Without doubt one of the best-remembered events of the last century will be that moment, in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong announced to a waiting audience back on Earth, “The Eagle has landed”. Climbing down from the lunar landing module onto the surface of the moon, his triumphant phrase, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” captured the world’s imagination. It was a remarkable testament to human ingenuity and courage: a feat that, we believed, would pave the way for the exploration of worlds beyond our own.
In 1943, an equally significant – but less well-publicised – event took place in the Marne River, outside Paris. Lacking Armstrong’s stirring oratory, Emile Gagnan, co-designer of the Aqualung, simply cried out, “Mon Dieu, Jacques. I thought you had drowned.” (The person in question hadn’t. And Jacques Cousteau, went on to become one of the most famed underwater explorers of our time.)
It’s now more than seventy years since the pair perfected their SCUBA diving regulator; a device that heralded new opportunities in mankind’s attempts to freely explore the seventy-one per-cent of our planet that’s hidden by water. But despite diving’s growing popularity we’ve progressed very little in our exploration of ‘inner space’. While we’ve been busy splashing around at the ocean’s edge, mankind’s attention has still remained focussed on the stars.
In some respects, sitting on top of a launch rocket waiting for somebody to push a button and send you hurtling off into outer space is a breeze when compared with diving. While engineers and physicists have mastered the technical difficulties of sending men on a 384,000 km journey to the moon, (and even sorted out the logistical problems of what fillings to put in the crew’s lunchbox sandwiches, and how much clean underwear they’ll require for a 33,000,000 kilometre voyage to Mars) none of them have fathomed out ways to put even an exceptionally well equipped diver to depths much beyond 300-metres.
But imagine what diving might have achieved had Cousteau and Gagnan’s pioneering effort received the attention and support of unlimited government funding? Or had, in 1959, somebody of the stature of a President Kennedy, broadcast to the world, “We choose to go to the sea-floor, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”?
“This is the, ‘S.S. Grumpy Grouper’, to Mission Control. Divers Sprat and Mackerel have entered the water and are initiating descent – now.”
“Roger that, ‘Grumpy Grouper’. This is Mission Control to divers, Sprat and Mackerel. How do you copy?”
“Brrlluubb! We read you just fine, Mission Control. We’re now passing the 5-metre mark. 8-metres. …”
“Mission Control here. You’re looking good, Sprat.”
“ … 10-metres … 12-metres. Touch down. Mission Control, we have touch-down.”
“Mission Control to Sprat and Mackerel. Well done, guys. All instrument readings show normal. Continue with your planned dive.”
“Brrlluubb! This is Sprat to Mission Control: I’m having difficulty keeping up with Mackerel. He’s just chased a parrot-fish around a coral outcrop. It was one small fin-kick for him, but it’s a giant swim for me. Brrlluubb! I can’t see him. I’ve lost contact, Mission Control. I’ve lost him!”
“Mission Control to Sprat. Stay calm. Remember your Standard Operating Procedure: A quick search for no longer than one-minute and then surface. Do you copy that, ‘Grumpy Grouper’?”
“This is ‘Grumpy Grouper’ to Mission Control. Both divers have surfaced two-metres from a nearby sand bank. Diver recovery vessel, ‘Bubbly Beagle’, is launched and on its way. Oh, Oh, ‘Bubbly Beagle’ appears to have grounded in the shallows. Do you copy that, Mission Control? The ‘Beagle’ has stranded.”
“Mission Control, here. That’s not going to sound good in the history books. Damn and blast! I knew I shouldn’t have used Sprat to catch Mackerel.”
It took vision, commitment and money to get man to the moon. Just think what – given that same level of support – diving might be capable of accomplishing in the decades to come.
The above article first appeared in Asian Diver magazine in August, 1999.