It had been eight years since Pat Regan and I first discussed this project. There were many emails and messages sent back and forth; but like many things, slow and steady won the race.
We had done what others had dreamt of but no-one else had ever accomplished. We brought Harper Goff and Fred Zendar’s esoteric 20,000 Leagues Diving Apparatus back to life; not only in look but in function. Now, it was time to dive them for the cameras.
Pat lives near Hilo on the Big Island’s East coast and knows the region like the back of his hand. When we decided to dive the Nemo and the Crew suit for the cameras, he knew just the place; Kapoho, a coastal area where tide pools are like giant natural swimming pools; some are acres in size and about 15 feet deep; absolutely perfect for this project.
So what was the project? Just two guys who set out to dive a couple of Leagues rigs? Well, not exactly.
To back up a bit, Pat’s been in the Leagues community a long time, and Leaguers come to the table with multiple points of interest. Some are scale modelers who get a kick out of replicating the Disney Nautilus. Some simply enjoy Walt Disney’s cinematic vision of Jules Verne’s writings.
And then there are the collectors; those who gather memorabilia, movie posters, and the rarest of the rare, original artifacts from the movie.
The ultimate collector’s trophy is an original helmet. Pat has one, as does his longtime friend, diving helmet authority Leon Lyons. The Lyons Maritime Museum of St. Augustine Florida (one of the largest diving helmet collections in the world) has an authentic 20,000 Leagues “Crowntop” Crew Diver helmet. Actual “screen used” helmets are among the rarest and most valuable of all diving helmet collectibles.
Leon’s 1984 reference book Helmets of the Deep is generally considered to be the definitive guide to vintage and antique diving helmets. And when Leon heard about our project he wanted to feature it in his revised edition, Helmets of the Deep Returns.
So now we had a mission; not only to document the systems for ourselves but to be a part of the largest and most comprehensive diving helmet reference book in the world. We prepared for an event we came to call Operation Undersea 2 (in honor of Disney’s 1954 TV documentary) and I booked my flight to Hawaii. When preparing to dive systems such as these, one doesn’t just bolt on a helmet and jump in. There’s a process beginning with the double hose regulator the breathing apparatus is based upon. I had never dived a double hose before, so Pat introduced me to a vintage Aqua Lung DA in his swimming pool.
The next step was a full familiarization with the equipment. This is where I saw the attention to detail; the bending, the soldering, the riveting; everything that went into making these works of functional art. I saw how the canvas, leather, copper, and brass came together as a complete life support system where each piece has a purpose as conceived by Goff and Zendar back in 1952.
After learning the basic and emergency operating procedures we’d be using, there was some dry-walking practice in the high-top diving boots; then, we were ready. Kapoho is about an hour outside of Hilo and is quintessential Hawaii. Black lava sets the stage; as palm trees and crystal clear waters define the landscape.
Our accommodations were a nice vacation rental on the lagoon with a natural lava “launch ramp” sloping gently into the water from the backyard.
The bottom of the pools are, as I said, covered with corals. You might be thinking, “How does one walk through a coral garden, with weighted boots and 200 pounds of gear?”
The trick is to avoid the coral and walk only in areas of solid or broken lava, but first you have to know where those areas are. So, using snorkel and SCUBA, we made several exploratory dives; mapping the lagoon floor to familiarize ourselves with the safe areas before diving the Leagues rigs.
Then, we carried all of the heavy Leagues equipment from the truck to the water’s edge, and began to gear up. We were a small team: just Pat, his wife Lynn, and I. It was a lot of hard physical work and Pat expressed a newfound respect for what the Disney Divers had accomplished decades before.
For the actual diving, we all had to multi-task as required. I dived the Nemo rig while Pat and Lynn
served as tenders, photographers and safety divers. And when Pat dove the Crowntop, I tended and manned the cameras while Lynn covered safety.
Diver safety is paramount with a Leagues rig because one cannot freely ascend in an emergency. To compensate, safety divers have separate tanks available nearby with long “hookah” hoses to supply air in an emergency; as Disney had done at Lyford Cay 64 years ago. We stayed on site at Kapoho and dived for one night and two days, filming and photographing everything Leon needed for the book; which has grown to over 500 pages and 7000+ photos, BTW.
Aside from one minor problem with a harness adjustment and a broken breastplate lug stud; everything went smoothly.
For the size of our crew, we got a lot of pictures and videos taken and had a blast doing it.
A Leagues rig is like your own form-fitting “walking submarine” where your head is in a dry, air-conditioned compartment. On dry land, the equipment is very heavy; but underwater we were almost weightless and could travel in leaps and bounds. We could converse by talking at close range and sometimes it was nice to close the exhaust valve and listen to the sounds of the sea.
All in all, it was a uniquely enjoyable diving experience. As I said at the time, “This must be what it’s like to walk on the moon.”
And we’re happy to report that, in two days of diving, we broke not so much as one delicate coral. Since 2007, Pat has built more helmets and is in the process of getting his Nautilus Minisub seaworthy again for a speculative TV documentary featuring the submarine and diving suits together underwater in Hawaii. But that’s not all.
In 2013 he published a book entitled VULCANIUM: The Secret of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus; a 20,000 Leagues prequel which explains how the submarine and renegade crew came to be.
It’s not often that one encounters someone with as much passion and perseverance as Pat exhibits towards 20,000 Leagues underwater technologies, and it was an honor to be involved from the beginning.
And who knows? Maybe one day Disney will discover Pat’s book (and 2015 screenplays) and we’ll get to see Captain Nemo (diving Aquala suits, of course) on the silver screen once again.
As faithful as we’ve been to the original designs and concepts, I think Walt would approve.