70 years ago & today

Seventy years ago, the late Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau was having friends over to his Monte Carlo villa.

"It will happen," Captain Cousteau was saying. "Surgery will affix a set of artificial gills to man's circulatory system--right here at the neck--which will permit him to breathe oxygen from the water like a fish. Then the lungs will be by-passed and he will be able to live and breathe in any depth for any amount of time without harm. 

"Do you realize what that will mean? He will be able to observe, train, cultivate, and exploit the seas at first-hand. Maybe the first man will be an undersea farmer, or miner, or rancher. Maybe just a scientist. At any rate, there will be no depth-time barrier, we know that. When his duties are done, he will be rehabilitated to air breathing by more surgery. It will happen, I promise you."

World's first buddy team, Jacques and Simone CousteauToday, we know that Cousteau's prediction is impossible, but Cousteau's invention of the Aqualung, in 1943, revolutionized diving. It allowed people to dive fairly deep into the sea for comparatively long periods of time with the ease of a fish. As a forerunner to our modern scuba (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear, the Aqualung gave man the key to unlock the long-guarded mysteries of the sea, and in doing so, brought him face to face with one of the greatest challenges of this century!

But breathing underwater was not always as easy and comfortable as it is today. Three decades ago, the diving apparatus most often used was the one made familiar to most of us by Hollywood's early underwater movies. The hard-hat (heavy-diving) rig was invented in 1861 by an Englishman named August Siebe, and with very few changes was used for almost 100 years.

Keep that air comin' boys...In those days, the diver wore a flexible suit of rubberized canvas, shoes made of lead, and heavy lead breast plates to give him plenty of negative buoyancy, allowing him to walk on the ocean floor. A helmet, usually of copper or brass, and containing a viewing window, was fitted on a watertight collar on the suit. Compressed air was continually supplied to the helmet through a hose from an air source on the surface and allowed to escape into the water through a manually adjusted one-way valve on the side of the helmet. By opening the valve, the diver allowed the air to escape from the heavy suit and he sunk. By closing the valve, the diver inflated the suit, and he became buoyant and floated.

The helmet diver, of course, was chained to the air supply from the surface and movement was difficult and hazardous. A twisted hose meant loss of air. A compressor failure above could have made any dive his last. Should an emergency arise while the diver was down, he was unable to swim to the surface, since the suit weighed hundreds of pounds. He was totally dependent on his surface tenders for his personal safety.

Modern equipment makes diving easyToday, with scuba, diving is easy, safe and fun. An entire system, including tank, buoyancy compensator jacket, and regulator, weighs only 45 lbs. out of the water, and in the water it's weightless. With proper instruction, from a qualified professional, even the first-time diver can have a positive underwater experience.

In 1955 a test scuba course was directed by Bernard E. Empleton, using an outline prepared by the YMCA, Red Cross, and the National Academy of Sciences. Then, in 1959, the YMCA (a non-profit organization) developed the first course of instruction, and certified the first scuba diving instructors. It was the only nationally organized course in the field at the time. Just shortly thereafter, NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors), another new not-for-profit organization,  developed a similar course, and soon others, such as PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), followed. Today, there are more than 92 diving associations, including Jacques Cousteau's CMAS (Confederation Mondiale des Activites Subaquatique, or World Underwater Diving Federation).

A successfully completed PADI Rescue courseUnderworld Scuba - Scuba Shack of Manzanillo is a PADI Dive Center in Mexico, and has instructors and divemasters from the YMCA, PADI, FMAS and CMAS diving organizations. It is also a PIRA (PADI International Resort Association) member, and is listed in 13 tourist guidebooks as the number one diving company in the Manzanillo area, with 20 years in business. Although learning to dive with Underworld Scuba - Scuba Shack is easy, it wasn't always so.

Enlarge this photo to see what the G.M. is really doingGeneral Manager/owner of Underworld Scuba, Carlos Cuellar, remembers diving 40 years ago in Manzanillo: "My stepfather and I would get our steel tanks filled from an old diesel compressor (with no concern of which way the wind was blowing, or where the carbon monoxide fumes were going), strap them to our backs and take off from the beach of Audiencia (where the Hotel Tesoro is now). 

Simming with sharks 40 years ago "In those days, there were actually sharks that came into the bay. We'd be spear fishing for our dinner. We had to chase the sharks away from our bag of fish! Today, however, there are no sharks, but you will see lots of fish, rays, eels (harmless, of course), and colorful sea fans and corals. The compressor is now electric, 3-phase, and can cleanly fill an aluminum tank to 3,000 psi in just under 10 minutes. It used to take an hour for the Mexican Navy's old diesel unit to get a 2,260 "steelie" filled!

Nice choice of friends!"Friends always wanted to accompany me when I went diving, since I was the only person in Manzanillo who knew how, and had equipment," Carlos says. "One day, one of my buddies, who had hunger pangs, just couldn't wait for instruction. He strapped my tank on, put on mask and fins, and gripped my knife between his teeth. 'Light the fire and get the grill hot,' Luis shouted, 'I'm going for breakfast!' He then proceeded to take a step forward (with fins on) and fell flat on his face! The first instruction I would have given him, if he'd given me the time, was to walk backward with fins on!"

3 different models of backpacksFormer owner of the Hotel La Posada, is also an advanced diver. Bart Varelmann has dove the coves of Manzanillo for more than 50 years, and was instrumental in salvaging the Golden Gate, a cruise ship that burned and sunk off the coast of Manzanillo in 1862. 

He remembers strapping a tank to his back, jumping in and breathing until his air ran out. "There were no air pressure gauges back then," he explains. "When your regulator became hard to breathe from, it meant you were out of air, so you came up." Today Bart's equipment is the most modern, technically advanced gear available. "To ensure safety and comfort, I wouldn't be without it," he adds.

Another local divers, Anette Massing, (owner of the El Sol jewelry shop in the Plaza Manzanillo mall) also tout the advances made in diving equipment. She has a dive computer that does automatic dive calculations and stores repetitive dives in memory, allowing for all dive information to be made available for recall at some future date. One of the most popular sports in the world has now entered the computer age! 

Some things, however, never change. In the 1963 book, "Snorkel and Deep Diving," author Owen Lee recommends: "Never dive alone! Whether you be beginner or expert, snorkeler or Aqualunger, you should never enter the water without a reliable buddy by your side. 

Never dive alone!"Your diving buddy is your guardian angel, coach and ward. He can help or seek help should something happen. He can correct your mistakes and offer advice. You can do the same for him...," the book states.

On choosing the proper instructor, Lee's book continues: "A beginning diver cannot expect expert guidance from another beginning diver. No matter how good an instructional manual you may have, there is no substitute for advice, born of experience, which comes from a good instructor. 

Kiss an octopus good morning"Your instructor should be someone who has been through the ropes and can tell you what to expect and how to cope with it. A professional instructor sponsored by recognized organizations such as PADI, SSI or NAUI, is your best bet for expert and comprehensive guidance." (Remember that today, in the year 2010, there are many more recognized organizations than there were in 1963. Susan Dearing, owner of Underworld Scuba - Scuba Shack, is the only YMCA instructor in Mexico.

Underworld Scuba staffSusan is also a PADI open water scuba instructor and CMAS 3-star instructor. The staff of Underworld Scuba - Scuba Shack teach introductory scuba courses locally at the large municipal pool. Classes are also given in private residences, and  poolside at the Hotel La Posada. The new "Bubblemaker" program includes kids 8-12. PADI certifications and specialty courses are offered for all ages and levels. Classes are available in both English and Spanish, and more information can be obtained by e-mailing

If you've never tried diving before, and would like to experience the fascinating underwater world of Manzanillo, stop by the the Scuba Shack, Km. 15 Blvd. Miguel de la Madrid, Santiago (in front of the cemetery, and next door to the only Pemex gas station on the ocean side). Web page:  and web sites:,

There's a little Jacques Cousteau in everyone, so see what breathing underwater is all about, when done in a safe and fun way, with proper instruction from qualified professionals.

You're never too old to try something new!

Susan Dearing's 150-page tourist guide, "Manzanillo and the state of Colima, Facts, Tips and Day Trips," has more than 25 pages of Manzanillo's beaches, and information about snorkeling and diving.