A Special Rolex Submariner 5512: From Tektite to Dry Tortugas
Updated: Aug 5
Epitomizing the Notion of Timepieces as Tools
I began speaking with Gary Davis about two months ago. While doing an internet deep dive (pun intended) on the experimental man-in-the-sea programs of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I ran across his name on an envelope online that indicated his connection to the Tektite I program. Eager to learn more, I tracked down his contact information and promptly reached out with crossed fingers. Fortunately for me, Gary was amiable enough to oblige this random email from a stranger. We have been pen pals ever since. Over the course of our correspondence, there is a consistent and underlying theme of his connection to the ocean. Throughout all of his maritime pursuits, from commercial fishing to an extensive career as a marine scientist, he has always had a reliable watch by his side.
Early on in our email exchanges, Gary mentioned that he has worn the same watch on every dive since 1970. Ever one to heed the Siren’s call, by his estimation he and his watch have logged more than 3,500 scientific research dives. This figure does not take into account the 250-300 submerged hours spent free-diving recreationally. Most watch enthusiasts (myself included) don’t wear the same watch for an entire week, let alone for half a century and on thousands of pelagic plunges.
Gary received his first Rolex Submariner in 1969 after being chosen as an Aquanaut for the Tektite program. Tektite was a joint scientific endeavor between the US Navy, NASA, and the Department of the Interior (DOI). Each department had their own interests in the project. For NASA, the similarity between the confinement of prolonged undersea living and space travel were similar enough to interest them in the psychological and psychosocial dynamics. The Department of the Interior was more focused on the ramifications of prolonged oceanic living from a biological research perspective. Living in a habitat within the ocean could, in theory, provide an unprecedented view of marine life.
Fresh out of college, Gary worked as a Park Ranger for the National Park Service before being chosen to participate in Tektite as an alternate to Aquanaut John VanDerwalker. According to Gary, this meant that in the event that anything should preclude VanDerwalker from continuing the mission, he would take his place within the Tektite habitat. As an alternate Aquanaut throughout the mission, John studied lobsters from the undersea habitat, while Gary mirrored this research from the surface. This data could later be compared to determine efficacy and consistency. Generally speaking, more data is always better, but this double-collection also served as a window to ensure that both trained scientist were accurate despite their conditions.
In total, there were two different Tektite programs, aptly referred to as Tektite I & II. Tektite I took place in Lameshur Bay, St. John USVI in 1969. The small habitat was placed in the Caribbean Sea at a depth of approximately 15 meters (50 feet). The four primary Aquanauts spent an astounding 60 days dwelling beneath the ocean surface. This effectively doubled the previous 30 day record set by Scott Carpenter during SEALAB II in 1965. At a depth of approximately 200ft off the coast of La Jolla California, each team spent just 15 days in the habitat. Carpenter lived in the habitat for two crew periods, leading to the previous 30 day record.
Interestingly, Carpenter was originally involved in the Tektite I program as an Aquanaut, but decided to participate in SEALAB III instead. Tektite would have meant more time living undersea, while SEALAB III was at a much greater depth (12x the depth of Tektite).The SEALAB III program was wrought with challenges. Just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, the SEALAB III program moved too rapidly and to too great a depth. Once the habitat was placed on the ocean floor, leaks sprung throughout. Four Aquanauts were sent down to assess and fix the leaks, and unfortunately only three resurfaced alive. This tragedy led to the immediate cancellation and decommissioning on the SEALAB program.
In the Tektite I program, all seven Aquanauts received a Rolex dive watch for use during the mission. While not required to
wear the watches, Gary happily wore his throughout the two month duration of the project. Prior to this mission, he wore his personal Tudor Submariner, which was highly recommended by his dive friends as a reliable and more cost-effective alternative to the Rolex Submariner. When he was given the Rolex at the beginning of Tektite, he was well aware of the build quality and reputation of the Swiss timepiece. His Submariner accompanied him throughout the duration of his training and through the end of the program.
Though all Aquanauts received Rolex watches, not all of them were identical. Of the Seven Rolex watches provided for the Tektite team, five were experimental “Sea-Dweller” models. These prototypical deep-divers are now known among the collector community as the elusive “Single Red” Sea-Dweller, aptly named for the lone line of red text at the bottom of the dial. The Sea-Dweller was similar to the Submariner, but included a date window and was rated to 500m, rather than the 200m of the latter. Of note, there are roughly twelve examples of Single Red Sea-Dwellers currently accounted for, and of those, only a handful are equipped with a helium-escape-valve (HEV). The watches of the Tektite I Aquanauts did not have a built-in HEV, as the shallow nature of the project meant that the environment was not saturated with helium, thus it did not require this technology.
Unfortunately, Gary’s treasured Tektite Submariner was stolen from his belongings during his return home to California after the completion of the program. The original watch was void of any notable caseback markings and was entirely unrecoverable after it was taken. Upon his return, he promptly began boot camp for the US Army, where he saved his earnings to replace that which was stolen. He was able to purchase a new Submariner 5512 in just a few months later. He has worn the watch every day since. He was kind enough to provide me with photographs of this daily-wearer, which oozes the charisma and character of a purpose-built object used in the nonchalant manner expected of a veteran diver. Although far from pristine, this is a watch that has unapologetically performed tasks ranging from underwater construction projects to marine research off the Atlantic coast of Florida.
The caseback of Gary’s second Submariner is engraved with his name, along with “Tektite I” and the duration of the program, “Feb – Apr 1969.” Although this is not the original Submariner that Gary wore during Tektite, this is a thoughtful and nostalgic engraving representative of the ethos that a watch can serve as a vessel to capture memories and celebrate achievements.
I did ask Gary about his frequency of maintenance and how the Rolex has performed for him over the past fifty years, to which he casually replied that after 3500 dives, “It’s still ticking…but that is what we expect of them, isn’t it?” He did indicate that at one point while performing heavy labor involving moving underwater pipes, the bezel was dinged and would no longer rotate correctly. This likely accounts for the service bezel insert, but after it was fixed up by Rolex, it was ready to be put right back to use. The only brief moments of reprieve for the watch, according to Gary, were the occasional research project where electrofishing or timed fish counts are needed. In these instances, the ever-trustworthy Casio G-shock was the watch of choice.
From a modern “watch enthusiast” point of view, the fact that this was not the exact Submariner given to Gary for use on Tektite I may detract from the piece, but I am inclined to disagree. I understand the appeal of a watch used during a program as historically significant and avant-garde as one of the man-in-the-sea programs of the 1960’s. This specific Submariner, however, has seen so much more than the (relatively) brief sixty day mission in 1969.
Though he was employed as a Park Ranger with the National Park Service prior to Tektite I, this program (along with
encyclopedic marine knowledge and hard work) led him to his long-lasting career as a marine biologist studying the scenic national parks that have become icons within our country. This general sentiment was well described by Henry David Thoreau when he said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”
While I am sure that Gary has stories that could fill entire volumes, I am particularly fond of two that he was willing to share with me. He regaled me with a tale about his time in Tektite I where he and fellow Aquanaut, Ian Koblick, were sonically tagging lobsters one evening early in the program. The next day, to their surprise, one of the lobsters was clocked moving much quicker than physically possible. They were able to pinpoint the intermittent signal of the sonic tag and decided to venture down to the undersea crevasse where the signal was emitted from. Alarmingly, the chasm was filled with half a dozen 6-7ft nurse sharks; one of which had eaten their tagged decapod. At a crossroads, they decided to retrieve the expensive sonic tag by killing the shark with an explosive “bang-stick.” If you are unfamiliar with a “bang-stick” (also called a powerhead), think of a long spear with a large caliber bullet at the end. This ammunition is designed to engage when the end of the device comes into contact with the target.
With their minds made up, the two Aquanauts bravely descended into the shark-infested waters. Koblick led with the “bang-stick” while Gary followed behind with the cumbersome 16mm camera and aluminum housing in tow. After locating the cartilaginous offender, the time had come to reclaim the sonic transmitter. Unfortunately for these oceanic explorers, the initial strike of the “bang-stick” did not produce the necessary discharge required to incapacitate the shark. Despite the equipment failure, the undersea acrobatics necessary for Koblick to deal the blow resulted in a flurry of activity from the remaining denizens of the deep. Gary was able to shield himself with his photography equipment while Koblick made one more attempt at striking the shark as it swam beneath his legs. This time the powerhead detonated just near his feet, scaring the shark away for good and dislodging one of his swim fins in the process.
His second tale harkens back to 1976 when he was working at Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Southern Florida. The lighthouse service relayed that they had a pod of whales beached outside their location off Loggerhead Key and requested assistance. Gary arrived to find a multitude of Pseudorca, or False Killer Whales, washed up onshore and trapped by the retreating tide. Pseudorca range from 14-17 feet in length and can weigh up to 4,800 pounds, making them one of the largest ocean dolphins. With the help of SeaWorld Wildlife Veterinarians, University of Miami whale specialists, and the US Coast Guard, Gary was able to return the gentle giants to sea over the course of the next two days. Prior to this encounter, nobody had been able to study False Killer Whales so closely. Gary assisted in collecting measurements and data samples, all while wearing his trusty Submariner.
Suffice it to say that Gary and I began speaking due to his Tektite I connection and my inherent interest in the historical intersection between watches and scientific research. The reason we continue to talk, however, is because the man who owns this Rolex is far more fascinating than any individual project or program. A lifetime of work dedicated to the preservation of our National Parks is imbued into this watch, and although it may have all began with Tektite, it is Gary’s passion for marine science and conservation that make the Submariner that much more special.
I would like to extend a special “thank you” to Gary. Thanks for the tales of adventure, the work you have done to advance marine science and protect our National Parks, and for allowing me to write up some of your stories. As always, please let me know what you think of the article below in the comments section!