Mysterious Island: Keller’s dive

0
336

The people of Catalina can rightfully boast about the role their Island has played in the development of at least two of the world’s most popular forms of ocean sports:  the Tuna Club brought us the revolutionary concept of sport fishing at the turn of the 20th Century and the Island’s crystal clear waters were one of the birthplaces of perhaps our most world-renowned local ocean sport, scuba diving.

The people of Catalina can rightfully boast about the role their Island has played in the development of at least two of the world’s most popular forms of ocean sports:  the Tuna Club brought us the revolutionary concept of sport fishing at the turn of the 20th Century and the Island’s crystal clear waters were one of the birthplaces of perhaps our most world-renowned local ocean sport, scuba diving.

The sport of scuba diving got a real boost beginning with the training of the “frogmen” at Toyon Bay during World War II on behalf of the clandestine Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA.

After the war, the same underwater breathing apparati used by the OSS—namely the Lambertson rebreather—was turned to peaceful purposes in the newly-developing sport of scuba diving and the adventure was on.

The history of sport diving off of Catalina is prime fodder for a future Mysterious Island column, but for now I want to regale you, Dear Reader, with one of the most important, yet tragic, events that accompanied the development of this sport; an event that occurred not so far from Avalon and not so long ago.

Enter Hannes Keller, a Swiss mathematician who played an instrumental role in the development of new gas mixtures for use by deep-water divers.  Keller had worked extensively with a Swiss physician named Dr. Albert Buehlmann with whom he had concocted various mixtures.

You see, the air you are breathing right now as you read this column—roughly 80 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen—will kill you if you try to breathe it for too long at the pressures offered by the deep sea (or deep lakes and even rivers, for that matter).

By the early 1960s, Keller had already made a name for himself by carrying out pioneering experiments using Buehlmann’s different gas mixtures in some of the deeper lakes in Switzerland and Italy.

These efforts had caught the attention of the U.S. Navy, which saw the potential use of Keller’s research in rescuing submariners from theoretical deep-ocean accidents.  Calls were made and hands were shook and in no time at all Keller had arranged to conduct an historic 1,000-foot dive off the entrance to Avalon Bay.

Since the Navy was evidently only interested in taking something of an observational role, Keller apparently felt free to enlist the sponsorship of a number of private organizations, including Skin Diver magazine and Shell Oil to help defray the costs and to help from the publicity angle.  To do the job, Keller constructed a 7-foot by 4.5-foot diving bell and named it the Atlantis.

On the morning of Dec. 3, 1962, the ship Eureka left Avalon Bay with the Atlantis aboard and headed a short distance away where the bottom depth registered at a little over 1,000 feet.  Over the course of the morning, both Keller and fellow diver and journalist Peter Small made a number of short dives in preparation for the longer 1,000-foot dive.

It was during these preliminary dives that trouble first began.  After an initial dive to 300 feet, Small came down with a mild case of the bends.  However, he was treated aboard the Eureka and given the go-ahead for the final dive.

At a little after noon, the Atlantis began its descent for the 1,000-foot dive.  At the 250-foot level, the two aquanauts switched over to the special gas mixture devised by Keller.  At the surface, the American and Swiss crews, along with U.S. Navy observers, watched the goings-on inside the capsule via closed-circuit television.

Upon reaching the bottom at a little over 1,000 feet, Keller just had to pull the obligatory symbolic maneuver of attempting to plant an American flag and a Swiss flag on the bottom outside of the capsule.  Because of the depth, their time at the bottom was limited to only about three minutes.

That’s when trouble began.  While Keller exited the craft, the two flags became entangled in his mask and he spent two of those crucial three minutes getting himself untangled.  Once he was free, he simply dropped the flags on the bottom and then hurriedly re-entered the diving bell where he was to re-fill the craft with air.

Evidently flustered by the botched flag-planting ceremony, Keller opened the wrong air valves, filling the capsule with air designed for near-surface depths, not the gas mixture designed for deep water.  Within 30 seconds, he had passed out.

Privy to the errors committed below via their closed-circuit television, the surface crew immediately began raising the diving bell to the surface.  Shortly after the bell began lifting off the bottom, Peter Small also passed out.  Both he and Keller had slumped out of view of the video camera causing further angst among the surface crew.

Because the men would still have to go through a lengthy decompression before surfacing, the support crew halted the ascent of the dive bell at a depth of 200 feet and sent the two safety divers—Dick Anderson and Chris Whitaker—down to try to set things straight.

At about this point, the surface crew discovered that the pressure inside of the capsule was decreasing as they brought it to the surface, meaning there was a leak that could cause decompression problems for the men inside.  Safety divers Anderson and Whitaker made a quick trip to the 200-foot depth and closed some external valves to the capsule in the hopes of maintaining pressure within the vehicle.

But when they got to the surface, it was learned that pressure inside the craft was still decreasing.  On top of that, Whitaker appeared drowsy and was bleeding from the nose after returning from the first dive.  Another trip would have to be made to the diving bell to clear up the pressurization problem, but Whitaker was advised not to go.

He went anyway and on this trip the two safety divers discovered that Keller’s swim fin was caught in the hatch from inside, preventing it from sealing properly.  Anderson cut the swim fin and sealed the hatch and then sent Whitaker to the surface to tell the crew above to begin raising the capsule again.

But after waiting for what must have seemed an eternity, Anderson noticed the capsule was not moving.  He then ascended to the surface to find out why his order was not being carried out.

Unfortunately, his order to resume raising the diving bell was not being followed because it was never delivered.  Whitaker had never made it to the surface and, in fact, no one ever saw him again.  His body to this day has never been found.

The rescue continued without Whitaker.  The Atlantis was brought back aboard the Eureka and within the hour the ship was headed to shore with Keller and Small—both still unconscious—still inside the Atlantis.

When the diving bell was finally opened in Long Beach at 7 p.m. that evening, Keller was no worse for the wear, but Small had no pulse.  He was taken to the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship U.S.S. Haven where he was pronounced dead.

Despite the fatal errors, the legacy of Keller’s dive was not only a world deep-sea diving record and a vast increase in the knowledge of the science behind diving, but also a pair of now tattered and decaying flags that lie somewhere buried in the deep-sea sands just outside of Avalon Bay.

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available on Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here