The SeaOrbiter project which is headed by pioneering architect Jacques Rougerie stepped closer to reality after a crowd-funding initiative easily passed the 325,000 euro needed to begin construction of the vessel’s ‘eye’, a kind of lookout post that sits 18 metres high above the water. The cash is a significant vote of support from the public for a unique project to explore the world’s oceans.
Jacques Rougerie told Euronews that construction would go ahead in western France later this year: “We’re going to build SeaOrbiter at St Nazaire, in the Loire region with all the industrial know-how of that region, that will bring us a new generation of recyclable aluminium, new welding technologies, new kinds of polycarbonates”.
Overall, the crowd-funding accounts for a drop in the ocean of the overall budget for SeaOrbiter, but the project does have the wind in its sails, with 70% of the 35 million euro budget now available.
The progress of the project is testament to Rougerie’s enthusiasm and tenacity, and nowadays, with better financial backing, he finds it easier to present the project as a truly realizable dream. “Ten years ago when I launched this project with (Swiss oceanographer and engineer) Jacques Piccard it was difficult, but now it’s not difficult, not at all,” he says. “Plenty of industrial groups that are interested in ocean research look very favorably on SeaOrbiter, and in the past year or two I feel there’s been a change in terms of the credibility of the project in the eyes of the industrial world and political world too.”
Drifting in the open sea
SeaOrbiter is a truly unique proposition, both in terms of form but also in terms of mission. It is a real exploration vessel, the first of its kind, which Rougerie expects will spend many months, or even years, adrift in the Atlantic. The idea is to go slowly, and look down into the water day and night.
“We’re going to drift in the Gulf Stream for long periods, to be underwater and to listen, look and go out into the ocean” Rougerie explains. “SeaOrbiter is like a kind of ‘hive’, which will allow people, or manned submarines, or robotic exploration vehicles, or probes to go out and collect information on a 24/7 basis and observe things that have never been observed before.”
“It’s a unique vehicle that is vertical, rather than horizontal, and so it will allow us to do things that other boats and underwater houses haven’t been able to do, and that means to allow 22 people to live underwater 24 hours a day, in pressurized conditions,” Rougerie told Euronews.
The vessel won’t just drift, it does have engines on board that mean it can hold itself in place above interesting areas of the ocean, including the deep, unexplored trenches in the middle of the Atlantic.
For those on board the huge portholes and submarine fleet berthed beneath SeaOrbiter will give a fresh view of the ocean. Rougerie paints the scene: “SeaOrbiter has huge eyes, you have two huge portholes of two metres in diameter eight metres below the sea. You have portholes all over the place that allow you to see under the water all the time.”
“We should be able to witness all kinds of interactions between creatures, so we’re definitely going to see things that have never been seen before.”
“That information will be distributed on all kinds of media platforms so that we can all learn what the ocean really is, because it’s so enormous, it’s so gigantic that we know very very little about it, maybe just 1% of the ocean is really known to man. So there’s a guarantee that we‘ll discover new things,” Rougerie continues.
Rougerie, an architect by profession, has a history of turning crazy dreams into reality. Inspired by Jacques Cousteau, he began building underwater houses and eccentric exploration vessels in the 1970s and 1980s. But this is his biggest project to date:
“SeaOrbiter represents a new generation of vehicle for exploring the underwater world. It’s based on the underwater houses and all the other projects that we have worked on. It’s a kind of sentinel, which promotes the ‘blue society’ of tomorrow”.
But if the ocean is so important to our future, why haven’t we explored it already?
Rougerie has a theory that our lack of knowledge is based on superstition and fear: “Mankind is fascinated by the sea, but only by the surface of the sea. Sailors are fascinated by the changing mirror of the ocean, legends are created over time about the ocean and its waves, and the ocean has always been a place of drama, real life stories and tales.”
However, in many of those stories “those that go under the surface are dead,” Rougerie argues, “It became a synonym for the end.”
“There was never that tension with space; technology allowed us to go to space. And now we realise to what extent there are similarities with space travel, in terms of technology, but also in terms psychology, in terms of isolation when you’re under the water for a long time.”
“That is why we have strong links with the space industry. From both sides of the surface’s mirror explorers of the cosmos and explorers of the abyss share similar challenges, ventures and dreams,” Rougerie concludes.