Wet Suit, Dry Suit, Old Suit, New Suit

The evolution of underwear apparel.

There are must-have fashion accessories, and then there are must-have accessories: as in, you risk death without them.

In the realm of research diving, Scripps Institution of Oceanography has led the development of many must-haves, starting in the 1950s when soon-to-be Scripps Oceanography students Conrad Limbaugh and Andreas Rechnitzer, MS ’51, PhD ’55, bought the third and fourth Aqua-Lungs sold in the states. The pioneering SCUBA gear came with no owner’s manual—dive officers like Limbaugh and James Stewart were self-taught and would come to create the first standards in research diving.

But what to wear underwater? Scripps’s first use of SCUBA for research was the 1952 Capricorn Expedition in the central Pacific Ocean (1). In the warm tropical waters, scientists were able to get by with the basics: fins, a mask, and a pair of shorts.

A good solution for cold water diving had yet to be found. Until 1951, when UC Berkeley physicist and diving enthusiast, Hugh Bradner, used the synthetic rubber neoprene to create the first version of the modern wetsuit (2). The suit traps a thin layer of water against the skin, which  is warmed by the body and serves as insulation. Scripps scientists and divers were among the first to test the suit, and Bradner himself would join Scripps in 1961, always insisting that the invention was an ensemble effort.

By that time, Scripps scientists like Paul Dayton and Gerald Kooyman were exploring new technologies to investigate the near-frozen waters of Antarctica. For that, they would try a variety of wetsuits and dry suits—named for the way in which water is fully excluded—and ultimately set standard protocols for Antarctic diving through trial and error. Today, the preferred apparel for polar dives is a watertight dry suit, synthetic undergarments, and electrically heated vests and gloves (3).

Today, Scripps officers and researchers are among the first to test new equipment, and the institution is a leader in scientific diving certification—a far more rigorous credential than that of recreational diving. Strict medical and swim proficiency requirements and more than 100 hours and 14 dives are required before collecting any data underwater. Dive students are versed in wet and dry suits, as well as immersion or “Gumby” suits, floating full-body covers used in the event of an abandon ship. So when the latest suit hits the deep in the name of science, you can bet it will have earned its stripes at Scripps.