Aquanauts (L to R) Gary Davis, Ian Knoblick, John VanDerwalker and Ed Clifton, above, shared personal stories of Project Tektite. The aquanauts were greeted with fanfare when they returned topside on April 15, 1969, below.
There were more than a few tears shed on Saturday morning, March 29, as four aquanauts shared personal stories of what life was like 50-feet under the waves at Lameshur Bay 45 years ago.
Aquanauts John VanDerwalker, Ed Clifton, Ian Koblick and Gary Davis told a packed house at the V.I. Environmental Resource Station about the fears and excitement of being a part of the ground-breaking underwater habitat program Project Tektite I and II.
VIERS, owned by the University of the Virgin Islands and operated by Clean Islands International, was home base to Project Tektite and this weekend officials welcomed home the aquanauts who spent 60 days in the spring of 1969 living under the water in nearby Lameshur Bay.
Project Tektite took shape during the Cold War and America’s “Race to Space,” which owes more than a little of its success to what was learned under the water at Lameshur Bay. Tektite was so important it brought together the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Interior, General Electric’s Missile and Space Division and the Virgin Islands government.
In 1968, VIERS was almost as remote as one can imagine. What roads led to the area were so bad that scientists would opt to travel by boat instead.
At that time Ian Koeblick, now 74, had left a position at Charlotte Amalie High School to become the sole employee of the Caribbean Research Institute. The institute was operating at Lameshur in 1968 as the government was looking for a site for the underwater habitat program.
“Jack Damon asked me to take around this group from Washington who were looking for a good place for this underwater habitat,” said Koeblick. “I took them out diving and we went all over and I showed them how beautiful it was out here. Then I told them you could buy a bottle of rum for 88-cents and you can’t do that in Puerto Rico or Hawaii.”
“I think that’s what really sealed the deal,” he said.
Remote Lameshur Bay on little St. John became a hub of activity over the next two years. In addition to the four aquanauts and three alternates who took part in Project Tektite I in spring 1969, Project Tektite II saw a total of 53 aquanauts participate in 11 missions lasting from 13 to 20 days each through November 1970.
And that was just under water. Topside, more than 500 people from numerous government agencies and departments and universities around the world took part in studies of Project Tektite I and II.
It was an interesting path from a North East Ohio farm to the Lameshur Bay seafloor for geologist Ed Clifton, who picked up the emerging sport of scuba in order to study gold deposits off the Oregon coast.
“If you don’t do this you might regret it for the rest of your life,” Clifton told the crowd was the only reason for him to really take part in Project Tektite I; and it was enough.
Clifton, 80, was originally asked to take part in a study for 60 days at 600 feet under the water off the California coast, he explained.
“I wasn’t totally enthusiastic about that,” Clifton said. “But then it became 60 days at 50 feet off a coral reef off St. John island in the Caribbean. That sounded much better.”
Clifton conducted numerous studies of the seafloor at Lameshur Bay and was a pioneer in using scuba for scientific research.
“People talk about ‘The Right Stuff’ for astronauts and aquanauts,” said Clifton. “For me it was having a little experience with scuba.”
Before the mission, Clifton spent three days in a decompression chamber during which he got the bends, he explained.
“It was useful for me to know what that felt like during the mission, because we felt it,” Clifton said.
After meeting his fellow aquanauts at a press conference at the Philly Navy Yard where the habitat and the aquanauts were introduced to the world, they spent three days in the University of Pennsylvania hospital, Clifton explained.
“We got poked and probed in imaginable and unimaginable ways,” he said. “That’s when I became aware that we were lab rats.”
The mission could have easily been different had it not been for the aquanauts’ quick thinking and a vacuum and duct tape used for a make-shift scrubber when the carbon dioxide levels were climbing just a few days into the program, explained John VanDerwalker.
During their 60 days under water, the aquanauts made daily research dives and conducted numerous studies. They too were studied closely and monitored at all times. Each week, they had to have blood samples taken and endure inhaling and swallowing a gag-inducing balloon to check their lung capacity, VanDerwalker, 77, explained.
Returning topside after the mission, the aquanauts were celebrated across the country. They met Vice President of U.S. Spiro Agnew — and neglected to mention they had named a barracuda after him — and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
While each of the aquanauts went on their own paths, what they took part in at Lameshur Bay 45 years ago was special, explained Gary Davis, 69.
“For many of us in many different ways, this was a turning point in our lives,” said Davis. “We did a lot together. But it’s not so much about the science.”
“It’s our presence that meant something,” Davis said. “It’s that spark we lit in others. It’s the spark of human connection that makes the difference.”
Following the aquanauts’ talk, guests enjoyed lunch and a tour of the recently expanded Tektite Museum at VIERS. The museum — a labor of love for Clean Islands International Executive Director Randy Brown, VIERS’ administrator — has recently added a life size replica of the control room and living quarter in the habitat.