Master of the Deep- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian
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Master of the Deep

Before Smithsonian scientists do underwater research, Michael Lang makes them seaworthy.

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After 20 years as a scuba instructor, Lang is demanding, but he’s also an expert at getting people through his course. He recalls only two or three dropouts over the years.

He spent 10 years at San Diego State University, where he was a staff biologist, before coming to the Smithsonian 11 years ago. He has dived most everywhere, including under the Antarctic ice to study krill and shrimp. He spends quite a bit of time on the research vessel Urraca, based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. This 96-foot ship has a crew of five and a range of 3,000 miles. It can accommodate eight science divers at a time and is very practical for coastal oceanographic work.

"Two years ago we took it all the way out to Clipperton atoll, 600 miles west of Acapulco in the middle of the ocean, to study fish and corals."

Though his own specialty is biology, Lang spent two summers on an archaeological project in Lake Superior, assisting Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the National Museum of American History. They were exploring the wreck of the Indiana, one of the oldest propeller-driven steamboats in the Great Lakes.

"This was complex stuff," Lang said, "down 120 feet plus, where it’s very cold. I had twin tanks, and I planned a series of decompression dives. We would drop the decompression bars in the water, and near the end of the dive—about 10 feet from the surface—we would hang there 14 minutes to off-gas before surfacing."

The Navy had already salvaged much material from the ship in 1978, but Johnston and his team took plots of the entire vessel and made measurements of its construction. The Indiana’s anchor, propeller and capstan are now on exhibit at the Museum of American History.

When he is not exploring the depths, Lang likes to snorkel with his three children, ages 12, 13 and 16. He’s in no hurry, however, to teach them scuba. It is possible to get a junior scuba certificate at age 12, but the restrictions are severe. And diving safely requires a mature judgment.

At the very least, you’ve got to know to exhale before your eyes pop out.

By Michael Kernan

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