Canadian inventor Phil Nuytten has his sights set on building the world’s first underwater city in the Pacific
Phil Nuytten loves situations that trigger claustrophobic anxiety in others. The diving expert and inventor loves that moment “when the water hits over your helmet and you think: Yeah, it worked. I’m still alive.”
The Canadian has developed and built extremely powerful diving suits and submarines over the past decades. Organisations like the American space agency NASA work closely with him because he can prepare underwater for weightlessness like no astronaut can. Nuytten calls the Titanic director James Cameron a friend; he supports him and other filmmakers in capturing difficult deep-water shots.
But only now, at 76, does Nuytten want to fulfil his true life’s dream: the first human settlement on the seabed, off the coast of Vancouver, in the Pacific Ocean. Vent-Base Alpha is the name of the planned deep-sea camp, which could provide a home for hundreds or even thousands of aquanauts. A prototype is to be built off the coast of Vancouver Island as early as next year. Nuytten is impatient: “I’m not a young bouncer anymore.”
If the underwater flat share proves itself in the test phase, Nuytten wants to penetrate rapidly into greater depths with his project. Already now, he reports, there are several interested people who want to move to the seabed with him – among them Hollywood’s Cameron.
But how serious is the construction project of the eccentric diving pioneer? Other visionaries currently see the future of man as being on distant planets, preferably on Mars, should the Earth one day become uninhabitable. In the sixties, though, plans were already being hatched to transport endangered humanity to the bottom of the oceans in case of apocalypse. Underwater stations were used to test how humans cope with the extreme conditions deep underwater. But these experiments were plagued by horrible incidents.
In 1969, the US Navy sunk its underwater program Sealab after a diver was killed. In the same year, two scientists from the German underwater laboratory Helgoland were killed doing repair work.
In 1970, the scientist Sylvia Earle – today one of the world’s most renowned oceanographers – led an allfemale team of researchers who held out in the Tektite underwater station in the Caribbean. During one dive, Earle’s breathing apparatus failed, and she was rescued by a colleague.
Such incidents caused great disillusionment, and those cities in the sea were never built. Since then, diving has become much safer – thanks in part to Phil Nuytten. Among other things, the Canadian has developed a mobile tank diving suit that frees divers from one tiresome but vital process: decompression.
Gases such as nitrogen are increasingly dissolved in the blood from the enormous pressure that weighs on the human body at depth. If the diver swims too quickly from the depths back to the surface, gas bubbles form in the blood, which can lead to life-threatening embolisms. But in Nuytten’s armoured suits, conditions are always the same as on land, even at a diving depth of up to 600 metres, eliminating decompression.
Also in the cylindrical living chambers, which Nuytten has planned as dwellings for his underwater paradise, the pressure conditions should resemble those above water. The light from an artificial sun will help the new sea creatures cope with the dark depths.
Nuytten intends to generate the enormous amounts of energy required of his project from hydrothermal sources in the Pacific Ocean, which are abundant off the coast of Vancouver Island. The temperature difference between the boiling-hot water from so-called black smokers and the Pacific water surrounding them – 150 degrees Celsius – could start an armada of Stirling engines.
When sceptics mock his concept, Nuytten often responds with a prophetic joke: “Sometime, when I haven’t existed for a long time, a child will sit on his father’s lap, pointing to heaven and saying, ‘Dad, is it really true that people once lived up there on earth?’”
This article was published in the September 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.
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