Santa Barbara’s Commercial Diving Heritage Runs Deep

Few realize the South Coast is the birthplace of the commerical deep-sea diving industry. Award-winning SBCC professor Don Barthelmess aims to get the word out.

By | Posted on 05.03.2008

Is necessity the mother of invention? Sometimes. But in the case of modern commercial deep-sea diving, the mother was oil, the father was money, and the home was Santa Barbara.

About 45 years ago, in a prelude to man’s successful quest to extract oil from the deep coastal waters off Santa Barbara, a group of locals developed revolutionary technology that, to this day, continues to define the field.

Meanwhile, few Santa Barbarans are aware of the historic role this area has played in shaping the industry. But one Santa Barbara City College marine diving technology professor aims to spread the word.

Don Barthelmess, this year’s winner of SBCC’s "Faculty Lecture Award" — the school’s highest honor for faculty — is known for a style of "constructivist" teaching that places a high value on getting students out of the classroom and into the ocean waters.

As this year’s recipient of the award, Barthelmess in early April had to deliver an honorary lecture on the topic. Barthelmess, who is on sabbatical, decided to focus on the local history angle, and spent three solid months gathering research, tracking down key players and even creating a Discovery Channel-style video showcasing historic footage mixed with fresh interviews.

“I let the story unfold from the players who were there,” said Barthelmess, speaking from his Mesa condominium that he shares with his wife and two teenagers. “That really makes it realistic — when it comes straight from the players’ mouths.”

Given the area’s historical link to the industry, it is no coincidence that SBCC boasts one of the most renowned marine diving technology programs in the world, and the only one at the community-college level in the nation. Every year, SBCC graduates about 30 marine diving technology students, many of whom land diving jobs around the world — jobs that can earn some experienced divers as much as $5,000 to $8,000 a month.

But there is a flip side: The work is dangerous, and not well-suited for someone looking to stay in one place.

“It’s a young person’s career,” said Barthelmess, 48, who has taught the class for nearly 20 years. “It can definitely segue into different things. … It’s not a 9-to-5 type of environment. But that’s what makes it interesting for most people.”

It used to be that a diver could find plenty of steady work in Santa Barbara. But the days of South Coast offshore oil exploration peaked in the 1970s and early ‘80s. In the intervening years, the number of major diving contractors in the area has shrunk from seven to one, the Oxnard-based Divecon, which does mostly routine maintenance work. (The president of the company, Ted Roache, is a graduate of the SBCC program and is also a Mesa resident.)

The story of how Santa Barbara became the birthplace of modern commercial diving is detailed, but boils down to how the ocean waters here harbor a unique triumvirate of resources: oil, the Channel Islands, and a giant underwater snail known as abalone, Barthelmess says.

Although offshore diving as the world currently knows it started in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s, it did exist before then. Before the revolutionary changes, however, commercial diving was a micro-industry, centered largely on the collection of abalone, which were harvested for seafood.

In the waters near Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands were an abalone magnet, and as such attracted a small group of professional divers who were paid to pluck the mollusks from underwater rocks.

At the time, divers could not submerge themselves at a depth of anything beyond 250 feet, because at that point the air pumping into their hoses from ships on the surface contained nitrogen, as does all the air we breathe. At great depths, the nitrogen morphs into a narcotic.

“It’s similar to having too much to drink — it clouds your judgment,” said Barthelmess, who went on to describe a disconcerting occasion during his career in which he lost track of time deep under water and tightened a screw for 20 minutes when he thought it had taken only five.

In 1997, the state closed the abalone fisheries for commercial and sport divers in Southern California, partly because the mollusk had severely declined in population. (Barthelmess keeps a cereal-bowl-sized abalone shell that he uses for a cigar ashtray on the table of his deck at home.)

In the early 1960s, an enterprising young Channel-Islands abalone diver had an idea. His name was Dan Wilson.

Back then it was common knowledge that beneath the ocean of water lay another ocean of untapped oil. Wilson, who died in August at his home in Montana from a progressive illness at age 78, knew if someone could figure out how to break the 250-foot barrier, deep-sea divers would be able to do the work that was necessary to drill for oil. This included guiding giant drill bits to their targets on the sea floor. Wilson also knew that breaking the barrier would pique the lucrative interest of the oil companies.

A gifted diver, Wilson had been trained by an ex-Navy master at the Sparling School of Deepsea Diving in Los Angeles. The Navy had long been able to plunge men to depths of 400 feet and beyond by supplementing oxygen with helium, thereby reducing the narcotic dangers. But the Navy used gear that was too heavy for commercial diving — the helmets alone weighed 100 pounds. Wilson set out to create a hybrid.

With the help of a still-existing company called Santa Barbara Radiator, Wilson soldered a standard scuba regulator mouthpiece inside his abalone helmet. At the time, commercial divers did not use regulators; the air was pumped straight into their helmets. With Wilson’s design, they would continue to breathe that air, but breathe the oxy-helium mix off the regulator once on bottom.

Then, in a daring move, Wilson and a small group of divers put the device to the test by attempting the unthinkable: a 400-foot plunge, which would set a world record for the deepest commercial dive. It worked.

“When that happened, it opened the eyes of the oil companies,” said Barthelmess.

In 1962, Wilson, and three other Santa Barbarans — Lad Handelman, Whitey Stefens and Ken Elmes — each put in $10,000 and formed General Offshore Divers. Immediately, they began snapping up major contracts, their first being Phillips Petroleum. (Handelman and Stefens still live in Santa Barbara, and both attended the April 9 lecture.) Other diving companies followed suit.

In a matter of six years, demand surged from a need for 150 divers worldwide to 5,000.

“It started what I call the Santa Barbara helium rush,” Barthelmess said.

To help meet the demand, SBCC started its Marine Diving Technology program in 1968.

Meanwhile, to better allow divers to perform long deep-sea missions, Wilson invented another piece of diving gear known as a commercial diving bell, a kind of underwater elevator that brings divers to great depths while dry.

This led to another problem, however: The diving gear was too bulky for the divers to fit comfortably into the bell.

In 1965, yet another pair of Santa Barbarans — Bob Kirby and Bev Morgan — solved the problem by developing sleeker equipment. To this day, the Santa Barbara-based Kirby Morgan Dive Systems is the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial diving gear.

Later, Handelman — who now lives on Miramonte Drive, up on TV Hill — set out to launch his own company, Oceaneering International. Oceaneering ultimately bought out a company that had purchased General Offshore Diving. By the 1980s, it had become the largest commercial diving contractor in the world. (Today that claim belongs to Caldive International, which also was launched on Stearns Wharf by Handelman. Both are now publicly traded.)

“They didn’t do this just to be cool,” said Barthelmess. “There was a driving force behind it — it was market-driven.”

If the work was adventurous, it was also dangerous. During 1960s and ‘70s, Barthelmess said the South Coast area witnessed at least 20 deaths. In 1975, the SBCC program experienced its only student fatality to date, when a pupil went unconscious underwater for unknown reasons. (The accident report was inconclusive, and the college was never deemed responsible.)

One of the biggest hazards of diving is ascending to the surface too quickly. When this happens, a diver runs the risk that tiny bubbles of gas will form in his bloodstream, like a bottle of fizzy water opened too quickly. The results can be gruesome.

The symptoms, known in the industry lingo as “getting bent,” start with pain in the joint areas. If bubbles lodge themselves in the central nervous system, divers can suffer from paralysis, extreme fatigue, vision impairment, loss of bladder and bowel control, and worse.

When this happens, the only cure is for a diver to sit for hours in a decompression chamber. Fortunately, Barthelmess said the industry has become much safer over the years, and getting “bent” has become much rarer.

“Older divers will sometimes brag about getting bent — they wear it like a badge,” said Barthelmess, shaking his head. “That’s like saying, ‘I’m a carpenter and I have chopped off my fingers with a skill saw five times.’ Chances are you’ve done something wrong.”

These days, most diving work exists outside of Santa Barbara. Right now many students get jobs in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil exploration and production is thriving.

After several weeks of cla****, the students and instructors go to Stearns Wharf each Monday morning, where they set up camp and dive off the wood planks across from Moby D*** Restaurant.

Eric Manfredonia, a journeyman tile-setter and San Marcos High graduate, said he learned about the class from his mother, who saw an ad at a job fair.

“This just seemed like more interesting work,” he said, sitting on a bench in full gear minus helmet after working with an underwater welder.

For Manfredonia and other students who have lived in California for at least one year, the class costs $20 a unit. (To obtain a marine tech certificate, the total cost of the nine-month program amounts to about $2,100. For a full two-year Associate-in-Science degree, the in-state cost is $2,750. For out-of-state students — who make up roughly 40 percent of the enrollment — the cost for the two-year program is about $13,000.)

Not all of the students are from in-state — or are men, for that matter. Robyn Hynes came to SBCC from Long Island, N.Y., where her father used to own a large seafood shop.

While she admitted that having less upper body strength than her male counterparts made it more difficult, Hynes said the biggest challenge for everybody to overcome is the psychology of diving.

“Being down there messes with your head a little bit,” she said.

Although now a tenured professor, Barthelmess himself has enjoyed a successful career in the field.

A certified diver since the late 1970s, he later became trained and certified to pilot a one-man submarine known as a Mantis. In 1983, while working for New York-based International Underwater Contractors, Barthelmess set a national record for the deepest working dive, piloting a Mantis into 1,979 feet of water on a drilling mission for Conoco in the Gulf of Mexico. (The record for an atmospheric diving suit is now around 2,300 feet, he said.)

It was during this same two-month operation that Barthelmess experienced his closest brush with death. A giant, half-mile-long drill had become stuck in the ocean mudline, and the oil company decided to break it loose by pounding it with a pile-driver.

Meanwhile, Barthelmess was manning the Mantis alongside the giant drill, submerged in 1,900 feet of water. When the pile-driver slammed the drill pipe, something happened that no one had anticipated: It buckled into a “C” shape, thereby hurling itself within inches of Barthelmess’ pod.

“I obviously screamed ‘All stop!’” he said. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. We had been up for 62 hours straight.”

In 1980 he moved to Santa Barbara, and started working in the waters of the South Coast, eventually getting promoted to a management post for the same company. But in 1989, he saw a posting for a professor position at SBCC, and applied. He got the job. He later served as the department’s program director from 1994 to 2003. In 1996, Barthelmess redesigned the Marine Diving Technology program to meet rapid technological changes in the field. Two years later, it received the Exemplary Program Award from the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

In 2003, he completed an undergraduate degree in occupational studies at Long Beach State University and later earned a graduate degree in educational technology from Pepperdine University.

Barthelmess was nominated for the award by students and fellow faculty. A small committee of eight senior faculty members made the ultimate decision, which, by design, comes as a surprise to the winners. Barthelmess was no exception. He still remembers coming out of an SBCC locker-room after a workout, only to see eight beaming senior colleagues with champagne. At that point, Barthelmess realized that he had won the award.

“I said, ‘Oh, no!’” he remembers. One of them answered, “Oh, yes!”

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