Jul 28, 2008

Diver Down

(And no, I'm not referring to the Van Halen album by the same name, nor the vaguely similar "OU812." No, I'm talking scuba here. Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Frogmen (and frogwomen.)

(Caveat--photos are BIG. If you're on dial-up or low resolution montioring you might want to skip opening them and just open the Flickr link at the end, where these and more photos will be.)

Florida is the land of swimmers and beaches and scuba divers. Everyone in Florida is required to know how to swim by the age of three, snorkel by five and be a Dive Master rated scuba person by the age of twelve. My brother in law is no exception, even though he lives in Louisiana.

I didn't realise this year that a good portion of my trip to Florida would include my wife's brother and sister and his training to get his scuba certification, nor that we'd spend a lot of that time toting heavy (and often wet) equipment back and forth from my father-in-law's house to the dive shop, any number of bays or the very cool Vortex Spring, in Ponce de Leon, Florida. I kid you not. Named thus because said Spaniard thought for certain what he'd found was the Fountain of Youth.

It's damn close.

In a nutshell, it's a 65+ foot deep funnel that houses a very cold natural spring at the bottom. The spring forms a pool and a creek, and houses some of the most incredibly clear, incredibly cold water you've felt. Since there's a neat cave at the bottom and the water is perfectly clear all the time and there's no boat traffic (unlike the entire rest of the state of Florida) it's a perfect place for scuba diver trainees to go, and they do. In droves. This is why we were there with said brother-in-law and said trunkfull of mildly damp scuba equipment.

So, one hot morning found all of us sitting around with about a thousand other scuba wannabes, all of us hanging around waiting for their chance in the water with dive buddies and instructors and etc. Now picture this: the grounds around the pool are literally standing-room only with divers in various states of neoprene undress. Every type and style and colour of person, acres and acres of black neoprene, colourful flippers, aluminum air tanks...in short, millions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art personal underwater apparatus. Everywhere you looked someone was either zipping into their suit or hanging instruments off their buoyancy control vests or otherwise either preparing their ultra-modern equipment or taking it off. Three wharves, each divided in half - 'enter' and 'exit' to expedite the flow of divers - and they stay full of lines of people.

Me, I was mildly bored. Watching a diver is like watching paint dry--they're on the surface a few minutes, they make the "dive" gesture to their buddy, and they're gone in a swirl of bubbles. Hours pass, then they return soaking wet. Not a lot of spectator sport involved there, even when the water is so clear you can see them some fifteen feet deep.

Little did I know that was all to change.

Three or so hours had passed and we were waiting for our family member to get his second opportunity in the water. Out of the blue (and the heat) a brand new Ford truck comes trolling along the green grass, brushing neoprene people to each side. It pulls up to the center dock and several guys jump out and start bustling around in a rather business-like manner. Out comes a huge ice chest. A huge figure-8 loop of black hose. Six gleaming aluminum air tanks. Tool chests. And then the miraculous. Three canvas and rubber suits.

Right then it started getting positively medieval.

Next out of the truck came a somewhat tarnished brass diving helmet. A 1945 Mark V Model 1 diving helmet to be exact. The same thing the Navy used to use toward the end of WWII.

Then the sign came out--for $150 dollars you could wear this antique suit and go diving, and they already had one taker. A BIG boy, my size or larger. Three men started bustling around him in the same way that I can only imagine a knight's squires would have done. He stripped to a Speedo and slipped both legs into one of the canvas suits and immediately started sweating. That was the end of the easy part. The rest was a downright struggle.

They put dishwashing soap on his knuckles so he could force his hands through the rubber-capped wrists of the suit, which he had to do one at a time--no room in the suit to simply shrug it on like a sports coat. Once that was completed he sat on the lid of the ice chest (that had contained the boots, the weight belt and the three suits) and the squires really went to work. They had to literally do all his dressing for him, because it was impossible for him to reach. I watched the boots go on and get laced up, the squire using military-precise movements to secure the loose ends of the laces under leather straps designed for the purpose, his each action designed to prevent damage to this unrepairable antique.

Then a metal shoulder plate with a series of huge brass bolts and a high neck with threads at the top was settled onto his shoulders and the rubber impregnated neck of the suit was forced around and over those bolts. A high collar of the canvas material was pulled up against his neck, and over the rubber gasket of the suit went long strips of brass, washers of a sort. The squires were sweating in the noon heat but the knight was pouring water.

The biggest of the squires got out a brass wrench and started attaching nuts to the bolts, pressing the rubber and brass into a water-tight seam. The surreal nature of the scene was made even more apparent by the fact that there were literally hundreds of people clad in the very latest diving gear watching this man with a mix of envy and curiosity and a sort of dread in their eyes. Some sixty years ago THIS was state of the art protection, allowing a human to breathe and function under water. These modern divers were dressing and undressing themselves with a minimum of outside assistance while this promethean figure required three helpers.

The squires went on with their tasks. The massive bowl-like helmet was lowered onto the collar and screwed into place. A huge brass fitting attached to the thick air-hose was screwed on and a wrench was taken to it, to ensure a tight fit. The little round porthole window in the front of the helmet was left open to give the diver some much-needed air. I can't imagine how hot it must have been in there.

When it was all said and done the owner of this miraculous piece of engineering shouted into the radio: "Diver can you hear me?" A tinny voice responded from the huge radio box, and the owner shouted for more volume from the diver. Finally the right balance was struck, the diver was instructed on how to control the flow of air inside his helmet (finally mercifully turned on) and he stood up with help from two of the squires. He simply couldn't do it alone.

I know it's laughable but hearing those lead and brass boots tramping slowly along that wooden wharf made chills run up my spine. I'd watched this creature be born, and now it was moving with a slow, eerie grace, it's footsteps so heavy they literally made the entire wharf vibrate. Slowly he was lead into the cold water, bubbles erupting from the down-turned spout on the back of his helmet, and the water closed over him, the black airhose trailing out like an umbilical cord.

I don't think I've ever been so in awe of a thing. The sheer magnitude of what was going on struck me--a man was under the water there, walking around and breathing and talking to the people on the surface. He was peering at the aquatic world from out a tiny brass porthole that had to be bolted into place. His hands no doubt were chilled by the water they were immersed in, the canvas material little protection against the biting cold of this natural spring. But, he was alive underneath the water. No amount of cutting-edge plastic flippers and neoprene suits and polycarbonate goggles could bring the fact home to me quite like this strange figure cut out of 1945 and placed carefully in 2008.

The diver didn't stay down long. I'd walked up to the restroom for a minute and by the time I'd gotten back he was already out again and being unsuited, but I'd seen his birth, I'd no need to see his death. I think the experience would have been lessened if I'd watched this inhuman creature be shucked, skinned and peeled back to reveal some guy with his black Speedo and his wallet buying him a rare experience.

No, I'd had my vision, my moment. For just a few sweet short minutes I was there with him, breathing in metallic-smelling air, feeling the cold water press the canvas snug against my chest and limbs. For just a moment there I knew what a fragile barrier there was between myself and everything else, and that thought both chilled and reassured me.

The complete photo set can be seen at my Flickr collection page.


Jay said...

That suit just seems claustrophobic to me. I'd wonder how many people had previously died in it.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Oh, there you are!

Nicely written, except for having to picture a large man in a speedo...

Clowncar said...

Wow, that's right outta Jules Verne.

I'm taking a wild guess you're a big fan of Jules Vere.

And how cool that you were bored outta your skull and looked up to see such a weird contraption. Not only do you find the surreal in everyday life, but sometimes it seems to actively seek you out!

Jean said...

Tarpon Springs (west coast of Fla) is/has been known for its sponge diving. They have sponge boats that tourists can go out on and watch a diver rig up in the same type of suit before they go in the water and come back with sponges.
Biggest difference... the diver is about 90 years old. Very, very cool. And, the town was founded by Greeks, so the restaurants are awesome.

One last note: Ponce Inlet is about TEN miles south of me!!!

The final last note: This was beautifully written. Wonderful.

meno said...

That helmet is a work of art. Not enough to get me to suit up in it, but beautiful none-the-less.

Batgirl said...

This is why I'm glad you're back. Thanks for posting.

Irrelephant said...

Jay, the owner didn't have any posthumous information to hand out, sooo... *g* I think part of that claustrophobia in this case comes from the fact that people in the 40's were a lot smaller than we are. This guy was 6' 3" and he filled that suit. I've seen the cockpits (heh) of WWII aircraft and they're tiny, too, sized to much smaller people.

Still and all, that _is_ a pretty small helmet when you go sticking it on your skull. *G*

Hi, Joan! Yup, here I be. Took a short vacation (this time physically) but I'm back and stranger than ever. *s* As for the Speedo, I figured if I had to endure it for the sake of the photos and the experience then you guys had to have a dose of it, too. I know it's nasty but it'll help. Not sure WHAT it'll help, but that's what Mom always said when she gave me medicine.

Clowncar, I've always loved the idea of going to sea in a Victorian sitting room, oddly enough! *lol* I'm starting to wonder, myself. I think it's not so much that it seeks me out but that I've geared myself to watch for it, and to make the most of it when I DO see it.

It was, honestly, what a Christian might call "a godsend," letting me see such a thing.

Jean, I had no idea I'd be that close! Granted we'd had to drive an hour from Crestview, and afterwards the chances of me veering the car off it's homeward course might have earned me a lynching...

You realise that 90 year old sponge diver might well have stolen that suit from his Navy days! I tell you, watching that archaic thing work so beautifully, it really made me smile way down inside.

meno, it's funny because you can find replica diving helmets just like that in every shop and store in Florida, it seems. They bear a $2000 price tag, usually. To see the real thing, WORKING? That was worth more than any carefully reproduced bit of statuary.

And honestly? Had I the $150 to spend (snort) I'd have been next in line.

Thank you, BG! It's good to be here again. I've got more than a few stories saved up; I'm trying to give them the careful attention they (and you guys, my loving and loyal readers) deserve.

Scott from Oregon said...

My brother and I used to make weird helmet contraptions and try and spear bass in the florida canals when I was in the seventh grade.

We would steal the hoses off our vacuum cleaners and get in a bit of trouble from pops' new wife...

Nancy Dancehall said...

Don't you love it when that happens? Keep looking out for the odd and more will come your way.

That helmet is a thing of beauty.

And you went to the beach? *stamping foot* Jealous!!!

hee! My WV begins with wtf...

Mona Buonanotte said...

I love those old diving helmets! Although they do remind me of a bad guy on an episode of Scooby Doo.

Irrelephant said...

Scott, I'm surprised you survived to tell the tale!

Nancy, I think that's become my super power--the ability to spot surreal things. *lol* I could do worse, I guess. That helmet...gods. When the handler first pulled it out of it's box I nearly wet myself.

And yes, we did, but the Gulf was so rough and so full of jellyfish that it was pretty much inadvisable to go in the water. Vortex Spring didn't really have a beach, more like lots of green grass and some wharves, but close enough I guess. *s*

Mona, I'd never gotten to see one up close and personal. They are such works of art. Something so workaday, and yet almost Victorian in it's design. I wish things were still made like that.

Mike said...

I'm in the pictures of that dive that is presented here. The large man in the picture is actually a US Navy diver stationed in Panama City, FL.

Diving the MK V Helmet is an absolute joy. Very safe if you pay attention to the procedures required which anyone who listens can accomplish. The helmet is not a cramped space as one might think. The only draw back is the diver doesn't have the freedom of motion that a scuba diver has.

Anonymous said...

It's been about 20 years since I was in that exact suit. The same thing happened - truck pulls up, sign comes out, and friends came up with the money for me to do it. I still long to have a Mark V helmet in my living room.

My main regret is that I didn't take better pictures. Maybe I'll go do it again sometime.

Thanks for sharing and bring back some great memories.