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Low Key in the News

Historic Underwater Tektite Program Celebrated

Sunday, February 15, 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of a truly historic event here on St. John. Low Key Watersports played a noteworthy role in that weekend's events.

On the same day in 1969 four aquanauts would enter the waters of Great Lameshur Bay-just west of Cabritte Horn Point-and swim to their living quarters located at 49 feet below the surface. There they would remain submerged, conducting marine scientific studies, for the next sixty days. This feat eclipsed by two the previous duration record set by astronaut, turned aquanaut, Scott Carpenter in 1965.

On Saturday, February 14th Low Key Watersports took two of the returning aquanauts, Dr. Ed Clifford, Dr. Conrad Mahnken and their wives, as well as the Program's Manager, Dr. James W. Miller and several other guests from the Virgin Islands Park Service dock in Cruz Bay along the south shore of St. John back to Great Lameshur Bay. With the help of Captain Jeremy King and his Divemaster Forrest Hall, they were able to pinpoint the exact site of the underwater living quarters and then spent the next three-quarters of an hour snorkeling the area and identifying familiar landmarks. Thus began the weekend of planned events designed to celebrate the success of this program.

On the anniversary date the St. John Historical Society, in concert with Clean Islands International-who is responsible for the operation and management of the UVI's Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) at Lameshur Bay hosted a huge afternoon gathering to celebrate the legacy of the program. Part-time St. John resident, Bruce Schoonover, told the story of the Tektite program in pictures and words. University of the Virgin Island President, Dr. LaVerne Ragster, dedicated VIERS's new museum in honor the Tektite program. Following is an overview of the program that is reprinted here by permission of the Historical Society and Bruce Schoonover its author.

Tektite Program Overview

Forty years ago, on February 15th, 1969, the underwater program known as Tektite I was just beginning, right here on St. John-just off the south shore, and to the northwest of Cabritte Horn Point, in Great Lameshur Bay.

Four Department of Interior marine scientists would descend to a depth of approximately 50 feet and would reside and work there for the next 60 days-longer than any human being had ever lived and worked under the sea.

For the United States, this was a nationally significant program, designed to (1) advance our knowledge of man's ability to withstand long periods of high pressure-caused by being submerged, (2) enhance the breadth of our understanding of the marine environment and (3) better prepare ourselves for the anticipated extended space travel that would follow.

This highly complex undertaking, which drew on much of the existing scientific knowledge of the day, was backed jointly by the Navy, NASA, the Department of Interior, the Missile & Space Division of the General Electric Company, and it relied on the expertise of many of this country's leading scientists and pioneers in their respective fields.

The decade of the 1960s was one of great contrasts for our Nation. It was a turbulent and stressful time, but out of all of this-or perhaps because of all this-it was a decade in which great strides forward were made in both science and technology. The Tektite program was the product of this era and it greatly advanced our knowledge of both the sea and our ability to live and work in a hostile and confining environment for a prolonged period. Following the success of the initial Tektite program in 1969, a subsequent equally successful program, known as Tektite II, was carried out over a seven-month period in 1970. This program allowed for more diverse and in depth marine scientific studies than the first, would attempt extended stays at a greater depth and test and evaluate more sophisticated diving equipment. It would also employ and benefit a wider variety of governmental agencies, academics and the industrial community. This was accomplished through 11 separate missions, most with a duration of from 13 to 20 days, in which 53 aquanauts took part, including both an all women's team and a number of international participants.

It should be noted that the physical structures-comprising what we know today as the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) at Lameshur Bay-were actually built by the Navy Seabees, and served as the base station for the entire Tektite program.

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