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 Sea–probably 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.
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.
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.
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
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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