Until now, scuba divers have been restricted by tank size and pressure when diving underwater. A new submersible tent, however, allows divers to rest, eat, and decompress below the surface. Designed and patented by National Geographic explorer Michael Lombardi and Winslow Burleson, an associate professor at New York University, the inflatable Ocean Space Habitat is a life-support system that allows scuba divers to stay underwater for longer periods of time.
Scuba divers who attempt deeper dives have a limited amount of time to be underwater since the body consumes more air as it dives deeper. Surfacing from deep dives is also time consuming since divers must wait periodically to adjust to the changing pressure. Also, an inadequate ascent can result in decompression sickness or “the bends,” when gas bubbles accumulate in the blood and tissues.
“We’ve been in remote places where, if you get bent, you can kiss your butt goodbye,” says National Geographic underwater photographer Jennifer Hayes. In such areas, where emergency facilities are unavailable, divers must use caution.
Lombardi and Burleson’s habitat will provide a breathing room — isolated from cold and predators — for decompression, emergencies, and “productive use of unproductive time.” In the inflatable tent, divers can access a dry chamber, remove gear, talk, eat, process samples, and even sleep during the decompression process. In the case of emergencies, “such an in-water recompression shelter [would have] a very large upside,” Hayes says, “the ability to communicate during an undesirable and potentially life-threatening experience.”
The tent also enables air conservation, which is ideal for photographers hoping to shoot evasive targets, Hayes says, “a few more minutes of air can make the difference between success and failure.”
Despite the development of the tent, underwater habitats have been around for a while. Cave divers have flipped cattle troughs and wedged them against cave ceilings to provide a breathing space, however, this can result in CO2 buildup without suitable gas flushing.
Also, offshore oil and seafaring industries provide saturation-diving facilities such as pressurized chambers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) even has an undersea base – the Aquarius – which allows researchers to work for extended periods of time in the reefs off Key Largo, Florida without ascending for air.
The problem, however, is that these facilities are not portable. The Ocean Space Habitat, on the other hand, can be packed and checked as luggage, which facilitates scientific exploration. Also, the tent is affordable. “I like to think [it offers] an opportunity for a truly ‘immersive’ experience,” Lombardi says. “The tent allows us to take home a bit more than we would as temporary visitors using conventional SCUBA techniques.” It is also useful for extended underwater science expeditions or even “underwater tea parties and picnic lunches.”
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Burleson says that diving with the tent “is like turning a short hike in the woods into a weekend-long camping excursion. The habitat allows you to do more of what you’re coming for, whether you’re a photographer or coral researcher or citizen scientist.”
But it is also useful for tourists who are normally limited to a one-hour dive. The tent will allow them to stay under from sunrise to sunset and experience the variety of wildlife that emerges at different times during the day. Currently, Burleson and Lombardi are looking for partners for new adventures. “For divers ready to explore the possibilities, we hope they'll get in touch,” he says. “We are ready to get this out there.”