Since the dawn of the modern SCUBA age ushered in by Jacques Cousteau in the early 1940s, ocean explorers have been seeking new ways to stay under the sea for longer stretches. Restricted by tank size and human physiology under pressure, SCUBA divers must periodically come up for air, sometimes within just minutes of hitting bottom.
Enter the Ocean Space Habitat, conceived of as sort of underwater “basecamp.”
Designed and recently patented by National Geographic explorer Michael Lombardi and Winslow Burleson, an associate professor at New York University, the inflatable Ocean Space Habitat is a portable life-support system for divers who want to go deeper and stay longer than conventional SCUBA allows.
Using a conventional self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) comes with several constraints. For one, deeper dives mean shorter amounts of time on the sea floor since the human body consumes air faster as it moves deeper. And surfacing safely requires a lengthy wait at various depths to acclimate to the changing pressure. An improper ascent can cause decompression sickness or “the bends,” when gas bubbles build up in the blood and tissues. And reaching a hyperbaric chamber to treat the dangerous condition can be difficult and expensive.
“We’ve been in remote places where, if you get bent, you can kiss your butt goodbye,” says National Geographic underwater photographer Jennifer Hayes. In such locales, where emergency facilities are out of reach, she and partner David Doubilet are forced to dive conservatively—which can severely affect their work.
Lombardi and Burleson’s habitat aims to solve that problem, among others. Inspired by some “uh oh” diving experiences, when, on a fast-shrinking air supply he required extra-long decompression stops in the open ocean, Lombardi wanted to design a breathing room—sheltered from cold and predators—for decompression, emergencies, and “productive use of unproductive time.”
In their inflatable “tent,” several divers at a time can swim up into the dry chamber, remove gear, talk, eat, process samples, and even sleep through the decompression process.
In the case of an emergency, “such an in-water recompression shelter [would have] a very large upside,” notes Hayes, “the ability to communicate during an undesirable and potentially life-threatening experience.”
Another obvious plus is air conservation. Especially for a photographer going after wild fleeting targets, Hayes says, “a few more minutes of air can make the difference between success and failure.”
Since it was first tested in the late 1930s, “saturation diving,” when a diver remains under pressure for long periods rather than acclimating to surface pressure repeatedly, has allowed increased access to the world’s oceans.
Undersea “habitats” to accommodate longer dives aren’t a new idea: The simplest form, the diving bell, has been around for decades, in a host of creative iterations. (Cave divers have been known to flip a cattle trough and wedge it against a cave ceiling for this purpose, notes anthropologist Kenneth Broad of the University of Miami, though there can be CO2 build up without proper gas flushing, “so please don’t try this at home.”)
Today the offshore oil and other commercial seagoing industries support saturation-diving facilities, including both sunken and ship-board (pressurized) chambers, while NOAA has an undersea base called Aquarius, the only such site dedicated to science. It lets researchers work for days, weeks, or even months in the reefs off Key Largo, Florida without coming up for air until the work is done.
You Can Take It With You
But Aquarius isn’t mobile, while the new “tent” is portable, its makers say—the main structure can be packed and checked as luggage, and divers can disassemble it down and re-inflate it at another site, as needed. “Having the option of such a portable rig would be a welcome addition to the exploration science arsenal,” says Broad.
Plus, its affordable, costing less to buy than some single diving operations cost to run. “I like to think [it offers] an opportunity for a truly ‘immersive’ experience,” Lombardi wrote in an email. “The tent allows us to take home a bit more than we would as temporary visitors using conventional SCUBA techniques.”
“It could also be a valuable shared resource,” he adds, for a group interested in long underwater science excursions or even “underwater tea parties and picnic lunches.”
Burleson notes that diving with the habitat “is like turning a short hike in the woods into a weekend-long camping excursion. The habitat allows you to do more of what you’re coming for, whether you’re a photographer or coral researcher or citizen scientist.”
But what’s most exciting, he says, is what the gear could mean for those who don’t normally work beneath the sea. “Imagine if a tourist, normally limited to a one-hour dive, could stay under through that magical transition from sunlight to twilight to darkness—with all the life that emerges,” he says. “People could experience the ocean in a whole new way.”
With the patent stamp still fresh, Burleson and Lombardi are seeking partners for new expeditions. “For divers ready to explore the possibilities, we hope they'll get in touch,” he says. “We are ready to get this out there.”