0.1645788 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA Scroll down for interview with Canadian deep-ocean explorer and inventor Phil Nuytten
An internationally recognized pioneer in the diving industry, Phil Nuytten has spent 40 years creating deepwater dive products that have opened the ocean's depths to exploration and industry. WaterToday talked with Nuytten over the phone in late December. This is a transcription of that conversation.
WaterToday: Just before I start the interview. I went to my barber shop and they have stacks of National Geographic's. So, I grabbed the first one with a diving suit and a diver on the front, and it's dated July 1983.
Phil Nuytten: That's right.
WaterToday: Is that you?
Phil Nuytten: Yeah that's me on the front. Though you can hardly see it. The vision dome was all clouded in front of me because it was so cold. You know when the suit came through the ice hole, it immediately started to freeze the water condensation on the inside.
WaterToday: That's a coincidence! OK, let me start the interview. I have your email in front of me. You have started a new class of vehicles, you call them DLV instead of ROVs, can you tell me the difference between the two? And then I'm going to get into your history; how you got here.
Phil Nuytten: The difference between a DLV and an ROV is simply that the DLV as the initials stand for is directly operated. So if you can imagine taking a world class ROV and stuffing a human inside it and cutting the umbilical off and throwing it away. That's what a DLV is.
WaterToday: Oh I see. And I've looked at most of the services and products on your website and what you're up to. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got to where you are now? And then I guess the next thing we would do is cover where we're going to go with this technology in the future.
Phil Nuytten: Okay, sure. I started diving when I was 12 years old. And that was way, way back in the olden days, and in those days, the early 1950s, the big thing was spearfishing. So I'd get my trusted spear gun out and go gunning for fish all over British Columbia and various places.
I lived always very close to the water so it was easy for me to go diving after school and spend the whole weekend breath-hold diving. I built my first rebreather from a book that was published in, I think 1948, called "Shallow Water Diving" by two professors on the east coast – Schenck and Kendall. In their very thin and almost basic handbook, they describe how a rebreather works. And so I started building a rebreather when I was, I think, 12 years old and finished it when I was 13. And so I'd take my trusted rebreather and go exploring. But since it was an O2 rebreather not a mixed gas rebreather, I was limited to 30ft or shallow water.
But I spent lots of time exploring. And then I eventually talked my dad into buying me an aerolung for Christmas. You know an aqualung, I guess is the term at the time. The problem was that there were very few places in Vancouver to get diving gear.
Some of the sporting goods stores sold masks and snorkels and fins and that sort of stuff. But to get the, you know, the scuba gear and all the stuff that I wanted to get it was all by mail order, or by driving down to Seattle and buying it there.
So I thought a great way to make a living would be to run a diving store. So in 1957 I quit school just a year before graduating and opened up the first dive shop in western Canada. And I ran that for about a year and a half. It just about gave me a teenage ulcer because at first I was still going to school and running it on the weekends. I was also doing custom wet suits and since I was the first guy to do custom wet suits in Vancouver, I was busy; so I was always behind on suits, school work and everything else. So finally in grade 11, I said the hell with it and quit school and ran the shop. In 1958, I took in a couple of older partners and we ran the shop together.
As it turned out I'd been doing a lot of light salvage work around that time, you know boat motors, false teeth, anything that was lost I would go after it. Meanwhile I had set my sights on one day becoming a commercial diver, so by the time I'd been at the dive store for a couple of years I decided that commercial diving was what it was for me.
I set up a company called Industrial Marine Divers and went at it with a passion. The only problem was that when I attempted to go to the shipyards and the various places that hired divers they wanted hardhat divers, with the old fashioned diving helmets and canvas suits and whatnot.
The reason for that was, as far as they were concerned, scuba divers did nothing more than blow bubbles and look around because they didn't have a trade. They couldn't weld, they couldn't blast; they couldn't do oxy-arc cutting or any of those sorts of things.
The companies wouldn't hire scuba divers they wanted to have hardhat divers. So I took up hardhat diving. I sold some of my scuba gear and bought myself a diving helmet. A friend of mine had a deep swimming pool and I got a hand pump and started to learn how to hardhat dive.
Some years later in the 60's, early 60's, I had been diving commercially then for about 3 or 4 years; there was an oil rig which was scheduled to go to work off the west coast of Vancouver Island and I desperately wanted to get that contract. So I joined up with a group in California, a company called Cal Dive; and I set up a company called Canadian Divers; their company name was California Divers which they shortened to Cal Dive; ours was Canadian Divers which was shortened to Can Dive.
So Can Dive and Cal Dive were sister companies. We had stock exchange and we did get the contract for the Nessco drilling rig out on the west coast of Canada, off Vancouver Island. And that ran for some, let's see '69; about 4 or 5 year I guess; 4 years; 5 years.
One of the reasons I wanted to tie in with the Californian group was that they had been doing mixed gas diving - Oxy-Helium diving. To get the job up here in Canada, we had to be able to dive to 600ft. and we had to be able to demonstrate that we could dive and work at 600ft.
Later on in 1968, I went to California with a group of other guys to demonstrate bounce diving to 600ft and doing work, you know, on the bottom there. Around that time, we'd gotten quite good at what we were doing and had bought decompression chambers and all that sort of thing.
WaterToday: That in itself is quite the story. Let me stop you there for a minute. When you talk about depths of 600ft, why not 700ft or less?
Phil Nuytten: 600 ft was the average continental shelf depth across the Pacific coast of North America. So if you could work at 600 ft, you could work virtually anywhere off the west coast; off the coast of North America. So that's what the oil companies were looking for –a company that could demonstrate that they could work at those depths.
To put that in context, when we did the first dive in project Nessco in the summer of 1968, it was the first 600ft. working dive ever made off the west coast of North America. So it was a big deal. We did a lot of decompression table work, we developed a lot of the tables ourselves, we modified navy tables; all that sort of stuff. Prior to the 600ft dive we had done almost a month of chamber diving, testing our own tables. I got bent twice in place in two weeks. I was one of the guinea pigs.
WaterToday: When you say bent; the bends is what you're getting at right?
Phil Nuytten: Yup. But we, you know, obviously we had oxygen reserves so we could treat it very quickly and as I often say, I got through that with only minimal brain damage (chuckles).
Anyway so from there, in 1969 Cal Dive and Can Dive formed a company which went on to become the largest underwater skills company in the world, called Oceaneering International. The whole idea behind Oceaneering was saturation diving, but when we formed the company, we got all the groups that were involved together and sat down and asked, "Okay where are we going to go with this company; what are we going to do with Oceaneering?"
Everybody had a different idea. I was Senior Vice President at that time, so when it came time for me to speak on what I thought the future would hold I was hot for one-atmosphere diving suits. Now, people had been trying to develop one-atmosphere diving suits for at least half a century and with very little success. But I believed that it could be done because at that time things like neoprene and silicone which had not been available to designers and builders years before were now available.
So I held out for one-atmosphere diving. Everybody, you know, patted me on the head and said, "Yeah Phil, but you know everybody's been trying to do that since the beginning of diving and no one has been able to do it." And so I said, "Well I think we can do it."
And so they said, "But why we would we do that? That's in direct competition with what we do. If you did one-atmosphere diving there'd be no decompression; there'd be no diving bells; there'd be no chambers. There would be no need for saturation diving. So why would we want to do that?"
And I said, "Very simple. If we don't do it and someone else does we're out of business. It's that simple." And so everybody said, "Okay well. We hear you."
It wasn't until a number of years later that I developed and patented the first working suit that used all of the technology that I planned to use. By then it was 1985.
Oceaneering had grown into such an enormous company that they were working in something like 20 countries. We had I think 3,000 employees or something like that and a turnover in the billions of dollars per year. But my first love had always been developing and building equipment.
So I sold my shares and bought back the Canadian operation Can Dive which had been merged into Oceaneering International and set up a dual company. One was Can Dive which was of course the standard diving marine construction company and the other, called Nuytco Research, which was a research company set up to further develop atmospheric diving suits. The first suit that we built in 1985 was called the NuytSuit as a pun on my last name; and the aquatic salamander (newt).
And then in 1987, I set up a company called Hard Suit Inc. And we started manufacturing NuytSuits and selling them to various navies around the world and eventually to marine construction companies. We sold in total about 50 or 60 suits, and they weren't cheap but we kept on improving them. Most recently we've been developing the Exosuit which was premiered about 2 or 3 years ago. And we're now selling those all over the place.
In the meantime I also was also interested in selling small submersibles and that's where the Deepworkers came from.
WaterToday: Let me stop you there for a moment. We now know how Phil got here. That's what I wanted to get in; from my point of view as a journalist most stories are narrative and too often they just come out of nowhere. Now that Phil is here, when I look at your website, it looks to me like you're developing equipment going forward that I would almost call tourism diving. Is this the right view of what you're up to or?
Phil Nuytten: No. not at all.
WaterToday: Oh, okay. So take it away.
Phil Nuytten: We did build a number of subs for yachts and a number of subs for underwater tourism. The difference between the tourist subs that we build and the other tourist subs that you see all over the world is that we build deep diving subs, not the 20 and 30 and 40 passenger shallow subs that are used in Hawaii and other places in the world, but very specialized subs that dive quite deep. You know well over a thousand feet. So we take down just a few people, but we take them down very deep.
The first tourist sub that we built was for the island of Curacao. It was called the Cura-sub. And it's going gangbusters; they're doing great business mostly because scuba divers love to brag. If you take a scuba diver down to 1,000ft in a submersible, when he gets back from his vacation he'll be telling everybody, "Hey how deep have you been; what 100ft.? Well I've been 1,000ft." etc.
Phil Nuytten: Now the other subs that we build are called Deepworkers and they are designed just as the name implies – to go down deep and work. And they have very advanced manipulators on them. They can do most oil field tasks; the stuff they can't do is usually because the area of the access is too small, they just can't get in there. That's why we built the Exosuit. At any rate. So these DLV's...
WaterToday: Let me stop you there for a second. Can you just quickly tell the viewers what a one-atmosphere suit is actually?
Phil Nuytten: Okay. A one-atmosphere suit is a suit where you take your own atmosphere and your own pressure with you. So you're not subjected to the water pressure; outside water pressure.
When it comes to diving, the enemy is always pressure. It's not the cold, not the wet not the inability to breathe water. It's not any of those things. It's the pressure differential. We were designed to operate at above sea level at about 14.7 pounds per square inch.
And we can't go much beyond that boundary either up or down. We can't go to the top of Mount Everest the way we were born; we couldn't breathe you know thin oxygen-depleted air. We certainly can't go to the bottom of the ocean the way we were born.
So we're stuck on this narrow path. But we do go there. We can't fly, we don't run down the runway flapping our arms trying to leap into the air but we use the armour of technology to let us go outside of our designed specification.
So when we want to go from here to New York what do we do? We jump on an aircraft. And we fly to New York using the technological tools that we've designed and built; but we also take with us the cabin pressure, the temperature; all of the things that we need for our sea level design.
And that's exactly what happens in a one-atmospheric suit. An atmospheric diving suit is just that - you remain at one atmosphere inside the suit no matter how deep you go; and the same with the sub.
WaterToday: Okay. That's the clarification I'm looking for. Now let's go back to your working units. They seem clearly different than most of the tourism stuff I've seen and I'm wondering if you could fill me in about that.
Phil Nuytten: They're quite different in that they're designed to work, they have equipment built into them that none of the tourist subs have. They have a hydraulic pump so they can operate hydraulic tools, operate manipulators. The thrusters are extremely powerful so they can operate tools and pick up stuff. And they do; its amazing the stuff they can do.
But when it comes down to the absolute fine delicate stuff that only a diver can do like rigging and you know cutting and burning and all that sort of stuff, ROV's cannot do that.
WaterToday: I get it.
Phil Nuytten: But divers can.
WaterToday: If you could tell me a little bit more a bout the drawbacks and advantages of where you're going here?
Phil Nuytten: Well the big advantage of the sub for instance over the conventional ROV is that it has no umbilical. So there's nothing to get tangled. There's no power coming from the surface; communication is done wirelessly through the water using ultrasonic acoustic waves through the water. So, for example, you can go in one side of an oil rig platform and out the other and you don't have to ever worry about your umbilical tangling which is one of the biggest problems with ROVs .
WaterToday: How deep can these Deepworkers go?.
Phil Nuytten: We build most of our, in fact all of our DLV's for a minimum 2,000ft; and over the last 2 years we started building 3,000 footers. So you know, we're going real deep with these things now and we're going to be building deeper ones in the future.
WaterToday: How does it feel being down so deep?
Phil Nuytten:I am awed every time I go past 1,000 feet or even anywhere near that in a single Deepworker; (we make singles then duals); it's like being in a little underwater sports car. So you roar down to the bottom. It takes about 3 or 4 minutes to go down to 1,000 ft in a Deepworker. That's all. I mean – Bingo! You're there. I mean you're going down with thrusters. You're going down by dumping buoyancy; air buoyancy. So there you are. You're going under water.
But every time I go past 1,000 feet, no matter where I am in the world, I sit there and I look around and say, "You know what? What I'm seeing now - all the critters, all the fish, all the things around me; all the things in the water column - no one on this planet has seen this particular scene before. I'm the only one in the world that is seeing what I'm seeing right this moment.
WaterToday: That must be an amazing feeling.
Phil Nuytten: It's an incredible feeling. And surprisingly, many of the pilots have come up with the same kind of feeling without being coached, without hearing anyone else saying it they say, "It's amazing. I was down there and I thought, no one else has ever seen this particular thing before - this shipwreck." Because I mean - who dives to a thousand feet?
WaterToday: So you're down there at 1,000 ft. it's really cool. Why are you going down to 3,000ft.? What is the advantage to you or to anyone to go deeper?
Phil Nuytten: Because very often pipelines, cable crossings, all those sorts of stuff are very deep water.
WaterToday: Oh, I didn't know that either.
Phil Nuytten: So you need to get down there to be able to inspect them, photograph them, video them; do thickness testing; do penetrometer readings for protecting animals; all that sort of stuff. That's the bread and butter of the business of going deep.
But what's interesting is that there are so many byways to it. For instance after patenting the NuytSuit and the rotary joints that I designed and invented, I got patents, worldwide patents on them, my next thing after that was to start building this series of small subs.
And I looked at these subs and I looked at the suits and I thought, "You know what? This would make a hell of a submarine rescue package." So again I designed and patented a submarine rescue system which we call the Remora because it sticks on to the sub.
And it's now used by several navies worldwide. For instance, it's the US navy standard mobile submarine rescue package. So you know just getting into this deep diving had all kinds of different things come out of it.
We built new types of video cameras, we built a whole line of underwater lights for deep water. The underwater lights for instance will go down to the bottom of the Mariana trench; they'll go as deep as the ocean is which is 35,000ft. And ...
Phil Nuytten: No problem at all. And they're so bright you can hardly look into them. It's like looking into an arc welding torch and it's just incredible how you can
WaterToday: Fron what I've read, it would be pretty dark down at those depths...
Phil Nuytten: It's pitch black, I mean even the clearest water in Hawaii you know the Solomon Islands, the March Islands at about 3, 400ft. you're just into a twilight zone. But by the time you're down to 1,000ft, there is no surface light of any sort, so everything that you're doing down there you're doing strictly with the lights that you take with you.
WaterToday: Tell me now. I see you on the cover of this National Geographic; I go to your website and it seems incredible. Where do you go from here?
Phil Nuytten: Well you know we do a lot of movie work which I like doing; tons of stuff for TV. I would guess probably 25% of our income comes from the entertainment industry. Everybody loves doing deep sea shoots, particularly these guys that do documentaries, like Discovery Channel, they love the subs and the suits because they're so, you know like Ironman. The subs are almost like spaceships, so they just absolutely love it and I enjoy doing it. I really like doing that kind of work.
WaterToday: I don't think anyone could do this if they didn't absolutely love doing it. Tell me, how did you end up on the cover of this National Geographic? It's not a selfie (chuckles).
Phil Nuytten: No that wasn't a selfie. We were out diving on one of the northernmost shipwreck ever found, way up in the Canadian high Arctic we were looking for the Franklin ships which were found last year. But this was back 20, 30 some years ago.
We were looking for the Franklin ships which were lost in the high Arctic; specifically looking for a ship called the Breadalbane which was a ship that had been commissioned to search for John Franklin who was trying to discover the Northwest Passage when his two vessels, Erebus and Terror, and his crew and himself all lost their lives.
He was quite a well-to-do chap so his wife commissioned a number of search vessels from England to sail into the Canadian high Arctic in the summers to try to find traces of him or to find out what had happened to him. One of the ships, stayed too long, got nipped in the ice and sank; it was called the Breadalbane.
And we, myself and Joe MacInnis - who was quite a well-known underwater explorer out of Toronto - went up there to try and find it. After a long involved story, two seasons of searching and whatnot, we finally did locate it. And I was very pleased to be the first diver to see that ship, or to be the first person to see that ship in 130 years. It sank in around 1850's. And so that was what that article in Geographic was about. It was diving on 130 year old shipwreck, the northernmost shipwreck ever found.
It was quite the experience. I sat down there and my eyeballs almost popped out of my head because; well for two reasons. One was, I was using a diving a system which was a forerunner of the NuytSuit, called the Lost which has a surface tether.
So it truly was a manned ROV because it had a tether up the surface. And all the power for the thrusters, everything came from the surface. After we found the Breadalbane with all the coordinates; we had to cut through the ice to get me in the water. So we had to erect a big tent, cut a hole through about 6 feet of ice, and down I went. Of course because the ice was covered with snow there was virtually no light getting through. So it was really kind of ‘twilighty' even though it was quite shallow, it was only about 300ft. deep.
But I'm going down and down and down and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eyes I saw something, you know, and I didn't know what it was. I spun around and turned the lights on and it was the mast of the Breadalbane. And I'm like, "oh my, I'm going right down the mast." And then I looked up and realized that my umbilical had 3 turns around the mast.
WaterToday: Oh no!
Phil Nuytten: Oh boy. So I put her in reverse and wheeled around the mast 3 times and freed myself and then went down to look at the ship. And the ship was absolutely sitting there looking like it was ready to sail away. It was frozen in time. See, the water temperature there at that time was 28.4 degrees all year round. So you know if you took a bag of fresh water with you it would freeze instantly even though water with salt you know here in the ocean. But the water was freezing cold.
WaterToday: How long can anyone stand that?
Phil Nuytten: I was on the bottom for about; I think it was about 4 hours and my wool started freeze to the inside of the suit. So I thought okay, time to knock it off. So up we came. A couple of days later we recovered the wheel from the Breadalbane and that's currently in the Royal Ontario museum.
WaterToday: Oh that's just amazing. Do you have university students call you up and say, "Look I'm in year one, what, you do is amazing and I want to do it"? What would you tell them?
Phil Nuytten: Oh sure. Well, I would tell them that it is amazing and you know I even though I started doing it when I was very young, I come to work every day with a big smile on my face because I love doing this. It's so rewarding. And you're doing things every day that in many cases no one's ever done before.
And you know there's no question in my mind that one of these days, probably a long way in the future, but the way we're going, we're going to have to move into the ocean, you know.
WaterToday: Talk to me a little bit about that. What's your reasoning and the logic line?
Phil Nuytten: I'm going to talk to you a very little bit because I've got a previous commitment in 5 minutes on another conference call. Okay quickly one of the other projects that I have that will use both the Deepworkers and the atmospheric diving suits - is called Vent Base Alpha.
Vent – as in heat vent – like the black smokers. And it is essentially an undersea colony. There have already been subsea habitats all over the world , the US Navy Sealab, the Cousteau, the Starfish House in the Red Sea. Although, right now the Aquarius habitat off the Florida Coast is the only one I know that is still going. And these are dry habitats that are under the sea. So you can swim down there and climb in through the bottom and get up inside the thing and stay there for as long as you want.
Cousteau just spent a month in Aquarius a couple of months ago. So that's nothing new but what I plan to do is quite new, because I plan to build a habitat that's one-atmosphere.
WaterToday: Oh neat
Phil Nuytten: All of the other habitats that have been built have all been where you're subjected to the outside pressure. So for instance in the one off Florida, if you go down and spend a couple days in that habitat you have to decompress for long, long periods before you can come to the surface.
But in this case, in the one-atmosphere habitat I'm thinking that you can build a self-sustaining colony down there. And when I say self-sustaining I mean that you can farm, you can ranch, you can go hunting for you know, for food.
Using electricity you can get your oxygen directly from decomposing the water into hydrogen and oxygen and taking the oxygen that you need. And the electricity that you need to do all this, to keep you warm and to keep everything lit, and make everything go, comes from the heat vents.
Because the heat vents can power a Stirling cycle engine where the power is generated through differential temperatures; you see, the
average mean temperature at depths of 1,000, 2,000, 3,000ft. is about 46 degrees F, worldwide while the temperature of the heat vent is 1,000oF. So what you have right there is the makings of a permanent internal combustion engine; It's like the cars we are driving right now, what makes them go is differential temperatures.
When the gas explodes in the cylinder and pushes the cylinder down it's because the heat expands and then pushes the cylinder down. If you have a Stirling cycle engine you can put hot water in one side, cold water in the other and move an enormous distance back and forth, developing thousands of horsepower from a single heat vent. So that will power the whole colony.
WaterToday: Phil I'm going to stop you there, but I would like to pick this up sometime in the near future
Nuytten: Sure, that's fine. Lets talk again.