For centuries people have been exploring and working underwater. At the Man in the Sea Museum, it’s time to enjoy some of those stories.
Panhandle Florida is a lighter on the weird stuff than the peninsula, but the Man in the Sea Museum is a delightful place to see as you head west from Panama City. Look for the bright red SEALAB 1 as you’re driving down the highway (but be aware you’ll need to be slowing down before you see it or it’ll be hard to make the turn!).
The SEALAB 1 sub was the 1st undersea habitat established in 1964. A tropical storm forced the crew of four men to decompress earlier than expected, but it was still one for the record books: Humans lived more than 50 meters underwater for 11 days. It was restored in 2014, and has been open to tourists since.
The SEALAB program was planned with the same sort of precision as the NASA space program, and the two programs worked together during the 60’s. The former never got the sort of press that NASA got. I guess space is sexier than underwater…?
After arriving, make SEALAB your first stop. Once in, you’ll quickly discover how… cozy… the arrangements were. The beds are shorter than even a twin-sized bed… Some very basic bathroom and kitchen facilities make this a livable place… but yikes… no hot water or cooking facilities… These were added in SEALAB 2 and 3 (which were destroyed later on), but it definitely makes for some less than comfortable living…
After the Navy decommissioned the vessel, it was brought to the museum parking lot in 1982 (the same year the museum opened). Why Panama Beach? This is where it was tested before it was deployed. The museum was started by some of the military divers that helped to perfect saturation diving, though the current director admits the purpose got lost somewhere along the way.
The museum was in the process of being moved around during my visit, so I’m focusing on the exhibits rather than the order in which you’ll see them.
The four divers that pioneered life underwater on SEALAB 1:: LCDR Robert Thompson, MC, Gunners Mate First Class Lester Anderson, Chief Quartermaster Robert A. Barth, and Chief Hospital Corpsman Sanders Manning.
Want to see more of Key West? Go cool off with some water sports.
A reminder that not every moment in life has to be a serious one — do ask for more to this story, as I have a feeling there’s more going on here…
A full body suit able to withstand the pressures of the deep. The flat head is that way because you’d enter it from the top.
So on, sing it loud! We all live on a yellow submarine… A few steps lead up to the entrance, and you’re allowed to go in… if you can! It’s a very tight fit for adults, but the kids in your group will probably love it!
A nice collection of diving helmets, including decades of development and several rare pieces or prototypes.
Other parts of the museum show the centuries of development that have gone into making underwater safer for exploration. There’s not much recent history to speak of, since the Navy has classified some of the stuff used in SEALAB 3 and has otherwise made their programs more clandestine.
Go on, try it out! The heavy helmet is suspended by a chain, so position yourself underneath and try to stand up.
As a whole, it’s a worthy collection of diving history, with a strong focus on the SEALAB projects. There’s a fair bit of interactive stuff, and there’s more coming soon.
Ready to see Key West? Check out this guide and photos on Salt and Sandals.
Name: Man in the Sea Museum
Address: 17314 Panama City Beach Parkway, Panama City Beach, Florida. (GPS: 30.232457, -85.893110)
Directions: This is right along route 98 AKA route 30A AKA the Panama City Beach Parkway, about 600 meters west of the intersection with Arnold Rd.
Hours: Tuesday thru Saturday 10am to 4pm, closed Sunday and Monday
Phone: +1 850-235-4101
Ratings out of 5 globes (How do I rate destinations?)
Ease to arrive:
Worth the visit:
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Also published on Medium.