Oceans of Opportunity

Since 2008, this Blog has been a communications priority providing shorts, op-eds, and bramblings that communicate our evolution to ‘a new life in the sea’.

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New York’s Diving History Under Pressure

I recently returned from a family ‘trip’ (we don’t call them ‘vacations’ when the kids are involved) to New York City. Residing in the Northeast, I’ve made my way to the City for a variety of business and personal reasons over the years, and one thing is for certain – it’s always hustle and bustle and unless you plan to take in some history or culture – the visit is a blur.

We stayed in Brooklyn for this visit, which was new to us, and my cultural goal was to visit the Brooklyn Bridge by day and then follow up with some evening reading about its place in diving’s history.

From a waterfront looksee – the bridge is a bridge. BUT, when considering the technical challenges at the time of its construction – circa late 1800’s – the Brooklyn Bridge is a work of art. A concise history of the bridge itself can be found on Wikipedia here.

My interest in a deeper dive into the Brooklyn Bridge is from the viewpoint of diving history. New York, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, has made quite the contribution – in addition to the waterfront infrastructure that is easily viewable and similar to modern waterfronts around the world, the City’s underground is home to a vast array of water supply and distribution tunnels from upstate. Some are massive, large enough to drive a vehicle through, and at depths and for distances that are daunting from an inspection, maintenance, and repair standpoint. Yet, it all gets done and given its complex nature it has fueled advanced development of tunneling ROVs, saturation diving, and even atmospheric diving technology. All subjects for future blogging…

Back to the Brooklyn Bridge, again circa late 1800’s. Caissons, or essentially large, enclosed boxes were placed in the East River to allow workers to construct the bridge footings while ‘dry’. The caissons went to the riverbed bottom at a depth of about 80 feet, and compressed air was supplied to provide reasonably fresh breathing air, as well as pressure to keep the caissons dewatered. More than 100 caisson workers suffered the ill effects of what we now call ‘decompression sickness’, though at the time it was referred to as ‘Caisson Disease’. There were at least a dozen deaths from this newly discovered illness. The visible symptom was that the affected workers would walk hunched over, or bent over, hence where the term ‘the bends’ originated. The lesson in this was that breathing compressed gasses under pressure caused problems, and a means for recompression had to be established. T

Today, hyperbaric interventions are made by divers, tunnellers, medical practitioners, and even aviators. This field – hyperbarics – is still largely at its infancy today…much is understood about the human body’s absorption and release of dissolved gasses, however real-time technologies to gauge this within the body are just now being advanced, leaving the diver’s fate to-date largely up to mathematical algorithms, small human subjects sample sizes, and some good faith in lessons learned from the past.

So, who would’ve guessed – decompression sickness that we all consider first and foremost as divers today was discovered right there in the Big Apple, an even continues to be learned about there as well.

Some of the US’ best hyperbaric medicine professionals are based in New York City, and have reach from industrial applications in tunneling right through to wound care and other disease treatment via hyperbaric oxygen delivery.

The funny this about pressure, is its resulting pressure so to speak. Given the very direct impact on the human body, the uptake and release of pressure is an important though still not clearly understood science. The process often needs to be controlled in a timely fashion while subject to various predictive algorithms, and when operating within the framework of a ticking clock, pressure [stress] becomes an equally important consideration for the diver or hyperbaric practitioner.

This pressure (depth), and stress (cognitive function while on the clock in challenging environments) is what we all strive to maneuver through while working underwater. Per usual in the field – it’s largely out of public view, so out of mind, though could use a significant boost to better prioritize how pressure can be used to benefit human health in the long term.