A 1,000 pound deep sea dive suit, affectionately called "Jim," has taken up residence at Islamorada's History of Diving Museum. It is the latest exhibit in the museum's Deep Diving in the Abyss room.
"It was an adventure" getting Jim into this room, according to Dr. Sally Bauer, museum co-founder. Some of the walls and existing exhibits had to be altered in order to wheel the huge suit into place.
The Deep Diving in the Abyss room of the museum houses atmospheric diving suits, or "diving armor" used in deep sea commercial situations, such as oil rig repair. Through a recirculation and filtration process, these suits maintain an interior pressure that is the same as that of the surface atmosphere. This eliminates many of the dangers of deep sea diving, mainly decompression sickness or "the bends," divers can get from the changing pressures when resurfacing.
The suit was officially named the JIM by the manufacturer in homage to diving pioneer Jim Jarrett, and was built in 1969. It could be used at depths of up to 1,000 feet under the sea; later models of the JIM could be used at 2,000 feet. Jim is on extended loan from Oceaneering International, a Houston based underwater construction firm.
"What Jim brings to the table is a touch of the modern," said museum Director Thomas Lockyear. Most of the pieces of dive armor already on exhibit are considerably older, dating as far back as 1913.
Jim will soon move from his temporary perch on a large dolly and have a new interactive exhibit, complete with video of the JIM suit at work in underwater construction, designed around him. A grant from the Hazelbaker Family Foundation will pay for this.
To the casual observer, Jim looks part space monster, part robot and a bit like a large household appliance. He has tool-like rotating hands that resemble huge nutcrackers. They can grip, pull and tighten. Four round portholes in the head let the diver inside the suit see in all directions.
There are also a few other changes in the works at the History of Diving Museum as well. The front entrance has been spruced up with the edition of life-sized stained glass panels of dive suits flanking the door. The colors glowed brilliantly as the sun streamed through them on a recent sunny morning.
The facade of the History of Diving Museum is also undergoing a bit of a face lift.
"We have an exterior improvement plan going on with money from the [county Tourist Development Council]," said Lockyear. A copper mansard-style roof, with a lighted sign, will run the full length of the building, and will better frame the U.S. 1 facing wall that is painted with life-sized whale and shark murals.
"This copper roof will help convey the size and the elegance of our collection," said Lockyear, citing that many people assume the museum is a small place from the outside. The museum boasts the world's largest international collection of diving helmets and artifacts.
A yellow submarine, its bow emblazoned with a shark face, is now perched on the side of the roof, looking as if it's just surfacing into the sky. It is a personal sub that was donated to the museum. This October the History of Diving Museum will be the site of the International Convention of Personal Subs.
History of Diving Museum, located at mile marker 83 bayside in Islamorada, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Special "Immerse Yourself" programs, with seminars, speakers and films on diving and the sea, happen on the third Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m.