SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
June 29, 1964
Experiments in living beneath the surface of the ocean in special underwater houses like the one built by the U.S. Navy (right) may bring a new era of exploration—and homesteading
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June 29, 1964

Settlers At The Bottom Of The Sea

Experiments in living beneath the surface of the ocean in special underwater houses like the one built by the U.S. Navy (right) may bring a new era of exploration—and homesteading

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Through ages of darkness and light the race of man has clung to the curious notion that up is good and down is bad. Man himself may live in a cave as foreboding as the adits of hell, but he usually worships gods who live higher. Man came from the sea—its substance is unmistakably in him—but few men have ever been back down for a good look around, and to most men the depths are an undesirable and spooky place.

In every cubic yard of seawater there is a touch of nourishment as well as a trace of gold. Along the edges of continents and archipelagos there are submarine shelves—a total of at least 10 million square miles—where the depth rarely exceeds 600 feet. Many of these shelves are rich with marine life and underwater plant growth, and some may be brimming with oil and other subterranean treasure. The world in its overcrowded state more and more needs the protein and minerals to be found under the sea, and in the past six years several small bands of men have been trying to live underwater in order to learn how to make this wealth more accessible. They could use help, but they are not apt to get much. The world is too dazzled by rocket men to take much notice of the oddballs down below.

Early this year the U.S. hit the moon with a $28 million rocket that failed to send back any information. It is estimated that a man can be put on the moon by 1970 for $20 billion, a price we will have to pay to find out for sure if its surface is cheese or merely a layer of sterile dust (as some believe). In any case, it would cost still more to make the moon livable, and it will be a long time before we build a putty factory in a lunar crater or turn cattle out to graze in the dry bed of a lunar sea.

Meanwhile, in a small way we are mining the world's wet sea, harvesting its oysters and kelp and herding its fish, but the yield of the sea could be increased fivefold in this decade if the prospectors, farmers and fish herders could live on the continental shelves in undersea houses. Within the past two years eight Frenchmen have lived safely at depths ranging from 33 to 90 feet for periods of one week to a month. Before this year is out, there probably will be five or six Americans living below, and a Belgian and several more Frenchmen. The cost thus far of these experiments has been a comparative pittance—less than $4 million in France and the U.S.

The underwater houses of all these experiments, though different in size and shape, work on the same principle. Essentially each, is a leakproof container with an open port on the underside. By a simple old law of physics, as long as the pressure of air or breathable gas inside equals the pressure of the water outside, the water will not rise in the open port. Thus a diver can leave his dry undersea house through the port and return to it from the water as easily as getting in and out of a swimming pool.

There have been for some years safe gas mixtures and breathing equipment that allow a free diver to spend an hour or two at considerable depth, at pressures four or more times that at sea level. But after his short stay the diver must spend a tedious long time in calculated ascent, gradually purging himself of the inert gas that saturated his tissues while he was under increased pressure. If he ascends too fast, the gas in his tissues may form bubbles as the pressure diminishes, precisely as carbonic gas forms bubbles in a soft drink when it is uncapped. The bubbles in the human system can be deadly, or at least may bring about the anguish known as the "bends." To avoid the bends, a diver who does only a couple of hours' work while breathing air at a depth of 140 feet needs the whole afternoon simply to travel back to the surface.

However, nitrogen and helium, the two inert gases commonly used in breathing mixtures, totally saturate the human tissues in about 30 hours, regardless of depth. Thus the diver who lives below for a month in an underwater house can put in many days of work and yet will not have to spend any more time returning to the surface than if he had spent only a day and a night below.

When the world's first permanently submerged settlement is built at some time in the future, a plaque should be put up somewhere in the underwater town hall to honor two Frenchmen, Raymond Kientzy and Andr� Portelatine. Kientzy, 34, and Portelatine, 47, deserve to be known as the first undersea men, for they were the first to live under pressure at a significant depth. Last summer, while five of their colleagues lived and breathed natural air at about twice normal pressure in a comparatively roomy house 36 feet down, Kientzy and Portelatine spent a week of steamy discomfort still farther down, at a depth of 90 feet, breathing an unnatural mixture of helium and air at about four times normal pressure. They slept (sometimes fitfully) and ate (sometimes indifferently) in a cramped cylindrical house hung by cables on the steep side of a coral rampart in the Red Sea. During their week in the deep, Kientzy and Portelatine sallied forth daily, exploring downward to the 363-foot level. In one week they went a long way toward proving that man can live at a depth that puts much of the sunken shelf land within reach.

On the plaque the name of a famous French diver, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, deserves a place beside the names of Kientzy and Portelatine, for he directed their pioneering week below. Beyond this contribution, Cousteau deserves mention because in the past 20 years he has done much to make the fanciful world of Jules Verne come true. There have always been mountains worth climbing, heights worth scaling, and now, thanks largely to Cousteau, there are depths worth sinking to.

The plaque should also honor Robert Stenuit, a 31-year-old Belgian diver, and Edwin Link, the 59-year-old American inventor. In a combination house-and-decompression chamber that Link designed, Stenuit two years ago stayed slightly more than 24 hours at 200 feet, breathing a helium-oxygen mixture at about seven times sea-level pressure. He had hoped to stay longer, but a minor failure in his gas supply forced him up. This week, in the Bahamas, Stenuit and Jon Lindbergh, son of another pioneer—Charles Lindbergh—were scheduled to try to live at 400 feet for three or four days in an inflatable rubber house designed by Link. Four hundred feet is a big, bold step, and hopefully one that would not cost Stenuit and Lindbergh their lives. At this early point in its history the new science of underwater living can ill afford martyrs.

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