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CONSHELF II & III
Jacques Cousteau, off the coast of Marseilles, France, 1962-63

 

HOW FREE IS A MAN UNDER THE SEA?     

 

The Continental Shelf Station, otherwise known as Conshelf, was a multi-stage project presided over by French naval lieutenant Jacques Cousteau on the research and design of underwater and oceanic habitats. The initial proposal involved five research stations submerged at a depth of 300 meters. Of the three realized efforts, Conshelf I & II were the most fruitful in their advancements for the science of undersea habitation and associated project goals.


The Conshelf I mission was a tentative “dipping of toes in the water” when compared to its successors. It was conducted for a week between September 14 to 21, 1962 with the “Diogenes” station parked at a depth of 35ft underwater and divers going down for further exploration up to 85ft. Conducted at the Bay of Villefranche the mission was enabled by the technology of Saturated air within Vessels matching underwater compressive pressures, Aqua-lung breathing units and Oxygenated air supply systems. Divers were also aware of the decompression maneuvers that they had to follow while rising back to the surface to avoid debilitating health issues (Cousteau and Millet, “Man Under the Sea,” 206).


With the lessons from Conshelf I, Conshelf II strove to create human colonies at previously unexplored depths. Above the Red Sea and along the Sudanese coast were the motherships Rosaldo and Calypso; the former supplied telephone, monitor cables, electrical equipment, and compressed air to the Starfish house placed at a depth of 32 feet, and the latter provided security to the underwater vessels. For over a month, six oceanauts lived in a house composed of a wet garage and workshop arranged radially around the central living quarters. This was an open circuit system reliant on the surface ships for all of its basic supplies including food and air and discharged contaminated CO2 generated from human breathing within the vessel out into the water surrounding it. (Cousteau. The Ocean World, 256-57) What’s more, helium-oxygen was channeled down in attempts to avoid nitrogen narcosis at the increased pressure and depth.


What sealed the subliminal achievements of these missions was the positioning of a closed-system, autonomous vessel at a depth of 85 ft. which was inhabited by two human beings for seven days enabling them to reach down and study depths previously unseen by the human eye (officially recorded at 330 ft). The stretching of both dimensions of time and depth within a habitat in constant flux flipped on its head many aspects of human living that one may have taken for granted. Divers found it safer to go further down into the high pressure water zones rather than rise up to breath fresh air, Oceanauts had to be exposed to artificial UV lights as there was no more direct sunlight and grown men sounded like school girls because of the Helium content in the air they were breathing. Added to this drastically foreign environment was the component of human aspiration for familiarity. Moments of such tension can be observed when Cousteau points out that the chef aboard the starfish house now lives with the fish but opens up a can of sardines to make a sandwich or a terrestrial being brings down his avian companion so they can together learn a new way of living (Cousteau, World Without Sun).

 

KEYWORDS: Acclimatization, Amphibious Man, Aquanaut

KEY FAILURES

OVERDEPENDENCE ON MOTHERSHIP: The project was not a closed system as a result of its overdependence on the mother ships docked at sea level

RESTRICTED TIME UNDERWATER: The extreme underwater conditions and limited ability to channel dire resources to the oceonauts below restricted both the depth explored and time spent below sea levels.