Local museum takes you "under the sea"

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG) - There's no shortage of diving opportunities off the shores of the world's most beautiful beaches. But being able to explore that watery world hasn't always been easy. Finding ways to breathe underwater took years to perfect.

"It's interesting to learn the physics behind diving and the fact that it's not just something that you jump in the water and do," said Heather Nowak, executive director of the Man in the Sea Museum.

You may have driven by the museum a hundred times on Back Beach Road and wondered what it is. Although it's been here since 1987, this year the museum has undergone a major overhaul and uncovered some real treasures, including a canon.

"They were digging the footings for this new hotel and lo and behold they dug it right up out of the sand," said Nowak. "It was about a mile down the road here."

Some of the most significant advances in the diving world have happened in Panama City Beach. The Man in the Sea museum is determined to preserve that history.

"The history goes back pretty far into the 1500 when divers were first making some sort of attempt to either recover things on the ocean floor or just simply trying to find ways to stay longer and still be able to breathe."

Nowak was hired as executive director earlier this year and has made it her mission to update the museum.

"We really kind of start with Alexander the Great," said Nowak. "He made the first dive."

The museum covers everything from recreational diving to underwater military advances.

"We want this to be the home of the military divers," said Nowak. "To transform this and make it a place for them. But also talk about scuba and sport diving."

The museum is swimming with military memorabilia.

"NSA Panama City being here for many, many years and the fact that today it's the only place military divers get their basic dive training so it's a very, very important base that has again a very rich history," said Nowak.

Part of that history is the advent of saturation diving. "I like to call saturation diving extended stay diving," said Nowak.

The idea came from Dr. George Bond in the 1960's. He wondered why men only had limited time on the ocean floor. "So he developed the idea of habitats and living on the ocean floor and using the resources out of the ocean to sustain life," said Nowak. "So it was really kind of an overarching idea that started with military purposes. But he thought it could be used well into the future."

The museum actually has the very first prototype for saturation diving that was developed at the local navy base. Sealab 1 was the first underwater habitat where back in 1964 four divers lived and worked 193 feet down on the ocean floor for 11 days.

"People can actually come out and see inside that habitat and feel what the divers felt and feel those conditions and what it would be like 193 feet of water breathing mostly helium atmosphere," explained Nowak. A way for landlubbers, who don't really have sea legs, to get a feeling of what it's like under the sea.

The Sealab exhibit will open to the public on Veterans Day. Nowak says it was never officially christened by the Navy because it was a prototype. So at 3:00 p.m. November 11th, one of the original divers on that adventure and one of the men who helped develop the Sealab will do the honors at the museum. You are invited to attend and dive in.
For more information, you can go to their website maninthesea.org or you can call them at (850) 235-4101 or check them out on Facebook.