From Danger Zone to World of Wonder: The 1950s Transformation of the Ocean’s Depths

Helen M. Rozwadowski

Abstract


Characterization of the ocean as remote, extreme and inaccessible is cultural rather than absolute. Today we think about the sea, especially its depths, in similar terms as outer space or the Antarctic. While the profound depths constitute an extreme environment for human bodies, so can a few feet of water. The history of the ocean’s third dimension reveals different conceptions of the ocean’s depths at different times. The introduction of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus dramatically altered our human relationship with the depths in the 1950s. Formerly the turf of military frogmen and skin-diving spear-hunters, the undersea realm opened up to ordinary people: civilians, non-hunters, women, children, photographers, scientists, film-makers, treasure-hunters, and consumers of products advertised in conjunction with diving. During the first decade of undersea exploration, the underwater realm was transformed from a place of danger to a place of wonder. Early on, sharks and octopi were terrible monsters intent on attacking people, while the depths threatened divers with deadly “rapture of the deep.” After more people experienced the underwater world, and more was known about it, the conception of divable depths shifted to a place of mystery and wonder, accessible to women as well as men, and safe even for kids. This transformation – visible through advertisements, popular and scientific literature, diving training materials and movies and tv shows – was wrought by a combination of technological change, new scientific knowledge, and also simply the experiences of the increasingly large numbers of people who went undersea or wanted to do so.

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