SEALAB (United States Navy)
SEALAB I, II, and III were experimental underwater habitat
Underwater habitat
Underwater habitats are underwater structures in which people can live for extended periods and carry out most of the basic human functions of a 24-hour day, such as working, resting, eating, attending to personal hygiene, and sleeping...

s developed by the United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

 to prove the viability of saturation diving
Saturation diving
Saturation diving is a diving technique that allows divers to reduce the risk of decompression sickness when they work at great depth for long periods of time....

 and humans living in isolation for extended periods of time. The knowledge gained from the SEALAB expeditions helped advance the science of deep sea diving
Underwater diving
Underwater diving is the practice of going underwater, either with breathing apparatus or by breath-holding .Recreational diving is a popular activity...

 and rescue, and contributed to the understanding of the psychological and physiological strains humans can endure.


SEALAB I was lowered off the coast of Bermuda
Bermuda is a British overseas territory in the North Atlantic Ocean. Located off the east coast of the United States, its nearest landmass is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, about to the west-northwest. It is about south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and northeast of Miami, Florida...

 in 1964 to a depth of 58 m (192 feet of seawater (fsw)) below the sea's surface. It was constructed from two converted floats and held in place with axle
An axle is a central shaft for a rotating wheel or gear. On wheeled vehicles, the axle may be fixed to the wheels, rotating with them, or fixed to its surroundings, with the wheels rotating around the axle. In the former case, bearings or bushings are provided at the mounting points where the axle...

s from railroad car
Railroad car
A railroad car or railway vehicle , also known as a bogie in Indian English, is a vehicle on a rail transport system that is used for the carrying of cargo or passengers. Cars can be coupled together into a train and hauled by one or more locomotives...

s. The experiment involved four divers (LCDR Robert Thompson, MC; Gunners Mate First Class Lester Anderson, Chief Quartermaster Robert A. Barth, and Chief Hospital Corpsman Sanders Manning), who were to stay submerged for three weeks. The experiment was halted after 11 days due to an approaching tropical storm.

Before the SEALAB habitat could be emplaced, a number of rifle grenade
Rifle grenade
A rifle grenade is a grenade that uses a rifle-based launcher to permit a longer effective range than would be possible if the grenade was thrown by hand...

s had to be found and removed from the bottom around Argus Island. The grenade
A grenade is a small explosive device that is projected a safe distance away by its user. Soldiers called grenadiers specialize in the use of grenades. The term hand grenade refers any grenade designed to be hand thrown. Grenade Launchers are firearms designed to fire explosive projectile grenades...

s had been fired up into the air with the object of targeting their explosions when they returned to the water. With enough impacts the position of Argus Island could be determined to within a few feet. Unfortunately, many grenades did not fire upon impact with the sea surface and divers had to search them out and remove them. This was a job for divers from the Navy SOFAR Station (Columbia University Geophysical Field Station), and both U.S. Navy and Air Force
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of...

 civilians and enlisted SCUBA
Scuba is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. It may also refer to:* Scuba diving, the use of a self-contained breathing set to stay underwater for periods of time* Scuba set, the equipment used to do scuba diving...

 divers. A platform which had been built to lower the Remote Underwater Manipulator (RUM) from a garage on Argus Island to the sea floor was also removed. SEALAB I was then placed on the nearly flat bottom on a layer of algal balls and some coral
Corals are marine animals in class Anthozoa of phylum Cnidaria typically living in compact colonies of many identical individual "polyps". The group includes the important reef builders that inhabit tropical oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.A coral "head" is a colony of...


SEALAB I was commanded by Captain George F. Bond
George F. Bond
Capt. George Foote Bond USN was an American physician who was known as a leader in the field of undersea and hyperbaric medicine and the "Father of Saturation Diving".-Early life:...

, also called "Poppa Topside", who was key in developing theories about saturation diving
Saturation diving
Saturation diving is a diving technique that allows divers to reduce the risk of decompression sickness when they work at great depth for long periods of time....

. SEALAB I proved that saturation diving in the open ocean was viable for extended periods. The experiment also offered information about habitat placement, habitat umbilicals, humidity, and helium speech descrambling.

SEALAB I is on display at the Museum of Man in the Sea
Museum Of Man In The Sea
The Man in the Sea Museum is located at 17314 Panama City Beach Parkway, Panama City Beach, Florida. It has exhibits and documents related to the history of diving.-Websites:* - official site...

, in Panama City Beach, Florida
Panama City Beach, Florida
Panama City Beach is a city in Bay County, Florida, United States, on the Gulf of Mexico coast. The city is often referred to under the umbrella term of "Panama City", despite being a distinct municipality from the older and larger inland Panama City to the east, making Panama City and Panama City...

, near where it was initially tested offshore before being deployed. It is on outdoor display. Its metal hull is largely intact, though the paint is faded to a brick red. The interior has been largely stripped and graffitied.


SEALAB II was launched in 1965, and unlike SEALAB I, it included hot showers and refrigeration
Refrigeration is a process in which work is done to move heat from one location to another. This work is traditionally done by mechanical work, but can also be done by magnetism, laser or other means...

. It was placed in the La Jolla Canyon off the coast of California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

, at a depth of 62 m. On August 28, 1965, the first of three teams of divers moved into what became known as the “Tilton Hilton” (Tiltin' Hilton, because of the slope of the landing site).
Each team spent 15 days in the habitat, but aquanaut/astronaut
An astronaut or cosmonaut is a person trained by a human spaceflight program to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member of a spacecraft....

 Scott Carpenter
Scott Carpenter
Malcolm Scott Carpenter is an American engineer, former test pilot, astronaut, and aquanaut. He is best known as one of the original seven astronauts selected for NASA's Project Mercury in April 1959....

 remained below for a record 30 days. In addition to physiological testing (described in the book by Radloff & Helmreich), the divers tested new tools, methods of salvage, and an electrically heated drysuit. They were aided by a bottlenose dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin
Bottlenose dolphins, the genus Tursiops, are the most common and well-known members of the family Delphinidae, the family of oceanic dolphins. Recent molecular studies show the genus contains two species, the common bottlenose dolphin and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin , instead of one...

 named Tuffy from the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program
The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program is a program administered by the U.S. Navy which studies the military use of marine mammals—principally Bottlenose Dolphins and California Sea Lions—and trains animals to perform tasks such as ship and harbor protection, mine detection and clearance, and...

, who ferried supplies from the surface.

A sidenote from SEALAB II was a congratulatory telephone
The telephone , colloquially referred to as a phone, is a telecommunications device that transmits and receives sounds, usually the human voice. Telephones are a point-to-point communication system whose most basic function is to allow two people separated by large distances to talk to each other...

 call that was arranged for Carpenter and President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Baines Johnson , often referred to as LBJ, was the 36th President of the United States after his service as the 37th Vice President of the United States...

. Carpenter was calling from a decompression
Decompression has several meanings:* Decompression , the release of pressure and the opposition of physical compression* Decompression sickness, a condition arising from the precipitation of dissolved gases into bubbles inside the body on depressurization* Decompression , a procedure used to treat...

 chamber with helium
Helium is the chemical element with atomic number 2 and an atomic weight of 4.002602, which is represented by the symbol He. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table...

 gas replacing nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

, so Carpenter sounded unintelligible to operators. The tape of the call circulated for years among Navy divers before it was aired on NPR in 1999.


SEALAB III used a refurbished SEALAB II habitat, but was placed in water three times as deep. Five teams of nine divers
Underwater diving
Underwater diving is the practice of going underwater, either with breathing apparatus or by breath-holding .Recreational diving is a popular activity...

 were scheduled to spend 12 days each in the habitat, testing new salvage techniques and conducting oceanographic
Oceanography , also called oceanology or marine science, is the branch of Earth science that studies the ocean...

 and fishery
Generally, a fishery is an entity engaged in raising or harvesting fish which is determined by some authority to be a fishery. According to the FAO, a fishery is typically defined in terms of the "people involved, species or type of fish, area of water or seabed, method of fishing, class of boats,...

 studies. Preparations for such a deep dive were extensive. In addition to many biomedical studies, work-up dives were conducted at the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard. These “dives” were not done in the open sea, but in a special hyperbaric chamber that could recreate the pressures at depths as great as 1,025 fsw (312 m).
According to John Piña Craven
John Piña Craven
John Piña Craven is known for his involvement with Bayesian search theory and the recovery of lost objects at sea....

, the U.S. Navy's head of the Deep Submergence Systems Project of which SEALAB was a part, SEALAB III "was plagued with strange failures at the very start of operations". On February 15, 1969, SEALAB III was lowered to 610 fsw (185 m), off San Clemente Island
San Clemente Island
San Clemente Island is the southernmost of the Channel Islands of California. It is owned and operated by the United States Navy, and is a part of Los Angeles County. Defined by the United States Census Bureau as Block Group 2 of Census Tract 5991 of Los Angeles County, California, it is long and...

, California. The habitat soon began to leak and four divers were sent to repair it, but they were unsuccessful. During the second attempt, aquanaut
An Aquanaut is any individual who remains underwater, exposed to the ambient pressure, long enough to come into equilibrium with his or her breathing media. Usually this is done in an underwater habitat on the seafloor for a period equal to or greater than 24 continuous hours without returning to...

 Berry L. Cannon
Berry L. Cannon
Berry Louis Cannon was an American aquanaut who served on the SEALAB II and III projects of the U.S. Navy. Cannon died of carbon dioxide poisoning while attempting to repair SEALAB III...

 died. It was found that his rebreather
A rebreather is a type of breathing set that provides a breathing gas containing oxygen and recycled exhaled gas. This recycling reduces the volume of breathing gas used, making a rebreather lighter and more compact than an open-circuit breathing set for the same duration in environments where...

 was missing baralyme, the chemical necessary to remove carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

. Surgeon commander John Rawlins, a Royal Navy medical officer assigned to the project, also suggested that hypothermia
Hypothermia is a condition in which core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions which is defined as . Body temperature is usually maintained near a constant level of through biologic homeostasis or thermoregulation...

 during the dive was a contributing factor to the problem not being recognized by the diver.

According to Craven, while the other divers were undergoing the week-long decompression
Decompression has several meanings:* Decompression , the release of pressure and the opposition of physical compression* Decompression sickness, a condition arising from the precipitation of dissolved gases into bubbles inside the body on depressurization* Decompression , a procedure used to treat...

, repeated attempts were made to sabotage their air supply by someone aboard the command barge. Eventually, a guard was posted on the decompression chamber and the men were recovered safely. A potentially unstable suspect was identified by the staff psychiatrist but the culprit was never prosecuted. Craven suggests this may have been done to spare the Navy bad press so soon after the USS Pueblo
USS Pueblo (AGER-2)
USS Pueblo is an American ELINT and SIGINT Banner-class technical research ship which was boarded and captured by North Korean forces on January 23, 1968, in what is known as the Pueblo incident or alternatively as the Pueblo crisis or the Pueblo affair. Occurring less than a week after President...

 incident. The SEALAB program came to a halt, and although the habitat was retrieved, it was eventually scrapped. Aspects of the research continued in classified military programs , but no new habitats were built.

NCEL of Port Hueneme, CA (now a part of NFESC
NFESC, the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center provides engineering services, technology testing, specialized facilities, and expertise in these facilities...

), was responsible for the handling of several contracts involving life support systems used on SEALAB III.

The SEALAB II/III habitat is located off the Scripps
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, is one of the oldest and largest centers for ocean and earth science research, graduate training, and public service in the world...

 pier in La Jolla, California. In 2002, a group of researchers from the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network
High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network
The High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network is a network research program, funded by the National Science Foundation. The program includes the creation, demonstration, and evaluation of a non-commercial, prototype, high-performance, wide-area, wireless network in its Southern...

 boarded the MV Kellie Chouest
MV Kellie Chouest
MV Kellie Chouest is a Deep Submergence Elevator Support Ship operated under the Military Sealift Command's Special Mission Ship Program and leased from Edison Chouest Offshore...

and utilized a Scorpio ROV
Scorpio ROV
The Scorpio [Submersible Craft for Ocean Repair, Position, Inspection and Observation] is a brand of underwater submersible Remotely Operated Vehicle manufactured by Perry Tritech used by subsea industries such as the oil industry for general operations, and also by the United States Navy and...

to find the site of the SEALAB habitat. This expedition was the first return to the site since the habitat was moved.

External links

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