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HELMET DIVING IN BERMUDA

Story and photos by

So you want to explore the underwater world? You've tried snorkeling, but you inhale more water than air. And forget scuba diving. You can't swim. Besides, without glasses, you can't even see a barracuda in front of your nose.

Greg Hartley helmet dives with daughter, Sandy (holding a black grouper). Hartley's Undersea Walk.
Greg Hartley helmet dives with daughter, Sandy (holding a black grouper). Hartley's Undersea Walk.

Well, before you resign yourself to a life of Jacques Cousteau dive show reruns and glass-bottomed boat rides, consider helmet diving in Bermuda.

A diving helmet works like a glass turned upside-down in water. Fresh air is pumped in through a hose, and bubbles out of the open bottom. Your head stays dry and you can reach in and touch your face or adjust your glasses. You need no lessons or swimming ability — just a sense of adventure.

Tours from Royal Naval Dockyard

We made reservations with Hartley's Undersea Walk, a Bermuda company that routinely takes visitors, ages five to 85, on three- to four-hour helmet diving trips aboard The Rainbow Runner. Located by Heritage Wharf at the dock next to the moon gate in the Royal Naval Dockyard, the dive boat is easy to reach by ferry, taxi, moped or pink buses from Hamilton and St. George's.

The owner of Hartley's Undersea Walk is Greg Hartley. His father, Bronson Hartley, invented the Hartley diving helmet and began helmet diving tours in Bermuda in 1947.

Greg Hartley assigned us to the first group of six to take the plunge. The remaining passengers viewed fish through the glass bottom of the boat, as they awaited their turns.

Dive helmets

Two-by-two, we climbed down the ladder until the water was at shoulder level. Hartley's assistant lowered the dive helmets, so they rested on our shoulders.

We heard bubbles rising in the water, as we stepped down to the sandy ocean floor, 10 feet below. Hartley stood behind, watched us descend safely, and handed us a seven-foot-long grab bar. The PVC pipe kept our group together to see the attractions that Hartley showed us and allowed him to see faces to confirm that all divers were doing well. At picture taking time, Hartley gave each group the option of removing the bar for underwater digital photos (for sale on CD after the helmet dive).

The dive helmets weigh 40 to 80 pounds, out of the water, and only 15 to 23 pounds underwater — just enough to keep our feet on the sand and prevent us from floating back up. (Children's dive helmets weigh eight to 10 pounds underwater.) When the water is cool, Hartley gives out wetsuits, which have weight belts to keep divers from floating.

Greg Hartley's father, Bronson, began Bermuda helmet diving.
Greg Hartley's father, Bronson, began Bermuda helmet diving.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Underwater walk

Greg Hartley holds out some squid to feed the fish. He carefully feeds the snappers, because they gulp their food rather than nibbling it. Hartley avoids feeding the greedy breams, which aggressively try to steal all the food. They circle the group like uninvited party guests.

Instead, Hartley tries to form relationships with individual fish, by feeding them one at a time. Fish soon learn that they receive food as a reward for coming close and allowing divers to touch or hold them. Friendly fish receive names, like Barrack, the black grouper.

Blue angelfish, red squirrel fish, yellow french, blue-striped grunts, red hinds, black groupers, silvery grey snappers, sergeant majors, bluehead wrasses and hogfish accompanied us. They flickered their fins tauntingly in front of the glass windows of our dive helmets, swished their tails and swam off after we touched them. We saw iridescent parrotfish, but because they are herbivores, they ignored us or swam away when we came too close.

Sleeping coral

Hartley communicated with us using small signs. "Walk forward," said one. He then made a "C" with his thumb and forefinger, to indicate coral. We saw a sleeping coral that looked like a tree on a winter day, with its smooth and naked branches.

Another coral was awake. It was brown, fluffy and bristling with tiny blossoms, wide open and waiting for plankton (microscopic sea life) to float by.

We knelt very close to the coral to view it. Hartley gently touched the open polyp with his fingertip so divers could see the grabbing action the tiny tentacles use to engulf small plankton.

As we strolled along the soft sand, Greg Hartley pointed to another coral, shook his hand and mouthed the word "Ouch!" It was obviously a stinging coral, which uses its power to paralyze plankton.

Feeding sponges

We stopped beside a sponge. When awake and feeding, millions of whip-like flagella in sponges produce a constant gentle flow of water through their 'exhale' holes. Dissolved organic matter and phytoplankton stick on the sponges' mucous membranes, while water escapes from exhaust holes.

The helmet divers watched closely, while Hartley pointed to the sponge's breathing hole and sprinkled sand above it. The jet-like stream of exhaust water scattered the sand through the water.

All too soon, our helmet dive was finished and we headed back into the boat, for hot showers, dry towels and stories of close encounters. (On our dive, we spotted a sea cucumber. Greg Hartley held it so we could stroke its soft skin.)

A hogfish swims past a helmet diver and coral reef.
A hogfish swims past a helmet diver and coral reef.

Diving trip for non-swimmers

On the boat, five-year-old Vicki excitedly raved about "the great big fish" she had seen underwater. "Of course, dear," said her mother, "I'm sure you did see some big fish." What the mother didn't know was that Vicki had seen a giant hogfish. When the hogfish shows up, lucky helmet divers can gently hold it.

The most rewarding moments for Greg Hartley are when he brings down amputees, paraplegics and the blind — people who've only dreamed of diving. On one occasion, a large grouper nestled right into the arms of a blind man, allowing him to feel its whole body. When the man climbed out of the water back into the boat, he joyously exclaimed, "I saw everything!"

Underwater Bermuda is awesome for those who can see and swim. It's even more amazing for those who can't.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Hartley's Undersea Walk: www.hartleybermuda.com