Life in Salt: An Interview with Visionary of Permanent Undersea Residence Dennis Chamberland

by Owen James Burke

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“There were so many times that I went out on the reef diving and I ran out of air, and I realized I needed a bigger tank, or I needed more air, or I was too cold, but I wanted to live there…”

Dennis Chamberland and his team, Aquatica, have been hard at work for forty years developing the world’s first permanent undersea habitat. Both Cousteau and the U.S. Military made brief attempts, and undersea hotels and resorts are emerging (or submerging) all over the world, but humanity has yet to achieve a permanent undersea address.

Life in a hyperbaric chamber isn’t for everyone or just anyone, and while Chamberland explains that moving masses of people into the sea is environmentally unethical and financially prohibitive, select small colonies of “highly motivated, intelligent, and creative people can develop their own culture in their own society to protect the seas” and give it a voice.

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Scut: So you’re from Oklahoma — when did you first take to the ocean? What drew you in?

DC: I was born and raised in Oklahoma and took an interest in undersea exploration reading books from the library. Eventually it all came together as an adult. I moved to Hawaii with the Navy and learned how to dive there. I lived on Waikiki Beach and the reef was about 150 feet from my bedroom and so I was out on the reef diving everyday. It’s one of the those things that as a child you imagine something to be grand and glorious, and you get to be an adult and you go do it and it’s just as spectacular and more…the more that I dived and the more that I thought about it, the more I wanted to live there — undersea. There were so many times that I went out on the reef diving and I ran out of air, and I realized I needed a bigger tank, or I needed more air, or I was too cold, but I wanted to live there; I didn’t want to come back. So I started thinking of ways to live undersea and stay there permanently.

Scut: How has the sea changed you?

DC: There’s a saying that the body can’t go where the mind has never been. Well if you reverse that, the body wants to go where the mind spends it’s time…that’s what I’ve always been.

Scut: So, Cousteau tried it, the Navy tried it, what made you believe you could do it?

DC: Their initial hypothesis was wrong…their hypothesis was that man was highly adaptable and that man could not live in hyperbaric environments…that’s like saying that if we go up to the space station and we put a screen door on the hatch instead of an airlock, and we can’t live there, then living in space is impossible. If you put an airlock in and you reduce your interior pressure to no more than 1.6 atmospheres, then you can live there forever…as a matter of fact, that’s what we do with submarines everyday, and that’s not considered impossible…We’re struggling mightily. We’ve been at this for over forty years and we have put together a team and have all the technology in the box and are ready to go as soon as we get the funding. Eventually, you wake up in the morning and you realize that you’re not going to change your mind.

Scut: Well, I, for one, appreciate what you’re doing.

DC: I appreciate what you guys are doing. There’s way too much negative speaking going on about the ocean, and I’ve thought about that and tend to realize that the internet culture kind of reinforces negativism. As humans, we all have this evolutionary designed trait that we call “Apocalypse Dreams” where we dream at night about disasters and horrible things. I think that the internet just kind of encourages that, and we spread our dreams around and suddenly we start to believe them. I really appreciate the fact that you guys have recognized that, and you’re taking the high road. Just as we have apocalypse dreams we’re also extremely capable of extremely positive, creative forethought that staves off the apocalypse and prevents it. If we’re going to have a waking dream, we can decide what those are going to be…you’re sorely needed.

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Scut: What’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened to you at sea?

DC: One particularly interesting experiment was on a dive. I was in the Atlantic Ocean off a boat…the bottom was about a thousand feet beneath me, and I was probably around 75 feet under the water and I just remember hanging there in the water and I couldn’t see the surface, and there was only dark, blue water beneath me. I was just suspended in this void in the middle of the ocean, and I just remember feeling so small…I was struck by that powerful sensation of what it would be like if men and women lived in that void permanently.

Scut: How about your most terrifying moment?

DC: I’ve lived in habitats for days at a time. My longest expedition was 11 days…I was careless one day and wasn’t paying attention to my safety rules — as I should have been — and I went outside and was untangling a line beside the habitat and I ran out of air, and didn’t have a bail out bottle with me, so I made two mistakes on that particular dive that could have been dangerous. I was also saturated, at depth, and my instinct was to swim to the surface, but if you’re saturated and you swim to the surface, you’ll get the bends. When you take a suction on that regulator — and it’s only happened to me that one time — and there’s nothing there but a brick wall, it really hits your attention. Then, to have to go through the mental gyrations of not panicking and not doing the wrong thing, and then deciding on what the right thing to is to do, that’s quite a wake up experience…of course I swam back to the habitat, which was right at the limit of my ability to hold my breath — so it was quite exciting. I learned a lot of lessons too.

Scut: How do you spend your free time on the water?

DC: On the water? I don’t go on the water.

Scut: I guess I should say in the water.

DC: When I go into the water it’s always to test out a piece of gear or down to the habitat to stay for a-24 hour mission to test gear inside the habitat. So we do a lot of that habitat gear testing several times a year. That’s how I spend all of my time. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than ducking into the habitat, taking a warm shower, dressing into dry clothing and going to work. There’s nothing like that.

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Scut: What’s your biggest obstacle right now?

DC: Money, since day one, and I don’t think that’ll ever change…But we’re not the only ones in that boat…We [also] want all of our craft to sink. As a matter of fact, that’s much more difficult than you can imagine.

Scut: How do you do that?

DC: Every habitat that I am aware of has had difficulties doing that. That’s really a major engineering challenge to get that habitat down and safely into one piece. The last two habitats I deployed, the first one took two days, the next one took one day.

When you dump all of your air out of your ballast tanks, you’re neutral in the water. let’s say it ways 40 of 50,000 pounds, which is light for a habitat, once you lower it just beneath that surface, that bubble [of air] is going to start shrinking if it’s open to the water, which it needs to be unless it’s designed for pressure (which most habitats are not. some are, but most are not). Then that bubble will start to shrink nonlinearly, they call that “losing the bubble,” and it can no longer provide air as long as it’s shrinking. Then your habitat crashes to the bottom with the inertial mass of 50,000 pounds and it will destroy the habitat, even if it’s going really slow. You really have to know what you’re doing to get it down safely, but that’s just part of the fun I guess.

Scut: How often do you spend time in the habitat?

DC: These are on the seafloor in Key Largo with the Marine Resources Development Foundation, so we’re down there once or twice a year.

Scut: Where are you now?

DC: I’m in my office at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

Scut: Any interest in going to outer space?

DC: I have no interest in living on Mars or the Moon, because you have to live underground, or the radiation will kill you. I can live underground here. You can get a much more gloriously beautiful view [in the sea] than you can on the Moon or Mars.

Scut: Do you have a favorite gadget or tool to use at, on or under the sea?

DC: All of my gadgets are centered around habitat. Right now we’re working on a CO2 scrubber that minimizes energy and works, actually, without humans. So, that’s the most exciting thing that we’re working on one that utilizes minimal energy and no chemicals. Our engineering team is developing that, and it’s actually the key component to permanent undersea living.

Scut: What’s your favorite book about the ocean?

DC: The one that I wrote. No, no. The one that had the most influence on my early interest in the sea was Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. I don’t think that any book had a greater influence on my early interest in the ocean because I began to see the ocean as a living organism.

Scut: I’m a fisherman, and I’ve got to ask: do you ever drop a line through your access port to catch a meal?

DC: Well, that’s kind of funny. No, we don’t, because the habitat that we use is located in the Marine Resources for development foundation and they don’t allow fishing in there because it’s a preserve, which I respect. But at night, occasionally, little minnows would be attracted to the light in the moon pool, and jump up and land on the deck. So, when they did that, we would put them on crackers and microwave them. They were quite tasty; they tasted like sardines. They were our treat at night.

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Dennis Chamberland is the author of many books including Undersea Colonies: The Future of Permanent Undersea Residence, works at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, and spends every other free waking moment on Atlanitca, whether it’s diving to test gear or down to the habitat. Visit his website to learn more about how you can get on the list to become a part of the first permanent undersea habitat.

Watch this video, entitled “How I Got My Key Lime Pie Delivered Undersea,” to see how aquanauts have specialty foods delivered to the Atlantica habitat:

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(All media courtesy of Dennis Chamberland)

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