Signage along US 1, called Overseas Highway in Florida’s keys, is distinct. A shipwreck cannon, hard hat diver in full rig and ocean scene murals decorate the building for the History of Diving Museum

Article & Photos By John Christopher Fine 

Two physicians from Ohio, a husband and wife team, began scuba diving, raising tropical fish, studying fish behavior and ocean environmental issues. Their interest evolved into man’s penetration of the undersea. Drs. Joe and Sally Bauer researched then collected early diving inventions and historic hard hat rigs. Their collection expanded as they discovered and preserved historic diving gear, books, manuscripts and memorabilia associated with ocean exploration. Collecting historic dive equipment became their passion. 

When they retired from medicine Joe and Sally could devote themselves to developing their collection with the thought in mind to create a museum. In 1998 they bought an ocean front home on Lower Matecumbe Key. Shortly afterwards they purchased a storage facility right on US 1, known in the keys as the Overseas Highway, at Mile Marker 83 bay side, in Islamorada. Their dream of creating a museum that would exhibit their now extensive collection of early hard hats and some 3000 books became a reality in 2005 when the museum opened. 

It is hard to miss. A diver in full dress wearing a hard hat is displayed outside the museum along with an early one man decompression chamber. The signage is distinctive with a US Navy Mark V diving helmet. Even their mailbox is supported by a miniature hard hat diver. The building itself is decorated with marine life murals by famed marine artists Guy Harvey and David Dunleavy. An intriguing design depicts a hard hat diver with a giant cephalopod in the spirt of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. 

After Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys on September 10, 2017, death and destruction remained in its wake. Statistics compiled after the hurricane revealed total damage estimated at $66.77 billion with 134 fatalities. 

Joanne Birdsall, History of Diving Museum’s Gift Store Manager, took photos once they were allowed back into the keys. Joanne’s pictures are surreal. Long rows of refrigerators, washing machines, hot water heaters, air conditioners and appliances lined the highway awaiting trash pick-up. Long piles of mattresses that hotels threw out lined a swale along US 1. Boats were thrown up on the beach, hotels destroyed, businesses shuttered never to open again. 

Meteorologists predicted ocean water surge from the hurricane at ten- to fifteen feet at the southern tip of the keys and nine feet on the west coast. Fortunately the surge did not reach those levels although sustained winds of 160 miles per hour and ocean surge of at least four feet careened through the Bauer home. 

Dr. Sally Bauer described the mess she found when she returned to their home after the hurricane: “You could walk across our swimming pool,” Sally said. “The pool was full of sand. When I drove into my driveway there was brown water and muck everywhere. A refrigerator was on the swale next to my mailbox. When I got to the house I saw that the door to our guest house was broken open, two garage doors were pushed in and twisted back and my brand new refrigerator was torn away from its two foot shelf. The refrigerator, four hundred feet out by the road, was my new refrigerator. Washing machines were in the yard. Our freezer was half-way down the driveway. Water came up four feet into the house.” 

Great concern about the fate of the History of Diving Museum’s collection of rare antique books was abated when Director Lisa Mongelia and Dr.Bauer opened the museum a couple of days after residents were allowed to return to the keys. They found that the books, wisely kept behind glass fronted hard wood cabinets lining the library walls, built four feet above the floor, were intact and unharmed. 

Board of Directors with Dr. Sally Bauer and History of Diving Museum Director Lisa Mongelia in the library. Hard wood book cases built up off the floor as a precaution preserved the 3000 rare book collection

“There was leakage that came under the front door. We had to have the rug cleaned in our gift shop,” Lisa Mongelia said. “Some of the exhibits had to be cleaned and water mopped up off the floor. We had some roof damage. We were able to put things back in order and open the museum. We were very lucky,” the Museum Director added. 

While many hotels on the ocean side suffered major damage and will not be back in operation for a long spell, many smaller inns and motels have been restored and are open for business. The History of Diving Museum was fully back in operations two weeks after Hurricane Irma. 

Hurricane Memorial in Islamorada, Florida. The fury of a Labor Day hurricane of September 2, 1935, brought death and destruction to the keys. Cremated remains of three hundred victims of that historic hurricane are buried under the crypt. Hurricane Irma is considered the second most powerful hurricane to ever strike the keys 

Free museum events every month have resumed, educational outreach programs continue, their traveling exhibits were unharmed by the storm. 

“I had a replica US Navy Mark V diving helmet in the garden. It was blown away. We found the top three hundred feet away from where it was anchored out by our tractor in the yard under sand. We still have not found the base,” Dr. Bauer said. She was in the process of supervising contractors fixing the lap pool outside and restoring her home after extensive water damage. There was destruction of 155 mile per hour rated protective metal shutters. Behind them seven broken windows had to be replaced. 

Diving businesses in Florida’s Keys have resumed normal operations. The History of Diving Museum in Islamorada is back in full swing. The museum brings knowledge of historic undersea exploration, through exhibits and educational programs, to life. 

For current information in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma contact: ISLAMORADA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE at 1-800-FAB-KEYS or 305-664-4503 or visit www.islamoradachamber.com. To contact the HISTORY OF DIVING MUSEUM call 305-664-9737 or visit their website at www.divingmuseum.org. Museum hours are from 10 AM to 5 PM every day.