May 10, 2022: Vikie Jensen -Writer and Photographer – Topic: Deep, Dark and Dangerous, The Story of British Columbia’s Word-Class Undersea Tech Industry-Zoom

Vickie Jensen
Writer and Photographer

Vickie Jensen has built her writing career around the importance of documenting and celebrating work.

As editor of Westcoast Mariner magazine she travelled on coastal tugs, charter yachts, dredges, ferries and water taxis for nearly
four years, interviewing skippers, crews and owners about maritime life. She is the author of Saltwater Women at Work and Working
These Waters, and coauthor of the children’s book Build Your Own Underwater Robot and Other Wet Projects.

For three decades, she and her husband Jay Powell have also worked with First Nations elders to produce more than thirty schoolbooks, documenting
a variety of Native languages spoken on the Northwest Coast. In her latest book, Deep, Dark and Dangerous, Vickie explains how British
Columbia became an international hotspot for submarines, submersibles, Newtsuits, underwater robotics, Arctic sonar and a host of other cutting edge
undersea technologies.

She lives in Vancouver with Jay who is a fellow member of our PROBUS Club.


Vickie Jensen was introduced by Bill Hooker.


Transcription summary.

Having grown up in the cornfields of Iowa, Vickie did not have much marine experience, so it was a steep learning curve when she first embarked on her journey to writing a book on under-water technologies. Over four years, Vickie interviewed 40 subsea pioneers who contributed to BC’s rich and underrated history in this field. Through her interviews, Vickie learned that the 60s were a time of revolutionary change in the commercial diving world. In the 50s and 60s, commercial divers had to wear 190 pounds of gear, not including their tools. They had to learn by testing the equipment themselves in the frigid and of -ten dark BC waters, relying on their fingers, which they referred to as their ten eyes, to see. There was often severely limited bottom time to get the job done, followed by a long decompression period.

However, post-World War II, an explosion in the quest for scientific knowledge drove ocean and space exploration. A lot of accomplishments came out of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. There was a sudden explosion of sub-sea inventions made possible by new types of steel and light-weight aluminum with the strength and viability for the under-water jobs. Until then, cast iron would have been needed to build the hauls, which was not very workable. Between 1950 and 1962, diving depths more than doubled from 100 ft to 250 feet. By the late 1960s, diving depths reached 1000ft, and by 1980 commercial divers would reach 2,000 feet. Careers were rapidly changing, and divers had to change with it. Some of the biggest names in the field were from right here in BC.

In the 1960s, the subsea business evolved from commercial divers to submersibles. In 1964, after the challenging deep Barge 10 salvage project, Al Trice and Don Sorte were hunting for a small submarine that would take them down to 2,500 feet. One didn’t exist, so they had to build it themselves. They worked with machinist Mack Thompson and the final product took 26 months and up to $300,000 to build. The three men then formed the company HYCO, which was quite successful. They built, tested, and internationally sold 14 submersibles over 15 years.

HYCO’s undoing came with the rising popularity of ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) in the 70s. ROVs have several distinct financial advantages. With no humans aboard, there’s no payroll, no benefits, no cook, no crew, and less insurance hassle. They quickly replaced submersibles and commercial divers. Unfortunately, HYCO went into receivership in 1978 but left behind an impressive legacy.

Jim McFarland started at HYCO but left to start his own cmpany, International Submarine Engineering (ISE), based in Port Coquitlam. In 1974, ISE produced the first commercial ROV to work in the North Sea. In the 80s and 90s, they built several other vehicles specifically designed for scientific work. There was also an evolution in AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) in the 80s. These vehicles are untethered, so they can operate under ice, provided they are correctly programmed. ISE’s second major AUV, Theseus, has an endurance record of over 60 hours under Arctic ice. Modular Explorer AUVs are their latest evolution.

At only 16 years of age, Phil Nuytten was the first rescue diver in the water when the Second Narrows Bridge collapsed in June 1958. Nine years later, he started his commercial construction firm, Can-Dive. In the summer of 1969, he teamed up with Lad Handelman of Cal Dive, and together they cofounded Oceaneering International. Eventually, Phil convinced the company to acquire the rights to the JIM Suit from Genesis in the UK, an Atmospheric Diving Suit (ADS). He went on to develop his own ADS, the Newtsuit, through his second company Nuytco.

In 1980, Phil built a revolutionary one-person submersible rated to 3,000 ft, the Deep Rover, which helped reduce costs and increase safety for harsh underwater work. Phil also developed the Deep Worker, which NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have used to study early life forms in lakes.

Like many other divers, Al Robinson and Terry Knight met at HYCO. Their passion for the work led them to manufacture and sell their small SeaMar ROVs as their retirement project. In 1989, their business Inuktun Services in Nanaimo, took off. Their more specialized vehicles have been used to help search and rescue efforts for 9/11 and to inspect the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor.

In 2005 and 2006, Ocean Works Canada developed the VENUS system. Dr. Marina Tunnicliffe at UVIC was instrumental in set-ting up this cabled underwater ocean observatory which gathers and provides free physical, chemical, biological, and geological data about the ocean floor over long periods of time, 24 hours a day. They’ve gone on to develop many other cabled ocean observatory systems. Maria was selected as an officer of the Order of Canada this year.

Of course, we can’t talk about subsea technologies without mentioning SONAR. Helmut Lanziner and Willy Wilhelmsen are Canada’s SONAR pioneers. Starting in 1966, Willy set up several key SONAR companies, including Imagenex, currently based in Port Coquitlam. Helmut’s company is Offshore Systems Ltd. which uses side-scan sonar to find shipwrecks and lost items that were almost impossible to find previously.

Another former HYCO employee, Dennis Hurd, went on to develop Atlantis Submarines, a Vancouver-based company that takes tourists on underwater adventures. They’ve taken over 17 million people on tours so far in many locations worldwide. Atlantis XIV in Waikiki can carry 64 passengers at a time, making it the largest passenger submarine in the world.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know about BC’s history in subsea exploration or the Canadian heroes behind advancements in the field.


Vickie was thanked by Chris Finch for her excellent presentation.


Q&A Transcription 

Question from Bill Hooker: Obviously, batteries are a critical component. Could you comment on them? What types and from what sources?

Answer: You are right, Bill. Batteries are always a challenge, particularly when you put them in connection with water. What’s interesting is that there are all kinds of changes that are happening in batteries right now. They’re getting smaller, they’re getting to have larger storage capacity, and those are going to be critical for future work in the ocean. But also, there are a whole lot of new sub-sea vehicles that use solar energy. So, they’ll come up to the surface, they’ll have a whole grid of solar panels on the top of them, and while they’re at the surface, they will recharge their batteries, but they will also then send data up to satellites or to ships and get new instructions if they need them. And many of them are gliders, so they just come up to the surface, recharge and then go down again on this continuous pattern. There are thousands of these gliders working in the ocean and recording information about the ocean. We have so little information about how crucial the ocean is to our well-being. So that’s happening there.

What sources? I can think about all the different people that I interviewed who talked about where they looked for batteries and finding local companies who are willing to work with them to develop banks of batteries that would power them, but fortunately now though, that power has become much more compact, and it allows less weight in the vehicles which takes less power, all of which feeds into that design-build loop.

Question from Bill Hooker: What about the use of these technologies in underwater archaeology? What has been found and recovered?

Answer: What about these technologies in underwater archaeology? What has been found and recovered? One of the most exciting things to me is what’s happening in sonar. They can now send acoustic pulses down that not only come to the surface of the seabed, but that penetrate below the surface and look for things. That’s hugely helpful when they’re looking at putting in footings for bridges, for example, or examining if footings for wharves are still viable. But it certainly works for discovering things as well. Side-scan Sonar, as Helmut mentioned, has just become a remarkable thing for finding things lost underwater. Those small ROVs like VideoRay, I would be willing to bet almost every police force on the coast has a VideoRay because they use them to recover murder weapons, for one thing. You know, the guy throws the gun into the water, presuming that’s the end of that. Not anymore! You may remember the big rainstorm that happened that took out the bridges on the way to Whistler, and there were cars that were washed off into the ocean and loss of life. Mark Atherton, one of the sonar engineers, one of the younger ones that I interviewed, talked to me. He was on that Search and Rescue effort, and the police person in charge of that said to him, “Have you got a pillowcase?” and Mark said, “yeah.” And he said, “Well, we’re going to need it because when we bring this body up to the surface, I need you to manipulate this pillowcase on the end of this ROV so that you can put it over the head because if the head breaks off the body, as it often does when in recovery, I need the head to identify who it is through dental records.” So, you know, you just have no idea of what this job entails.

Question from Dick Richards: Please describe what an Atmospheric Dive Suit is and how there is no decompression afterwards.

Answer: An ADS is really a lot like wearing your own personal submarine. You have your own surface-atmosphere with you that you take down. Whereas if you’re in any other kind of diving system, you almost always get subjected to the increasingly deep pressures that go underwater. And pressure is the one thing that makes designing for underwater vehicles more difficult than designing for space. So, as long as you are still operating in the same air pressure underwater that you have at the surface when you come back to the surface, you don’t change, you don’t have any decompression time, or you don’t have to stop and let the nitrogen in your blood adjust. You’re just as if you were still at the surface. And Phil was explaining to me that it takes only about 10 minutes to get the diver in the suit. Mind you, you cannot be claustrophobic if you’re wearing one of these, but you get the diver in the suit, you do your checks, and then he or she descends down to depth in 10 minutes, coming back, it’s the same 10 minutes, and then you go out and have lunch or finish the job. So, there is absolutely no decompression time, and that’s what makes it so remarkable.

Question from Ted: I remember, many years ago, I was a practicing lawyer, and we were involved when, you may remember, when the Russian ship collided with the Canadian ship going through Active Pass. In fact, the two of them collided, and in a feat of navigation in itself, they brought the two of them over to Vancouver to the shipyard. And we were involved with the Russians’ ship. They sent a man over to sort of help out the Russian ship, and we got to know him quite well. In fact, my senior partner had a small dinner for him. But he was very interested in submersibles. And he was a very, very intelligent guy. He was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever run across – his English was perfect. And he raised the question of submersibles. He asked if it was possible for me to arrange the sale of a submersible from Hyco in North Vancouver. At that time, Canada had a restriction on the export of submersibles and the technology relating to them. And I was interested in you saying that, in fact, two submersibles were sold to Russia. In your research, did you ever did you consider or did you discover any signs of the Russians trying to steal the technology with respect to submersibles, which was the technology that was restricted by the Canadian government?

Answer: Actually, yeah. That’s a very interesting story, and it plays a big part in the Hyco chapters. Initially, Russia had set up to have Hyco build two submersibles. And those were pretty well along, in fact, completed, and then Admiral Hymen Rickover, I believe, was able to intervene and say, “no, you cannot sell those to the Russians” because they’re built with HY 100 steel, which they were using for their Seawolf class of submarines. They said, “this is proprietary. You cannot do that.” So, they quashed this huge sale of two submersibles, which was critical for Hyco in terms of their funding. So that’s how they sold one. The Canadian government bought one Pisces IV, and that’s the one that ended up in pieces on the dock of the Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island that Verena Tunnicliffe found. It was eventually reassembled, and she would use it to make huge numbers of dives. So at some point later, when the Cold War was sort of passed and there was a new detente between the Soviets and Canada. They again got in touch with Hyco and said, “Well, what about now?” And so, Hyco did a very interesting thing. First of all, they took the plans for Pisces, and this was prior to being able to scan things and send them elsewhere. So, they put them in a vault in Switzerland. They then contracted the Swiss to build them, and they went ahead that way. They built the first one that way. It was not fast, but it was beautiful when it was done. And then the second one, they came back to the Canadian government and said, “Well, we have to build a second one. Do you want us to build it here in Canada? Or do you want us to go back to Europe?”, and they said, “oh, let’s build it here.” And by then, they came up with a different technology instead of using this HY 100 steel. And so that’s the second contract that did, in fact, successfully go to Russia. Interestingly enough, at the beginning of that contract, it included all kinds of very sensitive sonar equipment, which the Canadian government would not have allowed Hyco to send over. So, they had to bring in the lawyers to successfully negotiate that out of the contract. It was not fast, but they managed. I mean, you saw that Russia even made a stamp out of the arrival of their Pisces. They then went to Finland to build their NIR ones, and those are the ones that went down and actually discovered the Titanic and filmed it.

Question from Bob: How many are employed in BC in this industry?

Answer: Very good question, Bob. I found that very difficult to find out myself, and I did a lot of background research, and I couldn’t tell you the exact number of people. I can tell you that there are hundreds, if not a thousand, companies that spun out of Can-Dive and, in particular, Hyco. They call it the kindergarten, the place where everything started.

Question from Chris Finch: Why are Canadian Government contracts difficult to acquire for these companies?

Part of it, I think, is like with ISC, where Jim McFarlane had been in the military and had connections, so he was the company that got military contracts. But for the rest of them, I don’t know, what do they say? A prophet is never appreciated in his own home country? But I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book. This is a remarkable story, and slowly, as the sonar companies said, it’s opening up globally. Well, it’s open globally already, but slowly, it’s opened up that there’s more local business. I hope we can make a difference there.

Question from Therese Reinsch: Are there implications for earthquake detection and prediction for the West Coast?

Answer: Oh, that’s a very good question. My answer? I don’t know! I would think certainly in terms of preparation, you know, with being able to test existing bridge structures, for example, or tunnel structures to see if they’re still structurally sound… We’re retrofitting schools left, right and center, but I don’t know if we’re doing that, I would hope we’re doing that, for marine things as well. But in terms of detection and prediction, I simply don’t know. That’s a really good question. And I will talk with both of the Als, Al Trice and Al Robertson and ask them that question. Thank you.

Question from Bill Hooker: What about shipwreck detection of older vessels, treasure ships, etc.?

Answer: Oh, yes. That’s, again, where side-scan sonar is doing remarkable work. Just being able to lower metal detectors, for example. When you get an anomaly on a sonar readout, then you can come over it and lower down equipment to see what else you can find before you take the more expensive ROV down that might be able to drill down and get samples of what’s down there. But there is a wonderful chapter about, some of you may remember, the Jacques Piccard submarine. During the Swiss World Exposition, it took thousands of people to the bottom of a very polluted lake in Zurich or Lucerne, maybe. But when they were done with that submarine, they had built it to go super deep. It was Piccard’s son who handled the building. It was built to be rated super deep. And so, eventually, it just laid out and became derelict. And then it was finally brought back to British Columbia to be refit and taken to Colombia to do treasure research. In Colombia, there were all kinds of ships that were going back and forth to Spain, bringing treasure back. And so, that’s quite an interesting chapter of the Jacques Piccard’s next life. And then eventually, it was bought by a group of concerned Swiss who put had it refit again and put it in the Museum of Transport.

Question from Tim Sehmer: In your research, did you learn anything about Peter Madsen, the Danish inventor and submarine designer convicted five years ago of murdering and dismembering a journalist on his submarine?

Answer: No, I did not. But there are plenty of other stories that are similarly grisly and interesting. So I will check into that again. That’s a good one. Thank you.

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