Ben Hellwarth, journalist and author of SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor
Jim Fourqurean, professor of Marine Science at Florida International University and the director of the Center for Coastal Oceans Research
Roger Garcia, operations director at Aquarius Reef Base
Katherine Sammler, assistant professor at California State University Maritime in the department of Global Studies & Maritime Affairs
The Silent World
JFK’s Moon Shot speech
JFK 1961 remarks on the ocean
JFK Address at the Anniversary Convocation of the National Academy of Sciences, 22 October 1963
SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor
To Tell The Truth featuring Bob Barth
I have lived underwater
Medina Aquarius Program
From the Ocean’s Abyss to the Vacuum of Space: Privatization in the Vertical Commons
National Governance Of Ocean Volumes
Subsuming the Submerged: Producing Seabeds as Political Territories.
Knowing the Abyss: Seeking Geographies of Ocean Space.
The Deep Pacific: Island Governance and Seabed Mineral Development.
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
Produced by me, Rose Eveleth.
The intro music: Asura
Outtro music: Hussalonia.
Voices of the future this episode: Stephen Granade and Andrea Klunder.
Episode art: Matt Lubchansky.
Get in touch at email@example.com.
Support the show.
Rate & review on Apple Podcasts.
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FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
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Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
This episode we’re starting in the year 2059.
Tenant: Hi, are you Mr. Williams?
Building manager: Yep, you must be Sally Murphy, here to see Unit Four?
Tenant: That’s me!
Building manager: Great, come on down this way.
[walking through a hallway… keys jingling…. Door opening… sound of a seal]
Building manager: Okay, so, here she is.
Building manager: So you’ve got a brand new electric stove here. Have you lived under before?
Building manager: Oh okay, so, we can’t have fire down here. It’s too dangerous. So everything’s electric. Well, I mean, unless you’ve got the money to live at The Calypso. They have these incredible Supercritical Water Reactors that you can have flame inside of. But, I’m guessing you don’t have that kind of money.
Tenant: You’ve guessed right!
Building manager: This is a brand new one though, really nice. This unit is temperature controlled, here’s the thermostat. We use vent heat instead of solar, it’s more efficient and we’re close enough to Scooby to make it easy.
Tenant: Is this compressed air or upper air.
Building manager: A mix, about fifty fifty.
So if you want to call up above you’ll use this contact box here. You can plug in pretty much any of your devices. We don’t monitor calls going in and out.
What else… utilities are included since we have to handle everything in house, obviously.
You’ve got reef access 24/7 of course, I can show you where the entry is if you want.
Tenant: How do you feel about pets?
Building Manager: Nothing with fur. You could have fish, although it would be kinda weird… Lizards and birds are okay but nothing that sheds. It’s already hard enough to keep the air clean down here.
Any other questions?
Tenant: I don’t think so. Do you have an application form?
Building Manager: Yeah here’s a card with the link. We’ll run your credit check, all the usual stuff. A couple of other people have seen this place so I’d apply soon if you want it.
Tenant: Great, thanks.
Rose: Okay, so this episode is about living underwater. A lot of you have requested an episode about underwater cities, so here we go!
Living underwater is featured in a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. There’s of course the Disney movie Atlantis, but there’s also the classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, there’s the Michael Crichton book Sphere, there’s the show Stargate Atlantis, there’s the city of Otoh Gunga in a Star Wars movie that we will not name, there is Sub-Diego from Aquaman, and there’s my favorite which is the city of Rapture from the game BioShock. Which is beautifully rendered I love looking at pictures of it.
Humans have been interested in living underwater for a long time. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1870. Of course, we’ve wondered if we could survive down there for a lot longer.
In the 1940’s, Jacques Cousteau started pushing the envelope when it came to SCUBA diving and filming underwater — giving people images of what that environment looked like. In 1956, Custeau released a documentary shot underwater called The Silent World and it was a total sensation. It was one of the first films to show people color footage of underwater worlds. The Silent World was the first documentary to win the Palme D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was the only documentary to win until 2004.
So you had Cousteau pushing the boundaries of what humans could do underwater. And around the same time, the US and Russia start to try to show eachother up with their technological advancements. You’re probably already familiar with the fact that the Cold War was, in large part, about space exploration — the so-called space race.
And you might be familiar with President John F. Kennedy’s famous Moon Shot speech, delivered on May 25, 1961.
JFK: But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. [cheers] We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Rose: But what you might not know is that a month before that speech, JFK asked Congress to double its spending on ocean research, asking them to spend over $2 billion over the next decade. Here’s what JFK said about that push in 1961:
JFK: Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival may hinge upon it.
Rose: In 1963, he again talked about the ocean in a speech at the National Academy of Sciences
JFK: Our goal is to investigate the world ocean, its boundaries, its properties, its processes. To a surprising extent, the sea has remained a mystery–10,000 fleets still sweep over it in vain. We know less of the oceans at our feet, where we came from, than we do of the sky above our head. It is time to change this, to use to the full our powerful new instruments of oceanic exploration, to drive back the frontiers of the unknown in the waters which encircle our globe.
Rose: So during JFK’s presidency, he really saw both space and the sea as two sides of the exploration coin.
Ben Hellwarth: Had Kennedy lived, maybe he would have set some goals and put the country on a more vigorous path in that direction, just as he did with the goal of sending a man to the moon and returning them safely to the earth, by the end of the decade, which was a very bold deadline. There turned out to be no such deadline for going in the other direction.
Rose: This is Ben Hellwarth, he’s the author of a book called SEALAB: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Seafloor. Ben’s book is a really interesting look at this period of time when the US was really trying to get people living at the bottom of the ocean… and why that effort came to an end. And you can see today how one program wound up taking off, and the other… sank. Sorry. Today have the international space station, but we we don’t have anything like that on the seafloor. Today, we hear tech entrepreneurs talking about building settlements on Mars, but nobody is really talking about underwater cities? So, what happened?
It all starts in the late 1950’s with a guy named George Bond.
Ben: George Bond was an unlikely character to turn into a leading voice for breaking the diving barriers and diving deeper and staying longer. He was a country doctor in rural western North Carolina, far from the ocean, and the ocean was far from his thoughts until he joined the Navy and he was being trained as a diving medical officer. And he just got fascinated with diving.
Rose: But the more he looked into diving, the more Dr. Bond realized that there was so much that still could be done.
Ben: And he wondered how is it that here we are at the dawn of the space age, and we don’t even know how deep a diver can go, ultimately, or how long a diver can stay down.
Rose: Just like the human body is not designed for going into space, our fleshy meat cages aren’t really suited for underwater living.
There are a few main challenges when it comes to submerging the human body, and most of them stem from pressure. Water weighs a lot. So as you descend deeper into the water, your body is subjected to more and more pressure. And when you ascend, that pressure gets less and less.
Ben: If you ascend too quickly bubbles form in your blood and tissues, and you become a little bit like a soda can that’s been popped open. As you can imagine, that that produces bubbles in your blood and tissues, which is not good, and can cause all manner of physiological havoc from, depending on where the bubbles lodge, from injury and paralysis to death. So, you don’t want that.
Rose: Another challenge with diving is that pressure can actually change the way that certain gases impact your body. So at high pressure, gasses like Nitrogen, become anesthetics. Which basically means that they start to make people loopy.
Ben: All that nitrogen causes an effect known as nitrogen narcosis that basically gives you the feeling of being very tipsy and drunk. And it affects different people different ways, much as drinking alcohol affects different people different ways.
Rose: At really deep depths you basically can’t just breathe a regular air mix for extended periods of time, it’s not safe.
All of these things are handled by SCUBA divers by following decompression charts and making sure that you’re ascending slowly enough. And then staying above the water for long enough between dives that you’re safe. And technical divers who want to go deeper have to be trained on how to mix and breathe different gas formulations.
But what if you actually wanted to LIVE underwater. In the 1950’s nobody actually knew if that was possible to do safely. And THAT was the challenge that Dr. Bond decided to take on.
Ben: Dr Bond came up with the concept that he called saturation diving, a lot of people thought it was too dangerous or too crazy to even try. But the idea was if you spend enough time at a certain depth, your body becomes saturated with the gasses that you’re breathing. If you stay down long enough and allowed your body to become saturated with those gases at at a certain depth and pressure, then you could actually stay down as long as you want, provided you had somewhere to stay.
Rose: To test this concept of saturation diving, Dr. Bond proposed SEALAB, an experimental underwater habitat. And he did get it approved, but… they didn’t give him very much money to work with.
Ben: It was $35,000 or so to build the thing itself, and then the total budget for the program was a couple hundred thousand dollars, or something. And the reason for that minuscule funding was that not everybody thought any of this was such a good idea. This had nowhere near the enthusiasm behind it that something like NASA and the space program did. And it was built in a almost comically low budget fashion at a Navy base in Panama City Florida using some salvaged parts from old floats that were welded together into a sort of stout submarine shaped enclosure.
Rose: But Dr. Bond was committed, and they built SEALAB I out of a hodgepodge of parts.
Ben: If you imagine a sort of miniature submarine; it’s about that cigar like shape, but only about 40 feet long or so and maybe nine feet around in diameter. So there’s room to stand up in there. You’ve got bunks at one end, and a little bit of a kitchen set up and space to work in the middle.
Rose: Then on the other end of SEALAB was a hole in the floor that led straight to the ocean. Now, this was a key part of the design. Just like astronauts leave the ISS to do work or experiments, the SEALAB residents would be able to leave the enclosure and go work on things outside.
Ben: Because the pressure inside SEALAB is the same as the water pressure outside, so the water does not rise above the hatch. And so a diver, or an aquanaut as they called them, living in SEALAB has only to put on dive gear and drop through the hatch on the floor and go visit the sea outside at any time of day or night.
Rose: SEALAB I was placed about twenty five miles southwest of Bermuda, in nearly 200 feet of water. And remember, at that depth, you can’t just breathe regular pressurized air because some of the gasses become toxic. So the men down there were breathing a helium mixture, which will become important, and kind of hilarious, in a second.
Now, you know how there’s that famous moment in space history when Neil Armstrong confirms that Apollo 11 has landed on the moon. And he says
Neil Armstrong: Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
Well it turns out there is a moment like that for SEALAB, too! Ben sent me this audio that he uncovered for his book research, which as far as we know hasn’t been heard by the broader public since it happened in 1964. So the voices you hear here are Dr. Bond and a guy named Lester Anderson. Bond is the one who sounds normal, and Anderson is the one who sounds like he’s breathing helium.
Anderson: This is Anderson. … for the other divers to come down.
Bond: You’re the first one in, eh, Mr. Anderson?
Bond: Well, Mr. Anderson, congratulations. Were you able to hold your breath all the way, or did you have to breath some water?
Bond: That was a pretty good swim wasn’t it?
Anderson: That’s alright it’s okay
Bond: Well as long as you made it…
Rose: I know it’s kind of hard to understand that tape, but basically Anderson confirms that he’s in the enclosure and he’s waiting for the other divers to follow himi. The helium voice thing really does make a super historic moment seem… totally absurd. I mean, you can even hear the other guys in the control room laughing. But this was a big deal! All four aquanauts made it down to SEALAB no problem. This was their moon landing.
So the aquanauts of SEALAB I went down there, hoping to stay at 200 feet for 21 days. They did not make it the full 21 days, but not because of any health problems. Instead, a hurricane came through the area so they pulled the aquanauts out early just in case.
Ben: But after eleven days they had proven their point about saturation diving and about the ability to safely keep divers in a sea floor base, so that they’re free to come and go anytime they want.
Rose: And at the time this was totally amazing. Nobody knew what would happen. Nobody knew if this was possible or if the human body could take something like this. But Dr. Bond had proved that this hairbrained scheme of saturation diving, could actually work.
Ben: That was unheard of. That was just like science fiction. And they had done it, but good luck finding the headlines about that. They are pretty few and far between.
Rose: All this was happening in tandem with the space race, but one got way more attention than the other.
Ben: SEALAB might have been a kind of national spectacle, or turned into a cause for ticker-tape parades for the aquanauts who had just spent a record shattering eleven days at 200 feet in a prototype capsule. Something like a space station underwater, but no such thing happened, and very few people could tell you where or when or who was involved. At that same time everybody could tell you about the Mercury 7 and who last got launched into space and their names and they were all on Life magazine and on the covers of everything.
Rose: In fact, one of the first SEALAB aquanauts was actually on TV, on a show called To Tell the Truth in 1964. The premise of the show is that a panel of celebrity guests are presented with three people who all claim to be the same person. And the panel has to ask them questions to guess which one is the “real” expert.
Ben: Bob Barth, who was among the first humans in the history of the world to spend eleven days living in and out of a newfangled sea base for eleven days, and nobody knew who he was.
Theme song from To Tell The Truth
Host: What is your name please?
Man 1 : My name is Bob Barth
Man 2: My name is Bob Barth
Man 3: My name is Bob Barth
Host: This man is the real Bob Barth. The other two are imposters, and will try to fool this panel. To Tell the Truth, brought to you this week by new, self…..
Rose: Okay so all the judges ask these three Bob Barths questions
Host: Panelists, these three gentleman all claim to be Bob Barth, aquanaut. Let’s start this questioning with our own aquanaut, Kitty Carlisle.
Kitty Carlisle: Number one, who built this SEALAB?
Bob Barth #1: The Navy, in Panama City, Florida.
Kitty Carlisle: Uh huh, thank you. Number three, when you got out of this, how did you feel?
Bob Barth #3: Well, there was no real ill effect from it, just like and ordinary dive.
Kitty Carlisle: Number two, if you had claustrophobia, what happened? Could you get out?…
Rose: And then at the end, they have to guess which one is the real one. Here are their guesses.
Tom Poston: I voted for number one, he seemed to take the event with a little more seriousness. And I heard that they lost interest in life above the surface after a while. I didn’t know that that other expedition was in the Red Sea, but I’ll trust that….
Host: Peggy Cass.
Peggy Cass: I voted for number three. It was in the Red Sea. But after all I read it, he could have read it, too. I voted for number three because every time we asked a question he kind went like, “Heh heh, any fool should know that.”
Host: Orson Bean.
Orson Bean: I voted for number two because of his outrageous lie about the charcoal filter. Which must be true, you couldn’t make a thing like that up. It’s ridiculous.
Host: Well it’s one two and three. With which are you casting your lot, Kitty?
Kitty Carlisle: I voted for number two. Because my feeling is this SEALAB was very small, and there were four gentlemen in there, and I believe that they had to be small gentlemen. And number two is the smallest of the three. So, I voted for number two.
Host: All right you’re casting this, in other words. Very well, there you have it. With the votes all in and the minds clearly made up, let’s see now which one of these gentlemen is, in truth, the astronaut who existed for some time beneath the surface of the deep.
Will the real Bob Barth please stand up!
Rose: It was number one, if you were keeping track. The real Bob Barth was number one.
Ben: Now, had you had Alan Shepard or Scott Carpenter or John Glenn or Gus Grissom or any number of the Mercury 7 sitting there, that would not have made a very good program; everybody would have known. You couldn’t have done that. Those guys were too famous.
Host: Let’s find out about your two friends, here. Number two, what is your real name and what do you really do?
Bob Barth #2: My name is Noel Bates I’m president of Bates Associates, and we’re private detectives.
Host: Number three, what is your real name and what do you do sir?
Bob Barth #3: My name is Dick Johnson and I work for Goodyear Tire Company. I fly the Goodyear Blimp.
Rose: The fact that an aquanaut was indistinguishable to the panel from a private detective and the guy who flies the Goodyear Blimp is… kind of sad!
And what these aquanauts were doing was, in many ways, just as dangerous as what the astronauts were up to. And you don’t have to take my word for it, an actual astronaut said that.
Ben: You did have Scott Carpenter, the Mercury 7 astronaut, get involved in the SEALAB program. He died a few years ago, but he would tell you that what he did with the SEALAB program was, in many ways, more dangerous and more grueling and more difficult than anything he did with the space program.
Rose: But even though they didn’t get much media coverage, SEALAB I was such a success that the team was able to try again with a new bigger underwater structure called SEALAB II.
And with SEALAB II they wanted to up the ante on how many people they could keep down, and how long they could stay.
Ben: We’re going to have ten guys at a time living in here. And we’re going to show how they can do all kinds of different work while they’re down there. We’re going to keep them down for two weeks at a time before we change teams and have another ten guys stay down for two weeks, and then another ten guys stay down for two weeks, and then we’ll be down for a total of six weeks.
Rose: SEALAB II was also placed in a far more challenging location.
Ben: Scripps Canyon off the coast of La Jolla, near San Diego.
Rose: The water in Scripps Canyon is way colder than Bermuda, and the visibility can be really bad. I used to live in San Diego and I’m a big SCUBA diver and there were some days, diving in Scripps Canyon, where you couldn’t see past your elbow. And the water is 45 degrees Fahrenheit instead of a nice 65 or 70 degrees in Bermuda.
This temperature difference is extra important for SEALAB. Because keeping divers warm enough is actually a really big challenge in the habitat. Remember how I said that they were breathing a helium mixture instead of regular air? Well helium is also a really good conductor of heat, which means it steals heat away from your body.
So they had to keep SEALAB II really warm.
Ben: They really need to keep the heat up, like well above 80 degrees. And there was a lot of humidity that went with that too. So, it’s not super deluxe conditions even in SEALAB II. You’re still living in sort of hot, sweaty, locker room conditions.
Rose: SEALAB II’s experiment began on August 28th, 1965. Three teams of divers moved into what they affectionately called the “Tilton Hilton” — because the lab was on a slope and it tilted a little bit. One aquanaut, Scott Carpenter, the former astronaut, wound up staying for two cycles, spending 30 days down under the water. And thing went really well. The most dangerous thing that happened was actually … an encounter with a fish.
Ben: What they hadn’t foreseen was the gathering of scorpion fish that was somehow attracted either to the light or the activity. It wasn’t really clear, but these sort of spiky scorpion fish, these kind of a football sized fish with with spikes something like a porcupine, that were both swimming around and they’d scootch into the sand in the bottom and they were sort of everywhere. It was kind of like a scorpion fish minefield out there.
Rose: Scott Carpenter was inside SEALAB, and someone dropped a glove into the open hatch, where the water was.
Ben: And he just instinctively stuck his hand back into the water to grab the glove before it floated away. And in so doing, he stuck his hand right into a scorpion fish and got a pretty bad sting
Rose: Scorpion fish stings hurt like hell, and Carpenter was definitely feeling it, to the point where they thought they might have to bring him up early.
Ben: The way he describes it is pretty painful, like a kind of a turbocharged bee sting. He said his arm to aching and was really sort of laid up for a few days before it became clear that the effect of the fish poison would pass, and he could go on and spend the rest of his 30 days in SEALAB, which he did.
Rose: And towards the end of his 30 day stay in SEALAB II, Scott Carpenter got a call from the President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. And this call wound up being… hilarious. Remember, they’re breathing helium, and you heard what their voices sounded like in that historic first entry moment. And Scott Carpenter’s high voice totally confused the telephone operators. Here’s a clip from the call:
Base: Alright, Scott we have a long distance call for you. Will you hold, please? Operator, this is Commander Carpenter, on the line.
Operator: Thank you. Hello, Commander Carpenter
Base: Can you hear me, Operator?
Operator: Yes, we can.
Base: Now, Scott, will you speak please.
Carpenter: Yes, how do you hear me, Operator?
Operator: Not too well, sir. Do you think it’s possible to have a better time for…
Carpenter: One, two, three, four, five, four, three, two, one. How do you read that, Operator?
Operator: I understand you, yes.
Carpenter: But it’s weak.
Secretary: Is this the best you can do for a connection?
Carpenter: One, two, three, four, five. How now, Operator?
Operator: Yes we can understand you can you ma’am?
President’s Office: No
Operator: Ah, well, he says that’s the best he can do.
Carpenter: All right. There’s hardly any need to put the call through
President’s Office: We wouldn’t be able to understand, it’s all garbled.
Carpenter: Well, bear in mind, operator, that my voice will sound quite different. I’m in a chamber with helium atmosphere, so the frequency of my voice is quite high
Operator: Yes it is
Carpenter: That is not a telephone connection problem, that is just the result of my speaking from a pressurized chamber in a helium atmosphere. Do you understand?
Operator: Astronaut Cooper, are you able to understand me, over?
Carpenter: Yes, ma’am. This is astronaut Carpenter, not Astronaut Cooper, however. Did you understand that?
Base: I think the operator just can’t understand your helium voice. But you sound very loud to me.
Rose: They did eventually get Scott Carpenter and LBJ connected, but I’m pretty convinced that LBJ couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
So, awkward phone calls with the president aside, SEALAB II is a success! Nothing bad happens, people can live underwater for a long time safely. This is a big deal! Here’s Dr. Bond talking about the experiment in 1965, at a press conference at the Scripps auditorium. Again, Ben sent me this audio, which he gathered for his book, and again as far as we both know nobody has heard this tape since 1965:
Barry Simmons: Barry Simmons from Channel 10 San Diego. Captain Bond, would you cite some of the achievements of this experiment for us?
Dr. Bond: Well, I suppose that from the principal investigators point of view, the major achievement is sending 28 men down and getting back 28 men. I say that not with my tongue in my cheek, this is a high risk program. It’s high risk as far as the material gains are concerned. It is an extremely hazardous program. These men are in hazard 24 hours a day, rather extreme hazard. And so it is with a prayer of thankfulness that I see them all return to the surface. Now that is a highlight. Certainly a second highlight is confirmation of a sneaking suspicion that some of us have had for eight years at least that it is possible, if you provide the satisfactory environment and breathing mixture, it is possible to put man under high pressures in a totally hostile environment. and have him do useful work, gain his place on the ocean bottom where perhaps man has a right, and come back successfully.
Rose: So since SEALAB II was such a success, they decide to try another one, SEALAB III. And SEALAB III is where it all totally falls apart. Four years after the successful completion of SEALAB II, they put SEALAB III in water that is three times deeper than the first two: 610 feet deep, off of San Clemente Island in California.
Ben: To put that in perspective, at that time very few humans had ever been to a depth of 600 feet as a diver. And those who did, some came back dead, some came back injured, and even those who made the trip were able to stay at that depth for maybe five minutes before they began a very long decompression.
Rose: But SEALAB III, did not go as planned.
Ben: Murphy’s Law basically kicks in and everything that can go wrong kind of does.
Rose: First, a heating element broke in the pod they took down to the underwater base, so they were freezing cold before they even got into the cold water. Then, there was a problem with the hatch in the floor, they couldn’t get it open.
Ben: So you’ve got some guys down in the dark, about 600 feet, and they essentially can’t even get the door open to get this project started.
Rose: Eventually, the divers gave up, and started the long ascent back to the surface where they’d have to decompress before they could try again. Then they realized that the lab was leaking.
Ben: And that’s making it difficult to keep the lab from flooding and to keep the gas mixtures safe. So they’ve got a leaking lab. The clock is running.
The divers are saying yes we’re cold and we’re tired but we can do this. So let’s just go do it again. And this is, by now, the wee hours of the morning they lower the pod once again back to the ocean floor.
Rose: Barth heads out into the water towards SEALAB with a buddy, a guy named Barry Cannon, while two other guys stay in the pod as backup.
Ben: Bob Barth and Barry Cannon get out of the pod, as they did before, and they swim over again to try to open the hatch.
Rose: But before they even get a change to try the hatch, Bob hears some weird noises in the water.
Ben: He hears some kind of weird grunting or something, and so he drops everything and swims away from the hatch and finds his buddy convulsing, which can happen for any number of reasons when you’re diving at 600 feet.
Rose: Now, the divers have no way of communicating with one another under the water, this is before you could have basically those walkie talkies between divers.
Ben: You can’t yell for help or or say, Houston we have a problem. You just have to deal with it.
Rose: So Bob Barth realizes that something really bad is happening, but he actually didn’t have the strength to drag Barry Cannon all the way back to the pod, which was about 20 yards away. So he swam back alone. And another guy named Richard Blackburn had already suited up to help, so he goes out to get Barry Cannon.
Ben: And ultimately Blackburn, who’s a big strong burly guy, was able to reach Barry Cannon. Using the airline that was feeding gas to his dive rig from the pod as a kind of lifeline like a rope, pulled himself, swimming furiously, kicking his legs furiously, and pulling Barry Cannon by his other arm. They were all able to get back into the pod.
Rose: Unfortunately, by the time they got Barry Cannon back to the surface, it was too late. SEALAB had suffered its first casualty.
Ben: And there was an immediate investigation that the Navy did, and in the meantime they suspended the sea that program. They just said, “OK we’re not doing this right now.”
Rose: Everybody involved in SEALAB assumed that his pause was going to be just that… a pause. And that they’d get back to working eventually.
Ben: But instead, the program was initially suspended and ultimately just allowed to sort of fade away.
Rose: Ben thinks that part of the reason SEALAB was allowed to disappear like this, is precisely because most people had never even heard of it.
Ben: I mean, you can imagine if, when three astronauts died in the launch pad fire just a couple of years before this SEALAB accident I’m describing, if NASA had said, “you know what. Three guys just died in the launch pad fire. This is entirely too dangerous. We’re shutting this whole thing down and we’re not going to the moon. And sorry about that.” That would have caused considerable public outcry.
Rose: But with SEALAB it just… ended. Eventually, they retrieved SEALAB III from the seafloor. And to add insult to injury, they didn’t even preserve it.
Ben: That might have made a tremendous relic for a future Smithsonian museum exhibit and served as a reminder of all that went on with SEALAB. But instead I think it wound up finally at at the former Mare Island Shipyard in Northern California. But it was just sort of languishing there and ultimately cut up for scrap.
Rose: Today, most people have never heard of SEALAB, but it totally changed our understanding of what humans could do in the ocean. And even though you might not have heard of SEALAB, you’ve almost certainly benefited from the program in some way.
Ben: If you’ve put gas in your car tank you owe a debt to a saturation diver somewhere in the North Sea, or somewhere like that, who is repairing and monitoring and working on offshore oil rigs that are standing some hundreds of feet in water. But, along that water column there’s work to be done, and that can be done by saturation divers.
Rose: But experiments in living underwater didn’t end with SEALAB. Today, there are still a few different places where you can live underwater.
Jim Fourqurean: It is about the size of a school bus. And it is anchored on the bottom at Conch Reef in the Florida Keys. The hatch depth, where you get into the habitat, is at forty five feet. And the ocean depth, where it is anchored, is 60 feet. And so it’s right on the reef edge.
Rose: And when we come back we’re going to hear from some folks who have lived underwater, what that’s like, and what the laws are about construction on the seafloor. It turns out you can’t just roll up and start building stuff in the ocean! But first, a quick break.
Rose: Okay, so SEALAB faded from memory, but today, there are a handful of places you can experience underwater living. There’s a hotel called the Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, there’s a Hilton hotel in the Maldives that has an underwater restaurant. And there are projects that have been proposed in places like Fiji and Dubai that would put residents even deeper under the water.
There’s also a research base off the coast of the Florida Keys called Aquarius.
Jim: It is about the size of a school bus. And it is anchored on the bottom at Conch Reef in the Florida Keys. The hatch depth, where you get into the habitat, is at forty five feet. And the ocean depth, where it is anchored, is 60 feet. And so it’s right on the reef edge.
I’m Jim Fourqurean I’m a professor of Marine Science at Florida International University and the director of the Center for Coastal Oceans Research here at FIU. And as part of that job I oversee the operations at Aquarius.
Rose: So just like SEALAB, the idea behind Aquarius is that people living there have direct access to the ocean at any time.. So just like SEALAB Aquarius has a hole in the floor that leads straight out into the ocean.
And going down to Aquarius, it’s pretty cool.
Jim: I think my first impressions when I went into Aquarius are exactly like everybody else’s first impression that I’ve ever taken in there. It is, “wow, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” You swim through a beautifully clear water column as a coral reef around you, and you pop up into a place where you can have a cup of coffee and call home and talk science. It’s really cool.
Rose: But actually living down there, it’s not exactly luxurious.
Jim: It would be a comfortable motorhome. There are six bunks at one end.
Roger Garcia: once you get past that novelty, realize, wow I’m underwater and I can stay here and I could look outside and see all these fish and stuff like that. That generally lasts about three days, you know. [laughs]
Rose: This is Roger Garcia, he’s the operations director for Aquarius and he’s basically responsible for keeping everybody alive down there.
Roger: There’s any number of things that can go wrong, and again, always at my forefront is: If I put sex in, I need to get six back, and that’s people.
Rose: Aquarius isn’t a hotel, it’s not designed to be fancy or even particularly comfortable.
Roger: It’s close quarters living conditions. You don’t have the most comfortable beds, at all. Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s hot. It’s humid. Sometimes the air conditioning breaks.
Rose: Jim says that in the past, Aquarius smelled really weird.
Jim: Because of the way it was operated then, there was a tendency for every smell that ever went in the door to stay in the door. [laughs] But as I say, that’s a thing of the past. It’s actually quite pleasant in there now.
Rose: It doesn’t smell bad anymore, but the food still kinda stinks.
Jim: Because of the higher pressure within the habitat, and the higher partial pressure of oxygen, we don’t have open flames in the habitat. So really all our cooking is done with an electric water heater, and then we use that hot water to heat our food.
Rose: And there are some subtle things that you can’t do down at the Aquarius base.
Jim: You can’t whistle. The difference in density of the air makes it so that 99 percent of all people can no longer whistle. There are still a few that can do it, but you can’t. So that’s actually kind of surprising.
Rose [on the phone]: What makes someone…. are they just really good whistlers before? Is that the people who can whistle? What makes someone able to whistle in Aquarius?
Jim: I think it’s the people that feel challenged by the fact they can’t whistle, and they obsess about it and they spend a week trying to figure out how to do it. [laughs]
Rose: But they do have some modern conveniences!
Jim: I think at night the main use of our bandwidth is Netflix.
Rose [on the phone]: I’m so surprised you have Netflix!
Jim: No, we have a very fast internet connection.
Rose: Aquarius generally hosts only a handful of divers at a time, and they stay down usually for about 10 days for each mission. And the logistics of keeping just a few people safe down there are incredibly complicated. There are almost always more people supporting the mission than actually on the mission itself.
Roger: When we actually have to do a mission, I kind of take a look at what the customer needs are, objectives of the mission are, and sometimes I have to get additional personnel. Typically about ten, at a minimum to help support the mission, but sometimes it takes more.
Rose: Roger and his team have spend hundreds of days down at Aquarius helping assist researchers and astronauts and all kinds of people who use the base.
Roger: You know, with my staff, myself, we have anywhere from 150 days underwater, living inside the habitat, all the way up to about 250 days inside the habitat.
Rose: And the reason there has to be so many people involved in each mission, is that when you’re living underwater, a whole lot can go wrong.
Roger: We can have an air hose that can rupture. Again, even though we do maintenance, and we do visual inspections. I mean, things just happen. When we’re not out there, even though it’s a specially protected area, no one’s supposed to be out there, but people dive, and spearfish and do things you’re not supposed to out there. So sometimes they could run a fishing hook through a hose, and and the hose is damaged that way. So we can have a hose that can rupture and leak. We can have an internal problem with the carbon dioxide scrubbing system. We can have flooding, leaks, bad weather condition. You know, sometimes a storm could just develop so close to the habitat that we have to basically focus on just getting everybody out, and the rest hope for the best kind of thing.
Rose: And if something does go wrong while you’re living at Aquarius, you can’t just go to the surface. The way saturation diving works is that you get your body accustomed to the pressure and the gasses at depth, so that you can stay there for a long time. But getting your body readjusted back, that takes hours.
Roger: There’s sort of a linear decompression schedule that basically takes about 15 hours and 45 minutes.
Rose: So if someone gets sick, or hurt, you can’t just bring them to the surface.
Roger: Every once in a while, we do get some curious sharks that get a little too close. And we do have a threshold for that. If they start coming close and getting a little too curious we just bring divers inside, and just kind of wait it out. This is a little bit different. You know, if somebody accidentally gets bitten, you can’t just go straight to the surface. You have to come back to the habitat, and you have to decompress. Because even if the bite is not life threatening, it’s ten stitches. If you bring him straight to the surface, somebody could really be badly injured from decompression sickness, and the shark bite is just secondary.
Rose: Roger and Jim spend a ton of money and time on Aquarius, so much so that they’re both kind of skeptical that underwater cities are in our near future.
Jim: It costs about fifteen thousand dollars a day to run a research mission in Aquarius
Roger: If it’s not a pipe dream, it’s a long long way away, because it is very difficult to support it, let alone be at a point where it’s self-sustaining. Even if you started with a small community of 25 people and several different pods, things break, things have to be maintained, even a generator on the surface. You’ve got to maintain it. What if it breaks? Who’s going to support it? And you can just go on, and on, and on. Food. Trash. Medical supplies, right? So even something small to prove a concept is going to take quite a bit. And if anybody thinks it’s not going to be expensive, they’re living in a dream world because it is going to be expensive.
Rose: But, something being expensive isn’t always a deterrent, right? Right now, we have a handful of billionaires spending lots and lots of money on going to space, which is also very difficult and expensive. So what if an Elon Musk type character decided that instead of spending their money on a Mars settlement, they wanted to spend it building an underwater city? Could they do that? Can you buy land in the middle of the ocean and develop it?
Katherine Sammler: Well that is considered common heritage of all humankind, as designated by the third Convention of the United Nations Law of the Sea.
Rose: This is Katherine Sammler, she’s a physicist and geographer who studies something she calls the vertical commons — the sky, the sea, the climate, all the stuff that people can’t necessarily put a flag on and own.
So, after World War II, nations all over the world started making claims about how far their sovereignty extended out into the ocean.
Katherine: The law of the sea was trying to reconcile some of those differing claims, both for security reasons so that nations knew what they could do where without starting a war, but also for economic reasons so that nations and private companies could begin to invest in developing offshore resources.
Rose: The conversation around the Law of the Sea started in 1973. And it was signed in 1982.
Katherine: And then it actually came into force in 1994. So it’s still really a relatively new treaty that’s delegating who can do what, over 70 percent of the earth.
Rose: It took almost 10 years for the UN to actually finish the Law of the Sea, because different nations had different ideas about how the ocean should be divided up. One of the big worries people had was that bigger, richer, more powerful, nations might gobble up all the resources in the oceans before the less powerful nations could get a chance
Katherine: So built into the treaty is a little bit of profit sharing, and a little bit of technology transfer. Although arguably not as much as developing nations had originally argued for. The United States and some more developed nations, England and other nations, refused to sign the Law of the Sea treaty until part of that profit sharing, what they consider to be socialist, profit sharing had been toned down.
Rose: In fact, to this day, the United States has not officially ratified the Law of the Sea.
Katherine: It still comes up to debate every few years in Congress.
Rose: So the Law of the Sea divides the ocean up into different zones.
Katherine: Everything from the coastline seaward, out to 12 nautical miles, would be considered territorial waters. And that basically extends pretty much all the sovereign rights and responsibilities of that coastal nation out into that territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles.
Rose: WIthin those 12 nautical miles the laws are the same as they are on land. And then from 12-200 nautical miles from a nation’s shore, that’s another zone.
Katherine: Kind of this special ocean zone that doesn’t really quite have an equivalent on land; the Exclusive Economic Zone, which is often called the EEZ or the EE Zed, depending on who your listeners are or where they’re from.
Rose: The EEZ is basically a region where a coastal nation has the right to build and mine and develop resources. They have to let ships pass through that zone, so that global shipping can still function, but otherwise it all sort of belongs to them.
Katherine: the coastal nation that owns that exclusive economic zone has all rights to the fishing, to seabed mining potential minerals on the seafloor, oil and gas drilling in that area so the subsoil beneath the sea floor, and all the resources within there, as well as any artificial installations. So the drilling platforms that you would need to access to the subsoil minerals, or maybe any offshore wind or solar installations for energy, or potential underwater habitats as well.
Rose: Beyond 200 nautical miles, that’s when you enter the open ocean. Now, you might think that out beyond these economic zones, it’s totally lawless. But that’s not the case. If you want to build something outside of your EEZ you have to apply for a permit with the International Seabed Authority.
Katherine: Which is located in Jamaica. Which is a governance body that was created when the law of the sea was signed.
Rose: Right now, there aren’t any permit applications that I know of for undersea living. But there are people who are applying for permits to build stuff on the seafloor. They’re just not permits for houses or living situations, they’re permits for mining. Seabed mining is super fascinating, but we don’t actually have time to talk about it on this episode! So if you’re a $2 and up Patron you’ll get a whole thing about seabed mining in your newsletter this week.
So we have this law of the sea that dictates what people are supposed to do out there. But not all nations abide by the Law of the Sea. Remember, the US hasn’t even signed the thing. And other countries like China are actively building in places that technically they’re not supposed to be.
Katherine: The South China Sea is this really difficult area where a lot of different nations, Vietnam and the Philippines and China and Taiwan all have overlapping claims where they believe that they own some of these islands that they’ve had fishermen living on these islands for thousands of years, and therefore it’s part of their territory.
Rose: So China has started exerting control in this region by building artificial islands and then claiming them.
Katherine: So they take sediment from the bottom of the sea floor and pile on top of these reefs, which then brings the reefs above sea level. And by building up the reefs into a landed island then they can put this infrastructure on top of these artificial islands that help them kind of control the sea space and airspace around the islands.
Rose: Now, artificial islands are not the same thing as underwater cities, but the legal framework here is actually not that different. You have a nation that’s building something in a place that technically it’s not supposed to be. It’s not that hard to see a nation doing the same thing with an underwater habitat, if they decide they want to spend a bazillion dollars on something like that. And it’s even easier to see a private entity doing the same thing.
And it turns out that when we start thinking about private companies building underwater habitats, the Law of the Sea really isn’t prepared for that.
Katherine: Well you you really set me down a rabbit hole before this interview in thinking about some of these things because my research previously has been thinking about resource development. The development of mines to gather minerals. But the development of space itself as a resource hasn’t been something that I had really thought about as far as the sea floor goes. And it’s not something that the people that were working on the Law the Sea Treaty were thinking about. You know, despite Jacques Cousteau’s premonition that we’d all be living under the sea with gills implanted on her next back in the 60s, people were much more interested in figuring out how to divide up the sea for mineral development or fishing development. They hadn’t thought it was important to write about potential installations for other purposes.
Rose: Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about how the laws surrounding space travel were written at a time when really only nations could engage in space exploration? And how now, with all these private companies entering the space, things are getting a little confusing? Well it’s kind of the same with the law of the sea — the law was not written with private billionaires in mind.
Katherine: So there really isn’t a path forward for a private citizen to go out and build their own installation without the backing of their home nation. And so, if Elon Musk wanted to go out and build a structure in the high seas, he could potentially get the backing of any nation to flag that installation, under Panama or some flag that has less lax labor conditions, that has less environmental rules. And so, they would be under the jurisdiction of whatever nation state might sell them a flag.
Rose: The Law of the Sea does say that any building has to be for the benefit of all mankind, which might put a wrinkle in some private billionaires underwater supervillain lair type thing. And if the idea of rich people destroying ocean habitats to build super expensive and unwieldy underwater houses bothers you, Katherine did find one stipulation in the Law of the Sea that might help future us keep that from happening.
Katherine: There’s something that I found in the Law of the Sea Treaty that I thought was kind of interesting regarding developing habitat in the deep sea or really anywhere in the ocean. There’s provisions in the Law of the Sea that talk about the introduction of alien or new species that might be harmful to the marine environment. And in reality, I think introducing a permanent habitation of human species into the deep sea might in and of itself be the introduction of an invasive alien species to the marine environment which potentially could be argued against, based on some of these provisions about protecting the marine environment. Introducing humans themselves would be bringing in a new alien species, even if that’s not the original intention of what they were writing.
Rose: If you’ve ever been SCUBA diving you’re probably familiar with this feeling, that you’re totally not supposed to be there, that you’re absolutely an alien species in a completely different world. That’s what is so alluring about diving and living underwater, but it also might be the thing that should make us pause, and consider whether it’s really a good idea to start building cities in places that we really don’t understand.
[Hussalonia theme music up]
That’s all for this future! Phew, we covered a lot!
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The voices of the future this episode were provided by Stephen Granade and Andrea Klunder. You can find Stephen’s work at his Twitter, which is @ Sargent, and you can check out Andrea’s podcast The Creative Imposter anywhere you get your podcasts. The episode art is, as always, by Matt Lubchansky.
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