How Low Can you Go? Atlantis Dive Series at the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology

This is Part 3 of a multi part series on the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology (CHMEP) and the records held documenting CHMEP at the Medical Center Archives. In this blog post, we spotlight the Atlantis Dive Series at the CHMEP.

Part 1 “Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology”, gives a brief history of the Duke CHMEP.

Part 2 “NASA, the Apollo Program, and the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology”, highlights the work the CHMEP did with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Atlantis Drive Series, which took place from 1978 to 1984, was led by Dr. Peter B. Bennett, director of the F. G. Hall Laboratory for Environmental Research, now part of the CHMEP at Duke. The Atlantis experiments were a series of four dives done by volunteer (who were also experienced divers) with the purpose of gaining a better understanding High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS), a condition coined by Dr. Bennett. HPNS occurs when diving deeper than 500 feet (150 meters) when using helium-oxygen gas mixtures. Divers experience headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. HPNS poses a serious threat to recreational and professional divers.

Dr. Bennett discovered that the lack of nitrogen in the diver’s breathing environment may be the cause of HPNS. During the Atlantis Drive Series, scientists studied the effects of long-term extreme pressure on the human body by simulating undersea dives when using trimix, a mixture of helium, oxygen, and nitrogen gases. This research project received funding from the National Institute of Health, the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and Shell Oil. During the study, the divers were placed in a hyperbaric chamber at CHMEP. The hyperbaric chamber created the necessary pressure to simulate the dive and conduct the study. Outside of the chamber, a group of scientists tested the divers’ blood, expired gas from their lungs, and mental state daily. 

Divers hold up a sign to indicate they are not at a simulated 650 meter (2,132 feet) dive during one of the Atlantis dives.    Badge from the third Atlantis Dive, Atlantis III, where the divers simulated a 2,250 feet dive (685 meters).  

The Atlantis Dive Series provided valuable information about the human body’s responses to extreme pressure and the limits of its adaptability. In 1981, the Atlantis III dive set a world record for the deepest dive at 2,250 feet (685 meters), and it remains one of the deepest dives ever performed. This dive was performed by Stephen Porter, Erik Kramer, and Len Whitlock, who remained at this depth for four consecutive days. The Atlantis experiments ended after the fourth dive when one of the divers became manic at depth in the chamber. This was comparable with other deep-diving research occurring in the 1980s in Germany, France, Japan, and Norway; during each of these dives someone became manic during a deep dive.

The Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology Records contains photographs, slides, and negatives of Atlantis divers and scientists at work. The collection also contains an Atlantis Dive Series commemorative patch and an oxygen disassociation curve tool used during the study. To view materials from the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology collection, contact the Medical Center Archives staff or visit the Finding Aid.

To learn even more about the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, stay tuned for future blog posts.


Fogarty, Reilly “Extreme Exposure”

Kangal, Munire K. Ozgok and Heather M. Murphy-Lavoie. “High Pressure Diving Nervous Syndrome”

Narain, Monika. “How low can you go before your head will blow?”  

This blog post was contributed by Medical Center Archives Assistant Director Lucy Waldrop.