The Earth’s oceans are a vast frontier that brims with possibilities for the future of medicine, ocean conservation, and food production. They remain largely unexplored because of the physical limits of scuba diving. Humans can only dive for a few hours each day, and every minute spent breathing compressed air at depth must be paid for with a slower ascent to the surface. Otherwise, divers could develop decompression sickness from nitrogen expanding in the bloodstream.
In the 1960s, world-famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau built a series of small underwater habitats to extend the time that he and other researchers were able to work. These sea labs were tethered to a support ship with a cable that provided air and power.
Cousteau’s first sea lab, Conshelf 1 (Continental Shelf Station) held two people and was stationed 33 feet deep off the coast of Marseilles, France. Conshelf 2 sheltered six people and spent a total of six weeks under the Red Sea at two different depths.
Conshelf 3 was Cousteau’s most ambitious habitat design, because it was nearly self-sufficient compared to the first two. It accommodated six divers for three weeks at a time and sat 336 feet deep off the coast of France, near Nice. Conshelf 3 was built in partnership with a French petrochemical company to study the viability of stationing humans for underwater oil drilling (before we had robots for that), and included a mock oil rig on the nearby ocean floor for exercises.
Several underwater habitats have come and gone in the years since the Conshelf series, but each has been built for a specific research project or group of tasks. There’s never really been a permanent habitat established for general research into the biochemistry of the ocean.
Jacques Cousteau’s grandson Fabien believes the luxury lab’s time has come. He’s in the process of raising $135 million USD to build and launch what would be one of the largest underwater habitats in existence. Cousteau and his partners are looking to build a marine version of the International Space Station — a long-term livable habitat that can support a dozen researchers for several weeks at a stretch. The new lab will be called Proteus after the shape-shifting Greek god who could see the future, but answered only to those who could capture him.
The largest existing underwater habitat still in operation today is the Aquarius Reef Base, which was built in 1986 and is about the size of a school bus. Aquarius is parked 62 feet deep and roughly 5.5 miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, which makes it convenient for NASA to use for preparing astronauts for the harsh environment and crushing isolation of space.
Several years ago, Fabien Cousteau and his crew of aquanauts spent 31 consecutive days on Aquarius and gathered a large amount of research that he estimated would have taken two years to collect with daily scuba dives.
Cousteau’s lab will be roughly ten times the size of Aquarius at a roomy 4,000 square feet, and will comfortably house twelve people for many weeks at a time. Proteus will sit 60 feet deep off the coast of Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean. The site mapping is scheduled to be completed this fall, and opening is slated for 2023.
This futuristic-looking lab is being designed by Yves Béhar’s industrial design company Fuseproject. The idea is to build a modular habitat with room to expand in the future. In addition to research labs, living quarters, and sleeping quarters, Proteus will have a video production room and a hydroponic greenhouse to determine whether food can be grown more quickly underwater. It will be powered by a combination of wind, solar, and ocean thermal, which will be delivered along with Internet access by an umbilical cord to the surface, presumably to a support ship.
Proteus may look like the lair of an amphibious Bond villain, but it will only be used for good. The estimated $3 million per year operating cost will be offset by visiting researchers, universities, and corporations who will be allowed to rent Proteus to study anything they want except warfare. Watch Fabien Cousteau discuss his hopes for Proteus in the video below.