Imagine working aboard a research station on the ocean floor, watching sea creatures swim past, then venturing out to explore the ocean’s surface. Or being able to examine the impact of climate change on coral reefs from the windows of your undersea research station.
Such facilities have so far been limited, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and developers of a proposed new “first of its kind” research laboratory hope to expand the opportunities and help humans learn more about the ocean.
Proteus Ocean Group – co-founded by Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the late ocean exploration pioneer Jacques Cousteau – is developing an “underwater space station of the ocean.” The group plans to build the station nearly 60 feet deep off the coast of Curaçao in the Caribbean by 2026.
NOAA and the ocean group announced this month they will partner to identify research opportunities as plans to build the station move forward, sharing information and scientific expertise.
The research facility would give scientists and the public a rare window on life under the ocean, the partners said. Much like the International Space Station and earlier versions of marine laboratories, aquanauts will live aboard the station as they conduct research and exploration beneath the sea.
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“On PROTEUS we will have unbridled access to the ocean 24/7, making possible long-term studies with continuous human observation and experimentation,” Cousteau stated in a news release. “With NOAA’s collaboration, the discoveries we can make — in relation to climate refugia, super corals, life-saving drugs, micro environmental data tied to climate events and many others — will be truly groundbreaking.”
What will the partnership between Proteus and NOAA mean?
“This partnership has the potential to greatly expand our capabilities in studying the ocean,” said Jeremy Weirich, director of NOAA Ocean Exploration. “By living underwater for extended periods in this new ocean laboratory, we’ll be able to unlock the ocean’s mysteries so that we can better manage, sustainably use, protect and appreciate its resources.”
The partners may undertake joint expeditions, exchange personnel and share methods of operation related to missions to study the ocean environment, NOAA said.
Proteus Ocean Group will benefit from NOAA’S expertise as it continues the long process of designing and building the complex facility, said Lisa Marrocchino, the group’s chief executive officer.
The new laboratory would be an additional step in NOAA’s own research programs. NOAA’s existing research station, Aquarius, is operated in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary by Florida International University.
What’s the plan for the Proteus underwater research station?
Plans have been in the works for several years, but the pandemic and other world events have been a challenge, Marrocchino said. The team includes a group of scientists, oceanographers and entrepreneurs.
“We have a general concept, now we really get into the nitty gritty front end design,” which should last about nine months, she said.
Proteus shared video of Cousteau and others diving over the site where they plan to erect Proteus off Curaçao, an island country in the southern Caribbean, 40-50 miles north of Venezuela, that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Marrocchino said one of the largest submersible fleets in the ocean docks on the island.
Here’s what they know so far:
- The station will include an observatory and laboratory.
- Aquanauts will live aboard and work under the ocean.
- Eight people could live in the station, with potentially up to 12.
- It would allow private citizens to live underwater for periods of time.
- It will include a video production facility that could live-stream.
- Additional modules could be added later
- The company plans to eventually develop two or three other networked stations
Have there been other underwater research laboratories?
Yes. The first were a series of three built in the 1960s under the direction of Cousteau’s grandfather. The Continental Shelf program ran for several years and allowed aquanauts to live under the water off France and in the Red Sea.
In 1975, the U.S. Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union collaborated on a three-month mission for a portable laboratory dubbed Helgoland, launched off the northeastern coast on Stellwagen Bank. Four-person dive teams spent week-long rotations. The mission experienced a number of challenges including a hurricane and unexpected movement of the station in strong currents. A German diver died as the result of an accident during a decompression stop.
- NOAA’s Aquarius is 46 feet by 10 feet and includes a kitchen facility and work areas and supports six crew members.
- It was initially deployed in St. Croix’s Salt River Canyon in 1988, then moved to the Keys in 1993.
- The 85-ton habitat sits on a 120-ton base plate on the seafloor.
- It has housed more than 471 crew members.
- Its annual operating costs are about $1.1 million.
- The average mission length is 7-10 days.
- Hydrolab was NOAA’s first undersea research habitat.
- Aquanauts could live on the ocean floor for days or weeks at a time.
- It housed more than 700 scientists on more than 85 missions.
- It operated between 1970 and 1985 and is now on display at NOAA’s Science Center in Silver Spring, Maryland
- In a space just 8 by 16 feet, the Hydrolab housed three bunks, a laboratory and a moon pool to get out onto the ocean floor.
- Leaving the lab required 16 hours in a hyperbaric chamber.
- Hydrolab operated in the Bahamas, St. Croix and the U.S. Virgin Islands.