08 Jun AiroAV Antivirus Convey: What lies beneath: our love affair with living underwater |…
In November 1966, the Gemini 12 spacecraft, carrying two astronauts, splashed down in the Pacific. The four-day mission was a triumph, proving that humans could work in outer space, and even step into the great unknown, albeit tethered to their spacecraft. It catapulted the US ahead of the USSR in the space race.
From then, Nasa’s goal was to beat the Russians to the moon. That meant weeks rather than days in space, in an isolated, claustrophobic environment. There was one perfect way to prepare humans for these conditions: going underwater. The world was gripped. If we could land people on the moon, why not colonise the ocean as well?
Nasa scientists were not the first to dream of marine living. Evidence of submarines and diving bells can be found as far back as the 16th century. The literary grandfather of all things deep, Jules Verne, popularised the idea of a more sophisticated underwater life with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1872, but it was in the 20th century that the fascination really took hold.
In the 1930s, American naturalist William Beebe and engineer Otis Barton collaborated on experimental submersibles called bathyspheres which set records for deep diving and opened up the underwater realm of plants and animals to science. Swiss physicist and oceanographer Auguste Piccard created the bathyscaphe (which used floats rather than surface cables) in 1946, and his son, Jacques, was on the record-breaking voyage to explore the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, in 1960. Auguste also created the mesoscaphe – the world’s first passenger submarine – in 1964.
The craze for living in the depths, rather than merely visiting, started in the 1960s, when Jacques-Yves Cousteau – inventor of scuba, wearer of red woolly hats and inspiration for ze French Narrator in Spongebob – brought the ocean vividly to life for millions around the world through his documentaries about life aboard his vessel Calypso.
To Cousteau, the life subaquatic was, above all, for living. “Being French, he made sure his diving never got in the way of mealtimes,” writes author John Crace of Cousteau’s documentaries. “In fact, food and wine take almost equal precedence with the oceans in these films. No one is ever without a pipe or cigarette in their mouth, either. Except underwater, of course.”
Cousteau channelled this vision of oceanic life into his underwater habitats, known as Conshelf (Continental Shelf Station). George F Bond, the father of saturation diving and head of the US navy’s Man-in-the-Sea programme, approached Cousteau with funding from the French oil industry: they wanted manned colonies at sea in order to help with future exploration.
Together, Bond and Cousteau built three Conshelfs. The first, in 1962, was suspended 10 metres under the water off the coast of Marseilles, but Conshelf II was a starfish-shaped “underwater village” that sat on the seabed proper, 30 metres down in the Red Sea off Sudan. It contained all the accoutrements of la vie louche, including television and radio. Cousteau used it as a base to explore the ocean in his yellow submarine, descending to 300 metres to capture the deepest footage yet recorded.
His team spent 30 days beneath the waves, and in the process changed humanity’s relationship with the ocean by proving that “saturation diving” could allow people to spend long periods underwater. By diving to a certain depth, divers saturate their bodies with the inert gases in air. This allows them to exist at the extreme pressure of the ocean floor. It typically involves breathing a mix of helium and oxygen, to avoid the possibility of the bends and nitrogen narcosis.
Conshelf sparked a craze. Sealab, Hydrolab, Edalhab, Helgoland, Galathee, Aquabulle, Hippocampe – more than 60 underwater habitats were dotted across the seabeds in the late 60s and early 70s from the Baltic to the Gulf of Mexico.
The craze even inspired two British teenagers, Colin Irwin and John Heath, to raise £1,000 to build Glaucus in 1965, which was little more than a cylindrical steel tank weighed down by old railway ties. “We all thought at the time, ‘This is the future’,” Irwin told the BBC on Glaucus’s 50th anniversary. “We may not populate the moon, but we’re going to have villages all over the continental shelf, and we thought it’s about time the British did the same thing.” They dropped it in the waters of Plymouth Sound and spent a week inside.
It is the Nasa missions, however, that remain the most iconic of the 60s underwater living experiments. This is in large part due to the marine biologist Sylvia Earle, one of the most famous explorers of her generation. In 1969, Earle made history with Mission 6, when she and an all-female team of scientists spent two weeks on Nasa’s habitat Tektite (named after meteor remnants on the seabed). This Virgin Islands research facility was for studying aquatic life – marine science, engineering and construction underwater – and small-crew psychology in extreme conditions. The research was for the Apollo missions and the moon landing was just months away.
Built by General Electric, Earle and her team would enter Tektite through what she calls an “underwater door” – emerging as if from a swimming pool into the deep-sea two-up, two-down apartment. It was dry, climate-controlled and comfortable, with carpets, bunks and a hot freshwater shower to wash off the salt. It even had a microwave.
“Nasa had a team of psychologists watching to get insight into behaviour of living in isolation,” says Earle today. “We were there as guinea pigs: our research was on the oceans, their research was on us.”
But Tektite wasn’t just a research station – it was a vision of stylish underwater living. With their scientific gear and Charlie’s Angels wetsuits in their Bond-villain lair, Earle and her team caused a media sensation.
“They called us the aquababes, the aquanaughties, all sorts of things,” Earle recalls with a snort. “We speculated what they would say about the astronauts if they were seen the same way – would they be the astrohunks?”
Habitats such as Glaucus, Conshelf and Tektite were built as tributes to humankind’s abilities, but their true achievement was to spark an entirely different understanding of marine animals. “Back then we could only explore using nets, and just saw dead bodies – not living creatures. Having the continuous interaction allowed us to get to know individual animals,” Earle says. “[In underwater habitats] we could stay, the way you look at bears or birds: we were there for the long haul, 24 hours a day or night. It was possible to see how a little group of damselfish reacted when a predator tried to swipe their eggs, for example.
“You look at a school of fish and they all look alike, but when you really look at them – well, it’s like a bunch of people getting on the New York subway: a fish would say they all look the same, but we know they’re different. Getting to appreciate the individuality of creatures other than humans…