There’s no two ways about it: “Whether we are conscious of it or not, the ocean dictates our trajectory – everywhere, every day,” Fabien Cousteau says, point blank. Only a fool would dare challenge the man on the matter; the renowned third-generation aquanaut, ocean explorer and environmentalist is no doubt one of the most well-versed on the subject in the world. With the need for solutions as urgent as the problem is eminent, it’s high time we face the Anthropocene. Proteus, conceived by Fabien Cousteau and designed by Yves Béhar with fuseproject, might just be the Ark that will help to steer life on earth away from these dangerously rising sea levels.
Proteus represents Cousteau’s vision for the world’s most advanced underwater laboratory and habitat, intended to address the most pressing issues known to man: climate change and sustainability. A project of the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Centre (FCOLC), Proteus is conceived to serve as a platform for global collaboration amongst the world’s leading researchers, academics, government agencies and corporations to accelerate oceanic understanding and secure a sustainable future for the planet.
It is most simply described exactly as it looks: like an underwater version of the international space station.
Not to be dismissed as the wild theorem of an imaginative scientist, Cousteau already has his proof of concept. In 2014, FCOLC embarked on Mission 31, in which Cousteau led five aquanauts at Aquarius, a 400-square-foot station in the Florida Keys, and set the record for the longest stint of deep-sea living, at 31 days. In those 31 days, the team achieved the astonishing equivalent of three years’ worth of research, resulting in twelve published scientific studies and 9,800 scientific articles. The key learning? The ocean is a treasure trove of invaluable insight into the inner workings of earth’s ecology – and only by being truly immersed in it can researchers begin to understand it intimately enough and respond to it quickly enough to start to take meaningful steps in the right direction.
“People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.”
Understandably, Mission 31 has ignited a definite excitement amongst the scientific community, and Cousteau has earned the enthusiastic support of some pretty important academics. Among them is Oscar Scholfield, Professor of Biology and Chair of the Department of Marine and Coastal Science at Rutgers University, and Dr. Mark Patterson, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Affairs in the College of Science at Northeastern University.
“Proteus will transform how we conduct underwater science and engineering,” says Patterson, “the innovation cycle will be shortened having a true laboratory underwater, rather than a simple living space like prior underwater habitats.”
The project has even gained the attention of those professionally further afield. Yves Béhar, a Swiss industrial designer, entrepreneur, educator and founder of fuseproject, has extracted the concept of Proteus from Cousteau’s mind’s eye and translated it into the renders you see today. Béhar shares Cousteau’s enthusiasm for the ocean and commitment to correcting the course of climate change, so with the foundations of a shared purpose and values, collaborating on a shared vision for the submarine habitat, intended to sit 60-feet deep off the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean Sea, came naturally.
As out of this world as it may look and sound, the underlying concept of Proteus couldn’t be closer to home.
“Proteus’ design intent is to offer an effective, comfortable and attractive destination for researchers, and an exciting underwater structure that garners the same passion for ocean exploration as we have for space exploration,” explains Béhar. “The Proteus spiral architecture houses social and workspaces as well as a communication studio and a submersible moonpool. Surrounded by pods for sleeping quarters, research labs, and facilities that can be modified and added on over time, Proteus is both practical and an icon that will change the way we experience ocean research.”
Other stand-out features of the proposed deep-sea utopia include medical bays and the first underwater greenhouse, allowing inhabitants to grow fresh plant life for food. Oh, and the whole thing will be sustainably powered by hybrid sources including wind, solar, and Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion.
As out of this world as it may look and sound, the underlying concept of Proteus couldn’t be closer to home. “As our life support system, the ocean is indispensable to solving the planet’s biggest problems,” explains Cousteau. “Challenges created by climate change – [such as] rising sea levels, extreme storms and viruses – represent a multi-trillion-dollar risk to the economy.”
But there’s a more altruistic side to the story too, most eloquently conveyed in the words of Cousteau’s grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who was also a pioneer of oceanic exploration. As Jacques is famously quoted to have said, “People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.” Proteus is underpinned by this very sentiment, driven by Cousteau’s quest to cultivate a deeper understanding of the ocean, bring that understanding to the collective consciousness, and apply it to decisions that will guide us toward a sustainable future.
Proteus’ intent is to garner the same passion for ocean exploration as we have for space exploration
Proteus is an audaciously enchanting idea and, so far, Yves Béhar has successfully translated it into an evocative design concept that captures the utopian essence of Fabien Cousteau’s mission. But it’s impossible not to wonder: can it, and will it, ever truly come to fruition? Or will Proteus perpetually be the unborn brainchild of science x design?
As it stands, Cousteau has the proof of concept, derived from the exponential success of Mission 31. Proteus is attracting attention and has got people talking, at least in the fields of science and design. Its realisation now hangs precariously on the hope of generating enough sponsors – and enough funds – to make it happen. Watch this space.