PANAMA CITY BEACH — Article from the news Herald. See the Sealab 1 in PCB at the Man and the Sea Museum.
Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in July 1969, an exploration feat recently remembered at length on its 40th anniversary.
The July anniversary of Sealab 1’s descent into the Atlantic Ocean five years prior to the moon landing, and what it meant for saturation diving, offshore oil drilling, submarine rescue and underwater research, went relatively unnoticed.
Sealab 1 was built and tested by the Navy in Bay County as an underwater habitat capable of housing humans almost 200 feet below the ocean’s surface, and it still resides here as an exhibit at Man in the Sea Museum on Back Beach Road.
Retired Navy diver Michael Zinszer said the Sealab I project, although overshadowed by the Apollo moon landing, fueled future efforts by both military and commercial oil drilling interests in diving farther and staying underwater longer. Zinszer, president of the nonprofit Institute of Diving Foundation and director of Florida State University-Panama City’s Advanced Science Diving program, said the success of Sealab I represented a major diving milestone and an important artifact of Bay County’s history. “Sealab in itself is a national treasure. It’s not just a Bay County treasure,” Zinszer said Tuesday. With the Sealab 1 45th anniversary, Zinszer said he hopes the exhibit draws attention to the museum and its fundraising efforts to restore the underwater habitat to its original state and upgrade the entire museum.
The Man in the Sea Museum, which has been in Panama City Beach since 1981, almost shut down last year due to lack of funds, Zinszer said. The museum now has rebounded and is looking to raise up to $350,000 to restore the Sealab 1 and make overall improvements, he said. Leslie Baker has been the museum’s manager since July 2008. She said it’s time that more county residents and visitors knew about the Sealab 1 exhibit at the museum, which features military and non-military exhibits.
“It’s probably our most significant historical artifact,” Baker said of Sealab 1 as she stood in the museum’s front lobby area.
At its current location outside the Man in the Sea Museum, Sealab 1 resembles a rusty red, jumbo-sized propane tank propped up by railroad car axles. Zinszer said the underwater habitat was constructed from a pair of sea buoys cut in half and welded at the center. For 11 days in July 1964, it served as an undersea home nearly 200 feet below the surface for Navy divers Robert Thompson, Lester Anderson, Bob Barth and Sanders Manning.
Navy doctor Capt. George Bond spearheaded research in the late 1950s into saturation diving and the feasibility of leaving humans underwater for extended periods. Bond started research on the feasibility of saturation diving through the Genesis program, a precursor to Sealab 1, and he studied diving-related issues like decompression, human absorption of inert gases, and nitrogen narcosis. Zinszer said Bond initially tested the effects of saturation diving on goats, before conducting trial dives off the Panama City Beach coast with human divers.
Those test dives took place in about 60 feet of water near “Stage 2,” described by Zinszer as a popular fishing and diving spot about three miles off the coast. The Navy had a sound study station in place off the Bermuda coast, Zinszer said, with an underwater plateau of nearly 200 feet below the water. He said that, combined with Bermuda’s relatively warm waters, made the island nation the Navy’s choice as a site for the Sealab 1 launch.
After being towed out to the launch area, Sealab 1 was lowered from a ship by cable to its resting area. Zinszer said that 200 feet was the maximum working depth for divers during that time period. Sealab 1’s success paved the way for diving at depths of 300, 600 and 1,000 feet below the water and later advancements in offshore oil drilling, Zinszer said. “None of that would have been able to occur without Sealab,” Zinszer said. Following its successful 11-day stay in the waters off Bermuda in 1964, the Sealab I prototype gave way to the more sophisticated Sealab 2 and Sealab 3 habitats. There is also a Sealab 3 model display inside the Man in the Sea Museum.
A Navy-produced video at the museum detailed the physical rigors endured by the four Sealab 1 divers as they stayed aboard the underwater habitat. Zinszer said an approaching hurricane forced the Navy to cut short Sealab 1’s stay underwater. The Navy raised the habitat one foot for every 20 minutes, Zinszer said, and eventually transferred the divers to a submersible decompression chamber at 84 feet below the surface. Sealab 1 made the cover of Life Magazine and inspired a television show.
Zinszer said Barth, who still lives in the Panama City area, wrote a book, “Sea Dwellers: The Humor, Drama and Tragedy of the U.S. Navy Sealab Programs,” that was published in 2000 by Houston’s Doyle Publishing Company and is for sale at the museum.