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David M. Owen

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has received word of the death April 11, 2006 of David M. Owen at the Saanich Peninsula Hospital in Saanichton, British Columbia, Canada.  He was 81.

David Moore Owen was born September 2, 1924 in Saco, Maine and attended Thornton Academy in Saco before transferring to Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, CT.  He studied pre-med at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine for two years before joining the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving as a radar operator aboard the heavy cruiser USS Fall River during his three years of active duty.

After his discharge from the U.S. Navy Dave decided to pursue his longtime interest in the sea and desire to work in research and began corresponding with the Institution in July 1946. He was hired in August of that year as an observer working for Val Worthington on project B-38 with Stanley Bergstrom, Fritz Fuglister and J.B. Hersey, collecting oceanographic data at sea and working with the findings ashore. Through the 1950s Dave, along with Mary Sears, John Stimpson, Delmar Jenkins and others who had served in the Navy during the war met regularly at Smith Laboratory as part of a U.S. Navy Reserve research panel.  He later said he never returned to finish college because the projects, travel and personal relationships in the scientific community “seemed more interesting and pertinent.”

Dave developed his interest in photography while at WHOI and soon had special skills in underwater photography, cameras and equipment, working with Doc Edgerton, Tex Hoadley, Brackett Hersey and others in what was then a field in its infancy.  On his first long cruise aboard research vessel Atlantis, a seven-month trip in 1947-1948 to the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, Dave was assigned to operate a Ewing deep sea camera to take flash photos of the sea floor. He is credited with taking the deepest photograph of the sea floor (18,000 feet) at the time, a record that stood for years.  The photo was later published in Life magazine.

In 1954 Dave was appointed a research associate in underwater photography. He conducted extensive deep sea camera operations on many expeditions, including three cruises between 1972 and 1974 near the Azores as part of Project FAMOUS (French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study), a milestone in understanding seafloor spreading and continental drift.

In addition to his skills in photography, Dave Owen pioneered the use of scuba diving at the Institution as the need increased for direct, personal observation underwater.  He served as the Institution’s chief diver, later called the diving safety officer, from 1953 until his retirement in 1980. As such, he was responsible for training scientific divers, keeping diving records, and diving on many projects.

In 1959, then Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Foster Furcolo appointed a committee to study the safety and education in the field of scuba diving, which was becoming popular. Dave Owen was asked to serve on that advisory committee.  His 1955 publication, A Manual for Free-Divers, was considered by many as the Bible for scuba diving activities and was the first instructional manual on aqua-lung type diving in the world.  He spoke at many underwater conferences and symposiums on both underwater photography and diving, and was the author or co-author of 28 publications on underwater photography, diving and diving technology.

Through the years Dave Owen worked in Geology and Geophysics and in Marine Operations, operating and maintaining deep-sea underwater camera systems in connection with both his own projects and other research activities.  While diving to perform heavy underwater work in 1970 he suffered a heart attack, an experience that led to more extensive medical exams in connection with diving and a paper, “Heart Attack at 110 Feet”, published in 1971 in Skin Diver magazine.  After the heart attack, Dave continued to run instructional diving programs but from the surface. He took an early retirement and left the Institution in 1980.

Survivors include his wife, Helen Owen of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; two sisters-in law, JoAnn Outerbridge of Brentwood Bay, B.C., Canada and Margaret Owen of Washington; and three nieces.

A memorial service was held April 22 at the Brentwood United Church in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia. Memorial donations may be made to the Saanich Peninsula Hospital, 2166 Mount Newton Crossroads, Saanichton, British Columbia V8M 2B2  Canada.

David M. Owen