Coastwide
Artist cutaway painting of the Tektite II habitat. NOAA Central Library Historical Fisheries Collection/fish/9765.Courtesy of Harvard University Press

How scientists imagined and built an undersea utopia for humans

As astronauts took the first first steps on the moon, aquatic explorers were experimenting with entire ocean cities.

Excerpted from Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea by Anthony Adler. Copyright 2019, Harvard University Press.

In an article in New Scientist in March 1960, the British marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy suggested that an ancestor of modern hominids had been forced by terrestrial evolutionary competition to adapt once again to life in the sea. As evidence, he cited various con temporary aquatic mammals thought to have terrestrial ancestors such as whales, seals, and the arrival of the wet suit in the early 1950s ever more people turned to underwater exploration. The sport of scuba diving was born. Some of the new divers were amateur recreationists, but primarily, but not exclusively, men—approached diving as a potential paying occupation.18 Diving in the service of science promised to offer one career path. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography was the first academic institution in the United States to fully take advantage of the new equipment and to add scuba divers to the semipermanent staff. “Do not dismiss the Scuba apparatus as a mere modification of the old diving suit,” cautioned Scripps director Roger Revelle. “With it man becomes part of the medium.”

The first formal training course for diving in the United States, led by diver Conrad “Connie” Limbaugh at Scripps, trained Neptune’s Laboratory manatees. Some hominids, he claimed, might have been subject to the same evolutionary pressure. And if such an event had happened in the past, it could, and would, happen again. “No one can doubt that history will repeat itself and Man will be forced once again into the sea for a living.” Hardy’s article was accompanied by drawings of scuba divers corralling fish with a “ future submarine tractor trawl.” He claimed humanity’s future hinged on the successful exploitation of marine resources, primarily marine foods. And he was far from alone in these speculations. In the aftermath of World War II, as the Allied powers struggled to care for thousands of displaced persons in Europe, marine algae attracted attention as a potential miracle food that might solve the problem of global hunger. The Carnegie Institution, presided over by the former head of the United States’ war time science research program, Vannevar Bush, championed the idea. Some people, even more ambitiously, speculated that humans would find ways of diverting ocean currents to increase food production in arid and frozen regions of the globe. Although evolutionary anthropologists lambasted Hardy’s theory of an ancient aquatic ape, scuba divers and marine engineers were prepared to embrace his ideas. Jacques Cousteau deserves much credit for popularizing the idea that the underwater world was destined to become ever more accessible, a message spread through his popular writing and documentary films. Cousteau, in the words of an American journalist, made “his alien environment as familiar to Americans as the Laugh-In [a comedy television show] cocktail party.” In Europe Cousteau gained increased public authority with his appointment as director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco in 1957, a position he held for over thirty years. Speaking before the World Congress on Underwater Activities in London in 1963, Cousteau predicted that there would soon be a “conscious and deliberate evolution of Homo aquaticus, spurred by human intelligence rather than the slow blind natu ral adaptation of species.” “After living in compressed air habitats for generations, Water People” would eventually even be “born at the bottom of the sea.” Future “alteration of human anatomy” would “give man almost unlimited freedom underwater.” American scientists at NASA, he claimed, were already working on an “artificial gill” that could be connected to a diver’s bloodstream allowing the filtration of oxygen and carbon dioxide and bypassing respiration—an assertion journalists were unable to confirm with NASA.

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