Building Proteus, the largest undersea observatory ever

“You can imagine the complexities of such a project are fairly extensive,” said aquanaut Fabien Cousteau. “We’re talking about essentially building an International Space Station underwater.”

Cousteau, son of filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau and grandson of Aqua-Lung co-creator and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, is doing a lot more than talking about constructing an undersea ISS. With Swiss industrial designer Yves Béhar, he’s actually doing it. Or, at least, that’s the plan.

What the pair have conceived of is an enormous underwater habit called Proteus, a modular subaquatic laboratory that will sit some 60 feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Curaçao. “It’s the largest habitat structure based underwater that I know of,” Cousteau told Digital Trends.

Unless, he added, “maybe the military has something I don’t know about.”

The dawning of the (next) age of Aquarius

Coming from a family that is as close to an ocean-exploring dynasty as exists, it’s little surprise to hear that Cousteau has his eyes set on uncovering the secrets of the deep. But he said that he was never pressured to go into what might be termed the family business — or what he calls, with a tide-smoothed quip, “the family fin steps.”

Proteus, Cousteau said, “was born out of a three o’clock in the morning wake-up idea.” It didn’t exactly come from nowhere, however. As a kid Cousteau remembered watching, awestruck, his grandfather’s Oscar-winning documentary World Without Sun. The film depicts an early 1960s attempt to construct a starship-shaped underwater living location 10 meters below the surface of the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan.

Proteus / Yves Béhar / Fuseproject

As an adult in 2014, Cousteau led Mission 31, a 31-day expedition to Aquarius Reef Base, a 400-square-foot underwater habit in the Florida Keys. It was the longest period anyone had stayed there since its construction in 1986. During the month-long submersion, Cousteau said the team carried out what would otherwise have been three years’ worth of scientific research — all in a confined structure that was, at the time, more than a quarter-century old. “It cemented in my mind the desperate need that we have for an advanced underwater platform,” Cousteau said.

Proteus promises to be significantly larger than either the Continental Shelf Station habitats (one of which is seen in World Without Sun) or Aquarius. Much larger. It’s planned to be approximately 4,000 square feet, the size of an extremely generous family home; capable of housing up to a dozen people at a time. And you — or, at least, those who get to access it — will be able to stay there for longer than previous habits, too. Much longer. We’re talking, Cousteau noted, about “long term deployments underwater; not days and weeks, but weeks and months. And maybe beyond.”

[We’re talking about] “long term deployments underwater; not days and weeks, but weeks and months. And maybe beyond.”

The project is currently in the “pre-metal bending phase.” Construction is estimated to take three years, although it’s already been pushed back due to the current pandemic. However, publicly released images give a glimpse of how it will appear. The large, modular structure will rest on stilts securing it to the ocean floor. Inside will be laboratories, a full-scale video production facility, an underwater greenhouse for growing food, an ocean-accessing moon pool, and more.

The structure itself looks a little like a blend of a submerged oil rig and a giant curving Nautilus shell. Small pods, housing the sleeping quarters, cling to its surface like high tech barnacles or coral polyps.

“The psychology of being isolated — and, [because of COVID], we know this better now than ever as a global society — is a very tricky thing,” Cousteau said. “Trying to balance the neuroscience needs of the human being with the very tangible and practical everyday execution of tasks is something that we have to look out very seriously. It needs to be livable.”

An underwater International Space Station

The International Space Station is frequently referenced as an analogy for Proteus. Both are (or, in Proteus’ case, hopefully will be) triumphs of humanity’s ability to build functional living spaces in the harshest of environments. Some of the challenges, like the aforementioned isolation, are the same. So, too, will the resourcefulness and problem-solving abilities of anyone working there. “You’re basically isolated,” Cousteau said. “You cannot go to the surface without extensive decompression obligations. So you have to [be able to] address emergencies.”

Proteus / Yves Béhar / Fuseproject

But other challenges are very different. The ISS is a one-atmosphere vessel from which astronauts rarely need to leave. An aquanaut on Proteus must deal with variable pressure differentials every single day as they venture out to explore the ocean in submersibles. Then there are the differences in surroundings: namely, corrosive saltwater and biodiversity under the water.

The price tag is a little different, too. Where the ISS costs a substantial $150 billion, Proteus will cost only $130.5 million, which Cousteau insists includes three years of operation. Once it is built it will be funded on a hybrid model of public and private enterprise, with scientists able to rent out sections to do their research.

Cousteau said that this could be anything from space-based research (NASA currently uses Aquarius as an undersea training ground) to undersea exploration to fundamental marine bioscience.

“There are [already] about a dozen or so approved drugs that are based on ocean resources,” he said, citing a painkiller that “comes from the venom of a cone snail. It’s 1,000 times more powerful than morphine, without any of the side effects.” This, Cousteau suggested, is just the beginning. “There are probably another four dozen that are either in phase 1, 2, 3, or in the preclinical stage. It stands to reason that there is a lot more out there. This is an underwater rainforest that we’ve explored less than 5% of to this day.”

It sounds the stuff of science fiction. But, as Cousteau said, “science fiction is usually a predictor of future things to happen. Science fiction is only fiction until it becomes reality.”

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