The 4,000 square foot structure, outfitted with state-of-the-art dry and wet laboratories, will allow researchers to live and work underwater for extended periods of time.
Around 80 percent of the ocean is still uncharted. Only four manned expeditions — the first of which was co-led by explorer and Helena Member Don Walsh — have successfully visited the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s lowest point. More than 4,000 people have reached the earth’s highest point, Mount Everest, and 553 people from dozens of nations have made it into space.
But exploration is far from the most important reason to explore our oceans. The marine world is a laboratory for the future.
Critical technological development, essential for addressing global climate change and improving our everyday way of life, can be yielded from a deeper study of the oceans. Underwater agriculture to subsea energy capture and storage are only two such examples of already burgeoning (and market-friendly) sustainable solutions.
Our lack of knowledge of what lies in our oceans also comes at a grave expense to ecological conservation.
The international community has a long history of safeguarding land, but a middling track record when it comes to the ocean. Only 7.5 percent is currently under some official conservation status, with more conservative estimates at less than 5%. Meanwhile, efforts that could harmfully exploit or privatize the ocean, but require research to understand, continue to progress.
There are very real reasons why humanity has lagged behind on ocean exploration. Basic physics is one of the biggest. Without a depressurized environment, standing on the bottom of the Mariana Trench is the equivalent being crushed by 50 jumbo jets. Visibility decreases to near zero, and buoyancy considerations make the engineering of subsurface transportation crafts more challenging.
Yet the biggest barrier that remains is human interest and funding. Drawing upon a rich history, Fabien Cousteau has been a leading force in breaking through.
Fabien Cousteau is an aquanaut by blood. His childhood took place aboard the legendary vessels of his grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and he began scuba diving on his fourth birthday.
Since, Fabien has contributed greatly to environmentalism, oceanography, and exploration in his own right.
A world-renowned documentary filmmaker whose projects have reached billions, Cousteau also served as Explorer-at-Large for National Geographic.
In 2016, he founded the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, which has since become a powerhouse educational foundation and incubator for global cleanup efforts and conservation expeditions.
The concept of living and working underwater, however, remained at the forefront of Cousteau’s agenda. In June 2014, he made that vision a reality.
Cousteau and his team of aquanauts embarked on Mission 31, the longest science expedition to take place at Aquarius, the world’s only underwater marine laboratory, located nine miles off the coast of the Florida Keys, and 63 feet beneath the sea.
The project was a goldmine for scientific research and development. What would have taken three years of laboratory and field time (and exponentially more capital) was performed within 31 days. 12 peer reviewed studies co-authored with institutions including Northeastern and MIT and 9,800 published articles resulted from the expedition.
Mission 31 was also an educational triumph. Cousteau and his team live-streamed virtual STEAM-themed (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics sessions) to over 100,000 students via Skype. Media interest in the expedition yielded 34 billion impressions.
Cousteau’s time on Aquarius, however, was also a proof of concept for what was to come next.
Project Proteus is Cousteau’s — and the world’s — next step toward a future where humanity can live and work underwater.
It is conceived as the underwater version of the International Space Station. It will be the world’s most advanced subsurface scientific research station and habitat, capable of allowing up to twelve researchers to live on the ocean floor for extended periods of time.
Nestled 60m deep in the waters of Curacao, Proteus will be roughly ten times the size of Aquarius and nearly four times the size of any underwater habitat — creating a setting that feels more like a space-age office and living quarters than a cramped lab. The structure will be equipped with cutting-edge wet and dry labs, a moon pool large enough for a submersible, a hydroponic garden, a production studio capable of live streaming for educational programming and content, and accommodations for twelve people.
Historically, the biggest obstacle in exploring the oceans is how little time researchers can actually spend in them. Proteus, like Aquarius before it, will allow divers to spend entire days on the ocean floor, because the divers will be saturated (that is, when the bloodstream is equalized with suitable gasses at the pressure of the surrounding water).
Mark Patterson, Professor of Marine & Environmental Sciences at Northeastern University, estimated that a seven to ten day research mission in Aquarius provided a total dive time that would have taken six months on a vessel.
Additionally, more projects will become feasible. By enabling more continuous time on the ocean floor, as well as a local habitat, Proteus makes possible new, potentially revolutionary research opportunities that were previously cost-prohibitive.
New medicines can be found, experiments and tests can be run, data can be collected. Government agencies like NASA and product manufacturers will be able to access it in order to run tests and training sessions in extreme environments. And, with wet and dry labs located in Proteus itself, there is much less risk of contaminated samples and data loss, since experiments and analysis can be conducted onsite.
Proteus is forward-looking, both in design and intent. After originally speaking with world-renounced designer Yves Behar through one of Helena’s earliest Member Meetings, Behar and his firm Fuseproject worked with Cousteau to design the initial concepts for a structure that is modular and upgradable, in order to be able to adapt to advancing technologies. This extends to its energy sources, as well.
The ocean presents vast potential as a renewable energy source — the United States Energy Information Administration estimates that the theoretical annual energy potential from waves off the coasts of the United States could cover 64% of the country’s 2019 energy needs. Cousteau and his team are eyeing multiple concepts in that vein, including ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), a process that yields electricity using the difference in temperature between warm water on the surface and cold water from the deep ocean, as a way of powering the facility.
One of the most rewarding aspects will be the educational opportunities. As Jacques Cousteau often said, “People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.” Like his grandfather before him, Fabien Cousteau relishes the opportunity to connect with people, to share the ocean’s wonders and help them understand more about the world in which they live.
With Proteus, media crews and filmmakers will have unprecedented access to an underwater landscape rarely, if ever, seen before. And the live stream capabilities will enable students around the world to engage first-hand with the majesty of the deep.
At the end of September 2021, Fabien Cousteau and Proteus Ocean Group successfully mapped the entire seafloor of a marine-protected area off the coast of Curacao.
Together with R2Sonic, a sonar engineering company, and Map the Gaps, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean mapping, the team charted 1,462 acres of reef and 1,077 acres of inner bays in high resolution 3D. The week-long endeavor generated invaluable information both for the next steps in the development of the Proteus underwater habitat and
our overarching understanding of the world’s oceans.
Ocean mapping is notoriously difficult, at least when done to any kind of detail. (Radio waves cannot pass through water, so satellites are all but useless.) Technically, the entire ocean floor has been mapped, but at a resolution of 1 mile — meaning anything under a mile across is not rendered. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only about five percent of the ocean is mapped to a useful resolution of 100 meters. (For comparison, 98% of Venus has been mapped at the same scale.)
The Proteus team mounted multibeam sonars to their boats in order to get a more detailed look at the Curacao MPA floor. “The best way to describe it is, to think about a flashlight in a dark room,” Cousteau says. “When you turn on your flashlight, it emits a beam of light and it gets wider as your subject gets farther. The closer you are to the subject, the more detailed the image gets. The farther you are to the subject, the bigger the image and the less detail it gets.” They were able to render the entire floor to a resolution between 1 and 100m.
For us to fully understand our world, we must fully understand our oceans. To do that, we need a map of the seafloor. Detailed, three-dimensional mapping like Cousteau accomplished in Curacao allows us to see the underwater topographical features that impact currents and weather, to understand and monitor the health of the oceanic ecosystem, and to observe the effects of climate change. “Just like on land, where we’re doing lidar scans or looking at something as simple as a hiking trail map, it gives us a much better understanding of where we need to go,” Cousteau said.
Once all the data is rendered and analyzed, Cousteau and the Proteus team will be able to begin finalizing the eventual location for the Proteus station. They are targeting 2024 to begin installation.
The potential impact of Proteus is clear even to the highest levels of ocean science. On May 3, 2023, Proteus Ocean Group announced it had signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Under the CRADA, the NOAA would use “the unique capabilities” of Proteus to conduct research on a range of topics, including “climate change and climate impacts; ecosystem health and resilience; marine debris; public engagement in ocean exploration; sustainable ocean food production; natural products and biotechnology.”
PROTEUS™ is operationalized and run by Proteus Ocean Group, Ltd. (POG), a private sector social enterprise, a sustainable for-profit business that will scale and have global impact. POG manages the coordination of and partnerships with strategic collaborators such as Northeastern, Rutgers, Gov’t bodies (Curacao), quasi-governmental bodies (CARMABI) and private sector partners. Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center (a 501(c)(3)) (FCOLC) is a major stakeholder in POG and leads the educational programming.
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