In his first book, Sealab, journalist Ben Hellwarth examines a little-known, non-ideological Cold War quest: While NASA’s race to continually one-up the Soviets in conquering outer space was well-funded headline news, similar Navy attempts to go deeper in the ocean with saturation diving were shoestring, back-page-news affairs. Hellwarth’s approach is refreshingly dry: Rather than hyperbolically claiming that this saga secretly changed everything, Sealab methodically outlines some 60 years of ocean-depths breakthroughs under-reported in their time and forgotten by history.
The book’s central figure is Captain George Bond, Appalachian physician turned naval pioneer. His obsession was saturation diving—immersing people deep underwater, acclimating them to the pressure, and having them stay down for hours and days rather than using inefficient “bounce dives” to shallow depths—but the Navy initially didn’t take his grand visions for underwater colonies and a future in the ocean seriously. Undeterred, Bond used contacts with higher-ups, empirically-accumulated know-how, and willingness to showboat for the media to get closer to the ocean floor: first with the Genesis tests, simulating deep pressures in control tanks, then testing three increasingly elaborate Sealab habitats.
When the third Sealab went wrong, resulting in the death of one of the underwater experimentors, the Navy shut the program down. As Hellwarth pieces together from the declassified snippets he can find, Bond’s efforts ironically became more relevant to the Cold War than NASA when the Navy, without his knowledge, built on his discoveries for espionage purposes, collecting Soviet missiles off the Siberian cost and tapping into the USSR’s communication cables. The final third of the book makes a tentative case for Bond’s lasting legacy in the intelligence world. His larger goal was left unmet: By and large, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have replaced expensive, iffy human trips underwater, with pure research falling by the wayside.
There’s a reason Sealab boasts a whopping eight pages of acknowledgments: This is detail-heavy, conjecture-light history that’s mostly been forgotten. The spectre of Jacques Cousteau lingered over Bond’s work, but Hellwarth gracefully makes the case that the pioneering oceanographer was more attention-getting media personality than scientific pioneer when it came to saturation diving. Deftly explaining atmospheric pressure, different compressed gas mixtures, and innovations in diving suits, Hellwarth’s history unfolds without attention-grabbing purple prose or too much hypothesizing, only using dialogue when it’s on the record. The relentless grind of technical detail can be wearisome, but his descriptions of underwater danger are as arresting as the surreal images of groups of stoic grouper fish and seas of floating plankton surrounding the ocean floor’s helium-voiced heroic pioneers.