SETTLERS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA

Experiments in living beneath the surface of the ocean in special underwater houses like the one built by the U.S. Navy (right) may bring a new era of exploration—and homesteading
June 28, 1964

Through ages of darkness and light the race of man has clung to the curious notion that up is good and down is bad. Man himself may live in a cave as foreboding as the adits of hell, but he usually worships gods who live higher. Man came from the sea—its substance is unmistakably in him—but few men have ever been back down for a good look around, and to most men the depths are an undesirable and spooky place.

In every cubic yard of seawater there is a touch of nourishment as well as a trace of gold. Along the edges of continents and archipelagos there are submarine shelves—a total of at least 10 million square miles—where the depth rarely exceeds 600 feet. Many of these shelves are rich with marine life and underwater plant growth, and some may be brimming with oil and other subterranean treasure. The world in its overcrowded state more and more needs the protein and minerals to be found under the sea, and in the past six years several small bands of men have been trying to live underwater in order to learn how to make this wealth more accessible. They could use help, but they are not apt to get much. The world is too dazzled by rocket men to take much notice of the oddballs down below.

Early this year the U.S. hit the moon with a $28 million rocket that failed to send back any information. It is estimated that a man can be put on the moon by 1970 for $20 billion, a price we will have to pay to find out for sure if its surface is cheese or merely a layer of sterile dust (as some believe). In any case, it would cost still more to make the moon livable, and it will be a long time before we build a putty factory in a lunar crater or turn cattle out to graze in the dry bed of a lunar sea.

Meanwhile, in a small way we are mining the world's wet sea, harvesting its oysters and kelp and herding its fish, but the yield of the sea could be increased fivefold in this decade if the prospectors, farmers and fish herders could live on the continental shelves in undersea houses. Within the past two years eight Frenchmen have lived safely at depths ranging from 33 to 90 feet for periods of one week to a month. Before this year is out, there probably will be five or six Americans living below, and a Belgian and several more Frenchmen. The cost thus far of these experiments has been a comparative pittance—less than $4 million in France and the U.S.

The underwater houses of all these experiments, though different in size and shape, work on the same principle. Essentially each, is a leakproof container with an open port on the underside. By a simple old law of physics, as long as the pressure of air or breathable gas inside equals the pressure of the water outside, the water will not rise in the open port. Thus a diver can leave his dry undersea house through the port and return to it from the water as easily as getting in and out of a swimming pool.

There have been for some years safe gas mixtures and breathing equipment that allow a free diver to spend an hour or two at considerable depth, at pressures four or more times that at sea level. But after his short stay the diver must spend a tedious long time in calculated ascent, gradually purging himself of the inert gas that saturated his tissues while he was under increased pressure. If he ascends too fast, the gas in his tissues may form bubbles as the pressure diminishes, precisely as carbonic gas forms bubbles in a soft drink when it is uncapped. The bubbles in the human system can be deadly, or at least may bring about the anguish known as the "bends." To avoid the bends, a diver who does only a couple of hours' work while breathing air at a depth of 140 feet needs the whole afternoon simply to travel back to the surface.

However, nitrogen and helium, the two inert gases commonly used in breathing mixtures, totally saturate the human tissues in about 30 hours, regardless of depth. Thus the diver who lives below for a month in an underwater house can put in many days of work and yet will not have to spend any more time returning to the surface than if he had spent only a day and a night below.

When the world's first permanently submerged settlement is built at some time in the future, a plaque should be put up somewhere in the underwater town hall to honor two Frenchmen, Raymond Kientzy and André Portelatine. Kientzy, 34, and Portelatine, 47, deserve to be known as the first undersea men, for they were the first to live under pressure at a significant depth. Last summer, while five of their colleagues lived and breathed natural air at about twice normal pressure in a comparatively roomy house 36 feet down, Kientzy and Portelatine spent a week of steamy discomfort still farther down, at a depth of 90 feet, breathing an unnatural mixture of helium and air at about four times normal pressure. They slept (sometimes fitfully) and ate (sometimes indifferently) in a cramped cylindrical house hung by cables on the steep side of a coral rampart in the Red Sea. During their week in the deep, Kientzy and Portelatine sallied forth daily, exploring downward to the 363-foot level. In one week they went a long way toward proving that man can live at a depth that puts much of the sunken shelf land within reach.

On the plaque the name of a famous French diver, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, deserves a place beside the names of Kientzy and Portelatine, for he directed their pioneering week below. Beyond this contribution, Cousteau deserves mention because in the past 20 years he has done much to make the fanciful world of Jules Verne come true. There have always been mountains worth climbing, heights worth scaling, and now, thanks largely to Cousteau, there are depths worth sinking to.

The plaque should also honor Robert Stenuit, a 31-year-old Belgian diver, and Edwin Link, the 59-year-old American inventor. In a combination house-and-decompression chamber that Link designed, Stenuit two years ago stayed slightly more than 24 hours at 200 feet, breathing a helium-oxygen mixture at about seven times sea-level pressure. He had hoped to stay longer, but a minor failure in his gas supply forced him up. This week, in the Bahamas, Stenuit and Jon Lindbergh, son of another pioneer—Charles Lindbergh—were scheduled to try to live at 400 feet for three or four days in an inflatable rubber house designed by Link. Four hundred feet is a big, bold step, and hopefully one that would not cost Stenuit and Lindbergh their lives. At this early point in its history the new science of underwater living can ill afford martyrs.

Although Cousteau, Link and the others deserve more attention than they now get, there has been some criticism of their operations. The prolonged dive planned by Link, Stenuit and Lindbergh is unprecedented. No diver has ever been exposed to similar conditions for more than 24 hours, even in the simulated environment of a compression chamber on land. The critics ask: Why not study the effects on the human system in a compression chamber before venturing into the uncontrollable sea? The answer perhaps lies in the zeal of the three men. They were eager to find out; they were too restless to wait.

As for Cousteau, some divers feel he is not passing on as much knowledge as he could to others who are working to live underwater. In his account of life under the Red Sea last summer, Cousteau dotes on the beauty seen through the window of an underwater house and tells how he enjoyed a reeking Tuscan cigar after dining 36 feet below with five members of his team who lived there for a month. He reports that the champagne was flat because of the increased pressure, and he discourses on the odd behavior of wild and half-tame fish. Such an account popularizes undersea living but does not do much to advance it. It has been a year now, for example, since Cousteau's men, Kientzy and Portelatine, exposed themselves to a rather exact set of conditions that no man had tried before, even in a laboratory. Yet there has never been a physiological report on either of the men. This much is known: they are alive, sleeping and eating well and enjoying good wine. But there are physiologists in both hemispheres who would like to know much more about Kientzy and Portelatine—about their hearts, their lungs, their circulatory systems, their blood chemistries and their urine.

The gravest problems of undersea living lie within man. The human body is remarkably well designed to stand the direct effect of pressure underwater. But the indirect effects of pressure are something else again. The tissues of the body use only one gas, oxygen, but, in a curious way, the inert nitrogen that is inhaled and the toxic waste gas, carbon dioxide, that is exhaled are also important. The overburden of carbon dioxide in the system is the principal stimulus to breathing. The 78% nitrogen in our air serves as a diluent, cutting the oxygen down to a level that humans can live with. High concentrations of oxygen, if breathed too long, are toxic, a 55% concentration being about the tolerable limit for long periods at sea level.

Safe breathing mixtures are fairly easy to maintain. The only trouble is that a mixture that is safe at sea level can be dangerous and deadly in the increasing pressure below. The 21% oxygen in natural air is safe at very shallow depths, but at 66 feet it is more than a man can tolerate for long, and at 300 feet it is highly toxic. Similarly, the carbon dioxide concentration that a man must often tolerate in a fetid, car-choked city is more than he can stand at considerable depth. And, as even novices know, the inert gas, nitrogen, becomes increasingly narcotic as a diver descends. To make things worse, there are synergistic effects—evil collusion of the gases, you might say—that aggravate the dangers man faces below. The retention of too much carbon dioxide tends to increase the narcotic effect of nitrogen, and physiologists suspect that it also contributes to the toxic effect of oxygen. Nitrogen dulls the respiratory center of the brain, increasing the chance of anoxia or excessive buildup of carbon dioxide.

Some problems—notably narcosis and the gross density of the breathing mixture—are obviated by substituting a lighter inert gas, helium, for nitrogen. Oxygen toxicity can be prevented by lowering the oxygen percentage proportionately as the pressure increases below. To complicate matters further, men were not created equal for the sea. Some men tolerate the effects of pressure far better than others, for reasons not wholly understood.

In the past 60 years there has been much study of these problems, but virtually all of it was aimed at getting man down for short visits. Not until six years ago did anyone venture very far along the trail of research that will lead to permanent settlement of the sea. If Cousteau and the others deserve a plaque in the town hall of the first underwater community, a statue of that first pathfinder should be erected in the center of the town square. The name: Captain George F. Bond.

Bond, a 49-year-old Navy doctor, first publicly suggested living in the sea in 1957, but he takes no credit for it—he came across the idea while reading the writings of a 15th century English bishop. Then, in October 1958, without any breathing apparatus, Bond and Navy Chief Cyril Tuckfield left the escape hatch of the submarine U.S.S. Archer-fish at a depth of 302 feet. Carefully breathing out the single massive breath of air they had packed into their lungs in the hatch, they made the surface in 53 seconds and proved that the hitherto accepted submarine escape depth of 100 feet was far short of the potential limit. Sport divers who might be tempted to try the same thing with their brand-new scuba rigs should note that there are half a dozen different ways of dying en route up. Bond's dramatic ascent was preceded by much thinking and calculating and by practice at lesser depths.

Although he is a man of imagination, Captain Bond examines all new ideas, including his own, with the skepticism of a pawnbroker. About seven years ago he and his colleagues began a series of tests that exposed a variety of animals for prolonged periods to various breathing mixtures at pressure equal to 200 feet. In these tests Bond tried natural air (lethal), pure oxygen (lethal), a mixture of 97% nitrogen and 3% oxygen (definitely harmful), and a mixture of 97% helium and 3% oxygen (successful).

These tests, along with others, served as the departure point for the undersea experiments by Cousteau and Link. The fact that animals survived in helium-oxygen for 12 days indicates that man probably could, too—and Cousteau and Link acted on that conclusion—but the evidence was not compelling enough for Bond. He does not believe in guessing when knowing is possible. He frequently says, "It makes no sense to go underwater or anywhere else unless you know how you got there."

He began a series of simulated undersea tests on men, exposing them for prolonged periods to helium-oxygen mixtures at sea level and then at pressures equivalent to those at depths of 100 and 200 feet. Early in July, as a result of these tests, Bond will direct an operation in which four Navy men will try living for three weeks 192 feet down on an Atlantic rise 26 miles off Bermuda. Their 40-foot cylindrical house has all the homey charm of a Civil War submarine. It is in fact a scrap job, made of the fore and aft sections of experimental minesweeping floats. But it is safe, and if the sea can only keep its temper the test should be a success. The hearts and temperatures and pulmonary functions of the men will be checked daily. Blood and urine samples will be brought to the surface and analyzed. If Bond's undersea men should contract some new kind of undersea measles, it will be the best-documented measles epidemic in history, and in any case the cause of undersea development will have achieved a tremendous step forward.

The careers of Captain Bond, Captain Cousteau and Edwin Link have an odd fact in common: in their younger years not one of the three had any intention of diving deeper than a mallard duck. Captain Cousteau discovered the new sport of goggle-fishing after his hopes of becoming an aviator were dashed by an automobile accident in 1936. He has had little time since to look back into the sky. Edwin Link spent 20 successful years in aviation as a flyer, inventor (the Link Trainer) and industrialist. He did not dive seriously until his late 40s, an age when an affluent executive often thinks of nothing more strenuous than weekend golf.

Captain Bond's approach to the water was even more circuitous. He attended fine private schools in Switzerland and the U.S. and, after his family's fortune vanished in the Depression, he went to the University of Florida at a cost of $37 a year. He wanted to be a doctor, but first he earned a master's degree in philology so that he could teach languages while getting his medical degree at McGill University. Because it gave him free food, he also taught butchery at Florida, and the ire rises in him when he sees a supermarket hack abusing the butcher's art today.

After internship Bond went into the old mountains of North Carolina to practice among 6,000 people who lived 50 years behind the times in hamlets, coves and hollows. The 500 square miles that Dr. Bond covered included Chimney Rock (pop. 300), Bat Cave (pop. 76), Bearwallow (pop. 50) and World's Edge (pop. 20) and stretched southward to Drunkard's Flats and Pumpkin Center (pops, uncounted). He charged $1.50 for an office visit, $2 for a cabin call and $35 for delivery and postnatal care of a baby. He was paid in cash or in apples, honey, canned huckleberries, peaches, chickens and pigs. He soon was master of the world's worst hog farm, since the local folks customarily paid him with the runt of the litter.

Medically speaking, it was fertile ground; as Bond now recalls, "You name it, they had it." When he first went into the hills many there did not think a doctor was necessary—they had been living and dying for years without one. When a mountain lady brought out the family shotgun to protest an injection Bond wanted to give her daughter, Bond took a .38 pistol out of his doctor's bag. No shots were fired; one was administered. Bond's work as a country doctor became widely known. His medical years in the hills were reported in several magazines, in a documentary film and on radio. Today in Bat Cave there is something of a monument to Dr. Bond: a small hospital and clinic constructed largely by volunteer labor.

The Army called Bond down out of his hills during the Korean war. The Army then found it had too many doctors and bucked him over to the other services. He went through the Navy's deep-sea diving school and submarine school and ended up as medical officer of a submarine squadron, where he began having ideas. When his tour of duty was over, Bond went back to the hills, but they were no longer the challenge they had been. The problems of the sea kept nagging. He applied for permanent duty in the Navy and was accepted, and the entire course of undersea exploration was immeasurably enriched.

Still, lovers of the sea who yearn for a little place below that they can call their own should, for the present, keep their enthusiasm in check. The undersea development slickers most probably will be offering choice sites of breathtaking beauty in Coral Heights, Angelfish Hollow and other shallows just a few dozen feet down where breathing natural air is cheap and safe. The buyer should beware. He who buys a shallow house lives in a bright and cheery world, but on weekends he will have the nutty powerboat crowd of the land world roaring around right over the roof, tangling anchors in the shark fence and popping down with mask and flippers to gawk through the picture window.

The man who cannot stand such lingering pressures of the land world must keep in mind that, in the stormless world still farther down, pressures of a different kind will also complicate his life. The man who takes a woman to live with him at 200 feet should know that the necessary helium in their atmosphere will bleed off body heat rapidly. The woman who complains about 68° in her living room on land will complain if the thermostat is set below 90° at 200 feet. And at that depth a shrill woman is very, very shrill, for in a helium atmosphere at increased pressure the normal resonance of the human voice goes to pot. The best Shakespeare spoken by Burton or Gielgud sounds like an LP phonograph record played at 78 rpm. In helium homes, undersea children who are taught the best English will sound as if they are speaking bad French. (In Bond's undersea house there is a separate telephone compartment with a nitrogen-oxygen mixture. The occupants can go there briefly for voice contact with support craft above them.)

In the undersea home of the future the man who goes back to the land world to sell the rubies he has been digging or to complain about the helium bill will undoubtedly, on his return, be accused by his wife of living it up on the road. In the way women have, she will know that he has been eating fried foods and eggs up there, luxuries She cannot have at home because of the acrolein and hydrogen sulfide that they add to the recirculating gas mixture. The 200-foot family that plans a picnic up on the top of the coral reef must remember not to take half a jar of peanut butter. Before they get there it may explode. The wife will have to remember that, no matter what color tunic she is wearing, her blue scuba tanks contain the correct breathing mixture for going up to visit the Joneses and the yellow tanks have the correct mixture for going down to the Smiths. Social outings must be planned carefully. The 200-foot family can go up to cocktails at the Joneses, then down to dinner at the Smiths. But they cannot go down for cocktails at the Smiths, then up to eat with the Joneses, or they might get the bends.

As Captain George Bond insists, it is a world that needs some thought and careful work.

PHOTO PHOTOJON LINDBERGH, son of the famous flyer, and Robert Stenuit hoped to descend to 400 feet this week and stay there for three or four days. PHOTOCAPTAIN GEORGE F. BOND, a U.S. Navy doctor whose pioneer research has been the key to underwater exploration, directs the Navy group.

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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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