Sixty feet. It doesn’t sound like much. But under the weight of water, that short distance is enough to triple the pressure of our normal atmosphere. It’s about as far below the surface as humans can live, a strange, isolated place where voice pitch goes up, cuts heal faster, rashes spread with abandon, and batteries deplete more quickly. Which is why Fabien Cousteau, ocean researcher and grandson of Jaques Cousteau, likens the challenge of building an underwater lab to crafting the International Space Station (ISS).
And that’s just what he wants to build. An underwater ISS. Called Proteus, Cousteau has been fundraising an unprecedented lab, where researchers can come from across the globe to study the ocean for weeks or months at a time. The price tag? $135 million.
That’s a lot of money to put scientists just 60 feet underwater, but Cousteau offers strong arguments for submerging science. “There’s not only an emotional need to be there in person, but a pragmatic need to be there, for efficiency with firsthand knowledge,” he says.
Cousteau points out that pulling specimens out of the water degrades their chemical composition, so studying more species underwater could give us cleaner data. Furthermore, when scuba diving, scientists have a limited oxygen supply, plus they need to allow time for their body to acclimate to changing pressures. This puts a natural limiter on just how much research they can do. A lab would turn the ocean into something more like a day at the office, allowing researchers to put in true 8- to 10-hour days 60 feet below the surface. Or, they can use Proteus like a launchpad, sending a drone or submarine even deeper into the ocean. Without having to worry about dive logistics and 12- to 18-hour decompression in between, Cousteau believes a scientist living underwater has the capacity to do 30-40 times the research that one living on ground can in the same time.
So two years ago, Cousteau teamed up with Yves Béhar’s design studio, Fuseproject, to introduce his vision of an underwater lab like the world has never seen. The results of that work are the renders you see here: a curvaceous, subaquatic building planned to be installed in Curacao if Cousteau can secure the funding.
Proteus is almost impossibly ambitious. It’s roughly 10 times the size of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater lab currently in operation, where Cousteau set the record for underwater living when he spent 31 days at the station in 2014. That was a tough stint of time, Cousteau explains, as Aquarius is about the size of a school bus with a capacity for just six people living in snug proximity.
“It’s antiquated technology in so many ways,” says Cousteau. “It has limitations. Space-wise, it can’t accommodate everything you need for long-term deployment.”
Proteus, on the other hand, is designed for long-term habitation. Its core geometry consists of two squat cylinders that spiral together, built from the metals and composites found in ship hulls. On the inside, that means a ramp connects two floors, allowing around a dozen scientists to walk and exercise through the space in a seamless loop. The design is expandable, but it can’t be easily built up or down, like a building on land would be.
“It is a two-story because we remain within the right amount of pressure for two stories,” says Béhar. If it were three stories tall—with another 10 feet of living space added at the bottom or top—that would put part of the building into a different pressure zone. The difference would be about half an atmosphere of pressure, which is enough to create a significant physiological impact on people living inside.
Instead of up, Proteus is designed to build out. Much like the ISS, it features expandable capsules that plug into the sides of the main structure. These will house labs, a greenhouse, visitor rooms, and medical space. Note the large, rounded windows throughout, which are designed to let the most light in possible, helping visitors maintain a semblance of a circadian rhythm in a world where daylight is scarce.
You might consider some of these amenities creature comforts, but for people to live underwater for long stints of time, these comforts become necessities. “All of these things are maybe subliminal, but they’re very, very important if you’re putting a bunch of people underwater for weeks and even months at a time,” says Cousteau. “We’re burning three times the calories per day you need on land. So you’re eating three times as many calories from processed foods. They’re high in sodium and chemicals. [We’re wondering] how can we grow some of our own food? We need the space for it, the infrastructure for it . . . then lastly, how do we cook it? Fire is not an option.”
As of right now, Proteus is in the concept stage. Once funding is in hand—the team isn’t making the amount they’ve raised so far public—Cousteau plans to bring on an engineering team so that the project can be fully realized.
“Like all big dreams, it will need further development,” says Béhar. “But one of the ways we’ve done fundraising in the last few months is by sharing this concept and sharing this dream.”