Saturday, September 30, 2006

Me and Paris Hilton

Had a jolt of time travel the other day while reading a Post and Courier article about two local SCUBA divers mixing gases so they could dive deeper. I flashed back to my stint with CBS Television News and our 1971 coverage of the Sealab III disaster. It was located off San Clemente Island, California at a 600 foot depth.

An online story refreshed my memory of the inquiry into the death of an Aquanaut in 1969 during the US Navy's experiment to have divers walk on the ocean floor. I had not thought about it since but apparently that was NOT the end of the experimenting. The Navy continued but in deep secrecy and the US used this deep diving capability during the Cold War.

At the inquiry we were told that "saturation diving" was developed because at depths of more than 100 feet, oxygen becomes toxic and hydrogen acts as a dangerous drug. By using mainly helium - which is not toxic - and small amounts of oxygen, divers could go to new depths. Of course, breathing helium, all communications sounded like a Donald Duck convention!

Unbeknownst to us, about the time of the inquiry, the Navy had sent a specially-designed submarine to the Soviet Sea of Okhotsk and, using work pioneered by Sealab, divers ventured out and retreived Soviet test missiles. They even placed a tap on a Russian undersea phone cable that helped US intelligence.

This activity came to light when some details were declassified and showed up in "Blind Man's Bluff," a 1998 bestselling account of Cold War submarine espionage.

The first Sealab was placed in the ocean in 1964 off Bermuda but ended after only 11 days. The next year Sealab II was placed at 205 feet in the ocean off La Jolla, near San Diego. The habitat settled on the bottom at an angle hence it was nicknamed "The Tiltin' Hilton."

Re-reading all that reminded me that 10 years later, the first - and only - time I went to Paris, France I stayed at the Hilton.

Yes, the Paris Hilton. Nice place. The Eiffel Tower is really close by.

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