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The Lesser-Known Dive Watches of SEALAB II

After all, the Rolex Submariner was not the only player in the game

Team One of SEALAB II, image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington

In 1965, the US Navy commenced with phase two of their SEALAB program. Flying high on the success of SEALAB I, and with a dogged desire to further advance the exploration of innerspace, the program was expanded to include more Aquanauts and venture to greater depths than ever before. In this age of discovery, members of the US Navy along with a handful of civilian scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography were drawn together to explore the feasibility of long term mixed gas saturation as well as the psychology of group dynamics in confined spaces. Despite the fact that the ocean floor is the geographic antithesis of out space, this information could theoretically be directly applied to future space travel missions.


Within the watch community, or at least the intense dive watch enthusiast sector, it is understood that the naval personnel of SEALAB were provided with Rolex Submariners to wear for the duration of the project. Often revered as the “gold standard” of dive watches (for reasons ranging from durability to design), the “subs” of SEALAB are highly sought after and fetch a high price when at auction (as evidenced by the listing of Aquanaut Bob Barth’s Rolex Submariner for $150,000 in 2012). Although the Navy provided watches to those who took part in this particular man-in-the-sea program, many other brands and models were utilized while dwelling within this undersea abode. While Rolex gets the lion’s share of recognition, the fact of the matter is that the other dive watches present in this historic undertaking deserve a little bit of the spotlight too.


Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms


Though perhaps not as highly coveted as the Rolex Submariner back in 1965, the year that SEALAB II took place, the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms has grown to become somewhat of a cult-classic among modern collectors. Seen on the wrists of multiple aquanauts on team one of the program, the watch features a large characteristic bezel with a 12 o’clock diamond pip. With a diameter of 42mm, this was a robust diver for the era and featured a significant amount of lume, making it the ideal tool for working within the inky darkness of the sea.

Above archival images courtesy of the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington. Scroll to view catalog scan for comparison.


At 25 years old, Thomas A. Clarke was the youngest member of the SEALAB program. Working through his graduate studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA, he can be seen conferring with fellow Aquanaut Earl A. Murray (also from Scripps) while wearing the distinctive Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. Also seen wearing a Blancpain is Wilbur Eaton. Prior to serving as a surface support diver in SEALAB I, Eaton served as a Gunner’s Mate First Class at the US Navy Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, FL.


Nivada Grenchen Chronomaster Aviator Sea-Diver


Despite the Navy providing watches to the aquanauts, there is a high likelihood that many acquired or brought along their own personal preferred pieces to use in addition. This is almost certainly the case with William H. Tolbert. Prior to participating in Team 2 of the program, he served as an Oceanographer with the US Navy Mine Defense Laboratory. Here he can be seen tending to some plant life presumably grown within SEALAB II. Interestingly, he is the only Aquanaut I have clocked in the program wearing a dive chronograph.

Above archival image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington. Scroll to view catalog scan for comparison.


Upon his wrist appears to be a “panda dial”, or white face with black subdials, Nivada Grenchen Chronomaster Aviator Sea-Diver. Although it can be difficult to say with total certainly, there are certain characteristics that support this theory. First of all, there were only a handful of dive chronographs around in the mid-1960’s. Of those, even less featured a white dial and black subdials. The watch in question appears to have a broad arrow hour hand, which is a key feature of the Nivada Grenchen Sea-Diver. Introduced in 1963, the Chronomaster was a do-it-all watch for the period. Capable of handling depths up to 200 meters while also functioning as a chronograph, this watch was somewhat of a technical marvel at the time. As an Oceanographer, it would seem that Tolbert appreciated the ability to time operations while simultaneously handling the rigors of the deep.


Aquastar “63”


Aquastar is a brand with a long and storied history in diving. Known for making watches almost exclusively designed for the serious diver, their equipment was made with true utility in mind. Although some Aquastar advertisements from the late 1960s indicate that their equipment was used on the SEALAB II program (along with Cousteau’s Precontinent III), it is unknown whether the company provided equipment or if it belonged to the Aquanauts as a personal watch.

Above archival image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington. Scroll to view catalog scan for comparison.


Posing with a prize anchovy, Chief Engineman Frederick Johler appears to be sporting an Aquastar 63 on his wrist. This watch, presumably introduced in 1963, featured an internal rotating bezel and non-screwdown crown, yet remained capable of handling depths up to 200 meters. Many of the surviving examples of the Aquastar 63 are well-worn (i.e. heavily patinated), attributable to the fact that the majority of these watches saw hard use as the tools they were marketed as. Like many of the SEALAB II aquanauts, Johler served as a support diver on SEALAB I. Prior to the program he was assigned to the US Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut.


Enicar Sherpa


Earl A. Murray served as a member of team one and was a US Navy veteran at the time of SEALAB II. He worked as a lab assistant at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography prior to the program, making him uniquely qualified as a career diver and scientist. His watch is one of the most difficult to identify, as it appears to be quite small and void of a rotating dive bezel. That being said, he is sometimes seen wearing a diver (possible a Zodiac Seawolf) that does have a bezel present, so perhaps this watch is just worn outside of actual dive excursions. According to US Navy dive manuals of the mid-1960’s, dive watches had to be equipped with a rotating outer bezel. Either Murray lost the bezel during the duration of SEALAB, or this watch was relegated to non-dive activities.

Above archival image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington. Scroll to view catalog scan for comparison.


Largely a “best guess”, I believe that his watch is some iteration of the Enicar Sherpa. It is unclear to me whether this is an Enicar dive watch that is missing the rotating bezel, or if it is an obscure earlier model that was produced from the factory sans bezel. Enicar is a company with a history of watches being tested by the US Navy, so it is possible that this is a model from Murray’s time in the military. The shape of the lume plots seem to fall in line with the style of Enicar’s early divers, and the shape of the hands seems consistent as well.


Needless to say, there was a plethora of different watch brands that spent some time on the “Tiltin’ Hilton” (the pet name for SEALAB II, a reference to the crooked placement on the ocean floor) and there is a great chance that many of these watches are still out there waiting to be discovered. Some of these brands, like Blancpain and the newly revitalized Nivada Grenchen, continue to produce tool watches that build upon their history at the forefront of diving and exploration. Rest assured that if you own one of these models they were every bit the tool watch that they claimed to be, and your example just might have taken part in one of the most historic marine science endeavors of all time.


So what did you think of these lesser known watches of SEALAB? Do you agree with my assessments, or perhaps you notice some details I have missed? If so, please let me know! Thanks for taking the time to read. Special thanks to Mary at the US Naval Undersea Museum for the photos and time spent putting up with my questions. If you have the time, check out the US Naval Undersea Museum in person at their location in Keyport, WA. If Washington is a no-go due to proximity, check out the website at www.navalunderseamuseum.org!

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