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Discovery Cruise

AE-1Local skipper helps ‘MythBusters’ get to the bottom of a bizarre sea tale

There’s a nasty rumor about a phenomenon known as “the squeeze,” which supposedly plagued early deep sea divers. As the story goes, the failure of the pressure mechanism on a dive suit could cause a diver’s entire body to be sucked up into the suit’s helmet in radically compacted form.

TV watchers who tuned into Nov. 25’s episode of MythBusters—a Discovery Channel program dedicated to proving or debunking urban legends—saw local skipper Jim Christmann helping MythBusters stars Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara test the legitimacy of this claim. While Christmann’s research boat, the 52-foot Shana Rae, is generally used for serious scientific work such as tagging and tracking dolphins, monitoring toxic algal bloom or studying the behavior of sea otters, the MythBusters crew had more fanciful purposes in mind for the vessel: Namely, toting a gruesome-looking “Meat Man” (a Frankenstein’s monster-like human substitute made from the skin and organs of pigs, placed into an old dive suit) from the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor to Monterey Canyon, where it was lowered into 300-foot-deep water and then deprived of air.

“The key to making this whole thing work is the failure of a check valve in a line, so that the pressure that’s inside this hardhat is allowed to bleed off, and all this tissue gets squeezed in,” Christmann explains.

AE-2It was the Petaluma company North Coast Divers that recommended the Shana Rae to the MythBusters crew. “It was kind of a logical fit,” Christmann says. “We’re right next to Monterey Canyon; it’s easy and quick to get out to deep water.” North Coast gave the show lots of gear, technical support and planning assistance for some weeks before the shoot.

The MythBusters team came to Santa Cruz in August to shoot the program, spending a full day setting things up before filming the following day. “It was a pretty fun little scene down there at the harbor, with them building the Meat Man on the tailgate of their truck,” Christmann says with a smile, adding that the grisly spectacle drew a bit of a crowd. (See youtube.com/watch?v=gmafAiLHUXI.)

And the result of the experiment? Sure enough, after a great deal of buildup, the Meat Man exploded into the dive suit’s helmet, bringing the show to a jubilantly gory climax. Adding to the display, the helmet itself—an antique Japanese bronze hardhat from the 1930s—was destroyed.

Though the show found the MythBusters cast acting stunned that the “squeeze” rumor proved true (“It worked! It smashed the body into the helmet! Awesome!” “Nobody expected that!”), Christmann claims that for him and the divers on the set, there was never any uncertainty as to what the outcome of the experiment would be. “It’s TV, and they exaggerate everything and make it as dramatic and bloody as they possibly can,” he states. “And they hold everybody in suspense: ‘What could the outcome possibly be? What happens if this pressure fails? Does the diver’s body explode back into the space inside the helmet?’ But it’s all pretty predictable physics: It will happen.” He adds that the squeeze phenomenon was the cause of many horrible deaths in the ’30s and ’40s.

Christmann, who doesn’t seem to be a fan of TV in general, says that as someone who hadn’t watched MythBusters much, he wasn’t sure who the show’s stars were as he began work on this project. “They had sound people and light people, and they all pitched in and wrestled with stuff, hauled stuff around,” he notes. “I finally started to get who the people were that were consistently in front of the camera.”

The skipper has positive things to say about the show’s cast and crew. “The MythBusters people are shrewd: They take their technical advice well and thoroughly and put it to work,” he offers. “It had to be done right. It had to work as well as a real commercial dive would with a real human diver.”

Christmann, who grew up in the Midwest outside of St. Louis, began “messin’ around on boats” when he came to school at UCSC, where a sailboat donated by philanthropist Jeff Baskin began competing with his academic pursuits for his attention. “I practically flunked out of school, ’cause I was playing with that AE-3boat so much,” he recalls. After graduating in 1974, he operated a university coastal research vessel for 11 years, during which he acquired a taste for scientific work at sea. After running the Shana Rae in Alaska in 1981 and ’82, he ended up buying the boat himself in the hopes of making a living availing the vessel to the scientific community or to consulting firms. In 1986, he founded Monterey Canyon Research Vessels, Inc. (423-4864; shanarae.com), which he runs with his wife Angie.

Though National Geographic and Animal Planet film crews have also made use of the Shana Rae, most of Christmann’s clients are physicists, climatologists, oceanographers, biologists and commercial consultants. “They’re all seriously trying to do the most important work in understanding how this planet works,” he says. “And there’s an urgency about that, of course—we need to get to work on some of that stuff. So I feel real fortunate that I’ve stumbled into a way that can once in a while help them solve some of the technical approaches to some of those questions.” He adds that the most satisfying part of this work is being able to support worthwhile science, and hopefully helping see to it that such science finds its way into well-informed policy decisions.

However, Christmann’s desire to use the Shana Rae for the betterment of humanity doesn’t mean he’s opposed to occasionally employing the vessel for fun and entertainment. One need only watch the Meat Man taking the plunge on YouTube for proof of this:  youtube.com/watch?v=tsjGy_cU9Og&feature=channel.

“The MythBusters thing was one of the more fun, silly things that have come along the whole time,” the skipper says. “That was great fun.”

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