Eighteen years ago, Mike Lombardi started his diving career as a high school student looking for lost wallets and keys off the coast of Rhode Island. But this July, he’s about to take a trip no other diver ever has. At a depth of 1,000 feet–hundreds of feet deeper than divers can go with conventional gear–he’ll be seeking out undiscovered species of bioluminescent animals who spend their lives in total darkness.
To get there, he’ll need 530 pounds of newly minted technology on his body and a remotely operated deep-sea robot by his side. On the surface, Lombardi will don something called the Exosuit, then spend 10 lonely, surreal minutes sinking into the deep.
“These suits–there’s really been this romantic notion of people just trying to get down to the bottom of the ocean,” says David Gruber, the marine biologist in charge of operating the DeepReef-ROV descending with Lombardi this summer.
It began, Gruber says, in the 1700s, when divers started building suits to harvest treasure from sunken galleons. Then, in the 1960s came what Gruber affectionately terms “Michelin man in a can,” atmospheric diving suits which made divers look like a Mr. Stay Puft, but allowed them to work underwater for longer periods of time. In the ‘70s, the oil, gas, and construction industries led the development of new suits, but scientists backed away from participating in “sponsored” research. Something of a three-decade freeze in deep sea suit development for science followed.
The Exosuit, now on display at the American Museum of Natural History, picks up where they left off. With four 1.6 horsepower water jet thrusters controlled by sensors in the feet, an oxygen system that adds 50 hours of life support, and a fiber-optic tether at the back of the helmet that manages two-way communication between the diver and scientists on the surface, Lombardi and Gruber describe the suit as a “one-man submarine for your body.” The ROV, meanwhile, has been specially designed for capturing bioluminescence, with high-resolution cameras to pick up images in a setting with almost no light.
One of the Exosuit’s most important features, however, is its set of flexible joints. “The joints are a big thing, mostly because they’re a huge improvement over the last generation hardsuit,” Lombardi says. “The previous suit, called the Newtsuit, was pretty difficult to move in.”
Alone, and at those depths, timing at the bottom is also critical. Before contraptions like the Exosuit, divers relied on something called mixed-gas diving, in which divers would have little time to accomplish their tasks, mixing their own oxygen and nitrogen themselves. Divers would then have to spend hours decompressing as they rose to the surface. With the Exosuit, there’s no decompression needed.
“At those kinds of depths, you literally have minutes to get your work done. The stress on human physiology is incredible,” Lombardi says. “But at the same time, getting in that environment has been fairly rewarding.”
Once, after a seven-minute dive (and five hours of decompression) with this technique, Lombardi came back to the surface with a new species of fish. “With the Exosuit, I can go to the same site and spend four or five hours, which is really paradigm changing,” he says.
This summer, Lombardi and a team of scientists will travel 100 miles off the coast of New England to something called “The Canyons,” a steep drop-off of the coastal shelf that plunges to depths of 10,000 feet. In the middle of the night, when bioluminescent fish rise to shallower waters to feed, he’ll dive down 1,000 feet, then spend hours hovering over the massive crater, taking samples of new, alien-like life.
“It’ll be very, very dark, very, very quiet, very still,” Lombardi says. “I’m expecting that it’ll feel like another planet.”