Deep Dive: An Unexpected Watch with a SEALAB Connection
In a World of Submariners, be an Aquastar!
Collectively there is an innate fascination among watch enthusiasts with the concept of the true “tool watch”. Making for an interesting juxtaposition, pieces that were once utilized as mere equipment are now coveted, collected, and protected for that exact reason. Scratches, dings, dents, and fading are merit badges on the sash of authenticity. Whether jettisoned into the stratosphere or sunken to the murky depths of the Marianas, the potential for a watch to have reached environments virtually uninhabitable by man creates an inexplicable aura. Recently a sixties era dive watch with a unique engraving was brought to my attention, and admittedly, I was instantly hooked. Ensnared by the trap of my own imagination, I quickly worked to acquire the piece and beginning digging into the true history myself.
This aforementioned dive watch was a vintage Aquastar 63, aptly named for the year in which it was introduced. I was alerted to this watch by my brother (a biologist, fellow collector, and all around decent guy), who noted the subtle inscription. It was posted on a popular auction site, and the listing itself made no mention of the engraving other than stating in the description "there is also a small dedication on the caseback". This “dedication”, though diminutive, indicated a connection to a much larger undertaking; one I was determined to get the bottom of.
Aquastar S.A. originated in 1958 as a dive gear company aiming to produce water resistant pieces for skin diving and the growing sport of SCUBA. Their first watch model, introduced in 1960, was the Aquastar 60. This simple skindiver featured a patented stainless steel bidirectional bezel. Of note, this model was worn (not so famously) by Don Walsh in 1961 as he descended beyond 10,000m into Challenger Deep as part of the two man crew of the submersible Trieste. Aquastar watches were held in high regard among those involved in diving both recreationally and professionally. Their watches were sold through Scubapro in the US along with Cressi-Sub and Spirotechnique internationally.
The Aquastar 63 was a deceptively capable watch for its age. In 1963, this 37mm diver featured an internal dive bezel that could be adjusted with a turn of the crown. Interestingly, the crown did not screw down, yet the watch was rated to an astounding 200 metres, as indicated just below the the iconic seastar logo at the bottom of the dial. The case of the Aquastar 63 features a generous amount of stainless steel and sports a relatively long lug to lug length. These two features combined made for a rugged and (theoretically) legible dive watch in the mid 1960’s. In modern context, these factors make for a vintage watch with proportions that remain relevant, and dare I say, stylish.
I would be remiss if I failed to at least mention the dial of the Aquastar 63. The large internal rotating bezel features silver accented indicators, with a lumed triangular pip at 12 o’clock. Generously lumed applied indices are located at 6, 9, and 12. The date window is asymmetrical, and a small detail I enjoy is that the numerals of the date wheel are similarly asymmetrical. It is a deliberate choice that shows how much thought went into the design of the watch. The dial itself has a grey sunburst effect that looks right at home under the domed acrylic crystal. Although an unusual dial finish for a dive watch, it does make for a unique and captivating watch viewing experience.
I dropped a hint at the caseback inscription earlier in this post, but have failed thus far to deliver. No more. Ladies and gentleman, it is now time for the big reveal. I do have to warn you, if you intend to move forward, the reveal of this particular caseback could leave you with more questions than answers. I wish that I had the full scoop, but the research on this piece is a work in progress. Sound fair? If you would still like to move forward, and you find your interest piqued, observe the below caseback.
Glad to see that you are still with me here. Did you take the time to truly soak it in? In case it was difficult to discern, the caseback inscription reads “From Smitty to John”. Who is Smitty? Is there a more generic name than “John”? These are just two of the more obvious questions. Oh yeah, the caseback also reads “SEALAB II”. Huh. Could it be, the SEALAB II? As in the US Navy funded SEALAB II where 28 aquanauts dwelled for 15 days on the ocean floor off the coast of La Jolla, California in 1965?! Weren’t the Aquanauts issued Rolex Submariners? These are the hard-hitting questions that must be asked. Trust me, I am asking them.
In order to further the narrative along, it is important to briefly highlight the significance of SEALAB and seek to determine if there is any documented connection between this historic naval undersea program and Aquastar watches. The fact of the matter, when researching a watch like this, given the age, is that there is a good chance that most concrete details are lost to time. Fortunately, the nature of SEALAB (being a government program), means that there is some chance of stumbling upon archival information which I hope to highlight in the future.
The SEALAB program was funded and implemented by the US Navy, with assistance from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The primary purpose of the initiative was to investigate the practicality of long term dwelling beneath the sea in a special mixture of gasses. This program was the beginning of what is now known as saturation diving. I am glad to admit when certain concepts are outside of my wheelhouse, and the science of saturation diving resides comfortably in that realm; I hesitate to go into details. Needless to say, SEALAB was a program that advanced the science of diving and in turn advanced the technology of wristwatches by leading to the creation of the helium escape valve.
Where to Begin?
I do have some past experience borderline-obsessively digging into watch history, but I feel it is fair to say that no two cases are the same. Where my earlier experience related to researching a late-1970’s Antarctic Seiko watch with a unique dial, this Aquastar required a different approach. The most obvious initial move in finding out about this particular timepiece was to ask the seller about the history. Discouragingly, when I did just that, the seller promptly told me that he had no recollection of the place or year where the watch was purchased (let alone who sold it to him). For the record, immediate dead-ends are a rough start, but there are many ways to get past a wall. You just have to be creative.
It would have been far too easy to obtain all the answers that my heart sought just by asking the seller, so the next logical step for me was to dig into Aquastar history, ads, and old forum posts to see if there was any documented connection between this company and SEALAB. The forums yielded little information, as most SEALAB posts simply highlighted the oft-praised Rolex Submariner. Vintage Aquastar advertisements, however, gave some clue as to the connection. Many of the ads from the late 1960’s mentioned that Aquastar watches were used in SEALAB II, Pre-Continent (or Conshelf, a Cousteau endeavor), or simply Man-in-the-Sea programs. The excitement of physically seeing a connection was tempered by the fact that this could be little more than clever marketing. As advertisements, they made no mention of the models used in SEALAB, or even if it was, in fact, Aquastar watches that were used, rather than their popular watchband thermometers.
While the discovery of multiple advertisements mentioning this endeavor provided a glimmer of hope, it was clear to me that I would need to start digging into this connection at the source. It was then that I reached out to the US Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington and became fast-friends with one of the curators. After discussing my watch, and what I hoped to find, she provided me with a veritable treasure trove of image scans, rosters and official documents from the SEALAB archives. I have no doubt that the information provided by the museum was integral to any of my success in learning more about this watch.
What the Photographs Showed
The majority of the photographs from the museum were donated by the children of Jay Skidmore, who was an Aquanaut and photographer on team one of SEALAB II. This team was led by former Astronaut and all-around cool guy, Scott Carpenter. There were over one-hundred high quality photo scans, and I searched the wrist of each person in each photo for any sign of Aquastar involvement. Predictably, I counted a multitude of Rolex Submariners, already well documented as a watch used by SEALAB Aquanauts. I noticed some Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Zodiac Seawolfs (Seawolves?), and even the odd Enicar. No sign of the Aquastar though.
No sign, that is, until I came across a photo of Aquanaut Fred Johler holding an anchovy near the access port of SEALAB II. The watch crystal appeared foggy, but had the appropriate case shape to match the Aquastar 63. Given the quality of the photographs, I was able to zoom in and further inspect this fortuitous potential discovery. The watch clearly had a single crown and inner-rotating bezel, which at the time, severely reduces the number of potential models it could be. The hands were visible, and seemed to match up to the same shape and size as the hands on my model. There was no doubt in my mind that this Aquanaut was wearing an Aquastar 63 200 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean during SEALAB II in 1965. So, is there a verifiable connection between SEALAB and Aquastar? You bet.
So, Who Was “John”?
Armed with the official Navy report for SEALAB II, I decided that it would be pertinent to look for Aquanuats named “John”. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there were three of them among the twenty-eight total. There was Dr. John Morgan Wells, who was, at the time, a Research Assistant from Scripps. I was able to talk to a friend of his who explained that he typically went by “Morgan” rather than John. This, along with the fact that I assumed the owner of the watch was more likely to be a member of the Navy, helped to rule out Wells a likely candidate. Why did I assume that “John” was US Navy rather than a civilian? A hunch, and based off of the fact that it was given to him by “Smitty”. If there is one thing I have found in researching naval programs, it is that they love their nicknames.
The other two “Johns” in SEALAB II were John Reaves, a USN Photographer assigned to team two, as well as John Lyons, and Engineman First Class who was previously assigned to the US Navy Mine Defense Lab in Panama City, Florida. He was on team 3 of the SEALAB II program. Any image I was able to find that contained either of these team members did not clearly display an identifiable wristwatch. When it did, it was not an Aquastar. I have written about “other watches of SEALAB”, and sifting through hundreds of photos made it clear to me that each Aquanaut likely had a few wristwatches with them. This makes sense, as the Navy was sure to plan for the potential failure of any piece of equipment on any high risk undertaking.
What about “Smitty”?
As if pinpointing one of the most generic first names in the US was not enough, finding out who “Smitty” was seemed like an even more daunting prospect. Naturally, I swept every roster and document I could find for any Aquanaut with the last name “Smith”. This is all working under the notion that the Aquastar even belonged to an Aquanaut in the program, rather than one of the many support divers or surface staff. It turns out, there were many men named John on the rosters but nobody named “Smith” served as an Aquanaut during SEALAB II. The official Navy report is extremely thorough, but it does not go into the minutia of every employee involved in the program. In SEALAB, the Aquanauts were the stars of the show, understandably.
With little information to glean from what was provided by the Navy Undersea Museum, I turned to good old fashioned internet sleuthing. Considering the facts that SEALAB II took place in 1965 and many of the Aquanauts were seasoned divers well into their 30’s, many of them are no longer with us today. That is the case for John Wells, Lyons and Reaves. In fact, tracking down any living Aquanaut proved challenging. I was however, able to find an email address for Richard Blackburn. He was on team two of SEALAB II and also on the first and only team to dive in SEALAB III. I reached out to him explaining the research I was doing and without much hope of hearing back.
Going Straight to the Source
Within a couple of days, Blackburn had responded and shed some light onto the identities of both “Smitty” and “John”. He indicated that the watch likely belonged to John Reaves, who was a friend and teammate of his during and beyond SEALAB II and III. Reaves and Blackburn even worked together as commercial divers and treasure salvors for Real Eight Company after leaving the US Navy. They remained in touch for many years.
As for the mysterious “Smitty”, Blackburn said indicated that it had to have been from a man named W.H. “Horrible” Smith, who went by “Smitty”. He was the Diving Officer for SEALAB II and a salvage diver of some renown. Confusingly, he seemed to prefer going by “Smitty”, though many referred to him as “Horrible”. I suppose, given the options, I would prefer Smitty as well. Thanks to the kindness and sharp memory of Blackburn, I now had a name to research.
It didn’t take me long to discover that W.H. Smith had passed away in the early 1980’s, which meant I would have no way of talking directly to either individual who possessed the watch originally. I did however find a reference to “Horrible” Smith in the book Mud, Muscle, and Miracles: Marine Salvage in the United States Navy by Charles Bartholomew and William Milwee. The footnote on page 248 reads,
“Liutenant Smith, a capable salvor known to his shipmates as “Horrible”, was one of many larger-than-life men who have blessed Navy salvage. “Horrible” Smith stories have become legends. Folklore says that the name originated when Smith was a young sailor. He was said to fill his tray to overflowing in the mess line, wolf his food down, then throw his utensils onto his empty tray and declare in stentorian tones, “Horrible, horrible, just…horrible!”
Although much remains unknown about Smitty, I continued my search for more information. Ideally, I had hoped to find reference to him as “Smitty” by someone involved in SEALAB. As fate would have it, the US Naval Undersea Museum sent me a full scan of Dr. George F. Bond’s journal that he took for the duration of SEALAB II. This was a firsthand and personal account of the events that took place from his point of view. For reference, Dr. Bond AKA Papa Topside was a pioneer in the field of diving, and is now credited as the “father of saturation diving”. It was Bond who sought to explore the concept of mixed gasses and long-term dwelling upon the ocean floor. With help from others, he gathered the data and evidence necessary to gain approval for the SEALAB program and the subsequent SEALAB II and III. It is no understatement to say that SEALAB would not have existed without Dr. Bond, and the experiment itself is representative of his life’s work.
Having a digitized copy of Bond’s journal in itself was terrific. He is an adept and skillful writer with a vocabulary that far exceeds my own. I knew that his daily musings were not likely to mention details as specific as brands of watches. Instead I scoured the pages for mention of “Smitty” or “Horrible”. Towards the end of his journal, I was stoked to find just that.
To wrap this up, my working theory is that W.H. “Horrible” Smith had this watch engraved for John Reaves. The reason for the gift? I doubt I will ever be able to determine the answer. Nevertheless, this watch was almost certainly involved in the SEALAB II program, be it topside or 200ft below the surface. Perhaps both. I am hopeful that more photos of Reaves or Smitty will show up in the future, but for the moment I am just honored to own a piece of horological and dive history.
Bonus Aquastar Sighting
During the process of my research, I came across another Aquastar 63, quite by chance. If you look closely at the scientist’s clipboard, you will see it. Prior to SEALAB II, the US Navy started the marine mammal program. The focus of the program was to train marine mammals to assist with duties ranging from locating lost divers to shark protection and marine salvage. The most impressive of these undersea soldiers was “Tuffy” (short for tough guy) a Tursiops Truncatus, or Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin. He possessed a renegade attitude and wore his battle-scars as a badge of honor, prominently displayed below his dorsal fin. Speculation is that his noticeable scarring was from life-or-death battles with sharks. Needless to say, Tuffy triumphed. I can only imagine the sharks were not so lucky.
With proper training, Tuffy displayed an intellect and skillset far beyond those of his comrades. Dare I say, he showed a true sense of…porpoise. I digress. Tuffy made his debut to the world during SEALAB II, working closely with Aquanauts John Reaves and Kenneth Conda, who had undergone special training at Point Mugu. Tuffy delivered mail and supplies, and showed that he was capable of locating divers upon the sounding of a distress beacon. In many ways, Tuffy is the forgotten aquanaut. This pale grey torpedo of professionalism and military service helped to pave the way for the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, which exists to this day.
If you made your way throughout the entirety of this article, then to you I say, "thanks for taking the time to wade through this piece". Seriously though, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of researching this unique watch. There were a ton of people who were absolutely integral to me discovering the background. Among them, Mary at the US Naval Undersea Museum and US Navy Veteran and Aquanaut Extraordinaire Richard Blackburn, both of whom were patient and accommodating despite my persistence. The most helpful of all was my brother Devin, whos keen eye first caught the SEALAB connection and whos selflessness afforded me the honor of adding this watch to my personal collection. With the recent re-launch of Aquastar Watches, I look forward to what the future holds for the brand. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to reach out!