Sub-Biosphere 2 concept drawing. Credit: Phil Pauley

Will Humans Ever Live Under the Sea?

Humans have wanted to inhabit the oceans for millennia. Is it possible?

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Aug 13 2015, 11:00am

Sub-Biosphere 2 concept drawing. Credit: Phil Pauley

A wise crab named Sebastian once dispensed some sage advice about the virtues of ocean living. "Up on the shore they work all day, out in the Sun they slave away," he pointed out, "while we devotin' full time to floatin' under the sea."

This sales pitch for the undersea lifestyle is undeniably attractive, and it will probably be stuck in your head all day now. It is also part of a much larger, cross-cultural obsession that humans have with underwater civilizations, which dates at least as far back as ancient Greece.

Much like outer space, the isolation and foreign nature of subocean habitats lends itself naturally to grand themes of humanity's place in the natural world, and our drive to settle exotic and unexplored frontiers.

Add to that the sheer natural beauty and mystery that oceans evoke, and it's no wonder that fiction is brimming over with so many diverse tales of underwater communities. From Captain Nemo's Nautilus submarine, to the absurdist Sealab 2021, to the sprawling Art Deco metropolis Rapture of Bioshock fame, each new generation uses new mediums to advance the idea that expanding our species to the oceans is an inevitability.

But is that really true? Is it feasible to build permanent communities under the seas? And what would be the advantage of leaving the comfort of land for underwater shelters in the first place?

Rapture introduction. Credit: YouTube/Irrational Games/firefeure

Futurists have been chipping away at these kind of questions for centuries, but it wasn't until the 1960s that manned undersea habitats were actually installed on the ocean floor. Not surprisingly, it was the iconic ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau who first pulled this longstanding dream into reality, with his Conshelf series of underwater habitats.

Conshelf I (or "Diogenes") was the first of these shelters, and hosted two "oceanauts" for a week in 1962. It was followed by Conshelf II in 1963, which was a larger starfish-shaped structure in which five oceanauts lived for an entire month.

The last of the series was Conshelf III, which was located ten times deeper than the previous habitats, a full 100 meters below the surface. A group of six oceanauts lived there for three weeks in almost constant isolation, regularly performing experiments outside the shelter.

The Conshelf habitats inspired massive public curiosity about undersea habitats, especially after a documentary about Conshelf II won the 1964 Academy Award for best documentary. Moreover, the project's success was quickly corroborated by the development of many other manned undersea research stations like SEALAB, Tektite, Hydrolab, and the Aquarius laboratory (the latter is still in operation).

Tektite 1 habitat. Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP)

But no sooner than the feasibility of underwater communities was demonstrated, then bigger questions about their potential functions began to unfold. With all the comforts of life on land and the hassles of life underseas, why even bother building subsurface habitats?

For Cousteau's part, the goal was to usher in "the birth of Homo Aquaticus—the fish man," according his 1963 Popular Mechanics article about the Conshelf project. Cousteau saw oceanic colonization as a natural extension of humanity's drive to settle new spaces, no matter the challenges.

But even Cousteau experienced a crisis of conscience about the direction that his own research might go. Later in life, Cousteau distanced himself from active ocean colonization, especially industrial development, to focus on conservation.

By then, however, interest in undersea dwellings had expanded from scientific research stations to commercial industries, like offshore drilling and tourism. Some hotels, like Jules' Undersea Lodge in Florida, already offer underwater rooms, and several fully submerged resorts are currently in construction, from Poseidon Resorts in Fiji to the obscenely opulent Water Discus in Dubai.

Moreover, many futurists have begun to look to the ocean as a possible escape route should terrestrial life experience a downturn. Last year, for example, Motherboard's Brian Merchant wrote a feature in this vein, showcasing floating city concepts for our modern age of rising temperatures and sea levels.

Far from the luxury hotels in the works right now, future undersea communities may be survivalist strongholds protecting people from radiation, disease, extreme weather, or other severe environmental threats on land.

To get a better grip on what the next generation of undersea habitats might look like, I turned to futurist Phil Pauley, who has many years of experience designing ambitious underwater facilities.

In addition to research labs and luxury hotels, Pauley said that he predicted "corporate headquarters, agriculture facilities, desalination plants, and Earth and space operations centers," being constructed under the sea. "These facilities will start small and get bigger as demand requires," he told me over email.

Pauley's own flagship design for an underwater community is called Sub-Biosphere 2—"a closed, self-sustaining underwater habitat designed as a base for aquanauts, tourists and for studying oceanographic life science," according to his website.

Animation of Sub-Biosphere 2. Credit: Phil Pauley/YouTube

Though the best case scenario is that this station would be used voluntarily, Pauley also considers it to be a potential post-apocalyptic outpost of about 100 people—the minimum necessary to rebuild humanity (indeed, he's even writing a science fiction series with this premise).

To that end, the Sub-Biosphere 2 concept design aims to recreate eight different biomes representing different climatic zones on Earth. The idea is to have access to a lot of different environments while also creating an airflow system for ventilation.

"In my opinion, if you want to recreate the Earth's biosphere in a closed environment, it is essential to try to recreate a mechanism for how the different biomes on Earth interact with one another," he told me. "I think fine-tuning the balance to mimic each biome will be difficult, but not impossible."

At this point, Sub-Biosphere 2 remains in the concept phase, but there are other subocean city concepts floating around as well, if you want something else to tide you over (ocean pun count: two).

For example, this past January, the Japanese architecture firm Shimizu Corporation released its "Ocean Spiral" underwater city concept—one of many futuristic designs the company has cooked up.

Ocean Spiral. Credit: Shimizu Corporation

"This large-scale concept seeks to take advantage of the limitless possibilities of the deep sea by linking together vertically the air, sea surface, deep sea, and sea floor," said Shimizu in a statement. "Now is the time for us to create a new interface with the deep sea, the earth's final frontier." (I reached out to Shimizu for further details but did not hear back).

While all these underwater city concepts are captivating, for the time being, they have about as much in common with Rapture as they do with real undersea habitats. As with the exploration of outer space, the construction of permanent bases under the sea is by nature a slow-going process, mired by the technical challenges presented by these wholly alien environments.

So while we are not likely to be singing "Under the Sea" with abandon anytime soon, we have at least waded ankle-deep into the ocean frontier. It's been 50 years since Cousteau completed his Conshelf project, proving that the dream of the underwater city was possible. What will the next 50 years bring?

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.