What Lurks Beneath the Surface: A Brief History of Modern-Day Scuba Diving

The modern-day SCUBA has eluded intrepid adventurers, eccentric inventors, and ambitious rulers for millennia. Throughout human history, those who dared take on the task crafted devices of various schemes and morphologies, some more outlandish than others. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the modern-day SCUBA started to take form. SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, and refers to the breathing device that allows humans to remain at extreme depths underwater for extended periods of time.

One of the appeals of diving certainly lies in the thought of escaping into a foreign realm that is largely inaccessible to others. In the act of diving, one communes with nature and the ancestral past of mankind. Humans have long articulated sentiments of sacred unity with the ocean. Jacques Yves Cousteau, the famous oceanographer who made pivotal contributions to the development of modern scuba diving, once said of society’s relationship to the ocean, “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one”. In fact, Cousteau’s quote mostly likely points out some truth. The fossil record is laden with evidence that life originated in the oceans. In light of these marine predecessors, it makes sense that the ratio of salt to fresh water in human blood is the same as that of the sea. When one considers the ocean as the likely backdrop for the origin of life, then scuba diving, which provides divers with a means of establishing a deeper connection to the ocean, by extension allows people to explore the very roots of life, evolution, and human history.

PIkaia, a primitive marine creature - an organism similar to pikaia was likely the common ancestor of all vertebrates.

William Beebe in British Guiana, 1917

The popularization of scuba diving after the 1930s allowed increasing numbers of Americans to directly experience these sentiments and develop an appreciation for the ocean. Divers became first-hand observers of life under the sea. The famous naturalist and explorer, William Beebe, developed an ardor for such underwater observations during his excursions to the Galapagos throughout the 1920s and 1930s. With a naturalist’s taxonomic fervor, he vividly documented a rich array of marine organisms. He chronicled the behaviors of albatrosses, moray eels, seahorses, barracudas, sharks, sea lions, penguins, and gobies, in addition to countless fantastical deep-sea creatures, in which his contemporaries hardly dared to believe. After one such dive to a depth of 2,200 feet, he wrote “I knew that I should never again look upon the stars without remembering their active, living counterparts swimming in that terrific pressure … many most delicate and fragile … amid this black, ice-cold water … It will remain forever the most vivid memory in life, solely because of the cosmic chill and isolation, the eternal and absolute darkness and the indescribable beauty of its inhabitants”.

Beebe’s accounts of his underwater exploits roused general excitement towards learning more about marine ecosystems. Rachel Carson wrote in The Sea Around Us that Beebe, who was also a friend of hers, had informed and inspired her own preoccupation with the ocean. Furthermore, first-hand narratives of underwater exploration helped propel the relatively new oceanic sciences into the public sphere. Oceanography did not emerge as an academic science until the late 1800s, with the publication of the first study of deep-sea fauna in 1862, and the reports of the H.M.S. Challenger expedition, which shuttled scientists around the world to conduct surveys of the world’s oceans between 1872 and 1876. Shortly thereafter, advances in diving created increased opportunities for scientists to directly observe the marine environment and its species. This higher rate of engagement with the world’s oceans mediated the growth of the marine sciences and piqued public curiosities about the sea.

While some divers such as Beebe chose to share their underwater adventures through their writing, others began to develop the art of underwater photography. In 1928, National Geographic published its first underwater color photograph – an image of a hogfish off the Florida Keys. This suddenly granted Americans a glimpse of the ocean floor and illuminated a previously unknown part of the Earth. As the development and popularization of modern-day scuba diving led to the dissemination of the underwater experience through both written accounts and photographs, the oceans grew increasingly tangible for the average American.

First underwater color photograph, taken by Dr. William Longley and National Geographic photographer Charles Martin in 1926

Young Cousteau, modeling an early version of the Aqua-Lung

In 1952, Jacques-Yves Cousteau released his “Aqua-Lung”, an early version of the modern-day scuba set. Its appearance on the American market coincided with the 1953 release of Cousteau’s best-selling The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure, a book that led readers along the journey of inventing the Aqua-Lung, and communicated the thrills of embarking on underwater escapades with its prototypes. Cousteau included striking descriptions of the sea life he encountered, as well as his own commentary on the destruction of coral reefs and the unnecessary killing of wildlife. It included 64 pages of photographs, 16 pages of which were in color and supplied by National Geographic. Three years later, Cousteau released a documentary of the same name, which used cutting-edge advances in underwater cinematography to exhibit the depths of several oceans around the world.

Often considered the father of modern scuba diving, Cousteau incited awe and admiration for the oceans in people around the world. Cousteau’s work in making the oceans accessible to the public through his contributions to the sport of diving and the sharing of his own diving experiences also engendered increased concerns about marine conservation, particularly as the environmental movement gained momentum during the 1960s. Although these marine conservation efforts were not realized in the sphere of politics until 1972, with the passage of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, Cousteau’s legacies and the rise of modern scuba diving certainly opened the door for the development of the marine conservation movement. In fact, after Cousteau’s death in 1997, Ted Turner, the creator of the TV series Captain Planet and the Planeteers postulated, “I think Captain Cousteau might be the father of the environmental movement”.

Cousteau’s market release of the Aqua-Lung and the general broadcasting of ocean imagery through underwater narratives, photographs, and films caused a surge in recreational diving participation in the United States. Large diving organizations, such as the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) emerged in the 1960s to set safety standards and provide the organizational framework to cater to the burgeoning mainstream interest in recreational diving. Divers often traveled to different spots around the world, creating an international diving community that transcended national boundaries.

These stories suggest that the invention of the modern-day SCUBA unit has provided people with a means of communing with the world’s oceans, captivated the public with tales of undersea exploration, and facilitated the rise of oceanic sciences and marine conservation. Scuba diving has also allowed divers to realize their desires to connect with a more pristine and primordial wilderness. The ocean’s association with the origin of life reminds humans that they share a common ancestor and also evokes a time when humans did not yet dominate the natural world or divide it into territories. Its boundless biodiversity humbles, inspires, and serves as a reminder that the Earth contains far more than the human imagination can conjure up. Today, scuba diving enthusiasts often think of themselves as stewards of the seas, and countless divers devote themselves to the ocean professionally, as marine biologists, oceanographers, and underwater photographers.

HOWEVER …

Although the creation of modern-day scuba diving has fostered a more intimate and reverent relationship between man and the ocean, its development was largely driven by human impulses to exploit natural resources for personal gain and national expansion. In fact, advances in scuba diving often rose out of the very human activities that large numbers of present-day divers seek to combat. While today, diving informs those who advocate for marine conservation and helps create an international community that defies national boundaries, its history is lined with tales about destruction and the manipulation of the seas, often to further one country’s goals of dominance over another.

The history of diving in the Americas extends far back, before the arrival of Europeans. Native Americans used it as a basic fishing strategy, employing nets, spears, and their bare hands. To prolong their abilities to stay underwater, they often breathed through reeds that penetrated the water’s surface. Among the Mayans’ nature deities ranked a diving god, a fresco of which can be found today in the Temple of the Diving God in Yucatan, Mexico. When Spaniards first arrived at Tierra del Fuego off the southernmost tip of South America, they found tribes of Yahgan Indians whose women expertly navigated the depths of 42ºF waters to forage for clams, crabs, and other seafood. Then, during their third voyage to the New World in 1498, Columbus and his men observed a Carib Indian woman wearing a string of pearls around her neck. Upon hearing Columbus’s reports of the oyster beds that proliferated in the region, the king of Spain ordered the immediate establishment of pearl fisheries on the islands off the coast of Venezuela.

Image depicting early pearl fishing in the Caribbean

In the centuries that followed, the Caribbean pearl fisheries represented a significant portion of the wealth that Spain extracted from the New World, providing the third largest source of income after gold and silver. The pearl trade filled Spain’s treasure reserves and contributed to Spain’s primacy during the 15th to 17th centuries. To meet the high European demand for pearls, Spanish settlers enslaved the local divers to collect oysters. Before long, they had depleted the supply of local divers in the islands near Venezuela by introducing new diseases and forcing pearl fishers to dive as many as 16 hours a day. They went on to enslave nearly all of the Lucayan Indians in the Bahamas, who were widely reputed to be the best divers in the New World. By 1513, all of the Lucayan Indians had perished from slavery or disease.

After the Spaniards discovered and crossed the Isthmus of Panama, they discovered opulent oyster beds around the islands south of Panama City that came to be known as the Pearl Islands. By 1540, the new pearl fishery established in this region approached the size of the ones off the coast of Venezuela. The growth of this fishery followed the pattern of those that preceded it – not long after its establishment, all of the American Indian divers that once swam through its waters had vanished. In the 1550s, the Spaniards began importing Africans to make up for their exhaustion of local divers and to maintain their lucrative pearl trade. These divers worked for only a few years each before having to retire due to disease and fatigue.

Spanish flotas

Soon, Spaniards found new ways to capitalize on the skills of divers outside of the pearl industry. In the mid-16th century, mounting dangers of piracy forced the Spaniards to sail their ships across the Atlantic in fleets called flotas. Enslaved divers from the New World or Africa conducted underwater inspections and ship repairs for these flotas, providing the crucial service of preventing ships from losing their valuable cargo. Divers also performed underwater customs duty for Spain by identifying cargo that smugglers had attached to the undersides of their ships to evade customs inspections, or by recovering treasure hoards that these smugglers had thrown overboard.

Ultimately, the arrival of European settlers in the New World transformed diving from a means of attaining food for subsistence to a means of amassing stores of treasure for the advancement of European countries, particularly Spain. This also represented a shift in how people used the ocean’s resources. Whereas Native Americans used diving to obtain the food that they needed immediately, Europeans used it to create industries, such as the pearl trade, based on supply and demand. This required that they harvest surplus amounts of pearls to maximize their profit. In this way, diving enabled countries such as Spain to increase their power and wealth by harvesting underwater resources from the New World, often at unsustainable rates.

The idea of using diving to achieve national power carried on into the next several centuries. In the 16th century, the Venetian government commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to design an underwater breathing device for its war against Turkey. When he submitted a snorkel design, the Senate rejected it because the top of the tube would jut out from the water’s surface and hence take away the diver’s element of surprise. Although he did end up creating the plans for a self-contained breathing device, Leonardo never tested or showed anyone his blueprints. In his memoirs, he states, “I do not publish or divulge [my method of remaining under water] by reason of the evil nature of man, who would use these as a means of murder at the bottom of the sea, by breaking the bottoms of ships and shrinking them altogether with the men in them”. Indeed, over the next several hundred years, the development of modern-day scuba diving occurred largely in the arena of military endeavors.

For the United States, World War II marked a shift towards the prioritization of developing underwater war techniques. Prior to the war, Great Britain and Italy were the first nations to embrace and prioritize the development of undersea technologies and warfare strategies. They employed frogmen, who dived towards enemy ships and launched torpedoes underwater. In 1943, the U.S. Navy attempted to launch an attack on Tarawa in the Pacific. However, because it had used only aerial surveillance that could not effectively gauge the depth of the water surrounding the island, the Navy was not prepared to confront the shallow coral reefs that created a natural blockade against its landing craft. In the tragic battle that ensued, more than 1000 Marines died and another 3000 received injuries.

Frogmen gathered on a Wonsan beach during the Korean War, 1950

In response to this fiasco, the Navy started to earnestly integrate divers into its war tactics. Thus, it created “underwater demolition teams” of divers that acted as scouts, cleared enemy-made underwater obstacles, located adversary gun emplacements, cleared mines, and opened passages for U.S. troops. These techniques often included blasting apart coral reefs to create channels wide enough for U.S. war vessels. Ultimately, frogmen provided invaluable services during World War II by entering high-risk situations and facilitating invasions in the Pacific. In later wars, such as the Korean War, they contributed through other heroic capacities including reconnaissance, demolition of enemy structures, recovery of sunken vessels, and rescuing downed pilots.

Frogmen movie poster

After the war, stories of the frogmen’s triumphs and exploits spread throughout America. In 1951, the release of the hit Hollywood film Frogmen depicted the valiant escapades of UDT men during the war. Between 1958 and 1961, a television series called Sea Hunt chronicled the adventures of an ex-frogman turned diver-cowboy. These depictions of frogmen in the media equated divers with heroes, and captivated the American public. These portrayals undoubtedly helped cause the steep rise in public interest towards recreational diving that occurred during this time.

Overall, a look at the history of diving reveals that its progress was shaped by nations’ demands for resources and novel war strategies, both of which helped elevate countries’ statuses at the expense of the world’s oceans. Throughout diving history, inventors have catered to military needs, and navies are often the first testers of newly developed diving equipment. The form of the modern-day scuba set is one that follows military function, in that it allows for the maximal mobility, safety, underwater time, and concealment of a Navy diver. Lastly, the popularity of frogmen after World War II contributed to a national propagation of recreational diving.

Yet, while modern-day scuba diving may have arisen out of the need for countries to plunder the oceans or defeat their enemies, it has also allowed for individuals to commune with the oceans on a personal, and often spiritual, level. Tales of the ocean’s immense, haunting beauty and its chimerical inhabitants have held audiences spellbound since the beginning of mankind. Increasing the opportunities for people to interact directly with the world’s oceans might awaken greater appreciation of the oceans and the acknowledgement of the need to protect them.

Certainly, the extraction of resources from the ocean has not stopped today. People continue to harvest commodities such as coral, pearls, and sponges at unsustainable rates. Overfishing threatens to alter the balance of wildlife in the seas, while offshore drilling and the extraction of other mineral deposits loom as an ever-greater concerns for the future. However, one may also hope that those divers around the world who have witnessed the irreproducible splendors of the underwater world will fight for the oceans through their words, images, politics, and contributions to science, as those before them have done in the past. Beebe wrote after his first dive in the Galapagos, “I knew that I had added thousands upon thousands of miles to my possible joy of earthly life… Here miracles become marvels, and marvels recurring wonders”. Surely, these are thousands upon thousands on unearthly joy that would be tragic to do without.

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2 thoughts on “What Lurks Beneath the Surface: A Brief History of Modern-Day Scuba Diving

  1. Man, you sure know how to research. I find it interesting how much writing about science makes you dive into history, and I was never much for history until scientific achievements gave me a contextual structure to work with. Good job on this post!

    • Thanks! I definitely think science is a kind of history in itself. In order to build off existing knowledge and create new ideas, we must travel backwards to understand the roots of those ideas. As I learn more science, I naturally wonder about where that knowledge came from – who were its pioneers, how did theories develop, etc?

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