Apr 23

SEALAB II: Porpoise Post and Life Beneath the Waves

Tuesday, April 23, 2019 12:01 AM

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It may come as no surprise to you all (seeing as I am a digital archivist who spends all day with technology) but I am a self-admitted nerd, complete with a love of video games. One of my favorite games – and one I suggest to anyone new to solo-gaming – is Bioshock, which takes place in a man-made underwater utopia turned dystopian nightmare. While the technologies featured in this game are worlds away, humanity’s exploration of underwater living was a bit more developed than I expected, as I learned during yet another sojourn into USNI’s Photo Archive. Today we are going to explore the watery deep together, via the U.S. Navy’s most successful aquanaut experiment of the 1960’s, SEALAB II.

SEALAB II begins its journey down 210 feet to the sea floor at La Jolla Canyon, California.

SEALAB II was one of three experiments conducted in the 1960’s to test the physiological effects of prolonged underwater living on humans. Unlike SEALAB I (halted after 11 days due to a tropical storm) and SEALAB III (reportedly sabotaged by one of the participants), SEALAB II completed its full, 45-day mission without major incident. Three teams of ten aquanauts descended down 210 feet into the La Jolla Canyon off the coast of California and remained at the station for 15-day intervals. All except former astronaut-turned-aquanaut Commander M. Scott Carpenter, who remained in SEALAB II for a total of 30 days.

As a camera outside the station peers in, Aquanaut Wally Jenkins jots a record in his logbook.

Unlike SEALAB I, SEALAB II had modern amenities, like hot showers and refrigeration, which made the stay down in the depths more bearable for the aquanauts. In addition to the physiological testing, the aquanauts also conducted tests on new tools, methods of salvage, and an electronically-heated wetsuit. There were also several historic phone calls, one from President Lyndon B. Johnson, congratulating the team on their success, and another to Astronaut Gordon Cooper, who at that time was in day seven of his mission orbiting Earth on Gemini VI.

Commander M. Scott Carpenter, aboard SEALAB II beneath the sea, talks with Astronaut Gordon Cooper, aboard Gemini VI orbiting the Earth.

But my favorite part of this experiment was the work done by the bottlenose dolphin, Tuffy. Tuffy was a dolphin that was trained as part of the United States Navy Marine Mammal Program. This program – which is still in existence today – trains marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions to assist in tasks such as mine hunting, sentry duties in harbors, and object recovery. Tuffy’s specific mission? To carry tools to the divers working outside of SEALAB II and bring mail to the aquanauts inside the station. That’s right: Tuffy was the first porpoise postal worker.

Tuffy receives a fish as reward during his training.

While Tuffy was not always successful in his mission, he was without a doubt the cutest member of the team and contributed to the morale of the aquanauts, isolated from contact with the outside world. Tuffy also contributed to the Marine Mammal Program as a whole, as the training methods tested on the dolphin were later utilized in training dolphins for other aquatic missions.

A letter delivered by Tuffy to SEALAB II, and signed by the aquanauts at the underwater station.

Unfortunately for Tuffy’s burgeoning postal career, he would never participate in SEALAB III as intended, due to the supposed sabotage of that mission. But one day, if humanity does decide to live long-term beneath the waves, I hope we all get to post our letters via porpoise.