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Sleeping with the fishes
After 30 years of neglect, the dream of undersea living is making a modest comeback — but this time, it’s just for fun


WINSLOW BURLESON IS having what he calls " buoyancy issues. " This might sound like an odd complaint, but Burleson is one of the few people in the world who count undersea camping among their hobbies — indeed, he may be the only such person — and when you’re an undersea camper, buoyancy can be an issue. The issue is, your tent keeps floating to the surface.

Burleson, a doctoral candidate at MIT’s Media Lab, has been toying with the idea of undersea camping for about 10 years. For the last two he has worked on designing an undersea tent. " Progress, " he says, " has been fairly slow. " Which is a good thing. The fact is, Burleson’s quest to get a bit of shuteye 30 feet beneath New England’s roiling seas poses far graver problems than surfacing too soon. Not surfacing at all, for one.

Although Burleson, 29, has a number of workable inventions under his belt — a virtual-reality aquarium, a folding keyboard, a new kind of knot — his track record with water is less than stellar. A recent attempt to transform his bath into a hot tub, for instance, flooded his apartment. " It needed a stronger adhesive, " he explains.

Fair enough, but do you really want to discover you’ve used the wrong kind of glue when you’re shacking up with lobsters? There is, after all, a world of difference between a soggy carpet and a lungful of Atlantic seawater. " Of course there’s a difference between a hot tub not working and an underwater tent not working, " Burleson says. " You have to make sure that things don’t go wrong when you get down there. When you go for the real thing, you’d better have enough experimentation. " Quite.

To date, Burleson has spent a total of 24 hours ensconced in his tent. Wisely, perhaps, none of this time has been spent beneath the ocean. " I’ve been doing a little experimentation in swimming pools, " he says. " The tent needs additional work. " For starters, every cubic foot of air requires 64 pounds to keep it submerged; Burleson estimates his tent will hold about 50 cubic feet of air. As one undersea-habitat expert puts it, " That’s a butt-load of buoyancy. " And speaking of butt-loads, where does one, you know, go? " For liquid bodily waste you can pee into a bag, " Burleson says. " Solid waste still needs to be addressed. "

As this comment suggests, Burleson’s undersea tent is somewhat spartan in its design. Constructed from a nylon-polyurethane compound, it is not quite as mobile as your average tent (it requires a surface pump and a length of tubing to replenish the air within). Nor is it quite as cozy. The tent, Burleson says, can sleep two — but " sleep " might be too optimistic a word. The campers enter through small portals on the underside of the tent, into which they are zipped, by way of a specially adapted wet suit, from the waist up. The problem with this arrangement is that their legs are left dangling in the water — as Burleson puts it, " ready to be munched on or something. "

Even if Burleson manages to take the plunge sometime in the fall, as planned, he will by no means be the first person to spend a night beneath the beautiful briny. In 1962, a man named Robert Stenuit became the world’s original aquanaut, spending a little more than 24 hours submerged 200 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean, thus paving the way for a series of intrepid successors.

Still, though Burleson’s project is to some extent old hat, in many ways he is a pioneer. Rather than taking to the seabed to meet scientific, military, or commercial goals, as his predecessors did, he’s doing it for sheer fun. And this approach, after 30 years of crippling neglect, may help restore the dream of underwater living to its once-glorious depths.

TIME WAS, the idea of undersea habitats set people’s pulses racing. The golden age of undersea exploration coincided with the golden age of space exploration. The space race was politically motivated, but efforts to demonstrate that humans could live comfortably and safely in the earth’s oceans was driven more by commercial and scientific interests than by ideology. Visionaries like the US’s Edwin Link and France’s Jacques Cousteau helped drive an explosion in undersea technology — and an upsurge of public interest in underwater living. Enthusiasts envisioned huge waterlogged cities, where Dad would zip to work in his mini submersible while Mom set about polishing the transparent dome that capped the family’s happy little domain. The vision was, basically, a wet version of the Jetsons.

Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, more than 70 undersea habitats were put into operation, manned by aquanauts from the US, Italy, Germany, France, the Soviet Union, Canada, Poland, and the UK. Government- and university-funded missions with names like Atlantik, Helgoland, Meduza, Seatopia, and Tektite lurked beneath the world’s oceans from the Massachusetts coast to the Caribbean to the Crimea. It was, said Cousteau, the dawning of the age of Homo aquaticus. (Ever the dreamer, Cousteau even suggested that humans might one day be fitted with artificial gills.)

But populating the sea floor proved to be no easy task. The more time spent in the sea, the more problems people encountered: in terms of habitability, a mere few hundred feet of seawater proved to be as vast a chasm as 250,000 miles of outer space. In the end, the earth’s seabed was as hostile to human life as the surface of the moon — a true alien environment.

Indeed, only Cousteau attempted to create undersea habitats that could truly be called livable. Cousteau’s Conshelf II project — the so-called Starfish House that, for 30 days in 1963, sat 40 feet deep in the Red Sea — was the only one to provide divers with recreation areas, a dining room, and reasonable sleeping, sanitary, and cooking facilities. Otherwise, these habitats remained decidedly unluxurious.

Undersea habitats are, by their very nature, wet. Aquanauts would spend their nights tossing in soggy beds. Because of the damp they suffered chronic ear infections. Their living quarters were cramped, which sometimes led to acrimony. Smoking and drinking were not allowed (there are stories of aquanauts putting air-filled bags over their heads to get in a couple of puffs, or bribing friends to drop bottles of plonk into the water above their heads, which the aquanauts would wait for on the seabed). Gas-causing spicy foods were also out of the question.

Even in the absence of Mexican food, however, breathing was a problem. Because oxygen is toxic below a depth of 220 feet, aquanauts had to breathe cocktails of helium and nitrogen with a little oxygen thrown in, which caused drowsiness, lapses in concentration, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. Breathing these gases also caused a rather embarrassing escalation in voice pitch. " Most of these guys were rugged, hairy-chested types, " recalls Richard Cooper, a veteran aquanaut, " but they’d open their mouths and they’d sound like Minnie Duck. "

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Issue Date: July 26 - August 2, 2001

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