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Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor Hardcover – January 10, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In the 1950s, naval medical doctor George Bond evangelized a vision of submarine habitats that was realized in the 1960s in three successive projects called Sealab. A deadly accident with Sealab III, however, terminated a program that journalist Hellwarth reconstructs. Sealab’s genesis lay in Bond’s research into the physiology of diving, though Hellwarth underscores that Bond’s imagination ranged far beyond devising safe procedures. To Bond, “inner space” was as significant a frontier of exploration as outer space, an idea supported by the addition of Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter to his team. Dozens of others completed the Sealab rosters, many of whom Hellwarth interviewed. With details of their submersible activities, Hellwarth strives to animate a narrative about the Sealabs—stationary, pressurized vessels that were lowered by crane to the seafloor and ran in place until something went wrong. Such perilous incidents supply Hellwarth’s dramatic peaks, while, overall, his assemblage of living memory about Sealab constitutes important historical preservation of its place, possibly as cover for deep-sea espionage activities, in the annals of the U.S. Navy. --Gilbert Taylor


“During the same period that NASA was working toward putting a man on the moon, the U.S. Navy was testing ways for people to thrive underwater. This tale of the ill-fated Sealab project (whose impact is still felt in deep-sea diving) is as captivating as an adventure novel.”

“It’s Hellwarth’s eye for anecdote—pranks the aquanauts played on their commanding officers, the sparkling wine they drank at 200 feet below sea level even though the high pressure forced out the fizz—that brings this long-shuttered program back to life.”

“A thrilling, true-life adventure that transports the reader to a place as foreboding, exciting, and dangerous as outer space. Ben Hellwarth’s Sealab is more than a great history of unsung American explorers. It is a tale of man’s deepest desires and grandest ambitions, and his willingness to risk it all for dreams as vast as the ocean floor itself.”
—Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers

“[Hellwarth] combines the work of a diligent investigative reporter with that of a feature writer . . . Ben Hellwarth has produced a fascinating history of man in the sea. It is a book well worth reading, whether you are an aficionado of undersea operations or a casual reader who likes a great sea story.”
Naval History

Sealab is a must read for anyone who wants to know the true story behind America’s Man-in-the-Sea Program, complete with all of its triumphs and tragedies.”
—Dr. Robert D. Ballard, Deep Sea Explorer and author of The Discovery of the Titanic

“I grew up with Sealab and Conshelf. Our decisionmakers need to focus on the importance of one of our vital life support systems—the ocean, 70% of our planet. This incredibly detailed, precise book should be read by those who care about our future so they can start planning by basing their passion and decisions on solid foundations.”
—Jean-Michel Cousteau, founder and president, Ocean Futures Society

“A remarkably stirring narrative filled with an awe-inducing cast of scientific adventurers who risked life and limb to not only explore the ocean’s depths, but to make them their own. What Tom Wolfe revealed in such riveting detail of the space program in The Right Stuff, Ben Hellwarth matches here for underwater discovery.”
—Neal Bascomb, author of The Perfect Mile and Hunting Eichmann

“Ben Hellwarth’s engrossing, meticulously researched chronicle of America’s quest to live underwater doesn’t merely recount a forgotten chapter in contemporary history. It reminds us of a time when the country had big, larger-than-life ideas—and the Right Stuff-sized characters to plunge into them.”
—David Browne, author of Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970

“Painstakingly reported and beautifully written, Sealab is proof that American literary journalism is alive and well. How deep under the water can man go, and how long can he stay there? Sealab is Ben Hellwarth’s fascinating answer.”
—Robert S. Boynton, Director of Literary Reportage Concentration, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University, and author of The New New Journalism

"Intelligently and accurately recorded, Ben Hellwarth's Sealab finally brings the historically significant story of America's daring aquanauts out of the long shadow of the nation's astronauts. Jules Verne himself would have been proud to tell this tale of teamwork and raw courage, with its colorful cast of divers boldly attempting to go far deeper into a hostile ocean and stay down far longer than ever before. Sealab is a magnificent book that honors those who risked all for science and their country.
—Leslie Leaney, Founder and Publisher, The Journal of Diving History

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1St Edition edition (January 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743247450
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743247450
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #189,552 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ben Hellwarth grew up in Southern California and could often be found at the beach before moving north to attend UC Berkeley. He got his journalism career started in the San Francisco Bay Area and was a staff writer in the 1990s for the Santa Barbara News-Press, then part of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, where he won a number of notable awards and got the seed of the idea for "SEALAB," his well-received first book. "SEALAB" is also the first-ever account of how a cadre of adventurous U.S. Navy scientists and divers - along with such personalities as Jacques Cousteau and the American inventor Ed Link - showed that deep-sea divers could do a lot more than just pay brief visits to the sub-aquatic world: They could live down there. Ben's writing has lately appeared in a variety of outlets, including The New York Times, Discover magazine, and The Huffington Post. Visit him at and

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By CJ on February 9, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a very good book for several reasons:
- The writing style is excellent. The author tells a story with a good balance between the personalities, the challenges, and the science/physiology of underwater habitats. The story-telling is first-class. There are some larger-than-life personalities involved like Jacques Cousteau and astronaut Scott Carpenter, and this history is set in an interesting environment of exploration and competition.
- The detail is amazing. The author leaves no stone unturned, and covers every aspect from the design of the habitats to the medical science of saturation diving and decompression. The book covers every step in the process of bringing the idea of underwater living to reality, including all of the pressure chamber tests conducted prior to the first Sealab deployment.

Overall: I gave this rating 4-stars because it is so detailed, so exhaustive, that it will probably only satisfy readers with a very strong interest in underwater habitats. There are a lot of non-fiction books out there that take a subject and make it available to the average reader. "Sealab" is too detailed and its coverage of the subject too thorough to qualify as a book to capture the interest of an average reader. That is not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends what you're looking for. I thought the account got bogged down by the details, but other readers may object to a broader survey of events that are just not covered in other works.

NOTE: I put a lot of effort in capturing the strengths and weaknesses of this book as I perceived them and I welcome comments and feedback on this review.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Alan Dorfman VINE VOICE on January 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Anyone who has ever watched Star Trek has heard the narration proclaiming outer space to be the "Final Frontier." It might be a great sound bite for the times but even while astronauts were circling the planet and landing on the moon and as the famous "space race" with the Russians was in full throttle there was another frontier waiting to be explored. This was Earth's inner space, otherwise known as our oceans. Ben Hellwarth's new book "Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest To Live And Work On The Ocean Floor" is the compelling true story of America's attempt at dominion over the seas.

In the early 1960s, Navy Doctor George Bond authored a proposal to explore and make a presence on the ocean floor. He felt it would not only be beneficial to the Navy in terms of military and rescue acumen but there would also be spin-offs into civilian life, much like the ongoing space program led to Teflon and Tang, as well as "endeavors such as mineral mining, marine biology, and marine archaeology" (although it would be oil drilling that would be the greatest beneficiary). As the author says about Dr. Bond, he "believed that undersea exploration would bring the next generation of antibiotics, and that massive supplies of fresh water that boiled up from the continental shelf could be tapped. He believed, too, that the very survival of the human species depended on our ability to take up residence on the seabed and learn to harvest the ocean's edible protein."

Even though the concept of living on the ocean floor goes at least as far back as Jules Verne, Dr. Bonds' "Proposal for Underwater Research" with his exploration and exploitation ideas was rejected by the Navy. A former country doctor used to working on his own, Dr.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By JB on February 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a terrific story about a barely noticed but remarkable undertaking: the Navy's attempt to create useful habitats for divers farther and farther down under the ocean surface. The author does a fantastic job of describing how the program started, who conceived it, how it evolved, what milestones were reached, what obstacles it faced, who partook in the events, and its ultimate fate. Interesting histories of the diving technology that preceded and post-dated the experiments are woven throughout. It's especially impressive how the complicated science involved in 'saturation diving' is explained in easy to understand terminology. I can't imagine the amount of work that went into collecting the years of data, and then reducing it all down and presenting it in a way that reads like a novel. From page one we meet an extremely interesting cast of characters; there is always someone to pull for. Although this is ostensibly an account of a series of underwater experiments it is really a story about personalities, ambition, and achievement. 'Sealab' is quite an accomplishment: a work of non-fiction that is truly informative but written with all requisite suspense, surprise, tragedy and triumph attendant to classic adventure stories -- highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Joe Follansbee on March 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The author of this book does an excellent job of reminding Americans of an equally dangerous quest to inner space, the depths of the ocean, when astronauts were exploring outer space. Although the text could have used more quotes and anecdotes from the participants, some of the passages are vivid, particularly when the "aquanauts" pushed the boundaries, some giving their lives. Sadly, the book also reminds us that the USA has pulled back from these explorations, just as it has pulled back from the exploration of space; there's currently no way for astronauts to travel outside our atmosphere without hitching a ride from the Russians. Let's hope this pause is really just a preface to another chapter of inner space exploration.
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