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Santa Barbara Helium Rush: The Legacy of Dan Wilson’s Gas Dive

In honor of its 50th anniversary, reflecting on the deep-water plunge and remembering the pioneers who emerged in our industrial history

The roots of deep-water diving technology are firmly embedded in Santa Barbara. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a significant historic dive that revolutionized commercial diving and the expansion of offshore deep-water oil exploration.

In 1962, Santa Barbara abalone diver Hugh “Danny” Wilson saw a need for the commercial use of mixed-gas diving techniques to position himself for offshore petroleum exploration diving support.

On Nov. 3, 1962, he dove to more than 400 feet of sea water (fsw) off the east end of Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel, using oxy-helium (Heliox) as a breathing gas.

The dive became a catalyst for the worldwide expansion of commercial diving and equipment in deep water. It created what I refer to as “The Santa Barbara Helium Rush.” It also established Santa Barbara as the birthplace of deep-water industrial diving and techniques. 

Numerous Santa Barbara-area residents pioneered and contributed in this evolution of diving and the technology associated with it, as we know it today.

I first heard of Wilson in 1979 as a young student of commercial diving and underwater technology at the Florida Institute of Technology. I vividly remember the class, Mixed-Gas Diving Techniques I, taught by former Navy diver Doug Soule and Master Chief Frank “Doc” Irwin. The very first classroom session focused on the history of gas diving. We learned of Wilson’s dive and the specifics of how he used established Navy procedures, yet wisely abandoned using the awkward Navy Mark V gas re-circulator helmet.

Chris Swann writes extensively of Wilson’s historic dive and these pioneering individuals in his seminal work published in 2007, The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure. Many of these men went on to become familiar historic icons in developing our industry, including Bob Kirby, Bev Morgan, Lad Handelman, Whitey Stefens, Bob Christensen, Bob Ratcliffe, Murray Black, Woody Treen, the Benton Brothers (Bob and Ted), Hughey Hobbes, Bob Rude, Jerry Todd and Walt Thompson, to name but a few.

Wilson made the dive to prove a point to oil companies that were drilling offshore in the Santa Barbara Channel in the 1950s and early ‘60s. The oil companies needed deep-water diving support for their exploratory operations beyond 300 fsw. Up until the 1960s, drilling took place in relatively shallow water. Petroleum geologists knew that vast reserves were beyond 300 fsw, yet could not drill at those depths without diving support.

Although just a short distance from the coastline, operators soon found themselves in 250-foot-plus depths, as the continental shelf lies very close to the Santa Barbara coastline. This was beyond the physiological range of air diving primarily due to nitrogen narcosis, not to mention the long decompression times.


Nitrogen, when breathed under pressure, is narcotic. Jacques Cousteau referred to this as “rapture of the deep.” In essence, it is similar to being intoxicated. Susceptibility to this effect varies among individual divers; however, most feel the effects beyond 100 feet.

Santa Barbara diving pioneers Lad Handelman, seated, and, left to right, Bob Christensen, Chris Swann, Bob Ratcliffe, Whitey Stefens and Bev Morgan. (Don Barthelmess photo)
Santa Barbara diving pioneers Lad Handelman, seated, and, left to right, Bob Christensen, Chris Swann, Bob Ratcliffe, Whitey Stefens and Bev Morgan. (Don Barthelmess photo)

With requirements to dive beyond 200 feet came the challenge of actually accomplishing work with a “narked” diver. Narcosis is a very real occupational hazard for a deep-working diver. It is exacerbated by cold and physical work underwater. Oilfield diving in deeper waters had a new challenge. The nitrogen must be removed from the breathing mixture.

The dominant area divers at that time were called Associated Divers, an exclusive conglomerate of abalone and construction divers from Santa Barbara and Southern California. Since air-heavy gear was the diving mode used, the narcotic effects of air limited the divers. Additionally, relatively short bottom times and the potential for acute CNS oxygen toxicity further limited work in deep depths.

Wilson was a forward-thinking individual with ideas often outside the box. Most important, he acted on his ideas. According to his son, Dan, “Dad kept meticulous notes on his ideas and had a passion for science and technology throughout his life.”

He received his diver training from legendary Navy Master Diver E.R. Cross at the Sparling School of Deep-Sea Diving. It was there that Wilson learned about the Navy’s use of helium for deep diving to overcome the narcotic effects of air. He was also aware of the tradeoffs and risks associated with helium diving, including the 250-pound, cumbersome Navy Mark V helium gas re-circulator helmet.

The first to suggest the use of helium and oxygen as a breathing mixture for diving was American physicist and chemist Elihu Thomson, circa 1919. Up until the 1960s, the Navy was leading the way in the diving techniques using the breathing mixture. The inert gas — helium — does not act as an anesthetic when breathed under relatively low partial pressures.

The tradeoff of nitrogen for helium was not without other physiological and logistical consequences. Helium was expensive and had to be specially mixed with oxygen in the right proportions depending upon the depth. This was to avoid the onset of oxygen poisoning, which normally isn’t a risk for air diving shallower than 218 feet.

Helium is a more diffusible gas in the diver’s tissues; therefore, in-water decompression was inherent, requiring deeper and specialized decompression techniques, including a surface decompression chamber. Furthermore, Heliox mixtures quickly rob divers of heat through respiration, as it conducts heat six times faster than air. Thermal protection was a concern as divers quickly became cold just from breathing the gas at depth. Lastly, voice communication was awkward as the speed of the helium molecules traveling across vocal chords made the diver’s voice sound like Donald Duck over the hardwired communication radio.

Dan Wilson is dressed by his tender, Jerry Ruse, before his record-setting dive off Santa Cruz Island. Warren Whitney assists in the background. (Jerry Ruse courtesy photo)
Dan Wilson is dressed by his tender, Jerry Ruse, before his record-setting dive off Santa Cruz Island. Warren Whitney assists in the background. (Jerry Ruse courtesy photo)

Up until 1962, Wilson was an abalone diver. He had a burning financial desire to break into Santa Barbara oilfield diving, which was exclusively closed off to newcomers by Associated Divers. He wondered why Associated Divers did not use helium to access deeper depths. Although Associated Divers were aware of the Navy’s use of helium, they never implemented it in their work due to the logistics and expense. Besides, they were profiting quite nicely in their monopoly diving deep on air.

His experience as an abalone diver combined with his training from Cross was a combination that positioned him and other Santa Barbara divers very uniquely. Abalone divers possessed three very important traits:

» They were resourceful and understood diving, rigging and marine equipment.

» They were used to working long hours at sea in harsh conditions.

» They understood that diving was just a means to get to a worksite and get a job done to turn a profit.

Wilson decided to perform a demonstration dive using established Navy diving procedures with oxy-helium mixed gas to the civilian world.

He theorized that by performing a deep demonstration dive, he could convince oil companies that work could be done at deeper depths with longer bottom times to meet needs of deep-water exploration.

Helmet Modifications

For helium mixed gas diving, the Navy had modified its MK V air helmet into a bulky, 250-pound or more apparatus. A recirculating canister, using a venturi principle, was incorporated to save on the expense of helium, rather than waste each breath by exhaling it back into the water column.

Dan Wilson with the 1,000-foot Purisima diving bell he designed in 1963 at his Santa Barbara abalone shop on Gutierrez Street. Whitey Stefens (top of bell) prepares the bell interior for testing. (Bev Morgan photo)
Dan Wilson with the 1,000-foot Purisima diving bell he designed in 1963 at his Santa Barbara abalone shop on Gutierrez Street. Whitey Stefens (top of bell) prepares the bell interior for testing. (Bev Morgan photo)

The huge helmet needed to be lifted by a pad-eye on the top of the helmet in order to dress a diver in. The helmet had been used successfully many years prior, during the salvage of the submarine USS Squalus in 1939 off New Hampshire. The Navy MK V Helium recirculator helmet was largely viewed as impractical for use in commercial work. It was a challenge that Wilson had to overcome.

Thinking outside the box, Wilson modified his open-circuit air free-flow abalone helmet into an open-circuit demand/free flow system fed with oxy-helium for the demonstration dive. This concept became the forerunner to the modern-day open circuit demand-free flow helmets used today. Wilson later filed for patent No. 3,308,814 for the modification on Oct. 30, 1963.

Wilson knew that his success in a demonstration would bring a competitive advantage over the domineering and elite Associated Divers. He was determined that an abalone diver could indeed break into this deep-water market.

Wilson had Santa Barbara Radiator Shop complete the modifications to his Japanese abalone helmet. They soldered a convex recess and an additional fitting on the left rear side of his helmet to accept one of the newly introduced single-hose second stage regulators inside the hat. A Sportsways Hydronaut single hose SCUBA regulator allowed breathing the heliox mixture on demand.

He mounted the first stage regulator to the standard Navy Mark V air control belly valve and fed it with a mixture of oxygen and helium stored in surface high-pressure cylinders. This provided a constant over-bottom pressure of 125 pounds per square inch (PSI) to the second stage demand mouthpiece negating the need to “track” the diver with a topside regulator. The open-circuit demand free-flow concept and design were both simple and effective, just what was needed for the rigors of commercial diving.

Bev Morgan was later hired by Wilson to build lightweight masks prior to his partnership with Bob Kirby. He chuckled as he reflected on a story of seeing Wilson at a restaurant sometime prior to his record dive, along with Ramsay Parks. They were returning to Santa Barbara after an abalone trip. At the time, Wilson was in the midst of working on his helmet modifications.

“We saw Danny’s station wagon in the parking lot, and in the back he had his square ported abalone helmet and a bunch of SCUBA regulators,” Morgan said. “Ramsay and I looked at it and saw the modification bubble and figured out what he was up to. We had heard some harbor rumors that he was going to do some kind of gas dive. We went in and sat down at his table. It was like old-home week as we chatted.

“I decided to play a joke on him and told him that Ramsay and I were working on a helmet for gas diving using SCUBA regulators. His face became pale and he said, ‘I gotta go!’ He ran out and came back in, and that’s when I laughed and told him he should cover up his gear. On our way out, we saw that he had put a blanket over it all.”

The Dive

Loaded with flasks of oxy-helium, the 55-foot vessel Rio Janeiro left Santa Barbara early in the morning of Nov. 3, 1962. Wilson used a small crew of divers and hands to assist and witness his attempt to prove a point. His tender was Jerry Ruse, who had worked with Wilson diving abalone.

Wilson’s crew consisted of his eventual business partner, Ken Elmes, owner of the Santa Barbara harbor fuel dock; local fisherman Glenn Miller, to skipper the boat; cave diver Jim Houtz, a photographer from Brooks Institute of Photography; and Wilson’s tender, Jerry Ruse. He also had several safety divers onboard using SCUBA to monitor him on his in-water decompression stops.

Also aboard were Reggie Richardson, Warren Whitney and Wilson’s wife, Dorothy, who worked with Wilson at his abalone shop as an up-trimmer.

Wilson did not publicize the dive to avoid drawing attention from competing local divers. When they later heard of the dive, it was thought to be ludicrous, as he did not use a deck decompression chamber and worked from a boat that was nothing more than a fishing vessel.

Ruse, like Wilson, was an abalone diver. Wilson referred to the stocky former Marine as “Super Muscles.” Ruse told how the safety divers surveyed the area for current and sharks after dropping anchor. The water condition was green and murky but calm enough to conduct the dive.

He conducted the dive using a standard Navy MK V canvas dress mated to his newly modified Japanese abalone helmet. He used breastplate weights, as he was accustomed to, when diving abalone. He wore brass-weighted Navy shoes, and used the standard Navy belly valve modified with the Sportsways first-stage regulator connected to his gas supply.

The Santa Barbara News-Press reported with several articles of Wilson’s secret experimental dives to the backside of Santa Cruz Island: “On Wednesday (Oct. 31, 1962), Wilson took the Rio Janeiro to sea and anchored at 80 feet, and went down the first time. On Thursday, he anchored farther out and dove to 200 feet. Yesterday (Nov. 3, 1962) the Rio Janeiro left for the Channel Islands seeking a quiet place with a depth of 300 to 400 feet for the last and final ‘test’ of this new equipment.”

Wilson indeed dove to 400 feet as was reported on Nov. 5, 1962: “He dropped straight down until the marks on the air hose showed that 435 feet of it had been paid over-side. The drop was without incident. ‘I didn’t see bottom, I didn’t see fish, I didn’t see anything,’ said Wilson.”

He made the dive using 80 percent helium, 20 percent oxygen for descent, and a bottom mix of 90 percent helium, 10 percent oxygen. He decompressed according to the Navy 410 partial pressure table completing all in-water decompression, shifting to 100 percent oxygen at 50 feet.

Wilson left the surface at 3 p.m. and was back on the ladder at 4:30 p.m. During the decompression stops, Ruse recalled that the rigging on his breastplate weights almost tragically slipped off. The safety divers quickly reattached the weights using some small fishing line, preventing a catastrophic “blow-up” in heavy gear that almost certainly would have resulted in explosive decompression sickness. He also mentioned how Wilson was constantly concerned with sharks in the area from his many encounters abalone diving.

The first decompression stop on the Navy 410 partial pressure table was at 170’/:07. The second stop was at 120’/:02 minutes. The remaining stops were in 10-foot increments, several minutes in duration. At 50 feet, Wilson was shifted to oxygen, the last water stop being at 40 feet.

Once back on the surface, the helmet was unable to be disconnected from the breastplate. The leather gasket had become swelled with water from the 200-psi-plus ambient pressure. This swollen gasket wedged the helmet’s interrupted threads to the breastplate. The tenders had to unbolt Wilson’s breastplate and helmet from the suit.

When asked about Dorothy’s demeanor during the risky dive, Ruse responded: “She was pretty calm during the dive and rightly a bit nervous. When we could not get the helmet off she became quite upset, though.”

Ruse and Houtz removed the wing nuts and brales from the dress and breastplate and lifted the entire assembly from the dress as one piece. A published photo from just after the dive shows Wilson standing on the dive ladder of the Rio Janiero after the helmet was removed, as was customary for abalone-heavy gear divers.

In retrospect of today’s standards for gas diving, the dive was conducted haphazardly from nothing more than a 55-foot fishing vessel. He took minimal mitigation measures to offset the risks. There was no deck decompression chamber, and Wilson shifted to in-water oxygen at 50 fsw per Navy protocol at the time. This was of great concern to Wilson, as he knew the hazards of acute CNS oxygen toxicity from his training at Sparling.

The dive was also made without the use of a pneumo-fathometer or kluge. According to Ruse, “We had no way of knowing his exact depth as we had no kluge, but I personally taped up his hose and it was beyond 450 feet. We measured it afterward out on the breakwater.”

Back in the Santa Barbara Harbor, word soon spread of Wilson’s dive using oxy-helium to break the lock on oilfield diving held by Associated Divers. Bob Kirby reflected on the attitude of Associated Divers’ Bob Rude toward helium diving: “We will come and recover Danny’s body from the bottom after he kills himself.”

This, of course, only made Wilson even more determined to succeed in bringing mixed gas diving to the oil companies.

According to Ruse, Wilson had promised the oil companies that he could conduct dives with a 60-minute bottom times and a clear head, versus 25-minute dives on air in a narcosis-induced stupor offered by Associated Divers.

The Birth of Deep-Water Industrial and Commercial Diving

The historical significance of Wilson’s 400-foot dive in November 1962 is understated by comparison to Hannes Keller’s 1,000-foot bell dive a month later. Keller’s dive ended in tragedy, while Wilson’s dive inspired the expansion of several industries resulting in a significant and lasting economic impact.

After the 400-foot dive, Santa Barbara diving pioneer Bob Christensen recalled, “He was almost immediately given a contract, trained a few divers rather rudimentarily and began using mixed gas.”

Just over a month later, Wilson’s success with this demonstration dive using helium immediately landed him a work order to put helium equipment onboard the Cuss I (Continental Union Shell and Superior) drillship working for Phillips Petroleum off Santa Barbara.

Thus became the entrance of oxy-helium diving into the commercial diving arena, followed by the formation of General Offshore Divers that included Hugh “Dan”Wilson, Ken Elmes and local abalone divers Lad Handelman and Whitey Stefans to do the gas work. Later, they were joined by Reggie Richardson, as an additional investor.

Stefans, like Wilson, was an abalone diver who had also trained at Cross’ Sparling School of Deep Sea Diving and was familiar with the complexity and benefits of using mixed gas. As Stefans points out: “With a helium diver you could talk to him and change his plan on bottom. With an air diver at 250 feet, it’s very difficult, unless he’s very proficient.”

“Danny taught us all how to go down and come up, and Whitey and I showed him how to get the work done,” Handelman recalled at Wilson’s memorial service in 2007.

Reflecting on both Wilson and Stefens, Handelman said: “Each one of those guys had major ideas on how to do things, which forged a successful combination. I learned from both of them.”

“Kenny Elmes was our partner,” Stefens recalled. “He owned the fuel dock in Santa Barbara Harbor as well as General Offshore Transport, which was a fleet of vessels. Laddie and I each put in $10,000. Kenny put in $10,000, and then he had to put Danny’s $10,000 in because Danny didn’t have it,” he said with a chuckle. “He lived fast and whatever he made, he spent. But he made a fortune.”

“Kenny was the father of the whole thing,” Handelman recalled. “He was the brains behind the whole operation and had good business sense.”

With the introduction of mixed gas diving into the private sector, Associated Divers were rendered obsolete for deep-water diving. The David of diving had slain Goliath, as the eventual demise of Associated Divers had begun. Although Associated Divers hired Kirby to design and develop a competing gas re-circulator helmet, they had essentially “missed the boat.” Many of the experienced divers with Associated Divers left to venture out on their own into helium diving to compete with Wilson. Murray Black and Woody Treen were among the Associated Divers who quickly made the transition into gas diving.

Wilson and General Offshore recognized that helium had trade-offs with air diving. They also knew that their competitive advantage would not last long.

Both Stefans and Handelman later went on to become icons in the formation of several commercial diving companies over the years. They still reside in Santa Barbara and remain close friends. The success of General Offshore Divers introducing helium for deep diving in the expanding local commercial diving industry soon saw them garnering nearly 60 percent of the work in the Santa Barbara Channel, all previously belonging to Associated Divers.

General Offshore began to experiment with substituting some nitrogen back into the oxy-helium mix to combat the chilling effects of helium conductivity during respiration as well as the voice changes that occurred.

All of this required new and experimental decompression procedures that Wilson, Stefens and Handelman developed and tested in a recompression chamber at Wilson’s abalone shop on Gutierrez Street in Santa Barbara.

By 1963, Wilson and General Offshore divers had successfully completed in excess of 300 dives using either oxy-helium of Trimix as a breathing gas. They had logged more bottom time in one hour, 250-foot range than the Navy did, including the salvage of the USS Squalus. A shift in deep diving had begun in deep diving from the Navy to the private-sector commercial industry.

Just a year later, in November 1963, General Offshore began sale negotiations with General Precision Equipment and Union Carbide.

Free from the depth working constraints of narcosis, more productive and complicated work could ensue with oxy-helium as a breathing gas. Gas diving did, however, present even more challenges due to the cold and harsh elements of deep water. The diver needed protection.

Wilson had previously conceived the design of a dual sphere 1,000-foot diving bell while abalone diving off Purisima Point in Santa Barbara County. The bell would protect the diver from the elements and allow for oilfield engineers to observe dives at depth in the dry upper sphere, under one-atmosphere of pressure. Additionally, the divers could complete the long hours of decompression in the comfort of the dry lower sphere of the bell. In 1964, Wilson and General Offshore built and launched Purisima in Santa Barbara Harbor — the world’s first commercial lockout bell.

While the concept of Purisima was advantageous, its initial use revealed many flaws and challenges that needed to be addressed. The bell was unstable in the water column requiring a third buoyancy sphere for it to remain vertical in the water column. This made launch and recovery difficult in any kind of sea condition. The diver hatch was undersized and a diver using heavy-gear could not exit very easily.

Wilson hired divers Bev Morgan, Bob Ratcliffe and Bob Christensen, among others, and tasked them with building modified abalone masks for use with Aquala drysuits in Purisima bell lockout dives. This began the development of workable lightweight diving gear.

Later in 1964, General Offshore Divers finalized its sale to Union Carbide Inc., and Oceans Systems Inc. was formed with Wilson and Stefens running operations as part owners. Purisima became a test chamber for Union Carbide experimental dives. When the purchase was completed in summer of 1964, the foundation of Ocean Systems Inc. was formed — the world’s first industrial diving company.

Lad Handelman opted out to venture on his own, forming Cal-Dive in 1965 with an office on Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf. California Divers was formed, by brothers Lad and Gene Handelman, along with fellow abalone and General Offshore divers Bob Ratcliffe and Kevin Lengyel.

Ratcliffe ultimately became Cal-Dive’s equipment designer. He later designed and built a successful new fiberglass lightweight helmet called the “Rat Hat.” Cal-Dive eventually merged with Phil Nuytten’s Can Dive and Worldwide Divers of Morgan City, La., to form Oceaneering International, the world’s largest diving company at that time. Ratcliffe’s Rat Hat later became a standard helmet used by Oceaneering divers.

Deepwater Offshore Oil exploration was at a tipping point in the early 1960s. Wilson’s dive and introduction of deepwater oxy-helium diving was the first domino to fall. While others were certainly aware of using mixed gas for deep-water diving, Wilson, Handelman, Stefens and Elmes, along with the newly formed General Offshore Divers, were the first to act and put it to use for commercial purposes.

The result of domino effect was significant. Competing local companies quickly emerged to use helium for deep diving. Newer equipment was developed to conduct deep-diving operations, such as mixed-gas manifolds, diving bells and lightweight swim gear for exit out of bells. A massive worldwide labor demand was created to support all of the new offshore exploration that could now take place.

Many of the copper-collar abalone divers soon became white-collar businessmen. A spirit of entrepreneurialism emerged from the kelp beds of Santa Barbara that spread internationally in a new market-driven underwater economy.

Santa Barbara diving historian Chris Swann summarized Wilson’s legacy: “Dan Wilson saw an opportunity out here. He opened the door. He found a reasonable and practical way to dive with helium and that was the beginning of the use of helium in the commercial world. He also took the next step, which was to develop the world’s first commercial lockout bell. You could say that someone else would have done both of those things, quite true, but he was the first.”

To say that Wilson was a pioneering force in commercial diving would indeed be an understatement. Wilson went on to start Subsea International in the Gulf of Mexico. Helium diving expanded globally in the United Kingdom’s North Sea and other international areas to support offshore oil development.

In 1968, he and others later helped form the Marine Diving Technology Program at Santa Barbara City College. It was the first publicly funded commercial diving program to train marine technicians to support the explosive labor demand created by “The Santa Barbara Helium Rush.” He influenced and inspired many to follow his creativity, taking big risks with potential for big rewards. 

Wilson retired from diving before age 50 to sail the world with his beloved wife, Dorothy. He died in 2007 after a lengthy illness. Wilson and the diving pioneers of Santa Barbara paved the road for those of us who followed years behind them. Equally important, they researched and developed techniques and equipment to improve safety and advance the industry of commercial diving.

As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of this historic period, we celebrate the legacy of The Santa Barbara Helium Rush and the deep-water pioneers who emerged from that era in our industrial history.

— Don Barthelmess is a professor of marine diving technology at Santa Barbara City College.

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