Hey Gang, Let’s Explore the Ocean Floor with a Giant Submarine!

Jacques Rougerie is a French oceanographic architect who dreams of conquering the undersea world just as astronauts dreamed of outer space in the mid 20th century.

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Jun 2 2014, 11:45am

Photo courtesy of SeaOrbiter/Jacques Rougerie

Since the advent of the Cold War, humanity has been turning its dream of space exploration into reality. We’ve walked on the moon, habitable space stations have been set into orbit, ambitions for Mars colonies are percolating. All this while vast, vast swaths of our own planet remain a mystery, as an estimated 95 percent of the Earth’s oceans are unexplored.

Jacques Rougerie wants to change that. The French oceanographic architect has been designing underwater habitats and nautical museums for the past three decades, but his latest project is his most ambitious yet. He’s building a massive, 550-ton semi-submersible vessel called that SeaOrbiter that by late 2017 will hopefully be roaming the waters in search of unknown species and submerged relics of lost civilizations with a crew of around 20, including Rougerie, who will live on the vessel for up to six months at a time. It’s an ambition straight out of science fiction, but so were all those space stations before they became reality. I recently went aboard Jacque’s boat in Paris, where he lives and works with his team of scientists, to discuss his project and the future of mankind.

VICE: How did the SeaOrbiter project come about?
Jacques Rougerie:
For ten years, I wanted to make an underwater habitat capable of crossing oceans. It was therefore necessary to take the constraints of the aquatic world into account. In order to achieve this, I based my research on bionics, [I observed] how animals have adapted to nature. From these lifeforms, I had the basic direction lines to build an architectural object that could adapt to the underwater world. My idea was to make something similar to a seahorse, a sentinel of the oceans—which is actually SeaOrbiter’s vocation.

Do you know what sort of missions you’ll undertake once the vessel is built?
We’ve planned about ten years of expeditions. We will be based in Monaco, where we’ll launch our missions with Prince Albert II of Monaco, then we will sail on the Mediterranean Sea for a year. After that, we’re scheduled to sail on the Atlantic Ocean for eight years—one will be dedicated to a mission in the Sargasso Sea alongside marine biologist Sylvia Earle. Before SeaOrbiter, there was no machine that could allow humans to live under the sea for such long periods. But with this vessel, we will be able to explore abyssal plains [on the ocean floor], to discover underwater mountains, and study unknown animal species—in the Gulf Stream, for example. This project is pretty similar to the Radeau des Cimes project [a “canopy raft” that is attached to a hot air balloon to hover over the trees] that was designed in 1986 to explore the rainforest canopy of the Amazon. That’s exactly what we’re planning to do: Observe the canopy of underwater worlds. I had to imagine a next-generation machine that could allow us to live under the sea without danger.

I read that you were part of an underwater-living experiement that lasted 69 days.
Yes, this was in Florida, in June 1992. I was with aquanauts Rick Presley and Bill Todd from NASA, who are both underwater habitats specialists. Since theApollo lunar program, astronauts have been training under the sea. There are many similarities between these two worlds, where one has to live in extreme conditions. On our planet, nothing is closer to the weightlessness feeling than diving in a marine environment.

Why do you think underwater exploration gets less attention than space travel?
The underwater world has fascinated men for centuries, but they are distressed by the sea, which has engulfed sailors, captains, and entire cities. During the space race, [Jacques] Cousteau was conceiving his first houses underwater, because current technology was finally allowing him to do so. At that time, we realized that the ocean wasn’t as gruesome and bleak as we thought it would be. It’s a place of wonder made of coral galaxies and treasures that could benefit mankind—renewable energies, bacteria, and viruses that could be used to produce drug molecules or the food of the future. It’s pretty tricky to ask ourselves why it took us so much time. In 50 years, we’ve seen more technological advances that there has been since the dawn of man, and I can only be hopeful about the decades to come.

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