Skip to main content

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.

Related Videos

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.”

Editors' Recommendations

Big data meets big dunks on the cutting ‘edge’ of sports
Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Walking into the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, I find myself holding the door for none other than Mark Cuban. The affable owner of the Dallas Mavericks doesn’t have time for a photo. We’re both running late.

We’re here for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the sports geek’s version of Coachella, a gathering of who’s who at the intersection of sports and technology. What started seven years ago with a few stats geeks meeting in spare MIT classrooms, inspired by works like Michael Lewis’ 2003 sabermetrics showpiece, Moneyball, has blossomed into a mainstream extravaganza presented by ESPN, attracting 800 enterprising students looking to schmooze their way into their dream job or simply shake the hand of NBA coach Stan Van Gundy or famed New York Times political prognosticator Nate Silver. They’re joined by 1900 attendees that include 90 sports teams from the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, EPL and MLS. If you’re a sports enthusiast with a predilection for numbers and technology, this is the place to be.

Read more
Viral video: watch these dogs herd and attack a shark

Sharks are scary. You certainly wouldn't catch us in the water with them, but these two dogs are not afraid. The duo routinely swim in shark infested shallows and, as you can see, are not afraid to dive in and chase the sharks. While we can see this crass tendency to attack the ocean's most dangerous predators leading to some horrible things in the future, on this day it is only amazing. This video was posted by YouTube user "ruste13," a man who has a blog dedicated to his fishing adventures in Western Australia.

Though we have watched Shark Week religiously since our youth, we're not sure what type of sharks these are. If any of you know, please enlighten us in the comments section.

Read more
Internet guerrillas: Inside the DIY broadband revolution with NYC Mesh
nyc mesh guerrilla internet network screen shot 2022 02 20 at 5 53 39 am

Toby Bloch doesn’t look like your average internet installation technician. Instead of a uniform with a corporate logo embroidered on it, he wears worn-in jeans and a thick canvas jacket. Instead of a van, he drives a Subaru -- the back of which is stuffed to the gills with a disorganized pile of hand tools, cables, and odd electronic devices with antennas sticking out of them. And unlike most technicians, he isn’t going to earn a dime for the appointment he’s headed to in Brooklyn.

But oddly enough, that’s precisely the point. Bloch doesn’t operate like a normal internet install tech because he isn’t one. He doesn’t work for Comcast or Spectrum or Verizon or any other large internet service provider (ISP). He’s a volunteer at NYC Mesh: A guerrilla internet provider that helps residents get online without paying a monthly fee to the aforementioned telecom companies.

Read more