Lost in Sea

Whilst my PhD sits firmly within the school of thought that the sea (contrary to Schmitt’s assertions) is a space with geography and crucial to geographic thought and theory, I have come across a couple of instances recently that have further complicated my understanding of geography ‘in’ the sea. As my first post explains, I’m interested in embodied undersea geopolitics and in some of my recent reading it is precisely the embodied experiences of military divers that raise some interesting questions about how the geography of the sea is actively experienced.

The breakaway phenomenon

From 1964 to 1969, Dr George Bond led a team of navy personnel and scientists charged with establishing the feasibility of man living and working beneath the sea. In a series of three incredible, yet little studied, pioneering experiments christened Sealab I, II, and III, Bond and his team demonstrated that ‘man’ could live and work in the depths of the sea for prolonged periods of time. The men, in each study, lived at depth in specially crafted underwater habitats positioned on the sea floor. The habitats, filled with a pressurised, breathable atmosphere, enabled the men to move relatively freely from the sea to the habitat without having to decompress after each excursion allowing the gathering of important scientific data about both the seafloor and the capacity of their bodies to survive and carry out useful work at depth.


The list of hazards associated with living beneath the sea in artificially engineered atmospheres is long and complex – made even more so by concerns about ‘aquanaut breakaway’. For Dr Bond stationed on a support vessel above Sealab I, he placed the so called ‘breakaway phenomenon’ among his chief concerns alongside communication breakdowns. A term with origins in flying and aerospace, the breakaway phenomenon refers to a psychological sense of estrangement, ‘unreality or detachment from land’ (see Benson 1973), or as Bond would describe, disorientation ‘in space, time, and philosophy’. An aquanaut succumbing to the breakaway phenomenon would begin to ascribe the sense of safety and feeling of being at home usually preserved for terra firma to their undersea existence and seek to detach themselves from those issuing orders above the surface. In Sealab I for example, the official Navy video (which is well worth a watch – see below) stated that:

‘The men living in the still alien realm of the waters, lost all of their fear, began to feel that they belonged where they were, that they could go for a swim without their air tanks. ‘You even forgot you had to go back to Sealab for air’, (an aquanaut) recalls. ‘I dreamt one night I was breathing oxygen from the sea’’.

Similarly, on visiting the Sealab II habitat, Bond himself recognised that he was beginning to experience the symptoms:

‘light seemed to emanate from the ocean bottom while above us all was black. On a natural impulse, (we) rolled on our backs to stare up at the world from which we had come. It did not exist; only a forbidding black curtain lay above. Only below was there light and safety. Surely this was our refuge, our home… disorientated in time, space, and philosophy …this we realised for the first time must be the breakaway phenomenon of undersea existence, a profound revelation for divers, a frightening revelation to the topside watch-standers’

For the aquanauts in Sealab II, this manifested itself in a complacency about their undersea existence, mild indifference to the chain of command on the surface, and a sporadic lackadaisical approach to safety protocols. Intercom calls, for example, went unanswered for ‘long minutes’ and excursion dives took place on half empty air bottles with no reports on entry and exit time. ‘My suspicions of gross laxity’ wrote Bond, ‘are plentifully confirmed. The system of buddy checks has begun to go by the board and I recognise the first alarming signs of aquanaut breakaway phenomenon’. He later states that one of the aquanauts had asked for more ‘autonomy for the sea-bottom dwellers…I could not help remark to myself that more autonomy would have been fatal to the lot of them’.

To the aquanauts the sea was not the ‘hostile enemy’ described in the Office of Naval Research Report. On the contrary, it became described as a ‘back yard’, it was homely, even the fish were described as neighbours. The sea and the sea floor were not without geography, on the contrary when symptoms of breakaway emerged, they were geography for the men living and working there. It became familiar like terra firma and living beneath the sea dangerously became a matter of domesticated routine with those topside deemed a hindrance to undersea autonomy.

‘The blackness above’

On the other hand, people can also become ‘lost in sea’ in an entirely different way whereby the body experiences the sea as a space without geography. On his way back from Sealab II to the diving bell, for example, George Bond describes the complete loss of any sense of space. The sea, writes Ten Bos, is ‘pre-eminently apt as a means of surrounding’ and Bond found himself engulfed in blackness from which he saw no way out. Having falsely concluded that a nylon line leading up to the surface had been rigged by an aquanaut to guide him back to the diving bell, Bond began to swim to through the ‘black strata of water’. He writes:

‘as I ascended the line no diving bell came into sight; for that matter, nothing was in sight since I had penetrated the black cloud. Venting of my middle ears and common sense told me that I had ascended several atmospheres – far above the level of the bell’.

Bond survived because two aquanauts had spotted his plight and redirected him but it serves as a powerful example of feeling lost in sea, with nothing in sight to re-orientate.  Similarly, Dr John Clarke, an esteemed Navy Diving Scientist writes in his fiction book ‘Middle Waters’ of a sense of being disorientated and lost in a space that felt like it had no geography. His protagonist Jason Parker:

‘felt like he was in empty space: Initially he could see nothing but the cable above them and the shadow of the ship’s hull, The bottom wasn’t yet in view, and since he could see nothing horizontally, the feeling of being suspended in space was almost dizzying’.

The above examples perhaps illustrate that the body, when operating in the depths of the sea, can introduce new dimensions to our understandings and dislodge preconceptions about the geography of the sea.  Whilst in reality, these geographies are both materially ever present and ever changing as parcels of water are constantly on the move and turbulently exchanged with one another (see Bremner 2014), when this matter is inhabited and the body engulfed, these geographies are actively experienced in different ways. Both the breakaway phenomenon – wherein the geography of the sea is experienced almost as something static – and the feeling of being surrounded and lost in an endless, undifferentiated, all engulfing body of water – wherein the sea may feel as though it lacks geography – point to need to engage with geographies of the deep as they are corporeally experienced rather than merely focusing on the sea’s deep material properties as they are ascribed.


‘He must not be excessively fat’: Number 12 and diver selection in 1933

I’ve recently started venturing to the National Archives to work on the Admiralty Experimental Diving Unit Collection. I will probably write more as the research progresses but I thought I’d start by sharing what I have read about a man known only as ‘Number 12’ –  the last of 12 men who had volunteered for a new ‘non-substantive rating of deep diver and artificer deep diver’ in the Navy early in 1930. To put this into context, Number 12 features in a ‘Report of a committee appointed by the admiralty to consider and report upon the equipment and material required for the provision of deep diving and ordinary diving in HM service’, one of the aims of which was to establish parameters for the selection and training of divers.  I’ve chosen to focus on the report, and Number 12, because they provide some interesting insights into early conceptions of the selection of appropriate military bodies for diving and the significance of the psychological under the sea.

Whilst the report describes the men as volunteers, their selection was also premised on ‘severe’ medical testing. Each diver, writes the committee, ‘must be chosen with great care’ as certain types of men are simply ‘temperamentally unsuitable for deep diving’. ‘Men possessing a cool and calm’ nature were preferred to ‘those of an excitable nature’, whilst physically, any sign of ‘defective labyrinths should debar a man from deep diving’,  he ‘must not be excessively fat’ (although well covered men are quite satisfactory’), the ‘strongly built athletic type is likely to be suitable’. It was expected that during the training period a proportion of the 12 would be found to be temperamentally unsuitable and these were also debarred from further diving work (although there was no objection to their undertaking ordinary diving work in shallow waters – depth clearly matters here).

large Diving tests 1940

Images: These are images of divers from the Experimental Diving Unit training in the 1940s  – the nearest I could find to the 1930s (source: Imperial War Museum).

From start to finish, Number 12 seemed to give the Admiralty plenty to reflect upon. In one of the early dives, he became dizzy – trouble attributed at the time to faintness due to insufficient food. The men had been instructed not to eat a heavy meal before the tests, ‘Number 12 had overdone it by eating nothing for the previous 12 hours’. He proceeded to fail the rigorous RAF pilot tests – all other men proved fit to fly and thus dive, and in a number of dives he reported that he had lost consciousness. Back on the surface, he could describe the moment he became unwell  leading his assessors to conclude that no loss of consciousness had occurred and he had rather succumbed to a ‘form of terror’ having been in a ‘state of deep fugue’*.

According to the report, there is an intricate relationship between the psychological and physiological under the sea. The state of ‘pathological terror’ experienced by Number 12, for example, was said to be exacerbated by physiological defects – such as defects in the upper respiratory tract or poor labyrinthine reaction and whilst in this state, memory can be suppressed. When such suppression takes place ‘the period of terror appears as a period of unconsciousness’. The report also hinted that poor emotional state can ‘upset’ the respiratory exchange and calls for more research on the influence of ‘strong emotion upon the function of heart and lungs’.

It subsequently emerged from a psychological evaluation that Number 12 was suffering from claustrophobia and anxiety – ‘The fact that he would rather go hungry than enter a strange tea shop alone is important, being bad enough to effect behaviour.’  The report, however, makes a point of distinguishing his ‘pathological fears’ from cowardice; ‘so long as the specific fears are not stimulated he may be as brave as any other man’. Number 12 was not the only one to experience psychological difficulties brought on by the water. Number one succumbed to a fear of the dark, whilst (after more men were recruited) Number 16 suffered a breakdown on the seafloor having suppressed his claustrophobia for two weeks. In slight tongue and cheek, Number 8, who showed no ‘nervous symptoms’ was almost ranked on the scale because of his excessive talking during psychological tests.

Navy diving 1940

The report offers a fascinating insight into early diving biopolitics  and signals the start in Britain of a concerted effort to acquire an evolving body of knowledge about how military man might cope physically and psychologically beneath the sea (I’m currently reading John Protevi’s Political Affect to learn more about the idea of political physiology and to explore how it might help to frame my research). The diving body, as Straughan and Merchant highlight always touches and is touched by water but this immersion, this sense of being surrounding on all sides clearly has psychological consequences. Despite being out in ‘open water’, claustrophobia was triggered in at least two trainees with the water, and equipment, quite literally pressing in and weighing heavily on all sides. These were extremely experimental dives where little was known about the effects of deep diving on the body, adding another heavy burden to an already dangerous occupation. It was clearly not just the physical that had to engineered to adapt but the mind too.

As I continue at the archives, it will be interesting to trace the evolution of the physical and psychological criteria for selecting and testing divers.  Clearly, criteria are now much stricter than ‘not being excessively fat’ and understanding how the body has been appropriated, tested, and pushed in different ways over time  might provide some interesting perspectives on how power has been exercised through the body in and over the sea.

*Fugue (as defined in the report): ‘a loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy’. More on this soon.

The PhD: ‘Man in the Sea’ and Undersea Geopolitics

The sea is increasingly present in geopolitical scholarship owing to the work of Phil Steinberg, Kim Peters, and others (such as Jessica Lehman) who have sought to make water a protagonist in an otherwise largely landlocked discipline. Phenomenon such as the surveillance of ships, pirate radio stations, the geophysical materiality of sea water, and the agency of the sea in geopolitics have been addressed in a bid to address this terra centric bias. It is certainly an exciting time to be engaging with the sea and I’m looking forward to plugging into this evolving field over the coming months and years during my PhD.

I’m now 8 months into the process (time flies!) and thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on the progress I’ve made so far. My project as its stands is centered on the idea of ‘man in the sea*’ and it will be brilliant to have the opportunity to develop this further. Often discussions of the sea within geopolitics remain tied to the surface and when they do venture into the seas depths they become disembodied and primarily concerned with the water’s composition, matter, and natural agency. The depths of the sea are written off as largely inaccessible and uninhabitable and whilst this may be the case on a long term basis, these ascriptions and labels conceal an array of practices, experiments, and significant geopolitical phenomenon. During the Cold War for example, the US Navy set about establishing underwater habitats for ‘man’ to ‘live and work’ beneath the waves (see the SEALAB projects) and divers and marine mammals are still actively employed to negotiate the sea to achieve geopolitical ends.


‘Aquanaut’ Berry Cannon inside Sealab II

Within the highly experimental context of the Cold War, my PhD seeks to address this lacuna and to begin to break down the bifurcating labels of inhabitable/uninhabitable that are transposed onto the spaces of land/sea. Whilst I have no doubt that the project will change and evolve with time, there are three broad themes that I am currently interested in:

1. Immersion

As Adey and McCormack have highlighted, the ‘air’ is an immersive volume with various properties and specificities.  The sea is likewise a three dimensional, elemental volume that is immersive. For the body to inhabit this space it must be enveloped and surrounded by the elemental matter of the sea. As Merchant and Straughan suggest, the diving body continually touches and is touched by water and I am interested in exploring the geopolitical consequences of this immersion. What are the effects, for example, of the depths of the sea on the body? What features of the sea must ‘man’ negotiate if it is to inhabited for any length of time and how have militaries sought to exert control over this and master it?

2. The Body

If the first theme is interested in how the sea is immersive, the second is interested in the consequences on the body when it is immersed. For example, how have the US and UK Navies sought to engineer and manage bodies to enable them to inhabit the sea? Matt Farish‘s work on the engineering of bodies and spaces in the Arctic will be particularly helpful in exploring the biopolitical and geopolitical implications of efforts to master this ‘hostile’ environment via physiology. Both the US and UK Experimental Diving Units will be key case studies. There are also some interesting links with the element of ‘air here. Not only does the composition of air need to change for divers to breathe but technologies that enable both spaces to be inhabited seem to travel back and forth between Aeromedical and Navy submarine scientists.


A US Navy diver flies the American flag underwater

3. Mimetics and nature-military intersections

Inspired by Isla Forsyth’s work on the militarisation of nature and the role of the natural in innovations in camouflage, the third area I am interested in is the intersection of non-human sea life and the Navy. I’m particularly interested in US Navy Marine Mammal Program including the reasons behind its inception and specific projects undertaken there. The non-human bodies of dolphins, sea lions, and whales have been studied by the Navy to aid the Navy’s ‘man in the sea’ exploits – Dr Sam Ridgway, for example, writes in The Dolphin Doctor about studying the movement and breathing of dolphins to find potential areas of innovation for naval technology. Dolphins also worked alongside the Navy (and continue to do so).

It will be great to explore these further. I’ve recently started working through material on the UK Experimental Diving Unit at the National Archives so look forward to reporting back on any interesting findings.

 *To clarify, I use the phrase ‘man in the sea’ because during this period the majority of divers were men and because the US Navy structured a program around the same name.