Oceanology: Up from Success

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Two record-breaking adventures in underwater living came to successful conclusions last week. Off the coast of Southern California, the last crew of aquanauts surfaced from the U.S. Navy's Sealab II (TIME, Sept. 17), and its 45-day mission at a depth of 205 ft. was declared an "unqualified success." Off Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, a yellow and black checkerboard-patterned underwater house bobbed its round dome out of the water to the tooting of yacht whistles and the obvious satisfaction of Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the pioneering French underwater explorer who had commanded the three-week mission of Con Shelf III (for Continental Shelf) from a lighthouse on shore. Allowing him self a thoroughly Gallic "ooh la-la," Cousteau turned to his colleagues: "It was neat, wasn't it?"

After descending significantly farther than their Sealab colleagues — living at a depth of 330 ft. and working even deeper — the six oceanauts of Con Shelf III had to remain in their two-story sphere four days after surfacing while the pressure in the cabin was slowly lowered. It was clear that Cousteau had reason to be elated. Never before had men survived so long at such depths. Moreover, they showed no signs of weakness or sickness, and had managed to do their assigned jobs efficiently.

Most of the equipment actually exceeded expectations. Cousteau's prototype breathing apparatus, which recycles a helium-based artificial atmosphere supplied from the sphere, en abled divers to work outside the cap sule without any time limit. Inside, a miniaturized mass spectrograph, especially adapted for the experiment, monitored composition of the atmosphere, transmitting the results both to the oceanauts and to the surface so that any dangerous variations would be immediately detected.

Con Shelf's most practical experiment turned out to be its most spectacular success. To check on man's ability to work underwater, divers went down more than 375 ft. to set up a 16-ft. "Christmas tree," a complex of valves and connecting pipes by which the output of an oil well is controlled. While French petroleum experts watched on closed-circuit TV, two divers manipulated their tools with little difficulty, proved that they could hook up and operate valves and clean tubes as well as anyone working on land. In one test, they accomplished in an hour a tough assignment that normally takes half a day to do on land. The French underwater house, says Cousteau, is now ready for commercial use in offshore oil operations.

It will take months to evaluate many of the scientific experiments of both Con Shelf and Sealab. As in the past, the men of Con Shelf will compare notes with the men of Sealab, setting an example of friendly scientific cooperation between nations,