The Dean of Saturation Divers and the most famous living USN diver. The only diver on the bottom on every USN project from Genesis to SEALAB III. Although those programs were for saturation diving, all excursions were done with scuba, some at over 600 feet. (NOTE: Bob’s place in international diving history was ensured in 2010 when the U.S. Navy named their Panama City Diver Training Facility the CWO Robert A. Barth Aquatic Training Facility. It is rare that a living person receives such an honor from the American military, and it appropriately reflects the esteem in which Barth is held by his country. It is a fitting tribute to a diver who has given so much of himself towards the advancement of the habitat and mixed gas technology that changed the world.)
Robert A. Barth is the only diver to have played a central role in every phase of the U.S. Navy SEALAB program, from the first experimental saturation dives in hyperbaric chambers in the early 1960s to the first dives at a depth of more than 600 feet off the Southern California coast to set up the third and final SEALAB habitat in early 1969.
Barth is also in the exclusive group of divers who have had the futuristic experience of donning either standard SCUBA or a rebreather at depth, while inside the dry, pressurized interior of a habitat like SEALAB, and then dropping through a hatch in the floor to reach the seabed right outside.
Now 85, Barth was first attracted to the idea of diving in the Philippines, where he spent a number of years in his youth by virtue of his itinerant parents. The ocean was a frequent playground and Barth became a strong swimmer. At 17 he was living with his parents in Durban, South Africa, and made his way back to the United States to join the Navy.
He enlisted and worked his way up to quartermaster first class, serving on several ships and submarines, and he ultimately rose to the rank of chief warrant officer. Along the way, Barth got trained as a hardhat diver in 1949, and was eager to get SCUBA training, which he did in 1958, just a few years after the U.S. Navy adopted the novel gear. Barth soon added to his expertise with training in mixed-gas diving and rebreathers.
In the early 1960s Barth served at the Submarine Escape Training Tank at the Navy’s submarine base at New London, Connecticut. In the tank – a column of water 120 feet deep and 18 feet in diameter – Barth made many breath-holding dives and also used SCUBA in his job teaching submariners how to escape from out of a downed sub.
It was at the New London base that Barth met Capt. George F. Bond, the Navy doctor intent upon developing saturation diving and pursuing the possibility of creating sea-floor habitats like SEALAB.
Barth volunteered to be a test subject for the series of experimental saturation dives that Dr. Bond called Genesis, which were conducted at several different Navy hyperbaric chambers. Barth was with two other volunteers when he was sealed inside these austere steel chambers for about a week at a time. He performed various tasks, his condition closely monitored to assess the physiological effects of prolonged exposure to pressures equal to those experienced between sea level and depths of about 200 feet. Also monitored was the effect of breathing gas mixtures with a high percentage of helium for days at a time.
Then came SEALAB I, in 1964, which was set up about 25 miles southwest of the U.S. Navy base at Bermuda. Barth was one of the four divers to spend nearly 11 days at the prototype lab at a depth of 193 feet and he made frequent dives.
Barth was then part of a larger crew for SEALAB II the following year, which was placed at a depth of 205 feet off the coast of La Jolla, near San Diego, California. Three ten-diver teams would spend two weeks each living and working on the seabed. Barth continued on with the SEALAB program and was one of the two divers selected to open SEALAB III, at a depth of 610 feet, also off the Southern California coast, this time near San Clemente Island, in mid-February 1969. A fellow diver’s death led to the project’s premature cancellation.
Like other early saturation divers, Barth found his way into the offshore oil fields, eventually forming a diving company based in Dubai before selling that business and returning to the U.S. to join the venerable Taylor Diving & Salvage Co., based in New Orleans. In the 1980s Barth returned to the Navy as a civilian and worked for years at the new Experimental Diving Unit in Panama City, Florida. In recognition of Barth’s many contributions to diving, the Aquatic Training Facility at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City was named for him in 2010.