Early Origins of American Diving
Diving in America may date as far back as 4,000 years or more. Many historians and scientists hypothesize that the Central Coast’s indigenous Chumash people used free diving as a means of collecting food from the ocean.
Past studies of ancient Chumash burial sites reveal that some of these early people had extra bone growth in their auditory canals, suggesting a medical condition resulting from prolonged exposure to cold water. People today often refer to this condition as surfer’s ear or diver’s ear, as cold-water surfers and divers have a greater tendency of experiencing this ailment due to the frequency of their activities in the water.
Chumash Maritime Tradition
Did the early Chumash free dive for abalone and other marine foods off our coasts? Modern Chumash assert that free diving for abalone has been a part of their maritime heritage until the time of the abalone ban in the 1990s. In this area, abalones were located sub-tidally, most likely requiring them to be collected underwater by a diver.
US Diving from the 20th Century to Today
Traditional brass and copper diving helmets, built by American manufacturers in the 19th century, became the mainstay of the commercial diving industry and are still commonly used and collected by commercial divers and enthusiasts around the world.
The Advent of Mixed-Gas Diving
In the mid-1920s, the U.S. Navy started to experiment with breathing gases other than regular air. These brave individuals were the first pioneers to use helium gas as a breathing mixture for diving, as helium extends the diver’s ability to remain underwater for long periods of time. Helium diving would later come to play a major role in the growth and development of offshore oil exploration with the Santa Barbara ‘Helium Rush’.
By the 1960s, as oilfield diving was pushing the limits of depth and time underwater, the U.S. Navy’s SEALAB program pioneered saturation diving. Saturation diving allows divers to live in a submerged and pressurized underwater habitat for many days at a time. The SEALAB program was begun for research, and primary operations were conducted in the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.
Building America Underwater
As the infrastructure of America grew during the late 1800s, the diver’s trade took on greater tasks. Divers became increasingly more important in the building of bridges, dams, and harbors. Some of these early construction divers specialized in salvage or wrecking operations.
To tackle these new underwater challenges, several companies were formed on the East Coast. The New York company of Merritt-Chapman & Scott became the nationally dominant force in construction diving. Initially formed in the late 1800s, their West Coast operations included the construction of the Santa Barbara harbor in 1929.
Diving into the Commercial Fisheries
In Santa Barbara, the Chumash first fished for abalone, prying the shells off rocks using whale bones. When the Chinese arrived, they walked the beaches in search of abalone, then dried and shipped them back to China. But the anti-Chinese sentiments led to the banning of those practices. In the late 1800s, Japanese divers popularized West Coast abalone diving using compressed air, but during WWII their operations suffered heavily due to large-scale Japanese internment. In time, Caucasian divers—many from the U.S. Navy’s diving ranks—repopulated the formerly dominant Japanese abalone industry.
In the 1950s, two-thirds of the world’s abalone came from Santa Barbara. In the 1960s, Ron Radon came to Santa Barbara, and his Radon boats were designed for abalone fishing. This type of boat is still the workhorse of many Santa Barbara fisherman today, particularly the urchin and sea cucumber divers.
From Abalone to Oil
In the latter part of the 20th century, the local abalone diving industry went into rapid decline. This exodus from the industry is largely due to the over-fishing of abalone populations. Some commercial divers have changed fisheries, and now dive for sea urchins to supply Asian markets. Santa Barbara now supplies two-thirds of the world’s sea urchins, and they are highly prized. Urchin divers use the same Radon boats. Other abalone fishermen made the switch to oilfield diving.
Dan Wilson’s 400-Foot Dive
About 55 years ago, in a prelude to man’s successful quest to extract oil from the deep coastal waters off Santa Barbara, a group of locals developed revolutionary technology that, to this day, continues to define the field. (Hugh) Dan Wilson, an abalone diver, wanted to prove to oil companies that a mixture of helium and oxygen was a viable option commercially. Compressed air, which uses nitrogen, caused nitrogen narcosis when divers dove too deep. Heliox, a combination of helium and oxygen, did not cause narcosis, although it makes the body very cold.
Helium also allowed divers to go deeper into the ocean, thereby allowing oil companies to drill where crude is more abundant. Using compressed air, commercial divers could only reach around 200 feet deep.
On November 3, 1962, Wilson, using the converted Japanese abalone helmet that is now on display in SBMM, jumped into the Santa Barbara Channel and reached a depth of 400 feet off the east end of Santa Cruz Island, He used oxy-helium as a breathing gas, the first time it was used by a civilian commercial diver. The dive became a catalyst for the introduction of deep-mixed gases into the commercial diving industry, permitting expansion of domestic and international offshore oil development. Immediately following this dive, Dan Wilson, Lad Handelman, Whitey Stefens, and Ken Elmes formed their company, General Offshore Divers.
Commercial Diving Equipment Advances
Few are aware that Santa Barbara is seen worldwide as the birthplace of deep-water commercial diving. The Monterey Formation is one of the richest oil deposits in the world. But a major portion of it sits underneath the Santa Barbara Channel. Oil companies looking to take advantage of these oil reserves needed daring young men to go down to depths of more than 1,000 feet to drill and seal the wells. Nobody in the world had done work like that at those depths.
Pioneers in Santa Barbara developed the first commercial use of helium-oxygen (known as the Santa Barbara Helium Rush) and the first commercial lockout diving bell. Other inventions included lighter weight diving gear, innovations in diving helmets, and advanced breathing apparatuses.
By the mid-1960s, the search for offshore oil demanded lighter equipment that would enable divers to swim. In time, Santa Barbara and the Gulf of Mexico became the world centers of equipment innovation. Dan Wilson of General Offshore Divers built and launched the world’s first commercial diving lockout bell, Purisima, to support deep-diving operations. It is now displayed on the SBMM patio with an informational exhibit about it in the diving section of the Museum.
Kirby Morgan Diving Systems International
Santa Barbara abalone divers Bob Kirby and Bev Morgan collaborated to form the Kirby Morgan Corporation to build diving helmets and masks in support of domestic and international deep-water diving operations. Kirby Morgan Diving Systems International has achieved the distinction for setting the global standard in commercial and military diving technology. Many of their helmet designs are on display in the Museum.
The Kirby Morgan design shop is on Garden Street, and the main factory is in Santa Maria. To this day, this 50+ year old company provides two-thirds of the commercial helmets sold worldwide.
SBCC Diving Program
Santa Barbara City College established the world-renowned Marine Diving Technology AS degree program in 1968 to support the labor demand for marine technicians working above and below water in support of commercial diving operations. It is the only public diving program in the U.S.
Learn About Our Other Museum Exhibits
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum has several other fascinating exhibits, and there's something fun for everyone in the family. Come learn about 13,000 years of human history in the Santa Barbara Channel, including the Chumash Indians, deep sea divers, shipwrecks, commercial fishing, and so much more. We also have several contemporary exhibits about the evolution of surfing, oil spills, whales, and marine life. There are several fun and interactive exhibits and activities for kids too.