Legends of Diving Articles


James Stewart
Pioneer and Early Dive Expert

James Stewart was born in 1927 and his diving career began before there was scuba. In 1941 at the age of 14 in La Jolla Cove in San Diego,

California James first borrowed a friend's mask and put his head under water and started free diving. This is when free diving and spear fishing soon replaced swimming and surfing. He quickly became a very accomplished free diving spear fisherman as a junior in high school. The following year became a life guard.

James was drafted in the final year of World War II and went into the Army Air Corps in Nome, Alaska. Upon returning home he was invited to join the Bottom Scratchers, the nation's first dive club in 1951. This exclusive club was by invitation only and only had seventeen members. James was

the youngest. Initiation requirements included including collecting three abalones in 30 feet of water in one breath, bringing in a six foot shark by the tail, and catching a ten pound lobster. Scuba was not allowed.

California James first borrowed a friend's mask and put his head under water and started free diving. This is when free diving and spear fishing soon replaced swimming and surfing. He quickly became a very accomplished free diving spear fisherman as a junior in high school. The following year became a life guard.

His scuba diving career began in 1951. The equipment was a converted oxygen regulator from an Army Air Corps bomber. This was only two years
after the first Cousteau/Gagnan Aqua-Lungs arrived in the U.S. Since there were not scuba diver training programs, Stewart learned like everyone else then ... through trial-and-error, sharing knowledge between divers and pure luck. This background made him extremely conscious of the need for polished diver training programs and diver safety programs. He became a pioneer and expert in this field.

His academic background is as a Marine Biologist, receiving his Bachelors Degree in Botany from Pomona College in 1953 and his Teaching Credential from San Diego State University in 1958. He studied marine botany at the graduate level, both at USC and the University of Hawaii.

In 1952 Stewart began his long and productive association with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Connie Limbaugh and Dr. Andy Rechnitzer developed the diving program at Scripps. Limbaugh recruited Stewart as a volunteer in the Scripps program. He helped in research and diver training. The Scripps diver training program was just to train scientific divers with scuba. But it paved the way for many sport and scientific diver training programs throughout the world.

Los Angeles County sent Bev Morgan, Al Tillman and Ramsey Parks through the Scripps scuba diver training program. They in turn, with a lot of help from Limbaugh, Rechnitzer and Stewart, set up the first sport diver training program in 1953: the Los Angeles County Underwater Instructors Association. Stewart has been Technical Advisor to the Los Angeles County Program and NAUI from the start.

In 1955 Stewart was hired part time by Scripps to work on a kelp study, sponsored by Kelco. The company harvests help and processes it into over 200 commercial products.

Jim Stewart traveled to Enewitok and Bikini in 1955 with a Scripps research team. This was the site of atomic and hydrogen bomb tests. Stewart conducted studies on the affects of the nuclear blasts and fallout on marine life. He joined the Scripps staff full time in 1957.

Also in the 1950s, Stewart and Dr. Andy Rechnitzer recorded the sounds of humpback whales in the Channel Islands off Southern California. This was during the first diving research cruise, using the 100-foot vessel Orca.

As part of his responsibilities, Stewart was to collect fish species for research and the Scripps Aquarium. He developed a technique of using hypodermic needles to remove gas from the swim bladders of deep diving fish. This allowed them to adjust the surface pressure and remained alive.

In 1959 Stewart, Limbaugh and Dr. Wheeler North discovered the amazing underwater sandfalls at Cabo San Lucas. They worked together to film and produced the film, Rivers of Sand, which won many awards at film festivals throughout the world.

Tragically, in 1960 Conrad Limbaugh was killed in a cave diving accident in France. Jim Stewart was named to succeed his close friend as Diving Officer at Scripps.

Stewart was instrumental in further developing the formal training program at Scripps and established diving standards. This was formalized in the original University Guide For Diving Safety written by Jim Stewart. Published in 1960, this created a means for establishing reciprocal diving programs throughout the University of California system. This first university diving safety manual included rules on training, dive procedures, maintenance and record keeping. Many universities and colleges across the country have adopted this manual.

As Diving Officer at Scripps, Stewart heads the nation's oldest and largest non-governmental research diving program. He has also managed the Scripps Research Diving Program, which has become the model for safe and effective conduct of international research diving programs. He has supervised a yearly average of 130 faculty, staff and students who have amassed more than 100,000 dives.

Stewart has shared his diving knowledge, training methods and safety procedures with sport diver training organizations. And he has lectured throughout the world on diver training, scientific diving and diving operations.

As part of his responsibilities as Diving Officer, Stewart has been diving in most parts of the world in support of research projects at Scripps. This has included the South Pacific, under the ice in Antarctic, all along the eastern Pacific Coastline clear up to Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe, the Indian Ocean and several other locations.

In 1961, while doing diving research off Canton Island, Stewart was attacked by a gray reef shark. He was hit twice on the right elbow. It was

a very bad bite, cutting the joint capsule and two arteries. Because of his considerable diving experience and the rather brave help of his friend Ron Church, Stewart was able to get away from the shark. Stewart had to be flown clear back to Hawaii, the closest hospital to handle such emergencies. He lived to joke about it, probably because he was destined for greater contributions to diving.

In 1962 Jim Stewart was part of the safety team on the Hannes Keller 1,000-foot Dive off Catalina. When an accident forced Keller and his dive partner, Peter Small, back into the diving bell, Dick Anderson and Jim

Whittaker were able to clear a fin out of the hatch and seal it for decompression. Anderson signaled Whittaker to surface and have the bell raised. But the bell would not rise. Anderson surfaced to discover Whittaker was not there. Jim Stewart and Dave Wells immediately dove to correct the problem, which was in the counterweight winch system. They were able to clear it, but were sucked up in the turbulent water that pulled Wells' watch right off his wrist. The bell surfaced, Keller recovered, Small died and Whittaker was never found.

Jim Stewart was a Saturation Diver on the Westinghouse Project 600. This operation was a record saturation dive with the Cachalot Diving Bell System to 600 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. The Saturation Divers breathed a 95-5 helium-oxygen mixed-gas. The project was a success, including the 62-hour decompression.

He was part of a research dive team in 1967 that discovered the Japanese ships at Truk Lagoon. Their research ship had anchored there to ride out a typhoon. Thousands of sport divers have since made dives on this massive underwater grave site and seen the spectacular marine life through crystal-clear water.

He is Technical Consultant for the Division of Polar Programs for the National Science foundation. In 1969 he made his first of hundreds of dives under the Antarctic ice. The water temperature is a constant 28.5 degrees F.

Over his many years at Scripps, Stewart has been a key part of countless diving operations: both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; the Gulf of Mexico; surveying effects of nuclear blasts at Enewitok; diving under the Arctic and Antarctic ice; Safety Diver for the Hannes Keller 1,000-foot Dive; the Mediterranean Sea; and other areas.

In addition, Stewart has worked well with the scientific field, conducting dives in submersibles, and in studying submarine canyons and deep water fishes.

Stewart is on the NAUI Advisory Board, the San Diego County Coroner's Scuba Committee and many other groups.

He serves as a Diving Consultant to the U.S. Coast Guard, NASA, FBI, U.S. Army Special Forces, National Park Service and many universities.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Marine Technicians Handbook, Procedures for Shipboard Diving: The University Guide for Diving Safety for the International Legends of Diving. Project to preserve this original document for dive training, in cooperation with James R. Stewart, revised in 1971 by the author. Read the original dive manual here.


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