable expectancy of useful performance for prolonged periods of time.

New Developments in High Pressure Living‘, 1964

With atmospheric testing completed, constructing a suitable habitat was the next step. Bond and his team searched through shipyards and found two old depth charge sweepers. These cylindrical structures were the perfect size. Welders and engineers improvised in joining the shells and produced a long, cigar shaped habitat. They outfitted it with bunk beds, kitchen appliances, a bathroom, and a workspace for recording scientific data. While the setup seemed crude, it was all the divers needed.

SEALAB I. This relatively simple design was the first step in the man-in-the-sea program showing that a person could live on the ocean floor, circa 1964 (Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

In July 1964, SEALAB I and its crew were sent to the coast of Bermuda to test the new habitat. During this preparation, they received an unexpected boost in public profile; Malcolm Scott Carpenter. The decorated Navy commander and Mercury astronaut who recently completed an orbit around Earth, became interested in Bond’s research. His interest in oceanic research was sparked by Jacques Cousteau while attending a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carpenter looked forward to participating in the first SEALAB expedition, but an motorcycle accident days before sidelined him. On July 20, the habitat was lowered almost two hundred feet into the ocean. The four divers (Robert Thompson, Lester Anderson, Robert A. Barth, and Sanders Manning) spent their days swimming in the surrounding waters, recording data, and documenting the issues with the SEALAB capsule. Problems arose concerning the internal temperature, humidity, and communications, and the divers sometimes improvised repair work on the seafloor. Ominous tropical storms approached Bermuda eleven days into the project, cutting their schedule short. In that time however, Bond and the diving team proved that a person could work and live in an underwater pressurized environment. Bond finally proved his theory of saturation diving.

Shifting the focus from SEALAB to the broader historical context, Bond’s research was crucial in the United States’ competition with the Soviet Union. The Cold War influenced scientific research with the U.S. Armed Forces and researchers embarked on a flurry of defense work to gain advantages. Confrontations were most likely to occur at sea and with modern navies transitioning to nuclear-powered ships and submarines, the race for oceanic dominance progressed. Deep-sea diving was given high priority as the potential for underwater rescue crews increased. Geopolitical factors now played a role in the success of research like Bond’s and SEALAB needed to perform flawlessly.

With the success of SEALAB I, the Navy immediately authorized Bond to begin work on SEALAB II. Bond received an enormous increase to his budget from the Navy (along with the Legion of Merit medal) following the success of SEALAB I. The design and construction of the second habitat comprised a full year and made improvements on the previous schematics.

Commemoration of the SEALAB II facility and crew. Scott Carpenter is standing in middle of front row in a dark suit (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Heating coils and air-conditioning were added to regulate temperature and humidity, refrigeration to store perishable foods, and a larger laboratory. Fully recovered from his accident a year before, Scott Carpenter joined the SEALAB team in La Jolla, California ready to become an aquanaut. The first team of divers moved into the habitat on August 28, 1965 along with Carpenter. Two separate teams worked fifteen days each in the habitat, but Carpenter remained for the entire thirty day duty. This world was totally different from the warm waters of Bermuda. Freezing temperatures and pitch black darkness obscured the diver’s work. Marine life posed dangers too; jellyfish, pufferfish, and others could penetrate wetsuits and leave painful welts. Despite these challenges, the SEALAB II team made headlines for their achievements, including a celebratory phone call from President Lyndon Johnson. In addition to collecting more data on saturation diving and pressurization, SEALAB II tested electrically heated wetsuits and conducted salvage operations off the California coast. The team also welcomed a new addition, but it wasn’t a diver or new equipment; a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy. The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program (MMP) trained animals to assist Navy personnel in rudimentary tasks and in the case of SEALAB, Tuffy was trained to ferry supplies between divers and the habitat. The results were mixed, but well enough to retain Tuffy for the next project. SEALAB II completed its mission on October 10, 1965 and the future looked bright for George Bond and his crew. Underwater exploration and deep-sea diving operations began to assume even greater importance in Cold War context. Humans were going further than had ever though possible.

CDR Carpenter performing inspections inside SEALAB II. His experience with SEALAB sparked a lifelong dedication to oceanography and marine conservation (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

These accomplishments, however, did not cement SEALAB’s permanence and shelter it from outside forces. As the Vietnam War consumed an ever-climbing cost of men and resources, funding for programs like SEALAB were given low priority. Experienced sailors, divers, and engineers were transferred to the South China Sea and left Bond’s program in disarray. It wouldn’t be for another four years before enough funding and materials became available for SEALAB III. Always wanting to improve upon the past, Bond upgraded the SEALAB II habitat in order for divers to conduct salvage operations and fishery studies. From these optimistic goals though, problems constantly set the SEALAB team back. Construction delays caused the majority of problems. New types of seals, gaskets, pressurized containers, and electrical lines were changing specifications on a constant basis. The result was ill-fitting parts causing air leaks in the main cabin which if left unresolved would have resulted in divers asphyxiating. The project exceeded budget and costs, further irritating Bond and his superiors. A date for submersion was finally set for February 15, 1969; five teams of divers would serve twelve day rotations off the coast of San Clemente Island, California. Another sudden change caught the SEALAB team off-guard; the depth of the habitat was increased to an unprecedented 600 feet (18 atmospheres of pressure). Bond became concerned since all previous tests had not occurred at that depth so the likelihood of failure was elevated. The divers were lowered into the water, but their insulated suits were not adequate enough to keep them warm. The crippling cold waters sapped their strength and when they arrived at the habitat, more problems arose. An interior neoprene seal failed causing helium to leak from the chamber. Unable to raise the habitat back to the surface, the diver needed to repair the seal themselves. It was during this repair that SEALAB experience its first human fatality. Berry L. Cannon, an electronics engineer, began convulsing and struggling to breathe. Other divers like Robert Barth tried forcing their breathers into his mouth, but muscle contractions prevented Cannon from opening his mouth. They moved back into the diving bell trying to resuscitate Cannon, but it was too late. His body was transferred to the San Diego Naval Hospital where the final autopsy report indicated the cause of death as carbon dioxide poisoning. An inquiry board was established to evaluate the events leading up to the tragedy. They learned that Cannon’s diving rig was not functioning properly; the carbon dioxide baralyme scrubber was empty meaning that carbon dioxide couldn’t be expelled from the system. This caused a backlog in the breathing mixture, thereby resulting in CO2 poisoning. Hypothermia was viewed as a contributing factor also given the extremely cold water.

The SEALAB III habitat being transported through San Francisco Bay in 1969. After four years of research and development and millions of dollars over budget, the structure was ready for testing. It still came plagued with problems from the beginning (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Berry Cannon’s death foreshadowed the death of SEALAB. As family and fellow teammates mourned this loss, potential culprits were never prosecuted. Officially the U.S. Navy ruled his death as an accident, but outside geopolitical forces arguably prevented them from arresting anyone at fault. A year prior, on January 23 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces, marking a major incident in the Cold War. John Craven, head of the Navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Project, claimed that any other negative press about the U.S. Navy wouldn’t be tolerated. With Cannon’s death and coupled with the escalating war in Vietnam, the SEALAB program ended and scrapped the SEALAB III habitat.

Bond’s dream of underwater living did not die with SEALAB though. In following years, other governments and the private sector took the lessons gained from Bond’s work and applied it to their own. Saturation diving meant that people could function underwater for extended periods of time and opened novel ways of working in the ocean. Today, the Office of Naval Research and its Undersea Medicine Program relies heavily on Bond’s work with their experiments in testing human endurance in underwater environments. Marine conservation groups rely on saturation diving to document natural and man-made disasters in the ocean and promote oceanic health. When it comes to exploring the ocean, scientists and divers can thank George Bond and the SEALAB team for blazing a trail to the bottom of the sea and opened up new ways of looking at our world.

Aquanauts for SEALAB II. Scott Carpenter is positioned in the front row, second from the left (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

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