Diver opened the sea to sci­en­tists

JIM STE­WART, 1927 - 2017

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By Gary Rob­bins gary.rob­bins @sdunion­tri­bune.com Rob­bins writes for the San Diego Union-Tri­bune.

Jim Ste­wart, an in­no­va­tive Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy diver-ed­u­ca­tor who helped open the world’s oceans to sci­en­tists in the 1950s and ’60s by train­ing them to use some of the first scuba equip­ment, has died. He was 89.

Ste­wart died from nat­u­ral causes Wednesday in Irvine, ac­cord­ing to Scripps.

Dur­ing a ca­reer that lasted five decades, Ste­wart helped de­sign and carry out some of the most rig­or­ous train­ing ever done for scuba gear, which rev­o­lu­tion­ized science and mil­i­tary div­ing af­ter it was in­tro­duced in the United States in the late 1940s.

Jac­ques Cousteau and Émile Gag­nan cre­ated the so-called aqualung un­der­wa­ter breath­ing de­vice to en­able divers to roam the depths with­out be­ing teth­ered to air hoses at­tached to boats. The de­vice was a god­send to Ste­wart, who had spent much of his child­hood free­d­iv­ing and spear fish­ing in the ma­rine won­der­land of La Jolla Cove.

He would later spend 30 years as the dive of­fi­cer at Scripps, where he trained thou­sands of divers and did pi­o­neer­ing un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­ration in the Chan­nel Is­lands and the sub­ma­rine canyon off the Scripps Pier. He also de­scended 600 feet in a sat­u­ra­tion bell.

In 1962, Ste­wart helped res­cue famed Swiss deep diver Hannes Keller, who got into trou­ble af­ter de­scend­ing 1,000 feet in a div­ing bell off Santa Catalina Is­land.

His­to­ri­ans also note that Ste­wart ex­plored an un­der­wa­ter crater in the Pa­cific only days af­ter it was hit by a hy­dro­gen bomb, and he helped stan­dard­ize the pro­to­col for safe dives in the Antarc­tic.

“Among sci­en­tific and tech­ni­cal divers, Jim Ste­wart en­joys the sta­tus that Chuck Yea­ger has among pro­fes­sional pi­lots,” San Diego dive his­to­rian Eric Hanauer wrote in a 1999 book about div­ing pioneers. “… [H]e or­ga­nized it, stan­dard­ized it and spread that knowl­edge around the coun­try and around the world. In the process, he made a lot of history and had a lot of fun.”

Hanauer re­peated that sen­ti­ment Thurs­day, adding: “Jim was a diver’s diver.”

Ste­wart also was praised by Paul Day­ton, a vet­eran Scripps re­searcher. In­stead of pro­ject­ing a ma­cho at­ti­tude, Ste­wart “re­spected sci­en­tists and the fact that young student sci­en­tists were not the rein­car­na­tion of Navy divers, but very smart stu­dents who may have just been OK in the wa­ter,” Day­ton said. “Jim’s goal was not to make sci­en­tists out of ma­cho divers but to make safe divers of good sci­en­tists.”

Cary Humphries, a di­ve­boat captain in San Diego, said, “Jim was al­ways will­ing to lend a hand, no mat­ter the sit­u­a­tion. On re­search trips, he’d be the se­nior diver. But he didn’t want to be waited on. He’d go into the gal­ley and wash dishes. He al­ways wanted to help.”

James Ron­ald Ste­wart was born Sept. 5, 1927, in National City, Calif., and fell in love with the ocean early. In a 2000 in­ter­view, Ste­wart keenly re­mem­bered fish­ing with his fa­ther from the Scripps Pier.

“When he’d catch a fish, I would take a look at it and run up to the old Scripps aquar­ium and see what that fish was,” Ste­wart re­called. “Lit­tle did I think I would spend 50 years of my life here.”

A turn­ing point oc­curred on Me­mo­rial Day, 1941, when he took a date to La Jolla Cove. They ran into one of Ste­wart’s ju­nior high school friends, who claimed to have a face mask for look­ing into the sea.

“I put his mask on, and I could see un­der­wa­ter,” he re­called. “Well, the next week I had me a face mask, and that’s how it all started.”

He be­came an ac­com­plished spear fish­er­man and was later in­vited to join the elite San Diego Bot­tom Scratch­ers free-div­ing club, which deep­ened his pas­sion for the ocean.

Ste­wart learned the fun­da­men­tals of scuba div­ing in 1951 and be­came a vol­un­teer at Scripps the fol­low­ing year, where he worked with pi­o­neer­ing divers Connie Lim­baugh and Andy Rech­nitzer.

He was soon help­ing with diver train­ing, and he ex­panded into re­search, ex­plor­ing kelp beds, whose long, lu­mi­nous blades formed small “am­ber forests” off the Cal­i­for­nia coast.

In the mid-1950s, Ste­wart helped ex­plore and eval­u­ate Pa­cific atolls that had been the site of hy­dro­gen bomb tests. He joined Scripps full time in 1957, and was with Lim­baugh and re­searcher Wheeler North in 1959 when the trio dis­cov­ered un­der­wa­ter sand­falls off Cabo San Lu­cas. The dis­cov­ery was the sub­ject of the award­win­ning doc­u­men­tary “Rivers of Sand.”

Tragedy struck a year later, in 1960, when Lim­baugh died in a cave-div­ing ac­ci­dent. Ste­wart suc­ceeded him as Scripps’ dive of­fi­cer.

The fol­low­ing year, Ste­wart was at­tacked by a shark off Wake Is­land.

A col­league got him to shore and flagged down a dump truck, which took Ste­wart to a hos­pi­tal.

The at­tack was an odd counterpoint to the work Ste­wart had done test­ing shark re­pel­lents.

Ste­wart has also ex­pe­ri­enced good for­tune, no­tably in 1967, when he was among the first divers in Truk La­goon in the Pa­cific.

“We went in there be­cause we had the tail end of a ty­phoon and we needed a place to hide,” Ste­wart told in­ter­viewer Ron Rainger. “So we ran in there, and just hap­pened to an­chor in the old Ja­panese har­bor, masts sticking out. We went out and looked at that, and there were all kinds of ar­ti­facts on the bot­tom. That was fun.”

Two years later, he was mak­ing his first dives be­neath the ice in Antarc­tica. In a 1991 in­ter­view with the San Diego Tri­bune, he com­pared the ex­pe­ri­ence to float­ing above the Grand Canyon.

Ste­wart said, “It’s al­most like you’re going to fall; the wa­ter is very, very clear. You don’t re­ally have a con­cept of be­ing in wa­ter.”

Ste­wart con­tin­ued to dive for decades, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing great ad­ven­ture, which he loved to talk about.

“Sit down with him over a beer and you will be treated to div­ing history, told vividly by some­one who made it and lived it,” Hanauer said of Ste­wart in his book, “Div­ing Pioneers.”

“But his great­est legacy is his stu­dents, and the stu­dents of those he has trained. No one else has in­flu­enced more div­ing lead­ers, di­rectly and in­di­rectly, both in the world of sci­en­tific and sport div­ing.”

Ste­wart is survived by his wife of 64 years, Joan; his son, Craig; his daugh­ter, Mered­ith; and four grand­chil­dren.

Rick McCarthy San Diego Union-Tri­bune

‘JIM WAS A DIVER’S DIVER’ Jim Ste­wart, Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy div­ing of­fi­cer, at the Scripps Pier in 1985. Ste­wart trained thou­sands of divers and was a pi­o­neer in un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­ration from the Chan­nel Is­lands to the Antarc­tic.

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