Death of an Aquanaut


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(page 1 of 2)

Editor’s note: During the 1960s, NASA was racing to meet former President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At the same time, another team of daring explorers was racing in the opposite direction with a plan to conquer inner space. These explorers, dubbed aquanauts, took part in the project known as Sealab. The goal: to explore the depths of the oceans and conquer the last of the planet’s uncharted frontiers.

In 1969, Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong became a national hero as the first man to set foot on the moon. That same year, the third of the Sealab adventures—now under the complete control of the U.S. Navy—was under way in San Diego. But unlike the space program, Sealab would make heroes of no one. Hampered by unrealistic timetables and public relations goals, and beset by dangerous bureaucratic bungling and questionable safety practices by the Navy, the Sealab project was about to suffer an ignominious end.

Here, in a two-part series excerpted from his book Target: The Awa Maru (written with Mary Heglar), San Diego’s Bill Bunton, one of the pioneering aquanauts, tells the story of that end. And for the first time, he squarely places the blame for aquanaut Berry Cannon’s death—and the death of Sealab—on the Navy’s insufficient preparation, unrealistic goals and inadequate safety measures.


At 60 feet, Bill Bunton halted his descent and urinated. The warmth welled around his thighs until it was slowed just above the knees by the constriction of his wetsuit, then spread upward to envelop the rest of his body, up to his neck. Almost instantly he felt comfortable again. Regrettably, the charge would last only about five minutes before it cooled to the temperature of the surrounding water.

Bunton had expected the thermocline—the layer of cold water that separates the oxygen-rich surface water from the heavier bottom strata—but the sudden temperature drop always shocked nonetheless. As was his custom when anticipating the coldness, an hour prior to starting his dive he had gulped down nearly a full quart of water. Now, wanting to ration what was left in his bladder, he forced himself to stop the flow. From his many years of experience and close to 2,000 dives, he knew he would later need all the warmth he could get.

Above him on the surface where the Berkone, the support barge for Sealab II, gently rocked in her five-point mooring, the water temperature was 70 degrees. The air on this gorgeous late-summer day was 74 degrees. On the beaches of La Jolla, a mile and a half from the barge, crowded the brown bodies and sun-bleached hair that signified Southern California.

August sun warmed the ocean water to a considerable depth. During the first 60 feet of his dive, Bunton had hardly noticed any change in the temperature, maybe 3 degrees. Then came the thermocline, and within a few feet the temperature dropped another 12 degrees to about 55, Bunton guessed. Cold. But not as cold as it would be at the bottom. At 205 feet, the Pacific Ocean, here on the fringe of the continental shelf, was an almost constant 48 to 50 degrees.

He peered into the depths, following the 2-inch nylon line that guided his descent. The pale thread undulating in the light current disappeared some 8 feet below him. He pointed his flashlight straight down, but it did little to improve visibility. Its focused beam was diffused and blunted by a murky cloud of microorganisms, millions of living particles suspended in the water, floating passively with the current and with no apparent purpose other than to sustain other, slightly larger particles.

He felt a tug on his tether. He looked up to the shadowy figure of his diving buddy, Ricky Grigg, 8 feet above him. The tug was a question, a wordless conveyance that had begun with the very first hard-hat divers nearly a century earlier. In that mode of diving, signals had been conveyed through the air hose–cum–lifeline that connected the diver to the surface. The single tug meant “Everything all right?” As an answering tug, it meant “Yes” or “Okay.” Because they were now within sight of each other, Bunton merely gave Grigg an exaggerated nod of his head in acknowledgment.

Bunton was encumbered by a bulky camera attached to a quick-release device on his weight belt. With the guideline sliding loosely through his hand, he continued slowly downward. If he’d been diving on his own, he would’ve held a 10-pound sandbag and dropped like a rock, clearing his ears in one continuous, partially suppressed exhalation to equalize the ever-increasing water pressure.

But Sealab was a project run by the United States Navy, under its control and monitored according to strict regulations. Bunton wasn’t about to argue with their rules even if it meant less working time on the bottom or more decompression time if he overstayed the planned 20-minute dive. This was the opportunity for which he had worked, trained and disciplined himself for five years. Before being chosen as an aquanaut, Bunton’s workplace had been at the Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego. He was still employed there, but on temporary duty to Sealab. At NEL he’d been a full-time experimental test mechanic-diver and during his last three years was an underwater photographer as well.

There had been hundreds of qualified applicants for the Sealab wetsuit Bunton was now wearing. He was one of only 10 civilian divers chosen, and he wasn’t about to jeopardize everything now for the sake of an expedient sandbag. It was the Navy’s show. They had a right to run things their way. For the most part—as far as safety was concerned—it was also Bunton’s way. There were other matters, however, which...

A large shape moved below him, vanishing into the gloom as quickly as it had appeared. Shark! he thought, and his left hand clamped around the descending line. Sharks hadn’t been a problem during the preparations for Sealab II. A few dorsal fins had been spotted on the surface, and once or twice a diver had seen one below. But they’d never come very close. That meant nothing, though; from time immemorial, sharks were always frighteningly unpredictable.

The name Pamperin flashed into Bunton’s mind, and with it a nightmarish picture. Robert Pamperin—engineer and former lifeguard—was a skin diver who’d been attacked in 1959 only a mile shoreward from this very spot. Bunton seldom dived along the San Diego coast without the vivid remembrance of the newspaper accounts of the incident.

It had been witnessed by hundreds of helpless onlookers from the beach. The shark was so big, the stories said, that when it rose from the water, half of Pamperin’s body was stuffed down its throat. Only the upper torso, the flailing arms and the screaming head protruded from the great jaws. Witnesses had estimated the length of the shark—either a tiger or a great white—to be more than 20 feet.

Seconds now passed with interminable slowness. At 90 feet, the darkness below Bunton began to lighten as though he were ascending from the depths and rising toward the sunlight, rather than descending deeper. Good: The floodlamps were working.

Below glowed the white shape of the Sealab cylinder. Like an elongated spider, the 57-foot-long steel tube, 12 feet in diameter, squatted on the ocean floor on eight short legs. It was situated, slightly tilted, just 60-some feet from the rim of the Scripps Submarine Canyon, whose near-vertical walls dropped to a depth of 700 feet.

A very dangerous location, and certainly not much of a home for human beings, Bunton thought. Yet for the next 45 days, men would be living within this tomblike habitat, breathing, working, eating and sleeping just as though they were on the surface. Bill Bunton would be one of them: United States aquanauts.

Underwater pioneers of the new frontier, that’s what the news media called them. And the reporters were right. This was a new frontier. Until just the last few years, man’s primary goal had always been upward.

Ironically, human ability to explore the deep ocean was still measured in the low hundreds of feet. Any depths beyond that were considered extremely hazardous and seldom attempted except as simulated in topside experimental diving chambers.

All that was about to change. Sealab I had successfully based four aquanauts for 11 days at 193 feet off Bermuda. Now, down there below Bunton at 205 feet, Sealab II awaited the United States’ deepest sustained venture yet into “inner space.” Three 10-man teams would spend 15 days each on the seafloor. Succeed here, and our nation’s most significant step to date in the exploration of the oceans would have begun. Already there were plans for another Sealab at a much greater depth; the Navy was talking about 450—maybe even 600 feet. If humans could live and work at that depth, almost the entire continental shelf—hundreds of thousands of square miles—could be conquered.

Bunton pushed his thoughts aside. First things first. This was Sealab II. And it was up to him as much as any of the other aquanauts to make it work. In the floodlights, Bunton could clearly see the entire length of the cylinder. One end was lit more brightly than the other. This was where a wire mesh cage 8 feet long and 6 feet wide and high protected the underside entrance to the habitat. The aquanauts called it the shark cage, but technically it was the anti-shark cage.

Bunton’s gloved fingers hooked into its steel mesh. With a kick, he flipped from head-first to feet-first, and his fins found the silt bottom. Trying not to hurry, yet knowing the importance of each minute, he unlatched the gate, entered and held it open. As soon as Grigg followed him through, Bunton pulled the gate shut and looked around.

He and Grigg waited a few minutes for visibility to return. He detached the 18-inch safety line that secured the burdensome camera to his belt and gently placed it on the bottom, careful not to disturb the sediment any more than necessary.

Bunton checked his watch—1405, or 2:05 p.m. The descent had taken five minutes, one more than it should have because of his concern over the shark. If it had been a shark. Probably a seal, Bunton told himself.

Still, he was glad the Navy had built the shark cage. The entrance to the habitat was no more than a round hatch 4 feet in diameter in the belly of Sealab and less than 5 feet off the ocean floor. There was little danger of water coming into Sealab because the internal gas mixture for breathing was pressurized at just over 7 atmospheres absolute, equaling the ambient water depth of 205 feet. The real danger lay in the fact that a diver leaving the habitat was blind until his head had followed his feet out of the hatch. Without the cage to protect the entrance, one could never know what he was stepping on below. It could be a shark or a razor-toothed eel or—more likely in this area at this depth—a venomous scorpionfish.

Bunton flicked on the power to the strobe light and rechecked the aperture and shutter-speed settings. Only a few minutes more and The Man would be here. The pictures would have to be good. Good enough for the front pages, so that the senators and congressmen who’d authorized the Sealab funds so reluctantly could feel gratified that they’d made the right decision.

Grigg was pointing upward. Bunton followed the direction of his arm. The guideline, normally slack because of the allowance for the changing tides and surface swells, snapped taut. As they watched, it jerked—a sure sign that someone was hauling himself down hand over hand.

Four minutes later, Scott Carpenter, one of the original United States astronauts, the fifth American in space and the second to orbit the Earth, was unlatching the gate to the shark cage.

Carpenter waved to Bunton, who’d backed into the far corner of the cage, shutter and flash working rapidly. Time allowed only 10 exposures before Carpenter and his diving buddy, Gunner’s Mate First Class Wilbur Eaton, disappeared into the habitat. Everything went as rehearsed. The four bolts that secured the hatch cover came off smoothly. The two men removed their fins, ducked through the circular entrance and were gone.

The conquest of inner space had begun.

Bunton checked his watch again: 1420. They’d already used up 20 minutes of “bottom time”—the time elapsed from the moment he first entered the water until the moment he and Grigg were to begin their ascent.

With Carpenter and Eaton safely inside the habitat, Bunton’s job with Grigg was finished. They left the shark cage to face more than an hour of tedious decompression stops. At 80 feet, the roving bell—the apparatus that got them out of the water while they were undergoing the stops—was waiting for them. Bunton eased in and waited for Grigg to join him before taking out his mouthpiece. He inhaled deeply. The air had a fresh, warm taste. Pumped down by compressor from the Berkone, it was real air, not the cold, filtered helium-oxygen mixture that was in his Mark VI scuba tanks and was also the breathing medium inside the Sealab habitat.

Knowing how human voices sounded down below in the helium atmosphere of Sealab, Bunton wondered how Carpenter and Eaton would adjust. Though it would be difficult to understand each other at first, they’d have to adapt. Ten men couldn’t spend 24 hours a day with each other for 15 days without talking.

Correction, Bunton reminded himself. It was 15 days for nine men, but 30 days for Scott Carpenter. Carpenter was scheduled to remain in the habitat as leader of not only Team One but also Team Two. Bunton himself was to go down with Team Three for the final 15 days of the 45-day experiment.

The roving bell broke through the surface. Bunton and Grigg ducked out and swam the few yards to the side of the Berkone. Waiting to be helped aboard, Bunton noted the time: 1530 (3:30 p.m.). The ascent had taken 70 minutes, with decompression stops every 10 feet of the final 80 feet. It felt good to be on the surface again, freed from the constraints of the bell.

The Berkone’s fantail was almost deserted. A few crewmen, divemaster Dan Price and a couple of private contractors. Where had all the media gone? Ninety minutes ago, when Bunton and Grigg had gone down, there’d been more than 50 of them—newspaper reporters, TV people, magazine writers, photographers. Now there wasn’t a camera or notebook in sight.

Then Bunton remembered the communications van. That’s where they would be, of course. Carpenter and his nine-man team would all be down in the Sealab capsule by now, and they would be in verbal contact with the Berkone.

On his way to sick bay for a checkover, Bunton stopped by the communications trailer, a huge van that was not part of the ship but had been hoisted aboard the Berkone by crane. That’s where the media were now, packed in like sardines.

Something unintelligible came out of the loudspeaker, where the habitat phone had been hooked up. Carpenter’s voice, distorted into a Donald Duck effect by the helium atmosphere down in Sealab, continued to quack out of the loudspeakers.

Bunton moved on and began helping divemaster Price and Grigg stow the diving gear. Along sauntered Captain George Bond, who also served as medical officer.

Bunton greeted the man, and Grigg threw out an irreverent “Hi, Papa.”

To the aquanauts, Bond was “Papa Topside,” a term embodying both affection and respect. It was typical of Bond that he had taken the time, even during this crucial first hour of the Sealab II project, to check on his two divers. He always made a point of letting his men know that he was concerned. The aquanauts knew his solicitude was genuine.

Bond never asked anyone to do anything he hadn’t already done himself. Although past middle age and more than a little overweight, he had made several dives with Carpenter and Bunton to the ocean floor earlier in the year when they were searching for the best site for Sealab II. Because the helium-oxygen mixture hadn’t arrived from Panama City in time, the 205-foot dives had been made on compressed air. Bond had no business trying it. Air dives to that depth were not only demanding for even a young diver, they were extremely risky. Bond knew that. His men knew it too—and they appreciated his gesture.

Assured that Bunton and Grigg were suffering no ill effects from their 20 minutes on the bottom and subsequent decompression, Bond excused himself. Thank God for Papa Topside, Bunton thought. Though not officially designated project director, Bond was without a doubt the glue that held the Sealab diving teams—two officers, 16 enlisted men and 10 civilians—together.

To some of the Navy brass, civilian divers such as Grigg and Bunton were an unwelcome intrusion. They were open links in the chain of command, a nuisance that had to be tolerated at the moment, but which in time could surely be obviated.

Bunton had seen it happen before—the friction, the coexistence by sufferance, the gradual breakdown in communications that seemed to nag every serious project in which the military was forced to work with civilians, at least with civilians who were considered experts in their field. On some jobs, that might work. But Bunton hoped the guys responsible for charging his scuba tanks with a precise mixture of helium and oxygen were talking to each other.

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