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World’s largest underwater research station unveiled

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

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.

Fabien Cousteau's Proteus

Fabien Cousteau’s Proteus Credit: Courtesy Proteus/Yves Béhar/Fuseproject

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.

Yves Behar (left) and Fabien Cousteau (right) are leading the Proteus project.

Yves Behar (left) and Fabien Cousteau (right) are leading the Proteus project. Credit: Fuseproject/Clare Vonderhaar

Left undiscovered

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.

The Aquarius underwater research habitat in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Aquarius underwater research habitat in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Mark Conlin/VW PICS/UIG/Getty Images

Family tradition

Cousteau comes from a family of famous oceanographic explorers. He’s the son of filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau and grandson of Aqua-Lung co-creator Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The project is a joint effort between the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center (FCOLC) and Béhar’s design firm Fuseproject, as well as their partners, which include Northeastern University, Rutgers University and the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity Foundation.

Despite his emphasis on ocean research, Cousteau said he’s “a big proponent of space exploration,” noting they are similar in nature. Both types of missions require humans to be in isolation in extreme, untenable conditions. Because of that, Béhar’s design, which can house up to 12 people, focuses on wellness as well as scientific and technological capabilities, including recreation areas and windows designed to let in as much light as possible.

“We’ve worked recently on a lot of small living environments. We’ve worked on robotic furniture for tiny apartments,” Béhar said about Fuseproject. “So I think we had a good sense of how to design for comfort in constrained environments. That said, the underwater environment is completely different.”

“We wanted it to be new and different and inspiring and futuristic,” he continued. “So (we looked) at everything from science fiction to modular housing to Japanese pod (hotels).” The design is also meant to echo ocean life, with its structure inspired by the shape of coral polyps.

Béhar and his team also studied the underwater research habitats that have come before Proteus, including the Aquarius. All other forerunners were temporary structures built for single missions, like NASA’s experimental SEALAB I, II, and III from the 1960s.

“Those habitats were purpose built, they were small and they had great limitations,” Cousteau said. “So we’re building off of…(a) foundation by all those amazing pioneers that came before us.”

Fabien Cousteau's Proteus

Fabien Cousteau’s Proteus Credit: Courtesy Proteus/Yves Béhar/Fuseproject

Diving ahead

While the project currently has some backing from the private sector, it is currently seeking further funding. Beyond backers, the station’s wet and dry labs can be leased to government agencies, corporations and academic institutions.

Part of the plan is to offer regular visibility about what is happening on Proteus, including live streams and VR/AR content. In this way Cousteau hopes to engage a wider audience.

“Imagine if you found something amazing — whether it be microcosmic like a pharmaceutical, or macrocosmic like the next greatest animal — if you could show it to classrooms and universities,” he said.

“Our mission is to be able to translate complex science into something that the average person not only maybe will understand, but fall in love with.”

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