TWA members and others are talking to writer Sharon Babcock about enduring inspirations, life lessons, and perspectives from their experiences on the working waterfront.
This month’s feature: Ryan Spence, owner of the Flashback Scuba Project and Museum.
Ryan Spence is the owner and curator of the Flashback Scuba Project and Museum in Tacoma which began as a small collection of working vintage dive equipment.
Over the years it has grown into a much larger selection of working equipment; a large photo, film, and document archive; and one of the largest collections of original Jacques Cousteau equipment in the world.
Q: What is the nature of your work?
A: I do a lot of sorting, cataloging, organizing, and storing materials. From the work of Jacques Cousteau and his family, I have collected blueprints, technical drawings, concept art, his ship and helicopter modifications, and equipment relating to diving. The collection includes the original proposal for the first Jacques Cousteau TV series.
Q: Remind some of us, please, of who Jacques Cousteau was.
A: Living from 1910-1997, he was a French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author, and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in the water. He co-developed the first scuba regulator (that was) put into production in 1946. Today it is called the Aqua-Lung. He pioneered marine conservation. Much of the collection is currently exhibited at the Foss Waterway Seaport.
Q: How did you get access to these pieces?
A: I am an unofficial partner, contributing to the historical efforts to preserve this legacy with the Cousteau family and former crew members.
Q: What led you to this work?
A: I was a peculiar kid with very specific interests—art, space exploration, design, underwater things. As a child, I would strap the cardboard cylinders from Quaker Oats containers onto my back to pretend I was a diver. My parents were enthusiastic supporters. I could have said that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer or a marine biologist. They took it as their job to support whatever adventure I was having.
For example, I wanted to work with short skateboards. They bought the materials for skate ramps, let me build them in our back yard, and encouraged me to get all the needed building permits for that. It helped me to understand that there is a process to things, that I had to build relationships and negotiate to make the things happen I wanted, and that following the rules provided me with opportunities. That has really stuck with me.
For example, researching Cousteau in France is totally different than researching him in the U.S. and my early experiences helped me a lot in building relationships around the world for this project. I have chased down the opportunities and took chances as they came along. It takes doing what you can with whatever resources you have, pressing forward knowing the rest will come. It takes a tolerance for failure and letting the process take precedent over the result, the pursuit over winning.
I’m a tentative person, but I move forward after doing the homework and research. I develop a context before taking the lead. I have learned that success and failure is very different with this kind of work versus other kinds. I deeply appreciate the aesthetic of this work. I started collecting and restoring old equipment in 2001. In 2004, I found some of the Cousteau documents. That gave context to what I was restoring. The look and the function go hand in hand for me. Cousteau understood that. He featured the diver, not only the fish.
Q: What led you to Cousteau?
A: A lot of diving history has come out of France, so I have made many relationships there. I believe that democratic societies, such as France, are most likely to create possibilities for doing innovative things like diving. I had not been to Europe until 2010 when I was invited to a festival of underwater photography in Marseilles. My colleagues told me it would be worth my while to get myself there. I was warmly welcomed and treated well. After that, one door after another opened. I have been back to France every other year.
Q: What do you find when you dive locally?
A: Relics from human habitation over the years. The whole bottom of Commencement Bay is covered with wood chips from previous log booms and pulp mills. Off Ruston Way we find animal bones from where the slaughterhouses used to be. There are tools and bottles. You can trace the history of the region just through bottles. A special historical bottle can fetch up to $5,000 if it is tied to a story of the Washington Territory.
I have been diving here since 1995. It is such a dynamic environment with the flow of rivers into the area, the tidal changes, and the human impact. It strikes me that for as tied to the water as we are in this place, there is little awareness of what is beneath the surface– until people take time to explore it.
Q: What beside the Cousteau material is in your museum collection?
A: Dive helmets—from professional divers, the military and recreational users. The two collections fit together well. They enable me to tell a more generalized story, to span a bigger section of diving history.
Q: What is most fun for you?
A: Working around constraints; I believe that they don’t limit creativity, they inspire it. I like transcending limitations. I cannot separate working on the collections from the exploration of diving itself. Without diving, I would not have started restoring the old equipment.
But the most rewarding is the people—carrying their experience and sharing it with a broader audience. I grew up in landlocked Tennessee reading about these things in books. When you get personally involved in discovery, people seek you out. They want to tell you their stories. Then for me comes an imperative to share the stories with explorers, conservationists, and the public.
Q: What’s next?
A: Diving gives you a constant cold. Since I have a toddler, my immune system must calibrate to his, so I don’t dive as often as previously. This gives me more time to devote to the curating. I am doing more writing, speaking, and mounting public exhibits like the one at the Foss Waterway Seaport. That is unique because it is in a facility actually on the water. There are only a handful of those in the world. Through my work as a regular contributor to the Journal of Diving History, writing has become an unexpected way of getting the information out to people who are not engaged with the water. I’d like to connect more to educational programs, adding interpretation and professional exhibit designers in order to create the most unified experience, especially for young people. I have worked on designing and building props and diving equipment for a French film on the life of Cousteau and have a project with Aqua-Lung for 2018.
Q: What question do people most frequently ask you?
A: Far and away it is “When you dive, have you ever seen the giant octopus under the Narrows Bridge?” The answer is “There is more than one.”