Under the Sea: 5 Underwater Human Habitats

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While man was flying into outer space in the 1960s, he was also diving into an underwater world that was almost as mysterious. Futurists foresaw a day when entire communities of "aquanauts," a person who stays underwater for more than 24 hours, would live and work under the ocean for months on end without resurfacing. While that vision has yet to pass, there have been, and continue to be, quite a few artificial deep sea habitats that man has used to dip his toe into the waters around us.

Conshelf

It should come as no surprise that the man responsible for popularizing oceanography in the mid-20th century, Jacques Cousteau, is also the same man who created the first underwater habitats. While Cousteau constructed three Conshelf (short for Continental Shelf) habitats between 1962 and 1965, it was Conshelf II, in June 1963, that would become his most famous.

A team of five men and a parrot, which was delivered to the station inside an empty pressure cooker, stayed for 30 days at a depth of 33ft., surrounded by beautiful coral reefs in the Red Sea. They lived inside the futuristic "Starfish House," a large complex with four arms that radiated from a central hub. The building offered fairly comfortable living, with gourmet food, electricity, air conditioning, fresh water, fresh air, a telephone, and a television feed, all supplied from a support ship on the surface. The team even had their very own flying saucer-shaped submarine for exploring their new deep sea neighborhood.

By Cousteau's design, life on Conshelf II appeared idyllic. The men sang songs, smoked cigarettes, and had quite a bit of fun, while also doing a lot of work out on the ocean floor. Near the end of their stay, Cousteau and his wife visited the Starfish House to celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary, complete with champagne that wouldn't bubble under such extreme atmospheric pressure. As he always did, Cousteau filmed this expedition, and his documentary World Without Sun went on to earn the explorer a second Academy Award. (Before you look, it's not available on DVD or YouTube, unfortunately.)

SEALAB

The U.S. Navy conducted their own underwater experiments with three SEALAB missions between 1965 and 1969. SEALAB I kicked off in July 1965 for a planned 21 day excursion 192ft. underwater off the coast of Bermuda. However, the plug was pulled after only 11 days when a hurricane developed in the Atlantic Ocean.

SEALAB II was deployed off the coast of California in 1966 at a depth of 205ft. The horizontal steel cylinder was accidentally placed at an angle on the sea floor, so it gained the nickname, "The Tiltin' Hilton." Three 10-man crews stayed underwater for 15 days at a time, though one diver, Scott Carpenter, a former Mercury astronaut, would stay for 30 days to simulate a long-term space mission. During that time, Carpenter also made history when, from 200ft. below sea level, he talked on the radio with Gordon Cooper, a Gemini V astronaut who was in orbit 230 miles above the earth.

As part of their mission, the men worked with Tuffy, a specially trained porpoise that not only ferried supplies from the surface support ships, but could also be used as an emergency rescue animal. Tuffy would respond to an audible signal sent out by an endangered diver, who would then attach himself to a harness worn by the porpoise, and then Tuffy would tow the man back to base. Luckily, Tuffy's abilities were only tested, but never needed.

In 1969, SEALAB III was deployed at a depth of 600ft. off the coast of California. Unfortunately, there were quite a few suspicious events surrounding the mission. Almost immediately after the project began, the habitat began to leak. When divers were sent to fix it, sadly, one man died due to faulty equipment, and the project was shut down. Then, as the six SEALAB aquanauts were decompressing on the deck of the support ship, there were reportedly numerous attempts to sabotage their air supply. Had an armed guard not been placed at the chamber, it's very likely the project would have ended in even more tragedy. Although there were no further missions, many in the military have credited the technology and techniques pioneered by SEALAB for making several covert underwater operations possible during the Cold War.

Tektite II

A tektite is a small meteorite that survives the fiery entrance through the earth's atmosphere and usually plunges into the ocean. This connection between space and the sea seemed fitting when developing the name for a series of underwater missions carried out in 1969 and 1970 that were sponsored in part by NASA and the U.S. Navy. The Tektite habitat, consisting of two steel cylinders sitting on end, each 12ft. in diameter and 9ft. high, was moored 50 feet below the surface. Amenities included built-in bunk beds, a sink, a stove, a refrigerator, a radio, and a TV set.

The most famous of these missions was Tektite II's Mission 6, made up of an all-female research team led by Dr. Sylvia Earle. At the time, it wasn't prudent for men and women to work in such close proximity for extended periods, so at first, women weren't permitted on Tektite. But when several women applied for the project, there were enough to warrant their own separate mission.

After Mission 6 resurfaced, they became instant celebrities. They enjoyed a ticker tape parade in Chicago, were invited to address Congress, and First Lady Pat Nixon had them over for lunch at the White House. Despite their achievements, they were still called names like "the aquababes" by the press. While they may not have gained the respect of everyone at the time, they helped pave the way for women in the field of marine science, as well as NASA's space program.

Jules' Undersea Lodge

So you don't think you could handle a few weeks underwater? How about a single night, then? The Jules' Undersea Lodge, the world's first underwater hotel, started life as La Chalupa, the primary underwater habitat for the Puerto Rico International Undersea Laboratory (PRINUL) program that operated from 1971 until 1976. When it was decommissioned, it was refurbished, and has been operating in 30ft. of water in Key Largo, Florida, since 1985.

All guests must be SCUBA certified because, to get to the hotel, you have to dive there. Once they've arrived, guests can watch a DVD, talk on the phone, listen to the radio, cook a meal, or sit and watch the underwater world through multiple 42" diameter windows. Included in the overnight package is a gourmet dinner by a "mer-chef," who dives down to the habitat to prepare the meal. They even have a special honeymoon rate, which includes getting married 30ft. underwater. Don't worry – the tux and the wedding dress are delivered via diving courier in an airtight container. But if you don't want to spend the night, they also offer three-hour trips to the lodge for lunch, where you can eat, among other items, submarine sandwiches.

If you think you'd like to "sleep with the fishes," check out their website and book your stay.

BioSUB

It's been said that necessity is the mother of all invention. And when you're going to try to survive for two weeks underwater on less money than some people spend for their cars, you can bet there are going to be some pretty inventive ideas involved. Such was the case when, in 2007, marine biologist and aspiring aquanaut Lloyd Godson entered his BioSUB project into a contest for scientists held by Australian Geographic. The amount being offered to the grand prize winner, and therefore the budget for his life-risking mission, was $40,000.

In order to complete his project, Godson first had to have a habitat, which wound up being a two-ton, 8ft. by 10ft. box made of mostly recycled steel, moored to the bottom of a gravel pit lake by 28 tons of concrete. It didn't offer much in the way of comforts, but it was sturdy and heavy enough for him to be safe for the extent of his stay. He also had to have a way to breathe, of course. To accomplish this, he used air pumps on the surface, as well as an innovative system called Biocoil inside his underwater home. The Biocoil consisted of a coiled tube filled with algae, which absorbed carbon dioxide exhaled by Godson and, in return, created oxygen for him to breathe. While most of his meals were delivered by friendly divers, the same algae in the Biocoil could also be used to grow high-protein food, which he dined on for the last few days of his adventure. In order to power his laptop and the artificial lights necessary for the algae to grow in the Biocoil, he not only had power supplied by topside solar panels, but there was also a stationary bike inside his habitat that could be used to generate more. But riding a bike can work up a sweat, so a truly innovative system called Air2Water was installed to extract water vapor from the atmosphere, filter it, and then condense it into a liquid for drinking.

While BioSUB might not have been the lap of luxury, his "SEALAB on a budget" ideas worked and impressed many in the underwater research community. In fact, he has been invited to help engineer a new deep sea habitat that will be used to send aquanauts to the ocean floor on a mission to spend 80 days underwater, smashing the previous record of 69 days. Of course he was initially asked to become one of those world-record aquanauts, but apparently his two weeks underwater was enough for him. His response to their invitation: "I like the things we have up here." I guess not everyone was born to live under the sea.

Who knows? Maybe someday we'll all spend a little time under the sea. Would you live in an underwater habitat if you had the chance?

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September 29, 2010 - 4:30am
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