Since earliest times, people have sought to go underwater to retrieve food or valuable items or to build and repair ships. Unfortunately, without equipment, a diver can stay under the surface only as long as a single breath allows. Other factors that limit the unaided diver's activities include cold-water temperatures, the water pressure at great depths, and strong currents.
The first efforts to overcome these limitations with special equipment were primitive. To bring an air supply down, early divers used sections of hollow reeds as breathing tubes. The ancient Greeks developed crude diving bells. But it was not until the late 18th century that a practical diving bell was invented. It allowed one person to descend into shallow water in an open-bottomed container supplied with air pumped by hand from above. In the 19th century, the first diving suit was devised, connected to the surface by a tube. Even with various improvements, however, diving suits were rather clumsy. In 1943, the invention of scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) equipment allowed divers more freedom of movement, opening up many new possibilities. Since then, diving techniques and equipment have become increasingly sophisticated.
The records of salvage from the Spanish galleon Santa Margarita, which sank in about 20 feet of water on the lower Florida Keys in 1622, tell something about the development of diving technology. In 1644, an effort was made to salvage the galleon's cargo of gold and silver. Diving crews, using a bronze bell as an air source, salvaged much of the silver coins and other items of value, but not the gold, which sank into the sand and could not be found. Some divers lost their lives, swept away by the dangerous currents that existed even in the shallow water.
In 1980, 336 years later, the wreck was found again. This time, diving teams used scuba equipment, electronic metal detectors, and special hydraulic jets that washed away the sand covering more than $20 million worth of gold and silver coins, ingots, gold chains, and other valuables. Modern equipment and techniques made all the difference.
One major problem with deepwater diving is caused by the additional pressure of the water's weight, which causes the nitrogen in the air breathed by the diver to dissolve in the bloodstream. Normally, the nitrogen remains in the lungs and is simply exhaled in the breathing process, but when a diver returns too rapidly from deep water to the surface, bubbles of nitrogen form in the blood vessels. These bubbles can cause serious sickness and even death. This condition is called the bends and is an ever-present hazard of deepwater diving. Making sure the diver returns slowly enough to the surface that the nitrogen in the blood is freed from the lungs and expelled normally, rather than forming bubbles in the blood vessels, can prevent the bends.
The U.S. Navy, which had a great amount of ship salvage and repair work to do during World War II, discovered new approaches to prevent the bends. A breathing mixture with helium, instead of standard air, was proven to be safer and more efficient for deepwater divers. Divers who ascended too quickly were put in special decompression chambers.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, underwater exploration increased. The depths of the oceans, which cover about 72 percent of the world’s surface, remained the most uncharted part of the planet, presenting a challenge that was comparable to exploring space. The growing offshore petroleum-drilling industry was another incentive to further develop diving technology. New kinds of diving bells, saturation diving systems, and a host of submersible devices allowed deeper and more effective underwater work, such as the 1985–1986 exploration of the Titanic wreck several miles under the North Atlantic.
As diving and related activities came to involve more people and more complicated equipment, the need arose for workers who could handle many different kinds of technical tasks. Today, divers and diving technicians are employed mainly in commercial diving; a few also work in marine science research and in recreational diving. Commercial diving relies on numerous mechanical, engineering, and construction skills transferred to an underwater setting. These jobs can be physically demanding and hazardous, but they also offer adventure and excitement.
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