University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Breathing Underwater

Joe MacInnis has spent his life exploring the world's oceans. Now he wants to save them

We are in the Hart House pool, our heads above water and the room awash in a mid-summer radiance filtering down on us from the arching skylights above. Dr. Joseph MacInnis is crouching on the submerged ledge that runs the length of the pool; his body, still lithe at 67, is poised and coiled. We are huddled in the slow lane, chatting quietly about how this pool, at least, doesn’t seem to have changed much in the 40 years since he was a student here. He pulls down his goggles, slips beneath the surface and the coil in him releases into a torpedoing burst of energy that propels him deep and far. It seems a long time before I see him surface.

Much of Joe MacInnis’s adult life has been spent in the water, though not in the temperature-controlled, lifeguard-enhanced confines of a university swimming pool. Since 1964, he has logged more than 5,000 hours exploring and researching beneath the waves of the world’s oceans, including the Arctic. He was the first man to swim under the North Pole, and he has walked upside down on the undersea surface of the arctic ice. He has settled his submersible on to the deck of the RMS Titanic, 12,500 feet below the turbulent North Atlantic. He has been almost close enough to touch a rare, surfacing bowhead whale, feeling it exhale, as he put it, “a whole roomful of air.” He has dived with then-CBS television news anchorman Walter Cronkite, with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and with Hollywood director James Cameron. Although his work has helped make undersea research safer, the perils of early exploration were such that catastrophe was never far away. Injuries were common. Good men died – including the son of one of his best friends.

MacInnis (MD 1962) seems never to have lost a boy’s sense of adventure. He retains something, too, of a boy’s naiveté. He has learned – mostly, it seems, through the men he’s worked with – a man’s diligence and application. A man’s intelligent respect for fear. And a crusading man’s awareness that perhaps the only way to save our threatened oceans is to instil in others the same awe and sense of wonder that has animated his life.

Joe MacInnis grew up in Toronto, raised by his mother. His father, an instructor in the Royal Canadian Air Force, died when another plane crashed into his as he was attempting to land after a training flight with a student. He was just 32; Joe just a few months old. His mother remarried when her son was 12, but those earlier years, he says, were rough – although, in retrospect, “not having a father meant having no one to compare myself to. The advantage was that I could be what I wanted to be, and it meant that both my brother and I were independent at a very early age.”

He seems not to have needed anything to edge him into the water. After discovering Jules Verne in high school, he read and reread Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. As a boy, he swam with the Etobicoke Memorial Aquatic Club, where he discovered “both a wonderful camaraderie and the need to struggle. I was subconsciously learning the connection between hard work and results – something any thinking young person needs.” He loved to canoe, and recalls one perilous outing as a 12-year-old on a storm-tossed lake. As the wind picked up, and waves threatened to crash over all four canoes, the group realized that only the most intense, almost intuitive, teamwork would get them safely to shore. He names those boys in a book that was published this fall, Breathing Underwater: The Quest to Live in the Sea (Viking Canada). The incident happened more than 50 years ago, to a bunch of kids – but even kids can be a team, and MacInnis says “nothing I’ve done has been done alone. I’ve always been shoulder to shoulder with good people.”

By his own admission, he was not one of the stellar minds at U of T’s medical school; he jokes that he was one of those students that made the higher percentiles possible. He was, however, a superb swimmer, held the Canadian record for the breaststroke and was captain of the U of T swim team in the mid-1950s. He tried to make the Canadian Olympic team in 1956, but didn’t – and doesn’t regret it. “If I’d made the team,” he says, “it would have taken a year out of my life and I wouldn’t have graduated at just the right time.” The time was 1962, when medical research into the challenge of living and working underwater was taking fire. In the spring of 1963, the USS Thresher, America’s most powerful nuclear submarine, imploded and sank, killing all 129 men on board. It also left a nuclear reactor on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, more than 8,000 feet below the surface. Deep-water research and rescue suddenly became a navy priority, and an eccentric American businessman and inventor, Ed Link, had been tapped to head the civilian team. MacInnis, a scuba diver since he was 17, drove all night from Toronto to Washington when he finally snagged an interview with Link, with whom he was desperate to work. His enthusiasm and his eagerness to learn won him a job – part of the medical support team for Link’s next project. He would eventually become medical director of Link’s Ocean Systems Inc., the world’s largest commercial diving and undersea engineering company.

It’s clear that Link, who was in his late 50s when the two met, is something of a hero to MacInnis, who describes him as a “Yankee genius, an inventor, a successful businessman who had decided to make it possible for humans to live and work in the sea.” He has the same high regard for other pioneers in the field: Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-inventor of the aqualung and popularizer of all things oceanic, and George Bond, a physician with the United States navy, who pioneered research into the effects of high-pressure atmospheres on humans. Though modern submersibles keep passengers at sea-level pressure, much early research was performed by men working at pressures equal to that of the sea around them, a practice dictating long periods in decompression chambers to prevent a fatal attack of the bends. Link, Cousteau, Bond – they were men who changed MacInnis’s life, men who stoked and encouraged his passions, men who helped make him what he calls “a curiosity junkie.”

By the late 1960s MacInnis had realized that there would be no future for him working solely as a diving physician. Technological advances were making the field much safer. So he formed his own science and education consulting company, Undersea Research. Since then he has done work for more than 60 major corporations, and for governments in both the United States and Canada. He has written eight books and assisted in the production of some 40 television documentaries and an Imax film on the Titanic. As well, since 1980 he’s been a motivational speaker, often on the topic of leadership, for such companies as IBM, Ford, Kodak, Merrill Lynch and Microsoft. He speaks to them about his work beneath the waves and the importance of teamwork, and shows them videos taken on his undersea adventures. Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at U of T, author of The Ingenuity Gap and a friend of MacInnis’s, says the man is trying hard “to influence corporate culture by communicating some of his own sense of wonder. They have colossal influence, and if Joe can convey something of the almost spiritual meaning the oceans have for him, he’ll make a world of difference. He’s appalled by the damage we’ve done already, and it says a lot that he’s able to maintain a spirit of optimism. Maybe he’s an idealist … but there have been many times in history when things looked very grim, but then something, or someone, you couldn’t anticipate comes along and makes a difference.”

MacInnis is also a keen advocate of environmental education for youth. He speaks at high schools and raises money for Pearson College, a British Columbia institution that brings students together from all over the world on full scholarships. The college aims to demonstrate that “international education works and that it can build bridges of understanding between peoples,” says MacInnis. He was chair until last year of the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation and is involved with the World Wildlife Fund and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. As he puts it, “we can only solve our environmental problems if major corporations step up and say, ‘Business is healthy only if the planet is healthy.'” And when he speaks to young people, he talks of the importance of giving back to the communities that have nourished them, but also conjures them to “just enjoy life, the beauty and the miracle of it.”

He remembers, when he was a kid, listening to a teacher talking about the stars, and how it took millions of years for their light to reach us, and how that dazzled him. He goes on to describe his recent work with James Cameron, and how their investigations into the curious animals living at extreme conditions near deep-sea volcanic vents make it seem not so improbable that there is life in the oceans beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Of course, life on other planets could be just a crazy fantasy. But we’ll never know unless we dream it. And dreaming, says MacInnis, is one of the essential leadership skills he learned from men such as Link and Cousteau. “There was this quality they shared, an ability to think forward, to imagine things as they might be,” he says. “I call it ‘visioneering,’ a 3-D mental map of where you are and where you want to go.” He thinks a lot about leadership these days, and talks to many groups about the qualities he thinks are essential – characteristics with names such as “guerilla vitality,” “silent courage,” “emotional intelligence,” and compassion. Good qualities in anyone. Good qualities that can make a leader if they are tethered to a dream.

At some point in our conversation I ask him casually where the deepest point in the ocean lies. “The Mariana Trench,” he answers instantly. “It’s south of Guam, and it’s 36,200 feet deep.”

“Any plans to visit it yourself?” I ask half-jokingly.

“Ask me that question,” he says with a dreamer’s smile, “two years from now.”

Gerald Hannon (BA 1966 St. Mike’s) is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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  1. One Response to “ Breathing Underwater ”

  2. George Skinner says:

    I was a student of Dr. MacInnis. When I was in my fourth year at U of T, he welcomed six students from our class to join him to do underwater research. I was fortunate to be one of the students he selected. His research was being done in Dunks Bay (south of Tobermory, off the Bruce Pennisula).

    Although this was a three-year study, I was only with him for one year. He truly demonstrated his passion for the underwater and it's importance.

    Thank you, Joe, for giving me the opportunity. The thousands of students I have been able to have an impact on, as an educator, are a little more appreciative of their planet.