Dr. Phil Nuytten has spent his life in subsea exploration. He has logged many thousands of hours underwater world-wide as a working commercial diver and as a developer of underwater equipment and techniques. He is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the modern commercial diving industry and a significant force in the creation of new technology.
Interview with Dr Phil Nuytten by Dive New Zealand/ Dive Pacific Magazine editor Dave Moran at DEMA, Las Vegas, November 2010.
Dave Moran (DM)
: Phil when did you first become interested in diving?
Phil Nuytten (PN
): In the 1940s. My parents owned a restaurant in Vancouver, Canada. I grew up across from Stanley Park where there were carved totem poles by local native people. Naturally being a kid I was interested in them but also because I have some native heritage. I thought one day I’lll carve one of these giant totem poles in cedar. I was a tenacious type, even as a small child, so when I was about nine or 10 years old I used to go to the museums in Vancouver and study the totem poles design and make sketches. I decided I would find a master carver and become his apprentice.
After a lot of searching I eventually found a lady master caver, Ellen Neel.
I spent most weekends with her and her three sons, so I learned carving with them. By the time I was 11 or 12 I started doing some commissions that her studio received. One was from a priest in Montreal who had ordered a small totem sculpture of sea creatures. I visited the aquarium in Vancouver to sketch these critters that I was going to put on the totem pole. I was absolutely blown away by all the anemones and the various things there. I asked the curator, ‘I know these things are in the tropics some place but I’d like to know exactly where so that when I grow up I can go there.’ He said they’re not from the tropics they’re here from our Gulf Islands. I said, ‘If I went under water here this is what I’d see?’ He said yes. So I built my first rebreather when I was 12 years old.
That is amazing. Walk us through the process.
There was a book that came out in the late 1940s or early 50s called ‘Shallow Water Diving and Spearfishing’ by H Schenck Jr & H Kendall. The book described home made rebreathers, open circuit gear etc. So I constructed a fairly good, workable rebreather. I didn’t have any money, only my allowance, and I couldn’t find a small oxygen tank or the oxygen to put in it! So what I had to do was make a rebreather that didn’t have to last very long but should last about 10 minutes. I made this lung which had a rebreather absorbent cartridge which was a small brass fire extinguisher filled with soda lime and a simple breathing bag made from a leg cut off fisherman’s waders.
I filled the bag with oxygen and it was good for seven or eight minutes. I used to sneak into a local shipyard that had plenty of large oxygen tanks and steal oxygen! I was nuts about spearfishing so around this time I joined the Vancouver Skindivers Club which only had six or eight members.
They were in their late teens, early 20s; they seemed like very old men to me! I was their youngest member and every weekend I went spearfishing with them. During the week, after school, I would jump on my bicycle and go to the beaches surrounding the park and spearfish. I was a spearo like you wouldn’t believe making my own guns etc. I just lived in the water!
Vancouver had no dive shop only a few stores that brought in odds and ends of dive equipment. The first gear I saw was branded Barracuda made by Drager. They had masks used by Hans Hass. I had made my own set of goggles. The first set didn’t work well because I’d used foam rubber instead of hard rubber and the water came in through the foam – but for a moment, before it did, I could see!
I saved my allowances and finally sent away for a dive mask, from a company in California called Sea Net Manufacturing. It was an interesting experience! I had saved up all this money in coins and was about to post them when I thought, how do I know that they will send something back?
I talked to my dad. He told me about cheques and how they worked. It was my first taste of business. Some weeks later a box arrived. I was a small 12 year-old, this huge mask was like something you’d find under a hospital bed. I rushed into the bathroom and tried it on. My head was the size of an orange and this thing was the size of a bucket! I filled the gaps with putty and finally got it all working.
When I was about 14 or 15 I thought, there’s no dive shops in Vancouver maybe I could start one. I got a couple of manufacturers to send me stuff on consignment. I paid them religiously and they came to trust me. Eventually in 1957 I opened the first dive shop in Vancouver. I ran it after school and at weekends and damn near got a teenager ulcer.
At this time I was dealing with Californian Bill Barada who made the Bel-Aqua drysuit that I wore and sold. He developed a close fitting wetsuit, called a Toreador-design. At that time wetsuits were not used in Canada due to the water temperature averaging about 46F (7.8C). The wetsuits we had tried from California were big, floppy, loose fitting things, eighth inch (3mm) material so not suitable at all – just hopeless.
Drysuits limit your breath-hold ability when freediving because the suit squeeze was so great at 50 or 60 feet (18m) you could hardly move and there was no way to equalize it. You could get a little deeper if you had the balls for it!
What I did was tuck the mask under the edge of the hood and I’d go down until I couldn’t move my arms any more to spear then I’d give a snort of air into the mask that went into the suit and that loosened it up a bit! The down side was this cut your bottom time about in half. It was a very dicey procedure! (full article in the hard copy at on-line digitally)