On the narrow sliver of land that is Islamorada in the Florida Keys, south of Key Largo proper and a little ways down the road from the giant lobster known as Big Betsy, one finds the History of Diving Museum. Beckoned into the parking lot by a deep sea diver surrounded by cannons and the loot of unknown wrecks salvaged from the briny deep, one then gets to take a stroll through the incredible history of humanity’s desire to conquer — or at least poke around in a spell — the vast oceans and seas that comprise the majority of our planet’s surface and yet remain as out of reach to most as the far reaches of space.
Founded in 2000 by doctors Joe and Sally Bauer, then opened to the public on a part-time basis in September 2005 and as a full-time museum in 2006, the History of Diving Museum is home to one of the world’s largest collections of historical diving equipment, including helmets and air pumps from eras long before most people think humans were strutting about on the ocean floor. The Bauers were SCUBA divers and historians, collecting pieces over some forty years to serve as the base exhibits of the museum. The historical artifacts span from the early days of diving and primitive undersea equipment and diving bells (basically a basket or metal hood that trapped air inside) to the development of more dependable gear that evolved from rigs designed to aid firefighters, and finally to modern SCUBA equipment and the industries both scientific and commercial that sprouted up around our ever-expanding ability to plunge into the great blue.
My own fascination with diving goes as far back as my earliest childhood memories, when despite being in landlocked Kentucky, my father proved to be a diving enthusiast with a trunk full of equipment in our basement. Frequently, or as frequently as I could get away with, I rummaged through the trunk, struggling into the wetsuit, strapping on the mask, fiddling timidly with what became known simply as “the shark knife,” then slipping on the fins to flop about as if wearing a wetsuit many times too large for me wasn’t already ungainly enough. We would sit as a family and watch specials and episodes of The Undersea World in which Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso guided us by monotone narration through the wonders of le monde du silence. I learned to swim at an early age and then to snorkel on family trips to Florida during my youth, but it wasn’t until college that I strapped on an air tank and went for my first proper dive. I’ve been in love with it ever since.
Many of the displays int he museum are revelatory for those of us who grew up in the era of relatively light, relatively easy to maneuver in equipment. Early helmets — hell, helmets clear up into the 1990s — were cumbersome affairs welded out of thick metal and festooned with chunks of lead and concrete to hold them in place. My particular favorite was the “rumrunner,” a monstrous affair created by smugglers running booze (usually rum from Cuba and The Bahamas) along the coast and donned when they needed to go underwater to secure or retrieve a shipment. Other helmets form an outrageous and sometimes comical procession that showcases the twin engines of human ingenuity and human daring — as well as a bit of human humor, because I’m pretty sure the crown of Triton on one early helmet served little practical function. It’s a fascinating look at technological, scientific, and design history.
Other sections of the museum — there is a ton crammed into its single but cavernous floor — examine the history of salvage diving and pioneers like Art McKee (who did all his diving wearing a bulky helmet and a pair of black Chuck Taylors sneakers), marine biology, underwater photography, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, extreme deep water exploration, and exploration of waters that are just extreme — like New York’s Hudson River before any concept of clean water or ecological awareness graced it and it took a suit of armor nicknamed Iron Mike to stroll the river’s littered bed. The evolution of the Navy Mark V (maybe the most iconic diving helmet and suit of all time) is highlighted, and a whole wall is dedicated to amazing and sometimes insane seeming diving helmets from all over the world.
Not to delve too far into the realm of the sales pitch, but this is a great museum for both kids and adults (the museum staff have even developed a scavenger hunt to keep kids occupied), divers and non-divers alike (and steampunks — you kids will get so many ideas; so many bulky, heavy, brown ideas). It’s the perfect way to psyche yourself up for an upcoming dive along one of the Upper Keys’ many coral reefs or wrecks, or to relax the day after (because relaxing the day of should involve beer and conch fritters and fried shrimp at a beachfront bar and grill — I recommend Snapper’s Key Largo Waterfront Restaurant and Tiki Bar or Lazy Days Restaurant, where I discovered the wonder that is the cheddar encrusted hogfish sandwich).
History of Diving Museum
82990 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036
Open daily, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm