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TypeResearch Station

SEALAB I, II, and III were experimental underwater habitats developed and deployed by the United States Navy during the 1960s to prove the viability of saturation diving 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 and rescue, and contributed to the understanding of the psychological and physiological strains humans can endure.[1]

United States Navy Genesis Project[edit]

Dr. (Captain) George F. Bond, senior medical officer and principal investigator for the SEALAB I and II experiments.

Preliminary research work was undertaken by George F. Bond, who named the project after the Book of Genesis, which prophesised humans would gain dominion over the oceans. Bond began investigations in 1957 to develop theories about saturation diving. Bond's team exposed rats, goats, monkeys, and human beings to various gas mixtures at different pressures. By 1963 they had collected enough data to test the first SEALAB habitat.[2]

At the time, Jacques Cousteau and Edwin A. Link were pursuing privately funded saturation diving projects to study long-term underwater living. Link's efforts resulted in the first underwater habitat, occupied by aquanaut Robert Sténuit in the Mediterranean Sea at a depth of 61 m (200 ft) for one day on September 6, 1962. Cousteau's habitats included Conshelf I, with a 2-person crew at a depth of 10 m (33 ft) near Marseilles, placed on September 14, 1962, and Conshelf II, placed in the Red Sea at depths of 11 and 27 m (36 and 89 ft) on June 15, 1963. Later that year, the Kennedy administration decided to open a new "race" frontier, directing the navy to begin the SEALAB program.[2]

SEALAB I[edit]

SEALAB I being lowered off Bermuda in 1964

SEALAB I was commanded by Captain Bond,[3] who became known as "Papa Topside". 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.[4]

SEALAB I was lowered off the coast of Bermuda on July 20, 1964 to a depth of 192 feet (59 m) below the ocean surface. It was constructed from two converted floats and held in place with axles from railroad cars. 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.[4] SEALAB I demonstrated the same issues as Conshelf: high humidity, temperature control, and verbal communication in the helium atmosphere.[2]

The astronaut and second American to orbit the Earth, Scott Carpenter, was scheduled to be the fifth aquanaut in the habitat. Carpenter was trained by Robert A. Barth. Shortly before the experiment took place, Carpenter had a scooter accident on Bermuda and broke a few bones. The crash ruined his chances of making the dive.[5]

SEALAB I is on display at the Man in the Sea Museum, in Panama City Beach, Florida, near where it was initially tested offshore before being deployed. It is on outdoor display.[6] Its metal hull is largely intact, though the paint faded to a brick red over the years.[7] The habitat's exterior was restored as part of its 50th anniversary, and now sports its original colors.[8]


SEALAB II above surface
Tuffy the dolphin delivered supplies to SEALAB II[7]

SEALAB II was launched in 1965.[3] It was nearly twice as large as SEALAB I with heating coils installed in the deck to ward off the constant helium-induced chill, and air conditioning to reduce the oppressive humidity. Facilities included hot showers, a built-in toilet, laboratory equipment, eleven viewing ports, two exits, and refrigeration. It was placed in the La Jolla Canyon off the coast of Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD, in La Jolla, California, at a depth of 205 feet (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). The support ship Berkone hovered on the surface above, within sight of the Scripps pier. The helium atmosphere conducted heat away from the divers’ bodies so quickly temperatures were raised to 30 °C (86 °F) to ward off chill.[2]

Each team spent 15 days in the habitat, but aquanaut/former astronaut Scott Carpenter remained below for a record 30 days. In addition to physiological testing, the 28 divers tested new tools, methods of salvage, and an electrically heated drysuit.[8][9] They were aided by a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy from the United States Navy Marine Mammal Program. Aquanauts and Navy trainers attempted, with mixed results, to teach Tuffy to ferry supplies from the surface to SEALAB or from one diver to another, and to come to the rescue of an aquanaut in distress.[10][11][12] When the SEALAB II mission ended on 10 October 1965, there were plans for Tuffy also to take part in SEALAB III.[13][14]

A sidenote from SEALAB II was a congratulatory telephone call that was arranged for Carpenter and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Carpenter was calling from a decompression chamber with helium gas replacing nitrogen, so Carpenter sounded unintelligible to operators.[15] The tape of the call circulated for years[when?] among Navy divers[who?] before it was aired on National Public Radio in 1999.[16][17]

In 2002, a group of researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network boarded the MV Kellie Chouest and used a Scorpio ROV to find the site of the SEALAB habitat.[18] This expedition was the first return to the site since the habitat was moved.[18]


With naval research funding constrained by Vietnam War combat requirements,[2] it was four years later before SEALAB III used the refurbished SEALAB II habitat placed in water three times deeper. Five teams of nine divers were scheduled to spend 12 days each in the habitat, testing new salvage techniques and conducting oceanographic and fishery studies.[19][20] 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 feet (312 m) of sea water.

SEALAB III, artist's impression

According to John Piña Craven, 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".[21] USS Elk River (IX-509) was specially fitted as a SEALAB operations support ship to replace Berkone; but the project was 18 months late and three million dollars over budget when SEALAB III was lowered to 610 feet (190 m) off San Clemente Island, California, on 15 February 1969. SEALAB team members were tense and frustrated by these delays, and began taking risks to make things work. When a poorly sized neoprene seal caused helium to leak from the habitat at an unacceptable rate, four divers volunteered to repair the leak in place rather than lifting the habitat to the surface. Their first attempt was unsuccessful, and the divers had been awake for twenty hours using amphetamines to stay alert for a second attempt,[2] during which aquanaut Berry L. Cannon died.[22][23] It was found that his rebreather was missing baralyme, the chemical necessary to remove carbon dioxide.[22] Surgeon commander John Rawlins, a Royal Navy medical officer assigned to the project, also suggested that hypothermia during the dive was a contributing factor to the problem not being recognized by the diver.[24]

According to Craven, while the other divers were undergoing the week-long decompression, 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 incident.[21]

The SEALAB program came to a halt, and although the SEALAB III habitat was retrieved,[21] it was eventually scrapped. Aspects of the research continued,[25] but no new habitats were built.

NCEL (now a part of Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center) of Port Hueneme, California, was responsible for the handling of several contracts involving life support systems used on SEALAB III.[26]

A model of SEALAB III can be found at the Man in the Sea Museum in Panama City Beach, Florida.[6]

See also[edit]

  • Aquanaut – Diver who remains at depth underwater for longer than 24 hours
  • Continental Shelf Station Two – Undersea research habitat in the Red Sea
  • NEEMO – NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation project
  • Underwater habitat – Human habitable underwater enclosure filled with breathable gas


  1. ^ Squire, Rachael (2021). Undersea geopolitics : Sealab, science, and the Cold War (Hardback ed.). Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-78660-730-0. OCLC 1236090910.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chamberland, Dennis (1986). "Sealab: Unfinished Legacy". Proceedings. 112 (1). United States Naval Institute: 72–82.
  3. ^ a b "Where Have All the Aquanauts Gone? The Story of Sealab". HowStuffWorks. 2019-03-06. Retrieved 2019-03-20.
  4. ^ a b Murray, John (2005). "'Papa Topside', Captain George F. Bond, MC, USN" (PDF). Faceplate. Vol. 9, no. 1. pp. 8–9. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 7, 2012. Retrieved January 15, 2010.
  5. ^ Barth, Bob (2000). Sea Dwellers – The Humor, Drama and Tragedy of the U.S. Navy SEALAB Programs. Houston, Texas: Doyle Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 0-9653359-3-3.
  6. ^ a b Florida, Man in the Sea Museum of Panama City Beach. "Tour Exhibits". Man in the Sea Museum of Panama City Beach, Florida. Retrieved 2023-11-29.
  7. ^ a b "Marine Mammals: The Navy's Super Searchers". U. S. Naval Undersea Museum. Retrieved 29 June 2023. In 1964, Tuffy starred in the documentary 'The Dolphins That Joined the Navy'. The following year, he participated in the Sealab II project, an experiment where divers lived underwater. Tuffy carried messages and tools to the undersea habitat and practiced rescuing lost or injured divers.
  8. ^ a b Roland Radloff & Robert Helmreich (1968). Groups Under Stress: Psychological Research in Sealab II. Appleton-Century-Crofts. ISBN 0-89197-191-2.
  9. ^ T. A. Clarke; A. O. Flechsig; R. W. Grigg (September 1967). "Ecological studies during Project Sealab II. A sand-bottom community at depth of 61 meters and the fauna attracted to "Sealab II" are investigated". Science. 157 (3795): 1381–9. Bibcode:1967Sci...157.1381C. doi:10.1126/science.157.3795.1381. PMID 4382569.
  10. ^ James W. Miller; Ian G. Koblick (1984). Living and Working in the Sea. New York City: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. pp. 60–61. ISBN 0-442-26084-9.
  11. ^ "Aquanauts and Sealab". U.S. Navy Museum, Naval History & Heritage Command, United States Navy. Retrieved February 21, 2012.
  12. ^ Ben Hellwarth (2012). Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor. New York City: Simon & Schuster. pp. 147–148, 327. ISBN 978-0-7432-4745-0. LCCN 2011015725.
  13. ^ Tom Stimson (July 1967). "TUFFY—The Navy's Deep Sea Lifeguard". Popular Mechanics. Vol. 128, no. 1. New York City: The Hearst Corporation. pp. 66–69, 178. Retrieved February 9, 2012.
  14. ^ Hellwarth, p. 173.
  15. ^ "Lost and Found Sound: The Stories - LBJ & the Helium Filled Astronaut". The Kitchen Sisters. 1999. Retrieved February 9, 2012.
  16. ^ LBJ & the Helium-Filled Astronaut - Lost and Found Sound: A Bizarre Phone Conversation, All Things Considered, October 15, 1999
  17. ^ Astronaut Scott Carpenter Speaks to President Johnson from a Helium-Atmosphere Decompression Chamber on YouTube
  18. ^ a b "Wireless tests aboard US Navy ship include exploration of USN/SIO Sea Lab II". High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network. February 13, 2002. Retrieved February 18, 2011.
  19. ^ Kuling, J. W.; Summitt, J. K. (1970). "Saturation Dives, with Excursions, for the Development of a Decompression Schedule for Use during SEALAB III". US Navy Experimental Diving Unit Technical Report. NEDU-RR-9-70. Archived from the original on July 1, 2012. Retrieved July 8, 2008.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  20. ^ Crowley, R. W.; Summitt, J. K. (1970). "Report of Experimental Dives for SEALAB III Surface Support Decompression Schedules". US Navy Experimental Diving Unit Technical Report. NEDU-RR-15-70. Archived from the original on March 6, 2010. Retrieved July 8, 2008.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  21. ^ a b c Craven, John Piña (2001). The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-87213-7.
  22. ^ a b "Oceanography: Death in the Depths". Time. February 28, 1969. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved February 18, 2011.
  23. ^ Schwartz, John (7 April 2020). "Robert Barth, a Pioneer of Deep-Sea Diving, Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 June 2020.
  24. ^ Davis, Michael (1979). "Immersion hypothermia in scuba diving". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 9 (2). Archived from the original on January 13, 2013. Retrieved July 29, 2011.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  25. ^ Searle, Willard Franklyn (1969). "Test procedures for supervisor of salvage sponsored work projects for Sealab III". Deep Submergence Systems, Office of Naval Research. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  26. ^ Bayles, John J. & Taylor, Douglas. "Aquanauts Composite Life Support Umbilicals - SEALAB III. (2005) l". Retrieved August 27, 2008. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)


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