History of Diving Museum

The History of Diving Museum in Islamorada continues to expand and grow as a living tribute to its founder.

"There's always something new happening here," said museum curator Tim Hemsoth. "We've added a lot of new interactive stuff that visitors can play with."

Dr. Joe Bauer, who spent nearly 40 years assembling a massive collection of historic dive gear and seven years working to open a museum to display it, died in 2007. The museum had opened several months previously.

"Dr. Bauer saw the museum completed prior to his death," Hemsoth said. "He was very happy with the results."

Bauer himself described the 6,000-square-feet museum as "the world"s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical diving apparatus."

No one has disputed the assertion.

His widow, Dr. Sally Bauer, remains active in the nonprofit organization that operates the museum.

"We continue to expand and embellish the exhibits like Joe wanted," Hemsoth said.

Joe Bauer now can be heard at the museum in a new audio narrative at the impressive Parade of Nations exhibit. The display features a wall of 45 historic dive helmets, with Bauer explaining the history and importance of helmet technology. "Every nation that built a dive helmet is there," Hemsoth said.

Work continues on the museum library, a reading room dedicated to underwater exploration. The facility will be available for group meetings at a nominal cost, Hemsoth said.

Signage along U.S. 1 now highlights the "sunken treasure" aspect of dive exploration. "We have not changed the focus of the museum," Hemsoth said. "The search for treasure is inextricably linked to diving history; it"s nearly impossible to separate the two."

Some items of recovered treasure have been displayed, and more exhibits could be added in coming months.

A room is dedicated to Keys dive pioneer Art McKee, who used his hard-hat gear (he came to the Keys to do underwater work on Overseas Highway bridges) in the late 1930s to recover some of the first treasure off a Spanish galleon shipwreck, near Plantation Key.

Visitors see variations on the Divinhood, a helmet made in Miami with an open bottom for easy use. The helmet is credited with revolutionizing the field of marine biology.

The museum expects to shortly unveil its new photo-opportunity aquarium, a 400-gallon display tank with local marine species. Mounted behind the tank will be vintage "hard hat" diving helmets that visitors can peer through.

"We expect that people can take pictures through the aquarium and it will look like people are underwater," Hemsoth said.

The popular Into the Abyss exhibit features historic deep-diving suits such as the "Iron Duke" from 1913. Fifteen years later, the suit went to a then-astonishing 450 feet to recover items from a sunken ship.

"Visitors are amazed that people actually dove in this equipment, compared to the [lightweight] diving equipment of today," Hemsoth said. "But virtually all this stuff from pre-World War 2 was working equipment being used to salve ships, save lives and do critical work underwater."

A display also notes the post-war rise in recreational scuba diving due to the popularity of the Cousteau-Gagnan regulator.

"Recreational diving essentially started right here in the Keys,"" Hemsoth said.