Sixty feet beneath the surface of the Caribbean Sea, aquanaut Fabien Cousteau and industrial designer Yves Béhar are envisioning the world's largest underwater research station and habitat.
The pair have unveiled Fabien Cousteau's Proteus, a 4,000-square-foot modular lab that will sit under the water off the coast of Curaçao, providing a home to scientists and researchers from across the world studying the ocean -- from the effects of climate change and new marine life to medicinal breakthroughs.
Designed as a two-story circular structure grounded to the ocean floor on stilts, Proteus' protruding pods contain laboratories, personal quarters, medical bays and a moon pool where divers can access the ocean floor. Powered by wind and solar energy, and ocean thermal energy conversion, the structure will also feature the first underwater greenhouse for growing food, as well as a video production facility.
The Proteus is intended to be the underwater version of the International Space Station (ISS), where government agencies, scientists, and the private sector can collaborate in the spirit of collective knowledge, irrespective of borders.
"Ocean exploration is 1,000 times more important than space exploration for -- selfishly -- our survival, for our trajectory into the future," Cousteau said over a video call, with Béhar. "It's our life support system. It is the very reason why we exist in the first place."
The newly unveiled design is the latest step for this ambitious project. According to Cousteau, it will take three years until Proteus is installed, though the coronavirus pandemic has already delayed the project.
Though oceans cover 71 percent of the world's surface, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that humans have only explored about 5 percent and mapped less than 20 percent of the world's seas.
Space exploration receives more attention and funding than its aquatic counterpart, which Cousteau hopes to remedy with Proteus -- and eventually a worldwide network of underwater research habitats. Facilities stationed in different oceans could warn of tsunamis and hurricanes, Cousteau said. They could also pioneer ambitious new research into sustainability, energy and robotics.
Underwater habitats allow scientists to perform continuous night and day diving without requiring hours of decompression between dives. Like astronauts in space, they can stay underwater for days or weeks at a time.
Currently, the only underwater habitat that exists is the 400-square-foot Aquarius, in the Florida Keys, which Costeau stayed in with a team of aquanauts for 31 days in 2014. Designed in 1986 and originally owned by the NOAA, in 2013 Florida International University saved Aquarius from being abandoned after the NOAA lost government funding.
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