December 17, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki
Searching for “Shmoo” at Sandy Hook
Recent visitors from Australia brought some interesting Sandy Hook Laboratory history to light when they stopped by to see the Lab’s submarine, or more accurately, its bathyscanner.
A what? The bathyscanner in question was a 1960s-era manned submersible that was five feet high and four feet in diameter, with a half-inch thick steel “skin” or hull, 11 plexiglass windows, and a 600-foot diving capability. It was nicknamed "Shmoo" by the lab staff because of its resemblance to a fictional comic strip character by that name created by Li’L Abner cartoonist Al Capp.
The two-person sub, with a hatch on top, had no motor and was towed along the ocean floor by a surface vessel with a special three-quarter-inch thick polypropylene line. The pilot sat in front, using only a set of wheels on each side of the cabin to move the outside dive planes up or down in order to dive or surface. The passenger sat behind the pilot.
The bathyscanner was designed and built by Australian engineer Max Lawrie and was one of only two in existence in the early 1960s. The sub was donated by conservationist Nixon Griffis of Towvane Co. in New York to the Sandy Hook Laboratory, then part of the Bureau of Sport Fishing and Wildlife, to see if it could be used in marine research. According to a local newspaper article in The Daily Register on August 27, 1965, the other bathyscanner, a one-man sub, had been shipped to Turkey “for surveying that country’s underwater pipe systems.” Griffis had bought both subs and shipped them from Australia to the U.S.
Another newspaper article in The Daily Register on Friday, September 10, 1965 reported the Sandy Hook sub would depart the following Tuesday, “if Hurricane Betsy cooperates” on its first official mission to explore “bottom life off the coast of the Hook to determine hy certain areas attract fish and what kind, where natural reefs exist, and why, and ideal locations for artificial reefs, such as junk cars.”
Robert Wicklund, a research diver and fishery technician at Sandy Hook at the time, recalls the Shmoo, which he said “looked like a fat bowling pin or a pear.” Lead weights served as ballast for the sub, which was deployed from an A-frame on the Lab’s 65-foot research vessel Challenger. Wicklund served as pilot, and together with the sub's inventor Max Lawrie, made the first test dive in 1965 to a depth of 60 feet off Sandy Hook. Although it started out fine, the pair soon began to feel funny and had to abort the two-hour dive due to problems with the CO2 scrubbing system.
After the life support system was fixed, a second dive was planned on Shrewsbury Rocks, a rocky reef and popular bottom-fishing area. The dive with lab technician Joe Deaver and Wicklund as pilot was even more memorable, as the sub experienced poor bottom visibility and ended up bouncing off the rocks, cracking one of the bottom windows in half and flooding the cabin. The dive was aborted and the sub was winched to the surface, but not before the cabin water was up to the middle of the two passengers’ chests. They scrambled out to safety, and the lift line broke soon after, sending Shmoo to the bottom. It was recovered the next day.
After considerable repair and upgrades, the sub went on to make dozens of successful dives during its two summers of operation. Sandy Hook Laboratory Director Lionel Walford was among the passengers.
“It was the early years of diving for science, and there were then no protocols for research diving programs, and few human-occupied submersibles existed anywhere,” Wicklund said during a recent phone interview from his home in Virginia. “I was just starting my career as a diver, and I was so excited to have this opportunity to use a new technology. It was a great adventure.”
Wicklund, who worked at the Sandy Hook Lab from 1961 to 1970, wrote about the Shmoo and other diving experiences at the Sandy Hook Laboratory in his 320-page book, “Eyes in the Sea; Adventures of an Undersea Pioneer.” The book, with foreword by former NOAA chief scientist and underwater explorer Sylvia Earle, recounts Wicklund’s more than 50-year career as a scientific diver and cofounder of the Hydrolab undersea research program and the Caribbean Marine Research Center in the Bahamas. The book was published in 2012 by Mariner Publishing.
“All in all, Shmoo performed well after the initial snafus, and we saw a lot of the New York Bight,” Wicklund recounted in his book. The sub, rated to 600 feet, never dove below 150 feet because of the long towline which tended to pull the sub up toward the surface.
Thanks to research from Sandy Hook librarians Claire Steimle and Angela Cook, the connection between Shmoo and the Australian visitors soon became apparent. Max Lawrie, designer and builder of Shmoo, was the father of Australian visitor Sue Lawrie, who was vacationing in the U.S. with her adult son and daughter and wanted to track down the sub to see it, or find out more about it. November 17, the day of her visit to the Sandy Hook Laboratory, was her last day of vacation before she returned to Australia, where she works as a staffer for a member of parliament.
While she didn’t get to see the real Shmoo, Sue Lawrie did learn a lot about the sub. During a tour of the Sandy Hook Laboratory facilities, she saw a picture among the Laboratory’s 50th anniversary photos. It was taken in 1965 of Lionel Walford, the Sandy Hook Lab Director, seated in the hatch of the Shmoo.
What happened to the Shmoo? After two years of operation at Sandy Hook, it was moved to Connecticut where an engineer had plans to work on it, then to Wicklund’s farm in Virginia. After a few years it was moved to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and put on display before eventually being placed in storage and winding up as scrap.
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