Of billions of humans, Camarillo’s Robert Bornholdt is one of the few who can be called an aquanaut.
In the late 1960s, the U.S. Navy launched a program inspired by the work and theories of one George Bond. That program, dubbed Sealab, would lead to the implementation of so-called saturation diving that allowed divers to live, work, eat and sleep hundreds of feet beneath the ocean’s surface in pressurized capsules. Lessons learned from the short-lived program are still in use today, utilized in covert operations and deep-sea exploration.
Bornholdt achieved his dream of working with Bond and the aquanauts during Sealab III, which would meet an untimely, tragic end. The program itself was lost to history, submerged in the murky waters of the Cold War. A documentary dubbed Sealab, based in part on the book Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwarth, will premiere on PBS Tuesday, Feb. 12 on PBS and will feature interviews with Bornholdt and many of the former aquanauts, as well as unique, fascinating footage.
VCReporter: Tell me about your experience in the Navy. When did you enlist and what were your duties?
Bob Bornholdt: I came out of the merchant marine academy in Kings Point, New York, and came in as an officer. I went to diving school and was a Navy diver for most of my time in the Navy. After I left the Navy, I was a commercial diver for about 10 years.
How did you become aware of Sealab?
Soon after I got into the Navy, I read about the program. I wasn’t a qualified Navy diver at the time, but I’d been through some mixed-gas training with some explosive ordinance people that I knew, so I was an unqualified, qualified diver, and I read about the experiment and wrote Capt. George Bond. He’s a guy who really thought this whole thing up. They were getting ready to do Sealab I off of Bermuda, about 200 feet, with four aquanauts. I wrote him a letter and said, “I’m the kind of guy you need, you’ve got to get me in this program.” Of course, he was trying to get money from the Navy and didn’t have time for people like me, and nothing happened. A year later, Sealab II was planned and again I wrote him and said, “Now I am a qualified diver, you really need me in this program,” and, of course, he never answered — and then Sealab III came about, which was the deep 600 footer and I wrote him again and he did not answer me. But one thing led to another and I actually got assigned to Sealab III. I became an aquanaut and worked with him closely for several years and the rest is history.
What was his reaction when you told him you were the guy sending him those letters?
He was so busy, he was way up on the food chain, way above me and he was dealing with the president’s staff. George was a thinking man, and very brilliant. When George died, we all went and buried him next to his wife in Bat Cave, North Carolina.
What was your initial impression of the idea of saturation diving?
I was in my late 20s, when you’re indestructible and you want to do all kinds of things like that. I said, “This is for me, this is what I want to do.” When I saw the movie Exodus I almost left the country and went over to Israel and joined the Jews, I was ready for adventure.
Explain what it feels like to pressurize for deep sea dives.
It’s like being inside a bottle of Pepsi and everything is fizzing. Your whole body fizzes. But that’s the concept that George Bond came up with. What if instead of putting a guy down to 200 feet and decompressing them for the rest of the day, why not leave them there until he’s saturated and let him get the job done? Pressurize him, put him in a bell at the same pressure, let him eat, sleep, shower, get up and go to work, stay there for a week or a month at that pressure and then when he’s done then decompress him. That was the concept of saturation diving that George Bond thought up and pioneered. We lived at 600 feet for a little over a week, we were saturated, and you had to stay at that pressure. When we were all done it took one day to decompress for every 100 feet, so it took us six days to decompress. Since Sealab, there’s been several dives to over 1,000 feet, so you can imagine the guy’s working on these capsules, going out to work each day and going back to the capsule, getting ready to decompress, it’s 10 days of decompression. That’s still used all over the world today because of Bond, Jacques Cousteau and Ed Link, who did the same thing as a civilian in this country.
Scott Carpenter, the second man to orbit the planet, was also an aquanaut. What was your experience like working with him?
It was great. He spent all of his time in the Navy hobnobbing with the big guys, but really, he didn’t know a lot about the ins and outs, but he was a very bright guy and very detailed. In Sealab III, I was a team leader, there were five of us, and we’d meet every other day with Carpenter and he’d explain what was going on in the shipyard, what the schedule was. He had a bone necrosis and he couldn’t dive anymore and the doctors were afraid to decompress him, so he became a mentor and he wasn’t allowed to dive. No BS about him, just a great guy.
Sealab III ended with the tragic death of aquanaut Berry Cannon. How well did you know Berry?
I worked with him on a daily basis for two years. Knew him quite well.
Why wouldn’t the hatch on Sealab III open?
Sealab III was leaking, and in order to keep it from flooding, they had to keep the pressure on it, and the timing was such that when the aquanauts tried to open the hatch, the guy on the valve was keeping pressure on the hatch to keep it from flooding and he couldn’t open it. It was a timing problem between the first and second dive.
What are/were your thoughts on the incident? What could have been done differently?
It’s like anything that a group does for the first time. There’s a lot of risk involved. Just look at your test pilots, your submariners, it was the same thing. We were making up the rules as we went along. There were no such animals as aquanauts until we became aquanauts. There were no saturation decompression tables until we made them. The rules were completely different. We had to adjust to helium, sounding like Mickey Mouse when you talked, there was one thing after another. There were a lot of minor mishaps along the way. Guys would lose hearing, get hurt, but like any program of that magnitude you’ve got to break a couple of eggs. Unfortunately, Berry got caught in a real mess there.
You said that you salvaged the original Sealab?
It’s in Panama City, Florida, right now. I was the Commanding Officer of the experimental diving unit in Panama City, Florida, and Sealab was sitting out in the sand, just sitting there for fish to occupy it. I got together with a couple of guys and decided to salvage it, fix it up and give it to the local museum. It took us about a month to get it out of the sand, refurbish it, and convince people to lift it up for us and run it downtown.
How do you feel about the legacy of Sealab? It’s not exactly well known to many.
I used to go around to the schools and explain to the kids what we were doing. You tell people “I’m a saturation diver,” 99.9 percent of the population can’t relate to that and has no idea what that means. There’s only 300 at the most saturation divers. It’s a pretty narrow discipline.
What’s the next harsh environment to conquer?
As we speak, all the stuff we did, all the pieces of equipment are in use today. We’ve got stuff going on against the Russians, we’re spying on the French, British, Saudi Arabia, Canada, everybody. And they’re spying on us using that same technology. The idea of Sealab was having a house down there [— that] was complete[ly] romantic. You shoot holes in it from the very beginning, saying, “This is silly. Why not put a guy in the bell?” Let the guy go out of the bell and come back, same pressure. Bring the bell up, put it on a ship, climb into the ship, eat, sleep, shower, go to work again. That’s what’s happening today. All the world is using saturation diving, repairing oil rigs, finding stuff that’s lost and the ability today, realistically, is at about 1,000 feet. If you go deeper than 1,000 feet, you need a robot.
How do you define the legacy of the George Bond experiments?
He’s the one that thought this thing up and Jacques Cousteau jumped on it and started doing it and a guy named Ed Link, a real famous engineer, got into saturation diving and from there we exported it to the British and the French. His legacy lives today. I don’t know how many dives are going on right now as we speak around the world but they’re using George’s technique right now.