The dive helmet: A revolution in underwater coral reef science

Dr Sarah Hamylton, President of the Australian Coral Reef Society explains why the dive helmet used on the 1928-29 Great Barrier Reef Expedition brought the coral reef underwater environment within reach for scientists to take measurements for the first time.

The exhibition Making Waves: A Century of Australian Coral Reef Science opened at Queensland Museum in August 2022. Over the last nine months Queensland Museum and members of the Australian Coral Reef Society have been working on the exhibition; gathering text, artefacts and interesting stories from archives and reef scientists.

To my mind, the most exciting thing about this venture is that we have tracked down and displayed the dive helmet that was originally used in the 1928-29 Great Barrier Reef Expedition. But what’s so exciting about an old dive helmet?

An innovation in underwater science

According to records from London’s Natural History Museum, the galvanised iron helmet was manufactured in Plymouth, England. The design was based on photographs of a helmet type originally used at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and later popularised widely across the United States in the 1920s. The helmet was a heavy cylinder worn on the shoulders, open at the bottom end and closed at the top, with glass plated windows on the front. Air was pumped through a hose leading to the surface.

Scientists on the 1928-29 Expedition made good use of the helmet to study the underwater environment at Low Isles, notably around the extensive, shallow corals growing in the anchorage. These were mostly under 5m of water depth at low tide and provided an ideal, sheltered place for its use. Here, the helmet was used extensively for marking corals to track their growth, for the collection of sediment pots and material for experimental work.

Diver wearing a diving helmet, c. 1928
Album of the Great Barrier Reef Expedition in the Low Islands Region, Queensland, 1928–29
Photographer: Charles Maurice Yonge
Courtesy the National Library of Australia, PIC/11204/332.

Surveying life on coral reefs for the first time

 A 26-year-old female expedition scientist, Sidnie Manton, used the helmet to survey marine creatures underwater. Sidnie learned to identify corals and used a heavy 1.8m x 0.8m metal quadrat frame to make observations and measurement along sections of the reef, identifying coral species, counting the number of colonies, measuring their size, and recording other marine life down to a depth of 5m.

Wearing heavy equipment underwater while juggling a multitude of instruments was tough work that demanded coordination. Sidnie made Australia’s first detailed underwater observations of coral along a reef front and established how coral species change with depth. Her records would later become a baseline for evaluating long-term, detailed change in coral reef communities.

Sidnie Manton holds a brain coral on the beach at Low Isles, 1928. Courtesy Manton Family Archives.

Get out there and see the reef for yourself!

Hundreds of divers now carry out surveys each year on the Great Barrier Reef, continuing to collect underwater measurements in the manner that Sidnie first started, although diving nowadays is SO much easier than what Sidnie Manton experienced. No heavy helmet, boots or reliance on air piped from the surface. Instead, you get to float weightless, free and easy to enjoy the wonder unfolding in front of your eyes.

To view the helmet worn by Sidnie Manton, visit Making Waves: A Century of Australian Coral Reef Science on Level 2 Queensland Museum. Now open.