What Houston is to space stations, a turquoise two-storey home in Key Largo is to Aquarius, the world’s only underwater habitat. In front of the house, a mailbox is propped up on a cinder block; white gravel covers a driveway filled with grimy, decades-old cars. Go past a menacing chain-link fence and up a wooden staircase, and you will find a sliding-glass door that opens on to a room panelled in Seventies veneer.
Mission Control is on the right. Aquarius is run out of what is essentially a dorm room. There are threadbare sofas in the living room, and sunburnt guys in shorts and backwards baseball caps eating microwaved noodles in the kitchen.
Saul Rosser, operations director, invites me into the observation deck. Rosser, who is 32 and has worked at Aquarius for two years, is wearing a black polo shirt and baggy brown trousers. In front of him are three computer monitors, a red telephone and a logbook. Rosser shakes my hand and then excuses himself. He needs to take a call. “Ointment,” a female voice crackles through the speaker. “Copy on ointment,” says Rosser. “Applying ointment,” says the voice. “Copy on applying ointment,” says Rosser.
A closed-circuit video feed in front of Rosser — one of 10 displays on the computer monitors — shows a grainy image of a hand applying ointment to a knee. Rosser documents every word in the logbook. He stares at the video screen and watches as the woman replaces the cap on the tube of ointment. A moment later, another video feed shows the back of a woman as she walks across a tiny room and puts the ointment in a drawer.
The video is pixelated, and it looks as though the transmission is coming from outer space, except for the fact that the woman is young, blonde and wearing bikini bottoms and a T-shirt — which, in a way, makes Mission Control seem even more like a dorm room.
“Over,” the woman’s voice crackles through the speaker. “Over,” says Rosser. The woman, Lindsey Deignan, is a sponge researcher from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. In the name of science, Deignan and five other researchers, called aquanauts, have volunteered to have their bodies supercompressed to the same pressure that is found 20 metres deep on the ocean floor — about 36 pounds per square inch (psi) — so they can dive for as long as they want without ever having to worry about decompression sickness.
The only requirement is that once the aquanauts head down to Aquarius, 11 kilometres off the coast from where we are sitting, they will have to stay there for a week-and-a-half, until the mission is over. Then they will be decompressed, a 17-hour process that brings their bodies back to surface pressure and allows the nitrogen gas that has accumulated in their bloodstreams to diffuse safely.
Deignan has been here for eight days and won’t surface for another two. The scratch on her knee needs medical attention but she won’t receive it any time soon. Opening the back hatch and swimming straight to the surface would probably kill Deignan; her blood would boil and most likely shoot out of her eyes, ears and other orifices.
I’ve come here to see what these scientists get out of spending 10 days living in the equivalent of a submerged Winnebago. Today, almost all ocean research is done topside via robots dropped from the decks of boats. Aquarius is one of the last oceanic institutions where researchers get wet and stay wet. On July 1, Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of the famous French ocean explorer, resurfaced after a 31-day mission in Aquarius.
The prospect of one’s head exploding is only one of the inconveniences of living underwater in a steel box. Even with air conditioners, nothing ever really dries down there. This is why Aquarius aquanauts are usually half naked and why Deignan applied ointment to a tiny scratch. In the pervasive humidity, which ranges between 70 and 100 per cent, infections are rampant. So is mould, and so are earaches.
Some divers experience constant, hacking coughs. If the moisture in Aquarius doesn’t get you, the pressure might. One-hundred-and-twelve tonnes of water presses down on Aquarius at all times. To keep the water out, the habitat must be pressurized at a high level, which, at around 20 metres below the surface, works out to about two-and-a-half times the pressure at sea level. Being inside Aquarius feels the opposite of what it would feel like to be 3,000 metres up.
Bags of crisps become pancake-flat. Bread becomes dense and hard. Years back, a surface-support-crew diver delivered a lemon meringue pie in an airtight container to the aquanauts. It was a sheet of white-and-yellow goo by the time it was opened.
Aquarius is under 24-hour surveillance. Every movement, motion and action is logged. Air pressure, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide and oxygen levels are checked by a computer every few seconds. Valves are checked every hour. The smallest break in the system could lead to flooding in the living chamber, which would instantly drown the aquanauts. Rosser and the other managers are there to make sure it doesn’t happen. Over the past two decades, Aquarius has run more than 115 missions, and there has been only one death, caused by a malfunction on a rebreather device that had nothing to do with the laboratory itself.
There have been some close calls. A generator caught fire during a hurricane in 1994, requiring aquanauts to evacuate immediately after decompressing into 4-metre-high waves. Four years later Aquarius was ripped from its foundation by another storm and almost destroyed. To the aquanauts, though, danger, close quarters and sitting around semi-nude are small prices to pay to have unfettered access to the first six storeys of ocean, a depth researchers call the photic zone.
Life in the first hundred metres of the sea is much like life on land, only there is a lot more of it. The ocean occupies 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface and is home to about 50 per cent of its known creatures — the largest inhabited area found anywhere in the universe so far. The photic (“sunlight”) zone is the only place in the ocean where there’s enough light to support photosynthesis. Although it makes up only two per cent of the ocean, it houses around 90 per cent of its known life.
Fish, seals and crustaceans all call it home. Sea algae, which makes up 98 per cent of the biomass in the ocean and can grow nowhere else but in the photic zone, is essential to all life. Seventy per cent of the oxygen on Earth comes from ocean algae. Without it, we couldn’t breathe. How algae can generate so much oxygen and how that might be affected by climate change, nobody knows.
That’s part of what the Aquarius aquanauts are trying to find out. They’re also trying to crack more mystical marine riddles, such as the secret behind coral’s “telepathic” communication. Every year on the same day, at the same hour, usually within the same minute, corals of the same species spawn in perfect synchronicity. Distance has no effect; if you placed a chunk of coral in a bucket beneath a sink in London, that chunk would, in most cases, spawn at the same time as other coral of the same species around the world.
Coral is one of the most primitive animals on Earth. It has no eyes, no ears and no brain. Yet it can communicate in a way far more sophisticated than anyone ever thought. The release of egg and sperm bundles for external fertilisation is essential for coral’s survival. But coral colonies have been dying off at record rates. Fifty per cent of the corals along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died. In some areas of the Caribbean, populations have shrunk by 95 per cent. In 50 years, coral may be gone, and with it one of Nature’s great unsolved mysteries. For the Aquarius aquanauts researching coral, their work is a race against time.
Ever since Aristotle proposed turning a giant jar upside down, putting a man inside it and sinking it, humans have devised all sorts of grand schemes to explore the waters of the photic zone.
The world’s first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or scuba, was invented by a Brooklyn machinist named Charles Condert. It consisted of 1 metre of copper tube, which Condert mounted on to his back, and a pump made from a shotgun barrel, which pulled air into a rubber mask covering his face.
In 1832, Condert debuted the device in New York City’s East River. Later that day, when the copper tube broke off at 8 metres down, the world’s first scuba diver became the world’s first scuba fatality. Other inventions soon followed. In England, John Deane attached a fireman’s helmet to a rubber suit to create the first production dive suit. A pump on deck delivered air through a hose attached to the helmet, allowing a diver, for the first time, to stay at depths of around 30 metres for about an hour.
The Deane Helmet worked, but the compressed air pumped into the suit made it susceptible to sudden shifts of pressure during dives.
If the air tube ruptured, the reversed pressure created a vacuum that “squeezed” the diver’s body from inside out. “Squeezes” became semi-regular events. Some were so powerful that a diver’s flesh would be ripped from his body. In the case of one diver, there was nothing left to bury but the helmet clogged with his -bloody remains.
Eventually, Western engineers developed elaborate systems to protect the body from underwater forces. They figured out how pressures changed at depth and how oxygen could become toxic. Condert’s and Deane’s primitive inventions eventually led to armoured suits with compressed air, submarines, and scuba-diving decompression tables. In 1960, Don Walsh, a US Navy lieutenant, and Jacques Piccard, a Swiss engineer, took a steel chamber called Trieste down to 10,910 metres in the Pacific Ocean’s Marianas Trench — the bottom of the deepest sea.
Two years later, humans were living underwater. The first underwater habitat, built by Jacques Cousteau, was set up 10 metres below the ocean in an area off the coast of Marseilles.
Called Conshelf, it was about as big as the cabin of a Volkswagen bus and just as cold and wet. “The hazards are great and exceed the challenges,” said Cousteau of Conshelf. The hazards were so great, Cousteau sent two underlings in his place. They lasted a week. A year later Cousteau planted a more deluxe five-room model on the sea floor off the coast of Sudan.
Footage from the expedition shows a kind of futuristic French paradise. By day, aquanauts floated through Technicolour sea gardens. By night they ate perfectly prepared French cuisine. They lasted a month.
By the late Sixties, more than 50 undersea habitats around the world were being built. Australia, Japan, Germany, Canada and Italy were all going deep. Cousteau predicted that future generations of humans would be born in underwater villages and “[adapt] to the environment so that no surgery will be necessary to permit them to live and breathe in water. We will have created the man-fish.”
While they weren’t living under the sea, some human beings were already highly adaptable to water. During the years when Western divers in carefully constructed suits were still getting their faces sucked off or suffering the bends at depths of only 18 metres, Persian pearl divers were regularly plunging to twice that depth with nothing more than a knife and a single breath of air.
The race for inner space, it seemed, was on. And then, just as suddenly, it was off. After just a few years, all but a handful of the habitats were scrapped. This was the space age, after all; men were landing on the moon and building houses in orbit, so spending weeks underwater in a cold, wet box seemed pointless. And few land dwellers could relate to the research on microbiology and oxygen toxicity that was being conducted down there. Scientists had proved that humans could dive down to the deepest ocean floors and live underwater, but so what?
Key Largo, 11 kilometres, in hissing and storming seas. I am about to attempt my first scuba dive down 18 metres to Aquarius. As I descend I notice a stream of bubbles belching up from the sea floor. An Aquarius safety diver stands wreathed in the bubbles, beckoning me closer. I kick towards him, duck my head and, a few seconds later, re-emerge in the air of the wet deck at the back of Aquarius.
“Please take off your wetsuit,” says a man at the top of a metal staircase. Because even the tiniest puddle can take weeks to dry in Aquarius, wet clothes must be left at the door. Clad in a towel, I follow my guide, Peadro, through the deck and into a control room. The squawk of amplified voices from the PA and blasts of pressurised air echo against the steel walls.
A few paces in, I see two men and two women sitting around a kitchen table. They are marine biology graduate students, just finishing up a 10-day mission researching sponges and coral. “The long days do wear on you,” says a pallid man named Stephen McMurray who is researching the population dynamics of sponges. He dips a spoon into a cup of instant noodles and looks through a window to the sea floor below. “Nothing is ever dry down here,” says John Hanmer, sitting across from him. “Ever.”
Hanmer, who is studying parrotfish, laughs and looks at his hands. Another aquanaut, Inga Conti-Jerpe, sits beside him. Her matted hair clings to her scalp like wet plaster. “The pressure does interesting things to your skin,” she says with a chuckle. The aquanauts all laugh, then fall silent. They laugh again, then go silent again. I can’t help but feel that everyone down here is a little off. They seem, basically, drunk. I learn that having your body pressurised to 36psi can produce mild delirium. At higher pressures, more nitrogen dissolves in the bloodstream, eventually producing the same effect as nitrous oxide, or laughing gas.
Lindsey Deignan looks especially dazed. “The longer we’re down here, the larger the space seems,” she says, smiling broadly. “It’s now like triple the size. It’s as big as a school bus! But it seems bigger than that!” Not to me. After leading me three paces east, into the sleeping quarters — two rows of bunk beds stacked three high — and then back into the kitchen, Peadro tells me the tour is over.
I haven’t spotted a lavatory. “We usually just go out the back there,” says Brad, pointing to the wet deck entrance I just swam through. Lavatories are notoriously difficult to manage in underwater habitats, due to the constant shifts in air pressure, which can create vacuums inside the plumbing lines. In early underwater habitats, lavatories would explode and splatter waste throughout the compartment. Aquarius’s tiny commode offers so little privacy that aquanauts prefer to do their business in the water. Even that has its problems. Sea life fights for the human “food”. On one occasion, a male aquanaut had his bottom bloodied by a hungry fish.
It is time to head back to the wet deck. At 36psi, nitrogen usually takes 90 minutes to reach dangerous levels, but it can happen sooner; to be safe, I’m only allowed half-an-hour on-board.
Back on the motorboat, I sit in the captain’s cabin. Before I can leave, members of the Aquarius support crew need to dive down some supplies for the aquanauts. The captain, an intense, sunburnt man named Otto Rutten who’s been working at Aquarius for more than 20 years, describes some close calls he has had — rescues in the high seas, explosions, emergency ascents.
“It was really the Wild West out here,” he says. “I mean, we weren’t even using scuba for a lot of the deliveries.” He explains that scuba took too long and enabled him to make only a few dives at a time before the nitrogen in his bloodstream built up to dangerous levels.
So instead, Rutten and the other crew members would just put on fins and masks, and freedive the supplies down. Swimming down there while carrying a bulky, airtight container and then coming back would take well over a minute. I mention to Rutten that he and the other divers must have stopped down at Aquarius to take a breath before resurfacing. Rutten laughs and says that if he had, the high-pressure air would have probably killed him. It was by stripping off all the gear — the tanks, weights, regulators, and buoyancy-control devices — that Rutten and his co-workers could dive deeper, more often, and four times as fast as someone wrapped in the most technologically advanced equipment. I ask Rutten if he had any kind of special training to freedive to such depths. “No, not really,” he says. “It’s easy. You just take a breath and go.”
– The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2014
“Deep” by James Nestor is published by Profile, pounds 12.99