A Short History of Underwater Labs

New Wave Media

June 18, 2014

  • Conshelf village
  • Inside Conshelf I
  • Conshelf II Chess game
  • Conshelf II portal
  • Conshelf II
  • Conshelf III on surface
  • Cousteau and divers
  • Cousteau s diving saucer used with Conshelf II
  • Divers exiting habitat
  • Inside Conshelf III
  • Mission crew members
  • Mission and Aquarius
  • Recent Aquarius crew
  • Sealab
  • Tektite I exterior
  • Underwater kitchen
  • Conshelf village Conshelf village
  • Inside Conshelf I Inside Conshelf I
  • Conshelf II Chess game Conshelf II Chess game
  • Conshelf II portal Conshelf II portal
  • Conshelf II Conshelf II
  • Conshelf III on surface Conshelf III on surface
  • Cousteau and divers Cousteau and divers
  • Cousteau s diving saucer used with Conshelf II Cousteau s diving saucer used with Conshelf II
  • Divers exiting habitat Divers exiting habitat
  • Inside Conshelf III Inside Conshelf III
  • Mission crew members Mission crew members
  • Mission and Aquarius Mission and Aquarius
  • Recent Aquarius crew Recent Aquarius crew
  • Sealab Sealab
  • Tektite I exterior Tektite I exterior
  • Underwater kitchen Underwater kitchen

In 1957, Project Genesis, led by Dr. George F. Bond, 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. Dr. Bond’s early 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.

The results of this pioneer research were fundamental to propel the construction of the world’s first underwater human habitat, Conshelf I (Continental Shelf Station One), developed by a team working for Jacques Cousteau. It was built in 1962 and 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), 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. Conshelf II was located in the Red Sea.

The development of Conshelf III, located in the Mediterranean, near Cap Ferat lighthouse (between Nice and Monaco), 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, 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. 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.

To date, more than 65 undersea marine labs have been built and operated around the world. The only underwater habitat still operating is Aquarius, located in a “research only” area of the Florida Keyes National Marine Sanctuary. Aquarius is owned by NOAA, currently operated by Florida International University, and is home to scientists who study there at two-week intervals from April through November, as long as hurricane season allows. Currently a team led by Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau is in the midst of Mission 31, an expedition that breaks new ground in ocean exploration. Mission 31 intends to broaden Jacques Cousteau’s original experiment by one full day and 30 more feet of saturation. It is broadcasting live on multiple channels from Aquarius and exposing the world to the adventure, risk and mystique of living and working underwater.

Sources: Cousteau Society, OneWorld OneOcean Campaign, Mission 31, FIU

aquariusconshelfCousteauflorida keysmarseillesmission-31red seasealabtektiteunderwater
Paschoa, Claudio
Claudio Paschoa is Marine Technology Reporter's correspondent in Brazil.
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