Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center

Displays dish on the deep

Keeper of the Diving Locker tells of his underwater world
Photo John Blanding

By Joel Brown - Boston

A visit to the Diving Locker induces its own sort of rapture of the deep, with symptoms including giddiness and mild disorientation.

Visitors descend from the street to a low-ceilinged harborside basement, with two rooms smelling of rubber and old canvas and a hint of mildew.

All around are diving suits and scuba tanks, helmets and masks, books and pictures. Here and there sit a shipwreck artifact such as a cannonball or a row of old bottles, rescued from the briny deep. Look up and there is a mannequin in a dry suit apparently swimming through the room, which seems perfectly fitting.

The basement is a small part of the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, an educational and tourist attraction at 23 Harbor Loop. But the Diving Center is really Paul Harling.

It’s his ever-growing collection of equipment and memorabilia, from light scuba tackle to heavy commercial diving helmets. Harling hand-writes the labels. He’s here all summer, greeting tourists six days a week. He’s here in the winter, too, welcoming a trickle of diving enthusiasts and cronies even though the Heritage Center is mostly closed.

The stories are all his. Harling has dived for lost dentures, and he’s been down to the wreck of the Andrea Doria. At 77, he’s dived as recently as 2009, right outside by the center’s Burnham Brothers Marine Railway, a facility for hauling boats out of the water for maintenance.

“We like to tell the story of the industrial waterfront and the history of the fishing industry, and certainly commercial diving was a part of all that,’’ said Harriet Webster, executive director of the Heritage Center. “One of the things we like to do as much as possible is to use people to tell stories, not just artifacts. Paul is a storyteller, and people enjoy that.’’