Undersea Labs: 50 Years of Living Underwater


A diagram of Hydrolab (top) and photo of the actual habitat. Images courtesy NOAA and NOAA/National Undersea Research Program.

This is part of our ongoing coverage of Mission Aquarius, what may be the last mission to the world’s only remaining undersea research base. For the full story, visit our Mission Aquarius expedition page.

This month, One World One Ocean gives you a glimpse inside the Aquarius Reef Base - an underwater habitat where humans can live and work for weeks at a time. Though Aquarius is unfortunately now the last of its kind, it was once one of several underwater labs.

It took years of research before an underwater habitat was successfully built. In 1957 Project Genesis, led by Dr. George F. Bond (aka Pappa Topside), and supported by the US Navy, paved the way for underwater habitat development by proving that humans could overcome the complications of deep diving and spend extended time at depth by saturation diving (link to blog post on diving). His earliest experiments involved exposing rats to increased pressure with various gases, including oxygen, nitrogen and helium. By the early 1960s he was testing effects of saturation on humans.

Enabled by this research, the first underwater human habitat, developed by a team working for Jacques Cousteau, was built in 1962. Called Conshelf I (Continental Shelf Station One), it was placed 10m (30ft) below the surface near Marseilles, France and was home to two aquanauts for seven days.

Conshelf II, built in 1963, was a more ambitious test of saturation diving. It had a main compartment at the same depth as Conshelf I, where six aquanauts spent one month. However, it also had a deep cabin, where two men spent a week at 30m (100ft) deep, allowing their bodies to become fully saturated with a helium breathing mixture. They also had a hangar for a submersible known as the Diving Saucer making it the first time a submersible could be operated from an underwater base.

 

Sealab I (top). Photo: NOAA/National Undersea Research Program via Wikimedia commons. Sealab II’s Tuffy (bottom) proves underwater habitat support specialists come in more than one species. Photo: US Navy via Wikimedia commons.

The development of Conshelf III sought to make the habitat more self-sufficient. When the six aquanauts descended to 102.4m (336ft) in 1965, they stayed for three weeks, running tests and performing industrial tasks on a mock oil rig (though Cousteau later rescinded his support of oceanic exploitation), with limited contact with the surface.

 

The U.S. Navy’s SeaLab I, II and III followed in 1964, 1965 and 1969 respectively, setting records for aquanauts’ length of stay. The Navy Marine Mammal Program even tried to teach Tuffy the bottlenose dolphin how to ferry supplies and rescue distressed divers, with mixed results. 

NASA teamed up with the Navy, the Department of the Interior and General Electric in 1969 to launch Tektite I, off the coast of the U.S. Virgin Islands, in which a research team saturated for a record-breaking 58 days. In 1970 Dr. Sylvia Earle led the first all-woman aquanaut team to Tektite II.  Tektite was the first undersea habitat to employ scientists to explore the ocean rather than focus entirely on the physiology of diving and living at depth.

Other underwater habitats have come and gone, including Helgoland, in 1968, the first lab built for colder climates, and Hydrolab, which was put on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National History Museum in 1985, but now resides at NOAA’s headquarters. Meanwhile, La Chalupa research laboratory, which was the largest and most advanced underwater habitat in the 1970s, was converted in 1986 to Jules’ Undersea Lodge, an underwater hotel in the Florida Keys.

Aquanauts outside Tektite I. Photo: NOAA/National Undersea Research Program via Wikimedia commons.

In the fifty years since Jacques-Yves Cousteau and others dreamed of living beneath the sea, more than 65 undersea marine labs have been built and operated around the world.  The only one still operating is Aquarius, located in a “research only” area of the Florida Keyes National Marine Sanctuary.  Aquarius is owned by NOAA, operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and is home to scientists who study there at two-week intervals from April through November, as long as hurricane season allows. Since 1993, the Aquarius undersea lab has supported 115 missions, producing over 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications along with numerous popular science articles and educational programs. It also hosted 16 NASA astronaut training missions.


One World One Ocean Advisor, Dr. Greg Stone, who studied in Aquarius ten years ago wrote, “Living in Aquarius was like a spaceflight, a submarine ride, and a week in a college dorm wrapped into one.”


Aquarius aquanauts Jim Buckley, left, and Craig Cooper in moon pool, on an expedition in 2000.

Despite its numerous important contributions to our knowledge of coral reef ecosystems, sea sponges and underwater vision, the $2.5million annual allocation for Aquarius has been cut from the federal budget, and it will be closed in 2013 unless new funding is found.

While it appears undersea labs may be on the wane, scientists may soon live in the ocean through a new vehicle: a massive, futuristic, above and below-water ocean going vessel designed to drift on the currents, called Sea Orbiter.

 

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