The Man in the Sea

Morgan Wells is one of America’s first aquanauts and a world-class scientist, but at home in Mathews County, he is known more for growing figs than for his undersea adventures. The double life of a diving pioneer.  

The outbuildings around Morgan Wells’ secluded cabin in Mathews County are snarled with prickly berry vines. One ramshackle lean-to on his seven acres is particularly painful to access. As he negotiates the bramble of wild berries to reach the structure, Wells talks about the horticultural nuances involved in growing the figs he has become increasingly known for around the county. He grows so many that he gives them away or sells them at farmers’ markets, sometimes even trading them for pies made, he says, by area widows.

Figs are very interesting to Wells. In fact, it’s difficult to steer him from fig talk to learn more about the curious junk rusting away in the shed.

Finally, he is willing to talk shop: “Oh, that funny-looking box there is a very sophisticated gas chromatograph I mounted in an old Sears tool box,” he explains. “That’s how you’d do it in the early days of experimental diving. You were making a lot of the stuff from whatever you could get your hands on.” Behind the shed, as Wells inspects freeze damage on a fig tree and boasts a bit about the deliciousness of the berries from a nearby wild blueberry bush, I ask him about a yellow submarine sitting nearby, and what looks like a massive propane tank laying about 50 feet away. “I’m thinking of taking that tank down to Key Largo and making an underwater chamber out of it. It’s laid out just right for an undersea chamber. It’s an ideal size—same as a steel one we used in the Bahamas in the ’70s.”

Morgan Wells is not your average fig farmer. He is a pioneering world-class marine biologist, physiologist, engineer, diver and aquanaut. He almost certainly holds the record for living in more underwater habitats than anyone in history.

One of the most enduring accomplishments of Wells’ 50-year career is his perfection of what is now the standard nitrogen and oxygen mixture—or nitrox—for divers around the world. Divers can go deeper longer because of his years rejiggering the ratio of nitrogen to oxygen found in the air we breathe. 

Wells, the longtime director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Experimental Diving Unit and Dive Programs, is mostly unknown outside of America’s elite dive circles. In semi-retirement, his fame here is for his fruit trees and his work in local conservation projects.

But Wells says he’s just fine with the lack of notoriety. He’s happy in his small bachelor cabin hidden down a long dirt road past fig trees and slouching out-buildings. Just beyond his door is an estuary through which he can reach the Chesapeake Bay in his boat or kayak, where he finds it is often as quiet as at the bottom of the sea. “I suppose I’ve become pretty accustomed to small spaces and seclusion,” he says, referring to the hundreds of days he has spent in tanks the size of small Airstream campers on ocean floors around the world. 

Name an ocean: He’s probably lived at the bottom of it. Since 1965, when he served as an aquanaut in the Navy’s SeaLab II program off the coast of La Jolla, California, he has studied everything from the sea creatures of Polynesia to the impacts of extended deep-sea living on the human psyche. During the SeaLab project, for example, researchers monitored how Wells and his teammates handled workloads and interactions in extremely confined spaces over long periods. Findings from that program were used not only to improve safety and efficiency in submarines and other underwater environments, but also in America’s space program as it stretched toward the moon. During the 7-month Tektite II program in 1970, Wells was not only a key player in scientific surveys of the sea frontier, but also, again, a sort of self-aware guinea pig for human stress tests intended to inform NASA’s increasingly lengthy space missions.

“Morgan is an incredibly versatile researcher,” says James W. Miller, author of the book Living and Working in the Sea and former deputy director of NOAA’s Manned Undersea Science and Technology Program. “He’s an excellent marine biologist. He’s a math whiz. He could build anything and he was key in research in the hyperbaric field. He’s a remarkable guy.”

Wells’ waterlust began early. 

Wells, right, as a SeaLab II crew member in 1965. 

Photo by Robert Nelson 

“It was as if I was genetically predisposed toward the water,” Wells says, speaking of his youth in the 1940s. By 14, he had built a breathing apparatus out of his father’s paint sprayer and a motor-scooter engine that allowed him to dive into an abandoned well. By 17, he was writing letters to the Navy to alert them of technical errors in the Navy Diving Manual. 

After graduating from his small high school in Hopewell and then Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Wells attended the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and then received his Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of California, San Diego. For most of the 1970s, he was Science Coordinator-Marine Biology at NOAA’s Manned Undersea Science & Technology Office based in Rockville, Maryland. After serving as director of NOAA’s diving program, he became the director of NOAA’s Experimental Diving Unit at Fort Eustis.

Which brought him back to Virginia. In 1991, he bought the seven acres on which he lives. “I just fell in love with the place. It’s my little sanctuary.”

Then, in 1995, the experimental diving unit was closed due to budget cuts. But Wells, dedicated to his work and, by that time, well-known for his ability to do major science on the cheap, continued to go to his technically-closed lab (while receiving only retirement pay). Says Wells, “The first year, most of my Army friends around me thought the lab was still open.” He continued his research using moth-balled equipment and Army surplus, producing technical innovations still used by Army and Navy divers.

Some of that equipment, along with a few small grants, helped Wells and two friends build BayLab, an underwater lab Wells and his team dropped to the floor of the Chesapeake Bay in 1991 nine miles from his home to study the health of marine life in the Bay. Much of that surplus equipment abandoned by the government—as well as parts of BayLab—sit on his property amid the thickets waiting for a new adventure. “This stuff that may look like junk to you is not far from being ready to go,” he says. “There is a high-tech underwater lab here. It’s just in need of a little love.”

About five years ago, Wells was drawn out of his not-very-semi retirement by U.S. Air Force officials. The air-delivery systems on their newest fighter jet, the F-22, were failing during particularly aggressive high-altitude maneuvering. They needed their old expert in the delivery of air to humans under extreme conditions. “It took some time, but we got it figured out,” says Wells. He and his team solved the problems and helped get the F-22 program back on track. 

Now, at age 76, his plan is to return to Key Largo and assist with another low-budget university research project there. He’ll live for four months in a 12-foot-by-12-foot shack near the beach that, for him, “is plenty of room when you consider there is a shower and bathroom not far away.”

Then, when growing season returns, he’ll come back to his Virginia home on the water. “That has been the pattern,” he says. “I’d just sit around feeding wood into the stove once my trees and plants go dormant if I was here. I want to be out working with life. That’s what I live for.”

This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.

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