In Depth: The Aquarius Helmet

This is part of our ongoing coverage of Mission Aquarius, what may be the last mission to the world’s only remaining undersea research base. For the full story, visit our Mission Aquarius expedition page.

I remember watching a Jacques Cousteau TV program as a kid. There were divers exploring the inside of an impossibly deep shipwreck. It looked brutally cold in the low-visibility water, as they moved through the cramped maze of metal at the bottom of the ocean. It seemed incredibly dangerous.

They didn’t have the typical cylindrical tanks and mouthpieces you expect of scuba divers. Instead, they had streamlined boxes on their backs, and helmets. They were talking to the host of the TV show, but no bubbles ever came out. My six-year old mind saw something more astronaut than diver. This was no ordinary technology.

Aquanaut DJ Roller in a Kirby Morgan helmet during saturation dive training. © Brian Lam.

Yesterday Dr. Sylvia Earle put on a similar helmet before doing a live interview while diving outside Aquarius Reef Base. The helmet kept her head dry, allowing her to talk as if she was standing next to you. (The broadcast connection is explained here.) The helmets do all this while supplying various mixtures of breathing gases, and functioning smoothly even under great pressure at extreme depths.

They’re made by Kirby Morgan Dive Systems. Founder Bev Morgan, who started making dive equipment in 1967, is known as the Jacques Cousteau of the commercial diving world, and his helmets are second to none. Since a large part of Mission Aquarius is outreach, a custom helmet was made, the “Aquarius Helmet,” with an enlarged face port, no oral/nasal mask, and internal LED lighting to show the diver’s face while on camera.

“They are super comfortable, super safe and have all the benefits of a high-end commercial dive helmet, but you can still see the divers face. As a filmmaker, having helmets that allow you to see their face and hear them is clearly important and helpful. As an explorer, it gives you a bigger view of what’s in front of you,” said veteran aquanaut and underwater cinematographer DJ Roller.

Sylvia Earle in the Aquarius Helmet. The new version of the helmet has an elarged face port so viewers can see the expression of the diver. © DJ Roller/Liquid Pictures 3D.

The helmets were used by NASA astronauts last month as they trained at Aquarius for a trip to an asteroid, and by Navy divers after a commercial airliner crashed in the Potomac River in 1982. They’re used all over the world by commercial divers for underwater construction, salvage, bridge repair and inspection, or recovering a car that sunk. The helmets are also used by all branches of the military, and combat divers (I’m pretty sure those are Navy SEALS, though they didn’t say) use a special face mask, also made by Kirby Morgan.

Engineer and designer Trent Schultz said, “They’re rated as deep as a human can go,” and while a lot of commercial work is done at the 700 to 800-foot depth, the Navy has tested the helmets up to 2400 feet down.

Diagram from Kirby Morgan 37SS helmet owner’s manual. Courtesy Kirby Morgan Dive Systems, Inc.

How do you arrive at a helmet like this? Decades of design, testing and refinement. (More on that here)


Morgan’s daughter Connie, now president of the company, said, “My dad was a surfer, and he glassed boards with Bing and Velzy. He took that expertise and made molds to make fiberglass helmet shells. He made the walking diver into a swimming diver.”

This was a quantum leap forward. In the 1960s and earlier, divers were meant to walk on the bottom, and were outfitted with weighted boots, a weight belt, and a breastplate, totaling 70 to 80 pounds. The helmet alone was 35 pounds of spun brass and metal fittings, and divers literally had to be pulled up from the bottom by a team on the surface.

Kirby Morgan’s modern helmets are mainly fiberglass, with chrome-plated brass fittings, a stainless steel neck ring, and acrylic or tempered glass face ports. They look so high-tech I expected them to weigh eight ounces, but they are intentionally built to weigh 27-32 pounds; the helmet is filled with air when diving, and if it is too light it tends to float off the diver’s head.

It turns out a 30-pound bubble is neutrally buoyant in the water. Whether training for space or tracking coral metabolism on a reef, that’s exactly what you want.

 

Below is a video of a training exercise the aquanauts go through to prepare for an emergency in which their helmet floods with water.

 

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