Dr. Joe MacInnis’ “SEALAB 3” Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller

As anticipated earlier this year, another historically important Rolex ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dweller surfaced unexpectedly from a notable figure of undersea exploration – Canadian physician, author and diver Dr. Joseph B. MacInnis. As so often with these things, the “object of desire” was hiding in plain sight. Jake from RolexMagazine.com wrote a number of articles on Dr. Joe’s accomplishments and the watch was pictured in many of the mostly low resolution photographs but none of us ever thought it could be one of the super elusive ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dwellers.

Dr. Joe’s watch brings the number of known pieces to a total of 12. This article was not meant to be an in-depth story about Dr. Joe but rather an updated overview of all known ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dwellers. However, Dr. Joe’s career is “linked” to a personage of major importance for the development of saturation diving who is worth a closer look. American inventor and multi-millionaire Edwin A. Link. To read about Dr. Joe and his accomplishments, I invite you to treat yourself with Jake’s fascinating write-up on Dr. Joe aptly named The old man & the Sea Dweller linked at the end of this article.

Go directly to the Single Red Sea-Dweller overview

“Experimental” Rolex

Without further ado, here it is in its full glory. Dr. Joe’s “experimental” Rolex which accompanied him on countless adventures since late 1968. Among other things, the very first Sea-Dwellers are distinguished by their meters-first dials with a depth rating of 500 m/1,650 ft as opposed to the 2000 ft/610 m of later models.

Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller, Ref. 1665, GEV, 1602912

The Sea-Dweller was originally conceived as Uber Submariner with more than double the depth rating of regular Submariner models (5512/5513). Since only ‘Sea-Dweller’ is printed in red, the model was dubbed ‘Single Red’ by collectors. Later and more refined models, which became available to the general public from late 1970 onwards, had both ‘Sea-Dweller’ and ‘Submariner 2000’ printed in red, hence known as ‘Double Red’

Comparison Single Red vs. Double Red

The next picture shows what makes MacInnis’ watch exceptional, even among already special pieces. The helium release valve on the side of the case which allows the watch to automatically get rid of accumulated helium during decompression from great depths. Most known ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dwellers do not have this feature.

Profile view of 1602912

Rolex used the more general term ‘Gas Escape Valve’ after learning from Dr. Ralph Brauer, a leading German-American hyperbaric researcher, that in the future not only helium but also other gases (e.g. hydrogen) would be used for saturation diving. Please read the following article to learn how Rolex’s helium release valve came about.

Read more: The Sea-Dweller Chronicles – Genesis of the decompressing watch

The following picture shows the caseback of Dr. Joe’s watch with the important ‘Patent Pending’ designation. Rolex filed the patent application for the helium release valve on November 6, 1967 but it was not until June 15, 1970 that the patent was granted.

Patent Pending caseback

Joe MacInnis was a Rolex brand ambassador for many years and he established a great relationship with Rolex Canada that probably serviced his watch on a number of occasions. Under normal circumstances, an old and no longer luminous ‘Single Red’ dial would have been replaced during a service. The mere fact MacInnis’ watch somehow retained its original dial is nothing short of a miracle.

Dr. Joe MacInnis’s career in the world of deep sea diving began in 1964 when he became medical director in Edwin Link’s Ocean Systems Inc., one of the first commercial saturation diving companies. Ed Link was an American inventor and millionaire who made history in August 1962 after spending 8 hours breathing a helium/oxygen mixture in a small submersible decompression chamber at a depth of 60 ft/18 m in the Mediterranean Sea, thus becoming the first fully saturated human underwater.

Edwin Link and his submersible decompression chamber in the background, France 1962

At the time, Dr. George F. Bond, the actual inventor of saturation diving and main driving force behind the U.S. Navy SEALAB program, was basically still conducting animal tests as part of project Genesis. The Navy was extremely careful as to not put anyone in harms way, which is why the program was considerably slowed down. Ed Link learned about saturation diving at the Boston Sea Rovers, where Dr. Bond – from 1957 onwards – frequently spoke about his theories and latest research findings.

In September 1962, one month after his own dive, Link sent Belgian diver Robert Sténuit in the same decompression chamber down to 200 ft/61 m. Sténuit spent 25 hours breathing helium/oxygen and became the first real Aquanaut after leaving the capsule for a short period of time.

Illustration of Robert Sténuit leaving the submersible decompression chamber, thus becoming the first Aquanaut in September 1962

Ed Link understood the commercial value of Dr. Bond’s ideas and went full steam ahead. It would take another month for the U.S. Navy to expose human subjects to a helium/oxygen atmosphere in an onshore hyperbaric chamber (November 1962).

On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher nuclear-powered attack submarine sank due to a malfunction below its crush depth of around 1,300 ft/400 m and imploded, killing all 129 people aboard. Almost immediately, the U.S. Navy command assembled a group of undersea experts to develop salvage and rescue capabilities at great depths. A key member of this commitee was Edwin Link. As a result, Dr. Bond’s saturation diving research received more funding and a program named Man-in-the-Sea was established with the goal to extend the U.S. Navy’s diving operations to include working from an undersea habitat.

USS Thresher at sea, July 1961

Jacques Cousteau was looking for ways to keep divers underwater for as long as possible and naturally, saturation diving was of great interest to him. During the Conshelf 2 experiment which took place in the Red Sea in June 1963, two of Cousteau’s men spent an entire week in a helium/oxygen atmosphere at a depth of 90 ft/27 m.

Conshelf 2 “Deep Cabin” at 90 ft/27 m

In early July 1964, Link put Sténuit and Jon Lindbergh, son of famous pilot Charles Lindbergh, in 432 ft/130 m of water in an inflatable underwater habitat named SPID (Submersible, Portable, Inflatable Dwelling) where the two divers spent 49 hours fully saturated in a helium/oxygen atmosphere. Sténuit and Lindbergh’s record-breaking dive was Dr. Joe’s first assignement as diving doctor in Ed Link’s team.

Popular Science magazine from July 1963 with an illustration of Ed Link’s SPID habitat on the cover

After this remarkable event, Ed Link and his business partners founded the underwater engineering company Ocean Systems Inc. which would soon become one of the largest of its kind. Contracts from the U.S. Navy, Exxon and Shell almost immediately started coming in.

On July 20, 1964, the U.S. Navy lowered their first underwater habitat named SEALAB 1 to a depth of 192 ft/59 m off the coast of Bermuda. Initially scheduled to stay at depth for three weeks, the four Aquanauts had to be evacuated after 11 days due to an approaching tropical storm. SEALAB 1 was nevertheless a great success. One year later the Navy launched SEALAB 2, where a total of 28 Aquanauts, divided into three teams, spent 15 to 30 days at 205 ft/62 m. SEALAB 2 proved that men could accomplish a wide range of salvage and undersea construction tasks at depth.

Mothership SS Berkone with SEALAB 2 habitat floating in the water, August 1965

Ed Link continued pushing the envelope. Together with John Perry of Perry Submarine Builders, Link designed and built a small submersible named Deep Diver from which divers could “lock-out” at great depths. In 1968, two divers exited the vessel at record-breaking 700 ft/213 m of water. Dr. Joe MacInnis supervised this dive from the forward chamber of the submarine.

Perry-Link Deep Diver “lock-out” submersible

Around the same time, the U.S. Navy contracted Ocean Systems Inc. for Dr. Joe’s services as additional medical support was needed for the upcoming SEALAB 3 experiment which was to take place in October 1968 at a daunting depth of 610 ft/185 m. In September 1968, MacInnis moved to San Francisco to start working with the Navy. To become familiar with the entirety of the program, Dr. Bond asked him train with the Aquanauts with the possibility of getting on one of the teams if he qualified. It was around this time that at least four people involved with SEALAB 3 were given each an experimental Rolex ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dweller with helium release valve. Bob Barth, Philippe Cousteau (son of Jacques Cousteau), Joe MacInnis and a diver who wishes to remain anonymous.

SEALAB 3 was originally scheduled for late 1967 but postponed to October 1968 due to inadequate materials used for the decompression chambers. In late October 1968, it was discovered that some of the gaskets used for the Personnel Transfer Capsule (PTC), the pressurized elevator which would bring the divers from the Deck Decompression Chamber (DDC) aboard the diving support vessel Elk River to the underwater habitat and back, were not up to the task. One months later, the only operational PTC was accidentally flooded during an unmanned test dive. This set the project back for another two months. In late November 1968, MacInnis qualified as Aquanaut but did not make it on one of the teams. When the habitat was finally lowered to its position at 610 ft/185 m off San Clemente island in February 1969, MacInnis was not present. He was giving a speech in honour of Edwin Link at the Smithonian in Washington DC. Once on the bottom, the habitat started leaking precious helium gas.

Illustration of SEALAB 3 with Ed Link’s ‘Deep Diver’ submersible in the upper-left corner

Four men were pressurized to bottom pressure in a matter of minutes and sent down in order to prevent the habitat from flooding. The four men were Bob Barth, Berry Cannon, John Reaves and Richard Blackburn. A first attempt at opening the hatch of the habitat failed and the men were brought back to the Deck Decompression Chamber (DDC). During a second attempt a few hours later, Berry Cannon died as a result of a dysfunctional rebreather. The next day, MacInnis returned to the scene only to witness that SEALAB 3 had been abandoned. After this episode, Dr. Joe left Ocean Systems Inc. and returned to Canada where he built a small underwater habitat named Sublimnos which was placed on the floor of Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) in Ontario, Canada. His return to Canada opened a new chapter of Joe MacInnis’ career.

The Rolex ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dweller accompanied him ever since. Dr. Joe swam beneath the arctic ice with the watch, it was on his wrist when he descended to the wreck of the Titanic, not once but twice, and in 2007, the timepiece created to conquer inner space was shot into outer space aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams, a good friend of MacInnis, gave it “a ride” to the International Space Station.

Single Red Sea-Dweller in zero gravity inside the Space Shuttle Endeavour (Photo: Dave Williams)

Dr. Dave Williams recounted this event in an episode of ‘Talking Watches’ from July 2019 which I absolutely recommend to watch in its entirety.

Dr. Joe’s watch must be one of the most travelled timepieces in the history of horology.

Overview ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dwellers

The following overview shows all ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dwellers that have surfaced so far. Of the 12 pieces known pieces, five have a helium release valve. Philippe Cousteau’s watch (04) lost its original dial between October 1968 and October 1972, probably due to a service. Klick the picture to zoom in.

To take a closer look at each ‘Single Red’ Sea-Dweller that surfaced so far, click the link below.

Read more: All Single Red Sea-Dwellers, side-by-side

For detailed information on Dr. Joe MacInnis and his countless adventures click the following link.

Read more: The Old Man & The SEA-DWELLER: Dr. Joe MacInnis (RolexMagazine.com)

Thank you for your interest.

History Of The Rolex Sea-Dweller

The Rolex Sea-Dweller was developed in the late 1960s for the specific purpose of saturation diving and Ed Link’s contributions to this new form of undersea exploration were of crucial importance. The entire history of saturation diving, including Ed Link’s most important accomplishment are visualized in the following infographic. Click the picture to zoom in.

This graphic is available as a high quality print in two sizes:

  • Regular small, 120cm x 68cm (47 x 26 inch): EUR 95.00 (plus shipping)
  • Regular, 150cm x 85cm (59 x 33 inch): EUR 135.00 (plus shipping)

Limited: 50 pieces, numbered and signed by Bob Barth, the legendary U.S. Navy Aquanaut who pioneered saturation diving during the famous SEALAB missions. Bob developed the idea for the Rolex Gas Escape Valve: Sold out

To order please shoot me a DM on Instagram: @perezcope

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