Cousteau & our life aquatic, by Tristan Rutherford
Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, September 2021
Captain Nemo was right. Undersea explorers like Jacques Cousteau proved that humankind can thrive on the ocean floor. Can new subaquatic cities solve population and climate crises? Can underwater restaurants and hotels point a path? It might be time to turn science fiction into science fact.
In 1963 Jacques Cousteau, ocean explorer extraordinaire, had a singular idea. “The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish,” he explained. To realise his aim, Cousteau constructed Continental Shelf Station Two. This experimental underwater colony was tethered to the ocean floor in the translucent Red Sea waters off Sudan. Six French ‘oceanauts’ would live in the starfish-shaped structure for 30 days. Here they could scuba with impunity without needing to surface or regulate depth.
Continental Shelf Station Two was sustained from above. Radio messages, classical music and weather forecasts were beamed down from the 42m Calypso, a former Royal Navy minesweeper, which Cousteau had converted into an explorer yacht. Scuba divers delivered other essentials by hand. Like oxygen tanks, French newspapers, hair clippers, fresh meat, red wine and billet doux posted par avion from Paris. Gauloises cigarettes were another necessity. When not swimming, the six oceanauts pontificated and smoked like a subaquatic Jean-Paul Sartre.
Cousteau’s daily reverie attracted a global audience. Each morning the oceanauts swam out into a watery wilderness while gazing up at the sunny surface above. Shoals of barracuda flew like flocks of birds. Hammerheads cruised past like strutting gangs. Using a rudimentary seascooter - essentially a torpedo strapped between a diver’s legs - they could trail giant trevally. Microscopic fauna was collected for inspection, “some nothing more than organised water,” mused Cousteau.
The oceanauts slowly became mermen. They shunned the 24-hour clock. A Technicolor parade of tassled scorpionfish paraded past their windows night and day. Forget cabin fever. Cousteau’s group couldn’t tell if they were looking into an aquarium, or living inside one. The experiment became them.
The movie Cousteau made about the project, World Without Sun, won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. (That year Alain Delon and Gregory Peck helped present the golden Oscar statuettes.) More importantly, Cousteau proved that an undersea existence wasn’t merely possible, but preferable. It encouraged others to take the plunge, for a variety of reasons.
In 1970 NASA made their own underwater study. The American space agency sunk an underwater laboratory named Tektite II off the US Virgin Islands in 15m of gin clear seas. The experiment was supposed to collect data concerning weightlessness, oxygen toxicity and interpersonal psychology for use in manned space stations. Instead it gifted divers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to loosen the tethers of gravity for two fantastical weeks.
One Tektite II mission consisted of five female ‘aquanauts’. The lead submariner was Camper & Nicholsons partner Dr Sylvia Earle. “Time was unlimited,” remembered Earle. She spent up to 12 hours a day navigating a tropical aquarium of 400 reef species, “like the family of angelfish on their morning stroll”. Washington journalists took Earle’s mission less seriously. “Five Gals Face Plunge With One Hair Dryer,” laughed the Associated Press. However, Tektite II’s all-female scientists spent longer underwater than their male counterparts, paving the way for the first female American astronaut in 1983.
Coral has encrusted the remains of Continental Shelf Station Two and Tektite II off Sudan and the Virgin Islands respectively. Both sites can be dived using a Camper & Nicholsons yacht. The pioneering panache of Earle and Cousteau has a greater legacy in the dozens of ocean floor projects that may come to fruition. In Japan the Shimizu Corporation has proposed the Ocean Spiral. It looks like a 500m-wide floating football, which contains solar-powered farms and habitation for 5,000 people. The spiral section transports scientists 3km down to the Pacific seabed where they can monitor seismic occurrences. Thermal ocean energy spirals up in the other direction.
One project may have been inspired by Cousteau’s expedition to Lake Titicaca in Peru, where some residents still dwell on reed islands on the vast Andean lake. Lilypad is a floating utopian city styled by Belgian eco-architect Vincent Callebaut. It’s designed to rehouse 50,000 people displaced by rising sea levels. Half above the water, half below, an artificial lagoon in Lilypad’s centre would act as ballast as the city floated - without the need for national suzerainty - around the globe. The views above and below the waves would astound.
Two subaquatic ideas have already been brought to life. Under in Norway is the world's largest underwater restaurant. Its €240 tasting menu is a Scandi-sensation of ling roe with wildflowers and burnt langoustine with fermented honey. The fine dining experience at Under is illuminated by the ethereal emerald glow of a Norwegian fjord. The Muraka Suite at Conrad Rangali Island in The Maldives allows guests to sleep with the fish. The master bedroom is a submerged glass pod. Guests may indulge with Aesop beauty products while manta rays flash past their shower. Room rates start at $9,999 per night.
Tristan Rutherford writes superyacht stories for Boat International.