Why Santa Barbara?
Very few people know it, but Santa Barbara, California is recognized by most international diving historians as the birthplace of deepwater diving technology. During the 1960’s, many of the Santa Barbara abalone diving industry divers began a rapid transition from air diving to deepwater oxy-helium commercial diving.
Mixed gas breathing apparatus developed in Santa Barbara was used by divers to rapidly expand the safe depth range for offshore exploration.
This development of equipment, technology, support, and training infrastructures developed by the pioneering divers in Santa Barbara rapidly spread worldwide and revolutionized the trade of both the commercial and military diver.
2022 marked the 60th anniversary of the 400 - foot pioneering mixed gas dive by Hugh 'Dan' Wilson, a former abalone diver, that led to the deepwater diving revoloution.
Dan Wilson circa early 1960s dressed in DESCO Abalone helmet breastplate and Japanese dress.
Wilson lived in Santa Barbara and cast off from Santa Barbara harbor for his historic dive in relative secrecy on the fishing vessel 'Rio Janeiro' on November 3, 1962. He took a support crew of abalone divers and some Brooks Institute photography students, who served as safety divers and documented his successful record attempt.
Wilson dove to over 400 feet off the east end of Santa Cruz Island, in the Santa Barbara Channel, using the oxy-helium mixed gas (Heliox) as his breathing gas [Heliox was used instead of normal air, as it is non-narcotic at depth].
The Santa Barbara News Press broke the story to the public two days later!
Wilson on the decompression line after returning from 400 feet. His front weight had been incorrectly rigged and had slipped off the helmet. Wilson fortunately caught the weight and his safety divers lashed the weight back on with fishing line.
Wilson on ladder on the ladder after surfacing from his 400 foot dive. His surface crew were unable to separate his helmet bonnet from its breastplate due to the wedging of the swelling gasket so the entire helmet was removed as one piece and can be seen at the lower right of the picture.
During this timeframe, the diving industry evolved from utilizing traditional copper and brass heavy-gear helmets for surface gas dives into modern lightweight headgear used from closed diving bells. Wilson’s historic dive was the catalyst that created what is known as “The Santa Barbara Helium Rush.” The technology developed in Santa Barbara rapidly spread to the North Sea, the Middle East, Far East, Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela and beyond.
Local diving companies using the mixed gas helium diving technology were quickly formed such as DIVCON, some years later California Divers (Cal Dive) followed and used the harbor and Stearn’s Wharf as their base for many years. The world’s largest publicly traded dive company, Oceaneering International, had its corporate headquarters on Cota Street in the 1970s.
Cal Dive and Oceaneering are still trading today on the New York Stock Exchange.
Wilson’s General Offshore Divers company built and launched the world’s first commercial lockout bell 'Purisima' in Santa Barbara in 1964.
. While the concept of Purisima was advantageous, its initial use revealed several flaws and challenges that needed to be addressed. The bell's instability in the water column required the addition of a third sphere for buoyancy to keep it vertical. This made launch and recovery difficult in most sea conditions.
The Purisma Bell has been restored and can be seen today outside the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, there’s an excellent display telling its story inside.
In Santa Barbara, Bev Morgan and Bob Kirby subsequently formed Kirby Morgan Dive Systems® and designed the mixed gas diving helmets and systems which have become the international standard for military and deepwater divers worldwide.
Since 1964, well over 90% of the deepwater diving helmets used by working divers
worldwide are made in Santa Barbara. In 1968, Santa Barbara City College developed the only community college program in the United States to train Marine Technicians and divers to support this global industry.