As a scuba diving instructor, I have had the pleasure of teaching people from all walks of life to enjoy the underwater world safely. Even when we’re doing our checkout dives in one of the local lakes, my students marvel at the number of fish and aquatic plants.
We’ve even seen the occasional freshwater jellyfish. Offshore, the stunning variety of marine life on a tropical reef or shipwreck never ceases to amaze me. With every breath, we enjoy the underwater world that tens of thousands of divers have come to love.
Unlike most sea creatures, humans cannot breathe underwater without the assistance of what is commonly referred to as “scuba” gear. Scuba is an acronym that stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. The basic scuba configuration consists of a bottle, or tank, of compressed air and a regulator that converts the high-pressure air in the tank to the surrounding water’s ambient pressure, thus allowing the diver to breathe underwater from the scuba tank. The tank and regulator are held on the diver’s back by a “vest” or “jacket,” commonly referred to as a BCD or Buoyancy Control Device, to which a hose is connected from the scuba tank to allow the diver to adjust the amount of buoyancy provided by the BCD. Divers typically carry their weights in the BCD.
Simple enough, right? Yes, but how did we get to the point where scuba divers can strap on a tank of air, put the regulator in their mouth, don their mask and fins, jump off the dive boat, and breathe underwater? It’s been a long journey, occasionally accompanied by tragedy.
According to Lisa Mongelia, executive director of the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada, Florida, “Humans have pursued various means to spend time underwater because there is an innate curiosity in the human nature to always want to learn more.”
Fans of Jules Verne are familiar with images of his divers wearing heavy suits topped with diving helmets. The museum has an extensive collection of old diving helmets beginning with knight helmets adapted into smoke helmets for firefighters and eventually into open-bottomed diving helmets to which surface pumps supplied air. These pioneering helmet-wearing divers plodded along the ocean floor doing salvage work and harvesting such things as sponges and pearls. Closed-bottomed helmets with high-tech suits are in use today by commercial divers.
The current state of recreational scuba equipment owes its design and function to two Frenchmen, Air Liquide engineer Emile Gagnon and French Naval Officer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. In 1943, Gagnon and Cousteau modified available surplus military equipment, including a demand regulator to which they attached a bottle of compressed gas.
This configuration, called the “scaphandre autonome,” quickly became known as the “Aqua-Lung” in English-speaking countries. Lisa says, “The big breakthrough for what was being called swim diving came just after World War II when fins were invented.” Mankind could now begin to explore below the surface without having surface-supplied air.
Once their design was proven functional, Cousteau persuaded the French government to provide him with an ex-navy wooden minesweeper on which Cousteau; his wife, Simone; and his band of diving pioneers traveled the world diving, filming, writing books, and essentially working out the kinks in the system on the fly. Many young kids watched Cousteau on TV and read Cousteau’s books while dreaming of becoming an undersea adventurer. Cousteau explored the world’s oceans and developed many components of scuba gear that are still in use in their updated form today. Many diving gear companies owe their existence to Cousteau’s original Aqua-Lung design.
Cousteau eventually became a strong conservationist and used his prominent presence to advocate for the environment. In 1985, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan awarded Cousteau the Medal of Freedom in recognition of his efforts to raise awareness of environmental destruction.
Subsequent advancements in gear and gas mixtures, such as adding helium to air, have allowed divers worldwide to explore beneath the surface without holding their breath. But along with this freedom came many diving mishaps. Some proved fatal. Divers didn’t know much about the effects that breathing various gases at depth had on the human body. As a result, many divers who went too deep or stayed at a depth too long suffered from decompression sickness, commonly called “the bends” for the contorted shape of afflicted divers.
To prevent the bends, engineers invented submersible dive computers with algorithms designed to signal divers when it was time to return to the surface and whether any decompression stops were necessary. These “deco stops” were calculated to allow the diver’s body time at various depths during the ascent to eliminate excess nitrogen built up in the diver’s tissues during the dive and thus eliminate the onset of the bends.
The problem was that decompression theory was in its infancy at the time, and the deco stops didn’t always work. Adverse outcomes ranged from mild cases of skin irritation to full-on decompression sickness requiring emergency medical treatment. Divers have died from severe cases of the bends. Although significant advancement in technology and decompression theory has been made, divers today are taught to dive conservatively.
What does the future hold? Without question scuba equipment will continue to evolve. Divers constantly seek to explore deeper in the open ocean and lakes worldwide, venture further back into underwater caves, and extend each dive. A practical limit applies to what divers using the standard recreational scuba rig invented by Cousteau and Gagnon can accomplish.
Many divers use rebreathers to recycle their expired air, thus allowing them much longer dives. Conceptually the same technology used by NASA to send astronauts into space, rebreathers are now manufactured by a handful of companies and are becoming more common on dive boats worldwide. Perhaps someone in the future writing an article about the history of scuba diving may briefly mention Cousteau and Gagnon and use the advent of rebreathers as their starting point.
Lisa believes that in the future, the museum will still have its core exhibits featuring knight helmets and their offspring, the commercial diving helmet, as well as early scuba equipment. However, Lisa says that the museum will extend those exhibits to include advancements in technology. “What we’re doing now is going to be history!” she says.
It’s an exciting time to be a scuba diver. The equipment is very reliable, countless places around the world cater to divers, and more people are enjoying the underwater world than ever before. We owe an awful lot to the diving pioneers who were brave enough to don a helmet in the 1800s or strap on a bottle of compressed air almost 100 years ago. Think about these pioneers, “with every breath.”
Jamie Walker is a PADI master scuba diver trainer with a focus on teaching advanced diving skills and underwater photography. A native of Columbia, Jamie has been a certified diver since 1977 and is currently working on a project entitled “Under 5 Oceans,” a collection of stories and photos about diving each of the world’s five oceans.