If there is any place on earth you might expect to find them—the true believers in the imminent coming of manned undersea outposts or spectacular domed colonies on the ocean floor—it would be here, in Key Largo. This first major stop along the 100-mile Overseas Highway to Key West is home to the world’s only underwater hotel, the only continuously operating underwater lab and classroom, and the only undersea research base. And it is in Key Largo that you find divers like Ian Koblick, whose even tan hints at his lifetime of outdoor ventures. His hair and trademark goatee are graying, although for a septuagenarian he looks as if he takes regular dips in the Fountain of Youth. Like so many others along this steamy island chain, he’s wearing shorts and
a billowing Hawaiian shirt. No matter that he is seated behind a large desk in the kind of high-backed executive chair more often associated with Brooks Brothers.
The wood-paneled walls around Koblick’s office are filled with memorabilia that attest to his years as an undersea pioneer and a genuine player in a decades-long quest to turn ordinary divers into “aquanauts,” the name applied to those equipped to live on the seabed, much as crews launched into space get to be called astronauts.
Koblick was among the early converts to the concept of undersea living when it came of age in the 1960s, in the shadow of the momentous achievements of the race to the moon. But the nascent quest to equip aquanauts to live in “inner space,” as some called the vast undersea realm, never got anything close to the billions of dollars pumped into launching the Apollo astronauts into outer space, birthing an industry and defining the global zeitgeist.
Koblick’s early brush with official indifference convinced him that the government would never support an undersea corollary to the space program. So he went looking for entrepreneurial solutions to creating underwater habitats: school bus–size seafloor shelters that give aquanauts a pressurized, climate-controlled base, just as the International Space Station gives astronauts a hospitable home in orbit.
A prominent example of such a habitat, called Jules’ Undersea Lodge, lies a stone’s throw from his office, submerged in a lagoon that juts like a cul-de-sac into Key Largo Undersea Park. Part tourist destination and part science center, the park has a homegrown feel and a touch of that easygoing kitsch that seems to permeate the Florida Keys. How Jules’ Lodge—once a state-of-the-art, research-oriented seafloor habitat of Koblick’s design—came to be a novelty underwater hotel in a lagoon says a lot about the struggle to keep the concept of manned sea dwellings alive.
Koblick may sound like a romantic dreamer for his enduring belief in the value of seabed habitats and his persistent efforts, over many years, to create new ones. But he is not alone. Just a couple of miles from Koblick’s office along the Overseas Highway, you’ll find a cadre of believers, a dozen or two of them, depending on the day. They work out of a pair of canalfront houses whose interiors have been transformed over the years into mission control for the world’s only surviving full-fledged sea base, called Aquarius. Owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Aquarius has spent more than two decades perched out on a reef 60 feet below the surface and 9 miles from shore, serving as a scientific research base in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The combined activities of this public, science-oriented habitat and Koblick’s private Undersea Park make Key Largo the kind of mecca where aquatic dreams live on.
Until just half a century ago, the idea of housing human divers on the seabed was pure science fiction. Even with the advent of modern scuba in the 1940s, strict depth and time limits were inevitable because of the physiological effects that come from breathing underwater and under pressure. In order to avoid painful internal injuries and even death, typical dives to modest depths of, say, up to 100 feet lasted only minutes, not the days or weeks that would be necessary to live and work out of a seafloor habitat.
Then, in the late 1950s, a genial, charismatic U.S. Navy doctor named George Bond, who had been trained as a diver, caused a stir by questioning the conventional diving limits. Despite resistance from Navy skeptics, Bond began a series of experiments at the Navy’s submarine base at New London, Connecticut, where he was in charge of the medical research lab. Much as NASA used simulators to test dogs and monkeys before launching them into space to gauge the physiological effects of g-forces and weightlessness, Bond sealed animals, and eventually human volunteers, in pressurized tanks to simulate a deep-sea habitat. Instead of weightlessness, the aquanaut would have to endure, among other things, artificial atmospheres with gaseous mixtures different from what we breathe on land, maintained at significantly higher pressures than those at sea level to match the water pressure at depth. One problem is that when divers descend more than about 130 feet, customary levels of nitrogen (78 percent of air on the surface) have a narcotic effect. Bond found that helium proved a suitable replacement on long-duration dives. Oxygen, making up 21 percent of the air at sea level, can cause convulsions and death if pressure gets too high, so oxygen had to be progressively reduced with every foot of descent, and then slowly raised as a diver came back up.
In making these adjustments, Bond and his team were testing a concept known as saturation diving, which turned out to be the key to prolonged stays underwater and under pressure. Much as a sponge absorbs liquids, bodies absorb gases through the process of respiration. A body becomes “saturated” as the gases a person breathes disperse into the blood and tissues. At greater depths, a diver has to breathe higher-pressure gases so his lungs are not crushed by his higher-pressure surroundings. As pressure goes up, so does saturation, like a dry kitchen sponge absorbing more liquid the longer it’s held underwater. Once a diver was saturated with the right gases for a given depth and pressure (a process that took a day), he could safely remain at that depth indefinitely. The finding was a revolutionary advance that changed what could be done on the seafloor—provided, of course, that divers, once saturated, had a properly equipped, pressurized habitat as a dry shelter. No one had ever built such a thing.