Several year ago, I stumbled on an article by an MIT student that discussed the concept of ‘underwater camping’ – the simple ability to make a foray into the ocean, and stay for awhile. It was a compelling idea.
My interests in ocean exploration have always leaned heavily on improving human intervention – advanced diving techniques. A look back through history reveals numerous attempts at a more permanent human presence – a new life in the sea. While bold steps have been taken, we (humans) are still left
without a permanent home on the ocean floor. There are many reasons – stemming from physiological limitations to cost; with the latter being the most significant setback as its been nearly impossible to raise start-up capital for any such project that might prove scalable.
Still keen on the idea of some semi-permanence underwater, I got in touch with a company called Subsalve here in Rhode Island. They design and produce underwater flotation systems for salvage primarily, though I came to learn that they had produced a small handful of ‘haba-bags’ in the past as inflatable systems used to augment decompression after lengthy dives. The idea is certainly not new per se, as portable habitats have been used in cave exploration for some time. However, in my lineage of work in open water, on deep coral reefs, little effort had been placed there.
So, over the course of a year, Subsalve designed a shell to my liking. My team then designed rigging, an anchorage, and life systems to include into the habitat – and off we went. Objective: incorporate a portable, inflatable habitat into ocean exploration activities to improve human intervention of deep coral reefs – and so we did. The following piece from National Geographic ‘On Assignment’ showcases the field results from this past year:
While seemingly simple, I believe the project is important for several reasons. First, it is a demonstrative step to meet halfway in the two camps of human exploration in the ocean. One camp calls for extended surface to surface forays, with the other suggesting that a permanence on the seafloor is the way to go. I argue that a simple, cost-effective habitat significantly improves performance from the bottom up, while avoiding the massive ‘top down’ expense and infrastructure of permanent habitats.
Second, while we are demonstrating this as a tool for scientific exploration, this is also a step forward in two conceptual areas – the underwater camping as mentioned previously, and possible extended range for manned industrial exploration. In the case of camping, many might ask ‘why bother?’. Well, if you are a lover of the outdoors, do you find more satisfaction out of a mile long hike through the woods, or a weekend camping trip? Immersing oneself in the environment enhances the personal experience – it satisfies our curiosities. With the latter – there are man made industrial waterways right beneath our feet that many people don’t even know exist. From time to time, they need a set of human hands for an inspection or repair – beyond the capacity of a robot. To place humans there, we need creative means to intervene, and that might mean for extended durations. It may not be feasible to place large permanent structure in these tight spaces, however it is well within our grasp to set up a temporary outpost.
In any case, the most exciting element of taking this ‘bottom up’ perspective on human intervention is that we have not yet identified real world limits to its application, nor the true capacity it affords we humans in ocean exploration…this is just the beginning.