from left: Student Omer Sfar, former Purisima diver Bob Christensen, and SBCC professor Don Barthelmess stand in front of the restored Purisima Diving Bell at the S.B. Maritime Museum.
Paul Wellman

Few know it, but Santa Barbara is the undisputed birthplace of the commercial diving industry. Throughout the 1960s, equipment, technology, and techniques were invented right here on the South Coast that let humans travel to depths never before imagined. The boom — spurred by the development of the world’s first oceanic, offshore oil-drilling operations in Summerland and peopled by risk-taking abalone divers — gave rise to an entirely new way of working in the deepest, darkest bowels of the ocean. “These guys are the astronauts of the underwater world,” says Greg Gorga, director of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (SBMM). “They were going to places no one had ever been before.”

To sweep away the silt that covers this overlooked piece of area history, the Maritime Museum will host two big events during the next couple of weeks. Friday, November 18, is the official unveiling of the Purisima Diving Bell, an apparatus cutting-edge for its time and the brainchild of deepwater diving legend Hugh “Dan” Wilson. Though this first commercial lockout diving bell — meant to let workers move in and out of the dry, pressurized spheres as they tinkered on oil heads — had too many flaws for practical use, its makers learned from their mistakes and used it as a starting point for a number of other successful ventures. The bell dropped off the radar for years after its first deployment in 1964, but Wilson’s son — Dan Wilson Jr. — recently tracked it down at a Florida marina, then had it refurbished and retired to the SBMM, a few feet away from where it was first lowered into the water.

This Thursday, November 10, Don Barthelmess, SBCC professor of marine technology, will give a talk on the rise of commercial diving, explaining how and why Santa Barbara became the epicenter of the lucrative and dangerous new economy. Barthelmess — who’s trained divers for 23 years, ushering 30-40 wet-suited workers into the worldwide industry every year — will start by tracing the Chumash’s cultural history of abalone diving before transitioning to the introduction, hundreds of years later, of oxy-helium mixtures and fast-paced entrepreneurialism.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story included incorrect dates of the two upcoming events at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The right days are:

Don Barthelmess lecture — Thursday, November 10, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the museum, 113 Harbor Way

Purisima Bell exhibit opening — Friday, November 18, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the museum, 113 Harbor Way


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