Earth’s Last Frontier: Moving Images of the Navy’s SEALAB Project

While space is famously described as “the final frontier,” it only narrowly beats out the oceans of our own planet. Nearly three-quarters of the Earth is made up of ocean, yet only a small portion has been explored or mapped. In the 1960s, a group of Navy divers, led by Dr. George F. Bond, attempted to learn how to descend deeper for longer periods of time as part of the SEALAB project. The divers, called aquanauts, were considered pioneers of the undersea region, pushing the limits of where humans could exist. Dr. Bond envisioned a permanent underwater colony, with settlers living and working beneath the waves.

Stills from SEALAB III: One Hundred Fathoms Deep (Local Identifier: 428-NPC-54373, NAID: 5917897).

Dr. Bond’s experiments developed a method called “saturation diving” that allowed divers to live and work in a controlled habitat hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface. The first phase of SEALAB was a proof of concept, with the aquanauts scheduled to live at about 200 feet below the surface for three weeks. The experiment ended at 11 days when a tropical storm approached their location off the coast of Bermuda. 

SEALAB II included astronaut Scott Carpenter, who was the second American to orbit the Earth and the first to explore both space and the ocean. A trained dolphin named Tuffy brought small items back and forth from the surface to the divers. By the end of the experiment, teams of aquanauts spent 15 days each more than 200 feet below the ocean’s surface with Carpenter staying in the SEALAB habitat for 30 days. 

With SEALAB III, divers attempted an extended stay more than 600 feet below the surface.  Tragically, diver Berry Cannon died of carbon dioxide poisoning while trying to fix a leak in the SEALAB habitat and the project was canceled. The narrator in the film below explains that the goal of SEALAB is for it to be “the forerunner of major industrial and research complexes on the continental shelves of the world.” The film ends on a hopeful note despite the tragedy, indicating that both the Navy and industry should continue to experiment so that humans can go deeper into the ocean for longer periods of time.

While the ocean explorers of SEALAB are much less well-known than their counterparts in space, the techniques devised by Dr. Bond are still used today for scientific research and industrial purposes. The aquanauts pushed the limits of what humans can do and expanded the frontier of the depths of the ocean.

Several dozen reels of footage documenting SEALAB have been digitized and are available in the National Archives Catalog. While most of the films feature unedited footage, a few, like the one above, are educational productions made by the United States Navy.

This post is shared to support the National History Day 2023 theme, Frontiers in History: People, Places, and Ideas.

For more National Archives resources, check out:

The National History Day 2023 theme book (our piece on films that relate to the theme starts on page 35)

The Film Frontier: Using Films and Videos in Your National History Day Project” on the Unwritten Record

Resources for National History Day 2023: Frontiers in History” on the Education Updates blog

The DocsTeach National History Day website

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