Happy New Year, as we start a new calendar year it is also interesting to turn the clock back 60 years to an event that from humble beginnings has grown into the sport we all love and enjoy.
It was 60 years ago that an invention by two French men gave birth to scuba diving. This sport has seen many innovations since then but it remains basically the same, one individual exploring an alien environment, carrying his only means of survival on his back, the self contained underwater breathing apparatus.
I’m not sure what first picked my interest, maybe it was remembering all the Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau and Sea Hunt episodes I watched as a kid, but lately I’ve grown more and more interested in diving’s past history. As an instructor and technical diver, I embrace with open arms the technology of today’s dive gear, knowing the fact that it’s safer and more reliable than the old gear that was first available to divers. But something inside me wants to keep the past alive, to remember and help others remember how this great sport of diving came to be. And I’m not alone as a number of groups have been formed for just this purpose.
When I began diving in 1974 we were using gear configurations a lot different than what we use today. Single hose regulators but no alternate air source, our buoyancy compensators were horse collars with no power inflation, emergency lift provided by a CO2 cartridge that was usually rusted and worthless by the time you needed it. We were taught antiquated skills like free ascents and buddy breathing, while class times were spent learning instructor level academics and pool time spent swimming our brains out. But this was far from diving’s roots. The hard hat divers started this journey in the 1800’s with their heavy helmets and outfits that relied upon surface help. These were used primarily by military and salvage divers who had the resourse’s to make this system work. Collectors today pay thousands of dollars for this original equipment and groups like the Historical Diving Society are still diving with their Mark 5’s and other antique gear.
What really opened up diving to the general public was the invention of the double hose regulator in 1943. A diver could now enter the underwater world on his own with much lighter and less expensive gear. This is the beginning I remember as a child, watching Lloyd Bridges and Cousteau exhaust bubbles from behind their heads. Today, these old regulators are still popular with a lot of people, and collectors will pay several hundred dollars for an old Aqua Lung in good shape. Some parts are still available and many of the old models can be made divable again, thanks to people like Vintage Scuba Supply who can rebuild many makes and models and sell replacement parts.
Recently I acquired a 1960 U.S. Divers Aqua Master double hose regulator, rebuilt it and have a couple pool dives with it. I’m in the process of assembling a complete vintage outfit, from round mask to solid rubber fins so I can experience what the pioneers of scuba felt. I’ve also been in touch with a group called the California Classic Equipment Divers who have several exhibitions each year diving with their members’ hard hat and scuba equipment. Groups like this one are doing a great service of educating the public about diving’s past.
Back in high school, history was one of those subjects I hated the most. Memorizing war dates and learning about land acquisitions meant nothing to me. But I can relate to diving’s history, and after diving for almost 30 years, I guess I’m now part of it. I believe recreating diving’s past helps me appreciate that much more where diving is today. And it helps to remember and honor the pioneers who made it possible for us to enjoy the oceans the way we do. Here’s to you Augustus Siebe, Jacque Cousteau and Mike Nelson, as well as many others. Thanks for the great gift.