Helmet Diving | JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD


SCUBA divers swim through the water with perfect
neutral buoyancy, able to hover in place like a fish. SCUBA stands for Self Contained Underwater
Breathing Apparatus. The Self-Contained part is important. Since SCUBA divers carry their own air supply
and breathe through a small, portable regulator, they are free to go wherever they want. But long before SCUBA was invented, people
still dove. Underwater breathing apparatus has been around
since the 1820s when the Deane Brothers in England figured out how to pump air down into
an airtight helmet and suit. Soon the underwater world became accessible
to people. The umbilical to the surface limited mobility,
but deep sea divers as they were often called, could now perform all kinds of tasks underwater
from construction to sponge collection. The surface-supplied air meant an unlimited
air supply. TRAINING FILM: …Make his first dive. In the 1940s, a training film for the U.S.
Army Diving program was produced. Helmet diving hadn’t changed much in 50
years, but the 4 window U.S. Navy Mark V helmet had emerged as the world’s best. It was used by the military from 1916 all
the way up to 1984. TRAINING FILM: Getting underwater and staying
there is itself a test of diving skill. Despit his 40 pound shoes, 84 pound belt,
54 pound breastplate and hat, as a diver calls his helmet, he may float like a cork, if he
fails to control the flow of air into his suit. Helmet diving with more advanced modern helmets
is still used today for construction, oil rigs, salvage and other work which might require
a diver to be underwater for hours at a time. I want to try it, so cameraman Rick and I
head to New Jersey, where the Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit practices helmet
diving and sometimes still uses the Mark V for rescue operations. I meet up with Vincent Scarponi and his team
at their base… …and we head out to the Round Valley Reservoir
in Clinton, New Jersey where I will dive. Helmet diving requires a lot of surface support,
so the team has brought three boats. We are diving off of a pontoon boat, specially
configured as a platform for Helmet diving. In just a few minutes we reach the dive site
and now I have to learn how to don all this gear. Wayne Gerhartz is going to help walk me through
it. JONATHAN: Sit right here? VINCENT: Okay, the first thing you are going
to do is put the suit on. You just take the bib out and then slide it
out a little bit. Now stop. Shoes you want on tight, because they are
flat bottoms and they do suck into the mud a little bit. So you don’t want to pick your foot up and
have your shoe remain on the bottom. JONATHAN: That would be bad. VINCENT: Doesn’t have to be a lot. JONATHAN: I can see it’s getting heavier
and heavier! But that’s nothing. Now the weight belt! VINCENT: This one’s only 45. Only 45 pounds he says. JONATHAN: Alright, here we go. I’m almost feeling like I’m getting used
to this. WAYNE: Hold your head still! Vincent turns on the flow of air, which makes
a lot of noise, but at least I can breathe! As they seal me in, I realize that there is
no way I can get out of this gear without help, or even open the front window for air. My life is in the hands of the dive tenders. This is more claustrophobic than cave diving. Fortunately, there is an intercom system,
so we can talk to each other. JONATHAN: Can you guys hear me? VINCENT: Yeah we can hear you! JONATHAN: Oh sweet! VINCENT: I want to give you two taps. I want you to stand up, walk to the ladder,
turn around and go down the ladder backwards. JONATHAN: Okay! JONATHAN:Okay, getting up! Turning around. As I turn around to climb down the ladder,
I can’t see anything, so I am doing it by feel and I have to trust what the tenders
tell me to do. JONATHAN: Okay, it’s a good thing they are
small steps! As I go one step at a time into the water,
the tremendous weight of the gear starts to become offset by buoyancy. JONATHAN: It feels so good to get down into
weightlessness. Okay where’s that descent line? Right here? VINCENT: So grab the descending line with
your right hand, wrap your legs around it and just proceed slowly JONATHAN: Wrap my legs around it? VINCENT: Yeah, you want to lock on to it.. JONATHAN: This is cool. The ladder doesn’t go to the bottom, so
I basically slide down a rope like I’m going down a fire pole. JONATHAN: Going down the descent line! Clearing the ears. Going down. Down. I have hit bottom! The water here is not bad. A GoPro inside my helmet gives a little bit
of an idea what it looks like from inside. You really can’t see much. JONATHAN: Wow! You don’t have much view out of this thing. You’ve got the side windows, the front window… VINCENT: Usually there’s not much to see
when you’re doing construction work! JONATHAN: Well I can see my left hand out
the left window, my right hand out the right window and this is pretty cool. Between the typical lake visibility and such
tiny windows, I have no idea where I am or which way I’m going. Cameraman Peter Venoutsos is giving me directions. JONATHAN: This way? That way? He wants me to go this way? Unlike scuba, which only delivers air when
you inhale, there is a constant flow of air through my helmet, although the bubbles that
come out the back increase when I exhale. JONATHAN: Man it’s hard work climbing through
silt that’s up to your knees! VINCENT: Yes it is! Try staying in the clear water. VINCENT: OK, now stop for a second and see
if you can feel the end of the yellow pneumo line. I’m going to send air down. JONATHAN: You’re going to send air down
the yellow pneumo line. The pneumo line is an open hose that can serve
as a backup air supply, but it’s main purpose is to feed the pressure at depth back to a
gauge above, so the tenders know how deep the diver is. JONATHAN: I have bubbles. Now the bubbles stopped. VINCENT: OK, it’s 15 feet. JONATHAN: 15, nice! VINCENT: Don’t forget that’s 15 where
the pneumo line is. It can still be another three or four feet
from the line to your feet. JONATHAN: The weirdest thing about this experience
is actually–to me–is how much it hurts your feet because when you are walking in the muck,
there’s a lot of muscle power required in your feet to keep yourself from tipping over
as the muck squishes around from behind. JONATHAN: That’s cool. So, I now have my little selfie stick, which
is way cool, and it’s recording, which is cool. Woo hoo, selfie stick! I don’t know…how many deep sea divers
in the eighteen hundreds had a selfie stick!? Oh, I’m going to make a major muck action
here. And I can get a shot of Peter. Say hi Peter! Alright! Eventually it is time for me and my selfie
stick to head back up to the boat. Even though I’m wearing over a hundred pounds
of gear, I’m buoyant enough in the water that I can pull myself right up the rope with
one hand. Climbing up the ladder is another story. With every step, more of my gear goes above
water. Each step is harder than the next. Getting the helmet and weight off is a relief! JONATHAN: Well, I’ve done my first dive
with the Mark V helmet and I’m here to tell you that, as fun as it was, it’s a lot more
work than scuba diving! So I might just stick to scuba diving! But, wow! Underwater in 500 pounds of gear! Somebody give me a torch! I feel like I should build something! So while helmet diving is not the best way
to explore the underwater world, it is an important part of the history of underwater
exploration, and remains to this day one of the most effective ways to work for extended
periods of time in the Blue World. And thanks to the incredible effort of these
generous members of the Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit, I got to experience diving
in a real Mark V helmet and experience for myself the rich history of diving.

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