Aquanauts - heroes of oceanic exploration

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 13, 2009 08:23am | Post a Comment

Aquanauts - What Are They?

Aquanauts, as the name implies to anyone with even the most basic awareness of Latin and ancient Greek, are the oceanic equivalent of astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts and other nauts. However, there's more to being an aquanaut than wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons paired with white trousers. Nor are aquanauts mere scuba divers or snorkelers. Even donning a Breton sailor's shirt and Greek fisherman's cap, puttering around in a pressure-and-climate-controlled sub just makes you a submariner. If you want to be an aquanaut, you've got to get your hands wet. There's also an implication that you have to be indigenous to land because no one ever described a porpoise or a jellyfish as an aquanaut.


Famous, Real-Life Aquanauts

Although every documentary about the Earth's oceans points out how much more interesting the oceans are than space (and how we know less about it), aquanauts are never as famous as their spacegoing rivals. Whereas everyone knows the names of the first astronauts on the moon, who can name any of the crew who first descended the Marianas Trench? See if any of these "famous" aquanauts' names ring any diving bells:

Robert Stenuit, Bill Tolbert, Billie L. Coffman, George Dowling, Mike Meisky, Robert Sheats, Shorty Lyons and Wally Jenkins, Alina Szmant, Bill High, C. Lavett Smith, Chris Olstad, Harold Pratt, Ian Koblick, John Perry, Joseph MacInnis, Morgan Wells, Neil Monney, Phillip Sharkey, Richard Cooper, Robert Dill, Stephen Neudecker, Steven Miller, Sylvia Earle. Malcolm Scott Carpenter was both an aquanaut and and astronaut!


Aquanauts in Film

Sometimes, filmmakers decide that enough is enough and choose to relocate what are essentially space movies to an underwater location. When I was 11, I learned to scuba dive and got my first paying job (under the table... child labor and all that) at a scuba shop. A few years later, there was a spate of aquanaut films beginning with Deep Star Six. To me, any aquanaut film was held to the absolute lowest standards. I even purported to find The Abyss "not boring" even though I only remember one scene.

Special notice must be given to Chris Elliott (no less a hero than Scott Carpenter) who has done more than any other actor to raise the stature of ocean-centered films, having starred in The Abyss, played a submariner in an episode of Get A Life entitled "Neptune 2000," and a cabin boy in Cabin Boy. His autobiography, Daddy's Boy even begins, "The sea is a cruel mistress..." 


20000 lieues sous les mers (1907) and 20,000 leagues under the sea (1916) are two early examples of aquanauts in action. As you can see in the earlier version, a work of the always unrealistic Georges Méliès, the aquanaut seems to explore the depths without the aid of a breathing aparatus. Yeah right. Somebody's got nitrogen narcosis! The 1916 version is actually quite entertaining with reasonably amazing effects.


Undersea Kingdom (1936) holds the distinction of being Republic's lowest budget serial... and it shows. It could've been subtitled Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon underwater. As such, like the spate of aquanaut movies of 1989, it seems like little more than a gimmick and there's very little aquanatic action.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is a classic that everyone knows and loves. No exceptions.


Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) followed a few years later and had some superficial similarities (giant squid punch up), as did War-Gods of the Deep (1965) (another period aquanaut piece). Some would argue that Fantastic Voyage (1966) has no place in this blog, but blood and people, as we all know, are mostly made of water, it has submarines and scuba divers, so it stays! And then there's Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969).


For a while, the aquanaut genre lay undisturbed, like a giant wrecked Spanish Galleon silently resting at the bottom of the sea. The genre was revived in 1989 with the release of Deep Star Six. It and the films that followed had a notably different vibe than earlier aquanaut films. At that point they borrowed elements from horror and science-fiction and some would say owed a slight debt to Alien. Within a span of twelve months, Deep Star Six was followed by Leviathan, The Abyss and the inevitable Roger Corman production, Lords of the Deep. The following year, The Rift aka Endless Descent (1990) was cannibalizing all of them in its poster art, name, plot and almost appears to be a parody.

Sphere (1998) came out years later. I found it unintentionally funny at points, such as the Seinfeldian "Harry is Jerry!" "Harry is Jerry?" "Jerry's Harry!" Nick Pinto swears by it though.

Aquanauts on TV

There've been several examples of aquanauts on the small screen including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), Stingray (1964-1965), Sealab 2020 (1972), SeaQuest DSV (1993-1996) and Sealab 2021 (2000-2005). Note: Pacifica Radio DJ Rick Frystak has pointed out that there was a syndicated show called The Aquanauts in 1960 and '61 although it doesn't seem to've been about actual aquanauts and more in the vein of Sea Hunt.

Years ago, I made a custom, limited edition Aquanaut box set. If you bought it, I'd love to hear from you.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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Submarines (1), Jules Verne (1), Sealab (1), Horror (218), Sience-fiction (1), Aquanauts (1), Television (50), 1980s (52), 1960s (49), Movies (57), Squids (1), Scuba Diving (1)