A Deep Dive into Morro Bay's History

Diving History in Morro Bay

About Lad Handleman

Lad Handleman’s life is an incredible story. It begins in New York City with a Polish kid running with a gang of Italian kids and ending in Santa Barbara full of world-changing achievements. Lad’s remarkable attitude and work ethic powered his ability to seize risky opportunities and make them pay off, despite personal adversities that would have stifled most other people. 

This document is a first draft of Lad’s story that will appear here as soon as possible.

1937:  Born Bronx, NYC.  Grew up in a tough neighborhood, joined Italian Red Devils gang as the only Polish guy; He started adult life with a high school education only.  His obituary later claims he was a Harvard Business School graduate, so there are some missing pieces here.

1953:  Uncle Jimmy Pirog invited him west to work on abalone boat.  Lad knew nothing about seamanship, fishing, or diving; nor mechanical.

Jimmy’s boat was part of Barney Clancy Black Fleet for diving abalone. Lad’s first dive off that boat almost his last: he failed to close the exhaust valve and the helmet began to fill with water. He finally opened the air intake which made the suit fill and he hit the surface upside down. Luckily, a crew member got him upright and on the ladder.

Lad slowly became a productive diver.

Barney Clancy lost a diver in Morro Bay to an accident; he decided to give Lad a chance on the boat Paula.

1956:   Lad eventually became a top diver: he was “high boat” of CA abalone with Pollux.

Bob Kirby, future Kirby Morgan diving gear founder, lined up Lad’s first oilfield job with a Humble oil drilling vessel.

Nov 1962:  former abalone diver Hugh “Dan” Wilson recruited Lad to General Offshore Divers along with Whitey Stefens.  Bob Ratcliffe joined them later.

Stefens had just completed a dive to 400 feet in the Santa Barbara Channel using helium-oxygen through a scuba regulator mounted in a converted Japanese abalone helmet.

Dec 1962:  General Offshore Divers got a job with Phillips; Lad made a successful construction  dive using the helium-oxygen mixed gas:  helium oxygen mix gave General the edge.

1964: both Lad and Dan Wilson experienced oxygen toxicity. Wilson never dived again. This made General Offshore Divers consider selling out (it turned out the divers’ problem was an inappropriate gas mixture supplied by a company — one of the causes of o2 toxicity is excess proportion of o2 in the mix; the company supplied Heliox with 21% oxygen, not 18% ).

summer 1964:  General Offshore Divers sold to Union Carbide, rolled into Ocean Systems; unhappy partnership

summer 1965: Bill Bossert, Bob Ratcliffe, Kevin Lengyel, Gene Handleman, Bev Morgan and Lad formed California Divers = Cal Dive.  Ratcliffe, Lengyel and the Handleman bros ended up staying in Cal Dive (the others left for other ventures).

1965-1966:  Cal Dive’s first year.

During this time, Bob Ratcliffe developed the Rat Hat diving system, a proprietary set of gear that gave Cal Dive a big advantage. These fiberglass systems were simple and rugged, much easier to maintain in the diving environment.

Feb 1966:  first Offshore Exploration Conference, Long Beach. Lad met Mike Hughes of World Wide Divers (Morgan, LA).  WWD had work after Hurricane Betsy, but no deep-water or Heliox experience.  This connection led to Cal Dive’s first big job in the Gulf of Mexico.

late 1966:  Lad got a  contract with Humble (later Exxon) to work on a drill rig in SB channel

1966-1967: Cal Dive took a contract away from Ocean Systems because they had developed gas-switching routines that allowed them to stay on the bottom longer (they did not return all the way to the surface; they rose to 170 depth, switched to air, then dropped back to bottom on helium-oxygen mixture). Bottom line: they did a job in two dives that Ocean Systems needed 4 to do, a big cost advantage.  Their mixed gas experiments made them “our own guinea pigs” but gave them a big advantage

Cal Dive met Canadian diver Phil Nuytten who needed help with a new Shell oil lease off Canada. Nuytten had more experience in underwater construction and knew the tools. He needed deep divers.

1968:  Cal Dive has lucrative contracts with Phillips and others. A profitable year.

Feb 1968:  Humble wins leases in 600 to 1300 feet.

Cal Dive does test dives for Humble using a diving bell. Dives begin at 180 feet and reach 570 feet.  It does not win a contract.

Feb 1969:  SB Channel oil spill stopped oil field activity in the area, destroying Cal Dive market. picture is bleak.

Cal Dive survived by taking jobs in Australia and later Singapore.

Then Phil Nuytten got an opportunity in Canada with Shell and needed deep dive, mixed gas, and diving bell experience: He formed Can-Dive and a partnership with Cal Dive. The partners won the contract.

The oil industry expenditures on deep water grew tremendously at the end of the 1960’s, and the Gulf was one of the places it grew. Big companies were buying up small diving firms and Cal Dive had its offers too, especially from Santa Fe International. Lad attended a conference on mergers and acquisitions to find out how this worked, and happened to meet Matthew Simmons, a financial wizard. Simmons found venture capitalists who would fund Cal Dive with an investment, not a buy out.

With the inclusion of Can Dive in the mix, the two companies formed Oceaneering.  The name Oceaneering was Lad’s invention—he thought it better suited what the company did.

New Years eve 1969 (Helix): Cal Dive had little experience in the Gulf, but Mike Hughes and Johnny Johnson of World Wide Divers of Morgan, LA, had extensive Gulf experience and contacts. A few months after the creation of Oceaneering, they merged their World Wide Divers into it and became stockholders.  Their model called for exchanged shares (a stake) for work, and good divers came to them. The company began to grow, shifting its focus from SB to the Gulf. In a short while, it morphed from being a partnership to being a stock-traded company. [listing date 1975]

spring 1970: Oceaneering somehow managed to buy out the much larger Divcon beating out the giant Comex (Divecon’s LOSSES were 3 times Oceaneering’s revenue!). The Oceaneering juggernaut was set. Now they had to make it work.

1971-1972: Oceaneering moves headquarters from Santa Barbara to Houston

1975:  Oceaneering purchased the JIM suit and exclusive rights to use it in oilfields through the acquisition of DHB Construction. (the suit was invented by Underwater Marine Equipment Ltd, a British firm, in 1969. It was named after Jim Jarrett, one of the chief divers of the 1930’s Tritonia diving suit, the precursor to JIM). Most oil industry did not believe in the suit, and passed on financing development, but with a grant, Dennison, Hibberd and Borrow - DHB - completed the first JIM suit in 1971. The suit is an Atmospheric Diving Suit, meaning that the diver is maintained at one atmosphere within the suit, eliminating the need for compression and decompression and allowing the diver to drop to the bottom and rise to the surface very quickly, after an extended time on the bottom. A mid-1970s early dive under Oceaneering was done to 905 feet, with a time on bottom of 5 hours 59 minutes. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle set a human depth record of 1,250 feet in a JIM suit. Oceaneering used the JIM suit through the 1980s, gradually phasing it out in favor of the WASP suit. (Wikipedia)

Original JIM weighed about 1,100 pounds including diver, had a theoretical depth max of 1,500 feet.  Oceaneering upgraded the suit over time, changing magnesium to glass-reinforced plastic and improving the joint system to give the diver more flexibility. The WASP suit is part suit, part submarine:  it keeps legs in rigid enclosure and uses electrical marine thrusters for mobility, with arms in highly articulated housings.  Weight about 2,200 pounds, theoretical depth 2,300 feet.

Phil Nuytten continued to develop ADS versions, including the Newtsuit (1987) and the more recent Exosuit.  (Wikipedia)

Deep dives to 3,000 feet became more common with Remotely Operated Vehicles, and Oceaneering continued to upgrade its technology both in water and on the surface, with diving platforms and service ships. Its revenue rose dramatically, from $600,000 in 1969 to $55 million in 1975.  And grew from there to a multi-billion dollar company engaged in mobility and work in any environment, including outer space.

1980 (helix):  Lad repelled a bad faith take over attempt by Chicago Bridge & Iron, but the take over had proponents on the board of Oceaneering. Lad kept OI independent, but at the cost of his relationships with the board. He had to quit OI; he sold his stock and moved on. With him went some other key executives.  This group started a new dive company called CAL Dive, with Lad helping to guarantee a line of credit and acting as a “great cheerleader”.  (JDH2, page 31)

Lad tried to rebuild the abalone industry working on a 4 acre plot off San Nicolas Island, but the US Fish & Wildlife Service dropped 200 sea otters on the same place, with predictable outcomes. Neither the otters nor the abalone survived. He didn’t try again.

winter 1980-81: Cal Dive moves headquarters to Lafayette, LA and is growing through partnerships and acquisitions. Within 4 years, the company is making $11 million revenue.  The partners decide to cash out, and Simmons found a buyer in Diversified Energies Inc, a Minneapolis company. The unit kept the name Cal Dive. They kept their jobs and got the cash.

1983: Diversified Energy International out of Minneapolis completed buy out of Cal Dive.

1985:  Lad suffered a broken neck in a skiing accident, leaving him a quadriplegic. 

1990:  DEI was selling, so key execs led by Jerry Reuhl and Jim Nelson took the diving operation private, reincarnating Cal Dive one more time.

1997:  with Owen Kratz as CEO, Cal Dive goes public in 1997.

2006 (helix):  Cal Dive had purchased a Scottish company called Helix energy, and changed its name to Helix Energy Solutions when it listed on the NYSE as HLX.

Helix evolved away from diving, and away from Cal Dive, selling assets. It is still a going concern in oilfield deep water construction using ever more sophisticated ships and technologies to provide “deepwater oil production solutions.”

Lad continued to take life by the horns, founding a number of service and non profits to improve boys’ and girls’ lives.  He was a founding member of the Historical Diving Society USA in Santa Barbara in 1992. He received the Historical Diving Society Pioneer Award, and other awards. He was inducted in the Diving Contractors International Commercial Diving Hall of Fame. JDH2, page 32.

Oct 26, 2020:  Laddie died of a heart attack at his house in Santa Barbara.

sources:  J of Diving History, 2014 vol 22 #80  (JDH1)

                J of Diving History, 2014 vol 22 #81  (JDH2)

author: Christopher Swann

Obit: https://www.independent.com/2020/11/19/in-memoriam-lad-laddie-handelman/

short but complete late life bio: https://aqueossubsea.com/about/lad-handelman/

Phil Nuytten company; exosuit:  https://nuytco.com/

Oceaneering WASP suit: http://large.stanford.edu/publications/coal/references/ocean/projects/wasp/

Diving Heritage website, at WASP suit: https://beta.divingheritage.com/atmospheric-diving-suits_wasp

Diving Heritage—saturation diving: https://beta.divingheritage.com/saturation-diving

Helix Energy Solutions: https://helixesg.com  NYSE:  HLX

Helix history book PDF:  https://helixesg.com/downloads/Helix_ESG_History.pdf

Oxygen toxicity:  https://gue.com/blog/understanding-oxygen-toxicity-part-1-looking-back/

Dec 1962:  General Offshore Divers got a job with Phillips; Lad’s dive successful jdh1 p 13 (helix).  helium oxygen mix gave GOD the edge

late 1966:

Long story about diving in a roiling sea, with tender moving over the target trying to drop a 30 inch diameter riser into a 36 inch pipe.  chaos, solved with great risk (p 17)

[background on Oceaneering, NYSE and Nasdaq? listing OII, first data Jan 1, 1972? helix]