Concept design for the Proteus undersea habitat.
Fabien Cousteau, grandson of famous undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is building on his family legacy by constructing a state-of-the art research facility—60 feet below the surface of the ocean.
Fabien Cousteau was born to be an aquanaut. The grandson of the famed explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau learned how to scuba dive at the age of four and grew up joining his grandfather on research expeditions. “Scuba diving is an amazing blessing, but there’s a very real limit of time,” he says.
One way to circumvent that time limit is to live in an underwater habitat, which provides researchers the opportunity to do more extended work in the ocean. His grandfather pioneered such habitats in the 1960s, and today Fabien plans to continue that legacy with the construction of Proteus, an underwater habitat and research station that would be one of the largest ever built. The habitat will take three years to complete, located 60 feet underwater in a marine protected area off the cost of Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean Sea. And it will have room for up to 12 people to live underwater for weeks—possibly even months—at a time.
That’s a serious upgrade for underwater habitats, which in the past have ranged in size from a minivan to a large school bus. “Most of the habitats were purpose-built for one mission or set of missions,” says Fabien, who founded the New York-based non-profit organization Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center in 2016. “They were never conceived as an International Space Station, something that’s to be deployed for a longer period of time.”
Building the habitat and operating it for its first three years will cost an estimated $135 million, which Fabien is working to raise. He declined to name the funders backing the project, but its strategic partners include Northeastern University, Rutgers University and the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity, a Curaçao-based non-profit.
The project is named for Proteus, the Greek primordial sea god who was known to be a keeper of knowledge—and could assume different shapes. This is where the project itself gets its inspiration. The vast majority of the oceans remain unexplored, and the habitat is designed to be modular, so it can be upgraded and expanded in a multitude of ways. This can enable a number of research avenues, ranging from drug discovery to sustainable food production to climate change.
Cousteau’s Underwater House Submerging in Monte-Carlo
In building Proteus, Fabien is continuing in the family tradition. His grandfather helped develop one of the first such habitats, known as Conshelf, in 1962, a two-person habitat located about 33 feet below the surface off the coast of Marseilles, France. That project was followed by Conshelf II, a habitat where aquanauts lived for a month at a depth of 36 feet and then at 82 feet for two weeks in the Red Sea. A spate of similar projects followed around the world over the next two decades, but less than a handful exist today, most dating back to the 1970s or 1980s.
Another aspect of that tradition is that Proteus will include a video production facility, capable of broadcasting from the ocean in 16K resolution. It will be, Fabien hopes, a modern-day version of the TV specials his grandfather pioneered, which inspired generations of marine explorers to enter the field.
“Today there’s this misperception that all knowledge is known,” says Northeastern professor Brian Helmuth, a scientific collaborator on the project who credits Jacques Cousteau for inspiring his career in marine biology. “If you want to know something, you just have to look it up on the internet, going to Wikipedia. The idea that there is still so much that is unknown has been lost from the public consciousness. And that’s critical for rekindling the appetite for exploration.”
Helmuth met Fabien in 2013, when his Northeastern colleague Mark Patterson was helping put together a team for Mission-31, a 2014 excursion in which Fabien lived for 31 days in the Aquarius underwater habitat in the Florida Keys. Aquarius was originally built in 1986 by the US Navy and NOAA. In 2012, it was taken over by Florida International University. The size of a school bus, Aquarius can hold about six people, but it’s not without limitation.
“I like to describe Aquarius as living in a Greyhound bus,” says Patterson, a professor and associate dean at Northeastern.
MISSION-31: Fabien Cousteau spent a month in the Aquarius undersea habitat.
Proteus aims to overcome those limitations. While Aquarius is about 400 square feet, Proteus will be about 4,000 square feet—the size of a large house. This will allow space for a laboratory, a medical bay, the video studio, living and sleeping quarters and even a hydroponic greenhouse so that aquanauts can have fresh food. (Under the ocean, “you crave fresh food,” says Fabien.) The station will be connected to the surface through an umbilical lifeline that ferries breathable air and communications.
This, says Patterson, will make research easier. “Having a well-designed space that’s bigger and can be expanded in the future makes all the sense in the world,” he says.
The Proteus station is being designed by Yves Béhar at fuseproject, who’s worked on designs ranging from wearables to smart bassinets to security robots. Once built, Fabien estimates it will have a yearly operational cost of about $3 million (the first three years of operation are included in the $135 million figure). That cost will be offset by researchers, universities and corporations who “rent” the habitat to conduct scientific research on just about anything except research related to warfare.
FUTUREPROOF: The Proteus design is modular so it can be expanded and upgraded as needed.
Of particular interest for the project is to encourage pharmaceutical research and drug discovery. The FDA has approved twelve marine-based drugs since 1969, according to a tracker maintained by Alejandro Mayer, a professor in the department of pharmacology at Midwestern University in Illinois. These include compounds that treat cancer, pain and herpes that have been derived from various fish, sea sponges and other marine animals. There are two dozen more marine-based pharmaceuticals currently in clinical development.
Early-stage research into biopharmaceuticals is often left to scientists at universities, who collect and test thousands of specimens retrieved from the oceans. But one challenge to this type of research is that organism samples will react to changes in pressure and temperature, if they are removed from the ocean. Proteus will enable researchers to set up containers both inside and outside the facility that enable scientists “to look at intact communities and plants that aren’t stressed,” says Helmuth. “Its’ a level of insight we don’t get when we’re rushing back and forth, constantly looking at our air.”
“I’m just a crazy person with a dream,” says Fabien Cousteau.
Habitats are a “reasonable contribution to drug discovery from the ocean, but it isn’t a saving grace,” says William Fenical, a distinguished professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, who is not involved in the project. While the divers living in the habitat will be able to explore for long amounts of time, they will still be limited in the distances they could travel before having to turn back. That freedom of movement is important, since drug discovery “is based on having diversity and a lot of materials to the test,” says Fenical.
Mindful of this limitation, Proteus aims to go beyond its 60-foot depth as well. Cousteau also hopes to build a deeper extension, dubbed Triton after another sea god, at around 600 feet. Using autonomous underwater robots, research teams will also be able to explore depths of up to 2000 feet.
When asked what he expects to find in the ocean, Cousteau invokes his grandfather, who said that if he knew the answer, he wouldn’t bother going. “I’m just a crazy person with a dream,” says Fabien Cousteau. “That sees this as being not only possible—but absolutely necessary—for our future well being, as well as a better understanding of our life support system.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Jacques Cousteau had lived in Conshelf II for a month. This was incorrect – he ran operations from the surface but would dive and visit regularly.