China's sea dragon and humankind undersea
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - The Chinese submersible Jiaolong and its three-man crew diving
five kilometers below the eastern Pacific Ocean on July 26 hauled nearer a time
when people will work and live long-term underwater, beneath oceans, lagoons
and deep lakes.
The idea of residential addresses below the ocean is not so far-fetched, with
undersea holiday resorts already existing, submarine inventors of all kinds
being busy for over 400 years and
modern-day nuclear submarines capable of staying underwater continuously for up
to three months.
Japan has held the Guinness world record for deep sea diving vessels since
1989, with the Japanese Shinkai 6500 diving to 6,526 meters (21,410
feet) on August 11, 1989, in the Japan Trench off Sanriku coast, northeastern
Honshu island. On board were two pilots and a researcher.
However, China's manned submersible Jiaolong, named after a sea dragon
from folklore, is engineered to dive to an unprecedented 7 kilometers - setting
a highly creditable new low for the depths to which humans can sink.
The three Jialong crew members, Ye Cong, Yang Bo and Fu Wentao munched
steamed buns and sandwiches 5.047 kilometers beneath the sea last Tuesday, at a
depth over six times that can be reached by a navy submarine.
"Having lunch at the seabed is like a picnic," declared the 31-year-old chief
pilot Ye Cong. The three Chinese aquanauts were earlier trained in the US
submersible Alvin, the world's first manned deep-sea submersible, which
has been in operation since 1964 with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
China, which started project Jiaolong in 2002, is the fifth country to
send a manned vehicle over 3,500 meters below sea level, following the United
States, Russia, France and Japan - maybe further ensuring that it's a question
of when not if schoolchildren will get acquainted with Isaac Newton and
Pythagoras in class rooms six kilometers beneath the sea.
Underwater hotels are already a reality, with Davy Jones Locker being turned
into Davy Jones Lodge - or Jules Undersea Lodge, in Key Largo, Florida, US. A
two-month advance booking is needed in this well-known resort on the floor of a
lagoon. Over 10,000 undersea guests have been enthralled in its 20-year
lifespan, a maximum of six guests at a time.
The guests scuba dive down five fathoms (about 10 meters) to the Jules Undersea
Lodge entrance, into two opulent underwater bedrooms, a common bathroom, hot
showers, a well stocked kitchen with refrigerator and microwave, a common room
with books, music, video movies - all underwater.
And the underwater view of the Atlantic Ocean is so breathtaking, according the
Jules Undersea Lodge management, the stay sometimes becomes a career changing
one for guests. One couple decided to operate a dive shop after experiencing
Land only covers 29% of the Earth's surface, with ocean waters comprising the
remaining 71%. But why would humans consider moving into the seas? It's not
lack of real estate or alternative housing options, more an affinity for
deep-sea life, like some love living near snow-capped mountains, under the
star-filled skies above.
"What is the biggest challenge to living underwater for longer periods of
time?" Asia Times Online asked Commander (retired) Robin Pereira, a submarine
captain for 18 years in the Indian navy.
"The ability to endure confined spaces for prolonged durations," says Pereira
who captained two Foxtrot submarines - the Russian-built class of subs that
featured in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 - and another modern submarine
whose class and name he cannot disclose for security reasons. "Habitability and
motivation play a big part in this."
Getting used to daily life in somewhere new, like moving from a sleepy village
to the city, is a big factor. Given the size of the oceans it could even become
a less claustrophobic than life on land - if technology can catch up with man's
ambition and make a Sunday morning walk on the Indian Ocean floor possible. The
Pereira says normal civilian life undersea is possible. "Why not long-term life
underwater, if scientists are already living in extreme conditions such as in
Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, or people living in deserts?" he asks.
Pereira lived undersea in extreme conditions often for over a month and once
for 40 days at a stretch. His submarine surfaced briefly every night at
periscope depth to suck in the air needed for life aboard and the three diesel
"Underwater, our ears were our eyes, there being no windows to look outside,"
Pereira told Asia Times Online. "The submarine sonar equipment was manned 24
hours, and we could only hear enemy ships, merchant ships and fish."
A nuclear submarine can theoretically stay underwater continuously for five
years without surfacing. "It's the human element more than the technology,"
says Pereira, "that determines how long a submarine can remain now undersea."
Even experienced sailors sometimes cracked under the challenging life of a
submariner deep beneath the sea, and had to be given sedatives until they
recovered, says Pereira.
Life did not seem easy from what I could gather from a day's visit inside a
Foxtrot submarine, the German-built Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft submarine, as
a guest of the Western Naval Command base in Mumbai. It was a few years before
the last of the Indian navy's Foxtrots INS Vagli were decommissioned in
The Foxtrot - a generation of submarines closer to World War II vintage - was a
narrow, dimly lit, grey 91.3 meter-long metal tube, with living quarters,
working quarters, a small toilet with a dubious flush, and no bathing
facilities when the submarine was at sea.
"If technology can make living conditions undersea more comfortable, safe, with
beautiful views of the ocean depths outside, then living underwater for longer
periods need not be much of a problem," says Pereira, who presently heads the
business operations of the Mumbai-based Unique Global Logistics, a services
provider to offshore oil and gas exploration companies.
Life is relatively much more spacious inside modern nuclear submarines like the USS
Ohio class submarines that are 170 meters long, nearly the length of
two football fields, housing a crew of about 109 sailors and 32 officers. The
US Navy describes nuclear submarines as the "most technologically advanced
machines ever built".
People have safely lived and worked in less unlikely places than submarines, as
in the 10-year old International Space Station (ISS). A six-person crew ISS
crew, including Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, are currently living 240
miles above the Earth.
In 1994-95, Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov lived continuously in the Mir
Space Station for a world record 437 days and 18 hours, before returning in
good health back to Earth after 14 months.
Since then, 196 astronauts from eight different countries have gone about daily
life safely in the football field-sized ISS, in extra-terrestrial living
quarters larger than a five-bedroom house. So investing in terrestrial life
inside oceans does not appear an entirely crazy idea.
And emerging new technology will always find new uses. On August 14, the
Japanese submersible Shinkai 6500 - shinkai meaning "deep sea" -
will be sent down to the seabed near the Japan Trench, around the epicenter of
the Great East Japan Earthquake in March. It's the first ever a
manned-submersible will study the ocean floor for earthquakes.
China's Jiaolong is being readied to dive down seven kilometers below
the ocean's surface in 2012. Perhaps the fabled underwater city of Atlantis
began with such early pioneers and frontier-stretching efforts.
One such pioneer is Turkey-based Canadian Michael Schutte, the chief executive
officer of Brilliant Boats, a naval architecture and marine engineering
consultancy in the Turkish Mediterranean town of Antalya. Schutte is working on
his Poseidon Undersea Resort - the world's first undersea five-star hotel, a
sunken yacht with 24 undersea suites and apartments covering 51 square meters,
anchored on the ocean floor 12 meters beneath the Pacific Ocean surface.
"The response to Poseidon was overwhelming," Schutte said in an e-mail to Asia
Times Online. "We have probably had a thousand press features around the world,
and thousands of people signing up for advance booking. We have had serious
interest from Asia for development of underwater facilities for residences,
casinos, and event venues."
Schutte says the Poseidon project is on temporary hold due to the global
recession, but the engineering, interior design and production planning and
engineering are continuing at "a reduced but still significant pace".
"I firmly believe that in this generation we will start to move [back] into the
sea," says Schutte, with 20-years experience of working in underwater habitats
and submarine vessels. "We have a perfect congruence of available technology,
affordability and desire to do this now."
Others agree in this tribe of aquanauts, the deep ocean equivalent of
astronauts. 51-year old Dennis Chamberland, from Broken Arrow, Okhlahoma, is
one of world's leading proponents to have houses beneath the sea. A former navy
engineer, Chamberland is working on his Atlantica project, which aims to create
the world's first permanent undersea habitat. The project's Leviathan, the
first underwater module, is scheduled to dive down on July 4, 2012.
"While we live crowded and struggling on a mere 59 million square miles of dry
land," says Chamberland in his website, "this new territory of certain promise
[oceans] encompass an astonishing 138 million cubic miles of habitable space."
Next July, Chamberland, his wife Claudia and Art Ortolani will enter the
Leviathan habitat in hopes of cracking the world record for uninterrupted stay
beneath the ocean. Rick Presley holds the existing record for living and
working 69 days continuously undersea in the Jules Undersea Lodge in 1991.
The Leviathan will have 24 other aquanauts in five day shifts, with underwater
guest dwellers including scientists, teachers and journalists. Step Two, by
2015, is when the Challenger Station habitat is scheduled to be launched off
the Florida cost, becoming the largest manned undersea habitat ever built and
the world's first permanent undersea human colony.
"We are the first humans who will move there and stay with no intention of ever
calling dry land our home again," says Chamberland. "We represent the first
generation of a people who will live out their lives beneath the sea."
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