Undersea Colonies

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Like the Moon, what really got the blood stirring about the sea wasn't the prospect of just visiting, but to colonise it.  In it or on it didn't make much difference In the heyday of enthusiasm for Inner Space, it was a given that someday soon the land's burgeoning population would migrate to the sea. 

Pilkington Sea City

In some cases, it would be to artificial islands, such as Pilkington Sea City.  Designed in 1971, this city of 30,000 was a totally automated community powered by natural gas, equipped with all sorts of the latest amenities, and where the population made its  living by fish farming, marine research, and ballast dredging.  Yes, I said ballast dredging.

It was supposed to be built on Dogger Bank in the middle of the North Seaprobably the daftest development site this side of the Roaring Forties.   If you've never sailed through the North Sea in  wintertime, consider yourself lucky.  It's one of the foulest, coldest, and generally nastiest stretches of water around.  The Pilkington people claimed that the city would be perfectly shielded by wave barriers and an enormous wind break that formed the outer wall of the place, but for myself I'd have more confidence in domesticating a Cape buffalo. 

Undersea Hotel

If living on the sea isn't your cup of tea, then how about a stay in an undersea hotel as forecast in Futurama at the 1964 New York World's Fair?   There are huge observation windows to study marine life, mini-sub excursions, and all the modern conveniences including three kinds of running water: hot, cold, and salt if one of the seals break. 

Undersea City

The real goal, however, was undersea cities; vast domes of light and warmth linked by submarine routes and seabed motorways.  These were outposts that would soon become cities, and then undersea nations that would claim the three quarters of the Earth's surface that has heretofore been denied man's dominion. 

Walks in the countryside would be a bit dark and silty, but you can't have everything.

Reality Check

But in reality, the colonisation of the sea never got much further than this: the occasional undersea habitat where divers stayed for a few days or weeks at most.  Today, there are only two operating in the entire world, but in the '60s and '70s there were more than seventy habitats operated by the US, Germany, France, the USSR, Canada, Poland, and Great Britain. 

One, the Sealab programme shown here, was a major effort by the U. S. Navy, which the general public and many of those working on it thought was an effort to rival the Moon landings.  But the Sealab programme didn't fare much better than the Apollo programme.  After a fatal accident in 1969, the third and last of the Sealabs was closed down.   Years later, after the end of the Cold War, it was learned  that the Navy had little or no interest in colonising the seabed.  For them, Sealab was really a way to train their divers for a much more important task: deep diving to tap Soviet telephone cables off the coast of Kamchatka to intercept secret communications.

Yet why did enthusiasm for undersea habitats die out?  Part of the reason was that working on the habitats taught people many things.  One of these is that the sea is not a damp Plymouth Rock; it is a dangerous place where work is hard and slow, where you had to live with everything being constantly soggy,  where the exotic gas mixtures made you sound like Donald Duck, and where the pressure made it impossible to smoke, drink alcohol or soda, eat spicy foods, or even enjoy a boiled egg.  In the end, it became clear that the sea is not a place for settlement, it is an alien world to be cautiously visited.

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