Northwest Diving History Association

The Keller Dive

by Thomas Tillman

Two human occupants sat inside the steel cylinder called Atlantis as it was lowered into the waters off Catalina Island, California at precisely 12:06 pm on December 3, 1962. This cylinder was destined to make history on that day. The deck of the operations ship, Eureka, was filled with anticipation as Swiss scientist Hannes Keller and British journalist Peter Small descended to be the first human beings to ever set foot on the Continental Shelf, approximately 1,000 feet below the surface. This historic event epitomized scientific triumph under the sea, but would also end in the tragic loss of two men's lives.

The story begins in Switzerland in the late 1950's when Hannes Keller was teaching engineering in his native town of Winterhur. Keller was looking for a hobby to keep him occupied and early attempts at flying proved too costly for the young teacher. He was finally turned on to skin diving by a friend and he focused his efforts and spare time on learning all he could about the sport. He discovered through his research that very little was known about diving science and that the scuba equipment available limited free divers to less that 300 ft. Keller's scientific curiosity led him to come up with the theory that a diver could breathe a different combination of gases than those that make up the air we usually breathe and thereby extend the depth limitations imposed by human physiology.

Keller discovered that several scientists, and even the U.S. Navy, had been experimenting for years with mixed gases and an engineer from Sweden made a successful dive to 600 ft., but died because of mistakes by the support team on the surface. Based on this experiment, Keller went to the University of Zurich to meet with Dr. Albert Buehlmann, who specialized in the respiratory and circulation systems. Buehlmann told Keller that he believed that narcosis was caused by Carbon Dioxide, not Nitrogen, as previously thought. These two scientists agreed to work together and Buehlmann recommended what gases Keller could use to make a safe deep dive. Keller attempted to use these gases by diving to 400 ft. in Lake Zurich in a converted oil drum. The dive proved successful without any medical problems. Keller was ready to test the limits of the Buehlmann gas mixture.

Using early computer technology, Keller fed a quarter million computations into an early computer to find ascent times, depths, and decompression procedures. (Author's note: This computer had a specific name - I can call IBM if you think it would help) Armed with the secret Buehlmann gas mixture and these new calculations, Keller began to experiment with ever increasing depths. In 1960, he made a 500 ft. dive and a two person dive to 728 ft. in Lake Maggiore, Italy, breaking the previous record of 600 ft. (made by a British Navy helmet diver).

After this record breaking attempt, Keller was contacted by the U.S. Navy and they gave him a grant to continue his research for potential use in rescuing men off submarines. Keller proceeded to plan the historic 1,000 ft. dive to take place off Catalina Island. He built the 7'x4.5' Atlantis with a hatch in the bottom so divers could exit and enter at depth.

Keller arrived in Los Angeles in mid-November with a team of men who had helped him with previous dives, and a journalist named Peter Small, who had persuaded Keller to let him accompany him on the record dive. Two local divers soon joined the crew, a experienced diver named Dick Anderson and a British Sub Aqua Club diver who was attending UCLA named Chris Whittaker. These two men became the "safety divers" for the record dive. Shell Oil Company had provided a decompression chamber and a ship named the Eureka for the dive. Skin Diver Magazine had funded the communications center and had sent dive training pioneer and writer Al Tillman to record the event and the U.S. Navy sent three officers to observe the dive. Skin Diver Magazine also arranged for several boats to hold observers and journalists from around the world to witness the event.

On the morning of December 3, 1962 the Eureka departed from Avalon on Catalina Island bound for an area where the bottom registered a little over 1,000 ft. Small and Keller had made several preliminary dives, one of which was to 300 ft., where Keller and Small swam outside the Atlantis for 1 hour. Small came down with a mild case of the Bends after one of the preliminary dives but was treated and given the go ahead for the final dive. At around 10:30, the Eureka was located over the dive site and Small and Keller began preparing for the dive.

A little after 12:00 the Atlantis began its decent. Keller and Small switched over to the special gas mixture strapped on their backs at 250 ft. At 12:29 the Atlantis reached 1,020 ft. Several minutes later the Navy observers, and both the American and Swiss crews watched on television screens as the dark figure of Hannes Keller exited the hatch of the Atlantis and made history comparable to Neal Armstrong's first step on the moon or Charles Limbergh's Paris landing. But that moment also marks the beginning of a series of mishaps that would end in the deaths of Peter Small and Chris Whittaker.

Soon after exiting the Atlantis, Keller dropped the Swiss and American flags that he planned on planting on the sea floor to mark the event. Keller had refilled Small's tanks, but decided to plant the flags with only three minutes of gas in his tanks. On his way out the hatch, Keller's mask became entangled with the flags and two of his three minutes were lost in getting untangled. He immediately returned to the Atlantis and he and Small closed the hatch ... then came the fatal mistake.

Keller was disoriented when he returned to the Atlantis and instead of refilling his tanks with the Buehlmann gas mixture, he opened the air valves and filled the Atlantis with ordinary air. Keller ripped off his mask to breathe the air and within 30 seconds he had passed out. The surface crew began raising the Atlantis immediately, much of the scene had been witnessed on the closed-circuit television screens above, but Small passed out two minutes after Keller and neither could be seen after that point. Within six minutes of reaching the bottom, the Atlantis was halted at 200 feet because the it was not maintaining pressure which would have caused severe decompression problems. Anderson and Whittaker went to check the Atlantis. After reaching the bell, the two divers found and closed the external valves and returned to the surface, but the Atlantis was still not maintaining pressure. Al Tillman and Cmdr. Nickerson both warned Anderson not to go down for another dive. Despite the fact the Whittaker's nose was bleeding and he appeared tired, the two divers took it on their own to descend again where they discovered the pressure loss was due to the tip of result of Keller's fin being stuck in the hatch preventing a proper closure. Anderson cut the fin and the hatch sealed and Anderson sent Whittaker to the surface. Anderson was forced to the surface to find out why the Atlantis was not being raised after several minutes. Tillman recalls his words, "The hatch is closed," he said. "Where's Chris?" Chris Whittaker was never seen again and his body was never recovered.

At around 1:00 pm the Atlantis was lowered onto the Eureka with Keller and Small unconscious inside. Keller awoke at around 1:05 pm, but Small remained unconscious until 2:30 pm. Dr. Buehlmann interviewed both men by phone from the outside. The Eureka was headed for shore by this time. When the Eureka finally arrived and the Atlantis was being lowered onto the Long Beach Pier with Keller and Small still in decompression, Small once again lost consciousness. When the Atlantis was finally opened around 7:00 pm, Small had no pulse and was immediately rushed to the Navy Hospital Ship USS Haven where he was pronounced dead. Keller came out with no negative physical effects, but was faced with both the legal questions and the emotional problems that were to result from the loss of two friends during his record dive.

The events of December 3, 1962, despite its tragic aspects, were an historic step toward significantly advancing undersea research. Keller and Buehlmann's work was cornerstone research for much of the mixed gas technology the followed. Keller had proven his theory and brushed aside the long decompression ordeals the proceeded his experiment. The oil companies benefited by this new technology because it provided the industry with less cumbersome means of working on the sea floor. The Navy also benefited from their initial investment of funds and personnel with new calculations that advanced their knowledge of submarine rescue procedures.

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