History of Bay Area SCUBA Diving and Aqua Tutus Dive Club

  • Jim Steele - Dive History

By Alan Throop

At January’s general meeting, Jim Steele, longtime member of Aqua Tutus and owner of Steele’s Discount Scuba, presented a brief history of diving in California.

“As divers, we’re lucky to live in California. There’s more to do, to see, and the marine life is on steroids compared with other dive locations around the world”, said Jim Steele, who spoke about the Bay Area diving history and early equipment of SCUBA diving at the January 5 General Meeting. Jim was joined by his son and third-generation diving shop proprietor, Austin. They operate “Steele’s Discount SCUBA , The Original Steele’s Dive Shop” in Oakland. The Steele family has an early and deep link to the history of diving in No. California and to Aqua Tutus.

California has been described as the birthplace and center of the diving industry, but most of that focus has been on Southern California. For example, most of the dive equipment manufacturers, including US Divers, started in the Los Angeles area (Dacor equipment was manufactured in Illinois). The first sport divers (free diving) club “The Bottom Scratchers” was formed in 1933 in San Diego before SCUBA equipment was even available (commercial “hard-hat” diving only). Even France didn’t have a (free) diving club until “Club des Sous-l’Eau” was formed in Paris the following year in 1934!

But what about the Bay Area? While not well-documented1, the Bay Area has its roots in the very-early history of diving as well. In his program, Jim described the path, and some of the people involved, in bringing SCUBA diving and training to No. California, as he recalled them from his early years.

First, let’s review briefly the very-early history of scuba diving and how it came to California2,3,4. In 1933, Yves Le Prieur designed the first breathing unit that could be called self-contained; but it contained no demand valve or regulator. The diver opened a valve to get a breath of new air and exhaled the air from the edge of the diver’s mask. His design was adopted by the French Navy in 1935. In 1936 he founded the world’s first SCUBA diving club called “Club of Divers and Underwater Life”. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a French naval lieutenant who was fascinated by the underwater world, dove with Le Prieur’s equipment for several years but also saw its shortcomings.

The big breakthrough in SCUBA came in 1942-43 when Cousteau and Emile Gagnan (an engineer for Air Liquide, a Paris-based natural gas company) designed and patented the demand regulator that is so well known today. After the war, in 1945, Cousteau & Gagnan founded a division of Air Liquide to mass-produce and sell their design. In 1946, their “Aqua-Lung” brand was commercially marketed in France; followed by Great Briton in 1950, Canada in 1951, and the US in 1952. Their system was the original open-circuit two-hose system with the regulator located on the tank.

As an aside (and of interest to Californians), the first modern two-stage single-hose regulator was manufactured and distributed as the “Sport Diver” brand by Divers Supply in Wilmington, California in 1951. This design brought the regulator to the mouth and exhausted it there as well for easier breathing, to avoid the differential pressure between the tank-mounted regulator and the mouth. Since there was no patent for this, the inventor is unclear, but this design was also likely motivated to bypass the Aqua-Lung two-hose patent that was owned in the US by US Divers (see below).

As Jim discussed, in 1948 Rene Bussoz, a relative of Cousteau who owned a sporting goods store Rene’s Sporting Goods in Westwood, CA, obtained a contract with Aqua-Lung to import the new scuba gear into the U.S. for sale on the Pacific Coast. He changed the name of his company to US Divers and registered the name Aqua-Lung in the US. The Air Liquide patent of the regulator expired in the early 1960s and they didn’t renew it. By that time, the public – excited about diving from the TV series Sea Hunt (1957) – associated the Aqua-Lung term with US Divers. Bussoz was then able to profitably sell his company and returned to France. But interestingly the US Divers brand was actually owned by a French company!

Bussoz initially brought only six Aqua-Lung units to Westwood in 1948. Two of these first units were bought by Conrad Limbaugh and Andy Rechnitzer, two UCLA graduate students who convinced their professor to buy them for underwater research. They apparently dove around the L.A. waters for a couple of years, and in 1950 they enrolled in the Ph.D program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. They dove there and informally tutored colleagues until 1952, when a student diver in another CA university died in a diving accident. Scripps then asked Limbaugh to create a diver training course and manual, which became the first formal scuba program and textbook in the US.

As described by Jim and Brylske5: likewise concerned about the hazards and the increasing popularity of scuba diving in their area, the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation (LACPR) sent three people – Al Tilman, Bev Morgan, and Ramsey Parks – to Scripps to take Limbaugh’s course in 1954. This was the first instructor program conducted (by Limbaugh) in the US. They then returned to L.A. where Tillman and Morgan formed the first recreational scuba training program (note: no first class date found). Many – perhaps most – subsequent early instructors and divers in the area became certified through this well-known LACPR program, and Tilman and Morgan became leaders in this new and popular sport.

By 1955, 80% of the 25,000 worldwide sales of aqualungs were purchased in California. L.A. had eclipsed San Diego as the diving mecca of the world, with many divers, diving equipment manufacturers, and national training programs beginning to form – the “diving industry” was being born! Skin Diver Magazine began its publication in 1951. In 1957 The National YMCA formed a committee to publish a training text and published the well-known “The Science of Skin and Scuba Diving”, and in 1959, it offered the first national diver certification program. Al Tillman helped create NAUI (National Assoc. of Underwater Instructors) and its first international certification course in 1960. In 1960, the National Assoc. of Skin Diving Schools (NASDS) was formed. PADI (Professional Assoc. of Diving Instructors) was formed in Chicago in 1966 and moved to L.A. in 1973. Scuba Schools International (SSI) was formed in a split from NASDS in 1970. So it was only the late-50s and 60s that saw the birth, growth, and commercialization in SCUBA diving.

A fun and interesting note from Jim1 was that the Red Cross was originally approached to help sponsor diver training classes, but they declined stating that swimming underwater was not safe! … this is apparently how the YMCA got involved in diver training. While Jim’s program focused on California, it should be mentioned that Florida was also as an active center of diving5. The Florida Skin Divers Assoc. (FSDA) was formed in 1952 from a group of SCUBA clubs there. FSDA was renamed IDEA (International Diving Educators Assoc.) in 1976. While many early diving pioneers also came from Florida, it seems that arguably the center of the dive industry arose and matured in So. California.

It also seems that much of this more-formal and self-regulated dive training in the 60s came about to due to increasing accident rates during the 50s and 60s, and to avoid having governmental regulations imposed on the diving industry. This ability of the diving community and industry to safely- and independently-regulate itself has been surprisingly successful to the present day. By 1970, the current landscape of training had been established that continues to the present day.

What were our Bay Area and club connections to all this? Jim recalls that in about 1952-531, Don Thompson, who was a P.E. teacher at Laney College in Oakland and a chapter leader of the Red Cross, went down to Scripps to take perhaps the first scuba course offered by Limbaugh. Upon his return, he and several friends – Bill Gault, who was a Navy diver and a member of the Alameda Co. Sheriff’s Dept; Al Mikelow, a commercial diving instructor; and Bob DuPonte – met to organize the first diver training class, sponsored by the San Lorenzo Recreational Department (SLRD). They became known as the “Group of Four”, who founded diving in the Bay Area.

At the organizational meeting for that first SLRD class were Howard Steele (Jim’s father) and Jim Lowe, an engineer at Lockheed. The group needed a retailer to bring diving equipment to the Bay Area and to provide training equipment. Howard and Elsie at that time owned a general-sports shop in Oakland (aside note: actually begun from a suggestion by Jack LeLane, the body builder!), and Howard offered to bring in the equipment they needed and to “worry about the finances later”. Jim Steele remembers late-night meetings in his parent’s house as the group developed their course material. They settled on a 40-hour class of academics & pool work, covering free-diving, SCUBA-diving, and including 8 ocean dives – taking about 15 weeks.

Jim Lowe, Howard, and about 20 others took the first SLRD training class in about 1953-54 – apparently the first SCUBA training class in No. Calif. As time went on, Howard began to focus more on diving equipment and “Steele’s Dive Shop” was born! Diving classes were taught through the SLRD for several years thereafter, but were then discontinued (for reason unknown). A need arose for some group to pick up training classes, and that’s where Aqua Tutus comes into the picture.

Dive clubs have always been a big part of the diving community – where local divers can meet to share experiences, learn from each other, organize dives, and … to party together, of course. This initial group of divers that took the first SLRD classes formed various local clubs around the Bay Area. Jim Lowe appears to be the driving force to found Aqua Tutus to serve the Hayward/San Lorenzo area in 1955-56. Howard Steele was also one of the charter members of Aqua Tutus, perhaps one of the first two first diving clubs in No. California. The first recorded meeting minutes of Aqua Tutus is on September 26, 1956, with 15 members present8. The constitution was ratified on October 30, 1956, with 21 members voting, and the first election of officers was on January 7, 1957. Per Jim, Alcosta Divers was formed by Bill Gault about the same time as Aqua Tutus for the Contra Costa area. Our own still-very-active Dennis Hocker joined Aqua Tutus in 1960. Jim Lowe, Jim Steele, and Dennis have been given lifetime memberships in Aqua Tutus.

When classes were no longer offered by SLRD, Jim Lowe and others in Aqua Tutus decided that they needed to step in to fill the void. Club documents8 state that in 1958 Jim Lowe was appointed by the club to draft a 15-week class in skin and SCUBA diving. It was modelled after the SLRD class. The document states that the first Aqua Tutus class was held on August 2, 1960 (note: there is some thought that it may have been earlier).

Aqua Tutus open-water classes continued through the 60s and 70s, with over 100 students per class and over 200 divers attending a class dive. The club had its own certification card and continued to issue it, along with the PADI Open Water certification after club instructors crossed over in 1975. Through the late-80s the classes still had 50-70 students, but the class sizes began to decline after that, perhaps for reasons discussed below. The club therefore chose not to “compete” with what had become one-week or less Open-Water training by most dive shops. Such training became viewed as a more-limited “learners permit” that required more advanced training to really dive with confidence and skill in our waters. The club appears to have had its last Open Water class in 1995. However, as part of our tradition, the club continues to the present to offer advanced and rescue training to club members, as well access to specialty and technical training.

In this context, Jim spoke about the differences in diving “then” and now. In the early days of diving, the equipment was not so reliable and user-friendly and it required more skill, physical ability, and training (and perhaps desire!) to dive than it does now. Typical classes lasted 10-16 weeks, took over 40 hours of training, and included at least four free-dives and four scuba-dives in a variety of open water conditions to pass. Equipment failures were not uncommon, so pool work often involved the instructors turning off air, flooding masks, and getting one used to comfortably dealing with emergency problems. So there were good reasons for the in-depth training back “then”. Since “then”, however, improved equipment (see below) has since increased both safety and comfort; access to less-strenuous “warm water” diving became more readily-available, and students didn’t want to spend the 8-10 weeks in training.

Jim is one of the few dive shops to teach a 40-hour open-water class, with 5 weeks of pool and academics and 4 ocean dives. He does this to train students for diving in local waters. Jim said he recognizes that many diving students these days don’t plan to dive frequently or in cold water and may plan to dive under easier conditions or under divemaster supervision, so perhaps the shorter classes that other shops teach can be justified. But he feels bad for those who aren’t trained to feel comfortable in our local waters and don’t get to spend time and enjoy the spectacular world-class diving in our own back yard. Jim said that he’s in Monterey 2-3 times a month and still enjoys the stunning diving here more than his trips to Hawaii and other warm-water locations.

Following the history review, Jim briefly showed and described some of the early diving equipment. There was no Submersible Pressure Gauge. Instead divers used a “J” valve (developed in 1951) that you pulled when it became hard to breathe and it provided 300# of “reserve” air to finish the dive (if you remembered to set the valve before the dive; direct ascents were not uncommon in those days!) Depth gauges were crude air-compression units, difficult to read and easily became inaccurate. There was no Buoyancy Compensator – only a safety vest worn for emergencies at the surface; you adjusted your weight belt to not be too-heavy at the surface, but not be too-light at the depth you planned to dive. The mask evolved from a hard-rubber round “window” to the more-friendly low-volume masks that we now have. Fins were hard-rubber, stiff, and could cause muscle cramping if your leg muscles were not in shape. One not-infrequently needed to “buddy breathe” instead of sharing an alternate air-source. The first commercial dive computer did not appear until 1983 and were only available recreationally much later, so dive tables were important to understand and use even through the 80s and 90s. These changes have all made diving safer, more-enjoyable, and more-accessible to the public.

So the take-away from Jim’s program is that the Bay Area’s ties to diving go way back to the very first diving class offered in the U.S. at Scripps and the first SCUBA divers in CA! Our club founders and classes were part of the earliest divers and dive-training in the Bay Area. Jim and his family continue their early ties though operating “The Original Steele’s Dive Shop”. And as a club, we are proudly still active in the club’s original goals of education, training, and safety and to provide the opportunity for growth of competent and active scuba divers in No. California.

Many thanks to Jim for bringing us his interesting first-hand perspective of the early history of diving. We appreciate his continued support and participation in our club. Jim wasn’t able to spend as much time discussing early diving equipment as we might have liked, so we’re hoping that he’ll be able to return sometime to talk more about that.


1.    The information presented here was compiled from various written & verbal sources; some are indicated below; it is accurate only to that of these sources. Comments and corrections are appreciated (A. Throop, Jan, 2017).
2.    http://www.destination-scuba.com/History-of-Scuba-diving-timeline.html
3.    http://www.divinghistory.com/id11.html
4.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of diving_technology
5.    The complete Diver – The History, Science, and Practice of Scuba Diving, by Alex Brylske, PhD
6.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aqua-lung
7.    http://marinebio.org/oceans/scuba/
8.    The Aqua Tutus scrapbook: Birth of Aqua Tutus; Highlights out of the Past