If the name global marine inc. Sounds familiar, it is probably because of its controversial involvement in the central intelligence agency’s $500 million attempt, in the early 1970s, to raise a Soviet submarine off the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The audacious mission, to recover K-129 along with its nuclear missiles, cryptographic equipment and code books from a crash site almost three miles beneath the surface, is said to be the CIA’s most daring covert intelligence-gathering operation ever. It was certainly the greatest-ever feat of deep-water engineering. But the story of global marine inc. Goes far beyond its cold war salvage work.
The US-based company was one of the early pioneers of offshore drilling and, in the late 1950s, developed the technology to drill in greater depths than had previously been thought possible. While other firms worked on shallow-water jackup rigs, Global invented the technique of using ship-mounted drilling rigs to explore previously unreachable parts of the ocean bed for oil and natural gas. It soon became the king of the deep-water drillers and, by the mid-1960s, Global Marine Inc. was one of the world’s biggest offshore drilling firms, with rigs off the coasts of Alaska, Nigeria, Australia, Libya, California, and Louisiana, and in the Persian Gulf and the North Sea. It was not an oil or gas company and did not sell either commodity, but it rented its rigs and crews to oil and gas companies for offshore drilling.
Each Global Marine drill ship had its own specialist dive team ready to go into the water any time day or night.
Global Marine’s expertise lay in sophisticated engineering and innovation, and the company was continuously exploring new ways to utilize its skills and equipment. With its core business prospering, Global diversified into related fields, taking on contracts from a variety of business, scientific and educational institutions involved in oceanographic and geological exploration. The US government also made use of Global’s unparalleled extreme deep-water expertise, earning it contracts from the National Science Foundation, the US Navy and various federal agencies, including the CIA.
Colleagues of Bob Howard perform routine equipment checks in the Gulf of Mexico, late 1960s. © California Divers
Global Marine’s technology and expertise was being used not only to harvest the ocean’s resources but also to further understanding and knowledge of the planet. One such project it undertook was an unprecedented worldwide geological survey of the seabed. A purpose-built deep-sea research and scientific drilling vessel, called the Glomar Challenger, took core samples from the ocean floor, some of which was up to 16,000 feet deep. The data collected allowed major advances in the theories of plate tectonics and provided evidence of continental drift.
By 1967, Global Marine Inc had recruited entire teams of geologists and geophysicists, and had set up an ‘oceanics division’. It was around this time that Ollech & Wajs invited Global Marine to evaluate its watches for use in extreme deep-water environments. O&W had earnt a reputation for its professional-grade, high-performance dive watches but now wanted to expose their watches to conditions that could not be simulated in a lab. Bob Howard, a diving supervisor with the oceanics division, was assigned the task. Bob coordinated dive support teams for Global Marine’s twelve offshore drill ships and, like many oil field divers of the day, was ex-military. Bob had an athletic physique, forged by years of toiling with the relentless force of the ocean, invariably laden with heavy equipment. One ex-colleague described him as "an impressive specimen”. He thrived on the challenge of venturing where others would not dare and was often called upon to do so at any time of the day of night.
The two Ollech & Wajs models to be field-tested were the Caribbean Precision 1000 ref: 702 and the Astro-Chron divers chronograph ref: 2003. Over a four-month period, the watches accompanied Bob and his team to some of the most challenging ocean environments in the world, clocking up hundreds of hours under water. From the North Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf, the watches were subjected to depths of up to 400 feet and radical temperature and ambient pressure changes, including periods in decompression chambers. Wherever the divers went, the watches went too, and they suffered the daily abuse of commercial diving activities, with no special effort made to pamper them. Aside from some inevitable scoring to the plexiglass crystals, both watches gave excellent service and evidenced no mechanical malfunction at all throughout the four-month test period. Bob, who personally wore the O&W Astro-Chron on 63 field diving operations, conceded in his report on March 6th 1968 : “Both watches functioned far beyond our expectations”.
The test findings were not, however, entirely faultless. During a routine dive, two weeks before the trials were completed, the Caribbean 1000’s strap became disconnected from the case and the watch was lost. Due to the depth and time limitation of the dive, no attempt to recover the watch could be made, but the most likely explanation was a failed spring bar. While the loss of a test watch is always regrettable, its sacrifice was not in vain. Ollech & Wajs learnt a valuable lesson from the lost Caribbean — even a dive watch with a 1,000m depth rating is only as reliable as its weakest component. This was a basic engineering principle the experts at Global Marine Inc. knew only too well. No doubt O&W had some stern words on the matter for the spring bar supplier—there is certainly no record of another ref: 702, or any other dive watch, being lost at sea. The incident also affirmed O&W’s belief in the process of iterative testing. The Global Marine team were nonetheless satisfied with the performance of both watches, and Mr. Howard emphatically concluded his report with the following endorsement: “I would be most happy to recommend these watches to anyone interested in purchasing a reliable piece of diving apparatus”.
The fate of the missing Caribbean 1000 remains a mystery. There is a possibility it still lies undisturbed in the same murky spot where it fell, well beyond the reach of daylight, entombed under decades of sediment—a permanent testament to one of the most celebrated dive watches of its era. However, an ex–Global Marine colleague of Bob’s, named John Hollett, has his own theory: “A lost watch in deep water is exactly the kind of thing that Bob would have considered a professional and personal challenge. My bet is that at the very next opportunity he’d have geared up and gone right back down for it”.