Ambient Seafloor Habitats: An Introduction
The initial defining underwater habitat project was Jacques Cousteau's Conshelf II in 1963. The purpose of the project was to record very basic observations on the psychological and physiological ramifications of life underwater at ambient pressure. Conshelf II placed five divers at a depth of 33 feet for a month, with two divers in a separate dwelling at 90 feet for a week. The project was a huge success, and demonstrated man's ability to live in saturation at depth, in comfort and safety.
The U.S. Navy was quite interested in the physiological aspects of saturation diving, and in 1964 they sponsored the SeaLab project, eventually placing SeaLab III in over 600 feet of water.
Tektite I & II were other leading U.S. habitat undertakings. Again, the sponsoring agencies carefully monitored the physiology of the occupants, but there was now an increased emphasis on the psychological aspects of living at depth in relative isolation. NASA became a leading sponsor of the programs in order to collect data relevant to the space program.
One of the more notable Tektite II missions involved an all female team of aquanauts, lead by Sylvia Earle, recently Chief Scientist at NOAA. In July of 1970 the five-woman group spent two weeks in the habitat at 50 feet off of St. Johns, USVI.
More recent habitat undertakings have been executed for advancement in marine science, where extended in-situ observation is possible and allows for more accurate observation and longer-term data gathering. Today, the world's leading habitat, Aquarius, is operated by the National Undersea Research Project under NOAA. Aquarius is situated in the Florida Keys, and is available for use by research scientists. Teams of scientist enter the habitat for 10 day periods, and the entire program has been a critically acclaimed success.
Several years ago, the old Chalupa Habitat was upgraded and placed in the Florida Keys as Jules Underwater Lodge. The facility, located in 30 feet of water, will sleep six guests in relative comfort. It has proven quite popular with SCUBA divers and is often booked months in advance.
The motivation for the establishment and use of underwater habitats has gone from studying human diving physiology, to collecting psychological isolation study data, and has then progressed to routine marine science research with a wide range of scientists. Recently, Jules Underwater Lodge has pioneered the use of an underwater habitat as a leisure mechanism, with great success, despite the rather unimpressive water quality.
A Luxury Ambient Pressure Habitat Concept
All of the existing underwater habitats are primitive and overbuilt. Typically cylindrical, and equipped with small viewports, some of these facilities were actually constructed as pressure vessels, capable of withstanding hydrostatic pressure with a one atmosphere interior, a situation analogous to that found in a submarine. Yet, the actual pressure differential between the exterior and interior of the habitat is zero, the only real requirement being that the habitat interior is leak-proof. The most-significant structural consideration is dealing with the buoyancy stresses, which are typically quite substantial.
There is absolutely no reason why a contemporary ambient pressure seafloor habitat cannot be spacious, luxurious and comfortable, with large acrylic panels that provide extraordinary viewing and allow high levels of ambient light. U.S. Submarine Structures, Inc., has done some preliminary work on just such a design. The design includes:
- fully equipped galley
- private 2nd floor sleeping cabins
- lavatory with hot tub
- control and office area
- dining and leisure area
- access area with equipment storage
- lab area
An attached submarine garage would provide access to a 4-passenger, 1000 foot capable submersible for local exploration.
Such a habitiat could be funded by a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization. The organization would lease space on an existing island for the shore based habitat infrastructure.
The initial occupants of the habitat would be a family of four, which would mark the first time an actual family would inhabit such a facility. The family would break the record for submerged habitat duration by staying submerged in saturation for 90 days. The opportunities for publicity would be enormous.
Subsequently, the habitat would be made available for use, at a fee, by divers, scientists, and other groups after an on-site short training course.