American Experience



Sealab tells the little-known story of the daring program that tested the limits of human endurance and revolutionized undersea exploration.

AIRED: February 12, 2019 | 0:53:13

(rotor blades whirring)

(machinery buzzing, indistinct chatter)


NARRATOR: In the spring of 1964,

Scott Carpenter was preparing for a new mission.

The second American to orbit the earth,

he had become one of the most famous men of his day.

Now, he would be embarking on

another equally dangerous undertaking.

MAN: Go!

(loud splash)

NARRATOR: This time, Carpenter would not be an astronaut

but an aquanaut,

venturing into the deepest parts of the ocean,

a vast and forbidding domain

every bit as daunting as outer space.

Divers who attempted to chart its depths faced barriers

that had thwarted mankind for centuries--

near total blackness, bone-jarring cold,

intense pressure that could disorient the mind

and crush the body.

Carpenter and his fellow pioneers would attempt

to break through those barriers--

going deeper and staying longer underwater

than anyone had done before,

seeing if it was possible for humans to live

on the bottom of the ocean.

At first, their daring exploits captured the nation's attention,

but tragedy would consign

their groundbreaking work to the shadows

and obscure the accomplishments of the men of SEALAB.

(water gushing)

NARRATOR: On the first of October, 1959,

the U.S.S. Archerfish glided to a stop

322 feet beneath the waves off the Florida coast.

MAN: 603... 603...

NARRATOR: Two Navy divers were about to test whether it was possible

to escape from a submarine at this depth--

something no one had ever tried before.

The men took a single lungful of compressed air

and stepped out of a hatch into the water.

They were immediately lifted upwards

by their inflated vests,

traveling at six feet per second.

As they rose and the water pressure decreased,

the air in their lungs kept expanding,

forcing them to exhale a continuous stream of bubbles.

53 seconds after leaving the Archerfish,

the men burst onto the surface

and took their first lungful of air.

The daring test was known as a "blow and go,"

and at its center was a pioneering researcher

named Dr. George Bond.

BEN HELLWARTH: George Bond was the kind of guy that when he walked into a room,

big tall guy

with a deep, resonant voice,

and a kind of visionary air about him, people liked him.

Even his... even people who didn't agree with him,

couldn't help but kind of like him.

And it made him the kind of leader people wanted to follow.

BOB BARTH: If he said, "Tomorrow we're going to go to the moon,"

all of us would have said, "Let's go."

He was just that type of guy.

SYLVIA EARLE: George Bond was out there in the thick of things himself.

He was a personal guinea pig.

He'd try things out before he'd expose others to the risks.

NARRATOR: He was a broad-shouldered former doctor from Appalachia,

whose backwoods brogue and southern courtliness

masked a driving determination to save lives

and change the world.

Bond had grown up around the small town

of Bat Cave, North Carolina,

and returned there at the age of 31,

as the region's only doctor.

Within a few years, he had been named Doctor of the Year

and was profiled in a film

by the American Medical Association,

honored for his tireless work serving 5,000 people

scattered across 500 square miles of rugged back country.

Bond was drafted into the Medical Corps

near the end of the Korean War.

In March of 1957, he was assigned

to the Medical Research Laboratory

at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base

in New London, Connecticut.

Ho ho ho, ho ho ho!

NARRATOR: The lab was a center for studying the effects

of diving on the human body,

and training submarine crews in escape techniques

like the "blow and go."

Bond fell in love with what he called "the diving game."

Shortly after arriving in New London,

he submitted a research proposal to the Navy,

outlining his vision for man's future below the surface.

BOB BORNHOLDT: He was dreaming about people living on the ocean floor

and farming

and building houses and civilizations

and actually feeding the population of the world

from, you know, those activities.

It was more of a vision than a sort of scientific paper.

Bond was thinking of military, industrial,

scientific possibilities,

the whole world that might open up if only man

could live in the ocean.

(waves crashing)

NARRATOR: Covering 70% of the earth's surface,

the ocean remained an alluring but forbidding realm

that had fascinated humans for centuries.

Breath-hold divers had long sought pearls

on a single lungful of air but could only stay

below the surface for minutes at a time.

By the 1920s, treasure seekers, salvage operators,

and Navy divers began to descend in so-called hardhats,

breathing air pumped through hoses from the surface.

The clumsy rigs allowed them to roam the sea floor,

but their umbilical lines could easily become fouled

on obstructions.

Eventually, pressurized vessels

extended man's reach into the depths.

The first modern submarines were developed during the Civil War.

By World War I, they had emerged as a terrifying new weapon.


Then, in the 1930s,

the American naturalist and marine biologist William Beebe

lowered his pressurized iron bell,

known as a bathysphere, almost half a mile below the waves,

glimpsing for the first time

the strange lifeforms inhabiting the inky blackness.

Twenty-five years later, a reinforced bathyscaphe

called Trieste descended an astonishing 35,000 feet--

almost seven miles-- to the deepest part of the ocean.

(water burbling)

By the time George Bond arrived in New London,

nuclear power had made it possible for submarines

to remain submerged for weeks, cruising hundreds of feet down.

But humans remained confined to airtight capsules,

unable to swim freely at such depths.

In the 1940s, a new system known as scuba

allowed divers to breathe compressed air

from tanks worn on their backs.

But the further down a diver went,

the more dangerous the undersea world became.

The pressure at sea level is known as one atmosphere.

As a diver descends,

atmospheric pressure doubles every 33 feet,

compressing the air that he breathes.

The further down the diver goes,

the more the air molecules in his lungs--

comprised of 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen--

become concentrated.

Under this increasing pressure,

the molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream

and body tissues.

But too much oxygen becomes toxic and causes convulsions,

and too much nitrogen creates a woozy fog that can be deadly.

The compressed air also causes problems

as the diver returns to the surface.

As pressure decreases,

he must allow time for the expanding molecules

to be slowly released from the blood and tissues,

a process known as decompression.

Ascending too fast releases the gas as bubbles,

causing the crippling and potentially deadly cramps

called the bends.

Once you've been diving at a certain depth for a while,

you're kind of like a soda can,

and you do not want to pop the can

and have the bubbles burst out.

EARLE: You have to gradually return to surface pressure,

gradually enough so that the gases don't just,

boom, explode in your circulatory system.

NARRATOR: George Bond was sure that despite the human body's

weaknesses and vulnerabilities,

he could adapt his divers to the pressure

of the ocean depths.

How deep can a diver go, really,

and how long can a diver stay down?

Bond was amazed that nobody knew the answers to those questions

and now he's sitting in charge of a medical research lab

and thinks that maybe it's about time

we start to run some experiments.

NARRATOR: In November of 1962, George Bond and his team cobbled together

the parts to retrofit a chamber

that simulated deep sea pressures.

Bond found a trusted deputy in Walter Mazzone,

an officer who ran the School of Submarine Medicine

at the New London base.

A gruff, fast-talking, veteran

of harrowing submarine warfare during World War II,

Mazzone went on to earn degrees

in biology and pharmaceutical chemistry.

Now, he and Bond set to work on the next phase of experiments

they called "Genesis."

NEWSREEL NARRATOR: The tests were carried out

at the Navy's experimental diving unit in Washington,

which is equipped to simulate

the effects of underwater living.

Captain George Bond and Commander Walter Mazzone

recruited Raymond Lavois, Saunders Manning,

and Robert Barth for medical tests.

BARTH: George Bond was telling me,

"If we do this and get away with it,

we can go twice as deep as we've ever been or beyond."

NARRATOR: Barth was a garrulous and profane Navy man,

but also a skilled diver

with a desire to push the limits of his field.

BARTH: You go diving

and the book tells you you're going to go to 140 feet

you can only stay there five, ten, 15 minutes.

Bond said, "Never mind, let's go to that depth and stay there,"

and that's what Genesis was all about.

NARRATOR: Inside the Genesis capsule,

Bond and Mazzone cranked up the pressure until it was four times

what is was outside--

the equivalent of 100 feet underwater.

They also tinkered with the gas mixture,

trying to avoid the problem of too much oxygen or nitrogen.

FOOTAGE NARRATOR: The scientists created for this experiment a special atmosphere.

They were breathing a mixture of six parts oxygen,

14 parts nitrogen, and 80 parts helium,

a revolutionary kind of air.

Now one thing that had been found out was that helium

made an excellent replacement for nitrogen.

You could take out a lot of the nitrogen,

put in helium and not get the narcotic effect.

Now, as you might imagine, there is a side effect.

BOND: Will somebody check the refrigerator

and see if it's cool?

MAN 1 (high-pitched): Uh...

Mike, he wants you to check that refrigerator.

MAN 2 (high-pitched): Huh?

MAN 1 (high-pitched): Wants you to check the refrigerator,

wants to know whether it's cool or not.

MAN 2 (high-pitched): Oh...

MAN 1 (high-pitched): It is not cool.

NARRATOR: In addition to its effect on the human voice,

helium was a devilish gas to contain.

Its small atomic structure meant that it could escape

from the tiniest cracks in the chamber,

endlessly vexing Walt Mazzone,

who spent days trying to plug the leaks.

Bond's next challenge was to figure out

whether divers that spent weeks under pressure

would have to spend even more time decompressing.

His theory was once a diver's body

absorbed the maximum amount of gas possible--

like a sponge saturated with water--

he could stay in that state indefinitely,

and his decompression time would remain the same.

All he would need was a habitat on the ocean floor.

And if it were kept at the same pressure

as the surrounding water, and the gas mixture was right,

he could come and go as he pleased.

Bond's concept became known as saturation diving.

RICHARD BLACKBURN: The theory was that you could actually live and work

on the ocean floor in a saturated state.

After 24 hours you've totally absorbed all the gas

you can possibly absorb in your system,

so the decompression is going to be the same as it is

at 24 hours or 24 days.

NARRATOR: On August 26, 1963, in a final test,

Bob Barth and his team entered the Genesis chamber

and lived inside for almost two weeks

at the same pressure found at 200 feet.

HELLWARTH: Bond made saturation diving a conceivable concept.

Now, that's sort of like the diving equivalent

of breaking the sound barrier.

(indistinct chatter)

NARRATOR: As the Genesis tests came to a close,

Bond had answered every question but one--

would his techniques actually work

in the dangerous environment on the bottom of the sea?


(engines roaring)

In the spring of 1963, Americans were looking skyward

with increasing uneasiness.

(speaking Russian)

The previous fall, the nation had teetered

on the brink of nuclear annihilation

during the Cuban Missile Crisis,

and Cold War tensions could not have been higher.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Should these offensive military preparations continue,

further action will be justified.

NARRATOR: And while the latest missile test garnered

the biggest headlines, in reality,

much of the conflict with the Soviet Union

was unfolding in the dark and silent depths of the ocean.

Ever since the end of World War II,

the Navy had embarked on a crash program

to match the Soviets' capability in nuclear-powered submarines

armed with ballistic missiles.

Then, on April 10, 1963,

one of America's newest atomic submarines,

the U.S.S. Thresher, developed mechanical problems

and sank in over 8,000 feet of water,

its hull crushed by the immense pressure.

The accident sent shockwaves through the Navy.

It announced a sweeping "Subsafe" program,

and new research on rescue vehicles for sunken submarines.

Suddenly, George Bond's pioneering work

with deep sea divers became a higher priority for the Navy

even though his budget remained meager.

With approval to begin underwater testing in hand,

Bond and Walt Mazzone scavenged Navy junkyards.

In the fall of 1963, at a base in Panama City, Florida,

they came across two discarded minesweeping floats--

60-foot-long hollow cylinders tall enough for a person

to stand upright.

HELLWARTH: With a small budget,

they're able to weld together and construct

a sort of cigar-shaped house,

which they call SEALAB I.

(projector clicking)

NARRATOR: Bond and his crew outfitted

their strange-looking contraption

with a makeshift array of equipment:

a hot plate, electric heaters,

and the intercom system came from Sears

because they were cheaper than the Navy stockpiles.

The best conduit for fresh water turned out to be

an ordinary garden hose.

HELLWARTH: Despite the low budget, there's a lot riding

on this first test at sea

because if they run into any real big problems,

Dr. Bond might not be allowed

to go any further with this concept.

So it's very important that they're able

to replicate at sea the concept that they developed in the lab.

(indistinct chatter)

NARRATOR: After seven months of scrounging, welding,

and improvised engineering,

SEALAB was mounted on its Navy support ship,

a bulky freight barge, and taken to a coral reef

next to an old Navy research platform,

25 miles southwest of Bermuda.

The barge would provide a base for the diving team,

and supply the gas mixtures that would be pumped down to SEALAB.

SEALAB I, this is SEALAB control.

NARRATOR: Presiding over this complex enterprise

was George Bond--

known affectionately as "Papa Topside."

The divers would be shuttled back and forth

to the sunken habitat

using a pressurized submersible decompression chamber,

also known as a diving bell.

Once the mission was over,

the bell was raised onto the barge

and it served as a cramped chamber

where the aquanauts had to endure 55 hours

of decompression.

In spite of the do-it-yourself nature of the SEALAB project,

one man who was no stranger to risk

asked to be part of the team.

After his pioneering time in outer space,

Malcolm Scott Carpenter was looking for a new challenge

and he had sought out George Bond.

EARLE: Scott Carpenter-- he's the real deal.

His interest is in exploration,

in wanting to know and to understand,

whatever it takes.

NARRATOR: Bond chose four others to live in SEALAB I,

and his loyal test subject, Bob Barth, was one of them.

The goal was to see if the team

could live under pressure for 21 days,

breathing the same helium and oxygen mixture used in Genesis,

this time at a depth of almost 200 feet.

BARTH: In a way it could be said we were guinea pigs,

but you're a trained individual,

you have practice doing what you're doing

and you know what's expected of you.

NARRATOR: Carpenter was scheduled to lead the first team

of what were called aquanauts, but he was sidelined

when he broke his arm in a motorbike accident

just a few days before the program got underway.

(waves crashing)


On July 19, 1964, SEALAB was lowered

onto the floor of the ocean

and the aquanauts rode down in the diving bell.

Bond and Mazzone waited anxiously as the men

took a lungful of air and swam over to the lab.

The sound of squeaky voices on the intercom

signaled that they had arrived.

NEWSREEL NARRATOR: 192 feet down on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean,

the United States Navy conducts an experiment

to test man's ability to live and work underwater.

A 40-foot pressurized helium and oxygen-filled

undersea laboratory is home for four Navy divers.

Activity in the SEALAB is monitored

by closed circuit television linked to the surface.


NARRATOR: Compared to the cramped confines of the Genesis pressure chamber,

SEALAB I was almost spacious.

The aquanauts were still breathing mostly helium,

and because it absorbs heat much faster than regular air,

the lab had to be kept in the mid-80s

in order to keep them warm.

And while the small percentage

of concentrated oxygen in the atmosphere

was enough to keep the men alive

there wasn't enough to strike a match.


The pressure inside kept the surrounding water at bay,

allowing the divers to enter and exit the lab

through an open hatch in the floor.

Once they left behind the steamy confines of SEALAB,

the aquanauts discovered a marine paradise.

"It was like living inside a giant aquarium,"

Bob Barth remembered.

The aquanauts spent much of their time in the water,

testing out new rebreathing systems

that recycled gases like helium

and filtered out the dangerous carbon dioxide

exhaled with every breath.

HELLWARTH: Mostly they were dealing with systems and methods.

"Can we keep the gas mixture healthy?

"Is the gear they're using in the water

suitable for this kind of dive?"

All these variables are in the mix

and the real trick is to have this go well enough

that the Navy might let them try it again.

(thunder crackling)

NARRATOR: After ten days,

a hurricane bearing down on Bermuda forced Bond

to cut short the mission.

With 15-foot waves roiling the surface,

the aquanauts survived a dangerous transfer

to the support ship

and after more than two days of decompression,

they emerged safe and sound.

George Bond's vision of man living under the sea

at last seemed within reach.

HELLWARTH: SEALAB I is perceived as a success,

which is great for Bond,

but also leaves open a lot of questions.

These guys were in Bermuda, the water was warm.

The visibility was good.

That's not the way it is in most of the ocean.

And the big question is what if we want to go deeper?

(indistinct chatter, rotor blades whirring)

NARRATOR: The next step was to leave behind

the balmy waters of Bermuda

and test the SEALAB program

in a far more inhospitable domain--

one that would push the aquanauts

to the very edge of human endurance.

HELLWARTH: It's pretty amazing our own ocean

with its maximum depth of about seven miles

has been largely unseen, largely unexplored.

Actually 95% of the ocean territory remains unknown.

EARLE: In the middle of the 20th century,

the perception of the ocean was generally that

it was so big, so vast, so resilient

that there's not much that humans could do

to harm the ocean.

It was basically thought to be too big to fail.

But the ocean is where most of life on earth actually lives.

The ocean drives climate, weather, regulates temperature.

It is our life support system.

SEALAB was a critical part of understanding

this part of the universe.

(band playing, crowd applauding)

NARRATOR: Following the success of SEALAB I,

the Navy gave George Bond's team almost $2 million--

ten times more than they had invested in his first habitat.

SEALAB II was designed and built

by the Navy's submarine architects.

Bond recruited three teams of aquanauts--

28 divers in all--

including Scott Carpenter, Bob Barth, and scientists

from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Each team would take turns on the bottom for 15 days straight,

at more than 200 feet.

SCOTT CARPENTER: I think in the immediate future,

exploration first of the ocean

will bring us far greater rewards

than the exploration of space

because, if for no other reason, of the distances involved.

The richest part of the sea floor

is roughly a million times closer than the moon.

(murky burbling)

NARRATOR: When Bob Barth stepped out of the diving bell

in August of 1965, the warm, crystalline waters of Bermuda

were a distant memory.

He was floating in almost total blackness,

just above the floor of the Pacific Ocean,

off the coast of San Diego.

The water was a bone-chilling 45 degrees,

sapping his energy and urging him toward

the lights of SEALAB II, lying at a slight angle

on the rim of Scripps Submarine Canyon.

Over the edge, the depth plunged to 600 feet.

BARTH: It's dark and dingy and cold.

And Bond wanted to get a little deeper

and live a little rougher.

BOB BORNHOLDT: On a good day, you could probably see

about five or six feet.

On a bad day, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.

If you've got any bit of claustrophobia at all,

you're not going to make it.

And the cold aggravates the situation even worse

because then you start losing mobility,

you start losing thinking ability.

The combination of cold and dark is pretty traumatic.

NARRATOR: Part of the mission was to test whether the saturated divers

could swim away from their base and go as much as 300 feet

further down into the canyon and before returning.

The men were ordered to set up weather stations,

test new electrically heated wetsuits,

and attempt to salvage the sunken fuselage

of a fighter jet.

With no voice communication, it was easy to get lost

in the limited visibility of the sea floor.

Working in these conditions was exhausting and dangerous.

The cold sapped the divers' strength,

lines became tangled,

lights burned out and took hours to replace.

Any malfunction that created accidental buoyancy

and suddenly sent them upward

meant almost certain death from the bends.

Scorpion fish, whose sharp spines

could penetrate a wetsuit and cause excruciating pain,

lurked around the entrance to the lab.

Halfway through his deployment, Scott Carpenter was stung

and laid out for days.

HELLWARTH: There are no computers, there are no warning systems.

There is really only the diver's sixth sense

that something is not right with his gas mixture

or maybe he's been out a little too long

and he better get back to the habitat right away,

because that is the only safe place people can go.

BLACKBURN: You're now locked in to that hatch on that seafloor

and you have to get back there if you run out of air

or if you have a problem.

You're no longer a scuba diver

who's free to go back to the surface.

BOND: SEALAB II, SEALAB II, this is Papa Topside.

NARRATOR: Despite the hazards, as time went on,

living on the bottom of the ocean

began to feel almost routine.

(clippers buzzing)

(high-pitched, indistinct singing)

(high-pitched, indistinct singing continues)

NARRATOR: The longer the SEALAB II aquanauts stayed submerged,

the more media attention they generated.

Never one to miss a good chance for publicity,

George Bond arranged for Scott Carpenter

to receive a call from President Lyndon Johnson.

LYNDON JOHNSON: Scott, I'm mighty glad to hear from you.

You've convinced me and all of the nation

that whether you're going up or down you have the courage

and the skill to do a fine job.

CARPENTER (high-pitched):

NARRATOR: When SEALAB II was raised to the surface

on October 11, 1965,

it had been manned continuously for 45 days,

including Carpenter's record stay of 30 days below.

(fanfare playing)

NEWSREEL NARRATOR: The crew of SEALAB II's mothership

man the decompression chamber

after aquanaut Scott Carpenter and his men

return to the surface.

Everybody appears hale and hearty

after their life 200 feet below the surface.

At a later press conference, all of the aquanauts are elated

over their accomplishments.

The Navy feels that men have proven that man

can readily adapt himself to the strange environment of the sea

with little or no ill effects.


the second American to orbit the Earth,

points out his living quarters to his wife.

Now he's the only man to hold records in the sky above

and in the sea below.

NARRATOR: While George Bond and his team

continued their innovative experiments,

another pioneer was determined to introduce a mass audience

to the mysteries of the undersea world.

The French explorer and adventurer Jacques Cousteau

produced two Academy Award-winning films

that revealed an unknown universe under the waves.

The documentaries featured a series of structures

that served as both ocean habitats

and set pieces for his cinematic endeavors.

In contrast to Bond's rigorously scientific Navy program,

most of Cousteau's pods were close enough to the surface

that the aquanauts were breathing regular air.

Ever sensitive to their appearance,

Cousteau had installed a tanning booth.

Mozart and Vivaldi played on the sound system.

EARLE: You could sit around a table, drinking fine French wine

while you were dining underwater.

Cousteau became the public face

and inspired the public to understand

that going up in the sky is wonderful,

going into the ocean is maybe equally wonderful,

and important too.

NARRATOR: As elegant and eye-catching

as Cousteau's first ventures may have been,

in George Bond's opinion, the experiments didn't generate

"one iota of useful physiological information."

But just a month after SEALAB II,

using some of George Bond's

pioneering saturation techniques,

Cousteau managed to put six divers onto the floor

of the Mediterranean, almost 330 feet below the surface.

If Bond and his team were going to push the boundaries

of knowledge in SEALAB III, they would have to take

their habitat deeper than any had gone before.

(radio chatter)

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8

became the first men to orbit the moon...

ASTRONAUT: I have a beautiful view of the Earth here.

NARRATOR: ...beaming back a picture of an "earthrise"

that showed a small blue sphere

floating in the empty blackness of space.


It was clear that America had pulled ahead in the space race,

as Cold War tensions remained high.

The game of nuclear brinksmanship

continued under the waves.

And the U.S. Navy kept searching

for new ways to gain an advantage

against a stealthy and dangerous foe.

(loud blast)

Deep sea divers were beginning to figure

in the spymaster's plan, especially if they could operate

at radically increased depths for extended periods of time.

All eyes were on the next phase of SEALAB's pioneering test.

NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Here at the San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard,

workers prepare SEALAB III,

a special habitat for ocean floor dwelling,

to be used by the aquanauts of the Navy's most ambitious

undersea experiment to date.

(horn blaring)

NARRATOR: SEALAB III was a roomier,

remodeled version of its predecessor,

in which five teams of nine aquanauts each

were expected to spend a total of almost two months

under the surface.

But as it was being readied,

Bond and the others received word from the Navy

that their habitat would be sent down to a daunting 600 feet.

The change in depth was never explained,

but clearly SEALAB was becoming an increasingly important part

of the secret Cold War competition

for control of the oceans.

HELLWARTH: 600 feet suddenly became the goal,

which is a kind of quantum leap.

It's like now you're going to try to go to the moon

instead of just orbit the Earth.

And it seemed to some people

like maybe they were skipping some steps here.

(metallic ratcheting)

NARRATOR: On February 15, 1969,

300-ton SEALAB III was lowered to the sea floor

off the coast of San Clemente, California.

The teams of aquanauts were standing by,

with Scott Carpenter acting as an advisor to George Bond,

Walt Mazzone, and a group of mission commanders.

(murky burbling)

Almost immediately, Bond knew they had a serious problem.

Once again, it revolved around the helium gas--

it was bubbling out of multiple gaps in SEALAB III.

The Navy team that had overseen the habitat's construction

had never pressure-tested the lab with helium.

If divers couldn't fix the leaks,

their supply of the precious gas would run out,

and SEALAB III would have to be abandoned.

The naval officers in charge

huddled with Bond and weighed their options.

(indistinct radio chatter)

They decided to send down the first team of aquanauts

to try and enter the habitat and fix the leaks from inside.

MAN: Okay, I'd like to get all members of Team 1 over here.

NARRATOR: Nearly 24 hours after SEALAB III was submerged,

Bob Barth, Richard Blackburn, Berry Cannon, and John Reaves

were pressurized to 600 feet,

and began their descent in the diving bell.

(machine whirring)

But it acted more like a refrigerator than an elevator.

BLACKBURN: The bell had absolutely no heat in it whatsoever.

So it was cold air blowing on you with an arctic wind chill.

NARRATOR: The electric heater was broken.

The neoprene wet suits provided little protection,

and the helium in the atmosphere,

and inside their lungs and tissues,

sapped the heat from their bodies.

It took more than an hour to reach the bottom.

When they arrived at 600 feet, the men were colder

than they had ever been in their lives.

BARTH: Colder than hell.

You're breathing helium

and your body is permeated with helium.

It's a lot colder a lot faster and a lot colder, period.

BLACKBURN: I mean our teeth were chattering.

But we thought we'd be able

to get into the habitat

and we expected it to be warm

and we'd be able to recuperate.

NARRATOR: Barth and Cannon swam toward the bubbling SEALAB.

Barth tried to open the entry hatch,

but it wouldn't budge.

After 15 minutes of fruitless labor,

they were ordered topside and had to endure

another freezing ascent in the bell.

While still pressurized and confined to their chamber

onboard the support ship,

the aquanauts did their best to warm up.

George Bond tried to determine how long their bodies

needed to recover

before they could go back down.

BARTH: They were worried about us being cold.

I said, "We'll be all right, we'll be all right."

I told them we need to get back down there.

I made the choice to get back down and get done

what we were trying to or we would lose the habitat.

NARRATOR: Bond and the officers in charge of the program decided

to send Barth and his team down four hours later.

Scott Carpenter argued for more recovery time,

but was overruled.

(bell ringing)

BLACKBURN: The minute we closed the hatch,

the temperature did the same thing.

We'd all been through this for like 24 hours

so it was much worse.

But we were so numb by that time

we didn't know it was much worse.

NARRATOR: The bell reached the bottom around 4:00 a.m.

on February 17.

Barth and Cannon dropped through the open hatch,

slipping once again into the icy darkness.

HELLWARTH: They've got about 30 yards to swim down,

get from the bell to the entrance to the habitat.

The leaking appears to have been coming from

where the power cables hooked into the lab.

Berry Cannon veers off a little bit

to have a little look at what the problem might be

before he went inside the lab to try to solve it.

NARRATOR: Barth struggled once again with the hatch, but it was no use.

Then, he suddenly turned around and realized his partner,

Berry Cannon, was in trouble.

BLACKBURN: John Reaves and I heard this scream in the water.

And we looked at each other and said, "What the heck was that?"

NARRATOR: Cannon was convulsing, his jaws clamped shut,

his gas regulator floating free.

Barth grabbed what was called a buddy breather--

an emergency supply of gas from Cannon's tanks--

and tried repeatedly to force it into his mouth.

HELLWARTH: He can't get the regulator back in Berry Cannon's mouth.

And Barth is feeling like he himself might just pass out.

His next best move is to get himself back to the bell

where he might get help or at least save himself.

BARTH: I tried to get him in the bell

and bring him back to the surface.

But by that time, I was kind of beat up.

People topside had seen what was going on

through their closed circuit TV

and said, "Get a diver in the water."

When I got there, Berry's mouthpiece was floating up here.

And Bob had already tried to use his buddy breather,

so I took the mouthpiece and shoved it in his...

tried to shove it in his mouth.

And his teeth were locked solid.

It wouldn't go into his mouth at all.

HELLWARTH: Blackburn manages to sort of wrangle Berry Cannon

under one arm

and kicking and swimming furiously.

He makes it back up to the bell.

We kept trying to revive him.

HELLWARTH: Bond and Mazzone and the topside crew are hearing,

"Faster, faster," like, "Get us up."

NARRATOR: As the exhausted aquanauts were brought back to the surface,

George Bond heard the message he was dreading.

"Berry Cannon is dead."

WALTER CRONKITE: A civilian U.S. aquanaut

taking part in the nation's most ambitious

underwater living experiment to date

died today in water 600 feet deep

off the Southern California coast.

REPORTER: The victim was one of four divers trying to find a leak

in the underwater capsule when he was stricken.

BORNHOLDT: Devastated.

I mean... when, when people found out

that Berry had died...

hardly a dry eye.

Anybody associated with the program,

you know it was just... it was just terrible.

We all... we all knew the risks,

but when it's... when it actually happens

and you're faced with it, it's very sobering.

NARRATOR: Immediately, the Navy suspended the SEALAB program

and launched an investigation into Cannon's death.

His fellow aquanauts still had almost a full week

of decompression to endure before they emerged

from the chamber on the support ship.

BLACKBURN: It was pretty well deserted.

There was only the skeleton crew that was there

to keep us alive, basically,

and decompressing us and get us out safely.

And everybody else had gone home.

NARRATOR: By the time the aquanauts were released

from their decompression,

Berry Cannon's funeral had already taken place.

A Navy board of investigation asked tough questions

of Bond and the rest of the SEALAB team.

Richard Blackburn sharply criticized

some of the decisions that were made.

"We were all pushed to the point where mistakes were inevitable,"

he testified.

"It is a horrible thing for a man to have to die

to slow this outfit down."

The "San Diego Union" reported that Bond

was "emotionally shaken several times while recalling

the details of the tragedy."

The investigation lasted almost a month,

and it concluded that CO2 poisoning

was the most likely cause of Cannon's death.

But the entire program became another casualty.

By the end of 1970, the Navy had shut SEALAB down completely.

George Bond's dream of man living under the sea

seemed to have run its course.

To the American public, SEALAB looked like an abject failure,

but the Navy's Cold War architects saw, instead,

a new top-secret role for the program.

HELLWARTH: The SEALAB program begins to enter into the thinking

of America's Cold War planning and strategy

with new Navy operations in which they could

take advantage of their new saturation diving knowhow.

NARRATOR: Some of the SEALAB divers became covert operatives

serving onboard the U.S.S. Halibut,

an aging nuclear submarine,

that featured a portable compression chamber--

a kind of mini SEALAB-- attached to its deck.

Over the next few years, the Halibut would become

their base for new kinds of dangerous deep-water operations.

SEALAB personnel were natural recruits.

Almost to a man, aquanauts went into the black programs.

NARRATOR: Late in 1972, the Halibut snuck inside

Russian territorial waters in the Sea of Okhotsk

and located a cable on the bottom.

Saturation divers attached a recording device

that secretly intercepted a gold mine

of Soviet nuclear communications.

It was one of the Cold War high points for the Navy,

made possible by the pioneering work of SEALAB.

And the concept of saturation diving spread around the world.

Deep sea oil exploration took off.

Most of the guys that had worked at the experimental diving unit

ended up working for diving companies in the Gulf,

and the North Sea, and all over the world.

NARRATOR: From his retirement in North Carolina,

George Bond looked on with satisfaction as his prediction

that divers would one day be working hundreds of feet

below the surface came true.

In the 1980s,

the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,

NOAA, created an undersea station

that was originally to be named after Bond,

but was ultimately christened Aquarius.

The habitat is still in operation

near a coral reef a few miles south of the Florida Keys.


for me, transformative because as a...

as a diver, a scientist first,

I use the ocean as a laboratory.

Saturation diving gave me a chance to get to know

the seascape, if you will, the neighborhood.

Anybody who is a field scientist in a desert or in the mountains

or anywhere, you know, you keep learning things

as you spend time there.

It makes all the difference in the world.

SEALAB was absolutely fundamental.

It built the concept of being able to live underwater,

to actually experience the blue part of the planet.

ANNOUNCER: Next time on "American Experience"...

Two paths...

MAN: James Earl Ray is not the typical assassin.

ANNOUNCER: One destiny.

(gun fires)

REPORTER: Memphis police report

that Reverend Martin Luther King has been shot.

MAN: If he is the killer, why did he do it?

ANNOUNCER: "Roads to Memphis,"

next time on "American Experience."

Made possible in part by Liberty Mutual Insurance.

"American Experience: SEALAB" is available on DVD.


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