One of the earliest pieces of writing known to humanity is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian legend that’s formative to the history of literature.
In it, Gilgamesh himself attaches stones to his feet, weighing him down to the bottom of the sea, so he could get the Plant of Eternal Youth. It is the first known record of someone plunging to the bottom of the sea on a breath hold dive.
Along the long and sometimes wet street to Key West, there is a stop around mile marker 82 that a good deal of people are not making. This is a mistake. The History of Diving Museum in Islamorada is a pearl that each and every South Floridian needs to shuck. It follows the history, from Gilgamesh, to the famous scuba innovator Jacques Cousteau and beyond.
The collection is not simply a haphazard storyboard interpretation of diving; it is a massive array of fascinating and rarely considered artifacts that tell, as the museum’s byline explains, “the story of man’s quest to explore under the sea.”
The History of Diving Museum is one of the best collections in the world, though there are others that focus on localized histories in France, Italy and Panama City. And it’s right under all of our noses along the way to Key West.
The tour starts in the library, which has books as early as 1585 on the subject of diving and undersea exploration. It is open to the public for research by appointment and has been utilized by specialized scholars over the years. The scope ranges from kid’s books and Jules Verne novels to technical books on the machinery and gear necessary for the deep. The vast array of tomes sets the stage for a comprehensive experience.
The History of Diving Museum is no tourist trap. It is an institution with a serious collection that needs to be reckoned with on the South Florida museum circuit.
Each patron enters the museum through a hatch, with co-founder Dr. Joe Bauer’s picture inviting intrepid explorers into the world of the deep. Dr. Joe is now deceased but his mark is all over the facility, including his voice over on the surprisingly breathtaking “Parade of Nations” exhibit that highlights early diving helmets from all over the world. The have rare and intricate examples from North and South America as well as Europe, Asia and Australia.
His widow, the enthusiastic Dr. Sally Bauer, now runs the museum. They began collecting in the 1970s, when they bought their first helmet, and their passion turned in to a seriously focused niche collection. Only about a third of the museum’s holdings are on the property in Islamorada. Some of the earlier pieces are reproductions from period books and diagrams because there are no known originals. But nearly the entire collection is authentic.
Local history abounds as well, with a large stock of Miller-Dunn helmets, who were early Miami-based manufacturers of diving equipment. Miller-Dunn was the first to realize that warmer climates did not require full-bodied suits so they invented what’s known as the first open-bottom helmet for easier use in tropical seas. Their slogan claimed it was so easy that anyone could use them, and indeed, Dr. Sally tells a story when her mother put one on and jumped in the pool in her 80s. She wanted to try a helmet made in the year she was born, 1916. She tells the story with a huge smile, almost in awe of the capability of the equipment nearly one hundred years later, and definitely in awe of her mother.
So if you are in need of adventure, visit The History of Diving Museum. Learn about Matthew Johnston, the first quadriplegic to go diving, or Art McKee, the Florida Keys’ first-ever divemaster, or cure the bends with a decompression chamber from the 1920s. Or you can take a picture next to Iron Mike, an extreme deep-sea suit and the only of it’s kind in existence, much like the History of Diving Museum itself, a beautiful and bizarre rarity on South Florida’s soil.