People & Culture

Maritime historian Vickie Jensen discusses her new book chronicling the stories of underwater trailblazers

Deep, Dark and Dangerous explores the fascinating story of how British Columbia became a world leader in the underwater tech industry — and the individuals who made it happen

  • Oct 21, 2022
  • 1,128 words
  • 5 minutes

What do submarines, Newsuits and underwater robotics have in common? The answer: British Columbia.

In her newest book, Deep, Dark and Dangerous, Vickie Jensen explores the captivating story of how B.C. has become a world leader in the undersea tech industry. Jensen spent four years researching, then interviewing these underwater trailblazers to tell their remarkable stories.

The author grew up in a small rural town in landlocked Iowa where she was as far from the ocean as one could possibly get. Her father had been in World War Two and didn’t talk much about his experience except for one instance where he spoke about his time as a hard-hat diver while in the navy. Jensen was fascinated by these stories — watched Sea Hunt (a popular 1950s TV series about a navy diver) avidly and dreamed of having a pair of magic glasses that would let her see underwater.

In a recent interview with Canadian Geographic, Jensen, who is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, discusses the inspiration for her 14th book, the messages she hopes to share and what findings shocked her.

On the inspiration for the book

The inspiration in a roundabout way was getting this wonderful job of editing a brand-new maritime trade journal in B.C. called Westcoast Mariner. Every month for four years, I went on a different kind of coastal work boat. Tugboats, dredges, car ferries and charter boats — any working boat aside from a fishing boat, because we had a sister publication called West Coast Fishermen. You would just learn. It was like just being dropped into the pot; you just learned intensively and it was an opportunity.

I was comfortable working in what was predominantly a male environment then, interviewing those guys about what it was like to work on a dredge or what it was like to work on Coast Guard. I tried to give our readers that experience and that was just wonderful training for this book.

Then one day, one of the readers of Westcoast Mariner came to me and said, “Okay, you write about everything that happens on the water, but what’s happening under the water?” And I was speechless. That was Harry Bohm, who became co-author with me on subsequent publications. He was the lab manager for Simon Fraser University’s underwater research lab at the time and he introduced me to the wonderful world of submersibles.

On the challenges she faced 

One of the main frustrations was that everybody I interviewed also recommended more  people to talk to. I really pushed the word limit and the photo limit on this book. And there were so many people that we found out about afterwards that I would’ve loved to have been included. This is a big industry.

As well, many people were recounting things that happened 40-50 years ago so sometimes versions varied and you had to reconcile that. There were occasional differences of opinions — sometimes strong differences of opinions — and I had to figure that out and work it out. But mostly, it was just a delight for people who were so excited and honoured that the story was going to be told.

On the importance of  this story

I guess one of the readers summed it up perfectly. He said, “These guys are real Canadian heroes but nobody knows about them.” These people are doing amazing stuff underwater! Space gets a lot of coverage, and underwater exploration gets very little. And B.C. isn’t the only place this is happening. Memorial University in Newfoundland has wonderful programs and there are certain universities and technical colleges that are preparing people to work in this field.

On the impact on her own thinking

Today we are taught to avoid problems. But these guys had problems coming at them all the time. And so, they saw a problem as an opportunity. Sometimes it was an opportunity to devise a new invention and find a different way to do something. They weren’t afraid of failure because they were trying stuff that was so new. They learned from their failures and kept going. There was the value of hard work and the joy of problem-solving and exploration that you have to keep your sense of humour.

On her hopes for future ocean exploration

Well, I go back to something I didn’t realize until I started writing this book — that the commercial diving revolution that took place in the 50s is very similar to what we’re facing today. In the 1950s, the working depths for a commercial diver went from less than 100 feet to 1,000 feet in a decade. And part of that was the push for oil drilling offshore. That push to go deeper and do more was getting people killed but it was also getting so much exploration done. And it was big money, you know. Very typically, $1,000 a minute and so there was big pressure to make it work and get it happening. 

That same push to go deeper was also true for subsea crafts. So, we went from small submersibles to ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), which were unmanned explorers and then to AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), which didn’t have the tether, and then to cable seafloor observatories. And now we have fleets of tiny Argo floats and solar-powered gliders and other craft that operate independently for long periods of time. So, that’s all happened in a very short period of time.

In the future, I think we’ll see more data transfer. And lighter-weight materials are always coming online and that makes a huge difference because it just takes less power. New types of materials in technology, alternative power sources and better battery storage capability will allow equipment to operate longer. Modular construction which is really important when you’re moving things for their flexibility and adaptability. The miniaturization and equipment that can transform to fit into extremely tight space limitations in job requirements. That’s happening in space but also underwater and those two industries are very similar in respect.

The more data we collect, the greater the global awareness we have in terms of the role that oceans play in our planet’s balance. We have to be aware that the ocean is not the garbage dump it was once considered to be and that there’s so much more going on down there.

On what shocked her

Just how tough it is to work underwater. People talk about how tough it is in space, but underwater the sense of pressure is so ominous and dangerous and a force to be reckoned with. It’s also doggone deep and doggone dark. The determination and willingness of people to do this work was pretty remarkable to me.

Inventing a better Atmospheric Diving Suit (ADS) with flexible, rotary joints was Phil Nuytten’s long-time dream. The result was his Newtsuit, followed by an updated Exosuit and now the Ironsuit 2000 for work down to 2,000 ft (610 m). (Photo: personal collection of Phil Nuytten)
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Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe’s notable subsea career included 120 dives in Pisces IV, then years with the ROV ROPOS and ROPOS II (see photo), followed by work with Dr. John Delaney to set up and launch the cabled subsea observatories VENUS and NEPTUNE. (Photo: personal collection of Verena Tunnicliffe)
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Inuktun has designed several vehicles for inspecting nuclear power plants (photo shows Scott Robinson with a modified stainless steel version of his father’s SeaMor ROV) and monitoring nuclear waste sites. Inuktun also sent a custom snake-like crawler into the bottom of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactor after its meltdown following the 2011 tsunami. (Photo: personal collection of Al Robinson)
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Al Trice, Mack Thomson and Don Sorte perch on the skeletal structure of International Hydrodynamics’ (HYCO) first Pisces submersible built at Vancouver Iron Works. The trio originally planned a $20,000 submersible they’d build in three months—it would be the first in Canada! In fact, Pisces I would take 26 months and cost $100,000. However, the insider joke was that the real cost was $300,000 and three wives. (Photo: personal collection of Al Trice and Pete Edgar)
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Phil Nuytten is known for his creative design, whether it’s fabricating submersibles, crafting a prototype dive mask to provide greater visibility for actors in the movie The Abyss, or making adaptions that created his next ADS upgrade, the Exosuit (shown in the background). (Photo: Vickie Jensen)
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If extreme conditions challenged the design and operation of subsea equipment, the same is true for humans. Helmut Lanziner vividly recalls working in -40 degree temperatures. (Photo: personal collection of Helmut Lanziner)
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Beginning in the mid ‘60s, International Submarine Company (HYCO) became known for its Pisces class submersibles, many of which they also operated. Al Trice’s observations of Pisces I resulted in design changes for all subsequent subs; all could be moved easily by rail, road or air--a bonus as subsea work became global. (Photo: Gino Gemma)
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Al Trice, the HYCO partner known for his “water smarts” and practical solutions, stands in the partially finished main hull for Pisces I. (Photo: personal collection of Al Trice.)
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When working in the Arctic, International Submarine Engineering’s (ISE’s) Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) recharge their batteries, exchange data and upload new instructions without ever leaving the water. (Photo: Collection of ISE Ltd.)
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Tom Gilchrist wears a "Unsuit" with Rod Butler helping adjust a Rat Hat, preparatory to diving through the ice in Tuktoyaktuk in the Canadian High Arctic, circa 1982. (Photo: Bill Belsey, courtesy Nuytco)
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This 1990 Russian stamp commemorated the work of the two controversial Pisces submersibles that HYCO supplied to the Soviet Union. (Photo: personal collection of Al Robinson)
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Dennis Hurd’s company Atlantis Submarines owns more submarines than many countries, including Canada! But his ten subs, including the Atlantis I, shown under construction in 1984-5, have enabled over 17 million ordinary folks to gaze at the extraordinary wonders of the world’s oceans. Atlantis I has operated in the Grand Cayman Islands for over 30 years. (Photo courtesy of Atlantis Submarines Ltd.)
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Mark Atherton, shown here working on a 1993 side-scan survey of Vancouver for the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) (Photo: personal collection of Mark Atherton)
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Dr. Alison Proctor is one of the new generation of subsea scientists. She works for the Burnaby, B.C.-based company Ocean Floor Geophysics. One of her main responsibilities is piloting the large AUV Hugin, shown ready to launch. (Photo: Personal collection of Alison Proctor)
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Inuktun partners Al Robinson and Terry Knight examine one of the early small tracked vehicles that Al initially designed. Capable of changing shape and climbing stairs, it was the start of many miniature, tracked vehicles the company would become famous for. (Photo: personal collection of Terry Knight)
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Mesotech’s revolutionary pipe-trench profiling sonar was a creative solution to complex drilling in the Beaufort Sea (1977). Instead of being towed, it was lowered through a semi-submersible drill rig’s moon pool and the scanning part of the sonar head rotated mechanically to conduct a profile/search of the seabed. (Photo: personal collection of Helmut Lanziner)
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In 1994, Atlantis Submarines launches Atlantis XIV, the world’s largest passenger submarine. It operates in Waikiki and can accommodate 64 passengers each trip. (Photo courtesy of Atlantis Submarines)
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The official 1966 launch of HCYO’s Pisces I submersible was a quiet celebration for Al Trice, Mack Thomson and Don Sorte. They knew there was still plenty to do for the submersible to be functional. (Photo: personal collection of Al Trice and Pete Edgar)
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